Incorrect Paradigms on Grace: "Works Righteousness" and "Believes in Him"

Incorrect Paradigms on Grace:
"Works Righteousness" and "Believes in Him"

by Jonathan Perz

"Then Peter opened his mouth and said: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all—that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:34-43).

Receiving corresponding visions, the apostle Peter and the Centurion Cornelius would begin to fulfill a large body of Old Covenant prophesy regarding the salvation of the Gentiles. As we read of the message preached by Peter to Cornelius and his household, "words by which he and all his household would be saved" (cf. Acts 11:14), a paradigm is revealed about the grace of God that stands in stark contrast to the paradigm many hold today regarding the saving message of the gospel.

As Peter shares the gospel with Cornelius, he acknowledges a powerful "truth" that he had just learned. This "truth" says, "whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:35). The idea of working righteousness is one that many who profess Christ today and proclaim to have a better and more spiritual understanding of God's grace say is an impossibility and could not lead to any type of acceptance by God. "Working righteousness," they argue, is contrary to grace, based on their understandings of passages like Romans 11:6. However, Peter seemed to have received a different "truth."

As Peter continues his message to Cornelius, having described Jesus' to his hearers, he says, "To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive the remission of sins" (Acts 10:43). Observe the similarities in the statements of verse 35 and verse 43. Does it sound like Peter saw a great gulf fixed between the ideas of "works righteousness" and "believes in Him"? Is Peter adverse to the ideas that one results in "acceptance by Him" and the other will "receive the remission of sins"? Far too many today are wholly uncomfortable connecting such ideas because of their incorrect paradigm about grace.

Lest anyone argue that we strain this text to connect those ideas, let's look at the practical realities of the events that transpired that day. As Peter was preaching these saving words, the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household. Peter took this as a sign that the Gentiles could be baptized in water. He asked, "Can anyone forbid water that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10:47). They were indeed baptized and therefore received the remission of sins, just as Jesus promised (Mark 16:15-16) and just as the Jews did on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38-40). As further evidence, notice Peter's summary of these events on two other occasions…

"And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, 'Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, 'John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life" (Acts 11:13-18, emphasis mine, jlp).

"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. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on 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 in the same manner as they." (Acts 15:7-11, emphasis mine, jlp).

When those who profess to be proclaiming the gospel will go to incredible lengths to avoid sounding like they endorse some type of "works based salvation," caveating any such act of obedience with statements warning against and condemning "legalism," it is highly likely that they are operating from paradigm different than the paradigm from which the apostle Peter operated. Cornelius was a good man who did good things (Acts 10:1-3), yet those good works could not save him. He still needed to believe in Jesus Christ and be baptized for the remission of his sins before he and his household would be saved (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38-39). Peter knew there were righteous works that had to be accomplished that day, thus "commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord." Will anyone dare say that Peter did not preach and practice the gospel that day? Will anyone label Peter a "legalist" for his practical application of God's grace?