Beware of Destructive Heresies
Not only was Peter an apostle (apostolos), called and sent by God to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he was also a bond-servant (doulos), joyfully and willingly serving the One who laid His life down on the cross for the Church (II Peter 1:1; Ephesians 5:25). As an ambassador for Christ, Peter’s life-mission was to go forth into all the world heralding the good news that Christ fulfilled the righteous requirements of God’s law and paid the debt for our sin. This good news is what motivated Horatio Spafford to write in 1873, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
The Gospel is precious. It must not be negotiated. Sadly, however, all throughout church history false prophets and teachers have sought to distort the true Gospel, attempting to replace it with a different message, usually one that makes our work, rather than Christ’s, the central focus. The Apostle Peter was not ignorant concerning the schemes of these false teachers. He stated in his second epistle that just as false prophets existed among the Old Covenant people of God, so false teachers are “among you, who will secretly bring in [to the Church] destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1).” These heresies, Peter goes on to say, strike at the very heart of the Christian gospel, “denying the Master,” the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
As a faithful under-shepherd of the flock for whom Christ had died, Peter warns the churches in Asia Minor of the profound danger of false teachers. Peter knows that to alter the message is to invite destruction upon the Church. Isn’t this why the Apostle Paul passionately expressed in Galatians 1:8-9, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received; let him be accursed?” These false teachers, according to Paul and Peter, are “accursed children,” forsaking the “right way” of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (II Peter 2:14-15).
A vital part of our Christian growth and maturity hinges upon our ability to recognize false teaching and false teachers. The best way for us to recognize false teachers - and their teaching - is to be knowledgeable in the truth, to be well grounded in Scripture. Think of it this way, in order to recognize what a counterfeit dollar bill looks like, one must first be familiar with the real thing. As our knowledge of God’s Word grows, so will our ability to reject false teaching and false teachers. The reason why many modern day heretics gain such a hearing in the broad evangelical scene is because we have become the most biblically illiterate generation in American history. Ignorance is the soil in which false teachers plant the seeds of destructive heresies. This is precisely why Peter boldly charges all Christians everywhere to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).
Perhaps you are agreed that we must beware of false teaching, but unsure as to what exactly constitutes false teaching. In other words, how bad does the teaching have to get before I should think of someone as a false teacher or consider their teaching heretical? This is a difficult question, mainly because every individual case is a different. Nevertheless, there are some general principles which are important to remember.
First, we must know the difference between primary, secondary, and even tertiary doctrines. As Christian believers, we may have our differences when it comes to secondary doctrines such as baptism or church government. In addition, Christians may not see eye to eye on tertiary matters like whether or not a believer should drink alcohol. Even so, these differences, in most cases - do not strike at the vitals of the Christian Faith, and should not be characterized as false teaching or heresy. We must always be charitable in our differences when they do not attack the heart of the Faith. However, when it comes to primary doctrines, such as the nature of the trinity, the two-fold nature of Christ, the atonement, justification, etc., we must always draw the line in the sand. In other words, when false teachers begin to negotiate the central dogmas of the historic Christian Faith, then we must call a spade a spade and reject their teaching.
But what about women’s roles in the church, classic dispensationalism, or the regulative principle of worship? How should we approach these differences? Do these doctrines, if taught with error, strike at the vitals of Christian religion? Do they negotiate the saving truth of the Gospel? Strictly speaking, no they do not - although the consequences of holding aberrant views on these and other secondary doctrines may indeed be corrosive and damaging.
This is one reason why I am so thankful to be a part of a confessional Church like the Presbyterian Church in America, where there are clear doctrinal standards set forth. Indeed, the PCA believes that the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms give us a faithful explanation of what the Scriptures teach on the vitals of biblical Christianity. Every teaching elder (pastor) and ruling elder who is ordained by our ecclesiastical body is required to take ordination vows, vowing to teach and defend our doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This serves to protect the peace and doctrinal purity of the church.
Dear brothers and sisters of Christ Church, here’s the point: When it comes to doctrine, let us seek to have unity in the essentials and charity in the non-essentials with our Christian brethren of every stripe. And in particular, let us hold fast to our Reformed Confession, a faithful and tested guide to understanding God’s life-transforming Word.
- Pastor Jon