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 thornbushes, 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.
Matthew 7:15-20 ESV
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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
The words quoted above, from our Lord Jesus Christ and from the Apostle Paul respectively, should serve as a stark reminder that not everything described as being Christian is consistent with the truths revealed to us in Scripture. False prophets have come in many forms over the centuries, from the charlatan “preacher” who promises a counterfeit gospel of self-fulfillment or the (perhaps more well-intentioned, but still incorrect) author who misinterprets or reinterprets doctrine to suit the fickle tastes of the culture at large. Whether the goal is to line their own pockets or to improve upon some perceived area where classical orthodoxy is lacking, they all have one thing in common: they are exchanging the truth for a lie and peddling poison.
Not all false teaching is easily spotted however…one need only take a stroll through the aisles of the nearest Christian bookstore and you will find countless bestsellers that contain wretched distortions and denials of the truths of Scripture. Regrettably some of these best sellers have likely found their way into the hands of Christians in our own church at some point. There are ideas promoted that attack the very nature of God, books that challenge the sufficiency of Scripture by purporting to be the voice of Jesus speaking, and influential speakers that refuse to recognize particular sins. All of these falsehoods are given a thin veneer of Christianity and they are all too often accepted without critical thought being given about their content. Satan loves to masquerade his lies as the truth. These falsehoods are easily circulated in our day. In the past, heresies were spread by word of mouth…today all it takes is a willing publisher or an audience on social media.
Even a subtle and palatable lie is still a lie. Some false doctrine can seem relatively harmless…so much so, that the Christian may not even realize they are latching onto it. Before long, what starts out as a seemingly small departure from orthodoxy can end up as a striking departure from God’s revealed will for the life of a believer. Scripture is sufficient! It’s important to remember that we are directed in Scripture to not add to or take away from the word of God…to do so is a sinful affront to His glory. We need to be cautious that the information we consume is not doing this. Both Hebrews 5 and 1 Corinthians 3 remind us of the vital need for Christians to progress from milk to solid food. That solid food informs our conscience and helps us to be discerning.
I’m convinced that many believers fall victim to false teaching due to a poor exercise of discernment. I believe that this can often be traced back to an individual’s mistaken belief that theology doesn’t matter. Brothers and Sisters, I will say this as emphatically as I can…theology matters…right doctrine matters! By God’s grace, a true yet immature faith is still a saving faith, but a deeper study of His truth can only lead to a deeper understanding of His majesty and His love for us. As Presbyterians, we are heirs to the Reformation and we are recipients of the great Biblical truths that were recovered during that time. Truths which are expressed in our creeds, catechisms, and confessions. Seek them out and study them along with Scripture! Coupled with the ordinary means of Grace, this type of study will inform our consciences and help us to better recognize truth from error. If you don’t know what is true, it’s easy to be lured in by a falsehood. This is a lifelong pursuit and it is part and parcel of our sanctification.
In closing my friends, I urge you to wisely exercise discernment and seek out ways to increase your ability to do so. To that end, I would highly recommend a book by Tim Challies entitled The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. It doesn’t contain a list of books or individuals to avoid, rather it’s filled with Biblical principles and strategies for distinguishing true from false teaching. But ultimately no book, even one that expresses orthodox beliefs, is a replacement for the word of God.
So read your Bibles and be like the Bereans in Acts 17. Compare what you hear from preachers, teachers, authors, bloggers, celebrities, family, and friends, to what God has revealed in His word, and recall 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Scripture is our ultimate rule of faith and practice. So take what God has blessed us with and utilize it to recognize and counter those false teachings that have gained a foothold in the church at large. At the same time, pray and ask God to reveal if there is any area where you may have been led astray in this respect. May God give us the grace to do this so that we may continue to do the work He has called us to.
Soli Deo Gloria