Two primary reasons
Sometimes I hit a nerve in my monthly columns for the Sunday News of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I hit more than a few when I wrote about an encounter with an Amish man who had been shunned by the Amish Church for belief in assurance of salvation.
According to the Amish Church he had committed heresy because he affirmed personal assurance of his standing with God. Yet he was quick to tell me that he still opposed the doctrine of eternal security.
I wrote about my attempts to help him understand how personal assurance must be built on God’s promises of complete security in Christ. But what generated the most response was my portrayal of Amish faith as a works-based approach to salvation. Many were supportive of my conclusions; others were upset by the suggestion that the Amish don’t believe in salvation solely based on God’s grace.
A few responses helped me gain a clearer understanding of why the Amish oppose assurance of salvation.
Two factors hold the Amish back from speaking of a secure salvation:
1. The individual is accountable to the community.
According to the Amish, a man must not make claims that exclude the assessment and accountability of the community. One who claims certainty of his standing with God is removing himself from answering to the community —particularly to the authority of the elders. This is viewed as a prideful betrayal of the kind of humility fitting to mankind.
A seminary professor responded on this point:
“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.”
2. God is judge and we must not presume on His judgment.
God has appointed a time for His judgment and when we speak with confidence about our eternal destiny, we wrongly assume God’s role as Judge. A man who lived among the Amish informed me that,
“Their problem with evangelicals who profess eternal security comes from the belief that God has his appointed time to judge each person. Their belief is that God only saves through grace and mercy, but that it is not proper to make a judgment or proclamation of one’s salvation until that appointed Day of Judgment. In other words, God is offended when we assume his judgment.”
Q. How should we think about our salvation in view of these two issues?
1. The individual is accountable to the community
There should be little doubt that we live in “an age of individualism” and that evangelicalism is well known for emphasizing “a private 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, we have drifted from the Biblical vision for the life of the redeemed.
Consider a few examples.
Philippians 1:6 is a verse often used to claim assurance of eternal salvation. But this verse is about what God has done and will continue to do in and through the community of believers in Philippi. 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.” The “good work” refers to their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” with the apostle Paul (1:5).
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 did the original recipients hear this with the ears of Western individualism? No. 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.
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. Continuing with the community of believers or rejecting it had defining implications.
“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 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), I could not trust any human community with a final verdict about individual salvation.
This is not to say that the community must never make judgments about the spiritual condition 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 judgments. When warning about false prophets, Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20).
Sometimes we must be “fruit inspectors.” The NT provides us with lists of evidences of genuine salvation as well as indicators of non-kingdom lifestyles (e.g. Galatians 5:19-22; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 5:3-8; I John). Like the apostle Paul, we sometimes feel the need to say, “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 say, “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).
2. God is judge and we must not presume on His judgment
Agreed. If God has not spoken, we must not presume on His word or will. But if God has spoken, we must submit to His verdicts. It is the opposite of humility to act as if God has not spoken when He has. It is an act of refusal to submit to God’s judgment.
For example, when God’s word says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), we dare not attribute condemnation to those in Christ.
There are five firm verdicts of judgment God has made with reference to salvation. To reject any one of these is to oppose God’s judgment.
Five verdicts God has made: (Place yourself under each one)
- I stand condemned before God as one guilty of sin and deserving of God’s judgment (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
- Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Titus 3:5).
- I cannot by any effort of my own improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Ephesians 2:8-9).
- What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ bore the just judgment my sin deserved (Romans 5:8; 8:3-4; II Corinthians 5:17,18,21; Galatians 3:13).
- There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39).
Conclusion: The only grounds for acceptance with God is Jesus Christ.
The Amish wrongly think that salvation is within their grasp. Even if they claim to believe that they cannot earn God’s favor with works, they believe that they can use their free will to choose God by faith. This implies that the will of man is not corrupted by evil.
According to Scripture, the human will is bound to sin. “… 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). According to the Bible, 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).
- The Amish community is distinguished by externals such as conservative dress. What qualities should distinguish believers as a community?
- How can we become communities of accountability without legalism? How do we foster the distinction between watching one another and watching out for each other?