Scripture Reference: Galatians, 2 Timothy 4:2-5, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 1 John 4:1
Judging False DoctrineDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 14, 2001
Selected highlights from this sermon
No one wants to speak up and dismiss false teaching as heresy. Many “preachers” continue to deceive people with promises of prosperity. Others treat the Bible like a relic, believing that there’s been a new revelation from God.
But the Scriptures show us how to defend doctrine. In order to proclaim a truth, heresies need to be unveiled and rebuked. Paul does this in Galatians concerning the Gospel, and it continues to correct those who would deny God’s holiness, Christ’s deity, humanity’s depravity, Christ’s substitution, and our salvation by faith alone.
Somebody said to me, “I don’t care what you believe, I only care about the way you live.” That sounds so good and so pious, but the fact is, my friend, what you believe determines your eternal destiny, and what you believe determines your priorities here on earth. And what you believe determines whether or not God brought about a change in your heart, so He implanted some new desires within you that were not there when you were born.
What you believe is a matter of eternity, which leads us to the subject of discernment. As you know, we’re in a series of messages on the topic titled Who Are You to Judge? What is discernment? Discernment is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. At its basic level that’s what it is. But it’s really also the ability to distinguish between right and that which is partially right, and that’s the greater challenge.
There are some people who say we should do away with discernment, that the word heresy should not be in our vocabulary. Just let people believe whatever they want to believe, everybody makes up his own religion, and therefore, everybody’s happy, just accepting whatever, which is the basic word of the age.
And so you have a lot of people say, “As long as somebody gets healed in a service, you should not question the faith healer or his theology. Who are you to judge?” Or if somebody is preaching to large crowds and saying good things, they say, “Who are you to judge?”
Let me tell you what’s happened to popular culture. We have today many talk shows, and the basic talk show format is to allow every manner of abnormality, of aberration and of fringe behavior, to be put out there without comment, as if to say, “It’s all on the same basis, and this is what I want to do, and that’s what you want to do, and so just let everybody do whatever they want to do.” And what’s happening is that the abnormal is being normalized, so people look at culture and they think, “Well, you know, some people live this way.” Every kind of deviance, every kind of aberration is all given this kind of exposure, and there’s no judgment. There’s no one saying, you know, “This is false and this is right.” You just put it out there and let people think that that’s the way normal people also exist.
The very same thing happens when it comes to doctrine. You have so many different TV shows today and some of them (not all of them but some of them) put up with all kinds of doctrinal error. And it’s just allowed to be out there, and people are accepting it because nobody seems to want to say, “You are wrong; this is false.”
I want us to notice two passages of Scripture, and then I will comment also on what has happened in society in other ways. Notice in 2 Timothy the Apostle Paul says these words. He’s writing to Timothy and he is warning him. In fact, the Bible is full of warnings about false teaching and false teachers.
Second Timothy, chapter 4! I’m picking it up in verse 2. Paul says, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, (Boy, I’ll tell you that day is here.) and itching ears to suit their own desires (key word here). To suit their own desires, they will gather around them a number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” And the people who are teaching the myths, who are responsive to people’s desires, teaching them what they desperately want to hear, they are the ones that are going to get the crowds, as a matter of fact, usually.
Now there’s another passage, and that is 2 Peter, chapter 2, and I want you to notice that in the New Testament there are whole chapters devoted to false doctrine, and that’s our subject today—judging doctrine. It says: “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you.”
The next sermon in this series is How to Recognize False Teachers. What are their characteristics? And we’ll discover that there are at least five that the Apostle Paul gives.
It says, “They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them, bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed (Notice that.) these teachers will exploit you with stories that they made up. (I just marvel at the accuracy of the Bible here. Stories that they have made up! You can see them almost any day, particularly on television.) Their condemnation has long been hanging over them and their destruction has not been sleeping.” Wow!
Now, today I’m going to talk to you very plainly. I don’t like it when people leave a church and say, “Now, what does he actually believe?” So today I want you to relax, but I’m going to be plain so that when, hopefully, we leave, we all understand. Whether you agree or not, I do want you to understand what I’m saying. We live in an age when people, who purportedly believe the Bible, are teaching heresies. And I’ll tell you how it came about.
It came about this way. There were two principles of biblical interpretation, which have been used widely, and are widely accepted, and those principles have allowed these kinds of heresies to flourish within Christendom. Let me give them to you. Number one is to take all of the promises of the Old Testament that God gave to Israel regarding prosperity and to apply them to the church. That’s bad interpretation. When God was dealing with Israel that was an entirely different situation. He was dealing as with a nation, and so He says, “If you follow me, I’ll give you good crops. If not, I’ll give you drought. And if you follow the Lord, I’ll give you abundance.” So what these teachers have done is they have invented the doctrine of prosperity, applying it to today in ways that are not consistent with the rest of the Bible, and they’ve taught it.
Now, one day I was watching one of these teachers on television, and he actually said, “If you send money to me (That’s always a requirement.), all these miracles will happen. It will be seed faith and there are people who send their money to us who discover that their mortgages are miraculously paid. They get a letter from the mortgage company saying, ‘You don’t owe us any more money.’” And on and on you have all of these stories, and if anybody says, “Wait a moment. Is this scriptural?” they say, “Who are you to judge what God can or can’t do?”
Well, the issue is not what God can or can’t do. God could pay people’s mortgages if He wanted to. The question is, “Is this what God has revealed? Is this consistent with the teachings of the Bible? Is this what God has promised?” And the answer is no, but this kind of nonsense flourishes.
That was the first principle of interpretation, and then there was a second. And the second was that love and unity were going to cancel all of the rest of the Bible that has to do with heresy and false teachings and a clear Gospel and everything. Under love and unity, we would now be able to say anything that we wanted to say, and nobody would say that you are wrong because that is being divisive. That is dividing the Body, so you just let all of these heresies flourish.
And then there came another step, and I know I’m going to step on some toes, but I’m on a roll here. I’m just going to keep going today. I can always leave, even before the benediction. (laughter) I did last week for other purposes to catch a flight. (chuckles) And that was this. You know, we’ve got all these prophets in the church. We don’t even need the Bible. The word of knowledge was interpreted to mean clairvoyance, that you can see the diseases that people have. And furthermore, God is giving visions and dreams and revelations. Why should we even bother studying the Bible because we don’t need it, because you’ve got all these people saying, “You know, the Lord just told me,” and He tells them exactly what they need to know, and it’s such a fresh new revelation.
And if you were to say, “Wait a moment; is this scriptural?” you know what they’d say to you? They’d say, “Well, wait a moment. The Bible says that God is going to do a new thing, and this is the new thing.”
So many years ago in Toronto, you have the Toronto Blessing from which some blessing may have come, I might add, because one must be discerning here. There are sometimes good and bad existing together. But you had people who were barking like dogs and roaring like lions, and you had all this going on, and what if somebody had said, “Wait a moment; is it Scriptural?” Somebody did walk into one of those meetings and was watching all of this going on, and he said, “I wonder if this is really scriptural.” And the woman next to him said, “Well, who are you to judge? It’s happening in a church, isn’t it?” (chuckles)
My dear friend, if you want to look for the devil, sometimes you have to look for him in church. But if somebody said, “Now, wait a moment; is this really Scriptural?” they’d say, “Well, you know, it’s the new thing.” In fact, the more bizarre it was, the more likely it was believed to be of God because “He’s doing a new thing.” Can you imagine what this has done? It undercut the possibility of the church having any defense against error. Anything could come in because it was a new thing.
I’m not being critical of the whole charismatic movement, you have to understand, but some of its own authors (and it’s always best to quote someone within a movement rather than outside of it) said this: “Our greatest fear springs from the fact that the Bible is no longer occupying a place of prominence as it once did in the evangelical community.” Indeed, the whole controversy is, in fact, a major battle for the Bible. Do we need it or don’t we?
This isn’t a new phenomenon. You know, during the days of the Reformation there was a man by the name of Thomas Müntzer who made fun of those who studied the Bible. He said, “The letter killeth.” In fact, he ridiculed Bible scholars by saying, “Bible, Babel, Bubble.” And Luther knew that this was a very serious matter because Thomas Müntzer was getting all of his information from God unfiltered through dreams, through revelations, and was taking his people in dangerous absurd directions. And Luther said, “I will not accept his visions and revelations, even if he (quote) swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.” That was Luther’s way of saying it very clearly.
Now, today we’re going to do a study in doctrine if you’re still going to be with me by the end, and we’re going to introduce what I would call antithetical thinking. That’s a big word. What does it mean? It simply means this, that if you affirm something as being true, its opposite is false. Now, we don’t have that in today’s society. You can affirm your truth. I can affirm my truth. And they can be totally contradictory, and yet we put a circle around it and we say all of it is true. (chuckles) Well, that’s not possible.
Back in the days when I used to teach at a college I used to say that a contradiction is a charley horse between the ears. Not all these views can be true. The Bible is a very antithetical book. There are only two trees in the garden. Well there were many other trees, but two trees that signified the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good or evil.
Jesus said that there are two paths—the broad way that leads to destruction, and the narrow way that leads to life, and there are only two destinations. There is heaven and hell. The Bible is a very antithetical book. And so we have to think antithetically.
Now, you say, “Oh boy, so this is The Moody Church. You are dividing people. Doctrine divides." And you are absolutely right. That’s what it’s supposed to do. That’s the whole purpose of doctrine, to divide. And as I mentioned in an earlier message, it is so much better to recognize that we are divided by truth than to be united in error. So, yes, it’s true that doctrine divides, but doctrine also unites.
We talked a moment ago about the Apostles’ Creed that says, “I believe in one holy catholic church.” That word catholic means universal. And we believe in the universal church. We believe that all those who have trusted Christ as Savior belong to the Body of Jesus Christ. Truth unites, but truth also divides.
Let me be clear here. For example, I’m going to make a statement and then we’re going to talk about what it excludes. If you believe, as I did, that the Bible alone is the basis for all that we need to know about our relationship with God, angels, demons and eternal things, that it is sufficient and that it is God’s only revelation of these things to us, then that automatically excludes a lot of things, doesn’t it? It excludes, for example, the Book of Mormon. It excludes the writings of Mary Ellen White. It excludes the writings of (what was her name?) Mary Baker Eddy, because what it says is that this is God’s Word and we must follow it and it alone. And that excludes… And that’s the way doctrine is. It’s always dividing. It’s including, but it’s also excluding.
What we’d like to do in the next few moments is to look at the most important doctrine in all the Bible. You say, “Well, how do you know what it is?” Well, take your Bible and turn to the book of Galatians. Galatians is found, of course, in the New Testament. It’s written by the Apostle Paul who is greatly burdened. And what he does is he expounds the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the most important doctrine that one could ever embrace or ever understand. And we don’t divide over lesser issues, by the way. We can put up with a lot of differences. Not everybody has to agree. Not everybody has to see things the same way. There are many doctrines over which we can be charitable and simply say that we do not have to agree. But the Gospel is one that we need to agree on.
Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 1, verse 6. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ, and are turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ.” But now notice in verse 8: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a Gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.” Wow! “As we have already said, so now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than the one that you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.” Remember the translations that say, “Let him be accursed.” Wow! If an angel came and preached a different gospel, reject him.
Now, could you imagine? Let’s suppose that while I am preaching, or just after I’m preaching, or even just before I am preaching, what if an angel came down right out of the ceiling of Moody Church? Splendor! Glory! Looks so much better than anyone on the platform! I can assure you of that. (laughter) And let us suppose that this angel said, “I want you to know that God is interested in you being a good person. And if you’re a good person you’ll get to heaven.” Can you imagine? People would embrace it and they would say, “Of course this is true. An angel spoke it!” Paul says, “Let that angel be accursed, eternally damned!” Wow!
Today we live at a time when people are interested in angels, and we know that angels do guide us. We know that angels exist, but angels are sometimes used as a subject of revelation. All that you need to do is to say that some angel appeared to you and gave you some kind of a message, and virtually no matter what the message is, as long as it’s a message of peace, pretty soon a shrine will be built there, and they’ll say, “An angel appeared,” or “An aberration of Jesus, or an aberration of Mary appeared.” And people are willing to stake their eternity on that revelation. Paul says, “If they preach a different gospel, or ignore the one that we have preached, let such a beautiful being, an angel from heaven, be accursed.” Wow!
Now, what I’m going to do is delineate five necessary truths to understand the Gospel, and we’re just going to give you some verses of Scripture for them. And then we’re going to engage in this antithetical thinking, because what we’re going to do is to affirm and we’re also going to deny, so this is an exercise in doctrinal discernment.
Are you ready? Ready or not, here we come.
First of all, the holiness of God! That means that God is separate. God is other. The Bible says, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts. The whole earth is perfect before him.” It says that God is so pure that He cannot regard, He cannot absorb, He cannot condone any evil. Why is that important? Well, if God weren’t holy, why then, of course, we would not need the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And people say today, “Isn’t it wonderful since the New York tragedy that God is back in America?” I’m not so sure that I rejoice with everybody else, because I don’t know which God is back. That’s the problem. The word God is a blank slate upon which people can write whatever they wish to believe. It is in itself not very comforting to know that God is back.
Nashville, Tennessee! Two adult bookstores, porn shops, have on their marquee, “God bless America.” I don’t know what god that is. I don’t think that’s the God of the Bible. That’s some other god out there.
Now listen! God is holy! What does that mean? It excludes all possibility of people being able to access Him on their own, because the Bible would teach that all access to God has to be mediated because He is too holy to approach. That’s why when we come to God we come in the name of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Jesus, because we can’t get there on our own. How is a holy God going to make contact with sinful man unless there is some mediator between God and man who is qualified to bring man and God together, who is qualified to appease God’s holiness and His justice? It cannot be done.
You remember in the Old Testament there were two seminary students by the names of Nadab and Abihu, and they said to themselves, “We want to go into the holy place also,” and they offered strange fire before the Lord. We don’t know exactly what they did. They were doing some experiments in a laboratory, and thinking, “You know, the priests do it one way, but we can do it our own way.” And God came and zapped them both and they were both dead. You say, “Wow! Did God overreact!”
God didn’t overreact. They were thinking that they could come to God on their own, and so you have today all of the talk about God, how “I’m into God,” “I’m into spirituality,” I have accessed the almighty God this way and that way.” No, my friend, you must come to the right God, and you must come in the right way, and we need to be able to say that to society. Remember that all spirituality, and we live in a very spiritual age, apart from the Bible and Christ, is ultimately, at the end of the day, some form of occultism, because there are only two spirits in the world.
Let’s go on to a second, and that is the deity of Christ. We’re going to have to look at this the next time because we talk about false teachers, and I’ll show you how that they preach another Jesus, other than the one that is proclaimed in the Scriptures. And John, the Apostle of love, says, “Dearly beloved, test every spirit.” How are you testing the spirits when you are watching somebody on television? How do you test the spirits? Are you expecting some feeling to come over you? No, as we shall see in this series, we test the spirits by the Word of God, but the Bible says that Jesus Christ is God, a very God, and He has to be God in order to be the mediator between God and man. Now think of what that excludes. It excludes the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that Christ was a created being. It excludes all the New Agers who separate the historical Christ from the so-called cosmic Christ. It also excludes all those who belong to the Jesus Seminar who torture the Scriptures so that Jesus is made to appear as a mere man. Christ is God!
Let’s go on. Let’s take as the next one the lostness of man. How bad off are we without Christ? The Scripture says in the book of Ephesians that we are dead in trespasses and sins, that is to say that we cannot respond to God. We are like people in a funeral home, laid out in a coffin. We might even desire God but we cannot find Him unless He comes to us and breathes life into us, and gives us the ability to believe and to see our sin, and to see the wonder and the beauty of Jesus. We were really bad off. Now if you realize what that means, that excludes virtually all the other religions of the world, and some good branches, some large branches, of Christendom, too, who say that we’re really not that bad off; that we are saved by our good works. We are saved by being good people. As long as we strive to do our very best, surely God cannot turn us away. Well, my friend, He will because He has to be approached in the right way, and that is through Christ.
Let’s go on now and let’s look at the substitutionary atonement. That’s what we call it. It means that Jesus died for sinners. It says in 1 Peter 3:18 that Jesus Christ died for our sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. Do you know what that means? That means that there can be no other way to God. Oh, I know that that’s so unpopular today, that people don’t understand why that can’t be. It’s because Jesus Christ is the only one who can give us the righteousness that we need. Jesus is the only one who met the requirements of a holy God, and because we can’t access God on our own, we must come to God in the prescribed way. He is the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. There are no other options. Gurus aplenty! Prophets! Teachers! Here’s the path! Do this! But there’s nobody to scoop us out and take us to Almighty God! No other religion! You’ve heard this from me so many times, but I need to say it again. No other religion has a Savior. So the substitutionary atonement!
And then the last one is faith alone. Why is salvation given through faith alone? Why can there be no cooperation between us and God? Why is it not true to say that we do our best, and then God comes along and does His best? It’s because when we come to salvation there is nothing that we have to offer. As the song says, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” And so we don’t bring anything to the table except our great need. And the righteousness that we need from God is a righteousness of which we have none, so we make no contribution. We do not add to that righteousness and make it more righteous. We do not subtract from it. We simply receive it. That’s all that we can do because in our helplessness in our sin there is nothing else that we can do.
But imagine what this last point denies. It denies that we are saved by our baptism. It denies that we are saved through the sacraments. It denies that we are saved by our own good works and all works of righteousness. And there are some of you here today who need to hear this for a very specific purpose. Perhaps you’ve never heard before as clearly as we hope you have heard it, that it is through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice that we transfer our trust to Him, and by that means we are saved, and God credits to us His righteousness and His glory, and it becomes ours all because of a free gift because we have humbled ourselves and know that we can’t save ourselves. We have to cleave to that which Jesus Christ has done for us. That is the Gospel.
I hate to throw this in because we are going to be speaking about false teachers, but I need to ask this. How often do you hear that preached in some of the largest ministries that there are today, where you can be happy, healthy, and well without even repenting or without coming to the cross of Jesus Christ, and God has these blessings for everybody without discrimination? (chuckles) It’s not biblical, but it’s preached and it’s believed, and it’s taught, and it’s accepted.
What am I saying today? I’m saying that our greatest message that we must defend with our lives… Now, there are very few things I would die for, but I do know that one of them is that I trust I would be willing to die for the Gospel. There is nothing else except the Gospel.
During the days of the Reformation, when Luther uncovered the Gospel, even though he was confused about such things as infant baptism, for example, he still believed that somehow it saved. But despite that contradiction, he did understand that salvation was through faith alone. During the days of the Reformation, the church, the official Christendom, said, “Wait a moment. We have the truth because we have the miracles. Show us your miracles. Show us your signs. Show us your wonders.” They said, “We have aberrations. We have relics that multiply themselves. We have statues that weep.” And what Luther said is that the Gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation. If you want to see the Gospel in all of its strength and all of its power, you don’t need to see these miracles. It’s not a contest to see who has the greatest miracles.
In the Old Testament, you remember when Moses was doing miracles, all of the magicians were able to do the same miracles as he did for quite a while. (chuckles) The Bible says that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. And it is power to you, my friend, if you believe today and return to Christ.
In a large American city there was a little boy who was lost. The problem was he could only remember his name. He couldn’t remember his phone number, he couldn’t remember his address, he couldn’t remember where he lived. What do you do with a little guy like that? And finally, as they were discussing with him what to do, he said, “You know, if you take me to my church, I could find my way home.” And they said, “Well, how do we recognize your church?” and he said, “It’s the church with the big cross.” And he said, “Yeah, if you take me to the cross, I can find my way home.”
I want you to know today from the bottom of my heart that, as we look at the uncertainty of life around us, if you come to the cross, you can find your way all the way home to heaven through faith in Christ alone. How do you know whether or not a post-modern is saved? Because he says, “I believe in Jesus?” No, that’s not enough because people are believing in all kinds of things today. You only know he’s saved when he says, “I believe in Jesus, and I know that He is the only way.” That is the Gospel.
Our Father, today, we ask in the name of Jesus that you’ll make us discerning Christians in an age with so much confusion. Grant, oh God, hearts that are ready to respond to the truth. And for those who are here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they even at this moment say, “Jesus, I’m a sinner and I accept your free offer of eternal life. I transfer my trust to Christ alone.”
Do that, Father, in their hearts. Create that faith and that desire we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.