by Mike Ratliff
“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)
I received an email today from John Hendryx at Monergism.com in which he posted the link to an interview he had given on the Exiled Preacher blog. The last question he was asked during the interview was, “What is the biggest problem facing Evangelical Reformed Christianity at this time and how should we respond?” John’s response is below.
I believe one of the biggest problems facing Evangelicals is the false teaching that Christianity is primarily about what we do for Jesus, not about what He has done for us. This has profoundly negative implications for everything else we exegete in the Bible. Ethics, in this case, has trumped salvation. This error really strikes at the heart of the gospel and there is no doubt the problem has reached crisis levels in our local churches. In the 1980s, some in the church had issue with receiving Christ as Lord, but today the difficulty seems to be with receiving Christ as Savior. It is pretty horrifying. Jesus and Paul seemed to have no difficulty confronting heresy but oddly the spirit of the age drives many Christians to have an aversion to it. Yes, we must respond to the crisis with humility, that is, with personal and corporate repentance and prayer before we boldly confront the heresy.
What struck me as I read John’s interview was that I had read 1 Timothy 4 just a few hours earlier during my morning devotion. This passage was Paul’s instruction to Timothy on what he must do to be effective in leading his flock in the face of heresy and all false teaching that was attacking the Church at that time.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)
Paul begins his instruction to Timothy by indentifying the false teaching. The Holy Spirit had made it explicitly clear to Paul that the ‘later times’ would be marked by increasing apostasy in the visible Church. The ‘ later times’ is what we often refer to as the Church Age so this would include the time of Paul and Timothy. What do these false teachers do? They depart from the faith. That means that their ‘doctrines’ are not orthodox Christianity. The source of these false doctrines is demonic. Deceitful spirits have deceived these false teachers. What should the response of the Church be towards this?
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19 ESV)
As always, the answer is repentance. When something that is prevalent is proven to be heretical then genuine believers must examine themselves and seek the cleansing of the Lord through confession and turning away from the wickedness that has deceived them.
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:6-10 ESV)
Notice that Paul exhorts Timothy to put ‘these things’ before the brothers. What things? This is speaking of what Paul has just shared in vv1-5. Good Pastors are never slack about warning the flock of danger. How is it that one can know what is false and what is not? It is by being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that he or she is following. This is why good doctrine should be taught to all Christians. It is not just for preachers, teachers, and theologians. God says that His people perish from the lack of knowledge. He then counsels Timothy to avoid being bogged down in silly myths. Instead, he exhorts Timothy to train himself for godliness. Why? Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. In other words, walking in repentance, denying self, and obeying our Lord in all we do and think brings us joy in this life and lays up treasure for the life to come. We can do this my brethren because our hope is set on the living God, our Saviour.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11-16 ESV)
Pastors must command and teach from good doctrine. They must disciple their flocks to walk in repentance so that godliness grows. They are to set an example for their flocks in how they talk and interact with everyone. They do this from a motivation of love that reveals the depths of their faith and purity of their hearts. Paul then commands Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, exhortation, and teaching. This is expounding the Word of God to the flock. This is not teaching self-help junk on how to have your best life now, but is what all pastors are called to do, that is, the rightly dividing of the Word of Truth to their flocks. The gift given to all preachers is by the Holy Spirit, but it can be neglected or misused. Paul tells him that he must practice these things even to the point of immersing himself in them. Why? It is so his flock can witness his spiritual growth through them. The Pastor must persist in doing these things. Why? It is through them that will enable them to persevere in the faith. Never forget my brethren, the proof of ones salvation is their perseverance. Those Pastors who are faithful in their calling by doing these things will also be used by God to lead their flock into perseverance as well.
The way we can stand and not fall when confronted by false teachers and bad doctrine is to remain grounded in the Word of God and to hold to good doctrine. We must teach others the truth. We must warn others of the dangers of flirting with bad doctrine and silly myths. Deceitful spirits seeking to shipwreck the faith of many inhabit these things. We know doctrine is good or bad by knowing scripture. Shame on the Pastor who neglects the gift given to him to rightly divide the Word of Truth. They seek their own instead of the edification of their flocks. These are hirelings rather than bondservants, slaves, of the Lord.
Pastors, I exhort you to take this seriously. I pray for you to seek the face of the Lord in this and repent of what He shows you. To everyone else I pray that you will pray for your Pastor that God will use him in a mighty way to lead his flock into the light and feed them the good food of God’s Word. If we will do this then there will be no confusion about what the Gospel is. Instead, the Gospel will be shaping us unto the image of Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria!