May 13, 2008

How do we recognize false teachers?

Posted in Christian life, Worldviews at 11:17 am by Dan Lowe

How do we recognize false teachers? 

This is not an in-depth study of the issue, but Scripture provides us with several tests which will help us to discern whether or not a person is a false teacher.

1)      Jesus says that we will know them by the fruits of their lives…

Matthew 7:15-19 (ESV) – 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus says that false teachers look harmless at first (i.e. they “come to you in sheep’s clothing”), but in actuality they are ravenous wolves.  This implies that they are dangerous, predatory and deceptive (cf. II Tim 3:6-9.)

How can we recognize them?  By the fruit of their lives.  No one is sinless, but a godly teacher will demonstrate evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  Their lives will be characterized, not perfectly, but consistently by the fruit of the Spirit rather than works of the flesh…

Galatians 5:19-23 (ESV) – 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

What does their life look like?  Does it reflect the character of Jesus Christ?

2)      Paul says we will know them by their doctrine…

1 Timothy 4:1-6 (ESV) – 1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.

Paul says quite clearly here that false teaching is the work of “deceitful spirits” and “demons” and it is perpetuated by men who are “liars whose consciences are seared.”  The Greek term translated “seared” is καυστηριάζω (pronounced kauteriazo.  We get our English word “cauterize” from this verb.)  It literally means to be “branded with a red-hot iron” (BDAG, καυστηριάζω).  This implies that they are marked by Satan, but also, that their consciences have been so scarred by their sin that they are no longer sensitive to conviction (Marvin Vincent, I Tim 4:2.)  These men are “liars” and they are teaching that which is in opposition to the Word of the God.  In this context, they are specifically teaching asceticism and legalism. 

Paul says the solution to these false teachers is to “put these things before the brothers”; meaning Timothy must teach the error of false teacher and present the truth of God’s Word to his hearers.

If we want to be able to identify false teachers, then we must know the Word of God and examine everything according to Scripture.  If what they are saying does not line up with Scripture, then beware… they are a false teacher.

For more on this mark of false teachers, see I John 2:22 and I John 4:1-3.

3)      Both Paul and John tell us that they will be popular with the world…

2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV) – 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

1 John 4:5-6 (ESV) – 5 They (false prophets & antichrists) are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Paul tells us here that the world is seeking teachers who will tell them what they want to hear.  John tells us that the world does not listen to us (i.e. Christians), but it listens to those who are from the world.

Does the world like what they are saying?  This is not talking about those who are being converted through the hearing of the gospel, but those who are still in the world and apart from God.  If the world likes what they are saying, then they must not be preaching the truth.  The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing (I Cor 1:18.)  Non-Christians are blinded by the god of this world (i.e. Satan) to message of the gospel (II Cor 4:3-4, Matt 13:19.) 

If the world likes their message, then we should be very careful… they are likely a false teacher.

4)      They will separate themselves from Christians, for they are not truly Christians.

1 John 2:19-23 (ESV) – 19 They (antichrists) went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

False teachers will separate themselves from the true church and the teachings of orthodox Christianity.  Though they may have been among Christians at one time, they have since departed from orthodoxy and left the church so that “it might become plain that they all are not of us.”  This is a fascinating statement.  Their separation from the church has a distinct purpose behind it.  This cannot be their intention… or Satan’s for that matter.  It must be the will of God which drives them out of the church so that it might become clear that they are indeed false teachers.

Are they teaching something which is divergent from orthodox Christianity?  Have they separated themselves from those who hold to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3)?  Then beware… they are likely a false teacher…

5)      Ultimately… as Christians… we will know false teachers because of the illumination of the Holy Spirit within us

1 John 2:19-23 (ESV) – 19 They (antichrists) went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.

Christians are “anointed by the Holy One”, meaning that we are anointed by Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit.  We know the truth because of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit within us (I Cor 2:10-16.)  It is by His illumination that we can discern error from truth in those who go out from us teaching something that is contrary to right doctrine.

Every day, we must express our absolute dependence upon God.  God is the One who saves us and God is the One who keeps us (Jn 10:27-29.)  We should never forget this and constantly seek to rely upon Him for everything in the Christian life.

This is not a comprehensive study of false teachers, but hopefully it provides us with some helpful tools for recognizing false teachers in our midst today.

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