This great epistle is one of the greatest and clearest expositions of the gospel in the whole of the New Testament. And it puts on display the glories of God’s truth so that it is hard to see why people would reject it for something else. But, alas, because of sin, it is so. And because of sin we have to deal with those who not only reject the gospel but who try to supplant it with something else. So as Paul draws to an end, he warns his readers of the real and urgent danger of false teaching.
This is so important because false teaching is not only dangerous; it can be spiritually deadly. The apostle is not warning these believers against those who differ on some minor point (like whether you should observe the Mosaic food laws or not), but against those whose teaching will lead folks away from the true faith, and therefore away from saving faith. It is why the apostle warns against false teachers and describes them as wolves in his final message to the Ephesian elders: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore be alert...” (Acts 20:29-31). Not just wolves, but fierce wolves! Wolves that come and kill. It matters what you believe. Just as truth will build up, lies will destroy.
And this why men of God in every age have made it a priority to stand for the truth against error. It is not just enough to feed the sheep, but the wolves must also be fended off. It is not enough to teach the truth, but lies must be exposed. The apostle tells Titus that these two jobs of the pastor must go together: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9). There are wolves everywhere.
It is why John Calvin, even after he had been run out of Geneva for his stance of certain issues of doctrine and practice, came to the aid of that city when they turned to him to refute the slick invitations of Rome to come back into their fold. The church of Rome had enlisted Cardinal Sadoleto to write to the leaders of the city and “by smooth talk and flattery” to “deceive the hearts” of its leaders (Rom. 16:18). Calvin could have harbored a grudge against the ungrateful inhabitants of Geneva for the way they had treated him and refused to answer and let them fend for themselves. But this was too serious for him to ignore and in one of his most eloquent writings he put aside his own reputation in order to soundly refute the arguments of the cardinal. Calvin understood the danger of false teaching, a lesson brought home in these verses.
These verses deal with the dangers of false teaching. They therefore warrant our attention. As we look at them together, there are three things that I want you to take away from these verses. First, I want you to notice that we are told what to do with false teachers. Second, we are told why we are to do this. Third, we are told how we are to do this.
Watch for and reject false teachers.
They are to “watch out” for false teachers and when they have found them they are to “avoid them” (17). In other words, they are to reject false teachers. But more than that, they are to avoid them, which means at least partly that they are not to dally with them, they are not to put up with them, and they are not to allow them to think they are part of the church. They are to be treated as they really are: as people who are outside the realm of God’s saving blessing. These are wolves, not wayward sheep.
Now again it is important that we understand that Paul is not talking about teachers who disagree on minor things. This does not give us license to excommunicate everyone who does not say “Shibboleth” the way we do. We have to be very careful that we don’t cut off everyone who differs on issues that do not necessarily differentiate the saved from the unsaved. But there are truths that, if you deny them, you can no longer be called a Christian. Admittedly, it is not very popular to say that sort of thing today. But it is a Biblical thing to say. So the apostle John writes: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 Jn. 4:2-3).
At the same time, we must not think that just because someone takes a “divisive” stand on something, therefore they are in the wrong. The fundamental characteristic of the false teachers is not that they are divisive – it is that they are those who “cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (17). It is important to remember that controversy is not always bad. In Galatians 2, the apostle reminds us that he had to rebuke the apostle Peter over not standing firm in the gospel. Schism in fact is sometimes necessary, and functions to separate true believers from pretenders (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18-19). If standing for the truth causes division, we must not only not shy away from it but we must embrace it.
Nevertheless, there are two ways that causing division is bad. First, there are those who cause division for division’s sake. There are people out there who love a brawl. This is a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20), not of the Spirit. People who thrive on disagreement, who look for the smallest things to cause strife, are not to be encouraged but called to repentance.
But the thing the apostle refers to here is division that involves drawing people away from the truth. This is serious. It is by the gospel that we are being saved (1 Cor. 15:1-2). To reject the gospel is therefore to walk away from the truth which saves (cf. Acts 13:46).
And there are all sorts of people doing that today. The wolves have not gone away, nor have their numbers dissipated. There are many, many instances of false teaching in our day. I’m not just talking about fake news here. I’m talking about what the older theologians used to call “damnable heresy.” There are damnable heresies in our day. There are those, for example, who want to insist that the Bible is outdated and that we need to be progressive and that the way we how progressive we are is by apologizing for the Bible while bowing the sensitivities of the modern idolatries. This is not a new thing; there have always been those who think being Biblical means being backward. The apostle John refers to this kind of person in his second epistle: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn. 9). And that was in the first century! When the teachings of the Bible which do not conform with the norms of the culture we are told that they need to be disregarded. As a case in point, today our culture is especially offended by the Biblical views on sexuality. We are therefore told that we must be progressive here. The question is whether or not we will continue as followers of Christ to be faithful to Scripture or whether we will give in the increasing pressures of our times to conform to the norms of the ungodly. Will we listen to the voices that tell us to walk away from the truth of God’s word or will we do what the apostle exhorts us to do, to watch out for them and avoid them?
Now the point here is not so much that a person is saved by their views on sexuality. Of course not. You can be perfectly orthodox on these issues and yet be eternally lost. However, the point is that you cannot receive Christ as Lord and deny what he has commanded. You cannot claim him as your Savior and reject his word. Our Lord himself taught this (Mt. 7:21-23; Lk. 6:46). To reject the claims of Scripture is to reject Christ, and to reject Christ is to be lost. And our Lord clearly rejected the modern views on sexuality, as did his apostles.
Closely related to this is the effort to undermine the importance of truth by saying that everyone can have their own “truth.” Relativism is pervasive in our generation. The danger here is not that we are told the Bible is outdated, but that it doesn’t matter whether you believe the Bible or not. We are told that there are many paths to heaven. But again, our Lord and his word are incompatible with the philosophy of relativism. He is the way, the truth, and the life – not a way, or a truth, or a life (Jn. 14:6)! There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12; cf. Rom. 10:13-15).
However, perhaps the most dangerous are those who claim to believe the Bible and yet teach things which are diametrically opposed to it. It is interesting that our Lord’s strongest words of rebuke were not aimed at the Sadducees who were theological liberals but at the Pharisees who were overall theologically orthodox. Why? Because, for all their orthodoxy, the Pharisees missed the truth. They rejected the Messiah. But their orthodoxy made them even more dangerous because the naïve would equate the true faith with the Pharisaic representation of it. Even so, there are many today who claim to believe the Bible and yet teach things that are in direct opposition to its teaching. Roman Catholicism, for example, claims to have a high view of Scripture and yet by smuggling in tradition and later theological developments changes the very message of the Bible from that which points sinners to Christ to that which interposes the Church as the mediator. Even some clearly heterodox sects, like Mormonism, claim to believe in the Bible. And yet they have teaching that separates men and women from the Christ of the Bible.
And that’s the danger. The danger is false teaching that will turn people from the truth and by turning them away from the truth will turn them away from Christ. And there is no salvation apart from Christ. And that is the ultimate test for false doctrine. Though there are many doctrines that genuine believers can disagree over and yet recognize each other as brethren (like baptism or church government, or a myriad of other things), yet we know we have to get serious when teaching is introduced that will turn people away from faith in the Christ of the New Testament gospel. We can be open to disagreement over many things. But we cannot for a moment give any place to those who teach people to embrace doctrines which will turn them away from Jesus.
Let’s come back then to the way the apostle commands us to respond to these division-makers and smooth talkers. They are to mark them, to look out for them, and to keep their eyes on them. In other words, Paul is calling us to vigilance. His words again remind us of the seriousness of the matter – like a shepherd who watches out for the wolves, falling asleep is costly. Then we are to avoid them. We are not to hold fellowship with them. This is why the apostle John went on to say in the passage quoted above, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 Jn. 10-11). You don’t play with fire. You don’t mess around with poison. And you don’t play with heresy. It’s not just wrong, it’s deadly.
In other words, there comes a time when to be friendly is to be false to Christ. If a person comes and claims to be a Christian and yet teaches that which turns people away from faith and hope in Christ, then that person must be firmly rejected, along with their teaching. And that is an important point. You don’t get to have fellowship with false teachers and yet claim to be orthodox. There are a lot of people who try to do that today. Historically, it can be demonstrated that this is often the first step toward a denomination’s descent into open rejection of the truth. The Biblical reality is that to have fellowship with those who teach damnable doctrines is to participate in the damnation that those doctrines bring. Avoid them!
Why we are to watch out for and reject the false teachers.
We have already really pointed to the main reason we are to reject false teachers: it is because their teaching separates people from Jesus. This is what the apostle is getting at with these words: “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (17). They do not serve Christ but themselves. In other words, the purpose of their ministry and their teaching is to point people, not to Jesus, but to themselves. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they never say the name “Jesus” or don’t try to appear as his servants. They do. That’s where the smooth talk and flattery come in. They use Christian language, even orthodox Christian language, but the whole point is to get people to look to them, to their wisdom, to their example, to their insights, and so on.
There are several examples of this in the New Testament. The apostle said of the Galatian false teachers who taught “Jesus plus law equals salvation” (legalism in this worst sense): “They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out [from the teaching of the apostles], that you may make much of them” (Gal. 4:17). That is always the goal of false teachers. A true teacher points away from themselves to Christ: they want to make much of Christ and they want others to make much of Christ. But a false teacher, under the guise of caring for his or her audience, wants them to make much of them (cf. 3 Jn 9-10).
This is what Paul warns Timothy against. As in our text, note the convergence of dissension and greed as the mode and the motivation of the false teacher: “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:3-5).
Not so the apostle: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6). In direct contrast to the imposter, a true servant of God points people to Jesus and away from himself. He is not in the ministry to be made much of, he is there to be the servant – first of God and then of his people. You see this attitude reflected in Paul’s words about Timothy to the Philippians: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Phil. 2:19-22).
Beware of men and women who try to build a following around themselves. The gospel of grace points us to Jesus Christ as our only hope for salvation and eternal life. It tells us that the only way our sins can be dealt with is through the atoning work of our Lord on the cross as he took the wrath we deserved. He is the only one in whom we are forgiven and in whom we are counted righteous. He is the only one whose Spirit can give us spiritual life and raise us from a death in sin. He is the only one who brings us to the Father. There is no other person who can do this. There is no other mediator between God and man. There is no preacher or teacher who can save you. And any person who positions himself as such should be watched out for and avoided.
How we watch out for and reject false teachers.
The only way to reject false teachers is to be able to spot them when they appear. Otherwise, there is no way to “watch out” for them. But how do we do that? This is especially made harder given the fact that they come with smooth talk. “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguising himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). How to differentiate between the true and the false?
Paul shows us the way when he says, “but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (19). But then the question is, how do you know what is good and what is evil? And the answer is found in the previous phrase: “For your obedience is known to all so that I rejoice over you” (19). The obedience of the Romans was the obedience of faith (1:5; 16:26). They had “become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (6:17). In other words, the way we differentiate between good and evil is by being obedient to the standard of teaching. Of course the standard for the Christian is the apostolic teaching. And the repository of apostolic teaching is to be found in the written word of God, the Bible.
What Paul is saying in verse 19 is that he doesn’t want the obedience of the Roman Christians to be undone by believing false teaching. He rejoices over their obedience because it is through obedience to the gospel that they will flourish spiritually. And we wants them to continue in this obedience to God’s word so that they will be wise in what is good and simple concerning evil. But this means that the bottom line for remaining obedient and wise and watchful is by a steadfast commitment to God’s word.
This is why when Paul warned the Ephesian elders about the wolves bringing in false doctrine and destroying the flock, he immediately follows this up by commending to them the Scriptures: “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:31-32).
God’s word is a bulwark against false teaching for a number of reasons. First, because any false teaching is a deviation from the world of God. We can detect counterfeit teaching when we are really familiar with the truth. But the only way to be really familiar with the truth is by being people of the word. It is the simple and the naïve who are so easily taken as prey to error. It is therefore absolutely necessary that we know the Bible, and know its teachings well.
Second, because it is God’s word, it carries with it God’s grace that builds us up (cf. Ps. 19:7-14; 1 Tim. 3:14-17). It is the word of God that the Spirit of God uses to make us more like Christ, to bring us into greater and greater conformity to the Son of God, to bring us from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18). Note the way the apostle speaks of the Thessalonian Christians: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in your believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). What does the word of God do? It works in us, building us up and strengthening and encouraging us. And it does this precisely because this is not just another word, it is the word of the living God, a word which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Why would we ever want to substitute the word of men for the word of God? To do so is absolute folly. Only those who know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God would want to abandon God’s word for the best of man’s words. God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah is appropriate here: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the LORD Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:28-29). Woe to the man who substitutes straw for wheat, the noodle of man’s wisdom for the steel of God’s!
It matters what you believe. Don’t underestimate the danger posed by false teaching. We should always be on our guard. Just because church at present is sound is unfortunately no indication of the future. And don’t underestimate the worth of sound teaching. Reject the false and receive the true. Let us heed Paul’s teaching. Know the Bible. Draw close to Jesus. Trust in him, value him, and honor those ministries that cause you to make much of our Lord Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the pages of Scripture.