False Teachers Part 4
FALSE TEACHERS: PART 4
We are in the midst of a series of reflections on the subject of false teachers. I have defined false teachers as “people who have a voice within the Christian community and who use their position and influence to steer the church family and individual Christians away from the Bible’s clear theological and moral instruction” (Part 1). These false influencers are known by their unsavory character (Part 2) and/or their deviant doctrine (Part 3).
In the last installment we also began to look at specific instances of faulty teaching. Some false teachers deny the identity of Jesus: they might deny His deity or His Messiahship or His incarnate manhood. Other false teachers, although they may say many true things about Jesus, deny His practical and moral authority over such things as money (“God wants you to enjoy a financially prosperous lifestyle”), marriage (“same-sex marriage is okay”), church discipline (“we don't do that here because we’re a non-judgmental church”), or civil lawsuits between believers (“it’s okay to take your brother before a non-Christian judge in order to secure your rights”). In case you are wondering, the quotes in parentheses are examples of faulty teaching. If you teach people to disobey Scripture or set aside the Lord’s commands, you are a false teacher.
As promised, we are now moving into a third critical area where some false teachers like to maneuver.
Critical Point #3: Misapplying the Old Testament Law
Before we enter the thick of this doctrinal pitfall, we need to state clearly and without equivocation that God’s law – all of it – is good. “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12) We ought to delight in God’s instruction (Psalm 1:2) and love God’s law (Psalm 119:97) so much that God’s words are “sweeter than honey to [our] mouth” (Psalm 119:103). Who is “great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19)? “[Whoever] does [the commandments] and teaches them” (Matthew 5:19). People who denigrate or disregard God’s commands (Part 3, Critical Point #2) are not in step with the Holy Spirit. “I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts.” (Psalm 119:63)
So far, so good. But as with anything and everything else, sinners are apt to mishandle good and holy things. The Israelites in general, and the Pharisees in particular, could have a “zeal for God” (Romans 10:2) and could see themselves as blameless and righteous “under the law” (Philippians 3:5-6), and yet they could at the very same time actually be alienated from God and under His wrath. Their outward devotion was coupled with an inward corruption: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). Their preoccupation with their interpretation of the letter of the law was coupled with ignorance concerning the intent of the law (Matthew 9:10-13, Mark 2:23-3:6). What is the intent of the law? Love (Mark 12:28-34).
But the intent of the law can only be grasped in the context of having fellowship with the Lord, and fellowship with the Lord can only be attained by God’s redeeming grace, which you and I must receive by faith alone (Romans 9:30-33). As long as we think that our works are necessary in order to get into a right relationship with the Lord, our works will only stink to high heaven and will only ensure our continued alienation from God. Such people are utterly incapable of correctly handling and keeping God’s law, regardless of how many boxes are checked on their religious scorecard. But when God creates a lively faith in someone’s heart, this is a game changer: a believer’s lively faith works through love, and such love fulfills the law (Galatians 5:6, 13-14).
So, the people who care most deeply about fulfilling the law are the people who are trusting Jesus and being transformed by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). Such people don’t obey God's commands in order to create a relationship with the Father; instead, they obey God's commands in order to honor the Father who has justified them by His grace. Further, such people don’t obey God's commands in their own strength; instead, whatever progress they make on the path of obedience is empowered by the Holy Spirit who works within them. Such people are not overburdened religionists; instead, they increasingly exhibit the deep joy and warm glow of loving other people for Jesus’ sake. Law-keeping is about love, and true sacrificial joyful love is the most beautiful thing in the world. And “love is from God” (1 John 4:7).
But beware, my fellow Christians: there are many false teachers on the loose who mishandle the Old Testament law and will, if they have their way, undermine your capacity for faith, love, and joy. So stay with me as we look at two New Testament passages.
When People Use God’s Law to Undermine the Gospel of Free Grace
The gospel message declares that God graciously rescues sinners from sin and death and hell without their help. God reconciles sinners to Himself through the perfect obedience and atoning sacrifice of His beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and reigns at the Father’s right hand. When God redeems a particular sinner, He opens that sinner’s heart to receive the message, grants him repentance to turn away from his sin, and creates within him a faith-filled heart that lays hold of King Jesus and His grace. In this way, we are justified by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There is nothing that a sinner can do to earn this fellowship with God in the first place, and then there is nothing that a redeemed sinner can pay at any time afterward in order to keep his justification intact.
Now it is true, of course, that a professing Christian’s ongoing disobedience may demonstrate that he or she was never truly justified in the first place. The obedience that follows regeneration (being born again) and justification (being set right with God) is necessary both to authenticate that one’s faith is genuine and to anticipate one’s future glorification. But let everyone understand that a true Christian’s growth in obedience earns nothing from God and cannot add anything to one’s standing with God, but instead serves to confirm and verify that his or her fellowship with the Lord is genuine.
However, there were false teachers making the rounds in the early church who insisted that you ‘must’ do certain things in order to be in a right relationship with God, or at least to be in a first class relationship with God. Who wants to be a second class citizen in God’s kingdom, right?
The Jerusalem Council
Over time the gospel made its way from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria, where this gospel gave birth to a vibrant Christian community. In due course some teachers from Judea visited the Antioch church with a pointed message: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) This led to a debate: Paul and Barnabas got into it with these questionable teachers, but the situation was not sufficiently resolved until the Antioch church sent a delegation to the mother church in Jerusalem. “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” (Acts 15:2) At this Jerusalem Council, some Pharisees who had become Christian believers advocated: “It is necessary to circumcise them [Gentile or non-Jewish Christians] and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)
But the apostles and elders did not agree with these believing but misguided Pharisees. The apostles and elders understood that God had bestowed the Holy Spirit on Gentile believers (Acts 15:8) apart from circumcision and that God had “cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9) apart from circumcision. The logic of justification by law-keeping (which the Bible rejects) is ‘do the works of the law and you will be saved’. The logic of justification by grace is ‘hear the message about what Christ has done and believe’. Peter declared, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.” (Acts 15:7) Thus Gentile Christians are saved by faith apart from works. And that’s how Jewish Christians are saved, too: “But we believe that we [Jews who believe in Jesus] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles who believe in Jesus] will.” (Acts 15:11)
Over to Galatia
The apostle Paul faced the same challenge as he ministered to the churches of Galatia. False teachers were circulating among the Galatian congregations. These trouble-makers were distorting the gospel (Galatians 1:6-7) and were insisting that Gentile believers must be circumcised and perform “works of the law” (Galatians 2:15-16, 3:1-6) in order to be in right relationship with God. So Paul reminded the Galatians that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 2:16) and that they had received the Holy Spirit “by hearing [the gospel message] with faith” and not “by works of the law” (Galatians 3:2). Then later Paul tells the Galatians that if they look to the law as the path to justification, then they are doomed:
“I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:2-4)
Of course, no one will succeed at being justified by keeping the law, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But Paul concludes Galatians 5 with a stunning irony: it is the very people who know that they could never “keep the whole law” as the path to justification, and who consequently trust Jesus to justify them by His grace, who end up imperfectly but truly fulfilling the whole law in everyday life as the Holy Spirit produces love in and through their lives (Galatians 5:6, 13-14, 16-26).
Then and now, there are enemies of free grace who insist that you must do [a], [b], [c],… and [q] in order to be justified in God’s sight or in order to be a first-class member of God’s family or in order to become a beloved daughter or son of our Father in heaven. These false teachers put your obedience in the justification column, and that ruins both your obedience and your justification. Instead of holding up the finished work of Christ as the all-sufficient ground of your reconciliation to the Father who loves you, these destructive influencers are always holding ‘what you have to do’ over your head: you must keep certain food laws (Colossians 2:16), observe certain feast days (Colossians 2:16), adopt Jewish customs, use the Hebrew names for God, recite certain prayers, give away a certain amount of money, implement the right religious disciplines, pursue supernatural experiences, avoid certain habits, and [fill in the blank], then you’ll have a right relationship with the Father. Their anti-gospel message is clear: the grace of Jesus isn’t enough to get you into fellowship with the Father, so you must add on some good deeds of your own to cover the balance. These ‘must do add-ons’ are focused on your own fleshly performance, when what you should be focused on is Christ’s faithful performance. Christ’s faithful performance is beautiful, compelling, flawless, and enough for you. Don’t cheapen His obedience and sacrifice by treating it as insufficient.
Brothers and sisters, you are alive and complete and well-nourished and secure in Him (Colossians 2:6-3:4), and the everyday Christian life is the overflow of the fullness that you have in Him (Colossians 3:1-4:6). And this fullness is all of grace. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
 Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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