What is the key to recognizing false teachers?
Anyone trained to recognize counterfeit money knows the best method is to be so familiar with the real thing that the inconsistencies of the fake are obvious. There are countless books and websites that claim to offer insight into the Bible, and countless religions that offer the "truth." For those of us who are resolved to believe God's Word, however, the Bible is the first and last authority. Anyone who teaches differently—man or angel—is to be "accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9).
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Knowing what the Bible says about some key topics is the best way to be able to recognize false teachers.
The nature of God. The Bible says there is one God (Deuteronomy 4:35), the Creator of the universe (Genesis 1). He is sovereign over the world (Isaiah 46:10), He is intimately involved in our lives (Matthew 10:29-31), and He is comprised of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16-17). He is spirit (John 4:24), and He is eternal (Psalm 90:2). False teachers, however, may claim God is only one of many, capricious, or completely disinterested gods. Some false teachers say God began as a human and worked His way up.
The nature of Jesus. According to the Bible, Jesus is man and God—God come down to be a man (John 1:14). He lived a perfect life (1 Peter 2:22) and agreed to take on the sin of the world so that mankind could be reconciled to God (John 14:6; 1 Peter 3:18). False teachers have different ideas. Many claim Jesus is merely a prophet or a good man. Others say He is Satan's brother. Most teach that Jesus is not God at all.
The nature of the Gospel. Where teachers may skirt around the truth about God and Jesus, what they preach about the gospel usually reveals whether they are false teachers. The "good news" of the gospel is that salvation is through faith Jesus alone and not through works of any kind (Ephesians 2:8-9). Jesus died for our sins, and we choose whether to accept His gift (Romans 10:9). False teachers add works in addition to Jesus' gift—baptism, praying, giving money, sacraments, or joining a specific church. Other false teachers abandon biblical teachings altogether and substitute a whole host of manmade requirements for attaining heaven, eternal life and/or acceptability to God.
The nature of humanity. The Bible says that because of Adam's sin, people are born sinful (Romans 5:12). We cannot seek God on our own (Romans 3:11), although we can recognize His work in the world around us (Romans 1:18-20). Humanity's natural state is wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). We cannot be good enough to earn God's merit, let alone eternity in heaven (Romans 3:23, 6:23). False teachers claim we are born as blank slates that merely learn sin from our environment. They also teach that, with hard work and clarity, we can save ourselves.
The nature of the saved. When we accept the true gospel, we are sealed forever as God's children (John 6:37-47), and our nature changes (Galatians 5:22-23). The Holy Spirit comes inside us and influences our character (Romans 8:9-11). The true Christian nature is concerned for others over ourselves (Philippians 2:3), focused on God's work over personal gain (Matthew 6:33), and motivated by love and appreciation for God instead of fear or an attempt to earn grace (John 14:15). Of course, in this life, we will never match up to who we should be, but false teachers preach something completely different. Some claim the Christian life should be filled with health and material blessings. Others say that if we do not work hard enough, God will abandon us.
The nature of eternity. The Bible says that our situation in eternity is based on our relationship to the gospel—if we accept the gospel, we will go to heaven (1 John 5:13); if not, we will spend eternity in hell (Matthew 25:41). Some false teachers say we must suffer for a little while to be cleansed from sin before we can enter heaven. Others say that unbelievers will not spend eternity in hell, but will simply cease to exist, or that hell is temporary, and, eventually, everyone will go to heaven. The Bible also teaches that heaven and hell are real, physical places, and we will experience them as physical people (1 Corinthians 15:42-53). False teachers say that to be in communion with God is to be part of a spiritual force, joined with every other being in a single universal consciousness.
The apostles warn that during the end times, false teachers will become more and more common and we need to be prepared (2 Peter 3:3; Jude 17-18). False teachers will even deceive believers (Matthew 24:23-27). That doesn't mean we should go looking for false teaching. Part of "rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) is studying the truth—the Bible—and not exchanging it for a lie (Romans 1:25).
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