Jesus’ Olivet Discourse—so named because He delivered it on the Mt. of Olives while overlooking Jerusalem and the temple—included three parables that are often misinterpreted. They are the Parables of the Unfaithful Servant, Ten Virgins, and Talents. They are followed by Jesus’ foretelling of the judgment of the sheep and the goats which, although not a parable, is often misinterpreted just like the three parables that precede it.
Let’s start by taking a look at the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).
The big question facing everyone who reads it is the identity of the five foolish virgins. In the end, they are denied entrance to the wedding feast, and the Lord tells them, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you” (Matt. 25:12).
So, do they represent people who were never saved, or do they represent those who were once saved, but who forfeited their salvation? That is a hotly-debated question in Christian circles. Let’s consider the evidence.
One of the things I’ve been blessed to observe among the Amish-background new believers in Johnsonburg, PA, is their toleration for diversity of personal convictions regarding issues on which the Bible is silent—a phenomenon that is generally foreign in Amish culture. I’ve noticed, for example, some of the women continue to wear some form of daily head covering, while others don’t. And they all still love each other and get along! No one is condemning anyone else for their personal convictions because everyone loves the Lord and is trying to please Him. Of course, that is exactly what the New Testament teaches believers to do regarding issues on which Scripture is silent (see Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8).
As I was writing that last sentence, I knew some readers would be thinking, “But Scripture is not silent on the subject of women’s head coverings.” That, of course, is true. Paul did mention something about women’s head coverings, once, in 1 Corinthians 11:1-17.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the British woman whose neighbor commented on her garden, “My, what a lovely flower garden God has given you!” She replied, “I don’t mean to sound boastful, but you should have seen this flower garden when God had it all by Himself!”
That funny little story is actually an illustration of a big theological issue that challenges us all. We all know that God is working to accomplish His will, but we also know that human beings have a part to play in many outcomes both temporal and eternal. In the case of the British gardener, she knew that only God can turn a seed into a beautiful flowering plant. That being said, she also realized that, unless she strategically planted flower seeds, kept them watered, and periodically pulled weeds, the outcome would be an ugly mess. She knew what God was responsible for and what she was responsible for. In the end, both could rightfully take some credit for the outcome—although God’s contribution was certainly much more impressive than hers!
Christians often struggle trying to find the dividing line between divine and human responsibility. What is our job and what is God’s job? None of us wants to make a wrong assumption, but still, opinions vary. Although we are all reading from the same Bible, many theological debates revolve around this issue, and two words often surface within those debates. They are grace and works—two words that stand in contrast.
How do they differ?
Is there any more beautiful word in the English language than “grace”? If there is, I don’t know it. How lovely it is to think about being undeservedly blessed.
I love gracious people. They won’t let me get away with murder, but they do extend kindness when I sometimes don’t deserve it. They often overlook what fault-finders feast on. They look for the good in me and motivate me by encouragement.
The biblical word (Greek: charis), found more than 100 times in the New Testament, is usually defined as “unmerited favor.” Grace certainly stands in contrast with merit, which is why Paul could write, “But if it [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6).
No one who reads the New Testament can miss the fact that salvation is due to God’s grace. We are saved “by grace…through faith…not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Is it any wonder that Paul referred to his message as “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and “the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32)?
After His resurrection, Jesus told His apostles that “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47, emphasis added). Clearly, according to Jesus, forgiveness of sin from God is predicated upon repentance. That does make sense, as it would seem odd to think of God forgiving people who have no intention of turning from the behavior of which He is forgiving them. It would also seem odd for anyone to expect forgiveness from God—or from anyone for that matter—if they intended to continue the behavior for which they are asking forgiveness. If they did, they really wouldn’t be asking for forgiveness, but rather for a license to continue their offensive behavior.
Jesus’ post-resurrection words to the apostles about God’s forgiveness being predicated on human repentance were no surprise to them, because at least some of them had heard John the Baptist preach, as Scripture declares, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3, emphasis added). Specifically, John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).
Beyond that, all of the apostles heard Jesus proclaim the identical message, that is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). In order to be ready for the coming kingdom—over which a King would obviously reign—people who were not currently submitted to that king needed to change what they were doing and submit to that king.
No doubt you’ve heard of Mennonites. Perhaps also of the Amish. Maybe even the Brethren and Hutterites. All fall under the heading of “Anabaptists,” who trace their roots to 16th century Germany and Switzerland. Their predecessors were part of what is known as the Radical Reformation, a response to perceived corruption in both Roman Catholicism and the expanding Magisterial (state-wedded) Protestant movement led by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others.
The early Anabaptists, like the early Christians, were pejoratively named by their persecutors, but in their case because of their distinct doctrine of re-baptizing adults who had already been baptized as babies. The word anabaptist means “one who baptizes again.” Anabaptists noticed that infant baptism, practiced by both Roman Catholics and the Protestants of their day, wasn’t found in the New Testament, and that the apostles seemed to baptize only those who were old enough to understand the gospel, repent of their sins and follow Christ.
As far as we know, Jesus only once used the expression, “wolves in sheep’s clothing”—near the close of His Sermon on the Mount. To best understand what He meant by that expression, it would seem wise to consider it within its context.
In the same sentence (Matt. 7:15), Jesus revealed that wolves in sheep’s clothing are “false prophets.” Fundamentally, false prophets are those who claim to be speaking on behalf of God, but who actually are not. That being so, the primary way to determine if someone is a false prophet is to listen to what he says and ask the simple question, “Does what he says agree with what I’m certain God has already said?” And since we are certain the Sermon on the Mount was spoken by God in the flesh, we would be wise to ask of any teaching that we hear, “Does it agree with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount?”
Before I moved to Smicksburg, Pennsylvania, I always assumed that Amish communities across the nation were all the same. Like most “English” Americans, I thought that the people who drove horse-drawn buggies all followed a uniform way of life. Once I relocated, however, into the heart of Pennsylvania’s third-largest Amish community, and in proximity to several other Amish communities, I began to realize there were differences that make just about every Amish community unique in some way. I learned that there was something called the “Ordnung,” that governed every aspect of Amish life, and that every community’s Ordnung is different. So there are actually hundreds of different Ordnungs among the Amish. Some are more conservative and some are more liberal.
As an example, I learned that it is OK for Smicksburg Amish, among whom I live, to ride in cars and even pay English drivers to drive them, but they are not permitted to own or drive cars. The Johnsonburg Amish, however, just 30 minutes away, are permitted to own vehicles, but they are not allowed to drive them. So they also hire English drivers.
I’ve asked Amish folks what the moral difference is between sitting on the right side and left side of the front seat of a car, but so far, no one has been able to give me an answer. I’ve also wondered how paying someone to do what would be a sin for me to do is any different than committing that sin myself. If I paid someone to murder my enemy and then said, “I would never commit murder,” everyone would know I was only fooling myself.
News travels very fast among Amish folks! So you’ve probably already heard about the Johnsonburg Awakening in Pennsylvania. I’ve been blessed to have witnessed it from the day it began, which was January 31st of this year. That was the day I met Jonas ——–, an Amish minister who had been born again a few weeks earlier, and Levi ——–, an Amish bishop who had been born again a few years earlier.
Both of those Amish men, of course, had been baptized when they were teenagers, and according to Amish belief, that is when they were supposed to have been born again. But by the time I met them, they both had come to realize that they had not actually been born again when they were baptized as teenagers. When they were baptized then, they said and did what they were expected to say and do, but they did not possess a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t until years later that they truly believed in Jesus—as evidenced by their genuine repentance and subsequent heart-obedience to His commandments. That is when they were truly born again. When someone truly believes in Jesus, Jesus becomes their Lord, because that is who He is. Jesus is Lord! In fact, the Bible calls Him the King of kings and Lord of lords! One day, He will rule the entire world. If Jesus is not your Lord, you don’t actually believe in Him. You may think you do, but you don’t. As the apostle James wrote, faith without works is dead, useless, and cannot save anyone (see James 2:14-26). And as the apostle Paul wrote, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9).
When Jesus becomes someone’s Lord, that is when they actually believe in Him, and that is when they are born again. That is the spiritual “regeneration” and “new birth” that are both mentioned in the 1632 Dordrecht Confession, an experience that was the centerpiece of all the original Anabaptists’ faith. Your Anabaptist ancestors hundreds of years ago were all born again, just like Levi and Jonas. If they could speak to you from heaven, they would tell you that what I’m writing to you is the truth.
If you are a regular reader of my monthly e-teachings, you know that I’ve been working for more than a year on writing consecutive chapters of a book that is tentatively titled, Sex is for Christians. I’ve been publishing those chapters each month as e-teachings. This month, however, I’ve taken a pause in that almost-finished writing project to pen the article below. The reason is because I’ve found myself in the middle of what seems to be a once-in-a-three-hundred-year opportunity to serve some steeped-in-tradition local Amish people who are being born again. My family and I have been helping them launch home Bible studies, something that is not only not done in Amish culture, but something that is actively discouraged and sometimes forbidden. Amish leaders have discovered that Amish people who start reading the Bible often leave the Amish. The reason they do, of course, is because they discover that salvation is not something that is earned by keeping hundreds of man-made rules, but by faith in Jesus Christ.
Although I’ve written the article below to help unsaved Amish people, many of the points could be helpful for Christians who know that, as James wrote, faith without works is dead and cannot save. Those folks sometimes struggle with wondering if they have sufficient works to validate their faith. Similarly, some folks who know that holiness is part of the salvation equation have questions about the assurance of their salvation. Others wonder about the legitimacy of the idea of sinless perfection. If you are in any of those categories, keep reading!
Although I’m writing to everyone who is hoping to be good enough to get into heaven, I’m thinking of two people in particular. They are an Amish couple in their 50s who have been taught all of their lives that you can’t know until you die if you will make it into heaven. The reason is because they’ve been told that heaven hinges on their holiness, and no one will know until they die if they were holy enough. Until then, they can only hope for the best.
Beyond that, the standard for holiness in Amish communities is not just the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. There are hundreds of other unwritten rules contained in what they refer to as the ordnung, or “order,” that legislate every detail of Amish life and culture. Every Amish adult is expected to affirm their agreement to their local ordnung twice annually. Unrepentant infractions are grounds for excommunication. As you might have guessed, because good Amish people can only hope they will be considered worthy for heaven, excommunicated Amish people have no hope at all. Rather, they are told that they will burn in hell. That fear is a big part of what has perpetuated Amish culture for hundreds of years.
In Amish thinking, anyone who says he is certain of attaining heaven is prideful. Only proud people, they say, would ever think they are good enough for heaven.