The Perfect Sufficiency of Christ: The Futile Altar

The church has taught us that the altar is the only way to salvation. Without the altar and a bended knee salvation cannot be attained. Grace tells us a different story.

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV bold mine)

We recently examined a passage in Acts that showed us one of the first times grace came into effect. Cornelius, a Gentile and unclean vessel according to the Jews, experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit without repentence or the Baptism of Water. For Peter, Baptism and repentence from sins came first, salvation and the gift of the Spirit followed. But with Cornelius the tradition was turned on its head. The Spirit came first and belief and rejoicing followed. It was the first example of undeserved grace. It was a grace that would soon go on to permeat the letters of Paul with its sweet honey, for it were not for grace, we would not know Paul as anything but a murderer.

The verses above have always been funny to me. No matter how hard he tried, Peter could not wrap his head around Paul’s evangel. I’m sure he would have been scratching his head when he read what Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

For Christ does not commission me to be baptizing, but to be bringing the evangel, not in wisdom of word, lest the cross of Christ may be made void. (1 Corinthians 1:17 Concordant Literal New Testament)

Paul baptized a few early on in the name of the Lord Jesus, but as his ministry went “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18) and he increased in wisdom, baptism and all rites became inconsequential compared to the death of Christ (Romans 6:3-4). The Paul of Acts hadn’t entirely understood grace like the Paul of Corinthians, Romans, or Ephesians.

What is the common denominator of the Christian church? Every evangelistic ministry and every Sunday sermon points directly to one thing: the altar. People recieve their salvation, confess their sins, or re-dedicate their lives at the altar. Have you ever felt that, without the church’s confirmation or a distinct raised hand to the altar call, one’s salvation was on dubious ground? Or if one wasn’t baptized in water, have you believed that their walk as a believer was incomplete or that their stained “old man” wasn’t dealt with? There’s another story in Acts that showcases the alarming effect of this thinking.

Now, passing through the whole island up to Paphos, they found a certain man, a magician, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. He, calling to him Barnabas and Saul, seeks to hear the Word of God. Now Elymas, the “Magician” (for thus is his name construed), withstood them, seeking to pervert the proconsul from the faith.

Now Saul, who is also Paul, being filled with Holy Spirit, looking intently at him, said, “O, full of all guile and all knavery, son of the Adversary, enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? And now, lo! the hand of the Lord is on you, and you shall be blind, not observing the sun until the appointed time.” Now instantly there falls on him a fog and darkness, and, going about, he sought someone to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul, perceiving what has occurred, believes, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord. (Acts 13:6-12 CLNT)

It’s a similar story to what we saw with Cornelius: a Gentile longing to hear the Word of God. But this time the presence of an Isrealite makes things a little messy.

What’s fascinating about this story is that we aren’t given any details on what this “false prophet” believed. If it could fool an “intelligent man” like Sergius Paulus then isn’t that all the more reason to expose it? Yet that isn’t what we see here. It’s a succinct thread in a much larger narrative and context, that being Paul’s early ministry. We see an Israelite perverting and twisting the straight (or simple) ways of the Lord and since Paul was the one speaking those straight ways were most certainly the ways of undeserved grace. What else could distort a message of grace than a complex detour from a member of a law-loving nation? If we account for the high-context society of which Acts was written in (one can see here for details on how this works) this Israelite’s belief may have been assumed to be common knowledge to the reader.

Another note of interest is that the man wasn’t called a false “teacher.” One may argue that that is merely semantics, but I believe every single word written in Scripture is purposeful and precise. He was called a false “prophet,” in other words, someone proclaiming to have an authoritative position or word. If that authoritative word could win the trust of an intelligent man who undoubtedly knew the Hebrew Scriptures then our false prophet may have been distorting the message of grace with words of law and sin; a message that was not meant to be delivered to the nations.

What happens right after? The proconsul sees what happens to the man and, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord that Paul delivers, believes. Wasn’t Peter also astonished at what happened to Cornelius? It was something completely unforseen and unbecoming that a person could be saved and justified, not because of Israel, but in spite of it. That people could experience the truth of their salvation, not because of the church, but in spite of it.

For if their casting away is the conciliation of the world, what will their taking back be if not life from among the dead? (Romans 11:15 bold mine).

How could the casting away of Israel be the conciliation of the world into Christ? Because a message of law hinders grace. If salvation is earned through the flesh and by its hand on the law, where is grace? If Christ is perfectly sufficent in all things, what is the altar but a futile distraction, perverting freedom with admissions of our own necessity.