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On the Necessity of Acquiring a Christian Mind and Discerning False Teaching

 

Ephesians 4:11-16      Jeremiah 23:13-17     Matthew 7:15-20

 

I: — I have a friend who is a physician at Toronto ’s Sunnybrook Hospital . He is also professor of medicine at the University of Toronto . Several years ago a fourth-year medical student was suspected of knowing very little medicine. University officials were embarrassed. How had this fellow managed to get to fourth year and seem so ignorant?  Who had marked his examinations and passed him during his first three years? Why had he been passed when he should have been failed?  Fourth-year medical students rarely fail, since less able students are weeded out much earlier in the programme.  My friend was called in. He asked the student two or three elementary questions concerning anatomy.  The student could not reply.  Whereupon my physician-friend told university officials to plough this fellow so deep that he would never surface in a medical classroom or clinic anywhere.

The one thing my friend did not do was say, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. No doubt there are good qualities in the fellow somewhere.  Let’s avoid hurting his feelings; after all, it’s terrible to be rejected. If the student is rejected he may never recover emotionally, and we wouldn’t want that on our hands!” Instead, “Expel this fellow right now before he has a chance to damage someone irrecoverably.”

When I was in Grade XIII chemistry the day came when we were to make hydrogen gas in the classroom.         I’m told that high school students are not permitted to make hydrogen gas now because of the risk of explosion the process entails. That’s why my chemistry teacher (1961) carefully instructed us in the properties of hydrogen gas and the precise steps we were to follow lest someone’s face be riddled with glass shards.  Then the teacher proceeded to monitor each student’s experiment. Suppose the teacher had said and done nothing and an explosion had occurred.         Wouldn’t parents have been right in pronouncing him negligent, even criminally negligent?

 

Prophet and apostle (whose written testimony scripture is) are so very concerned about false teaching ,  just because they know that a teacher or preacher or Sunday School instructor or UCW devotions leader fitted out with false doctrine is dangerous; dangerous to others of course, but also dangerous to herself.  And the congregation? Any congregation that lacks a Christian mind; any congregation indifferent to false teaching, false doctrine is as negligent as the perpetrator himself.

 

II: — And yet in congregations everywhere in Christendom we find people impatient with doctrine, impatience with an insistence on sound teaching, impatient, in short, with acquiring a Christian mind.  Someone is always saying, “Who needs it?  It’s only cerebralism for those who like head games.  Besides, doctrine is frequently an occasion of dispute.  Let’s get rid of it all and just go with Jesus, a doctrine-less Jesus.”

To speak like this, however, is not to know what one is saying.  For starters, who is this simple Jesus we are to go with?  Why go with him rather than with Winston Churchill?  Because Winston Churchill isn’t the Son of God.  “Son of God” did someone say?  But to speak of Jesus as the Son of God lands us squarely in the doctrine of the incarnation. All right, then, forget the incarnation; we shall speak only of Jesus Christ. But “Christ” isn’t our Lord’s surname (in the way that “Shepherd” is mine.)  “Christ”, CHRESTOS, is Greek for the Hebrew MASHIACH, meaning Messiah. The Messiah is God’s agent in righting creation gone wrong.  Two doctrines leap out at us: the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the fall. (Remember, a Messiah is needed only for a world gone wrong.)

Our objector, now grown impatient, retorts, “Forget Messiah; just give us the simple saviour of our Sunday School days.  Saviour? Saviour from what? Two doctrines leap out again: sin and salvation. “Can’t we just believe without all this mental clutter?”  Believe what? Besides, how does such belief differ from gullibility or superstition or mere opinion? Obviously “belief” presupposes a doctrine of faith.  There is no doctrine-less Jesus.

 

III: —    Doctrine, you see, is the articulation of truth.  Where doctrine is dismissed someone is saying there is no such thing as truth. But Christians cannot say this. Where doctrine is unknown truth cannot be known and cannot be commended.  But Christians are eager to know the truth and commend the truth since we are born of the truth. Where teaching is out-and-out false people are put on a road that ends in swamp or desert, never on a road that ends in the kingdom of God .

The older testament is everywhere concerned with false prophets and the damage they do. The newer testament is everywhere concerned with false teachers and the damage they do. There are five New Testament books which are especially concerned with the place of sound teaching (the acquiring of a Christian mind), the place of truth within the Christian community.  The five brief books are Paul’s two letters to Timothy (a young preacher), his letter to Titus, plus Peter’s second letter and Jude’s only letter. These five epistles especially emphasize the necessity of sound teaching and the danger of false teaching.

Ponder for a minute Paul’s line in his first letter to Timothy where he speaks of “…God our saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”; or in J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase, “The purpose of God our saviour is that all men should be saved and come to know the truth”.  Plainly it is Paul’s conviction that we need to be saved – not helped, not boosted, not fixed up – saved (i.e., spared spiritual futility now and from eternal loss ultimately); it is his conviction that God longs to save us all without exception; it is his conviction too that God does so only as we come to know the truth, that truth which God himself is and that truth concerning ourselves which God discloses to us. Knowledge of God’s truth is essential to our possession of God’s salvation.  On the other hand it is just as plain that dissemination of false doctrine, false teaching which renders people ignorant of the truth; this imperils their salvation.

If we have a raging infection our physician prescribes an antibiotic (penicillin or something like it).  We take the medicine because we believe it is the cure for our infection. If penicillin were prescribed and we had already been told that it was not the cure for our infection, we should only disdain the medicine and have our infection worsen until we were sick unto death.

People rejoiced to hear the Christmas announcement just because they believed that what God had prescribed for them was the cure they needed. The good news of Christmas was that to them, to them even as they were helpless and hopeless in their predicament before God, there had been given a saviour.  Not any saviour; the effectual saviour, none other than Jesus of Nazareth and him only. John insists that Jesus Christ has been given us as “the remedy for the defilement of our sins”. Whenever false teachers with their false doctrine obscure this truth, deny this truth, diminish this truth, or cast aspersion upon it; whenever this truth is “fudged” in any way men and women are imperilled before God, since they will remain without the only saviour any of us can ever have.

Do not think I am exaggerating when I compare God’s truth to antibiotic medicine without which the infected person sickens unto death. When Paul speaks of “sound doctrine” in his letters to Timothy and Titus the one word he uses over and over for “sound” is HUGIAINOUSA; HUGIAINOUSA is an everyday medical term which means health-giving.  In other words, sound doctrine, sound teaching, is health-giving just as surely as false teaching is death-dealing.  In his first letter to Timothy Paul reminds the young man of what appears when a Christian mind is absent; i.e., when sound doctrine is absent and false teaching proliferates: “murderers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnappers, liars and perjurers”.  Are these people contrasted with virtuous persons?  No. They are contrasted with “sound doctrine”, health-giving teaching.  At the end of his first letter to Timothy Paul speaks of “the teaching which accords with godliness”.  Not only does he insist that the young preacher “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine”, he tells Timothy why: “for by so doing you will be able to save both yourself and your hearers”.

When I used to interview candidates for the ministry in the courts of the church I let other committee-members probe the students’ social skills and marital history and career plans and psychological profile. Instead I always concentrated on the students’ grasp of God’s truth; I wanted to see the Christian furniture of their mind.  When I was told eventually that this was none of my business (can you believe it?) I resigned from the committee, for then I could no longer protect congregations who would be endangered a year or two later when these candidates were ordained.  The danger, after all, is not slight.  Jesus speaks of those who address a congregation all the while appearing to be warm, affectionate sheep when in fact they are ravenous wolves. They aren’t ravenous wolves because they are nasty or cruel; they turn out to be ravenous wolves — lethal, deadly — just because they are mindless with respect to the gospel (even if, perchance, sincere), just because they have substituted false teaching for God’s truth.

Little wonder, then, that Paul writes the congregation in Ephesus and urges the people in it – all the people in it – to grow up, to get beyond a child’s understanding. As long as a congregation has only a child’s understanding, says the apostle, it will always be “tossed to and fro, carried about with every wind of doctrine”. “Tossed to and fro, carried about with every wind of doctrine”: false teaching blows Christians off course, at the very least.  It likely leaves them upset (spiritually and emotionally seasick) and may even find them drowning.

For this reason the apostle Jude fulminates against false teachers in his one-chapter book. In the most scorching language Jude tells us that false teachers are “waterless clouds”: they promise life-giving rain but they never produce a drop for spiritually parched people.  They are “barren fruit-trees”: they yield nothing that is of any help to anyone. They are like “wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame”: not only are they as destructive as a typhoon, their own lives are shameful. Finally, says Jude, they are like “wandering stars”; today we should say “shooting stars” which fall out of the sky and fizzle out into the darkness. Jude’s language, scorching as it is, is no more severe than our Lord’s when he says that false teachers appear to be cuddly sheep when in fact they are lethal wolves.

 

IV: — We haven’t time to explore all the false teaching mentioned in the New Testament. We have time only to comment on representative false teaching.

(i)         John identifies as false any teaching which denies the incarnation. To deny the incarnation is to deny the atonement; this is to deny that we have been given a saviour. It’s to leave people floundering, ignorant and unrepentant, in their sinnership before God.

(ii)         Peter identifies as false teaching which denies that obedience to God is required of all Christians, with the result that licentiousness appears and the name of Jesus is disgraced.

(iii)         Paul identifies as false that teaching which pretends that people have to earn or merit or deserve their standing with God as pardoned sinners. Sound doctrine, on the other hand, insists that we are justified by grace through faith on account of Christ; we are set right with God, rightly related to him, as we trust in faith his provision of mercy, fashioned for us and vouchsafed to us in his Son.

(iv)         James identifies as false the teaching that we can be hearers of the Word of God without being doers of the selfsame Word.  To be an authentic hearer, says James, is always to be a doer, especially a doer on behalf of what James calls “the widow and the orphan”; that is, those people who are marginalized, vulnerable or defenceless.

(v)         Jude has more to say about false teachers in his tiny letter than any other NT writer. “Recognize them and avoid them”, he tells us.  How are we to recognize them?  If they contradict the gospel they give themselves away.         In addition, says Jude, they use fancy language; they are intellectual snobs; they are slick manipulators; and they claim to have the Holy Spirit extraordinarily when all the while they behave shamefully. Recognize them and avoid them.

 

V: — There is one crucial point you must give me time to make this morning: while correct teaching, sound doctrine, truth is necessary, it is not enough. Necessary, always necessary, but of itself never sufficient.  You see, it is possible to grasp the truth of God with one’s mind and yet have one’s heart far from God.

The Hebrew prophets always knew this.  The Hebrew prophets didn’t suspect that their people were ignorant of Torah. They knew that their people had been schooled in Torah since infancy and therefore were apprized of God’s nature and God’s purpose and God’s way.  Nevertheless, cried the prophets, what the people have in their heads they do not yet have in their hearts.  The God they say they believe in they do not obey.  The one whose love rescued them from Egypt and sustained them in the wilderness; this one who loves them they do not love in turn. The God they know so much about they are personally acquainted with so very slightly. The Hebrew prophets plead with their people to encounter intimately the person of the God whose truth has already informed their minds.

When I was moving step-by-step through my doctoral programme I had to sit a series of oral examinations on a variety of topics.  One of my examiners was Professor Jakob Jocz, a third-generation Lithuanian Hebrew-Christian. When my examination with him was over Jocz leaned forward in his chair, fixed his eyes on me and said in his pronounced, Eastern European accent, “Shepherd, you have done well in this examination.  But I want you to remember something.  As important as the truth is that we have probed today, it is by no means everything: what really counts is the shape of a person’s life”. I have never forgotten this.

I like to think that I have made considerable progress in acquiring a Christian mind. But this fact does not mean for one minute that I am more intimately acquainted with the living God than is the old saint who has prayed and wrestled, suffered and obeyed, pleaded and praised every day for decades and who can now echo the psalmist from the bottom of her heart: “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me”. (Psalm 13:6)

Whenever I think about my grasp of sound doctrine I recall the word of the apostle James. James, together with all prophets and apostles, knows that sound doctrine is utterly essential to the calling and equipping and strengthening of God’s people. Then should every Christian aspire to be a teacher, an expositor of sound doctrine?         Of course not.

Still, there are six clergy-leaders in the congregation of St Bride’s who are appointed to teach.  We six are prayed for every Sunday.  Good. We need all the help we can get. At the same time, we should be aware, according to James, that those who teach are going to be judged with greater strictness.

Since we clergy-teachers are going to be judged with greater strictness, why don’t you do us the favour of judging us now, thereby sparing us something worse later? “What counts is the shape of a person’s life.”  Don’t leave us in any ghastly illusion concerning ourselves one day longer. For I know that the psalmist is correct when he insists that the upright, and only the upright, are going to behold the face of God. (Psalm 11:7)

 

                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                      
                                 
 October 2, 2010

 

St Bride’s Anglican Church, Mississauga

 

Jeremiah 23:13-17

Matthew 7:15

1 Timothy 1:3; 2:4; 1:10 ; 4:16 ;

Titus 1:9

Ephesians 4:13

Jude 12-13

James 2:19

Psalm 13:6; 11:7