2. THE CONTROVERSY
Read for This Week’s Study: Heb. 8:6, Matt. 19:17, Rev. 12:17, Leviticus 23, Acts 15:1–29, Gal. 1:1–12.
Memory Text: “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The early church was composed mostly of Jews who never for a moment thought that by accepting the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, they were somehow turning away from the faith of their fathers or the covenant promises that God had made to His people. As it turns out, they were right. The issue for the early Jewish believers was whether or not Jews had to become Christians in order to accept Jesus. The other issue for many of them was whether Gentiles had to become Jews before they could accept Christ.
Only later, in the Jerusalem Council, was there a firm answer. They made the decision not to trouble the Gentiles with a host of regulations and laws. That is, Gentiles didn’t need to become Jews first in order to accept Jesus.
Despite the decision, however, some teachers continued to plague the churches by insisting that Gentile converts to the faith were required to keep these rules and laws, including circumcision (not exactly a procedure that would make joining Christianity particularly appealing for an adult). That is, they thought that these Gentiles, in order to be partakers of the covenant promises, had to abide by many of the rules and regulations that were deemed a requisite for partakers of the commonwealth of Israel. What were the issues, and how were they to be resolved?
A Better Covenant
Read Hebrews 8:6. What is the message here? How do we understand what these “better promises” are?
Perhaps the greatest difference between the religion of the Old Testament and that of the New is the fact that the New Testament era was introduced by the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. He was sent by God to be the Savior. People could not ignore Him and expect to be saved. Only through the atonement He provided could their sins be forgiven. Only by the imputation of His perfect life could they stand before God without condemnation. In other words, salvation was through the righteousness of Jesus—and nothing else.
Old Testament saints looked forward to the blessings of the Messianic age and the promise of salvation. In New Testament times the people were confronted with the question, Would they accept Jesus of Nazareth whom God had sent as the Messiah, their Savior? If they believed in Him—that is, if they accepted Him for who He truly was and committed themselves to Him—they would be saved through the righteousness that He offered them freely.
Meanwhile, the moral requirements remain unchanged in the New Testament, because these were founded in the character of God and of Christ. Obedience to God’s moral law is just as much a part of the New Covenant as it is of the Old Testament.
Read Matthew 19:17; Revelation 12:17; 14:12; and James 2:10, 11. What do these texts tell us about the moral law in the New Testament?
At the same time, the entire body of ritual and ceremonial laws that were distinctly Israelite—and were distinctly tied to the Old Covenant, which all pointed to Jesus and to His death and ministry as High Priest—were discontinued, and a new order was introduced, one based on “better promises.”
Helping both Jew and Gentile to understand what was involved in this transition from Judaism to Christianity was one of Paul’s principal aims in the book of Romans. It would take time to make the transition. Many Jews who had accepted Jesus were still not ready for the great changes that were coming.
What are some of your favorite Bible promises? How often do you claim them? What choices are you making that can stand in the way of having these promises fulfilled in your life?
Jewish Laws and Regulations
As time allows, skim through the book of Leviticus. (See, for instance, Leviticus 12, 16, and 23.) What thoughts come to your mind as you read all these rules and regulations and rituals? Why would many of these be all but impossible to follow in New Testament times?
It is convenient for us to classify Old Testament laws into various categories: (1) moral law, (2) ceremonial law, (3) civil law, (4) statutes and judgments, and (5) health laws.
This classification is in part artificial. In actuality some of these categories are interrelated, and there is considerable overlap. The ancients did not see them as separate and distinct.
The moral law is summed up by the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1–17). This law sums up the moral requirements of humanity. These ten precepts are amplified and applied in various statutes and judgments throughout the first five books of the Bible. These amplifications show what it meant to keep the law of God in various situations. Not unrelated are the civil laws. These, too, are based on the moral law. These define a citizen’s relationship to civil authorities and to fellow citizens. They name the penalties for various infractions.
The ceremonial law regulated the sanctuary ritual, describing the various offerings and the individual citizen’s responsibilities. The feast days are specified and their observance defined.
The health laws overlap the other laws. The various laws relating to uncleanness define ceremonial uncleanness, and yet they also go beyond this to include hygienic and health principles. Laws regarding clean and unclean meats are based on physical considerations.
While the Jew probably largely thought of all of these laws as a package, having all come from God, he or she must have made certain distinctions mentally. The Ten Commandments had been spoken by God directly to the people. This would set them apart as especially important. The other laws had been relayed through Moses. The sanctuary ritual could be kept only while a sanctuary was in operation.
The civil laws, at least in large part, could no longer be imposed after the Jews lost their independence and came under the civil control of another nation. Many of the ceremonial precepts could no longer be observed after the temple was destroyed. Also, after the Messiah came, many of the types had met their antitypes and no longer had validity.
As the Custom of Moses
Read Acts 15:1. What issue was causing dissension? Why would some people believe that this wasn’t just for the Jewish nation? See Gen. 17:10.
While the apostles united with the ministers and lay members at Antioch in an earnest effort to win many souls to Christ, certain Jewish believers from Judaea “of the sect of the Pharisees” succeeded in introducing a question that soon led to widespread controversy in the church and brought consternation to the believing Gentiles. With great confidence these teachers asserted that in order to be saved, one must be circumcised and must keep the entire ceremonial law. The Jews, after all, always had prided themselves on their divinely appointed services, and many of those who had been converted to the faith of Christ still felt that since God had once clearly outlined the Hebrew manner of worship, it was improbable that He would ever authorize a change in any of its specifications. They insisted that the Jewish laws and ceremonies should be incorporated into the rites of the Christian religion. They were slow to discern that all the sacrificial offerings had but prefigured the death of the Son of God, in which type met antitype, and after which the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic dispensation were no longer binding.
Read Acts 15:2–12. How was this dispute to be settled?
“While looking to God for direct guidance, he [Paul] was ever ready to recognize the authority vested in the body of believers united in church fellowship. He felt the need of counsel, and when matters of importance arose, he was glad to lay these before the church and to unite with his brethren in seeking God for wisdom to make right decisions.”— Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 200.
It’s interesting that Paul—who often talked about his prophetic calling and how Jesus had called him and gave him his mission—was so willing to work with the larger church body. That is, whatever his calling, he realized that he was part of the church as a whole and that he needed to work with it as much as possible.
What is your attitude toward church leadership? How cooperative are you? Why is cooperation so important? How could we function if everyone was doing only what he or she wanted to do, independent of the larger body?
The Gentile Believers
Read Acts 15:5–29. What decision did the council come to, and what was its reasoning?
The decision was against the contentions of the Judaizers. These folk insisted that the Gentile converts be circumcised and keep the entire ceremonial law and that “the Jewish laws and ceremonies should be incorporated into the rites of the Christian religion.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 189.
It’s interesting to note in Acts 15:10 the way in which Peter depicted these old laws as a “yoke” that they were unable to bear. Would the Lord, who instituted those laws, make them a yoke on His people? That hardly seems so. Instead, over the years some of the leaders had, through their oral traditions, turned many of the laws from the blessings they were meant to be into burdens. The council sought to spare Gentiles from these burdens.
Notice, too, that there was no mention or question of the Gentiles not needing to obey the Ten Commandments. After all, could we imagine the council telling them not to eat blood but that it was acceptable to ignore the commandments against adultery or murder and the like?
What rules were placed on the Gentile believers (Acts 15:20, 29), and why these specific rules?
Although Jewish believers weren’t to impose their rules and tradition on Gentiles, the council wanted to make sure that the Gentiles didn’t do things that would have been deemed offensive to the Jews who were united with them in Jesus. The apostles and elders, therefore, agreed to instruct the Gentiles by letter to abstain from meats offered to idols, from fornication, from things strangled, and from blood. Some say that, because Sabbath keeping wasn’t specifically mentioned, it must not have been meant for the Gentiles (of course, the commandments against lying and murder weren’t specifically mentioned either, so that argument means nothing).
Could we, in some ways, be laying on people burdens that are not necessary but are more from tradition than divine command? If so, how? Bring your thoughts to class on Sabbath.
Paul and the Galatians
However clear the council, there were those who sought to go their own way and who continued to advocate that the Gentiles keep Jewish traditions and laws. For Paul this became a very serious matter; that is, it wasn’t trifling over the fine points of faith. It had become a denial of the gospel of Christ itself.
Read Galatians 1:1–12. How serious does Paul see the issue he is confronting in Galatia? What should that tell us about the importance of this question?
As stated before, it was the Galatian situation that in large degree prompted the content of the letter to Rome. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul further develops the theme of the Galatian epistle. Some Jewish believers were contending that the law God had given them through Moses was important and should be observed by Gentile converts. Paul was trying to show its true place and function. He didn’t want these people to gain a foothold in Rome as they had done in Galatia. It is an oversimplification to ask whether Paul is speaking of ceremonial or moral laws in Galatians and Romans. Historically, the argument was whether or not Gentile converts should be required to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. The Jerusalem Council already had ruled on this question, but some refused to follow its decision.
Some read in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans evidence that the moral law—the Ten Commandments (or, in truth, only the fourth commandment)—is no longer binding on Christians. Yet, they are missing the point of the letters, and missing the historical context and issues that Paul was addressing. Paul, as we’ll see, stressed that salvation was by faith alone and not by the keeping of the law, even the moral law. Yet that isn’t the same thing as saying that the moral law shouldn’t be kept. Obedience to the Ten Commandments was never an issue; those who make it an issue are reading back into texts a contemporary issue, one that Paul wasn’t dealing with.
How do you respond to those who claim the Sabbath is no longer binding upon Christians? How can you show the truth of the Sabbath in a way that does not compromise the integrity of the gospel?
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Jew and Gentile,” pp. 188–192, 194–197; “Apostasy in Galatia,” pp. 383–388, in The Acts of the Apostles; “The Law Given to Israel,” pp. 310–312; “The Law and the Covenants,” pp. 370–373, in Patriarchs and Prophets; “The Chosen People,” pp. 27–30, in The Desire of Ages.
No doubt, our church faces times of controversy and dissension. But this is nothing new. Satan has always been at war with the church. Even in the earliest days of Christianity, dissension and controversy arose in the ranks of the believers. And there was one controversy that, if not resolved, could have destroyed the church in its infancy. “Through the influence of false teachers who had arisen among the believers in Jerusalem, division, heresy, and sensualism were rapidly gaining ground among the believers in Galatia. These false teachers were mingling Jewish traditions with the truths of the gospel. Ignoring the decision of the general council at Jerusalem, they urged upon the Gentile converts the observance of the ceremonial law.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 383.
1. In class, go over your answer to Wednesday’s final question. In what ways might your local church or you in your own home, or maybe even you with yourself, be laying burdens on others (or on yourself) that are not necessary? How can we recognize if we really are doing these things? Or might we be in danger of going too far the other way? That is, how can we recognize if we have become too lax in our lifestyles and standards to the point where our lives don’t reflect the high calling that we have in Christ?
2. What are some of the arguments that people use to claim that the Ten Commandments are no longer binding on Christians today? How do we answer those claims? Why, on the face of it, are those arguments so wrong, and why in many cases do those who make them not really live as if they believe the Ten Commandments are no longer binding?
3. Read again Galatians 1:1–12. Notice how uncompromising, how dogmatic, and how fervent Paul was regarding his understanding of the gospel. What should that tell us about how we must stand absolutely unwaveringly on certain beliefs, especially in a day and age of pluralism and relativism? How does this show that certain teachings cannot be compromised in any way?
4. In class, talk about the issues that brought about the Protestant Reformation. What basic differences have not been resolved?
3. THE HUMAN CONDITION
Read for This Week’s Study: Rom. 1:16, 17, 22–32; 2:1–10, 17–24; 3:1, 2, 10–18, 23.
Memory Text: “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Early on in the book of Romans, Paul seeks to establish a crucial truth, one central to the gospel—the sad state of the human condition. This truth exists because, from the Fall onward, we have all been contaminated by sin. It’s wired in our genes as is the color of our eyes.
Martin Luther, in his commentary on Romans, wrote the following: “The expression ‘all are under sin’ must be taken in a spiritual sense; that is to say, not as men appear in their own eyes or in those of others, but as they stand before God. They are all under sin, those who are manifest transgressors in the eyes of men, as well as those who appear righteous in their own sight and before others. Those who perform outwardly good works do them from fear of punishment or love of gain and glory, or otherwise from pleasure in a certain object, but not from a willing and ready mind. In this way man exercises himself continually in good works outwardly, but inwardly he is totally immersed in sinful desires and evil lusts, which are opposed to good works.” —Commentary on Romans, p. 69.
The Power of God
“I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ ” (Rom. 1:16, 17, RSV). What does Romans 1:16, 17 say to you? How have you experienced the promises and hope found in them?
Several key words occur in this passage:
1. Gospel. This word is the translation of a Greek word that means literally “good message” or “good news.” Standing alone, the word may refer to any good message; but modified as it is in this passage by the phrase “of Christ,” it means “the good news about the Messiah” (Christ is the transliteration of the Greek word that means “Messiah”). The good news is that the Messiah has come, and people can be saved by believing in Him. It is in Jesus and in His perfect righteousness—and not in ourselves, or even in God’s law—that one can find salvation.
2. Righteousness. This word refers to the quality of being “right” with God. A specialized meaning of this word is developed in the book of Romans, which we shall bring out as our study of the book proceeds. It should be pointed out that in Romans 1:17 the word is qualified by the phrase “of God.” It is righteousness that comes from God, a righteousness that God Himself has provided. As we’ll see, this is the only righteousness good enough to bring us the promise of eternal life.
3. Faith. In Greek the words that are translated as believe and faith (KJV) in this passage are the verb and noun forms of the same word: pisteuo (believe) and pistis (belief or faith). The meaning of faith as related to salvation will unfold as we progress in the study of Romans.
Do you ever struggle with assurance? Do you have times when you truly question whether or not you are saved or even if you can be saved? What brings these fears? On what are they based? Might they be grounded in reality? That is, could you be living a lifestyle that denies your profession of faith? If so, what choices must you make in order to have the promises and assurances that are for you in Jesus?
All Have Sinned
Read Romans 3:23. Why is this message so easy for us as Christians to believe today? At the same time, what could cause some people to question the truthfulness of this text?
Amazingly enough, some people actually challenge the idea of human sinfulness, arguing that people are basically good. The problem, however, stems from a lack of understanding of what true goodness is. People can compare themselves to someone else and feel good about themselves. After all, we can always find someone worse than ourselves to compare ourselves with. But that hardly makes us good. When we contrast ourselves to God, and to the holiness and righteousness of God, none of us would come away with anything other than an overwhelming sense of self-loathing and disgust.
Romans 3:23 also talks about “the glory of God.” The phrase has been variously interpreted. Perhaps the simplest interpretation is to give the phrase the meaning it has in 1 Corinthians 11:7, “He [man] is the image and glory of God” (RSV). In Greek the word for “glory” may be considered as loosely equivalent to the word for “image.” Sin has marred the image of God in humans. Sinful humans fall far short of reflecting the image or glory of God.
Read Romans 3:10–18. Has anything changed today? Which of those depictions best describes you or what you would be like were it not for Christ in your life?
As bad as we are, our situation is not hopeless. The first step is that we acknowledge our utter sinfulness and also our helplessness in and of ourselves to do anything about it. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about such conviction. If the sinner does not resist Him, the Spirit will lead the sinner to tear away the mask of self-defense, pretense, and self-justification and to cast himself or herself upon Christ, pleading His mercy: “ ‘ “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” ’ ” (Luke 18:13, NASB).
When was the last time you took a good, hard, cold look at yourself, your motives, your deeds, and your feelings? This can be a very distressing experience, can’t it? What’s your only hope?
At the turn of the twentieth century, people lived with the idea that humanity was improving, that morality would increase, and that science and technology would help usher in a utopia. Human beings, it was believed, were essentially on the path toward perfection. Through the right kind of education and moral training, it was thought that humans could greatly improve themselves and their societies. All this was supposed to start happening, en masse, as we entered into the brave new world of the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite turn out that way, did they? The twentieth century was one of the most violent and barbaric in all history, thanks—ironically enough—in great part to the advances of science, which made it much more possible for people to kill others on a scale that the most depraved madmen of the past could only dream about.
What was the problem?
Read Romans 1:22–32. In what ways do we see the things that were written in the first century being manifested today in the twentyfirst century?
We might need faith to believe a lot of things in Christianity: among them, the resurrection of the dead, the Second Coming, and a new heaven and a new earth. But who needs faith to believe in the fallen state of humanity? Today, each of us is living the consequences of that fallen state.
Focus specifically on Romans 1:22, 23. How do we see this principle being manifested now? By rejecting God, what have twenty-first century humans come to worship and idolize instead? And in so doing, how have they become fools? Bring your answer to class on Sabbath.
What Jews and Gentiles Share in Common
In Romans 1, Paul was dealing specifically with the sins of the Gentiles, the pagans, those who had lost sight of God a long time ago and, thus, had fallen into the most degrading of practices.
But he wasn’t going to let his own people, his own countrymen, off the hook either. Despite all the advantages that they had been given (Rom. 3:1, 2), they, too, were sinners, condemned by God’s law, and in need of the saving grace of Christ. In that sense—in the sense of being sinners, of having violated God’s law, and of needing divine grace for salvation—Jews and Gentiles are the same.
Read Romans 2:1–3, 17–24. What is Paul warning against here? What message should all of us, Jew or Gentile, take from this warning?
“After the Apostle has shown that all heathen are sinners, he now, in a special and most emphatic way, shows that also the Jews live in sin, above all because they obey the Law only outwardly, that is, according to the letter and not according to the spirit.”—Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, p. 61.
Often it’s so easy to see and point out the sins of others. How often, though, are we guilty of the same kinds of things—or even worse? The problem is that we tend to turn a blind eye on ourselves, or we make ourselves feel better by looking at just how bad others are in contrast to ourselves.
Paul would have none of that. He warned his countrymen not to be quick to judge the Gentiles, for they, the Jews—even as the chosen people—were sinners. In some cases they were even more guilty than the pagans they were so quick to condemn, because as Jews they had been given more light than the Gentiles.
Paul’s point in all this is that none of us are righteous, none of us meet the divine standard, and none of us are innately good or inherently holy. Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, and God-fearing or God-rejecting, we all are condemned. And were it not for the grace of God as revealed in the gospel, there would be no hope for any of us.
How often do you, even if only in your own mind, condemn others for things that you yourself are guilty of? By taking heed to what Paul has written here, how can you change?
The Gospel and Repentance
“Despisest thou the riches of [H]is goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). What message is here for us in regard to the whole question of repentance?
We should notice that God’s goodness leads, not forces, sinners to repentance. God uses no coercion. He is infinitely patient and seeks to draw all people by His love. A forced repentance would destroy the whole purpose of repentance, would it not? If God forced repentance, then would not everyone be saved, for why would He force some to repent and not others? Repentance must be an act of the free will, responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Yes, repentance is a gift from God, but we have to be ready and open to receive it—a choice that we alone can make for ourselves.
What comes to those who resist God’s love, refuse to repent, and remain in disobedience? Rom. 2:5–10.
In Romans 2:5–10, and frequently throughout the book of Romans, Paul emphasizes the place of good works. Justification by faith without the deeds of the law must never be construed to mean that good works have no place in the Christian life. For instance, in Romans 2:7, salvation is described as coming to those who seek for it “by patient continuance in well doing.” Although human effort can’t bring salvation, it is part of the whole experience of salvation. It’s hard to see how anyone can read the Bible and come away with the idea that works and deeds don’t matter at all. True repentance, the kind that comes willingly from the heart, always will be followed by a determination to overcome and put away the things that we need to repent over.
How often are you in an attitude of repentance? Is it sincere, or do you tend just to brush off your faults, shortcomings, and sins? If the latter, how can you change? Why must you change?
Further Thought: “Thus the biblical terminology shows that sin is not a calamity fallen upon the human unawares, but the result of an active attitude and choice on the part of the human. Further, sin is not the absence of good, but it is ‘falling short’ of God’s expectations. It is an evil course that the human has deliberately chosen. It is not a weakness for which humans cannot be held responsible, for the human in the attitude or act of sin deliberately chooses a way of rebellion against God, in transgression against His law, and fails to hear God’s Word. Sin attempts to pass beyond the limitations God has set. In short, sin is rebellion against God.”—The Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 2000), p. 239.
“A terrible picture of the condition of the world has been presented before me. Immorality abounds everywhere. Licentiousness is the special sin of this age. Never did vice lift its deformed head with such boldness as now. The people seem to be benumbed, and the lovers of virtue and true goodness are nearly discouraged by its boldness, strength, and prevalence. The iniquity which abounds is not merely confined to the unbeliever and the scoffer. Would that this were the case, but it is not. Many men and women who profess the religion of Christ are guilty. Even some who profess to be looking for His appearing are no more prepared for that event than Satan himself. They are not cleansing themselves from all pollution. They have so long served their lust that it is natural for their thoughts to be impure and their imaginations corrupt.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p. 346.
1. What answer do you give to those who, despite all that has happened, insist that humanity is improving? What arguments do they give, and how do you respond to them?
2. Look at the quote from Ellen G. White above. If you see yourself in it, what is the answer? Why is it important not to give up in despair but to keep claiming God’s promises—first, of forgiveness; second, of cleansing? Who is the one who wants you to say once and for all, “It’s no use. I’m too corrupt. I can never be saved, so I might as well give up”? Do you listen to him or to Jesus, who will say to us, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11)?
3. Why is it so important for us as Christians to understand basic human sinfulness and depravity? What can happen when we lose sight of that sad but true reality? What errors can a false understanding of our true condition lead us into?
4. Think about the untold numbers of Protestants who chose to die rather than give up the faith. How strong are we in the faith? Strong enough to die for it?