HOW TO DEAL WITH FALSE TEACHING
STUDY 8: KNOW THE KEY AREAS OF DOCTRINE AFFECTED BY FALSE TEACHING
© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2007
False teaching is exactly that: teaching. Part of the subtlety of false teaching, and part of the ease with which it deceives people is due to the fact that a lot of what false teachers write or say is true, or sounds so close to the truth that it is not detected as error. Because some of what they say seems true we can easily be fooled into thinking all they teach is okay.
The areas of error identified by the New Testament and discussed below are not all present in every false teaching; they were, however, common focal points of error in false teaching in the New Testament era. These same areas of doctrine are those most seriously impacted by false teaching through the church age up to this present day. [The next study will look specifically at contemporary false teaching.]
A. ERRORS ABOUT THE NATURE OF REVELATION
In the Old Testament we saw that the words of Satan and the words of the false prophets were accepted by those who heard them as equally valid as the actual words of God. In the case of the messages of the false prophets they were actually presented as the word of the Lord. Obviously this exalts the false messages, the false words, the lies, to an equal footing with God’s self-revelation.
Equally dangerous: it also minimizes our concept of God’s self-revelation, eroding and destroying its absolute and exclusive nature, making the ‘truth’ something that is ‘up for grabs’ - capable of change and liable to be supplemented, replaced and superseded with additional, ‘new’ or alternate ‘truth’. When this happens we are then left without any sure, certain definition of God’s Word; anyone can say just about anything and claim it is a revelation from God.
When we come to the New Testament we find the same interference with the concept of revelation. False teaching in the New Testament era interfered in one way or another with how God’s truth was perceived or defined. In the Gospels and Acts we find the following:
- False teaching rejects the words of Jesus [Matthew 7:24-27]
- Human traditions supersede the word of God [Matthew 15:3-9; Mark 7:9-13]
- Human rules are added to the word of God [Matthew 23:16-22; Mark 7:7-8]
- God’s Word is obeyed selectively [Matthew 23:23-24]
- False teachers distort the truth [Acts 20:30]
In the New Testament letters we find the apostles rejecting any thought that the truth of God can be supplemented, altered, replaced or superseded by further revelation. Such an idea is in total conflict with the very nature of God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Because of this any supposed ‘truth’ beyond or beside the truth confirmed by the OT prophets and NT apostles is rejected outright.
- Paul criticizes people who put up with those preaching a ‘Jesus other than the Jesus we preached’ and ‘a different gospel’ [2 Corinthians 11:4]
- Paul anathematizes [condemns to hell] those who preach ‘a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all’ [Galatians 1:6-9]
- He outlaws syncretism (holding two belief systems together) [1 Cor 10:14-22]
- He considers that false teaching threatens the loss of the truth of the gospel [Gal 2:5].
- He warns the Colossians not to allow themselves to be deceived, enslaved or judged by the fine sounding arguments and deceptive philosophies which the false teachers had substituted for the truth of the Gospel of Christ [Col 2:4,8,16,20].
- John denied the faith claims of those who reduced the truth about the person of Christ [1 John 4:1-3].
In addition, the many references already listed in previous studies indicate that the source of these supposed supplementary or additional or alternative revelations is not God, but either Satan or the minds of men. The so-called ‘apostles’ peddling these supplementary or alternate messages are as false as the messages they speak [2 Corinthians 11:13; Revelation 2:2].
B. ERRORS CONCERNING THE PERSON OF CHRIST
A very serious area of error centres on the person of Christ. If a teaching is in error here then no one can be saved by that teaching. Jesus and the apostles made it clear that if we do not believe in the real Jesus Christ we cannot be saved. Jesus himself said ‘If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins’ [John 8:24]. While some points of error do not exclude a person from salvation, we cannot delude or calm ourselves with such a thought here. If a line of teaching does not present the true, biblical Jesus, no one can be truly saved through its message.
Misconceptions concerning the Messiah:
During the three years of his ministry Jesus was confronted with misconceptions concerning the nature of the expected Messiah. Generally speaking the Jews were looking for an earthly, political, national deliverer who would rescue them from the Roman domination and re-establish the dynasty of David. There was expectation that Jesus came to be an earthly king [Matthew 2:1-18; John 6:15] and expectation of an earthly Messianic kingdom [Matthew 20:20-28; 21:8-9].
When he performed miracles some misunderstood these miracles as an indication that he was this kind of Messiah. This is possibly why he told people not to tell anyone that he had healed them.
It is probable that these false expectations that Jesus would be an earthly, physical Messiah generated or cultivated at least some of the shallow focus on the miraculous identified later in this study.
Misconceptions about incarnation [refusal to believe he was fully God and fully man]:
From the time that Jesus began his ministry right down to this present era the real incarnation has been challenged. Various heresies abound about the person of Christ: some about his real humanity, some about his real deity, some about how the two natures are present in the one person.
During the time of his ministry the following false suggestions were put forth by his Jewish contemporaries who could not accept the concept of incarnation – of a man actually being God in human flesh – and sought some other explanation than the one Jesus himself claimed:
- Jesus was a man empowered by Satan [Matthew 9:34; 12:24-32; Mark 3:22]
- Jesus was just a man claiming to be God [Matthew 26:63,64; John 5:17-18; 6:41-42; 10:33]
- Jesus was insane [Mark 3:21]
- Jesus was a resurrected prophet, or John the Baptist or Elijah [Mark 6:14-16]
The central purpose of the four Gospels is to present both the actions and the teaching of Jesus Christ as a demonstration and affirmation that he is both truly and fully man and truly and fully God. Mark, for example, commences his gospel with the summary:
- ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ [Mark 1:1].
And John, towards the end of his Gospel, states his purpose in including what he did:
- ‘… these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ [John 20:31].
Jesus consistently challenged those who saw his miracles and heard his teaching with the fact that he, obviously a true man, was also God in human flesh. The Jews understood what he was claiming, but refused to acknowledge the validity of his claim. Indeed, it was because of his consistent claims to deity that they crucified him:
- ‘For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God ‘ [John 5:18]
- ‘We are … stoning you … for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God’ [John 10:33].
The sermons recorded in Acts also consistently focus on establishing the divine identity of the man Jesus, and when Saul was converted it was by means of a revelation of Jesus as the divine and glorious Lord, after which he immediately began to preach that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ [Acts 9:20}, actually proving to the Jews in Damascus that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ [Acts 9:22].
When we read the New Testament letters we find that Romans 10:9 makes salvation depend on acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Lord, and that Colossians and 1 John were written specifically to combat and confront errors concerning the person of Christ.
The heresy in Colosse, by reducing Christ to one among many steps to knowing God, denied his real deity. Thus in Colossians we find Paul’s most extensive description of Jesus Christ as fully God - the Lord, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, on whom all things depend, to whom all things are subject and for whom all things were created.
- He is the ‘image of the invisible God’ [1:15]
- He is the ‘firstborn over all creation’ – the one in the position of priority and authority [1:15]
- He is the creator of all things [1:16]
- All things were made by him and for him [1:16]
- He is the pre-existent one [1:17]
- He is the One who holds all things together [1:17]
- He has supremacy in all things [1:18]
- In him all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form [1:19; 2:9]
- He is the final climax of God’s self-revelation [1:25-2:3]
- In him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge of God [2:3]
- He is the Lord [2:6]
In 1 John the issue was ‘Is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ Does the incarnation mean that he who is God actually took on real human flesh?
John therefore challenges the reality of the faith of anyone who
- Denies Jesus is the Christ [1Jn 2:22]
- Denies the Father and the Son [1Jn 2:22,23]
- Does not acknowledge Jesus Christ has come in the flesh [1Jn 4:2-3; 2Jn 7]
- Does not acknowledge Jesus is the Son of God [1Jn 4:15]
- Does not believe God’s testimony about his Son [1Jn 5:10],
and affirms the necessity of acknowledging the real incarnation:
- ‘Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God’ [4:2.3]
- ‘If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God’ [4:15]
- ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God’ [5:1]
- ‘Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God’ [5:5].
In his brief letter, Jude, exposing the godless antinomianism [see below] of the false teachers, concluded from their lifestyle that they denied ‘Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord’ [Jude 4].
The letter to the Hebrews also powerfully confronts those who, among other errors, were on the brink of reversing their belief in Jesus Christ as God, and reverting to their previous Jewish definition of God. To prevent this, the writer powerfully defines Jesus Christ as God [chapter 1], and warns that such a denial of Christ is the sin of unbelief, identical to the sin of unbelief for which the Israelites were condemned to forty years in the desert [Heb 3:12].
Misconceptions about the resurrection of Christ
The immediate false teaching about Christ’s resurrection was denial.
- The disciples did not believe it when they first heard about it [Luke 24:10-11; John 20:25]
- The Jews bribed the soldiers to circulate a story that the disciples had stolen the body [Matthew 28:11-15]
The sermons of the apostles recorded in Acts stress the resurrection of Christ:
- Peter in Acts 2 – 4 times
- Peter in Acts 3 – once
- Peter etc in Acts 4 – twice
- Peter etc in Acts 5 – once
- Peter in Acts 10 – once
- Paul in Acts 13 – 4 times
- Paul in Acts 17 – twice
In context, these references to the resurrection of Christ are a key part of the apostolic presentation of Christ as Lord. In fact, Christ’s resurrection is viewed as the final confirmation of his deity.
Any heresy in which the resurrection of Christ is denied is linked to the previous point, because to deny the resurrection of Christ is to deny his deity:
- ‘… through the Spirit of holiness (he) was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord’ [Romans 1:4]
- ‘if you confess with your mouth that “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ [Romans 10:9].
Because of its critical nature, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, having spent only 13 words attesting the crucifixion, takes 70 words to affirm Christ’s resurrection. It is apparent that in the church at Corinth there was false teaching about the resurrection, which denied both the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the believer. Paul confronted this false teaching [see 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 for his full argument]:
- ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ [15:14]
- ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins … then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost’ [15:17,18]
To deny the resurrection of Christ is to deny all of his claims to deity. It is to affirm that he was not the source and giver of life, that he was not ‘the life’, or ‘the bread of life’ or ‘the resurrection and the life’, and to believe that he was just a man. But if he was just a man who stayed dead, he was also just a man who had to die for his own sins, in which case he could not die for ours. Then both his divine claims and his supposed substitutionary death for our sins would be mere figments of a blasphemous imagination.
C. ERRORS CONCERNING SALVATION
The two errors listed below sound more like errors regarding sanctification than errors regarding salvation. They certainly do impact the way we live our lives, but both of them either  seriously undermine our understanding of what Jesus Christ did and achieved for us in and through his sacrificial, substitutionary, sin-bearing death on the cross, or  are based on a devastating misunderstanding of what Jesus Christ did and achieved for us in and through that death.
The New Testament confronts various errors about salvation. Most of these gave legalistic answers to the question ‘How can I be right with God? – what do I have to do or to be in order to gain or maintain acceptance by God?’ Answers given by false teachers in the New Testament era include:
- By nationality [that is, by being a Jew]
- By possession of the Law
- By keeping the Law
- By ritual and ceremony
- By good works
Legalism thus operates on the basis of merit, not mercy: something that I am or do or is done to me gains or maintains my salvation.
Because these answers given by legalistic false teaching deny both grace and the effectiveness of the cross of Jesus Christ, legalism is a serious heresy. Its ultimate impact is potentially one of two outcomes  it keeps people from salvation in Christ, or  it keeps people from understanding and enjoying the salvation they actually have in Christ.
Jesus repeatedly spoke against the hypocritical legalism of the Pharisees and teachers of the law which had been added to the Scriptures and which they imposed upon the people. This legalism
- Involved hypocrisy [Matthew 6:1-18; 7:3-5; 23:2-7, 13-36; Mark 2:16]
- Added rules about ritual cleanliness [Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 7:1-5; Luke 7:36-50; 11:38]
- Added rules about fasting [Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22]
- Added rules about the Sabbath [Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; Luke 6:1-11; 13:14-17; 14:1-6; John 5:8-16]
- Added rules about traditions [Matthew 15:1-9]
- Excluded people from the kingdom [Matthew 23:13; Luke 5:30-32]
Among the parables of Jesus, there are three that expose and oppose legalism:
 the parable of the Lost Son, where the elder brother is a typical legalist, perceiving his own goodness as the reason for acceptance and reward [Luke 15:11-31];
 the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, where the Pharisee approaches God with a legalistic mindset, expecting acceptance by God on the basis of his personal religious résumé [Luke 18:9-14].
 the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, where the first workers expected to receive greater pay at the end of the day on the basis of the amount of work they had done [Matthew 20:1-16].
Legalism in the period of the church reported in Acts tried first of all to prevent the message of Christ being proclaimed to the Gentiles, then, after Gentiles were converted to Christ, to enforce Jewish ritual upon Gentile Christians. For example:
- Peter needed a special vision from the Lord before he would evangelize the Gentiles [Acts 10]
- Controversy about preaching to and associating with Gentiles [Acts 11]
- The circumcision party wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised [Acts 11 and 15]
- The whole issue had to be sorted at the Council of Jerusalem [Acts 15]
- Believing Jews zealous for the law were very antagonistic towards Paul because of perceived breaking of Jewish ritual law [Acts 21:20-21,27-29]
When we move to the New Testament letters we find an almost endless reference to expressions of legalism. This was the most prevalent false teaching encountered and opposed by the New Testament letters, which describe it as follows:
- Legalism infers that Christ died for nothing [Gal 2:21]
- Legalism overlooks God’s mercy [Romans 9:16]
- Legalism denies and/or sets aside the grace of God [Gal 2:21; 5:4]
- Legalism renders grace empty [2 Cor 6:1]
- Legalism is contrary to faith [Gal 3:11-12]
- Legalism gives the law, instead of Christ, final significance [Gal 3:19-25]
- Legalism focuses on symbolic shadows rather than the reality which is Christ [Col 2:17]
- The person who embraces legalism… has trampled the Son of God underfoot, … treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant … has insulted the Spirit of grace [Heb 10:29]
- Legalism creates divisions between believers [Romans 3:29; 4:9-10; 10:12-13; Gal 2:11-13]
- Legalism holds people under condemnation [Romans 8:1-4]
- Legalism forces people to relate to God on the basis of ‘the flesh’ [Romans 8:5-14]
- Legalism cannot provide guaranteed salvation [Romans 4:16]
- Legalism prevents people from receiving the gift of righteousness in Christ [Romans 9:30-10:4]
- Legalism holds people in a spirit of fear [Romans 8:15]
- Legalism makes people depend on human effort instead of Christ [Gal 3:2-5]
- Legalism holds people under a curse [Gal 3:10]
- Legalism brings people under judgment [Col 2:16]
- Legalism subjects people to man made rules and regulations [Col 2:20-23; 1 Tim 4:3]
- Some forms of legalism require harsh treatment of the body [Col 2:23]
- Legalism destroys faith [2Tim 2:18]
- Legalism is bondage/slavery [Gal 4:3,8-10,25; 5:1]
- Legalism ruins whole households [Tit 1:11]
- Hypocrisy was involved in Judaistic legalism [Romans 2:17-24; Gal 2:14-16]
- Outward ritual [circumcision] was given significance over inner spirituality [Romans 2:25-29]
- Personal boasting accompanies legalism [Romans 2:23; 3:27]
- Christians should not be legalistic about externals like food, holy days [Romans 14:1-15:9]
- Legalism is a basic principle of this world [Gal 4:3,9; Col 2:20]
- All that legalism considers meritorious is actually worthless [Phil 3:1-9]
- Certain legalists forbid people to marry [1Tim 4:3]
- Some legalism includes godless myths, old wives’ tales [1Tim 4:5]
- Legalism is not good for us: ‘Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them’ [Heb 13:9].
In the context of legalism the apostles stressed the comprehensive nature of the salvation provided in and by Jesus Christ – a salvation that is through Christ alone, by faith alone and through grace alone, and because of that is guaranteed, permanent and complete.
An opposite error concerning salvation was that salvation by grace liberates people to sin – that because our sins are forgiven it doesn’t matter how much we sin. This is an extremely inane response, revealing that the person who thinks like this hasn’t really understood either who it was who died on the cross or what he actually did in his death.
Antinomianism – disregard of God’s law – is found in false teaching that arises both inside and outside of the church. Like legalism, it is a common human mindset. Both are built into our sinful hearts.
The following references from the New Testament letters and Revelation include references to antinomianism both outside and inside the church.
- Rejection of the true truth leads to a godless lifestyle [Romans 1:24,26-32]
- Antinomianism is a godless misinterpretation of the gospel [Romans 3:7-8; 6:1-2,15]
- Those impacted become more and more ungodly [2 Tim 2:16]
- Antinomianism promotes ‘faith’ without works [James 2]
- Antinomianism was evident in the lives of some false teachers [2 Peter 2:2,10-14,19; Jude 8,15,16]
- Antinomianism changes the grace of God into a license for immorality [Jude 4]
- Antinomianism teaches immorality [Rev 2:14, 20]
In addition, the antinomian impacts of false teaching are addressed powerfully in 1 John 2:3-6, 9-11,15; 3:4-10; 4:20; 5:18; 3Jn 11, where the idea that a person can claim to know God and still pursue a godless life is seriously rejected.
Antinomianism fails to understand that the death of Christ for our sin is God’s clearest demonstration ever of several unalterable truths, including:
- God’s utter holiness
- God’s immovable justice
- God’s extreme hatred of sin
- God’s righteous anger (wrath) against all sin
- The unquestionable wrongness and inappropriateness of sin
- The horrific nature of the penalty, condemnation and judgment due to us
- Our utter inability to merit God’s acceptance.
Salvation is not some ‘nice’ ‘kind’ thing that ‘good old God’ has done for us. Christ’s death was necessitated by our holy God’s absolute hatred of and opposition to sin. To supposedly take from this God the gift of salvation then turn around and say that sin is okay is impossible. This God, the Father of Jesus, hates sin. The antinomian person has not yet met him, for if he had met him he would know that although sin if forgiven, it is never okay.
D. ERROR CONCERNING THE MEANING AND ROLE OF THE MIRACULOUS
The role and meaning of the miraculous is another point of consistent error exposed by the New Testament. False teaching is often accompanied by the miraculous, and because of this is assumed to be valid. Such an assumption is erroneous. In addition, some false teaching focuses on the miraculous, and uses the miraculous to attract people to itself.
From the New Testament we learn the following perspectives on the role of the miraculous:
- Jesus refused to use miracles to either satisfy his own needs or to manipulate people into following him [Matthew 4:1-7; Luke 4:2-4,8-13]. To do so was to use the devil’s strategy, not his.
- Jesus commanded people he had healed not to publicize what he had done [Matthew 8:4; 9:29-31; 12:15-16; 17:9; Mark 1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 9:9; Luke 5:14; 8:56; 9:36]. He did not want followers attracted merely by the spectacular or because of the relief of their physical needs [John 6:26-27].
- Jesus pointed out that the true nature and purpose of his miracles was that they were ‘signs’ attesting his deity and affirming that he had indeed come down from heaven [Matthew 16:8-11a; Mark 2:10; 8:18-21; Luke 7:18-23; John 2:11; 4:53-54; 10:25-26,37-38; 11:41-42,47-48; 12:37; 15:24].
- The right response to the miraculous is a desire to know the truth about who Jesus is [John 3:2; 6:30]
- Jesus condemned the desire for the miraculous [Matthew 12:38-39; 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:29; John 4:48].
- Jesus denied the Jews’ request for a miraculous sign (the only sign he would give would be his death/resurrection) [John 2:18-19].
- It is evident that although Jesus healed people in fulfilment of prophecy and as a confirmation of his deity, he was not on a mission to heal every sick or disabled person [Mark 1:32-29; Luke 4:42-44; John 5:1-13].
- Jesus forbade demons to speak because they knew who he was [Mark 1:34; 3:12; Luke 4:41]. He did not want this kind of spectacular, attention grabbing, supernatural testimony.
- The presence of the miraculous does not automatically validate the message or the messenger [Matthew 7:21-23; 24:24].
- Focus on miracles does not generate genuine faith [John 2:23-25].
- It is possible for the miraculous to be misconstrued [Acts 14:8-18].
- Just because something miraculous occurs does not mean that God did it. Indeed false Christs and false prophets perform extremely powerful miracles [Matthew 24:24]; the ‘lawless one’ displays all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders [2Th 2:9], and miracles are used to convince the world to follow the evil one and his emissaries [Rev 19:20]
- Now that God’s self-revelation in Christ and his eternal purpose of salvation through the death of Christ are complete, the demand for miraculous signs is out of place [1 Cor 1:22-23].
- Miraculous signs done by the apostles [Acts 2:43; 3:1-10etc; 4:16,22,30; 5:12,15-16; 6:8; 8:6-7; 9:33-35, 39-43; 13:11-12; 14:3; 19:11-12] were the mark of an apostle [2 Cor 12:12] and testified to the integrity of their apostleship and their message [Heb 2:3,4].
- Paul viewed his miracles not as an end in themselves; their purpose, as supplementary to the spoken word, was to bring people to obey God [Romans 15:17-19].
E. ERROR CONCERNING THE LAST THINGS
The last things are a common locale of false teaching.
Jesus warned his disciples about errors concerning:
- The nature of resurrection life [Matthew 22:23-33; Luke 20:27-38]
- Supposed localized appearings of Christ [Luke 17:22-24]
- The coming of false Christs [Luke 21:8]
- Claims the end is about to happen [Luke 21:8]
- Wanting to set the exact time of his coming [Matthew 24:36; 25:13]
- People living how they please because the return of Christ is taking so long or because the exact date is not known [Matt 24:42-25:13; Luke 12:35-48
In the letters we find reference to the following:
- Denial of the resurrection of the dead [1 Corinthians15:16,29-32]
- Misunderstanding about the nature of resurrection life [1 Corinthians 15:35-54]
- Confusion about what happens to believers who have already died [1Th 4:13-18]
- Errors about the coming of Christ [2Th 2:1-3; 2 Peter 3:3ff]
- Teaching that the resurrection had already happened [2Tim 2:18]
As we will see in the next study, false teaching continues to express itself today in these same key areas.