“And certain men who came down [to Antioch, mr] from Judea taught the brethren and said, “Unless ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” (15:1)
Those who taught this doctrine are known today by the name “Judaizers”, people who believed in Jesus but still clung to the Jewish ways and traditions. They did not believe the blood of Christ was sufficient to save the Gentile people from their sins nor to secure standing (justification) before the judge of all the earth. They believed this required the addition of the rules and rituals of the Mosaical law and the traditions of the elders of the Jews.
The controversy over this question became quite heated until finally the brethren in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders there. After presenting the evidence of God’s acceptance of Cornelius and his household as shown by their reception of the Holy Spirit even as he had been given to the apostles on Pentecost, Peter said …
“Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:10-11).
Even after this definitive session in Jerusalem in which it was determined that the Judiazer’s position was not supported by the evidence, this question continued to plague the early church. In fact, every legalistic approach to Christianity – and there have been and continue to be many – is but an echo of the same false doctrine: grace through faith in Jesus Christ is not a sufficient basis for justification before God. This amounts to a denial of the sufficiency of the blood of Christ. It is a direct attack upon and denial of God’s grace, love and mercy. These must be supplemented by human achievement of legal standing before God by means of law-keeping.
Our standing before God or justification is through forgiveness, not as a result of human achievement. Were that possible – i.e., standing before God achieved by human effort – then Christ died in vain.
This issue was – and is – so important that the apostle Paul wrote two letters expressly to deal with this false doctrine. The books of Romans and Galatians are those books. Each show the impossibility of being saved by law-keeping. Both hold up the grace of God as the only alternative to man making himself acceptable before God by law. Both extoll the freedom that comes through faith against the slavery and fear that results from being under law. Both show the triumphant life of joyous, humble, willing service and obedience that only can result from knowing God and his love as opposed to the dreary drudgery of duty that comes from the fear of punishment for the breaking of law. Both show the blessedness of the purity and fruitfulness of life that comes through the Spirit’s help rather than through human effort and self-achievement through law-keeping.
The problem of justification by human achievement is nothing new nor unique to Christianity. Every pagan religion holds to some form of this belief. From the religions that teach reincarnation to those that teach a kind of “salvation” by contemplative meditation, the idea is basically the same. Man cannot conceive of a god whose identity is bound up in the quality of love and so abundantly expressed through grace as is true with the God of the Bible. That still is a problem for legalistically minded Christians(?).
There is one other false doctrine that was just beginning to have affect the church as the last letters of the New Testament were being penned. Although Paul dealt with this some, the responsibility of exposing and combating this error fell mainly to the aged apostle John. Both 1st and 2nd John are evidently dealing with what came to be known as “Gnosticism” (from gnostikos, “learned”, from Greek: knowledge, thus, the knowing ones).
As time went on this doctrine developed into different manifestations such as the Manicheans who derived much of their “superior” knowledge from Zoroastrianism, a religion of ancient Persia. The major god of this religion was Ahura Mazda, the god of light. (Yes, the modern day Japanese automobile was named for this deity!)
The major contributor to this doctrinal system that most affected the church came not from the eastern religions, but from the west – from Greek philosophy – particularly from Neoplatonism. Both the Zoroastrian and Platonic influences were dualistic; that is, they held to a dichotomous (two-part) world of matter and spirit. In the thought of both systems, matter was evil and spirit was good. When assimilated into Christianity its effect was devastating both as to its influences on theology (teaching about God), pneumatology (having to do with spirit) soteriology, (salvation matters), morality (relationship a d responsibility toward others) and eschatology (end things, the coming of Christ, eternal destiny, etc.).
Gnostics generally held to a rigid asceticism, teaching strict sexual abstinence and dietary code. “Many monks would deprive themselves of food, water, or necessary needs for living” (Wikipedia). The apostle Paul didn’t think much of this kind of rigid, rule based religion. He comes down hard on the idea calling it human religion …
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? (Col. 2:20-22).
All the ridiculous rules requiring self deprivation that are supposed to make one more holy or more spiritual don’t do a thing toward making one righteous. It does not prevent lust and sin. It does not draw one closer to God.
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:23).
The most immediate, most dangerous and damaging effect of gnosticism was in terms of its interpretation of Christ and his atonement. If, according to gnostic belief, matter is evil, then Christ could not have had a body of flesh. If he didn’t have a body of flesh, he couldn’t have been crucified for the sins of the whole of humanity. Some of these people, (docetics), believed he only appeared to have a body and only seemed to die. If he did not actually die then we are yet in our sin. Hence, gnosticism, like legalism, is a direct attack on the deity of Christ and the value of his atoning blood.
John’s defense against gnosticism began with the very first verses of 1 John.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1-3).
In these verses John in effect says that he and the other the eyewitnesses of Jesus knew he was real because they had heard him, seen him with their own eyes, looked upon (scrutinized close-up) and touched him with their own hands. So vital was this knowledge passed on to the believers that their very relationship with God depended on it.
All throughout 1st John the apostle stresses the coming of Christ in the flesh as being essential and those who denied it as being false teachers. He emphasize the vital importance of knowing Christ as he had revealed himself to the apostles as they in turn had taught these believers. (1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-6; 5:1,6,10,20). John and the other personal disciples of Jesus knew him objectively – they knew by experience that he was real. Without believing that Jesus had actually come in a body of flesh – made in the likeness of men – that he had actually lived as a perfect man and died as a perfect sacrifice for our sins we cannot be saved and therefore have no hope beyond this life.
There are still those who hold to elements of these doctrines today. There are legalists of varying degrees in some churches and there are in some churches pronounced tendencies toward gnostic dualism. These two issues are obviously the main threats to the faith of saints in the 1st century. They were extremely serious because they denied and undermined the very basis of our salvation. Had they been allowed to continue unchecked, Christianity as we know it likely would not exist today. There were other problems but these seem more localized than the doctrines of the Judiazers and the gnostics.