What can we learn from them?
According to the Amish an individual must not make final claims about his standing with God for to do so is to foreclose on assessment and accountability from the community.
One who claims personal certainty of his standing with God is removing himself from answering to the community — particularly to the authority of the elders. This is viewed among the Amish as a prideful betrayal of the kind of humility fitting to mankind. It could also result in excommunication.
A seminary professor who has studied Amish beliefs and practices responded to my column about the Amish view of salvation with the following concerns:
“I realize that in an age of individualism, and an evangelicalism that stresses a private experience of salvation, Amish faith of communal solidarity in discipleship makes no sense, and the judgments you make about “works salvation” seem totally right to you.” The professor encouraged me to take “time to understand how an Anabaptist theology such as the Amish profess expresses a radically different way of claiming the grace of God as a community of the Spirit.”
“One of the virtues Amish prize,” the professor wrote, “is humility–humility as a practice not as a nice attitude–and one aspect of that humility is to make no arrogant claims about their confidence of special status with God. An Amish bishop was visited by a new minister in the neighborhood who was quite fundamental and inquired repeatedly whether the bishop was saved. Finally he asked, ‘Are you truly born again? Do you know for certain that you are saved?’ The bishop answered, ‘You are asking the wrong person. I will give you the names of people who know me well, of persons with whom I have differed, of my sharpest critics and you can go ask them whether I am saved.’ That is Amish humility.”
What do we say about these concerns?
There should be little doubt that we live in an age of individualism and that evangelicalism is well known for emphasizing a personal experience of salvation. I also recognize that the evangelical Church is far too weak when it comes to the New Testament vision of a “faith of communal solidarity in discipleship” and “claiming the grace of God as a community of the Spirit.” On these matters, many professing Christians have drifted from the Biblical vision for the common life of the redeemed.
Consider a few examples
Philippians 1:6 is a verse often used to claim assurance of eternal salvation. The apostle wrote: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you (plural) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” This verse is about what God had done and would continue to do in and through the community of believers in Philippi. The “good work” refers to their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” with the apostle Paul (1:5). The pronouns are plural referring to a community experience.
Philippians 2:12-13 offers another example. Here is a call to the Church to “continue to work out your (plural) salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you (plural) to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
Certainly this is a call to cultivate stronger discipleship to Jesus. But it is not likely that the original recipients heard this with the ears of Western individualism. They would have heard it as a work that happens in the context of community. This doesn’t foreclose on personal applications, but it does encourage us to see the New Testament emphasis on community experience as a shared life.
This emphasis can be found in many places. One thinks of the body life imagery.
“… in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”(Romans 12:5) “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 26-27)
Another very strong focus on community is found in the writings of the apostle John. He taught that there are serious implications about true discipleship if one continues in fellowship with the community of believers or rejects the fellowship.
“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (I John 2:19).
Community life for believers was also meant to involve mutual accountability, encouragement and leadership.
“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.” “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 3:12-14; 13:17).
While community emphasis is badly needed in evangelicalism (particularly in the West), we cannot entrust to a human community a final verdict about individual salvation. This is not to say that the community must never make judgments about the spiritual conditions of others. The command “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (II Corinthians 6:14) and the contrasts that follow, imply a need to make these kinds of judgments. When warning about false prophets, Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20).
Sometimes we must be “fruit inspectors.” We find many evidences of genuine salvation as well as indicators of non-kingdom lifestyles provided in Scripture (e.g. Galatians 5:19-22; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 5:3-8; I John). We sometimes feel the need to echo the apostle Paul in saying, “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.” (II Corinthians 13:5).
There clearly is not enough emphasis on this in the evangelical Church! But ultimately we must confess that, “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (II Timothy 2:19). Further, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (II Timothy 2:13).
According to Scripture, the human will is bound to sin. Our condition is so bad that, “… every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9; cf. Romans 3:10-23). The human will is so corrupt that we need the Holy Spirit to remove our blindness to see what Christ has done for us and to believe in Him (see: II Corinthians 4:3-6). Jesus said, “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (John 6:65). We are enabled by the Holy Spirit to see our need for Christ (II Corinthians 1:21-22; 3:14-18).
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).