HOW TO DEAL WITH FALSE TEACHING
STUDY 2: KNOW THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TRUTH AND FALSE TEACHING
© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2007
When we contrast the New Testament description of the truth with its description of false teaching, we realise that there is a fundamental difference between the two which underlies the differences between their content, their mode of operation, and their impact.
A. THE TRUE TRUTH IS COMPLETE AND ABSOLUTE
With the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God’s revelation to man is complete and final. It cannot be changed. There is no more to be added. Jesus Christ is the goal and fulfilment of all of God’s previous self-revelation. He is the unveiling of all that God had kept hidden. He is God’s wisdom. He is God’s ‘mystery’, now revealed. With his coming God’s plans and purposes for the world were put into effect. There is no more revelation pending. Even that final consummation of God’s purposes yet to be fulfilled in the return of Christ and the final judgment does not require any addition or alteration to the truth already revealed. Any ignorance we have in the present is not due to a deficiency or incompleteness in God’s self-revelation, but simply to a deficiency in our human ability to fully understand the infinite God. His self-revelation is complete: we are in the process of learning and understanding what he has revealed.
This finality and completeness of God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures is indicated in the following:
: ‘Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him ...’
‘we preach Christ crucified … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. … We speak God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began… God has revealed it to us by his Spirit’
‘… to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. …so that you may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’
‘In the past God spoke through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’.
The Bible clearly presents Jesus Christ as God’s final self-revelation, the focal point and climax of God’s self-revelation, God’s final and ultimate Word. When we understand that
- Jesus Christ is ‘the Word’ [John 1:1,14]
- Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, to see him is to see God and to know him is to know God [John 12:45; 14:7-9];
- in him all the fullness of God dwelt in bodily form [Colossians 1:19; 2:9];
- he himself is ‘the truth’ [John 14:6];
- in him God’s final, once-for-all salvation has been implemented [Hebrews 9:26],
- when we understand this significance and centrality of Jesus Christ, we also understand with great clarity that not only is there no need for any additional revelation, but that there is nothing more to be revealed. The Son has revealed the Father: there is nothing more about God to be revealed. The Son has implemented complete salvation: there is nothing more about salvation to be revealed this side of the ultimate state.
Thus the true truth, the true gospel, is grounded in and bounded by the ‘prophets’ [the Old Testament which the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ] and the ‘apostles’ [the New Testament, which the facts and the meaning of the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ]. Just as the Old Testament prophets were men selected and empowered by God to write the anticipatory message about Christ, so the New Testament apostles were entrusted and appointed by God to teach and record how God revealed himself and fulfilled his purposes in Christ.
‘we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel’
: ‘when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe’.
‘stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter’
: ‘the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me’
‘I was appointed a herald and an apostle … and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles’.
‘What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching’.
: ‘Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of because you know those from whom you learned it, and from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’
‘Paul … an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth … a faith and knowledge that rests on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour’
: ‘He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it’.
: ‘We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard … This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Spirit distributed according to his will.’
: ‘the prophets … spoke of the grace that was to come’
: ‘We did not follow cleverly invented stories … we were eyewitnesses of his majesty …we ourselves heard his voice … and we have the word of the prophets … a light shining in a dark place … no prophecy of Scripture came by the prophet’s own interpretation …no prophecy had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit …’
: ‘I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles.’
‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard …’
‘The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.’
Thus God’s truth is spoken of as a given - a body of teaching that comprises ‘the truth’, ‘the word of God’, that must not be added to or altered, the essential truth to which the New Testament writers consistently recall their readers and us. In the context of opposing or exposing error, this body of absolute and final truth is called:
- ‘the truth’ [Romans 1:18; Galatians 2:5,14; 2 Timothy 2:18; 3:8; 4:4; Titus 1:14; James 5:19; 3 John 3,4]
- ‘the knowledge of God [Romans 1:28]
- ‘the mind of Christ’ [1 Corinthians 2:15]
- ‘the word of God’ [2 Corinthians 4:2]
- ‘the gospel of Christ’ (or similar) [Galatians 1:7; 1 Timothy 1:11]
- ‘the message of the Lord’ [2 Thessalonians 3:1]
- ‘sound doctrine’ [1 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:3]
- ‘the deep truths of the faith’ [1 Timothy 3:9]
- ‘the word of truth’ [2 Timothy 2:15]
- ‘God’s solid foundation’ [2 Timothy 2:19]
- ‘the Word’ [2 Timothy 4:2]
- ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ [Jude 3]
In context, all of these assume that God’s self-revelation is complete, and that ‘the truth’ is now available to all through the proclamation of Christ. Of particular note among these references to this static, complete body of truth are the following:
: ‘Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm …’
: ‘contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints’
The foundation on which all of faith and life is to be built is in place. It has been delivered to us ‘once for all’. There is nothing more to add. All that God wants us to know is there in the truth about his Son, anticipated by the prophetic word of the Old Testament and recorded and explained in the message entrusted to the apostles – the New Testament. Note that the ‘foundation’ is not a foundation of truth upon which we put more truth, but rather the foundation of truth upon which our relationship with God and our lives are to be based.
B. FALSE TEACHING REPLACES, ADDS TO, OR ALTERS THE MEANING OF, THE ‘TRUTH’
False teaching, on the contrary, does not view the ‘truth’ as absolute, complete and final. The writers of the New Testament letters expose and challenge false teachers regarding their wrong attitudes to ‘the truth’:
- suppression of the truth [Romans 1:18]
- swapping the truth for lies [Romans 1:25; 2 Timothy 4:4]
- distorting the word of God [2 Corinthians 4:2]
- teaching a different ‘Jesus’, a different ‘spirit’, and a different ‘gospel’ [2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6]
- perverting the gospel of Christ [Galatians 1:7]
- teaching what is contrary to the sound doctrine and the gospel [Galatians 2:14; 1 Timothy 1:10,11; 6:3,4]
- wandering away from the truth [2 Timothy 1:18; James 5:19; 2 Peter 2:15]
- opposing the truth [2 Timothy 3:8]
- won’t put up with sound doctrine but believe whatever pleases them [2 Timothy 4:3]
- rejecting the truth [Titus 1:14].
- teaching what doesn’t agree with sound instruction [1Timothy 6:3-4].
Each of these attitudes to the truth and actions done to the truth reveal a lack of respect for the truth as a given, non-negotiable, fixed body of truth. Thus the false teachers and those who believe them have a completely different attitude to the truth than the attitude held by the prophets and apostles. In fact the false teachers of the New Testament era have a great similarity to the false prophets of the Old Testament in their attitude to the truth.
According to the New Testament writers, false teaching [teaching that is different from the original message, either by reinterpretation, alteration, subtraction or addition] had its origin in a number of sources, none of which was God:
- Hollow and deceptive philosophy that depends on human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than on Christ [Colossians 2:8,20]
- Visions [Colossians 2:18]
- Human commands, teachings, made up stories [Colossians 2:22; 1 Timothy 4:2; 2 Peter 2:3]
- Error, impure motives, trickery [1Thessalonians 2:3]
- Greed [1 Thessalonians 2:5]
- Desire for human praise [1 Thessalonians 2:6]
- Demons and deceiving spirits [1 Timothy 4:1]
Christians who were subjected to these wrong attitudes to and alterations of the truth were commanded by the New Testament writers to return to the original, solid foundation on which their faith was grounded:
‘Do not go beyond what is written.’
‘See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you’
‘Remember … what you have received and heard.’
The fundamental difference between ‘the truth’ and false teaching is that, while the Bible presents itself as complete, absolute and final, false teachers do not regard the truth contained in the Bible as complete, absolute, final and unchanging. Invariably false teaching in some way and to some degree replaces, re-interprets, alters, adds to or subtracts from biblical truth.
: In a perverse ironical twist, some false teachers commonly assert that what teach be believed! Rejecting the rightful authority of the written word, they give authority to their own words, claiming those words to be the words of God, and threatening those who refuse to submit to their authority and their version of the truth.