DOES ACTS 15:11 REFUTE DISPENSATIONAL BIBLE STUDY? IF NOT, WHAT IS THIS VERSE TEACHING?
by Shawn Brasseaux
What does Acts 15:11 mean? Does this verse disprove dispensational Bible study, as some claim? Does it teach there is only one gospel in the Bible, as some claim? Does it mean that every saved person in history is part of the Church the Body of Christ, as some claim? Let us search the Scriptures for the answers.
In Acts 15, some “Judaizers” (Mosaic Law teachers) from Jerusalem are going around and subverting the souls of Paul and Barnabas’ Gentile converts: “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (verse 1). Paul and Barnabas have a major argument and debate with these Judaizers, and these legalists instruct Paul and Barnabas to go back to Jerusalem with some of them, and ask Israel’s apostles and elders about the matter (verse 2).
Once Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem, they declare to the Jerusalem assembly of believers (particularly Israel’s apostles and elders), all the wonderful things God has done amongst the Gentiles through their ministry (verse 4). However, some Pharisees who believe, object by saying that it was needful for Paul and Barnabas to physically circumcise those Gentiles and command them to keep the Mosaic Law (verse 5). Verse 6 says that Israel’s apostles and elders confer amongst themselves about the issue.
When a great debate is started, the Apostle Peter arises and explains to them Cornelius’ salvation (which he personally witnessed some 10 years previous). Let us read Peter’s words in Acts 15:7-11: “ And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.  And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;  And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.”
Notice how Peter is coming to Paul and Barnabas’ defense. Recall that when Gentile Cornelius was saved in Acts 10 under Peter’s ministry, it was under extraordinary circumstances. Up to that point, Peter saw Jews (and later some Samaritans) get water baptized and then receive the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38; Acts 8:14-17). With Cornelius, Peter saw the Holy Ghost fall on those Gentiles before they were water baptized, and the Bible says the Jews with Peter were amazed at the reversal. Read what happened with Cornelius in Acts 10: “ While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.  And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.  For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter,  Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.”
Notice Peter’s words in verse 47: “which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” Peter knew that these believing Gentiles at Cornelius’ home were just as filled with the Holy Spirit as he and they (the believing Jews) were. This is all in Peter’s mind when he discusses it with the apostles and elders in Acts 15, about a decade later. Hence, Peter says in Acts 15:8: “And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us.”
When Peter hears about Paul and Barnabas and how they did not teach physical circumcision and Law-keeping amongst the Gentiles, Peter may not have understood it, but he was not surprised. Peter remembered how God had departed from the “norm” with Cornelius, and Peter (unlike those in Acts 15:5) saw how God departing from the “norm” with Paul and Barnabas’ converts was not necessarily a bad thing and was not impossible. This is how Acts 15:11 should be viewed. Peter assumed that Paul’s Gentiles converts had received the Holy Spirit without legalism, just as Cornelius had received the Holy Spirit without water baptism. Peter’s words are thus indicating that it was not “needful” to physically circumcise Paul’s Gentile converts and tell them to keep the Mosaic Law (which is what the believing Pharisees were arguing for in Acts 15:5).
Peter urges Israel’s other apostles and elders not to “tempt” God, to challenge God as to whether or not He is operating properly through Paul and Barnabas by not promoting legalism amongst the Gentiles, since he (Peter) did not “tempt” God and question what He was doing when he saw God do some strange things with Cornelius and those other Gentiles. Read in Acts 15 where Peter continued recounting the story of Cornelius’ salvation, “ And [God] put no difference between us and them [the Gentiles], purifying their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” Peter does not fully understand what is going on with Paul and toward the end of his life Peter confessed he never fully did comprehend Paul’s doctrine (2 Peter 3:15-16), but he does recognize God is doing something “unusual” with Paul and Barnabas (just like he saw those unique events with Cornelius).
The word “grace” in Acts 15:11 is probably the greatest cause of stumbling for many, and it should not. “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” While this sounds like Paul’s Gospel, the Gospel of the Grace of God, it is not. Remember, God’s grace is not exclusive to Paul’s ministry: God’s grace is found throughout the Bible (look at Genesis 6:8, for example), but the way in which God manifested His grace is different in various dispensations. For instance, the very nature of the New Covenant that will be given to Israel is “grace and truth,” which will replace the Old Covenant of Law with its wrath and punishment (John 1:17). God will give Israel grace (what she does not deserve) through the New Covenant, despite the fact that she broke the Old Covenant of Law.
In Israel’s program, God deals with a Jew in two ways: on an individual basis and on a national basis. Any believing Jew received forgiveness of sins when he or she confessed the breaking of the Old Covenant, got water baptized, and trusted Jesus as Messiah (Acts 2:38; 1 John 1:9; 1 John 2:12)—this was then credited to them, to be permanently forgiven when the rest of Israel was converted. However, the Old Covenant was given to the entire nation Israel, not just to one Jew. The entire nation Israel broke the Old Covenant, so God deals with them on a national level too. Israel’s national sins must also be dealt with, and they will be blotted out at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:19; Romans 11:26-27; cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-13; Hebrews 10:15-17). This is why Peter speaks of their [Israel’s] salvation as future: “we shall be saved” (Acts 15:11). Peter acknowledges that God will save Paul’s Gentile converts through grace, too. In other words, Peter is saying that Paul’s Gentile converts are saved, despite the fact that they do not have physical circumcision and Law-keeping.
What Peter does not understand is that this dispensational change with Paul’s ministry involves God’s grace now being manifested through Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork, and that God is offering His grace to every person (lost Jew or lost Gentile) through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as sufficient payment for their sins, and without Law-keeping (Peter emphasized Law-keeping to Cornelius in Acts 10:35, and notice Peter did not link Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork to Cornelius’ salvation like Paul would do with his converts and us)—we learn this “Gospel of the Grace of God” only from Paul’s ministry (Acts 20:24; Romans 3:24; Romans 4:4,16; Romans 5:15,17,20,21; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:10; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Galatians 1:6,15; Gal. 2:21; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 2:5,7-8; Ephesians 3:2,7; Colossians 1:6; 1 Timothy 1:14; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 2:11; Titus 3:7).
So, Acts 15:11 does not disprove dispensational Bible study. It simply shows that God saves sinners in every dispensation and that that salvation is not what they deserve (remember, grace is what we do not deserve). Peter did not understand it all, but he did recognize that Paul’s Gentile converts were acceptable to God without physical circumcision and Law keeping, just as he witnessed how Cornelius received the Holy Ghost without water baptism. In Acts 15:11, Peter used this reality to come to Paul and Barnabas’ defense, and evidently, this caused James to understand some of the matter (Acts 15:14ff.), and, consequently, this saved Paul’s ministry from being hindered and saved his converts from additional trouble with Israel’s believing remnant (Acts 15:19-32).
» Do not Hebrews 13:8 and Malachi 3:6 disprove dispensational Bible study? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)
» Was Cornelius a member of the Church the Body of Christ? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)
» If dispensational Bible study is true, how come few people believe it? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)