Surprising Biblical Truths About Grace and Works

by David Servant

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!”

Surprising Biblical Truths About Grace and Works

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?

The Hyper-Grace Twisting of Paul’s Teaching About Salvation

by David Servant

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.

The hyper-grace twisting of Paul's teaching about salvation

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)?

The Radical Redefinition of Repentance

by David Servant

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.

The Radical Redefinition of Repentance by David Servant

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.

“You Have Heard…But I Say”—Jesus’ Six Counterpoints: Moral Upgrade or Moral Reclamation?

by David Servant

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.

E-Teaching Graphic

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.

The Wolves Among Us

by David Servant

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.

"The Wolves Among Us" e-teaching by David Servant

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?”

A Tale of Two Ordnungs

By David Servant

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.

A Tale of Two Ordnungs

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.

The Truth About the Johnsonburg Awakening

By David Servant

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.

The truth about the johnsonburg Amish awakening

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.

To Everyone Who is Hoping to be Good Enough to Get into Heaven

By David Servant

Dear Friends,

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!


For everyone who is hoping to be good enough to get into Heaven

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.

Senior Sex

Sex is for Christians! Biblical Insights for a Lifetime of Purity and Pleasure - Chapter 14

PLEASE NOTE: This e-teaching is not appropriate for children, preadolescents, and many adolescents.

Picture of older couple in bed - Chapter 14, "Senior Sex"

Now there came to Him some of the Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection), and they questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife, and he is childless, his brother should marry the wife and raise up children to his brother. Now there were seven brothers; and the first took a wife and died childless; and the second and the third married her; and in the same way all seven died, leaving no children. Finally the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, which one’s wife will she be? For all seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; for they cannot even die anymore, because they are like angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:27-36).

Strangely, although the Jewish sect of the Sadducees in Jesus’ day did respect the Law of Moses, they didn’t believe there was an afterlife or that anyone would be resurrected. In their thinking, death was the absolute end (which is why some say they were “sad you see”).

One of their proof texts was the Mosaic Law’s regulation concerning levirate marriage, something we’ve considered in an earlier chapter. How could there be an afterlife if one woman had been repeatedly married, widowed, and remarried? In heaven, she would be married to multiple living men! Since polyandry was unthinkable, in their minds that ruled out any possibility of an afterlife. (They would, no doubt, have been OK with Solomon having 700 wives and 300 concubines forever.)

The Sadducees, however, were clinging to a few flawed assumptions. They reasoned that if there was an afterlife, those who were married prior to their deaths would still be married. Surely, they assumed, no married woman would be another man’s wife in the afterlife. Jesus revealed, however, that there will be no marriage at all in the next life. Death ends the marriage covenant, which is why Christian marriage vows generally include the words, “till death do us part.”

For those of us who are happily married, being unmarried in heaven is a sad thought. For that reason, my wife and I have already agreed to be best friends forever. Still, we wonder how heaven could be heavenly without our marriage. We can only assume that heaven holds something even better, although unimaginable. Might perfect love make possible perfect relationships with all the saints, so that we will all, in a sense, be “married”?

Your Sexy Temple

Sex is for Christians! Biblical Insights for a Lifetime of Purity and Pleasure - Chapter 13

PLEASE NOTE: This e-teaching is not appropriate for children, preadolescents, and many adolescents.

Your Sexy Temple e-teaching graphic

“Ah, you are looking so nice and fat!”

Those words would hardly be perceived as a compliment in the United States, where many of us are overweight. Yet there are many countries where those sentiments are sometimes spoken as a sincere compliment. I’ve been to some of them. Without exception, those nations are generally poor, and being overweight is a sign of wealth, because it indicates that one can afford more food than most people. In many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, when someone tells you that you are fat, he is being kind.

No country better exemplifies that cultural phenomenon than Mauritania, in northwest Africa. Mauritania is mostly desert, and food is often in short supply. In rural Mauritania, people only survive if they live near an oasis. You can understand why being overweight is desirable—and even prestigious. So much so that Mauritanian men prefer heavy women. A heavy wife is the sign of a rich man. Skinniness is associated with poverty.