(This is the second part of my two part series on judging and discernment. Click here to read part 1 entitled, “Hey You Christians: “Judge not”!)
This article is a number of days tardy. If you know me and my OCD tendencies, this is a real problem. I’d love to blame my tardiness on the holiday weekend, but that would but merely be a cop-out of epic proportions. The reality is that I grappled with whether or not I am qualified to write such a piece. Last week’s article on righteous judging was right in my wheelhouse as I’ve been studying that topic for quite some time now and I feel comfortable, confident, and educated in what the Scripture has to say about that issue. In regards to false teachings and Biblical discernment, I lack the breadth and depth of knowledge that I claim regarding judging.
… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it… Neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils.Martin Luther
Now that I’ve penned the worst article introduction ever, surely dissuading many from even reading the remaining balance, you may be wondering why I decided to push forward, why I chose to toss my hat into this circus if I’m so under-prepared. The answer lies in a quote by well-respected Protestant man of God, Martin Luther. I ran across a quote by Mr. Luther that opened my eyes to the reality that if your nose is buried in the scripture and you’re properly and faithfully exegeting what you read, you are as prepared to speak on these matters as anyone else in the world. This quote was provided at the end of Luther’s debate with Johann Eck at Leipzig and reads, “… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.… [N]either the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils.” Luther’s point is simply that men who stay true to the Scriptures are more qualified to speak on their contents than any man who adds to the work Jesus completed on the cross. And with that thought and confidence in mind, I immersed myself into the world of false teachings and Biblical discernment.
If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve not doubt heard the phrase “false teacher” or “false prophet” used when describing a Pastor or Pastrix. These phrases are often lobbed at televangelists, and often rightfully so, but these men and women are more prevalent than only on television. Thus, it is wise of the Christian to be discerning and understand when they are being fed error in lieu of Truth.
What exactly is a false teacher? This is a person that strays from Biblical truth either unintentionally or for personal gain. There are many fruits of false teachers that make them very easy to identify, but Tim Challies recently wrote an article that lays out seven of these most common traits; I’ll paraphrase them here.
First, false teachers are “man-pleasers”. What these men and women teach is strictly to please the listening ears rather than benefit the hearts of the listeners. Further, they treat all things Holy with unconcerned carelessness instead of being in awe and treating them with reverence. These men do not seek to please God with their teachings, they simply look to scratch itching ears. Paul addressed this very thing in 1 Thessalonians 2:4 when he wrote, “…but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.”
Second, false teachers are the harshest critics of God’s most faithful servants. They constantly criticize and berate those who hold steadfastly to God’s Truth. Augustine wisely noted, “He that willingly takes from my good name, unwillingly adds to my reward.”
Third, false teachers teach themselves. In other words, they their own wisdom and vision as Biblical truth. All too often a false teacher will begin a sermon with a verse from the Bible and immediately proceed to read themselves and their vision into the text rather than what the text actually says. Jeremiah noted this in Jeremiah 14:14, “And the LORD said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.”
Fourth, false teachers miss the big picture and focus incessantly on the details. Jesus addresses this directly in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Fifth, false teachers are masters of masking their faulty doctrine behind smooth-talking and what has the appearance of sound logic. They have discovered the power selling people poison coated in sugar; the shell is enticing, but what’s inside is deadly. As Challies points out, “Just as a prostitute paints and perfumes herself to appear more attractive and more alluring, the false teacher hides his blasphemies and dangerous doctrine behind powerful arguments and eloquent use of language.”
Sixth, false teachers are more concerned with gaining followers for themselves than actually helping and bettering folks through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. False teachers are not interested in savings souls, they are interested in winning more and more followers.
Finally, and most damnable and heartbreaking, false teachers exploit their followers. They exploit them by being greedy and desiring the riches of this world. They do not care about the eternal salvation of their followers, rather, they simply want their followers money and/or stuff. Peter warned of this in 2 Peter 2:1-3 when he wrote, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”
The bottom line is that false teachers have one person in mind when they preach: themselves. They are not concerned with their flock, they are not concerned with furthering the kingdom of Christ, they are concerned with ensuring their place in the world and building their empire of possessions and money. And when false teaching perverts the gospel, He doesn’t receive the glory he deserves. Therefore, we practice discernment because we love God, people, and the Truth.
Jesus said false teachers will be difficult to spot, but not impossible. In Matthew 7:15-20 He says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
It is so important to grasp the fact that false teachers are elusive. Verse 15, in particular, mentions false prophets coming in sheep’s clothing. They give outwardly indication that they are genuine Christians, but they are dangerous because of who they are on the inside. These are people you would never suspect of being false prophets. In fact, if they were easy to spot, there would be no reason for Jesus to give us this warning in verse 15! Like anything that is counterfeit, they fool people because they look like the genuine article. While false prophets can be obvious, most often a false teacher looks completely legit, but they could not be farther from the Truth. There are no horns, no red suit, no pitchfork and as 2 Corinthians 11:14 states, “…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”
Verses 16-20 change from a warning, to an identification method. If false prophets produced no fruit at all, or if the tree was dead all-together, it would be far easier to spot. Another example of this is in Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30: “He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Interestingly, the word used for “weeds” in this passage is another word for “darnel”, a Eurasian ryegrass that looks exactly like wheat. It looks exactly like the good crop but, in reality, it’s killing it. Such it is with false teachers; most look like good Bible teachers and upholders of Truth, but they are actually killing the church. Jesus makes it clear that we are to ensure we align ourselves with and follow the genuine variety.
The bottom line here is that Jesus tells us 9 times where to look to determine if a teacher is a false prophet: fruits, fruits, fruits, fruits, fruits, fruits, fruits, fruits, and fruits. Even though it requires discernment and a discriminating eye, their fruit shall eventually give them away. So, what should we be looking at when we examine their fruits? We should look at their character and conduct, the complexion of their followers, and the content of their teaching. All three of these must be in line with the Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount.
In regards to their character and conduct, and the character and conduct of any Christian for that matter, look no further than Matthew 5 and the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are all a description of what a person’s life looks like when they fully understand the Gospel of grace. In fact, there is not a single command or directive in this passage, rather it is a descriptive text that fully explains what a Christian looks like.
Beginning in verse three Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit”. Do they admit their weaknesses and deep need for grace? Verse four He says, ” Blessed are they that mourn.” Does the teacher in question mourn over the sin of the world? Further, do they mourn over their own sin? And if they do mourn over their own sin, is it because of what their sin has done to Jesus or because they’re not living up to the standard of goodness they’ve set for themselves?
Verse five says, “Blessed are the meek.” Is the teacher touchy and defensive or do they recognize their own filth coming from the cross and realize that there is nothing within themselves worth defending? Do they boast in their weakness? Verse six reads, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Does the teacher in question act as if they’ve “arrived” or do they starve and thirst for God to give them Jesus’ record and imputed righteousness as a gift?
Jesus says in verse seven, “Blessed are the merciful.” Are they quick to forgive? Do they give mercy both relationally and physically? Do they see themselves as better than others or are they merciful? Verse eight says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” As R.W. Glenn says, is this teacher, “centered on the center”? In other words, is the Gospel the centerpiece of their existence? Is what you see what you get with them?
Jesus says in verse nine, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Is the teacher in question committed to personal evangelism? Do they long for other people’s needs to be reconciled to God or are they more interested in themselves and their own walk? Verse ten says, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Are they “taking it on the chin” for Jesus? As one begins to manifest true Christian character, you will find that people are strangely attracted to you and repulsed by you at the same time. If everyone likes this teacher, they’re probably not bold enough. If everyone hates them, they’re probably obnoxious.
So, when discerning a teacher to determine if they’re genuine, start with the Beatitudes, but then go on through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t discern behavior only, but attitudes as well.
Matthew 6 says that hypocrites pray, fast, and give just like a true believer. However, they do those things for far different reasons like the admiration of other religious people, or to seem better than others, or to put God in their debt. You may wonder then how can we know what their motives are without going on a witch hunt? I’m glad you asked.
What is inside of a person simply cannot help but to manifest itself in their behavior. The fruit that Jesus is calling us to inspect is the fruit of a Gospel-transformed character (see the Beatitudes) as well as a Gospel-transformed conduct which manifests itself. More on this in a moment.
The second of the three fruits of false teachers, complexion of their followers, is probably the most useful test for us to use for discernment. Matthew 10:24 says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” In other words, the apple does not fall far from the tree. The followers will resemble their teacher and his teachings. In fact, a teacher’s defects tend to show up in a much more distorted and pronounced way in their followers. If you see something off in his flock, you should be suspicious of that teacher.
The final of the three fruits of false teachers is the content of their teaching. The simple truth is that where a person’s heart is, or where they’re at with their doctrine will eventually come out of their mouth, guaranteed. Pastor Glenn says, “It’s as inevitable as gravity.” Matthew 12:33 spells this out very clearly and can be summed up by saying “out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Does this mean that what you say will get you to Heaven? No, this is not salvation by speech. Rather, the speech is a clear indicator of the heart.
For instance, Paul Tripp gives a great and very simple example of this premise. Take a bottle of water with no lid and shake it. What happened? Water came out! Well, why did the water come out? Because I shook it, right? Let’s drill deeper. Why did the water come out of the bottle? It came out of the bottle because it was in there in the first place! What comes out of the bottle is what’s already there. Likewise, what comes out of the mouth is what’s already in the heart.
There is but one simple question that dominates the discussion and discernment of false teachers. Is what he teachers in line with the Gospel. End of story. A.W. Pink said, “The apostles of Satan are not saloon keepers and white slave traffickers but are for the most part ordained ministers. Instead of declaring that without the shedding of blood there is not the forgiveness of sins, they merely hold up Christ as the great exemplar and exhort their hearers to follow in his steps. Well the devil is a liar, and the father of lies! The God of this world has blinded the eyes of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of god. 2 Cor 4:4”
At this point, you may be wondering what is the big deal, as long as they believe in the core gospel, the rest doesn’t really matter, right? Wrong. John Calvin once said, “Even a dog defends his master when he’s attacked.” Psalm 119:104 says that if we love the truth, we must expose the false. Jesus wanted unity, but not at the price of Truth. There are really three reasons or motives why we should be actively practicing discernment: Love of truth (2 Tim 1:13-14) (Psa 119:128), love of people (Act 20:27-32) (1 Tim 4:16), and love of God (Isa 42:8).
In fact, God doesn’t just mention discernment, he instructs us to be discerning. The book of Hebrews deals with this extensively. People who lack discernment fall into one of the following three categories: people who have an immature faith, people who have a backsliding faith, and people who have a dead faith.
People who have an immature faith do not even understand the very basics of Christianity. These are the people who attend church regularly but do not know their Bibles and are not constantly feeding on the Word. In the time when Hebrews was being written, the author was writing to a group of people who, in the face of persecution in the name of Jesus, were softening their stance on Jesus and considering going back to Moses and Judaism. So, the author of Hebrews spends considerable time showing them why Jesus is better than the Jewish faith. By now, these people should have known better because the Old Testament was a shadow of Jesus but Jesus had come and fulfilled the Old Testament shadows!
While you can progress for a while in the christian faith, if you do not develop discernment you will fall as a Christian.
People who have a backsliding faith are often the result of a Christian never progressing beyond the immature faith stage. The author of Hebrews said, “you have become dull of hearing. I need to teach you again.” By using the words “become” and “again”, the author is drawing obvious distinctions between a past reality and a present reality. These folks are moving away from God, not toward. Their immaturity is causing them to regress instead of progress. The author has to completely start over with this group and ween them back off the “milk” and onto the “meat” of Christianity. They’re like 12 year-olds who suddenly decide to start taking a bottle again in lieu of real food. One cannot survive that way and it will cause them to wither and perish. While you can progress for a while in the christian faith, if you do not develop discernment you will fall as a Christian.
Finally the third category of the undiscerning people is people who have a dead faith. The author of Hebrews is a Pastor to these people. He’s worried about them and he loves them. He’s concerned they will fall away from the faith completely. Hebrews 6 makes this fact very clear. The simple reality is that a person cannot backslide forever. Eventually you come to the realization that they were never a regenerated Christian to begin with. 1 Corinthians 2 says that a person who shows no discernment at all cannot be a Christian and that without the presence of the Holy Spirit, we cannot have discernment in our lives.
Are you growing in your faith or moving backwards? Are you a discerning Christian? Do you desire discernment and desire to grow in discerning right from wrong and good from evil? The bottom line is that God demands we pursue, value, and exhibit discernment.
We’ve now determined what a false teacher is, how to identify them, and that God instructs us to discern truth from error and right teaching from false teaching. We must stand firm against these false teachers and their teachings that are leading our brethren to destruction.
Every preacher must preach the word. There is no place for “clowning” in the pulpit of Jesus Christ. There is no room for a preacher to make up what he’s preaching. He’s to preach from the Word. Innovation is not the key to effective ministry philosophy. We must not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 Corinthians 9:16 Paul says, “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.” Preachers are to preach the Word whether it’s in fashion or out of fashion, popular or unpopular, whether your hearers want to hear it or not, and regardless of what church growth experts say, you preach the Word!
The greatest crime a man can commit is blasphemy. If a preacher stands at the pulpit and preaches anything but Christ and Him crucified, and the full Truth of the Word of God, he is blaspheming our glorious Creator. Thomas Brooks once said, “False teachers are one of hell’s greatest populaters.” In order to grow in our faith and become mature Christians, we are called by God to exercise biblical discernment and warn our brethren of these false teachings.
And, of course, as I mentioned in the last article, we are to be loving, merciful, forgiving, and slow to judge. But, we are called to judge and to exercise biblical discernment by the one true and Living God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.