The Apostle Paul issued abundant warnings against the proponents of false teaching. It would be nothing strange for opponents of the gospel to emerge from the pagan world. Philosophers and religionists of various kinds would range their beliefs and arguments against the message of the early church. It would be inevitable also that advocates of alien cultish ideas and practices would invade Christian circles corrupting doctrine with the aim of recruiting converts to their own persuasion for profit and prestige. The Apostles were dealing with such folk from the outset of their ministries and very watchful over their flock. Doctrine is of the highest importance for it is inspired description of the nature and ways of God and the plight and rescue of mankind. Error in belief jeopardizes salvation in the way that all false information has dangerous consequences. Hence Paul’s pugnacity and passion in his letter to the Galatians and his urgent injunctions throughout his entire correspondence. A casual attitude to theology reveals a casual attitude to Christ, for his glory is displayed in the majesty that is merciful and in the method of his grace. The believer loves to trace these things in enhancement of his assurance and the adoration he accords to his Redeemer. The church has fallen into step with a cynical world in disparaging terms such as doctrine, dogma, principle and instruction, and in exalting experience and emotion as ultimate and authoritative. Revelling in feelings can be nothing short of self gratification, which is not to allege that feeling should not accompany faith. Safe subjectivity can only arise from sure knowledge. Practical Christianity that is of any value has to emerge from propositional truth. Beauty of holiness has to be born of accurate belief. Understanding and experience have to be combined in a balanced fashion. If disproportionate they become distasteful. It’s the old story of unity of head and heart that is achievable through grace and humility. Proper teaching is designed to prevent the peril of the soul and protect, keeping intact, the way of salvation. False signposts lead to a fatal end; they do not point out the way home, and the desire of the church is to bring many souls home to God by the only safe route - Jesus Christ as he is presented in Holy Scripture. We declare Scripture with care because it yields deliverance and delight in God.
Paul sounds a necessary alarm because it is certain that men will propose alternative guidance to the gospel, some through pride of intellect and obduracy of heart, and others through captivity to avarice and licentiousness which they cannot bear to have restricted by the precepts of God’s word. In fact, many intellectual objections to Christian belief cloak immoral tendencies.
The surprising and disturbing caution of Paul refers to something far more sinister than hostility to the people of God from outside. He first predicts the arrival of savage wolves who “will come in among you and will not spare the flock”, but even more ominously he forecasts the fact that, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29-30). The most destructive threat will come from inside, from those who cultivate a reputation for reliability and winsomeness. In all probability they will not be strident in their departure from truth, but subtle, selective in the use of Scripture, cleverly smuggling in ideas and notions that appear to be compatible. Just a tweak of the dial can take you to a different wave length. These impostors will lean to one side in emphasis, and with an ear to people’s wants, will charm a host of followers with their plausible rhetoric and attractive gimmicks, especially so-called miracles, or a mysticism that poses as Christian spirituality but which actually derives from another source. It is impossible to check mysticism from experience and a sense of pleasure alone. It must be compared with Scripture and the whole of Scripture (the analogy of faith).
The deceiver from “your own number” (who may even be self-deceived) will have gained credibility for orthodoxy. A solid reputation may be maintained for some time whilst he gradually veers into departure from truth and ultimately internal, if not discernable, denial of the gospel. There will be dilution of truth, ambiguity of language, evasiveness as to key issues, and the furtive importation of foreign ideas. The poisonous potion he administers will be a blend of worldly philosophy, a retrieval of ancient superstition, or a beguiling brew of sentimentality and flattery of the ego. Folk will coo over the leader who fosters a cosiness within themselves. His popularity and prominence will bring a sense of prestige to them and the idol of their mutual worship will be the ugly god of human pride. This is religion that is slick, glossy, successful, and personality centred with the constant promotion and celebration of the leader. Because human nature craves to emulate the success of others it will readily associate with the successful and bathe in reflected glory.
Paul exhorts, “be on your guard!” Observe closely and evaluate what is said according to the word of God – not simply snappy citations from the Bible that become slogans or familiar “fillers” in pauses of thought and speech. Depth and diversity (not divergence) in the exposition of Scripture is desirable. The word of God is rich and its proclamation cannot be reduced to a matter of arid repetition. The false gospel avoids conviction of sin and exhortation to repentance and usually winds up promoting self esteem rather than salvation from self. It usually has a universalist and all inclusive tone to it, erases all distinctions between true faith and faith that is spurious, regards doctrine as unnecessarily divisive whereas it is meant to sift. Teaching that is suspect cannot tolerate the particularism of the gospel i.e. the uniqueness of Christ as the only Saviour and the difference grace creates between his people and those of the world. Its catchword is “love” – love that is approval of persons and conduct without regard to holiness and all that allegiance to God and his truth implies. Godly righteousness will soon be stamped out as being contrary to the ever prevailing mood of “love” – love that is merely the pleasing of self and the permission of self gratification in others (unbridled hedonism).
Within the mix of the visible and invisible church there is also the existence of the counterfeit church which, with devilish ingeniousness, attempts to resemble the true church (Revelation 13). Its appealing words and astonishing wonders will prove convincing to many. What it offers will answer to the desires of the natural heart. Satan is the angel of light to the undiscerning, “who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9). The church must never underestimate the extent of the evil one’s dominion over our race. Nor must we forget the predicted falling away within the church and the judicial delusion that will lead many astray. The father of lies is endlessly inventive and active and his intent is the destruction of the church through deception and the seduction of well crafted temptation presented as desirable and even beneficial (Genesis 3:6). We must not neglect to conduct an internal audit. From our own number the lies will be produced. En garde!