The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
– Acts 15:6-11, New International Version
The Jerusalem Council
Paul’s first missionary journey ended when Paul and Barnabas returned (Acts 14:26-28) to Antioch. They reported all that God had done and how He had opened a door to the Gentiles. God had demonstrated His acceptance of them. Then, they (verse 28) “spent a long time with the disciples.”
In Acts 15:1-35 Luke tells the story of the Jerusalem Council. About ten years had passed since the outpouring of the Spirit at Caesarea. Now, some men from Judea came to Antioch teaching that the Gentiles would have to be circumcised. These men were unauthorized (verse 24) visitors from the church in Jerusalem.
The message of the visitors was (Acts 15:1), “‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'” Paul and Barnabas debated vigorously with them. Whereupon, the brethren in Antioch sent Paul, Barnabas, and others to Jerusalem to discuss the issue.
When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and elders. They reported all that God had done, but some of the Pharisees who “had believed” (verse 5) declared that it was necessary for the Gentiles to observe the law of Moses and to be circumcised. Luke says no more about this first public meeting.
Then the apostles and elders came together to look into the matter. Other members of the church (verses 12 and 22) were present also. After much debate, the apostle Peter spoke. He began by reminding the brethren (verse 7) that God had used him to open the door to the Gentiles. Then, he defended the position that the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised. His evidence was God’s acceptance of the uncircumcised Gentiles in Caesarea. God had demonstrated that acceptance by giving them the Spirit.
For our study we will focus on verses 8-9. Peter makes two statements: (1) “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us” and (2) “He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”
The two statements are connected by the conjunction “and.” These statements are related, but in what way? Do the actions of “giving” and “cleansing” occur in one event? If so, do they refer to regeneration or sanctification? Or, are these actions separate, even though related? If so, how are they related?
The participles “giving” and “cleansing” in Greek are in the aorist tense. These two aorist participles alone do not answer our questions. The actions may occur at about the same time, but not necessarily so. Therefore, we must answer the questions on other grounds.
Regeneration or Sanctification
Some scholars unite “giving” and “cleansing” into one experience. This one experience, or divine action, is held by some to refer to regeneration and by others to sanctification.
According to Bruce (p. 306) “giving” and “cleansing” are examples of simultaneous participles. He writes, “God testified to the genuineness of these people’s faith by giving them the Spirit and cleansing their hearts in one regenerative moment.” Similarly, Dunn (p. 81) holds that verses 8 and 9 are parallel and are two ways of saying the same thing. In his view God’s giving of the Spirit is the equivalent of cleansing their hearts. Their hearts are cleansed through the giving of the Spirit.
Carter, a Wesleyan writer, unites “giving” and “cleansing” in one sanctifying experience, but this experience is based on prior regeneration. A Christian may be regenerated but unsanctified. Carter writes (p. 176), “As a regenerated disciple of Christ he has the Holy Spirit in his inward life, but he cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit in the ethical sense, until he has experienced the crisis of an inner cleansing by a personal spiritual Pentecost, or baptism of the Spirit.”
Giving and Cleansing
Other scholars hold that Peter describes two separate actions. These actions are related, but they are different. First, Peter says that God attested to the salvation of the Gentiles by giving them the Spirit. Second, he says that God gave them the Spirit because He had cleansed their hearts by faith. Menzies presents several arguments in favor of this view. To his arguments, summarized below, we will add the comments of Turner.
First, Menzies declares (p. 217), “Verse 8 is the premise from which the deduction of v. 9 is drawn. God’s bestowal of the Spirit bears witness (v. 8) to the reality of his act of cleansing (v. 9). In my view the giving of the Spirit in Luke’s writings represents attestation as well as empowerment.
Second, Peter says that God “made no distinction between us and them.” Without making a distinction, God cleansed their hearts by faith. Menzies argues (p. 217) that “Luke always attributes forgiveness (aphesis), which is granted in response to faith/repentance, to Jesus–never to the Spirit.” He then adds, “Forgiveness (aphesis) is attributed to Jesus (Acts 5:31; 13.38), the name of Jesus (Lk. 24.47; Acts 2:38; 10.43) and faith in Jesus (26.18).” (Transliterations Mine)
Third, another point by Menzies (pp. 217-218) is that “Luke equates the gift of the Spirit granted to Cornelius’ household, not with cleansing and forgiveness, but with the Pentecostal gift of prophetic inspiration.” Moreover, according to Menzies (p. 218), “The significance that Peter attaches to the gift as a sign of God’s acceptance is based on the prophetic nature of the gift.”
Fourth, Turner (p. 384) calls our attention to Peter’s comment that it is God “who knows the heart” who gives the Spirit. According to Turner, this could mean that knowing their hearts, God decides to cleanse their hearts through giving them the Spirit, but, if so, what is it that God knows? He says the “probable” conclusion is that God knows their hearts have been cleansed by faith; therefore, he witnesses to this by giving them the Spirit.
Circumcision Not Required
Now, Luke records the rest of Peter’s speech. Cornelius and his household had been saved by faith. The Judaizers were trying to put a requirement on the Gentiles for salvation (verse 10) “which neither our father nor we have been able to bear.” Then, Peter refers to the believing Jews when he says, “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” As Fernando says (p. 416), “This implies that no Mosaic ritual is needed for the salvation of the Jews.”
Defending the salvation of the Gentiles, Peter says that God gave (verse 8) them the Spirit “just as He did also to us.” Now, he says that the Jews are saved “in the same way” as the Gentiles. Here is a clear indication that the body of Christ is one and that there is no division between the believing Jews and Gentiles.
In Luke’s writings, the Spirit has a role of salvation through the Spirit-inspired preaching of the Word. The baptism in the Spirit, according to John the Baptist (Luke 3:16-17), has to do with the separation of the wheat and the chaff. This is accomplished, however, through (Acts 1:5-8) through Spirit-empowered witnesses.
Luke does not deal with the work of the Spirit in the inner transformation of the individual. He does not connect the Spirit with regeneration, adoption, washing, new birth, sealing, and other aspects of being newly created. He is concerned with the role of the Holy Spirit in the growth of the church.
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Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Carter, Charles W. The Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Ervin, Howard M. Conversion-Initiation and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984. Fernando, Ajith. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1981.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961.
Menzies, Robert P. Empowered for Witness. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Rea, John. Bible Handbook on the Holy Spirit. Orlando: Creation House, 1998.
Turner, Max. Power from On High. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. 1996.
© Copyright 2003 GMF.