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False Teachers Part 3



This is the third installment on false teachers. In Part 1, we considered the New Testament’s clear warning that false teachers are not a theoretical problem but an actual problem: they will pop up within the Christian community and threaten the flock. Then in Part 2 we considered the character of these destructive influencers: they are in bondage to sin and are often driven by lust, greed, and pride, although they do their best to cover themselves up with a cloak of piety. So when it comes to the capacity to detect these wolves in sheep’s clothing, we must have our eyes open to their everyday character and not be enchanted by their bloated eloquence.

To state the obvious: if an influencer demonstrates a pattern of ungodly speech or conduct, huge question marks should be flashing in your mind. However, an influencer’s apparent good conduct doesn’t automatically mean that they are teaching the truth. There are many outwardly decent people whose influence is destructive because they teach ideas that undermine the truth. Therefore, it is essential to be discerning with respect to the content of what someone teaches – regardless of how ‘nice’ or ‘well-intentioned’ the teacher seems to be.

Now when we talk about discerning and evaluating the content of what someone teaches, we are entering a vast area. Do you know the truth well enough to detect falsehoods? Do you know the Word well enough to recognize distortions? Do you know sound doctrine well enough to identify imbalanced teachings? Do you know Scripture well enough to perceive when Scripture is being twisted or misused?

Learn and Love the Pattern

At this point it is helpful to reflect on a phrase that Paul uses in his second letter to Timothy: “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 1:13, italics added) [1] Sound doctrine is not a long series of isolated words. Instead, sound doctrine is a beautiful and fitting and interwoven pattern of words that belong together. Words about God and humanity and fellowship. Words about covenants made and broken and repaired. Words about sin and death and the judgment to come. Words about Gethsemane, Golgotha, and glory. Words about grace and salvation and the life that never ends. Words about repentance and faith and obedience. Words about love and hope and joy. Know these wonderfully interconnected words. Know the pattern. Love the pattern. Follow the pattern – both in how you live and in what you teach. Guard the pattern: “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Timothy 1:14) When you hear someone else pushing an idea, ask: Does this idea fit the pattern?

If all you have are half-baked ideas that you recall reading on some church’s doctrinal statement twenty years ago, you’re in big trouble. If all you have are piecemeal collections of ‘a verse day keeps the devil away’, but don’t know how the recurring themes of Scripture fit together in a beautiful tapestry of saving truth, then experienced Scripture-twisters are likely to make it past your weak spiritual radar. Be sure of this: good fruit doesn’t grow out of a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, low-level convictions, and undetected lies. Therefore, “pay attention” to “the prophetic word… as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Store up God’s Word in your heart, that you might not sin against God (Psalm 119:11). “[Receive] with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:21) Imitate the Bereans who “received the word [as spoken by Paul and Silas] with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so.” (Acts 17:11) It is only by knowing the pattern of Scriptural truth – it is only by knowing how God has put your Bible together! – that you are equipped to recognize false teachings which don’t conform to the standard. Don’t expect your pastor to do your thinking for you. Remember that on countless occasions it has been a pastor who is actually the false teacher from whom the flock needs to be rescued! Learn how to possess and steward the riches of God’s Word for yourself!

Distinguishing a False Teacher from a Faithful Teacher

So far we have painted with broad brush strokes: assess all truth claims according to the standard of Scripture. Now we need to get specific – we need to specify some particular examples of false teaching. But first, let’s be clear: a teacher doesn’t meet the definition of ‘false teacher’ simply because he is wrong on a few points or misinterprets a few passages. I trust it is evident to you, as it is to me, that many faithful teachers who celebrate and proclaim “the pattern of the sound words” nevertheless disagree among themselves on important secondary matters (baptism and end times, to give just two examples) or on how to interpret certain difficult passages (such as Mark 13!). Jesus is the one Faithful Teacher who never erred. As for the rest of us, we all have our blind spots, our weak points, our shortcomings. What differentiates a faithful teacher from a false teacher is this: a faithful teacher holds fast to the gospel and demonstrates a pattern of faithfulness to the pattern of Scriptural truth, but a false teacher demonstrates a pattern of unfaithfulness to Scripture’s clear theological and moral instruction and often contradicts it at critical points. Let’s turn our attention to some of these critical points.

It is not my intent to be exhaustive here, but I would like to call our attention to the common pitfalls that Scripture highlights for us. These problem areas include:

1) Denying the Identity of Jesus

2) Denying the Authority of Jesus

3) Misapplying the Old Testament Law

4) Over-Spiritualizing the Christian Life

5) Misusing Secondary or Speculative Matters

This list could certainly be lengthened – and if you’d like to me to address an additional ‘problem area’, please put your suggestion in the comments section below! Of course, each critical point is worth reflecting on in great detail; my purpose here is only to survey the common errors of false teachers. I’ll tackle problem areas #1 and #2 below, and then I’ll continue my survey next week by picking things up at #3.

Critical Point #1: The Problem of Denying the Identity of Jesus

At the heart of faithful teaching is the proclamation of Jesus: who He is and what He has accomplished. Denying key aspects of the identity of Jesus or the necessity of His saving work is fatal. To be a Christian means that one believes and confesses that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9), that Jesus is “the Son of God” (1 John 5:15), that Jesus is “the Christ” (1 John 5:1), and that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). After telling us to “test the spirits” because “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1), John immediately writes:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (1 John 4:2-3)

Similarly, John had written two chapters earlier:

“Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:22-23)

The only way to be in true fellowship with the Father is by rightly confessing that Jesus is the Father’s Son, the Messiah, the Eternal Life (1 John 1:2) who became true Man (1 John 1:1-3, 4:2-3) and shed His blood to forgive our sins, cleanse our hearts, and restore our fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:7, 2:1-2).

The falseness of false teachers (as well as the falseness of cults and other fringe groups) is often revealed in their faulty beliefs about Jesus. People might claim that Jesus is only a man, or only a good man, or only an uplifting moral example, or only an enlightened prophet (or guru), or only one ‘god’ among many, or something less than the Divine Savior whose atoning sacrifice is the only remedy for sin and death and hell. You must pay attention to what your teachers or influencers say about Jesus. If a teacher gets the foundation wrong, then the body of teaching built on it is not worth your time.

Critical Point #2: The Problem of Denying the Authority of Jesus

As indicated above, sometimes false teachers overtly deny the truth of who Jesus is. There are other times when false teachers might affirm many wonderful things about Jesus, but they reject His practical authority over their lives. Jude wrote a letter in which he urged believers “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) Why? “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4)

Jude is referring to people who have “crept in” to the church family. These folks aren’t walking around with a t-shirt that says ‘Proud Jesus-Denier’. As Peter Davids comments on verse 4,

“It is not that these men and women actually denied any particular doctrine about Jesus. In terms of the creed that they could sign they may well have been as orthodox as Jude himself. But their behavior is a denial of Christ.”[2]

These false teachers influence other churchgoers into a moral laxity and lawless lifestyle that subverts true discipleship. They know how to spin ‘God’s grace’ into a rejection of God’ law. They know how to tip the hat to Jesus without obeying His actual instructions. This is a huge problem. They promote sensuality, not sober-minded discipleship (Jude 4). Such influencers “are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage." (Jude 16)

Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Among those who lip ‘Jesus is Lord’ but live as if He is not are prophets, exorcists, and miracle-workers who use Jesus’ name as a platform for their words and deeds (Matthew 7:22). To such people Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).

You must understand that there are many influencers out there who give off vibes of high-octane religion (Titus 1:10, 14) and who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” (Titus 1:16)

Beware of those who turn grace into a platform for sinning, or who tell you to put yourself first (be true to yourself, follow your heart, don’t deny yourself), or who make light of righteousness, or who contend that grace and obedience are inherent enemies, or who use the concept of God’s love to undermine the urgent call to repentance. Faithful teachers will help you to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6; cf. Matthew 5:19) and will guide you to live under Jesus’ authority as expressed through the clear and straightforward meaning of biblical texts. But false teachers will dull your appetite for holiness and misguide you into empty religious activity. Avoid them.

Lord-willing, we will continue our survey of false teachings next week. Until then, remain true to Jesus by confessing His glorious name and conducting your life in a way that honors His gracious authority.


[1] Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006: p. 45.

NOTE: Header Image/Featured Image Photo by Paul Morley on Unsplash

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