Although the first Christians were Jews, the first century began to see an influx of Gentiles into the church. How would church leaders respond to this ethnic shakeup?
Background and Summary
When the early church began to evangelize Gentiles, the question arose as to how extensively the converts would have to conform to the Jewish law. Judaizers often came into churches with their strict Jewish criteria, and these legalistic standards would confuse and divide the church. In the midst of heated debate, the Jerusalem Council was convened to settle the issue in AD 49. The result was a score for those who felt no unnecessary cultural restraints ought to be placed upon the new converts.
Proponents of Grace over Law
Peter had overseen the first conversion of a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, in Acts 10. At the Council, Peter recounted Cornelius’s conversion and concluded, “Why then, are you now testing God by putting on the disciples’ necks a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are.”
Paul and Barnabas reported at the Council the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. Paul was the true champion of Gentile conversion, having devoted an entire epistle to correcting the errors of the Judaizers in Galatia.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, is presented in the Book of Acts as the leader of the Jerusalem church. It is he who ultimately had the last word in Council, which resulted in a consensus. He proposed only four requirements for Gentile converts:
- Abstain from things polluted by idols
- Abstain from sexual immorality
- Abstain from anything strangled
- Abstain from blood
“James, the half-brother of Jesus, is presented in the Book of Acts as the leader of the Jerusalem church. It is he who ultimately had the last word in Council, which resulted in a consensus.”
Opponents of Grace over Law
Judaizers were Jewish converts to Christianity who required Gentile converts to follow Jewish customs and law to be Christians. They emphasized the necessity of circumcision and other Jewish legal requirements as well as avoiding contact with Gentiles who were unclean.
Biblical Basis for Grace over Law
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19, NIV)
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:1-7, NIV)
 Ronald F. Youngblood, F.F. Bruce, and R.K. Harrison, “The Jerusalem Council,” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1995).
 Youngblood, Bruce, and Harrison, “The Jerusalem Council.”