One of the great characteristics of God's Word is its straightforward directness. In both the Old and New Testaments it realistically warns the people of God of the dangers that threaten, especially in the form of false teachers who move among them, posing as purveyors of orthodoxy. I have just been enjoying Dale Ralph Davis's excellent study of 1 Kings, entitled The Wisdom and the Folly (Christian Focus, 2002). He makes the point that, to bolster his daring breakaway from the true Davidic kingdom, Jeroboam established in his new northern state an alternative worship system which in many ways mimicked the God-given ritual practised in Jerusalem. His novelty deliberately and cunningly played on the people's recollection of Biblical patterns. He had the annual feasts, the special priesthood, the designated worship centre. It all sounds so good until we inspect the particulars: the dates were wrong, the people were wrong, the places were wrong (1 Kings 12.28-32). Tiny details, you say? But the God of the Bible is the God of tiny details, insisting that His people obey His instructions to the letter. Listen to the orders given to Joshua as he mobilised the Israelite army on the borders of the land: "be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest" (Josh 1.7). No room for leeway there, no opportunity for reinterpretation to suit new cultural conditions. No – Joshua was to obey it all without the slightest deviation. And that demanded both strength and courage.
Now, those little specifics in Scripture are tremendously valuable, because they help us distinguish the true from the false. Error doesn't usually parade itself with a large print Biblical health warning. Rather, it comes couched in familiar terminology, so as to lull us into complacency. To quote from Davis, "false religion majors in…subtlety. It will use terms like redemptive, reconciling, atoning etc., for their positive, emotive value, but without their proper biblical content" (p. 141). We therefore need to embrace not just the broad ideas but the very minutiae of God's Word. Error, you see, is very personable. The Jehovah's Witnesses who come to your door will gladly affirm that the Lord Jesus is "the son of God", but it is important to be aware that they do not mean by that what the Bible means. The Mormons defend the family values which all believers would approve, but they are careful not to tell you that they hold that Christ was born from sexual relations between God and Mary, that He is Lucifer's spirit brother, and that He was married to both Mary and Martha. Roman Catholics will talk freely about salvation (I have in front of me a very evangelical-looking tract, published by the Catholic Our Sunday Visitor, entitled, "Are you Saved? If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?"), but deny that it is by grace through faith alone. We need to be vigilant, for Christendom teems with all kinds of seemingly attractive aberrations. But Scripture sounds the warning.
The second chapter of 2 Peter is devoted entirely to a no-holds-barred denunciation of the errors which Peter knew would circulate among assemblies. The first three verses give an uncompromising précis of what is to follow:
"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. 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 Pet 2.1-3).
Of course, behind all untruth lurks the father of lies. Satan's attack on the faith has historically been two-pronged: force and fraud. When he cannot damage the saints by physical persecution he resorts to doctrinal corruption, exchanging the "roaring lion" for the "angel of light". And the latter is by far the more treacherous. Doctrinal error, you see, is inherently destructive ("damnable, destruction, pernicious, damnation" all translate a word meaning "ruinous"), and aims its shafts particularly at the person of Christ ("denying the Lord"). Further, as we have seen, it is by its very nature devious, sneaking up on us in all the outward trappings of piety. The apostle's language catches fire as, frankly and fiercely, he denounces such deceitfulness. Indeed, the whole chapter sounds like the direct transcript of an impassioned platform address, using imagery as powerful as anything in the New Testament. Ripping the wrappings off "false prophets" (v.1), Peter shows them up for what they really are in God's sight: filthy pigs (v.22). No easy-going toleration here, because accurate Biblical doctrine is a matter of life and death: error dishonours God and imperils the saints. While Peter's analysis distinguishes three groups of people – apostates (the proponents of error, vv.1,20-22), believers (the genuinely saved folk among whom they move and on whom they prey, vv.1,3,13), and casualties (those tragically misled by false teaching, vv.2,14,18) – he devotes most of his attention to the first. Such men "bring in destructive heresies", "speak great swelling words of vanity", "promise liberty", yet are themselves "slaves of corruption". The apostle highlights their propaganda, their craftiness, their slick rhetoric, their alluring promises. And he reveals that underneath it all lies greed (whether a craving for money or fame or power), the root of so much evil. Not surprisingly, Balaam is the prototypical false prophet. And hand in hand with doctrinal error goes behavioural sin, for infidelity begets immorality. These phoney Christians, says Peter, "walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness…riot in the day time…Having eyes full of adultery" (vv.10,13-14). Even when they appear to talk soundly they walk sinfully.
Therefore, to be safeguarded, all believers – young and old, male and female – need both to know and to hold fast God's truth. And that requires solid effort. It is not enough to attend meetings; we must individually, regularly, systematically, urgently assimilate the Word. To help us, Peter has erected three shining signposts to keep us on the safe path of Biblical obedience – one at the start, one in the middle, and one near the end of the chapter: "the way of truth" (v.2), "the straight way" (v.15, JND), and "the way of righteousness" (v.21). Like Bunyan's stepping stones through the slough of despond, they remind us that our spiritual security ultimately rests in God's Son and God's Word, the only reliable way for believers (Jn 14.6; Ps 119.30). Unlike error, they never deceive, deviate, or defile. To be preserved against the false ideas of apostate Christendom (many now broadcast through the internet) we must fill our minds with Scripture. To detect the fake, study the true.
To be continued.