Introduction: This will be a shock. Our lesson this week, our second
lesson in our study of Romans, has no readings in Romans! Here is
what we are doing, and I think you will agree this is a good idea: to
better help us understand Paul’s letter to the Romans we are studying
the background for Paul’s letter. Our main study is the record in
Acts 15 about the biggest controversy in the early Christian church.
Let’s plunge into our study and learn more!

  1. The Showdown

    1. Read Acts 15:1. This is a pretty serious charge –
      salvation turns on being circumcised! What is the basis
      for this claim? (“The custom taught by Moses.”)

      1. Would you rely on a “custom” for your theology?

        1. Is it true that they were merely relying on a
          “custom?” (Hardly! Read Genesis 17:9-10 and
          Genesis 17:12-14. Now we can understand why the
          pro-circumcision party claimed you could not be
          saved. Genesis 17:14 says that if you are not
          circumcised, even if you are a “foreigner” who
          is part of the household, you have broken your
          covenant with God and are “cut off” from God’s

    2. Read Acts 15:2. What is Paul’s view on this issue? (He
      strongly disagrees (“sharp dispute”).)

      1. How do they propose to solve this dispute? (By taking
        it to church leadership.)

      2. One of the precepts of the Protestant Reformation is
        the “priesthood of all believers.” (See 1 Peter 2:9.)
        Why does Paul go to the “apostles and elders” in
        Jerusalem? I know lots of people who merely change
        churches when they disagree with the church policy.
        (Two things. First, the current policy had not yet
        been decided in the early Christian church. Second,
        Paul would not have gone to the leadership if he
        thought that the position of the church was
        unimportant. I’m reading a book right now that argues
        that the idea that everyone can be his or her own
        “pope” is a theological problem. I’m not far enough
        along in the book to judge the merit of its

    3. Read Acts 15:4-9. What is the basis for Peter’s argument?
      What authority is he claiming?(That the Holy Spirit
      revealed the will of God on the issue.)

      1. What event do you think Peter is talking about? (Skim
        Acts 10 to learn more about Peter’s vision of the
        sheet with unclean animals and his visit to Cornelius
        the Roman centurion. Read Acts 10:44-47. I think this
        is Peter’s point of reference.)

      2. We need to consider this. Genesis 17 is very plain
        and part of the written text of the Bible. Against
        this, Peter relies on his vision and the working of
        the Holy Spirit among humans. What would you decide
        if you were among the Jerusalem leaders? (In general,
        this would make me very nervous. The written word is
        plain, and God says that He does not change (James

    4. Read Acts 15:10-11. What argument is Peter making here? (A
      pragmatic argument: no one is able to keep all of the
      laws. He argues that righteousness by faith is correct,
      because the “yoke” of the law is something the Jews have
      not been able to carry.)

    5. Read Acts 15:12. What is the implied argument made by Paul
      and Barnabas? (The Holy Spirit approves going to the
      disciples because He powers “miraculous signs and wonders”
      among them.)

      1. Read John 10:25-27. Jesus used miracles to prove He
        was the Son of God. Should miracles be conclusive
        proof? (Read Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:24-25. Paul
        cites miracles as evidence that God approved the work
        among the Gentiles.)

    6. We have three recorded arguments: the working of the Holy
      Spirit, practical considerations and miracles. These are
      opposed to the plain teaching of the Bible. How would you
      decide if you were facing those kinds of opposing
      arguments today?

  2. The Decision

    1. Read Acts 15:13-18. What does James add to Peter’s
      arguments? (He adds the part I consider to be the most
      important test of a theological argument. He cites the
      written word of the Bible ( Amos 9:11-12) to show that God
      intended the gospel to go to the Gentiles.)

    2. Read Acts 15:19-21. Who is speaking on behalf of church
      leadership? (James. “It is my judgment.”)

      1. How does James decide? (He agrees with the no
        circumcision argument.)

      2. Consider carefully James’ conclusions. Is he voting
        for the leading of the Holy Spirit in opposition to
        the text of the Bible? (No! He cites the Bible and
        the leading of the Holy Spirit for the decision of
        the church. This, I think, is an incredibly important
        point. To create a doctrine based solely on the
        claimed leading of the Holy Spirit, when the uniform
        teaching of the Bible is contrary, is a mistake.
        However, if the Bible is uncertain, and has arguable
        conflicts, then the Holy Spirit is the place to look
        for a correct conclusion.)

      3. With regard to this area of conflict. Is Genesis 17
        in conflict with the prophecy that the gospel will go
        to the Gentiles? (When American judges consider
        whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between
        statutes, they ask if both can be enforced. Here,
        both could. You could have the gospel go to the
        Gentiles and you could require them to be

        1. I’m not suggesting that James and the early
          church made the wrong decision. But if I’m
          right that there is no irreconcilable conflict,
          what is the lesson for us today in resolving
          major conflicts in the church?

    3. Re-read Acts 15:20-21. Is that it? I’m a Gentile. Is this
      odd group of rules the only ones that are to be imposed on

      1. Consider the Ten Commandments. Read Exodus 20:3-6 and
        compare it with Acts 15:20. Of all of the
        requirements to worship only God and not worship
        idols, are the Gentiles only required to abstain from
        meat offered to idols? All other idol interaction is
        just fine? (This conclusion is just too ridiculous to
        accept. When you look at the very limited list James
        makes, it seems that he is describing some very
        limited application of the ceremonial law transmitted
        through Moses. The specific reference in Acts 15:21
        to Moses being read in the synagogues reinforces that

    4. Read Acts 15:22-23. What does this tell us about the
      authority of James’ conclusion? (This is the decision of
      the leadership of the early Christian Church.)

    5. Let’s read the official letter in Acts 15:24-29. What is
      the conclusion with regard to circumcision? (Clearly,
      circumcision is not a requirement that is listed.)

      1. Why do you think circumcision is not even mentioned
        in the letter? Why not mention the very issue upon
        which the debate centered?(Read again Acts 15:5. The
        actual issue was not just circumcision, it was also
        obeying “the law of Moses.” Thus, the official
        opinion letter covered the issues debated.)

      2. What do you think is meant by the “law of Moses?” (If
        you scan Exodus 19 and 20 you will find that God
        spoke ( Exodus 20:1)the Ten Commandments in the
        hearing of the people. I don’t think that any serious
        student of the Bible believes that Moses made up the
        rules and regulations contained in Exodus and
        Leviticus. They all came from God. But, the fact that
        only the Ten Commandments were spoken by God directly
        to the people could form the basis for arguing that
        they are not part of the “law of Moses.”)

    6. Read Galatians 2:11-13. Those readers regularly following
      the lessons know that we just finished
      studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians. What controversy
      do we find in Galatians? (The same issue! Peter is even
      temporarily on the wrong side of things. The text says
      that the pro-circumcision people came from “James.” We can
      see this was a big issue in the early church, with even
      the main players sometimes uncertain.)

    7. Friend, how do you approach disagreement in the church? If
      you are in opposition to the leadership of the church,
      what does the Acts 15 example teach you? What does the
      Acts 15 resolution teach about the sources of authority
      for conflict resolution? Will you apply these principles
      to today’s conflicts?

  3. Next week: The Human Condition.