(Read the series so far.)
As we survey the Word of God it is impossible to miss the prominent place that God places on truth and the deep concern that our Lord has when His people err in doctrine or in living. The Old Testament is permeated with calls to live on the basis of God’s truth and warnings about those who stray and teach anything else. For example the heartbeat of God is evident in Jeremiah 23,
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord… “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord… The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth… Behold I am against those who have prophesied false dreams… I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit…” (Jer 23:1,16, 28, 32).
Earlier God revealed the double-edged problem facing Judah when He had Jeremiah prophesy: “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it” (5:30-31). Not only were the prophets, priests and kings leading the sheep astray, but the people loved it. Rather than being appalled by the falsehoods pouring out of the mouths of their leaders, the people of Israel gravitated toward their teachings, no doubt because it was already in line with what they wanted to hear and how they wanted to live. But the Lord cautions, “What will you do at the end of it?” That is, after these false teachings have robbed you of true life found in God, after they have brought you into bondage instead of freedom, after they have led to counterfeit living rather than authenticity—what will you do then? Such is the true consequence of counterfeit theology.
When we come to the Gospels we find that Jesus continued this theme, being very clear about the danger of false teaching. In Matthew 16:6 Jesus warns His disciples, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Later the disciples “understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:12). And just in case anyone thought that Jesus always preached a meek and mild, positive and upbeat message, I would invite them to read Matthew 23:13-36. There the Lord pronounced eight “woes” on the Pharisees, repeatedly calling them things like hypocrites, blind guides, fools, sons of hell, whitewashed tombs, serpents and brood of vipers. It is hard to miss Jesus’ righteous anger toward those who taught lies in the name of His Father.
The book of Acts, chapter twenty, verses twenty-seven through thirty-two, speaks of wolves, often coming from within the church, who will do great harm to the flock. Paul could not have been more passionate when he wrote, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (v. 28). But caution was not enough; the true safeguard is found in verse 32, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Exhortation and warning are both vital parts of proper care for the sheep.
Even a superficial reading of the New Testament epistles reveals that large portions were written to combat false teachings of various kinds. Some of the more direct passages include:
- Jude 1:3-4 and 2 Peter 2 both exhort us to contend earnestly for the faith against those who would distort it.
- Galatians 1:6-9 pronounces a curse on those who pervert the gospel. One of the strongest admonishments in all of Scripture is reserved for those who offer a different gospel from the one Paul had given the Galatians. Paul wishes these false teachers to be accursed—that is, damned for propagating their false gospel. Perhaps only the final warning found in Scripture rivals this one. In Revelation 22:18-19 John warns anyone who dares add to or subtract from the prophecy of the book of Revelation will have added to him the plagues written in the book.
But in addition to these direct statements, the epistles devote much attention to areas of false teaching and living. The Corinthians misunderstood the sign gifts and tolerated numerous sins in the congregation; the Galatians twisted the gospel; the Colossians were replacing godly wisdom with human philosophy; the Thessalonians had been discouraged with bogus claims about the end times; Timothy had to battle “strange doctrines” and “myths;” the letter to the Hebrews was written to combat a movement back to the Old Covenant, and on we go. To ignore these cautionary themes is to ignore much of the New Testament, which is perhaps why topical preaching has virtually replaced expositional preaching in most pulpits today.
The goal of exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting false teaching (Titus 1:9) is not to develop critical and negative people who are looking under every rock for someone who has slipped up. Rather it is to “equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12) and thus leading God’s saints to maturity (Heb 5:11-14). I believe the apostle John reflects the heart of God when he tells us that he has no greater joy than to hear of his spiritual children walking in the truth (3 John 4).
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.