False Teachers in the Church by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Expository Sermons on 2 Peter.” The sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from October 1946 to March 1947. It was originally printed in 1948-1950. The current publication is in 1999.
`But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.’ (2 Peter 2:1-3 KJV)
The typical message of the New Testament is the one we find in this chapter—it is minatory, threatening, couched in words of warning. Indeed, the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, would contend that this world is not only dangerous for all men, but it is even dangerous for Christians, and these messages were written very specifically for Christian people. The argument of the New Testament put by Peter in this Epistle, as in his First Epistle, is that `judgment begins at the house of God, and if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?’ That is his argument, that even for those who are Christian the world is a dangerous place because of the evil powers and forces that are arrayed against us, which are at all times trying to draw us away from God. Therefore, you Christian people, he says in effect, be on your guard, observe, take heed, watch and pray! These are his words, and they are the great watchword of the New Testament. In other words, he would have us realise and understand that the fight can be so hot and difficult that there will be times when even Christian people will begin to feel almost hopeless and will wonder what is taking place, and will be tempted to listen to the innuendoes of the Evil One.
Now the only way to guard against that, according to this Book, is that we should realise that this is going to happen, and that we should prepare ourselves for it. Knowing what is going to take place, we should be fully armed and therefore never be taken by surprise. But, and it is to this I want to refer particularly, the forces of evil that are arrayed against us are never quite so dangerous as when they speak to us as false prophets, or false teachers. The forces of evil have an almost endless variety of ways in which they deal with us; but according to the New Testament they are never quite so subtle and dangerous as when they appear amongst us as prophets, false prophets who would represent themselves as true and able to guide us and show us the way of deliverance and escape. Now you observe that Peter says here that this was the case in the Old Testament. The Bible has a term which is used in the New Testament to describe the Jews—‘the people’ and Peter says,—`There were false prophets also among the people [under the Old Dispensation], even as there shall be false teachers among you.’ Now this is the situation as it applies to us. There were false prophets and teachers in the early church; there are still false prophets and teachers; and if we are to understand the times in which we live, the first thing we have to do is to realise that the greatest danger confronting us today is the danger that arises from false prophets and false teachers. Therefore there is nothing more important for us than that we should be clear in our minds as to how to differentiate between the true and the false.
There is no need to describe the difficult world situation in which we find ourselves—everybody is aware of it. We are aware of difficulties and problems. The whole question for us is how we are to face what is happening and going to happen. Now the greatest of all dangers on that particular point is the danger that arises from false teachers and prophets, those who would come to us apparently in the name of God, and yet are nothing but the messengers of Satan. That is the thing that Peter tells these first Christians they must be aware of—they must be careful to observe and to act in this matter of discrimination. Today we are confronted by precisely the same condition. Look at the multiplicity of advice being offered, look at the theories being propagated, look at all the solutions that are being offered, and all the clever people that are writing and telling us what ought to be done. The whole art of life is to be able to discriminate between the true and the false, and then to reject the false utterly and to cleave to that which alone is ultimately true. In view of this let us listen to the help and advice that is given to us here by the Apostle, for he tells us of a way in which we can very clearly differentiate between the true prophet and the false. What has he to say about it?
Let us consider first of all the negative tests which he suggests to us. There are certain wrong ways of estimating the truth or falsity of a prophet and his teaching. What are these? Well, the first wrong way of deciding whether a teaching is true or not is to allow its newness or its modernity to determine whether it is right or not. There is no need to stay with this because it is the most obvious of all the fallacies, and yet there are people who are obviously victims of it. It is another way of saying, `Anything that is new must be right.’ This fatal belief in inevitable advance—just taking it for granted that because we are living in the twentieth century we must, in these matters, know something which men living in the last century could not—how common an assumption it is! The New Testament always gives the lie direct to this particular fallacy. Peter puts it like this: `There were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you.’ That is New Testament philosophy of history—as there were, even so there shall be. In other words, the world remains the same, and there is nothing so pathetic as the belief that because we are living in the twentieth century we are in a different world from the world inhabited by our forefathers. The answer of the Bible is that since the fall of man this world has remained exactly and precisely the same. Of course there are superficial changes, but they are utterly irrelevant. Men dress in a different way, men travel in a different way, but we are not discussing superficialities, we are discussing man’s problems with respect to life. And when you look at it in that way you find at once that the world remains exactly the same. There were false prophets, and there will be. So that if we fondly imagine because we are living in the twentieth century that we are in a superior position to face the problems of life, then we are doomed to failure and disaster. The problem is still the same. Man is still tempted by the Devil not to believe in God and not to obey God—that has been going on ever since the fall of man and it is the central problem now. I trust therefore that there is no one who still harbours the particularly fatuous and futile fallacy that because we live at this particular moment, and because of recent new ideas, we are in some specially advantageous position to meet the problems and battles of life.
The second test with respect to the wrong way of testing the false prophets is the fallacy of always assuming that if the teaching is popular it must be right. `Many shall follow their pernicious ways,’ says Peter. False teachers are going to arise amongst you, he says, and they will attract a crowd—`many shall follow their pernicious ways’. Surely this fallacy hardly merits any prolonged attention, but I have to refer to it because one still hears the glib phrases, `Everybody believes it’, or to put it negatively, `No one any longer believes the Bible; no cultured, educated person believes; look at the masses outside the church.’ Therefore it is assumed that Christianity must be wrong because the crowd is always right! That position is so childish and so foolish that it is hardly worthy of serious consideration; but
Truth for ever on the scaffold,
Wrong for ever on the throne
is as true for our age as for any time in the history of the world. `Many shall follow their pernicious ways.’ What is the lesson of the New Testament and of the Bible on this matter? Go back to the Flood for an answer—you will find the whole world was wrong and only eight people right. The many were against God at the time of the Flood; only eight people were saved. Is a thing true because everybody says and believes it? Then go on to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—what do you find? Exactly the same thing; the many, the mass, were all on the wrong side. Lot and his family alone were rescued. That is the teaching of the Bible. It has always taught the doctrine of the remnant—the many, the popular, the crowd all going in the wrong direction and just the small remnant remaining true. To me one of the saddest features, even of modern religious life, is the tendency to estimate truth in terms of results, popularity, crowds, movements. It is an utter denial of the biblical teaching. You cannot estimate spiritual truth by polls; the counting of heads is not a biblical way of discovering whether teaching is right or wrong. You do not take a census and ask people to fill in certain details. `To the law and the testimony’! Popularity and numbers are a very false test of truth.
But let me go on to something which is still more serious. The fact that the message is taught even by the church is no guarantee that it is true. Listen. `There were false prophets also.’ Where? In the world, in the nation, outside Israel? No, amongst `the people’—even as there `shall be false teachers’. Where? In the world, in the unbelievers outside the church? Not at all! `Among you.’ Now this is not an isolated text. If you read the twentieth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles you see Paul bidding farewell to the leaders of the church at Ephesus. He tells them exactly the same thing. There is scarcely a New Testament Epistle that does not warn the Christians against false teachers amongst themselves in the church. The mere fact that a message is preached in and by the church is no guarantee that it is true. There are such things as false professors in the church, false Christians, people who imagine they are Christian but who are not Christian and therefore preach and teach a false message. This, I say, is the most serious matter of all, and here we have to be particularly wary at the present time.
For I think you will agree that the prevailing tendency is not to talk about and write about the truth itself. The whole emphasis at the moment is that we should all be getting together and forming great organisations. The concern is not so much as to the truth of the message, but to gather ourselves together into one great community. The tendency today is to minimise truth in favour of organisation, and men are telling us with unwearied reiteration that the greatest tragedy of the world is the disunited church. But the tragedy, the greatest tragedy, as I understand the New Testament, is not the disunity of the church, is not the fact that the church is divided into groups and denominations, is not that we are not all in one organisation, but that all the sections are preaching a false message and there has been a departure from the truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus. If we were all brought together and formed into one organisation, that is no guarantee that the message preached would be true. There are false teachers; there were in the Old Testament and there are and always have been in the church. There is nothing quite so sad and pathetic as the way in which certain church members seem to think that whatever is preached in the denomination to which they belong must be right; and yet the whole time the New Testament tells us that this is no proof of truth. We cannot assume that any man that stands up in the church is a true prophet. He may be a false teacher and prophet. So that if we glibly assume that because the ‘church’ is preaching something it must be right, we are in the greatest danger possible of being led by false prophets. . . .
Those are the wrong tests. How do we test in a positive manner? Peter says, Go to the Bible! Consider the marks of the false prophet. Their characteristics are all there and are always the same. Read them in the New Testament. See them also in the subsequent history of the Christian church. The type never varies or changes. What are these characteristics? The first, says Peter, is that he has not been called—he has not been called by God. He is a false prophet, not only false in what he teaches, but false in his appointment. He is no prophet at all. You notice here again that he is obviously contrasting this type of individual with the kind of prophet he has been describing in the previous chapter. There, he says of the true prophet something like this: `Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any human origin [it is not of private interpretation or theory or idea] for prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’ There is the true prophet. He does not spin out his own theories or elaborate his own ideas. He is a man who does not will to speak or decide to speak; he is a man taken hold of by the Holy Spirit. He is given a message, he is moved, carried along in stating it. `But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you.’ What is the characteristic of the false prophet? First of all —he has not been called. He is unlike the true prophet. The false prophet speaks of his own will; he elaborates his own ideas. He has no real authority, he has no ultimate sanction. In other words, the false prophet is always a man who is giving expression to his own theories and ideas.
In saying that, I am describing the last hundred years. How true it is! Think how philosophies have replaced revelation during that period. What is philosophy? Human ideas! On the other hand to believe in revelation is to say, I believe the Word of God. But that has been put on one side, and man’s philosophy is what has been popular—human ideas. Let me mention some of them. Take for example the theory of the evolution of man. We are told that our first fathers were apes. Is there any proof of that? It is nothing but pure theory, yet it has been accepted, it has been taken as an utterly established fact. There isn’t a vestige of proof behind it. That is what the false prophet always does; he evolves a theory and then presents it as fact. He has no sanction or authority—that is why he is false.
What else? Take psychology. Men in the mass believe that psychology has utterly exploded Christianity and religion. What is it? Nothing but a theory. Look at the different schools of psychology, how they cancel one another out. And yet on these mere theories and suppositions we are asked to reject the Bible and disbelieve the Gospel. This wonderful theory states that by application of psychology we can rid ourselves of all personal ills and all national and international ills; and yet, alas! we often find that the very people who propagate this theory, themselves fall victims to the very things they claim to cure. And then, what of the statements that have so often been made, that miracles are impossible, statements given by many as a reason for not believing the New Testament? Have they ever been proved? Take again all the talk about comparative religions, and the confident claims of so-called assured results of the higher criticism, so many of which have been destroyed by archaeologists. It has all been theory; and in the name of these theories and suppositions, and without any divine sanction and authority, men have been denying the Gospel, and have given themselves to a belief in these theories. But what makes it still more false is that, often, all that kind of teaching has been given in terms of this Book. Surely the ultimate difference between the true prophet and the false one is this, that the true prophet preaches the message of the Bible, and the other preaches what he thinks the Bible ought to be saying and teaching. That is the first characteristic of the false prophet; he is not called, he has no real authority and sanction.
In the second place, the false prophet has not a true message. What are the characteristics of his message? Well, says Peter, many shall follow their pernicious ways, and `through covetousness shall they with feigned words’—clever words, smooth and easy words—`make merchandise of you.’ That is their teaching. The second characteristic of the false prophet is that he is always comforting. He never criticises, never makes us feel uncomfortable. He always tries to say what we want him to say. And then, says Peter, he is also covetous; he always desires popular applause. Also, he comes `with feigned words’. He never makes you feel you are a sinner, he never makes you feel you are lost, he never makes you hate yourself and the sin that is in you. He is always telling you in one way or other that you are wonderful, if only you were given decent circumstances. `Feigned words’!
But, still more seriously, the ultimate way of testing a message is this. The false prophet and teacher denies the Lord that has bought him—`denying the Lord that bought them’ and there are more ways than one of doing this. Sometimes they deny the Lord that has bought them by just leaving Him out altogether. They purport to give a Christian message, and yet the name of Christ is never mentioned. God is mentioned, but Christ the Lord is not. They deny Him by leaving Him out. Sometimes they deny Him by not making Him absolutely central, vital and essential. If Christ is not in the centre, He is being denied. He is either in the centre or He is nowhere. Again, they may deny Him by denying His Person, by regarding Him as a man only, as a great teacher, a wonderful example, but denying His Deity—denying Him as God-Man, the ‘theanthropos’, in all the glory and fulness of His blessed Person. Or they deny Him most of all and most seriously by denying His atoning work, by denying the fact that if He had not gone to the cross every man would remain doomed and under the wrath of God, by denying that this is the only way to God, by failing to see themselves as hopeless, damned sinners who are only saved because He bore their sins in His own body on the cross—denying the centrality of the cross! `denying the Lord that bought them’. Whatever teaching a man may have to offer to you, if the Christ on Calvary’s Cross is not the central pivot at the heart of it, I say he is a false prophet and a false teacher. And no one can give hope, either to the individual or to the world today, who is not centred absolutely upon that atonement. He is a false prophet and teacher.
But lastly, according to Peter, false prophets and teachers are false in their lives and living. They haven’t a true calling, they haven’t a true message; neither have they a true way of living—a true life. And many shall follow their `pernicious ways’, or if you prefer the translation of the margin, their `lascivious ways’. That is always true; false teaching always leads to false living.
During the last hundred years we have been told that the evangelical Gospel was adequate for giving men a personal experience, but that it did not deal with ethics, it did not deal with social conditions. It brought men to a personal conversion but it did not really uplift the masses and the race. So they began to preach a so-called ethical Gospel. What has it led to? It always has the same effect. Look at the state of society in these days, with all its immorality and vice. If the message is wrong, the life will always be wrong. A false view of life always leads to wrong living and a lower ethical standard, even though you preach ethics. You cannot separate these things. Holiness must never be separated from the Cross. You cannot put the New Testament doctrine into compartments and have a special movement for each. They all go together. There is no holiness unless it comes from the crucified Christ. The doctrines of life are inseparable.
Very well, there I have brought you face to face with some of the characteristics of the false prophet and teacher. If these tests had been applied as diligently as they should have been during the last hundred years, would the Christian church be as she is today? Would society be as it is today? Would the world be as it is today? Oh, the tragedy of forgetting the tests of God’s Word and elaborating our own superficial so-called philosophical tests! We should ask ourselves some questions, and I suggest to you that they are these. First, what is my view of the world today and of its future? How do I view it? Do I view history in the light of this Book or in the light of popular philosophies? Do I see this world as the seat of a mighty spiritual conflict? Do I see it heading up to an ultimate cataclysmic crisis, the time of it unknown but the fact inevitable? The second vital question is this—What is Christ to me? Where does He come into my scheme of things? Is He absolutely vital? Am I depending utterly upon Him? Do I say with honesty, `Simply to Thy cross I cling’, and `Helpless, look to Thee for grace’? Have I an ever-deepening view of the holiness of God and of my own sinfulness as I compare myself with what I was a year ago? Can I honestly say that I see the holiness of God more than I have ever done before, and my own sinfulness more deeply than I have ever done before? Am I therefore driven more and more back to Him, the Lord that bought me, and who will hold me until ultimately He presents me perfect, spotless, without blame and blemish in the presence of God with exceeding joy? [124-133]
New Living Translation quoted 2 Peter 2:1-3 as follows:
‘But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach their destructive heresies about God and even turn against their Master who bought them. Theirs will be a swift and terrible end. Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of them Christ and His true way will be slandered. In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money. But God condemned them long ago, and their destruction is on the way.’