Faith or the Law—a delicate topic

Right or wrong, real or fake, pure or impure? There was a time when these questions played an immense role for the people of the early Christian period. The transition from the old covenant to the new covenant was not so easy.

Until well into the first century of the early Christian period, Jewish Christians comprised the majority. They had been the first to hear of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. They had recognised the parallels to their forefathers’ belief in the Messiah. They considered themselves to have a special position with God. And so they were baptised—and continued to live as Christians among Jews. The book of Acts gives us an eloquent example of what Christian living was like in the beginning—namely Jewish! And as was self-evident, at first they only told the news of the resurrected Son of God to other Jews.

But then the first questions began to arise. If God desires to save all mankind, how can He restrict Himself to the Jewish people alone? Didn’t Christ die for all human beings? It took a new understanding of God, grace, redemption, and deliverance to make the change. Even the early Apostles, the disciples and companions of the Lord, had their problems with this new image of God and man. Beforehand, everything had been so clear: if you want to be a child of God, you must be a Jew. If you want to belong to the people of God, you must be circumcised. If you want to be pure, you must keep the commandments. There were countless dietary laws to observe, the law of the Sabbath was holy, the temple service tolerated no exceptions, and so much more. This was the world in which the disciples of Jesus had grown up.

The new way

And suddenly everything changes. Suddenly, other standards apply. It is no longer the fact that you are Jewish that makes you a child of God, but rather that you recognise God in His Son, Jesus Christ—and follow Him. It is not circumcision that incorporates you as a member of the people of God, but rather baptism. It is not observance of the fastidious dietary laws that makes you pure, but rather the grace of God. Suddenly, there is a contrast between faith and the Mosaic Law. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Galatians: up until now, the law has been no more than a disciplinarian—in other words, an authority that tells you where you stand and that punishes transgressions. But now it is faith that serves as guarantor for liberty in Christ—and in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, neither slave nor free, neither man nor woman—a strong message that requires some time to digest!

But it worked. This is perhaps the greatest success of the Christian faith in the first place, namely that the early Christian churches were able to grow into each other. What finally emerged from this conglomeration of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were simply Christians—different members of the same body. And their Lord became Jesus Christ, whom they zealously followed. Only in this way was it possible for the triumphal procession of the Christian faith to occur in the course of world history.

Two steps forward, one step back

But there were also setbacks. Even Peter, that stalwart and steadfast disciple of the Lord, had his challenges. In the same letter to the Galatians, Paul writes an interesting assessment of Peter’s actions: “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?’” (Galatians 2: 14).

The problem was clear: while Apostle Peter (Cephas) was in Jerusalem, he himself acted as a Jew. He did the things he had always done: he followed the dietary laws, the customs, and the traditions of his surroundings. Later on, he visited Antioch in ancient Syria (modern Antakya, Turkey). There were no Jews there any more, however. The congregation consisted of Gentile Christians. So it was that he adopted the local customs of fellowship and even ate with them—which was actually forbidden to a devout Jew. When some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem joined him in Antioch later on, Peter held to them once again and abandoned his fellowship with the Gentile Christians. In his letter to the Galatians, Apostle Paul accuses him of hypocrisy. After all, the path to salvation is faith in Christ—not the Mosaic Law. Paul calls for a clear commitment to freedom of conscience in Christ.

Now Peter was no slouch in the effort to bring salvation to the Gentiles. After all, it was he who had ensured that non-Jews were even able to learn of the gospel of the Lord in the first place. It was he who had entered the house of Cornelius the centurion—and who had had to defend his actions before the Jerusalem congregation. But in Antioch, this same Peter fell back into the old pattern!

What is our understanding today?

And today? How are things today? Have we learned from the people of history or do orthodoxy and contempt for other cultures still count for more than grace? Christians should learn to understand both one another and those who are not Christians. This is called respect and esteem. When differing cultures and belief systems collide, the thing that is most called for is a fundamentally Christian attitude which asserts that God loves all human beings. And belief in Christ, the Redeemer, and in His return is a bond that transcends all differences.

This and nothing less is what the Holy Spirit preaches in the congregations today.

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Peter Johanning
Divine service