Paul’s Use of the Gentile Debate to Teach Justification By Faith
Many important events in the early Church center around the Gentile debate—the question of whether to require Gentile Christians to observe the Law of Moses. Beginning with Peter’s dream (recorded in the first part of Acts) this topic takes on great importance in the doings and teachings of the Apostles, especially the Apostle Paul. Paul mentions the debate in many of his epistles to the different churches: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Throughout all his teachings in these epistles Paul uses the debate to convey a theological message—salvation by grace and justification by faith. Using events surrounding the Saints at that time Paul was able to more effectively teach a key principle of the Gospel to members of the congregations to which he wrote and spoke.
In Acts 10, the Apostle Peter has a dream commanding him to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. This is the beginning of the Gentile ministry, of which Paul eventually handles the majority. It is also the first recorded instance of practice-altering revelation after the ascension of Christ, and theologically solidifies the apostolic keys as the requirement for new doctrine after Christ—but this does not mean that everyone accepted Peter’s revelation without question. The most significant resistance to the Gentile ministry were those who believed that Gentiles must first become proselytes (converted Jews) and obey the Law of Moses before they could accept the Gospel of Christ. These people are referred to throughout the New Testament by “they of the circumcision” or a similar denotation.
As we know today this teaching was clearly false, and Paul spent a great deal of time working against the misinformation it caused. Each of his major letters contains references to the debate (which Peter settled in Acts 15) and Paul consistently uses each of these references to teach what he sees as the central point of the Gospel: salvation and justification by faith. Each example drawn from a Pauline epistle follows the same basic pattern: the law is good, but circumcision and the law gain a man nothing if he has not faith.
Taking the epistles in Biblical order, the first time where Paul uses this technique and mentions the Gentile debate is in Romans, beginning in the second chapter. Paul speaks of how those who are righteous shall be counted the same whether they are circumcised or not. Specifically he says, “Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.” (Romans 3:30) This makes immediately clear the doctrine that God no longer differentiates between Jew and Gentile—the gospel of faith and repentance is available to all. Peter speaking concerning the Holy Ghost confirms this: “Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ;” (Acts 11: 17).
In Galatians Paul next mentions the Gentile debate in the context of faith and repentance. Paul notes in that epistle that to him is committed the gospel of the heathen (meaning the Gentile) while Peter carries the work of the circumcision (Gal. 2: 7-9). Paul then proceeds to clarify that there is truly no difference. He later says, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” (Gal. 5: 6) Paul clearly states that the means to salvation through Christ is faith and love.
A detailed discussion of the Gentile debate is given in Ephesians immediately following the doctrine of salvation by grace. Paul states that now all men are saved by the grace of Christ, and not of themselves. Five verses later he says that the walls between the Jew and Gentile have been broken down by this doctrine and salvation comes unto Jew and Gentile alike (Eph. 2: 11-14). This gives a sharp contrast to the Gospel preached by Christ, which went by the word of Christ only unto the Jews: “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)
Paul reinforces this teaching of unity through the grace of Christ in his epistle to the Colossians. He speaks in the third chapter of the virtues the Saints should all strive to possess, the chief among these being charity. He recommends that all put on the new man of repentance through the grace of Christ, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3: 11) Here Paul clearly shows that all men, regardless of lineage, can have the grace of Christ unto salvation.
Throughout his epistles to the various churches, Paul repeatedly emphasizes that we as Saints are saved by the grace of Christ and justified through faith on his name. This is Paul’s central theme and resulted in the beginning of the Reformation by Martin Luther. Paul also consistently mentions the Gentile debate in his letters, as he was commissioned to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles. In these letters he uses the mention of the Gentile debate to show that all righteous men are equal in the sight of God, and to teach the principle of salvation by grace. This combination reflects Paul’s concerns for the Saints he taught and his skill as a teacher of the Word.
Node your homework.