The Most Dangerous Wolves

Growing up in ATI, I was taught to be very careful about “wolves”. Not that the word “wolves” came up that often, but the teaching was still there: Beware of anyone who doesn’t have our standards. Beware of the world. Don’t let your children get deceived and defiled. Hunker in the bunker.

Who should we be concerned about? What kind of wolves are most dangerous? Who is most likely to destroy us spiritually?

Jesus told us what kind of wolves to look out for:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.
(Matthew 7:15)

When a wolf shows up with no disguise, the sheep immediatelyWolf in sheep's clothing recognize it as a wolf and run. He can’t trick them into thinking that he’s there peaceably, or that he’s a friend.

But when the wolf is disguised and looks like a sheep, he can sneak into the midst of the flock, become a trusted friend, and slyly attack when it works best.

Unfortunately, today, many people tell us not to identify wolves. People who call out someone as a wolf are told not to judge the other person—they are born again, washed in the blood of Jesus, and a brother in Christ. We must overlook the signs that they are not true believers.

Granted, it’s not a good idea to call everybody who disagrees with you a wolf. In fact, I would be suspicious of someone who did so. But when you see someone who claims to be Christian (follower of Jesus) but doesn’t walk like a Christian, it’s time to beware.

When Jesus sent His apostles out to preach, He warned them:

Behold, I send you out as sheep among wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
(Matthew 10:16)

As sheep, we are not big, fearsome animals like bears or lions. In and of ourselves, we do not have the ability to overcome a wolf. Therefore, we must be wise, realize that there will be wolves among us, and look out for them.

It’s significant to look at who these wolves were:

Jesus sent these twelve out, and commanded them, saying, “Don’t go among the Gentiles, and don’t enter into any city of the Samaritans. Rather, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
(Matthew 10:5-6)

These wolves that Jesus was warning his apostles about were not Gentiles. They were Jews! They were people like the Pharisees who claimed to be following God but were, in reality, children of the devil.

God warns us that Satan’s workers may appear to be righteous, and teachers of righteousness:

For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
(2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

The danger of being attacked by a wolf is serious. You could be killed spiritually. Your very eternal destiny could be changed.

However, do not think that somehow, a wolf will overcome you and kill you, and there will be nothing you or God can do about it. Jesus has promised us that no one can pluck us out of His Father’s hand (John 10:28-29). Jesus is the Good Shepherd Who gives His life for the sheep.

All I’m trying to say is that the Good Shepherd has warned us to beware of hidden wolves, and the consequences of being overcome by a wolf are severe. And it is something that we must take personal responsibility to look out for. Otherwise, if Jesus automatically kept all wolves from attacking us, there would be no need for Him to have warned us.

To ignore the signs of a wolf is a perilous choice.

But what are the signs of a wolf? That’s what we’ll look at in the next post.

Jesus Loves the Strippers, Too

Recently, I came across a blog post by a lady who helped start an outreach—to strip clubs. She and four other ladies began visiting strip clubs once a month to give the dancers a meal and gift baskets. Due to other events in her life, she is no longer directly involved, but the ministry has continued.

She writes:

I was raised to believe that no good comes from places like that. Which is probably true on many levels. (I wouldn’t suggest making it your go-to for date nights)

I was filled (as were many Christian kids) with fear about “places like that”. That “those people” were heathens and doing all kinds of sinful, shameful things.

Which, again, is true of strip clubs.

And bars.

And many other places.

Even churches.

But, these girls – these lovely, girls – were so…..normal

…people – that could have been me.

It could have been any of us.

Had my journey taken a few different turns, I very well could have been on the receiving end of that encounter…

“[One of the strippers] said that she was so glad we come to visit them because we’re not like the other churches”

I said, “what did she mean by that?”

She said, “Apparently other churches send them hate mail. ALL THE TIME”

(Read the rest of the post here.)

Cheetah's Strip Club, San Diego, CA
Cheetah’s Strip Club, San Diego, CA

Now, this isn’t about how you ought to go out and start your own ministry at a strip club. This is about seeing people the way that Jesus sees them—the precious individuals that they are.

I grew up with an elitist attitude. A person’s outside, I thought, was an excellent gauge of their inside. Good people were clean, neat, and modestly dressed. Anybody who didn’t “look right” was suspicious. And the women who had half of their boobs hanging out on display—well, they were really wicked. In fact, they were to be ignored if at all possible so that I could keep my eyes pure.

Is this really how Jesus wants us to see others? As objects instead of people?

No. Jesus spent time with those who the Pharisees (whose name essentially means “Separatists”) had cast off—to the point that the Pharisees called Him “a gluttonous man, and a drunkard; a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)

We have no record of Jesus attacking the sinners who He ate with. They already knew that they were bad people and needed help. He knew that they were actually the ones who would receive His message, not the “religious” Pharisees who should have recognized God when He stood in front of them:

… Jesus said to them, “Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into God’s Kingdom before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him.”(Matthew 21:31-32)

As he sat in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

The sad part was that the Pharisees were just as “sick” as the “sinners and tax collectors”. But they did such a good job of hiding their disease that nobody besides Jesus knew it. And so they refused to come to the Great Physician and be healed. Many of them are in Hell today because of their stubbornness.

God warns us strongly about treating some people differently than others:

My brothers, don’t hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality. For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, “Sit here in a good place;” and you tell the poor man, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my footstool;” haven’t you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)

In other words, everybody is precious in the sight of God. And that is why Jesus spent time with the sinners: because they needed Him just as much as everybody else.

Is this man any less precious to God than you are?

How can we ever reach the world if we refuse to associate and befriend those who aren’t “our type”? That woman with her boobs half-way out of her shirt needs Jesus just as much as the lady who has everything neatly under wraps. That guy with the long hair, tattoos, and tongue piercing has an eternal soul just as much as the guy in the business suit.

It’s time that we change our perspectives—and our hearts.

Recently, I came across the Facebook profile of a young lady (let’s call her Cindy). Her cover photo showed her in a skimpy bikini. Her profile picture showed plenty of cleavage. Most of her photos on her public profile showed her in tight, very revealing outfits. I was disgusted. Remember, as I said back at the beginning, “…the women who had half of their boobs hanging out on display—well, they were really wicked.”

As I thought about it afterwards, though, God began showing me His perspective on the matter. The truth is, God sees every woman for who they really are. He looks past their clothing and sees what they are really like inside.

Some people (as I have) look at a woman like Cindy and toss her off as a slut and a wicked woman—just because of her clothing. They look at a woman who is dressed “modestly” and judge her as righteous, or at least more righteous than Cindy.

But not God. He looks at the heart and understands what is behind the outside. He knows when the “modest” women are unholy on the inside. He knows what’s inside the woman whose boobs are spilling out of her shirt, and it could possibly be holier than the “modestly” dressed woman.

The next day on Facebook, I read a post that a friend had shared. The lady who had written the original post said something to the effect of, “If you’re one of those ladies with half-naked profile pictures, I will unfriend you because I don’t want your photos showing up when you comment on my posts or when people browse my profile and see my friends list.”

On the one hand, I could understand this woman’s desire to protect the eyes of her friends from immodest women. But after what God had showed me about Cindy, I saw the other, semi-subconscious side: “If you don’t dress right, I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” At least, that was the end result of this lady’s actions.

Maybe that woman with the low neckline is actually desperate for God, desperate for someone to love her, and doesn’t know how to find what she is looking for—and the Modesty People won’t tell her about God because they can’t see anything but boobs. Or maybe—just maybe—she’s closer to God than you are.

Precious in God's sight
Precious in God’s sight

It’s time that we stop judging people by the outside and begin treating everybody the same—as people who are precious to God. You know what, guys? Instead of placing so much emphasis on guarding your eyes that you end up being rude to some women, ask God to give you a pure heart that doesn’t lust. “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.” (Titus 1:15)

Anna McCarthy, who wrote the post that I quoted at the beginning, closes with these words:

[Jesus] loved then.

He loves now.

But, he can only reach as far as you and I are willing to go.



P.S. As we turn from judging people by their looks, we need to do a better job of looking for the real threat: wolves. Next time, we’ll look at who is the most dangerous type of wolf.

It’s Time to Take YOUR Responsibility

Last week, I wrote about how I am not a victim of ATI, but a graduate, because it was part of the life training that God had for me. Since then, God has been continuing to teach me about life after ATI. I’d like to share with you what He has been teaching me.

It’s Up to You Now

So, you were raised in a less-than-ideal system. You look back at your childhood with regret and wish that your parents had done things differently. You realize, as I did, that God will use it all for good in your life, but you wonder how to proceed. What’s life supposed to look like?

Not only that, but maybe your parents don’t seem interested in helping you recover. Maybe they won’t even admit that they raised you in a corrupt system. Maybe they’re still singing the praises of Bill Gothard or someone else like him who had a negative influence on you.

And you wish that they would understand what’s really going on in your head. You wish they would understand how deeply you were affected. And yet, you begin to feel that they never really will understand.


The ball is now in your court. Assuming that you are now an adult, out of high school, maybe on your own—you are responsible for cleaning up the mess. You are responsible to find out what God wants you to do, and do it.

If you cannot change unless somebody else corrects their ways, you are doomed. You’ll never reach what God wants you to do. You’ll always have issues that you are unable to correct.

Make no mistake: your background will shape you and influence you. It will give you subconscious thought patterns that you struggle to overcome. Don’t underestimate the impacts.

Sign: "The Buck Stops Here"
This sign sat on President Harry Truman’s desk in the White House.
Courtesy of the Truman Library

But: don’t look to other people to take the responsibility to correct those problems. As an adult, you need to square your shoulders and say, “The buck stops here.”

Don’t Fall for the Fatal Flaw

To me, at least, growing up, the message was clear: raise your children properly, and they will turn out right. If the children don’t turn out right, the parents did something wrong.

I still believe that there is a lot of truth to that statement. After all, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” At the same time, I realize that there can be other influences along the way, or the parents may think that they are doing the right thing when they aren’t.

But here’s where the fatal flaw comes in: when the children believe that their behavior is their parents’ responsibility. In other words, believing that, if you turned out wrong, then your parents did the wrong thing; therefore, the solution is for your parents to undo their mistakes and do the right thing so that you can turn out correctly.

If you’re ten years old, you probably have a point. After all, you’re still too young to make wise decisions on your own. But if you’re an adult, sorry. Your future behavior is your responsibility. Yes, you may struggle to overcome challenges. Yes, it might help if your parents would work through things with you. But ultimately, you, as a mature adult, must take ownership of your life and set the course you will take, not wait for your parents to do it for you.

After all, if you have to wait for your parents to correct their ways, you may be waiting for a looooooong time.

You’re Not Alone

Remember, God is waiting to help you. His grace is sufficient to correct every problem that His training system (your background) instilled in you. This isn’t about going it alone.

But unless you realize your need of His grace and take the responsibility to seek His help and guidance, don’t expect to receive it. That’s part of taking responsibility: recognizing that you need help, and asking for it.

When you do go to God, though, He can do what nobody else can do: He can work both internally and externally to transform you by the renewing of your mind, so that you can know what His will is for you.

In past articles on grace, I said that grace is God’s power working within you. In reality, it also works outside of you, creating circumstances to teach you and help you. God’s grace also works in the lives of those around you, changing problems and character issues.

So go to your loving Father and talk to Him about your needs.

A Word to the Parents

Now, maybe you’re not the child, but the parent. Maybe you are responsible for having trained your children in a faulty system. Are you willing to take your own responsibility?

I know, Bill Gothard/Jonathan Lindvall/Michael Pearl/Denny Kenaston/the Ezzos/Doug Phillips/(fill in the blank) told you, or at least implied, that their system would produce Godly children who were next to perfect. It’s difficult to accept that these formulas, which were supposed to have such great results, were flawed and unable to produce the results you were promised. In the face of failure, it’s easy to ignore, minimize, or deny your failure, your children’s problems, or the evidence against people like Bill Gothard.

But ignoring problems will never make them go away. Denying your part in the situation will only drive a deeper wedge between you and your children. They already know that you made mistakes. Refusing to admit your mistakes will only make you look like a dunce in your children’s eyes.

For your adult children, as I have been saying, it’s their responsibility to make necessary changes in their lives. At the same time, when we make mistakes, we should try to do what we can to correct them. And when we know that we have believed error, it’s very important to find out what is truth and help pass it along to those whom we have misled.

You need to take responsibility and acknowledge that you, not the church, school, Bill Gothard–whoever–were ultimately responsible for misleading your children. I assume that no one kidnapped your children and held them hostage so they could indoctrinate them. Therefore, you were the one who enrolled them, took them to conferences, seminars, meetings, school, whatever, and reinforced what they learned. Along the way, they may have learned things that you never would have taught them. No matter. As the parent, the buck stopped with you. You are responsible.

If you can come alongside and offer support, advice, a listening ear, and a heartfelt apology for what you did wrong, it can do wonders. Your children, regardless of what they say, probably care about what you think of them and what they believe. If they know that you, too, recognize the error that you were taught and passed along to them, it will make it easier for them to make changes in their own lives.

As your children sort through what they believe and try to figure out what is true, they may bring up ideas that you find troubling. Their ideas may be totally wrong and inconsistent with the Word of God. Be patient. A knee-jerk reaction will not help. Playing know-it-all and trust-me-I’m-always-right only makes you look foolish when your children know that you have not always been right and you don’t know it all. Make sure that you truly understand what they’re saying and aren’t reacting to an idea that your children would never believe. If you have understood correctly and you know that they are wrong, share with them why they are wrong. Your extra years of experience can be a helpful anchor and balancing viewpoint.


I want to admit that this article points straight back at me as much as it points at you. Quite frankly, I’m writing from my own personal experiences. I struggle to take full responsibility and work on what needs to be worked on.

But God is faithful, and I hope what He has shared with me will help you as it has helped me.

I Am Not a Victim of ATI

I was once a student in Bill Gothard’s ATI (Advanced Training Institute) homeschool program. More specifically, I was raised in ATI from first grade until I finished school at age 16.

At the time, I thought ATI was great. The Wisdom Booklets (our curriculum) were interesting; I learned to know other ATI students who were good friends; the conferences and seminars were fun and interesting. Not only that, but we were part of an elite group of homeschoolers who were superior to all non-ATIers. We were receiving a superior education, and we were going to change the world.

But by 2005, our family had been seeing, for the past five or so years, that things were not turning out the way we wanted. Young people were rebelling. Dress standards were dropping. ATI wasn’t quite what it had been when we joined in 1994. Meanwhile, Gothard was cranking out program after program, with ever-glowing promises of what we would learn, and newsletter after newsletter about how God was doing marvelous things through ATI and its parent organization, Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).

Bill Gothard (Photo courtesy IBLP)
Bill Gothard (Photo courtesy IBLP)

It was early 2005 when I finally went to my first Basic Seminar. Previously, all the Basic Seminars in our area had been too far away, but now one was held close enough for our whole family to attend. I diligently filled out the blank spaces in my workbook, trying to remember everything that Gothard was saying. (I was a little annoyed when I got my textbook toward the end of the week, and discovered that it contained everything that I had been busy writing down.)

Beside me, my dad, who had attended several Basic Seminars in the past, was growing suspicious about Gothard’s use of Scripture. Toward the end of the week, he brought his laptop and started looking up the Scriptures that Bill was referencing onscreen but not quoting. They turned out not to be as supportive as Gothard had wanted us to believe. He began having some questions about things that Gothard was teaching.

We left ATI that year. Slowly, we lost some respect for ATI and Gothard, but their teachings still permeated our beliefs and practice–especially me. ATI was all I had ever really known. I had grown up with its curriculum, and the teachings and mindset were all around us in the homeschool community: Courtship. Do things as a family. Youth-only interaction is dangerous. Guys don’t talk to girls. Girls stay at home until they marry. There were some ideas I didn’t even question. Why should I question them? I had no reason to think differently.

And then, in late 2013 and early 2014, the story broke. Bill Gothard wasn’t a Godly man; he was a liar, fraud, deceiver, and sexual predator. People weren’t getting the results he had glowingly promised. He had lied to us about how well the programs were working. He had been doing disgusting things that we would never have dreamed he would do.

The Emperor had no clothes.

That shook me to the core, because Gothard’s teachings were part of my core beliefs. As I examined the evidence, I found that there were many things I believed that were not true. So what WAS true? I wasn’t sure.

One thing stood as a solid rock through this turbulent time: God was true and faithful. I had seen Him work many times, and I realized that He was confirming what He had been teaching us previously through failures in the Mennonite church: rules and doctrines of men don’t produce righteous people. On the contrary, they drive people away from God. (You can read more of my story at Six Years Later.)

But as I saw all the negative ways that ATI had affected me, I felt like a victim. I became afraid that some other false teaching or wrong idea would hurt me and turn me away from God and cause consequences in my life. In addition, the wrong ideas and mindset had led me to make many mistakes in how I handled life. I thought I was permanently scarred. I would never have the life that I could have had if I had only been taught correctly from the beginning.

Secretly, I think I was a little upset with God. I knew better than to blame Him for the way He had led our family, because I knew that His ways are always best. So I blamed my parents instead. I was nothing but a product of a bad system, and now I needed them to make a good system to change me into what I needed to be.

And then, one day, God changed my perspective. “You’re not a victim,” He said. “You are a graduate. I put you in ATI to learn the things that you needed to learn there, and when you were finished, I took you out. I did not let anything happen that is going to harm you long-term.”

He showed me that my singleness was not a punishment for bad behavior, but that I had needed to remain single, living at home, so I could learn the lessons that He had me to learn. The things that had happened to me, the wrong ideas and mindsets, the relationships I hadn’t had and the places I hadn’t gone–they were all part of my training about the terrible consequences of following men instead of God.

You see, so many times, when people want to live for God and not like the world, they run straight for conservatism and commandments of men. ATI was a prime example. There were many first-generation Christian parents who wanted something better for their children than the sinful lifestyles they had experienced without Christ. Along came Bill Gothard, saying “Follow me, and your family is guaranteed to turn out as wonderful, Godly people!”

But it doesn’t work. Oh, sure, it “works” for some–at least for a while. But for those who you don’t hear about in the glowing reports, it causes all sorts of problems and sin.

My dad was in his fifties when he learned about these problems. I, on the other hand, got an early, forceful education about not following men and adding to God’s Word. I now have the opportunity to help people throughout the rest of my life with the things that I have learned.

God has promised: “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) I have a choice: I call myself a victim, God a liar, and refuse to believe that God has a purpose in my training; or I can accept God’s words, trust in His purpose, and seek to use what He has taught me.

By saying that I am not a victim, I do not mean in any way to downplay or minimize the true victims of ATI–those whose abusive parents used the teachings of Gothard to abuse their children physically, emotionally, spiritually and/or sexually. I am so sorry that those people–including some of the ATI students I knew–had to go through what they did.

But for the rest of us–those whose parents were just trying to do what was best for us and give us a superior education–say it with me:

“I am not an ATI victim. I am an ATI Graduate!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Warning: Your Misunderstanding of Grace is Killing You

Last week I wrote one of my longest posts ever, on the subject of grace. I also believe it is one of the most important posts I have ever made, because the Christian life revolves around God’s grace. Without His grace, Christianity is just another idealistic religion.

But maybe you don’t have time to read a 3,000+ word article. Maybe you missed an important point among all those words. So I want to emphasize something that I only briefly touched on in the middle of the article.

As we saw in “What is Grace?”, grace is much more than just “God’s unmerited favor”. Instead, it is the power of God working within us. But make no mistake: grace is not “the desire and power to do God’s will”, as Bill Gothard defined it. He was 90% correct. But the fatal error is the belief that God empowers me to do His will. On the contrary, grace is God working in me. In Bill’s definition, I do the work and get the credit. In God’s definition, He does the work and gets the credit. As Paul said:

But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

As God says, “…not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:9)

Since grace is the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, we can understand Romans 8:13: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Ignore this verse, and you will end up spiritually dead. Why? Because we are saved by God’s grace, and without His grace, we cannot and will not fulfill His will.

There are two ways that a misunderstanding of grace can kill you.

Misunderstanding #1: It doesn’t matter what I do

The first way is when you think that grace is “God’s unmerited favor” that saves you regardless of what you do. You “say the words” and go on your merry way, doing whatever you want. This is “living after the flesh”, as Romans 8:13 says. You are doing what your flesh wants to do, instead of what the Spirit of God wants you to do.

Jesus did not die on the cross merely to forgive your sins. He didn’t need to do that. In the Old Testament, God forgave people’s sins without Jesus’ death:

“Thou [God] hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.”(Psalms 85:2)

“For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.” (Psalms 86:5)

Jesus came and shed His blood, died, and rose again, not just to forgive you, but to kill you—your sinful self with its sinful desires—and then raise you to life again as a new creature, purified from sin (singular, not plural). He wants you to be righteous and holy, just as He is, but He knew that the only way to truly conquer sin was for Him to put it to death—so He died for us.

Jesus didn’t come to hide your sin with a robe of righteousness. He came to take away your sin and replace it with righteousness—on the inside.

This is why you are saved by grace—because you are incapable of changing yourself on the inside and killing your sin. God’s grace is so much better than just allowing you to do what you want. He gives you the power to live a righteous life!

Misunderstanding #2: It really matters what I do, so I need to work really hard!

The flip side will also kill you. This is when you believe that God’s grace gets you Skull on Stonessaved, and then it’s up to you, with the help of God and your church/friends/parents/accountability group, to live a life of obedience to Christ. You implement various formulas and five-step plans to help you do what’s right. If you stumble and fall into sin, you pick yourself up and resolve to do better next time. Just like the person who doesn’t care what they do, you are walking in the flesh.

If we could implement Jesus’ commands on our own strength, He didn’t need to die. If the Bible is just a self-help book that gives us high ideals for how to live, God could have given these new ideals to His prophets—or just put them in the Law of Moses to begin with!

We all realize (I hope) that we need to be born again in order to obey Jesus. We need to also understand that it is only by the grace of God that we can live for Him on a daily basis. He is the One who enables us to live for Him, and manmade plans, formulas, and steps of action will not give us God’s grace. Instead, they give us pride—which causes God to withhold His grace. Oops!

When you realize that you are not living as God wants you to live, you need to humble yourself before God, repent, and ask Him to give you the grace to obey Him and be the person He wants you to be. Remember, grace only comes to the humble. “…God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6).

Sin in your life is a sign of a lack of God’s grace. Don’t become defensive and try to excuse or ignore the sin. Repent, and ask God for the grace to stop! It’s so much better to get rid of the sin instead of hiding it.

“Grace” photo © Can Stock Photo

What is Grace?

3 CrossesGrace is one of the most fundamental, yet most misunderstood doctrines of Christianity. God tells us, “By grace you are saved…” (Ephesians 2:8a). In other words, grace is part of the very foundation of our salvation. Therefore, it’s important that we understand what grace truly is and how it works in our lives.

For years, I struggled to live the Christian life and be the man that God wanted me to be. Over and over, I resolved to do better—resolutions that didn’t last. I saw a little improvement, but I was still wallowing in failure. Try as I might, I could not shake off my old habits and walk in wisdom. What was I to do?

It all ground to a halt when my dad asked me a simple question: “Do you realize that you cannot change yourself on your own?”

That day, God began teaching me about grace. It was a major turning point in my life. He taught me—well, let’s just start digging into it.

Four misconceptions about grace

The first misconception is the definition of grace. Grace has been popularly defined as “God’s unmerited favor”. This is a poor, Old Testament-based definition.

The second misconception is actually about salvation. Salvation is a two-part process. Part one is when we accept Christ as our Savior and receive the seal of the Holy Spirit on our lives. We become new creatures and are saved from sin, Satan, and the Law of Moses. But we do not receive the second part—our eternal salvation—until we get to Heaven and are saved from the second death of Hell. One of the clearest passages is Romans 5:8-11:

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (9) Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. (10) For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (11) And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

For more on this, I recommend our article at Biblical Research Reports, “A New Look at Predestination and Once Saved Always Saved”.

What does this have to do with grace? It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of being “saved by grace”. We are not merely redeemed by grace, but we also need grace in order to reach Heaven. More on this in a little bit.

The third misconception is that grace is automatic. We believe that God will shower us with grace and we won’t have to do anything to receive it.

The fourth misconception is that grace is a license to sin or to “fudge the rules a bit”.

Both of these last two misconceptions result from a wrong definition of grace, so let’s look at what grace is.

An Old Testament Definition for a New Testament Doctrine

This morning, God showed me that the idea that grace is “God’s unmerited favor” is actually Old Testament-based. Throughout the Old Testament, grace is almost exclusively used in this manner: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8). Usually, in the Old Testament, “grace” is about finding favor in somebody’s sight.

Another example: “And [Esau] said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And [Jacob] said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord” (Genesis 33:8). In other words, Jacob was giving Esau a present to try to obtain favor from him.

Throughout the Old Testament, God used many external forces to motivate His people. He gave them detailed laws. He gave them a list of blessings and cursings for obeying and disobeying His Law. When they disobeyed Him, He used other nations to discipline them and help them to return to Him. They largely followed their leaders and did whatever the king said to do.

But in the prophets, God said that He was going to change His ways and do something new.

“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God prophesied that He would start working from the inside, changing the hearts of the people and placing His commands within them.

Things changed on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples. The world has never been the same. This, too, was something that God had prophesied. To quote Peter’s sermon at Pentecost:

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18).

It is important to realize that things changed between the covenants. God is not working the same way that He did in Noah’s day. Grace is no longer merely finding favor in God’s eyes.


If we define grace as “God’s unmerited favor”, it creates a problem. It makes utter nonsense of verses like these:

Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, [God’s favor] did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might [God’s favor] reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)

And he said unto me, My [favor] is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

[In the context of spiritual gifts] But unto every one of us is given [God’s favor] according to the measure of the gift of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7)

Note: would this mean that God loves and favors some people more than others?

Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the [favor] of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this [favor] given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; (Ephesians 3:7-8)

If when sin abounds, God’s favor abounds even more, then God must like sin! Nope. He spends the next chapter (Romans 6) explaining that it doesn’t work that way.

The catch is that grace can mean “favor” or “graciousness”. And in some cases, depending on how we define the idea of God’s favor, one could argue that the word “favor” works.

So what is grace?

We need to look more closely at some other verses in Scripture to understand better what “grace” is.

And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. (Acts 11:21-23)

And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. (Romans 4:4)

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith… (Romans 12:6)

But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:5-7)

These verses, and others like them, show us that:

  1. Grace is a gift from God
  2. Grace helps us to do what is right
  3. Grace enables us to reach the lost
  4. Grace works through us to accomplish God’s purposes

In short: Grace is God’s power working in us. In some ways, I believe that it is “shorthand” for the Holy Spirit and His power.

Going further

With this understanding, and the understanding of the two parts of salvation, we can now examine a few verses for some new insights.

Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon 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, even as they. (Acts 15:10-11)

This is James, the brother of Jesus, speaking here. He is already a believer. Yet, he puts salvation in the future: “we shall be saved.” And it is only through God’s grace, not by his own keeping of the Law. In other words, it is by God’s grace that we will be able to follow Christ and receive eternal salvation in Heaven.

Ephesians 2:8-9 is a very familiar passage:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Taken with the idea of grace being “God’s unmerited favor”, this passage says that we are saved by God being nice to us and saving us, and that nothing we do can ever affect that. But let’s look at the context:

But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved), And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

God tells us here that His grace—His power working in us—brings us to life. He has incredible riches of grace to give us because of His great kindness to us.

We are not saved by our own efforts—ever. Not before conversion, and not after. But, that does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want and “God’s grace” will cover it. On the contrary, God’s grace gives us the power to walk in the good works that God created us to perform. Since it is God’s grace that gives us the power to live for Him, we cannot boast in our own ability to obey God. None of us will ever be able to meet God’s standards on our own power.

In fact, everyone who tries to live the Christian life on their own power will die spiritually. God tells us:

But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:11-13)

The only way to stop fulfilling the lusts of the flesh is to kill them by the Holy Spirit. That is the power and grace of God! We can never kill sin on our own. If we could, Jesus would not have had to die to put sin to death. It’s not a matter of squashing sin, denying ourselves, or trying harder. Without God’s grace, we will die!

God tells us further, in Titus 2:11-14, that His grace teaches us how to live righteous lives:

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

In other words, God’s grace will lead us to greater holiness and more obedience and righteousness.

Due to the common misconception of what grace is, I believe that we need to be careful in talking to others about grace, so that they correctly understand what we are saying. I often use the term “the power of God” instead of “the grace of God” so that others know what I am referring to.

Grace is not automatic

This probably sounds like heresy. But I can tell you, both from my own experience and the word of God, that grace will not automatically work in our lives.

Going back to Romans 5:20-21, we read, “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, where there is sin, there is also the grace of God—the power of God to forgive and cleanse—even greater than that sin, capable of completely cleansing the sinner from his sin. But obviously, if sin is abounding, God’s grace is not stopping the sin. Why?

God gives us an answer in James 4:6-7: “But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

If I am proud, resist the offer of God’s grace, and try to stop sinning and clean up my life by my own efforts, God will not give me His grace. He can’t. I’m not accepting His grace. If He gives me grace, I will take the credit and boast in my own ability to change myself.

When we humble ourselves, acknowledge that we can’t fix our problems on our own, submit to God, and humbly ask Him for grace, God can then work in our lives, by the power of His Spirit, to purify us and cleanse us from all sin. That is truly grace! And it removes my ability to boast about how I helped myself.

When I realized that I couldn’t make myself into a Godly man, and turned to God and asked Him for grace, God began a great work in my life. I am amazed at what He has done. It is not something I can take credit for. It wasn’t the result of successfully following somebody’s five-step plan, or speaking positive words to myself. No, it was God, working all things together for good, to accomplish His will in my life and purify me to be one of His special people, zealous for good works. It is not yet complete, nor will it ever be on this side of Heaven. But one thing I do know: God is doing it, not me!

Grace is not a license to sin or “fudge the rules”

Because of the false definition of grace, many people view grace as a way to relax and stop trying to measure up to God’s standards. False! But true! Indeed, we do stop trying to follow God on our own efforts. But that does not mean that we can then do what we want!

Make no mistake about it: if your version of grace says that it doesn’t really matter how you live, it doesn’t really matter how well you obey God, it doesn’t really matter whether you live a righteous life or not—it isn’t grace. God is holy, and He wants us to be holy as well. God’s grace will always lead us into greater obedience to Him and greater holiness, not less.

Of course, this is obedience and holiness as defined by God, not by us, our pastor, our church, or the book on the coffee table. God is not going to lead you to do a better job of keeping manmade traditions or guilt trips. As you follow God’s grace, you will find that the modern-day “Pharisees” will be unhappy with you.

But remember: if you are living life by your own leading, and not by the Holy Spirit’s leading, you are not walking in grace. You are walking in sin.

Grace is not a license to sin.


God’s grace is truly amazing. It has the power to change us, and to change others through us. It gives us the ability to serve God and obey Him. It gives us the power to reach the world. It gives us love when we cannot love others, strength when we’re weak, cleansing when we repent of sin.

And though it is available to everyone, we can only receive it when we humble ourselves, acknowledge that we can’t follow God on our own efforts, and ask Him for His grace.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. (Philippians 4:23)



So What’s Wrong with Conservatism?

One of my last articles was a definition of conservatism. I received some heat for that article on social media. Well, if you didn’t like that article, I’m going to warn you up front that this article is likely to be even more offensive, so you may want to just not read this. In fact, you probably won’t understand what I’m telling you anyway.

The reason I defined conservatism was because I make a lot of references to conservatism on this blog, and I want everybody to understand what I am referring to. I also wanted to bring out some of the characteristics of conservatism and the conservative mindset.

In this article, I want to go a step further and flesh out what’s wrong with this mindset, plus make a few more points.


Fiddler on the roofA couple weeks ago, I saw Fiddler on the Roof for the first time. I was struck by its application to conservatism. (If you haven’t watched Fiddler on the Roof, you need to.)

The movie begins with a monologue from Tevye, the main character, talking about traditions in the fictional village of Anatevka:

A fiddler on the roof… Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.

You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word!


Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started?

I’ll tell you.

I don’t know.

But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tevye’s problem is that the world around him is changing, and traditions can’t guide him in handling a new situation. Anatevka’s traditions give its residents a false sense of security and “sameness”—until the constable announces that they have to leave.

Tzeitel thinks about marrying Lazar, a man older than her father
Tzeitel contemplates the prospect of marrying Lazar Wolff, a man older than her father

In addition, as Tevye’s daughters realize, the traditional system of arranged marriages is broken. Yet, their father is more concerned about keeping traditions alive than making sure they are happy and cared for—despite praying, in his Sabbath prayer, for husbands who will care for them.


Like Anatevka, conservatism is based around tradition. Those extra rules that I mentioned in the definition article? Many times, they aren’t new rules that were recently decided upon. Instead, they are old traditions, or keep the traditional view of Scripture alive.

Now, obviously, if a traditional view is totally correct, then it is a good idea to continue it. My experience, however, is that many times, the traditional view is not 100% correct. Nonetheless, no one will take an honest look, step outside of the box and say, “Are we right?”

What are the consequences of holding on to tradition?

Creating Manmade Sins

Perchik inviting Hodel to dance at Motel and Tzeitel's wedding
Perchik inviting Hodel to dance at Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding

Going back to Fiddler on the Roof, we find an excellent example of traditions creating sin. At Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding, the men and women are segregated from each other, with a rope dividing the dance floor. Perchik, the young communist, steps across to the women’s side and asks who will dance with him. He is met with gasps, and the declaration that it is sin for men and women to dance together.

But, as the rabbi admits, the Scriptures do not forbid men and women from dancing together. It was merely a tradition—probably with a “Scriptural” backing.

This is a real problem with conservatism. Applications of Scripture are made into binding rules. Then people feel guilty about breaking these rules, as guilty as if they were disobeying Scripture itself.

Creating Division and Rejection

Traditions create division and rejection because they have no solid basis. Each person, church, community, people group, and nation has their own traditions. Everybody tends to do things a little different than everybody else, because we are all different, with different backgrounds.

But when traditions conflict, the result is division, rejection, and repression. For example, predominantly white churches tend to frown upon the more exuberant, expressive worship of black people. Raising your hands and shouting “Hallelujah” in a conservative Mennonite church? Scandalous! Clapping to the music? Horrors!

When someone within the group attempts to stop a tradition, it creates division. They may be rejected by those who want to hold on to the tradition. It may even be a seemingly minor tradition, such as the order of the church service.

The worst sort of this rejection is the shunning of people who break the church’s traditions, as though they were terrible sinners. For example, shunning somebody because they got a radio or TV. Or had their ears pierced.

God’s body is not divided. There is not a Mennonite body, a Baptist body, a Lutheran body, and a Methodist body. Why do we treat one another as though we belong to separate bodies?

“That I can tell you in one word! Tradition!”


Rejecting and Ignoring Non-Traditional Viewpoints and Suggestions

In Fiddler on the Roof, Perchik’s ideas are ridiculed and tossed out because he’s a “radical”. Obviously, we know how communism played out in Russia. Not all non-traditional ideas are good. However, he had some good points—for example, that marriage didn’t require a matchmaker, and that a man and woman should be able to choose one another for marriage because they love each other.

Perchik proposing to Hodel
Perchik proposing to Hodel

Instead of learning from each other, the battle lines are often drawn along traditional versus non-traditional lines. Unfortunately, this results in each side throwing out the other’s viewpoint, without learning the beneficial things that each can teach the other.

Inability to Change with the Times

The Jewish people of Anatevka had several warnings that all was not well. Yet, like the onions they referred to, they buried their heads in the ground and hoped for the best—until the constable informed them that they had only three days to sell everything and leave. Talk about flooding the market!

Likewise, tradition prevents us from recognizing change in the world and adapting. Recently, I was down in Washington, DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival. I noted that probably 95% of the women were wearing pants—as women have been doing here in the US for decades. Yet, some traditionalist, conservative groups still insist that pants are only men’s clothing. There is no room for change and progress.

This is sad, because God can use new technologies and new ideas to advance His Kingdom. His people should be cutting-edge—actually, they should be the innovators, not lagging 20 years behind the rest of the world. Not that we should embrace every new technology and idea that comes along, but we should be open to Him working in new ways.

Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters… Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:16-19)

Which brings us to the most significant point of all:

Traditionalism/Conservatism Quenches the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is a very important part of the Christian life and the working of the Church. He dwells within us and guides us to do His work. He guides us into all truth (John 16:13). We can only live the Christian life through His power.

God warns us, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Yet that is precisely what conservatism and traditions of men will do. Because tradition spells out how to live life, there is no room for the moving of the Holy Spirit to do something new or different than we are accustomed to. If the traditions contradict the Holy Spirit, the traditions usually win out, as with the Pharisees.

In addition, there is less impetus to ask God for guidance, because our traditions tell us what to do. We don’t have to ask God if there’s something He wants us to share with the rest of the church on Sunday, because we won’t have a chance to bring a psalm, teaching, revelation, or tongue for the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26). We don’t have to ask Him how to dress because our church and our customs tell us how to dress. We don’t have to ask Him how to raise our children, because the multitude of teachers around us have given us the tools and step-by-step plans for success.

In short, traditions quench the Spirit and prevent Him from having full control over our lives.

Make no mistake: as long as you follow tradition instead of the Holy Spirit, you are not completely surrendered to God.

So What Do We Do?

Should we throw out all tradition? Is the word “tradition” a dirty word?

No! A knee-jerk, anti-tradition response is no more spiritual than being traditional.

Instead, we need to stop quenching the Spirit and start following Him.