The whole concept of false teachers and false teaching is one that makes many Christians squirm. We don’t like to think about the idea that there are people who are actively trying to deceive believers, to turn them away from the truth of the Christian faith. But all one has to do is look around at a Christian bookstore and you can see it—deception is present.
So who are they?
Anytime someone writes on this topic, it’s tempting to name names. Tim Challies has been profiling a number of them over the last several weeks, for example, looking at false teachers throughout history and up to our present day. Making the cut are luminaries such as Benny Hinn, Joseph Smith, Ellen G. White, Pelagius, Arius… even the Pope made the cut!
Trying to make a list can be a double-edged sword. One danger is becoming too narrow, letting a secondary issue take precedence and become the measure of orthodoxy (think: egalitarianism vs complementarianism, or Calvinism vs Arminianism). A second is being too open, lacking any firm criteria upon which to make a judgement about orthodoxy whatsoever.
And it’s this error that I want to challenge in particular. When you start to examine the nature of false teaching, it tends to consistently focus on three primary areas:
The nature and character of God (including the person of Christ).
I wrote about this in a bit more detail in Contend, but imagine you’re standing dominoes up in a line to watch them fall. You’ve set up all your pieces just so and you’re ready to push the lead one. If you’ve got that first domino in the right place, when you knock it down, the chain reaction can begin, with every properly situated piece falling in exactly the right way. But if your first domino is pointing in the wrong direction or is placed too far away from the others, it’s just not going to work.
Our understanding of God is kind of like that. If we get God wrong, nothing else will truly fall in place. We won’t understand the gospel and there will be no energy or momentum to drive us forward into a life of fruitful labor to the glory of God. Thankfully, due to the immeasurable gift of the Bible, we have everything we need to get that first “domino” right. Indeed, if we begin to grasp even the most basic truths regarding God’s nature and character, that changes everything.
What this means for us is grasping as comprehensive picture of God as we can from Scripture—we see Him as immanent (He is personal and knowable), transcendent (He is far above us in every meaningful way) and Triune (He is one in essence and three in persons). He is many things—loving, jealous, just, and merciful… but undergirding all of this is his holiness. It is this fact that reminds us that God is perfect and distinct from the world He has made, it calls on us to pay attention to all He is. So we don’t take one aspect of His character at the expense of another—love doesn’t trump justice and vice versa; instead, we see God’s love as holy and His justice as holy. They spring from the same source. They are perfect and wonderful and glorious.
And this is what false teachers consistently attack. They strive to make God smaller, more distant, less intimidating… Honestly, if the thought of standing before God in His glory doesn’t make you want to wet yourself in terror a little bit, you probably don’t understand the God of the Bible.
Ask “what is the gospel” to 100 people, and you’re likely to get 101 answers. But the gospel, in its most basic and essential form, is this: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
There’s much that could be said about this, but notice the key elements: Christ died, and more specifically, He died to pay the penalty for our sins). He was buried, meaning He was truly dead. And He was raised to life again physically—not spiritually, not emotionally, not in our hearts or any such notion.
Without these things, there is no gospel, period. And when someone fudges on any of these, a different gospel is preached, and it’s one that damns its teachers to hell (Gal. 1:9). Yet this is what we consistently see in false teaching—men and women who make the gospel about something other than what Christ has done, and make it about giving us an example to follow, or giving us a Jesus who didn’t physically rise from death… But according to Scripture, such things are nonsense.
The authority of the Bible.
The final consistent point of opposition is the Bible itself. Notice how even with His gospel summary above, Paul consistently pointed back to the Scriptures—meaning, these things that happened to Jesus, God said would happen in His Word. And throughout the Bible, we see this kind of emphasis on the Bible’s authority and trustworthiness. Two examples:
Peter says that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). And this prophetic word, he says, was not produced “by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
Paul, likewise, describes all Scripture as “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
But look throughout and you’ll find this repeated emphasis on the authority of Scripture. And this is what false teachers consistently strive to undermine, even before they’ll go after the nature of God or the gospel. They do it with appeals to experience and emotion as authoritative, and arguments designed to obscure the clarity of the Bible… it all amounts to the same trick the serpent played in the beginning, asking “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1)
Thankfully, we have a “more sure” word than one that can be obscured easily. In the Bible, we have something we can rely on and trust. Kevin DeYoung, commenting on 2 Peter 1, says it well:
We do not follow myths. We are not interested in stories with a nice moral to them. We are not helped by hoping in spiritual possibilities which we know to be historically impossible. These things in the gospel story happened. God predicted them. He fulfilled them. He inspired the written record of them. Therefore we ought to believe them. Nothing in all of the Bible was produced solely by the human will. God used men to write the words, but these men did their work carried along by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is an utterly reliable book, an unerring book, a holy book, a divine book.
So who are the false teachers out there? Look at how a teacher views God, the gospel, and the Scriptures. That will likely tell you most everything you need to know.