Acts 15:1-35, ESV:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
“You can’t make God happy.” When you hear that, what is the first response that comes to your mind? On the surface, it seems like that can’t be. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say things like “God is pleased when…” or “God delights in…”? Yes it does. And in truth, there are some things that people do to that God is pleased with or that He is happy about. But with that is built in a natural assumption that seems to be so right and logical, that it is usually not given much thought. Here is the assumption: If God is pleased by something that I do, then He is pleased (or happy) simply because I did it. It doesn’t need anymore thought than that. For example, if I regularly spend time with one of my children, walking with them through the Bible and discipling them, then God looks down from Heaven and He looks at me and says “I am so happy that you are doing that. Well Done.”
And thereby my actions, I have gained God’s approval or in some way made Him happy.
Or take another example. You work in a business where there are unbelievers all around you, and there is one person who is really having a hard time in life. Their daughter died a few months earlier; their finances are in a wreck; their marital relationship is strained because of both. And nobody at work is giving them much encouragement — probably because they do not know what to say. But you do. You are a believer. You have experienced first-hand the awesome blessings of Christ Jesus and your heart is brimming with compassion for the person. So you spend time with them, giving encouragement, helping them wisely with their financial problems, doing what you can to strengthen their marriage. All great things. And then God looks down on you and all that you have done, and says “Well done! I am so happy and pleased that you have decided to help them and to encourage them.”
And thereby your actions, you have gained God’s favor or in some way added to His happiness.
Now, on a practical level, or in human terms — and going no deeper — that may appear to be true. But I want you to go deeper this morning. Because Christians live on a day-to-day basis with this practical understanding of God and Jesus and Christianity, and let me tell you something shocking — they are wrong. They are dead wrong. Yes, God is pleased by things you do, but not because you do them. The question of “why” you do them is what is important. Why you do them is a different matter. When I say “why,” I mean two things: the first is why you do it as in your motivation; the second is why you do it as in where the motivation came from. Did it really come from you? Or did it come from a spirit born inside of you? And if the latter, who put it inside of you?
Now, with those questions in mind, turn to our passage this morning. Acts 15:1-35. It is lengthy, but the story illustrates this truth of pleasing God in the most important area possible for us — the area of salvation.
Saved and Kept by Grace
Now I want you to think of salvation in the broad sense of the term. Biblical salvation encompasses more than just salvation from hell; the term salvation is broad enough to be used to describe your initial act of belief in Christ (justification), your growth as a believer (sanctification), and your ultimate deliverance from the wrath of God (glorification). All of that is involved in the term salvation. So of the three, the one aspect of salvation that I am focusing on is your sanctification — that is how you live out your day-to-day Christian life and the way you understand, especially on a practical level, how you relate to God working in you. And that makes a huge difference in the way you live. I do not think any of you would question the fact that your salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. But when we say that, we are almost exclusively referring to that time when God initially saves us or justifies us. But when it comes to the matter of living day-to-day, God’s grace in our lives is a more difficult thing to accept, because it is a living and active grace that we experience. And this is where we get into trouble with what we think pleases God. This is essential that we get this right, just like the early church got this right in the Jerusalem council.
Look at verse 1: But some men [verse 5 tells us these are most likely Pharisees] came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Now this act of circumcision was a symbolic act of saying that an Israelite man belonged to the covenant community of God. It was an outward sign only, a “custom of Moses.” So what these Jews were saying is that God cannot be pleased with them (in this matter of salvation) unless they did this (i.e. become “circumcised). “Unless you perform this outward sign, God will not accept you.”
Now, what many Christians do unwittingly almost everyday of their lives is substitute that word “circumcised” for a host of other things. Let me demonstrate: “Unless you attend church according to the custom of the SBC, you cannot be saved.” Or “unless you tithe, you cannot be saved.” (And if you are not saved, God is not pleased or happy). Or “unless you read your Bible every day, you cannot be saved.” In other words, God is not pleased with you if you neglected to read the Bible this morning before you came to church. Now, you may laugh at some of these, but the reality of it is, many Christians really live this way. And I don’t want to you to misunderstand me: doing all of those things are good things; they are there to help you grow in Christ. God works through them to exercise grace in your life. But if you are doing those things to earn God’s favor or acceptance or to please Him or make Him happy, you are misguided.
Happiness Rooted in God’s Character
When we think about the characteristics of God, theologians often refer to many of His attributes in one of two categories: either communicable or incommunicable. What they mean is this: there are some attributes that God shares with us, and some He doesn’t. For instance, God’s omniscience (or His all-knowingness) is something that none of us can claim. Is there anyone here that knows everything about everything throughout all time? No. Our knowledge is limited. But God’s isn’t.
What about God’s immutability? That is His nature and character never change. Is that something that we experience? No. We change — by God’s grace for the better.
How about God’s solitariness? God is absolutely and perfectly complete and happy and satisfied in and of Himself, and there is nothing any creature can add to Him in all of His perfections. He is absolutely solitary!
Now, those three attributes of God are incommunicable; God does not share these with us. They are His alone.
Take God’s happiness (an attribute that He does share with us) and view it in light of His solitariness, and you begin to see that His happiness is perfect and complete. God is completely happy and satisfied in Himself, and because of His never-changing nature, He will always be. There is not one created being who can ever or will ever add to God’s happiness. He doesn’t need anyone for anything to make him satisfied and happy and complete. It is so vital that you get this right, because if you don’t, your life as a Christian will be just as misguided as these Jews (Pharisees) who thought that there was something that they needed to do to be saved — or to make God happy. Happiness is rooted in God’s character. He does not need you or need anything that you could do for Him. And the massive implication of this is that you cannot make God happy! There is nothing you can do to earn God’s favor.
All Grace is Freely from God
And that is precisely the conclusion that Peter came to and why he came to it in verse 11: But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Peter is explicitly saying here that the only way of salvation — past, present, or future — is given freely by God and can only be obtained by His grace. You cannot earn it. Just as there is not one thing you can do to make God happy, neither is there anything you can do to earn His favor. His favor is His grace and He gives it freely to whomever calls on Him and asks Him to save them. I have told people numerous times, that if there is something you can do to lose God’s favor, then there is something you can do to gain it. And if there is something you can do to gain God’s favor, then it is not free. That means that there is a need in God that He needs to fulfill or satisfy in Himself that you had the ability to put there. The whole idea is not only heresy; it is lunacy. No creature can gain God’s favor because of something he or she has done.
So in what sense, if any, is there that God is pleased by what you do? Let me go back to those two questions that I asked at the beginning to answer that one: There are two “why” questions: (1) Why do you do the things you do as a Christian as in your motivation? (2) Why do you do the things you do as in where does the motivation come from? If you are a Christian, you are motivated to love God and others and do good works because that is what you are created in Christ Jesus to do. You are a new creation, spiritually reborn in Christ, and as a result, you have a new nature within you that is empowered and governed by the Holy Spirit, living inside of you. So your motivation comes from your new nature, which operates purely on the basis of faith.
Hebrews 11:6 says that without faith, it is impossible to please God. So if I just said that there is no way to add to God’s happiness or please God, as in something that you can do that God needs, then what does that tell you about faith? It tells me that faith is not something that I do, nor is it something that adds to God’s happiness, nor is it something that I can contrive or create. Faith is merely a belief in God that is enabled by Him. Faith is not a work that you can perform. It is not something you do. Faith is believing what God is telling you about the future and how Christ’s death and resurrection in the past will eternally and radically alter that future for you in a glorious way. So your motivation to believe God is based on what Christ did in the past, and therefore creating a new nature in you and making His Spirit accessible to you by faith. Your good works that please God are motivated by your new nature, which always operates on faith alone.
The second question is “why do you do what you do” in the sense of where the motivation came from? This is the ultimate end. You cannot go beyond this. This is where the reason of man stops and has no light to go further. Did the motivation really come from you? Or did it come from a spirit born inside of you? And if the latter, who put it inside of you? I firmly believe it was put there by God alone. The reason you do things for God’s glory is not because you are a good person and have a special connection to God because of something you do or because of your family heritage. It is God alone who has planted this inside of you.
2 Corinthians: 5:17-18 says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…”
All this is from God. All of this. His grace; your faith; your motivation. It all comes from Him.
Let me conclude with this question: How is this truth going to alter, in a right way, the way you relate to God practically? Or to ask it another way, how are you going to live in as a Christian in light of this truth? Are you going to continue to do things to obtain God’s favor, making Him the needy One and you the one who can supply some missing need in God? Or are you going to acknowledge your “humanness,” and the sinful desires and attitudes of your old nature and trust in Him to supply a new nature within you (if He hasn’t already)? And if He has, trust Him to keep you and remain faithful to you?
What is it you are doing that you think is pleasing God? Remember, you can only please Him by faith.