When we view the situation in some of the historic denominations in the United Kingdom, we see how they are dominated by false teachers. Ministers and elders can hold the most outrageous opinions and yet no action is taken against them.
Trials for heresy seem to have become a thing of the past. We are living in a day when such matters have ceased to concern the evangelical church. Professor Thomas C. Oden has said: ‘The very thought about asking about heresy has itself become the new heresy. The arch-heresiarch is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong’.
An indication of the way heretics were viewed in the past is illustrated in a story about the apostle John. The early church father, Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle, tells of an incident where John abruptly left the public baths at Ephesus when he heard that a false teacher named Cerinthus had entered.
John reportedly said, ‘Let us flee, lest the baths fall in with Cerinthus; the enemy of the truth is within’. Why did the gentle ‘apostle of love’ react so vehemently against Cerinthus? Because Cerinthus denied the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
God is the real and true God over against the false gods, which are ‘vanities’. Truth does not merely pertain to Christ, but he is himself the truth (John 1:1-2). He is the ground of all truth.
There is a correspondence between God’s being and his revelation in word and deed. God cannot lie, nor can he deny himself. Whatever he reveals is truth. The God who has revealed himself in Christ is the only real and true God (John 17:3).
The lie is opposed to the truth. The lie began with Satan when he attacked the Word of God. God had spoken the truth in forbidding our first parents to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’.
Satan forged the first lie by saying to Eve, ‘Ye shall not surely die’. Jesus later declared that the devil ‘abode not in the truth’ and is ‘the father of lies’ (John 8:44). He is also ‘a murderer from the beginning’, because lies are fatal for the souls of men and women.
Satan went on attacking the truth of God throughout the history of the Old Testament. The assault on the people of Israel was like a war on the Word of God. He made his fiercest attack on the Lord Jesus Christ, who came as the truth incarnate. He distorted the Word of God during their confrontation in the wilderness.
Jesus answered him with the true Word and gained the final victory on the cross. Although Satan suffered a death blow there, he resumed his activities against the church, the body of Christ.
The final revelation of the truth of God was given by the apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to form the canon of Scripture. This gave the church for all time the definitive statement of the Christian faith.
The church is the pillar and ground of the truth. It is objective truth and it is in this confession of the truth that the church’s identity is preserved across the ages.
Paul in his farewell address to the elders at Ephesus gave them a solemn charge: ‘Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.It is clear from accounts we have in the Acts of the Apostles that the devil’s twin weapons against the church is persecution and false doctrine. In places where persecution assails the church, it serves to safeguard purity of doctrine. In places where it does not, then error and heresy can spread so easily.
‘For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them’ (Acts 20:28).
Many of the epistles were written to counter the rise of false teaching. In one of his earliest epistles Paul has to contend against the spread of a false gospel. He said of those who were perverting the gospel in the churches of Galatia, ‘But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:8).
Commenting on this statement, J. Gresham Machen said, ‘Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him? Surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity? As a matter of fact, however, Paul did nothing of the kind; and only because he (and others) did nothing of the kind does the Christian church exist today’.
When Paul takes the church at Corinth to task for tolerating false teachers, he compares the approach of these teachers to the deception of Eve by the serpent (2 Corinthians 11:3). He similarly warned Timothy about ‘deceitful spirits and the teaching of demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1), and false teachers in the ‘snare of the devil’ (2 Timothy 2:25-26).
The apostle John in his epistles is warning about the activity of the devil, ‘the wicked one’ (1 John 5:18). He declares that the person who denies that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is antichrist. The theology of the heretic is not just defective, it is diabolical.
Such is a false prophet, and John says, ‘Try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world’ (1 John 4:1). And he makes it clear what our approach should be to them: ‘If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; for he that biddeth him God speed, is partaker of his evil deeds’ (2 John 10-11).
It is evident from the Bible and church history that Satan is subtle, evasive and devious. His chief weapon is what the Bible calls the ‘deceivableness of unrighteousness’ (2 Thessalonians 2:10). That is why the church and especially shepherds of the flock have ever to be on the alert.
Cyprian of Carthage in the third century said: ‘There is more need to fear and beware of the enemy when he creeps up secretly, when he beguiles us with a show of peace and steals forward by those hidden approaches which have earned him the name of “serpent”.
‘He invented heresies and schisms, so as to undermine faith, to corrupt the truth, to sunder our unity. Those whom he failed to keep in the blindness of their old ways he beguiles and leads them up a new road of illusion’.
The deceit of Satan, that led to the rise of Romanism and ‘the dark ages’, prevailed for many centuries. When the light of gospel truth shone again in the sixteenth century, the Reformers sought to safeguard the faith in confessions and catechisms and by the exercise of church discipline.
For them discipline was one of the marks of the true church. Heretics and false teachers were tried and excommunicated. The Reformers withstood the attacks from Romanism.
John J. Murray ministered in the Free Church Continuing (FCC) before retiring. He was Moderator of the FCC General Assembly in 2003.