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“But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, 'It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.'” (Acts 15:5, ESV)
There's a lot of controversy surrounding the churches of North America right now pertaining to the ministry of the Holy Spirit within the churches, the function and essence of the spiritual gifts that God gives to His children, and the larger impact that these diverse understandings may have on proclaiming the Gospel. The headlines are full of important theological debates from John MacArthur's "Strange Fire" conference to Mark Driscoll's new book, "A Call to Resurgence." These conversations are important, and the ongoing dialogue should be applauded. However, there is a tendency among the committed to forget, in the midst of impassioned debate concerning important theological truth, that those with whom they might disagree are still Christian.
The modern Christian landscape is not the first to experience seismic debate concerning Biblical doctrine; this has been on-going since the book of Acts. The most heated debate recorded for us within the book of Acts regards the nature of salvation. There were two camps: the faith camp and the circumcision camp. The faith camp said that it was a matter of faith and repentance in order to enter salvation. The circumcision camp added that faith and repentance were good, but one also needed to seal the deal with circumcision. The faith camp had the Apostles, and they argued that the addition of circumcision was heretical and lead to damnation (Galatians 5:4). The circumcision camp included the Pharisees and religious leaders of the old guard of Judaism, and they stressed that circumcision was necessary to be included in the covenant people of God. Yes, these two camps still exist today.
What does the Bible teach regarding salvation? Salvation is granted to those who exercise faith through repentance (Mark 1:15; Romans 10:9, James 2:18). You can only be saved through faith (Romans 3:23-25). But did everyone in the early church think so?
Notice the text of Scripture found in Acts 15:5 which says that some "believers" stood up in the church and strongly advocated the heresy of circumcision. This wasn't a spiritual gifts debate. This was a debate regarding the nature of salvation! This is the most important issue of all! Yet, the Bible calls these individuals, "believers." This means that from the perspective of the Holy Spirit, as He speaks through the pen of Luke in the book of Acts, these men, who are clearly advocating a doctrine of salvation that is badly in error, are still saved. Let us repeat that point: these heretics are saved and going to heaven.
The Bible is crystal clear. Salvation is only through faith. Yet, once you are saved, it is still possible to become so thoroughly confused about the nature of salvation and other vitally important doctrines that one may eventually become a rank heretic. What does this mean, then? It means that salvation is not conditioned upon an ongoing correct understanding of salvation.
You can be a Christian; you can have a correct saving faith in Jesus' finished work of atonement upon the cross... And yet, the Bible testifies that you can be so thoroughly used of Satan that you come to a place where you are arguing for a works-based salvation. The Bible never condones the circumcision heresy; just the opposite. Yet the Scriptures clearly affirm at least a few of those who advocated for it were genuine children of God. This means that those of us who argue for correct doctrine should continue to do so as we seek to love God with our whole heart and mind, but we should remember that even if our brothers and sisters blatantly advocate something so hideously wrong that it perverts the straight path of the Lord and obfuscates the Gospel, they could still be our brothers and sisters. This means that they deserve our love, even in the midst of heated debate.
So, if you find yourself in the midst of impassioned debate regarding the nature of the spiritual gifts, the order of salvation, Calvinism versus Arminianism, or some other controversial topic, remember to verbally express your love for the opposition in a sincere and meaningful way. I urge you to continue the discussion as the only means of arriving at the truth... but don't do so with animosity. Express your love.
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