“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
In Peter’s second letter we read the following concerning false teachers:
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.
(2 Pet. 2:1-3)
These words are sobering to those chasing after Christ. Just because someone claims to be a teacher or pastor does not mean his message and teaching is from the Lord. While pithy, a memorable way to identify false teachers is to remember the four traditional operations of arithmetic.
False Teachers Add To God’s Word
In the above text, Peter mentions that these false teachers “will secretly bring in destructive heresies” and “exploit [us] with false words.” Put simply, they will deviate from the true Word of God (Jn. 17:17) given to us in the Bible and elevate lofty, human speculation. Notice they do this in secret. If it was done in plain sight, few would be led astray, but they use bait and switch tactics to add their own deceptive message to God’s perfect Word.
This is what we see with groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). They will tell you that the Bible is their authority, but they stop short of saying it is their final authority or using it as the final revelation to decide matters of faith. In actuality the Jehovah’s Witnesses regard the Watch Tower Magazine as an authority higher than Scripture and their faith is placed in the teaching of this magazine written by false teachers. Similarly, the Mormons equate the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants as authorities on par with Scripture.
As Christians seeking to be discerning in choosing leaders and teachers to follow we need to ask, “is this teacher ‘rightly handling the word of truth’ (2 Tim. 2:5)? Does his interpretation line up with what reasonably and naturally flows out of the text? Or does this seem to be an attempt to add his own human words to that of God’s?”
Just a few verses prior Peter wrote: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). He then goes on to explain how the prophetic Word of God is even more sure than his eyewitness account of Jesus’ work (1:19). This is Peter’s defense of how trustworthy the Bible is. Even his own experience, which confirmed the truth of Scripture, was not as trustworthy as God’s Word. The addition of myth into Christian teaching is an art the false teacher has mastered. He introduces unsubstantiated fables into his message to try and cast doubt on what we know from God’s Word. We must familiarize ourself with the Bible to guard ourselves.
False Teachers Subtract From Jesus’ Divinity
The other thing that is common among false teachers is their attempts to strip Jesus of his divinity. The Bible repeatedly teaches that Jesus is God (an inexhaustible survey could start with “the 1s”—Jn. 1; Col. 1; Heb. 1; Rev. 1), however, false teachers and cults have long tried to attack this doctrine by subtracting from Jesus’ claim to deity. They want to make him something less than God and minimize his work on the cross.
Again, we can look at both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons to see two different ways in which false teachers have tried to subtract from Jesus’ Godhood. Jehovah’s witnesses have done this by producing their own “translation” (a more accurate word would be corruption) of the Scriptures called The New World Translation. Here they have done their best job to remove any reference the Bible makes to Jesus being equal with God. The “translators” who worked on this corruptive translation of Scripture had little to no understanding of the original biblical languages and had sinful, deceptive motives for producing it.
With the Mormons, his divinity is lessened in a different way. Instead of saying he wasn’t God, they say that he became a god and that we too can become gods if we follow their teachings closely. In this way of subtracting from Jesus’ deity we lessen his greatness by making ourselves greater. Sure he may be a god, but we can be too, so what true need do we have of him in the Mormon teaching?
The desire in both of these cases is simply to draw our attention off of Jesus and his grace and onto our own efforts to attain salvation by works. Instead of teaching that Jesus accomplished everything we need on the cross, they teach that we must make strong personal efforts to attain salvation. As Peter wrote they “deny the master who bought them” (2. Pet. 2:1 above) by subtracting from his deity and work. We must stand guard against every attempt false teachers make to take our eyes off of Jesus!
False Teachers Divide Christ’s Church
Peter tells us that “many will follow their sensuality” as these false teachers “bring in destructive heresies.” The word “heresy” in this text could also mean “sect” or “party.” The party-spirit likes to dissent from the well-meaning leaders within the Church. One effect of false teaching is division. It is a common trait that false teachers will say, “my way is the only true way, follow me not him.” Contrast this with the teaching of Paul who wrote:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
(1 Cor. 1:11-13)
True gospel teachers will not divide from other teachers over speculative matters. They know that the work of Christ is more important than their own personal ministry. While they labor to exalt Christ, it is Christ who saves, not them. They cry out with John the baptizer, “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).
False teachers will recruit others to follow them into destruction. An older example could be found in the teaching of Islam. The founder of Islam, Muhammad, had multiple wives the youngest of which he obtained shortly after her ninth birthday when he was over fifty years old! The Koran also promises Muslims a plurality of virgin wives for those who die for their faith. It is not surprising that these teachings would appeal to the sensual desires of young men. As such, Muhammad was able to gain traction and divert people from devotion to Christ when he began teaching a different gospel delivered by an angel (Gal. 1:8) in the late sixth century.
Be alert to the false teacher’s attempts to divide the Church into factions and gain for themselves followers.
False Teachers Multiply Works For Salvation
Finally, Peter writes, “because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.” Notice that there is only one way of truth, not multiple ways. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). Jesus did not claim to know the way, or point to the way, but to actually be the way. As such, false teachers will propose alternate ways of attaining salvation than the one way offered in Jesus. They multiply works for salvation.
In all the examples mentioned so far—Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Islam—you attain salvation not by the work of Jesus on the cross, but by your own works and efforts. A simple question highlights the difference between biblical Christianity and every false teaching: who’s works are being emphasized?
In the Bible, Jesus’ works are central. He lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death on our behalf, and rose from the dead defeating sin and death. A true teacher of God’s Word will never grow tired of heralding these works of Christ. False teachers will always try to spur us on to multiply our own efforts to attain salvation apart from the finished work of Christ. Their motives for doing this are varied but the results are always the same: false teachers add to the perfect Word of God, subtract from the finished work and deity of Christ, divide the true Church of Christ, and multiply works to attain salvation. Because these false teachers often do this under the guise of being “Christian pastors” the true way of Christ is blasphemed and slandered. Be careful to rely solely on the finished work of Christ for salvation and not the sly attempts of others to redirect your faith to your own works.
A Warning About Diagnosing False Teachers
A quick warning is in order for those trying to discern whether someone is a false teacher. A good rule of thumb is to look for all or most of these traits exhibited together in a teacher’s life before making such an assessment about him. Labeling someone with the title “false teacher” is a serious charge that we should not take lightly. There are many matters over which earnest and well-meaning Christians have disagreed without dividing the Church or leading others astray. There is also the very likely possibility that a teacher has misspoken or made a minor theological error that does not accurately represent the entirety of his teaching ministry and beliefs. When in doubt, study further, check God’s Word, Church history, and ask clarifying questions.
With this disclaimer in mind, keep your gaze held firmly on Christ as revealed in the Bible and stay on guard for those that exhibit these qualities. I hope this memorable tool will help you analyze those that might be seeking to lead you astray.
Stay tuned for next week’s post where I will highlight the antidote for false teaching as revealed in Christ!