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Vol.  9  No. 9 September 2007  Page 12
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Justification by Faith in the Book of Acts

By Raymond Elliott

Raymond Elliott    During the years that I worked with one congregation of the Lord, there was a group of brothers and sisters that sang for a local nursing home once a month. The residents enjoyed singing with us some of the old favorites songs found in the book we used that was published by our brethren. One of the most requested hymns was Amazing Grace. One of the stanzas of this song is as follows: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed.” However the publishers of this particular song book we were using took the liberty to change the last phrase of that stanza to “The hour I first obeyed.” Now I understand perfectly the reason for this change and I do not doubt the motive of these brethren. We have heard so much from our denominational friends that we are saved by “faith only”; however, we must not avoid scriptural terms simply because of the misunderstandings regarding the biblical theme of justification by faith. There is a vast difference between the doctrine of “faith only” and the Bible based doctrine of salvation by faith. In fact, the expression that these brethren wanted to avoid is actually found in Romans 13:11: “And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed” (Emphasis added). The apostle Paul asked the disciples of John, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed” (Acts 19:2). Of course Paul had much to say about being justified by faith in Jesus Christ. In Romans 5:1-2, we read, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Thus it is scriptural and right to say that we are saved by faith, but we must understand all that is included in that statement.

    Now I want us to go to the Book of Acts and investigate whether or not the doctrine of justification of faith is found in the writings of Luke (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3). When speaking of the number of conversions listed in Acts, preachers and teachers are most likely to state that there are nine examples found therein. For most of my preaching experience I have used a chart showing the conversions of the people on Pentecost (Acts 2); the Samaritans (Acts 8:5-12); the nobleman from Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40); Saul (Acts 9; 22; 26); the household of Cornelius (Acts 10 & 11); Lydia and her household (Acts 16:13-15); the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34); the Corinthians (Acts 18:8) and the twelve men in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). Sometimes the statement has been made that these are the only examples of conversion mentioned in Acts. Also, I have taught that while faith, repentance and confession of our faith have not always appeared in each case, the fact is that baptism is mentioned in all of them. As students of the Bible, we have emphasized the importance of baptism in the plan of salvation that Jesus Christ has given (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47). And this is as it should be because our religious neighbors have taught for so long that baptism has nothing to do with our salvation.

    I recall hearing the story about a Christian lady who lived alone, and late one night while she was in bed she heard a noise in her house. She got up and quietly went to her bedroom door, and when she saw a man standing in the hall, she became so frightened that she couldn’t scream or say anything until she remembered a scriptural reference that she had heard so many, many times in worship, and so she shouted very loudly Acts 2:38! The intruder froze in his tracks. She called 911, and soon the police were at her residence and arrested the man. As he was being led away, the arresting officer asked him why he did not run before they arrived. His answer was, “I thought she said she had an axe and two thirty-eights. We can rest assured the Holy Spirit had every reason to have Luke record these nine examples in the way that he did, and that should be sufficient for us. I can understand that the Holy Spirit wanted to make it very clear as to how we are saved by a faith that obeys all the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    However, we must understand that there are other references made of individuals and groups of individuals in Acts being saved from their sins by God’s grace and the blood of Jesus Christ. But the phraseology that Luke used was different in that he often used a part to represent a whole. There is a figure of speech that is called a synecdoche, which is, “a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing…” (Wikipedia Dictionary). In this specific case, Luke would simply say that individuals believed, and that meant, by faith, they submitted themselves to the Lord’s every command in order to be saved. The author of Acts recorded words by different men who were inspired of the Holy Spirit to show beyond a doubt that sinners are justified by faith. It was the apostle Peter at the household of Cornelius who said, “To Him all the prophets witness, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). The apostle Paul declared, “Therefore let it be known to you brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38, 39). It was at the council in Jerusalem where we read the words of Peter, “And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith’” (Acts 15:7-9). These passages clearly teach that when a person believes in Jesus Christ, he receives remission of sins, is justified and his heart is purified by faith.

    Let us now observe the following passages that refer to cases of conversion mentioned in the Book of Acts that we normally do not use and that do not specifically mention baptism.

  • Acts 5:14: “And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitude of men and women…”
  • Acts 6:1: “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying…”
  • Acts 6:7: “Then the word of God spread and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
  • Acts 9:31: “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.”
  • Acts 9:35: “So all who dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.”
  • Acts 9:42: “And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord.”
  • Acts 11:21: “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.”
  • Acts 11:24: “For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.”
  • Acts 11:31: “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.”
  • Acts 12:24: “But the word of God grew and multiplied.”
  • Acts 13:12: “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”
  • Acts 13:48, 49: “Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread throughout the region.”
  • Acts 14:1: “Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed.”
  • Acts 14:21: “And whey they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.”
  • Acts 16:5: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.”
  • Acts 17:1-4: “…And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.”
  • Acts 17:11-12: “…Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.”
  • Acts 17:34: “However, some men joined him and believed…”
  • Acts 19:18, 19: “And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds…”

    Please note that in these passages, Acts 5:14:9:42; 11:21; 13:12; 13:48-49: 14:1; 17:11-12; 17:34; 19:18-19, Luke simply says that these individuals believed. Are we not to understand that they were saved just like the approximately three thousands who were saved on the Day of Pentecost when they were instructed to “repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remissions of sins…”? If not, why not. But let us examine more closely what is involved in the statement that various ones believed and were saved from their sins. It was Peter who said in his lesson to the household of Cornelius, “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). In verses 47 and 48 of this same chapter, the apostle asked, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.” We must conclude that the faith that saves includes the command to be immersed in the name of the Lord.

    In Acts 18:8 we read, “Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized.” We understand that many of the Corinthians did just as the Lord had commanded and were saved from their sins. But what of Crispus since it is written that he and his household simply “believed on the Lord.” Were they saved from their sins like the Corinthians? The apostle Paul, in First Corinthians, spoke of Crispus in Chapter 1:14, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” We must come to the inevitable conclusion that when the expression is used that the people “believed,” it was all inclusive; that is, this active faith embodied all the commands that the Lord required in order to be saved from past sins, namely the command to repent and be baptized.

    The example of the conversion of the jailer and his household as mentioned in Acts 16 is one of the most abused and misused passages that so many religionists use to show that a sinner is saved by ‘faith only.’ But when closely examined, we can readily see that this is not the case. Beginning in verse 23, we learn that Paul and Silas were beaten and placed in prison with their feet in the stocks. An earthquake caused the doors of the prison to be opened and the chains of all the prisoners were loosed. The jailer awaking from his sleep thought the prisoners had escaped was about to take his life when Paul told him not to harm himself for all were still present. It was then that the jailer called for light and fell down before Paul and Silas and asked them the question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved (v. 30)?” He was instructed to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” It is at this point that most religious leaders will teach that the only requirement of a sinner to obtain salvation is to believe in Jesus Christ. But verse 31 does not teach that the jailer believed; it simply states what he was to do in order to be saved. There is no evidence that the jailer had any knowledge of Jesus as being the divine Son of God and that he had been crucified for the sins of the world. In order for the jailer to obtain faith in Jesus, he had to be taught of him. That is why Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.”

    The apostle Paul later wrote in Romans 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”. In Acts 16:33, we learn that the jailer and his household were baptized. It was then Luke recorded that the jailer and his family “rejoiced, having believed in God…” It is in this verse and at this point of time that it is stated that the Jailer and his household believed on the Lord and rejoiced because they were saved from their sins. We must conclude beyond a shadow of doubt that the faith that saves is the faith that obeys all the commands of the Lord. This characteristic of faith has always been true.

    Take for example the patriarch Abraham. Paul wrote in Romans 4:3, “For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now what kind of faith did Abraham posses that pleased God? In Hebrews 11:8-10, we learn, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” The writer James in chapter 2:21-24 also contributes to our understanding of the kind of faith that saves when he wrote, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”

     We must not separate acceptable faith from scriptural works. Faith without works ordained of God cannot save; and, works not founded on biblical faith is unacceptable to God. For many years I used the illustration of a man in a boat with two oars that represented faith and works. When the man used only one oar (whether it be faith or works), the boat simply would go in a circle; but, when he used both oars (faith and works), he would be able to proceed toward his desired destination. But in using this illustration, I was separating scriptural and acceptable faith and works in a manner that did not portray the oneness of the two found in the Word of God. It was not until our daughter married a gentleman who enjoyed riding in his kayak that I noticed he used only one paddle in maneuvering his boat. It was then that I learned the illustration best used in revealing scriptural faith and works is found in one paddle and not two oars. Acceptable faith and works should not be separated. As Paul would say in Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.”

    Biblical faith is foundational. All that we do to please God and to experience salvation is based upon and motivated by faith; otherwise, our actions will profit us nothing. And it is this kind of faith that saves us by the grace of God (Romans 5:1, 2; Ephesians 2:8).

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