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The Gospel: Another; Different; False

Oct 28, 2012

There are many ways in which the New Testament describes those who are not true Christians and that which is not the true gospel. In my recent daily readings these three terms have cropped up, so they are worth batching together as we look at counterfeit gospels being promoted by counterfeit believers.

These passages, along with so many others, make it crystal clear that Jesus, Paul and the other apostles were exceedingly concerned about the dangers of wrong belief and very much insistent on right belief (orthodoxy). Of course they also insisted upon right behaviour (orthopraxis). Paul nicely ties the two together in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

So let’s consider just these three texts. The first one comes from 2 Corinthians 11:1-15 where Paul addresses the false apostles. He laments how easily and readily the Corinthians are putting up with deception: “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough” (v. 4).

In vv 13-15 he makes no bones about just who these deceivers are: “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.”

Those are very strong words indeed, yet sadly, words which are almost never heard in the churches today – even evangelical churches. We tolerate a different Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different gospel. Murray Harris comments, “Jesus-Spirit-gospel is an apt summary of Christianity.”

Paul “knew that these three elements stood or fell together, for ‘another Jesus’ would inevitably mean both a ‘different Spirit,’ since the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:9; Phil. 1:19), and a ‘different gospel,’ since the gospel is about Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 2:12; 9:13; 10:14).”

What are the different gospels that we preach today? Scott Hafemann remarks, “Paul’s concern is his boasting was to remain true to Jesus, to the work of the Spirit, and to the message of the apostolic gospel (11:4-6). Thus, his example drives us to ask why, when we ‘advertise’ our church, we do not ‘promote’ the death of Christ for sinners, boast in God in what we say and do, highlight our own weaknesses, and call attention to the voluntary suffering of our role models? Why do we seek instead to portray an image of ourselves as successful and ‘normal’?”

The second passage is found in Galatians 1:6-9. Here Paul again minces no words as he very strongly denounces those who dare to teach another gospel: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”

Now them’s fightin’ words! No beating around the bush for Paul here. So serious is this matter that Paul says such false teachers should be accursed. When is the last time you heard something like that come out of your pulpit? When did you last hear such a confident and bold proclamation of truth?

Paul is absolutely convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel, and he will not tolerate any deviation from it. Not that it is just “his” gospel. As Gordon Fee comments, the “curse is not spoken because the agitators disagree with Paul himself. That is, this is hardly personal on Paul’s part. Rather, he recognizes far more clearly than his later detractors that everything is at stake here.”

Indeed, “Paul’s detractors would themselves never have the benefit of the gospel of Christ had Paul lost this battle.” Thus this was a fight that had to be fought and had to be won. As John Stott reminds us, the welfare of men’s souls was at stake here:

“He was not writing about some trivial doctrine, but about something that is foundational to the gospel. Nor was he speaking of those who merely hold false views, but of those who teach them and mislead others by their teaching. Paul cared deeply for the souls of men.”

It is obvious that we do not really care deeply about the souls of men, given how wishy-washy we can be when it comes to affirming gospel truth. We just do not have the sense of gravity and urgency that Paul did about such matters. As Thomas Schreiner remarks, “Paul does not conceive of the difference between him and the Judaizers as a mere difference of opinion. On the contrary, he is convinced that they are not saved, that they will face eternal destruction, even though they accept Jesus as the Messiah.”

The final passage I wish to examine is Galatians 2:1-5 in which Paul warns about how “some false believers had infiltrated our ranks” (v. 4). Yes there are such things as false brethren, and we need to be alert concerning them. Ronald Fung says this about them:

“The false brethren are contemptuously described both as having been ‘secretly brought in’ (RSV) and as having ‘sneaked in’ (NASB) – two expressions which reinforce each other in emphasizing the furtiveness, or at least the intrusiveness, of their action. These ‘interlopers’ Paul roundly condemns as ‘sham-Christians,’ that is, persons who called themselves and were probably regarded by others as Christians but whose conduct in fact falsified their claim to be Christian.”

And bear in mind what we find in v. 5: “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” There was to be no compromise here with false teaching, no tolerance of false brethren.

As G. Walter Hansen observes, “Unity in the church can be secure only when there is no compromise of the essentials of the gospel. Working toward unity does not mean a passive submission to misguided zealots. The truth of the gospel is nonnegotiable.” ‘Unity at all costs’ is certainly not what Paul is promoting here.

Philip Graham Ryken’s words about the Gal. 1 text are something we all must keep in mind: “The church’s greatest danger is not the anti-gospel outside the church; it is the counterfeit gospel inside the church.” Indeed, the “most serious threat to the one true gospel is something that is also called the gospel. The most dangerous teachers are the ones who preach a different Christ but still call him ‘Jesus’.”

Sound doctrine is vitally important, and without constant watchfulness, we too can be infiltrated and overcome by false teachers who bring another gospel and another Jesus. As Scot McKnight comments, “This is why we need to be constantly guarding our confessions of faith and the content of our teaching in classes and pulpits.” He continues, it is “fundamentally important for churches to have theological quality control of its teaching ministers.”

As J. Gresham Machen wrote in his 1923 classic, Christianity and Liberalism: “It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.”

Or as John MacArthur put it in The Jesus You Can’t Ignore: “The principle is clear: the closer any given doctrine is to the heart of the gospel, the core of sound Christology, or the fundamental teachings of Christ, the more diligently we ought to be on guard against perversion of the truth – and the more aggressively we need to fight error and defend sound doctrine.”

The words of McKnight suffice as a closing warning: “The gospel is a sacred trust that remains, like Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Society and culture change; applications change; Christian lifestyle and even specific doctrinal formulations change; but the gospel of Jesus Christ does not change.”

[1459 words]

8 Responses to The Gospel: Another; Different; False

  • It is a tragedy that these words have to be written to Christians. Our family has been blessed with an Anglican parish where the truth is held high. It is clear from what one hears and reads that a vast number of supposedly Bible-believing Christians do not value the truth, and that happens even in congregations where the pastors are faithful and at pains to teach the Scriptures fully.

    It is always refreshing to read Bill’s articles and to know that there are still plenty who not have bowed the knee to Baal, so to speak.

    David Morrison

  • Hi Bill, I’ve only just found your amazing website but have now put it firmly in my ‘favourites’ list! Have sampled a few different topics in the last few hours and am deeply impressed, so expect to be following your blog regularly and learning a lot to help me strengthen my exisitng Bible teaching gift.

    Regarding this latest posting, dare I raise the baptism issue, which I see as to some extent at least on a par with what Paul rails against so fiercely in Galatians? I know that infant baptism is not ‘on all fours’ with Jewish circumcision, but the danger of completely undermining the gospel is similar. When the baby or small child, as yet unable to make any informed decision for or against our Saviour Jesus Christ, is ‘baptised’ and then a pronouncement is made that they are now regenerate, a member of the family of God and so forth, this simply cuts the ground away from evangelical Christianity that requires repentance before God, faith towards Jesus and the receiving of the Spirit for true salvation.

    There are a few words in our English translation Bibles where, pretty well without exception, the translators ducked the real issue by transliterating rather than translating. Baptism is the classic case, kept as a rite for all babies born into so-called Christian countries to bolster the equally damaging alignment of church and state that began in Constantine’s day. That led to so much watering down of the pure Gospel ‘once for all delivered to the apostles’ (another transliteration but I won’t go there now!) that much of what we now have is Christendom not Christianity.

    I think you get my drift! I think you have said that perhaps the infant baptism issue is in the secondary doctrine category, but I’m not so sure. Baptism itself often proves to be the fundamental issue for new believers in Moslem cultures for example. And I read only recently that the Salvation Army made the (probably foolish but understandable in the circumstances) decision to ban the idea of baptism altogether in their communion, because of the real difficulties they were experiencing with evangelism when so many took the line that they were already Christian believers because we were baptised as babies.

    Thoughts? I’m based just west of London, England by the way, so 28th October is only just waking up although I’ve been around for hours!

    Terry Lewis, UK

  • Terry, I dare to jump into this debate – complex as it is.

    Good questions, certainly, but remember that baby boys in Israel (including our Lord Himself) were circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of their membership of the covenant nation. However, as Paul explained “not all Israel is (true) Israel”.

    The parallel in baptism and the Church is valid I think. Baptism (not “christening” or “naming”) is a sign of membership of the visible Church.

    And once again, a child still needs to grow up and profess personal faith in Jesus for his/her individual salvation, and thus membership of the (true) invisible Church.

    At least this view leads us to the point that a Christian upbringing is of value. Else, there is no expectation that parents need to bring a child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

    John Angelico

  • “Not all Israel is (true) Israel” is a reference from Romans where Paul indicates that not all the physical descendants of Abraham (through Isaac and Jacob) are Israel but rather a subset, what one might call a remnant. This is the simple plain literal reading of that.

    Israel is a nation that individuals were physically born into. Males were circumcised as a sign of being part of a nation set apart as God’s people but this citizenship could be lost.

    However the Church is quite different. It is a nation which is not a nation, a people which is not a people. There is a saying that God has no grandchildren.

    Moreover one should note circumcision does not indicate whether someone is a Christian or not. Indeed false teaching that males must be physically circumcised to be Christians is criticised in the New Testament.

    Infant baptism is a contentious issue. However it is important to look at the biblical pattern (which should settle the issue) was for individuals to believe, repent, be baptised in water an in the Spirit. Whilst the order varied a bit these things happened. On an occasion baptism in the Spirit came before baptism in water and was a sign to the Jewish believers that Gentiles were accepted in the Church and that as God had accepted them they should be baptised in water.

    I was baptised as a believer not as an infant. Like my parents I see Christian upbringing as being of value and that it is important for Christian parents to bring up children in the way they should go.

    I believe that baptism is an important public expression of personal faith and repentance. No one else can repent for you. You must be born again and that’s not a decision that your parents can make for you.

    I do believe that parents should make a public expression of their faith and their commitment to bring up their children, but that’s not baptism.

    One can also look at the fruit of Infant baptism (which has its roots in the state church) is that there are far more who claim to be Christian and believe they are than those who really follow Christ. An inherent problem in a state Church is how can it refuse citizens of the state, membership, so requirements for membership are watered down to let everyone in regardless of the Biblical standard. Sadly the influence of this remains in Churches that are not state churches.

    The separation of “Church and State” is badly misunderstood by many today. It is the State dictating to the Church what to do and corrupting it which is why there is separation. Christians can and should influence the State (William Wilberforce being an obvious example of this).

    Matt Vinay

  • Good call Bill. Jesus’s name is on the ballot paper this month whether He likes it or not; lots claiming to have Him in their party. Neither the Christian right nor The Christian left are properly representing him. Thank God that Jesus is same yesterday today and forever and That He is the radical leader of a Party that is not constrained by mere politics.

    John Modra

  • May I make a few comments here about the baptism issue.
    1. I was baptised as a believer at the age of 17, though I was a believer long before that.
    2. I believe that believers baptism is closer to the Biblical institution than infant baptism.
    3. With infant baptism it has to be understood and kept in mind that the baptism is done on behalf of the infant in the hope and expectation that the infant will own for him/her self the baptism and what has been said at the occasion when having come to an understanding and accepting of the gospel in later life. This is done publically in confirmation. This confirmation validates the baptism. Till then the baptism is not valid. At least this is how I understand the Anglican doctrine of baptism. I can live with it.
    4. I believe that the Biblical view of baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) is a symbolic expression and affirmation of participation or incorporation in Christ (Rom. 6:3, 1 Cor. 10:16), therefore also in the body of Christ, the Church. As in baptism the person baptised is passive (we are being baptised), God is the subject in this affirmation, the person baptised is the object, though the person being baptised also affirms the reality in a secondary, responsive sense.
    In my experience 3 and 4 are rarely if ever expressed in the ceremony. In my view the doctrine of baptism is far more important than the form, including the age. I think it a pity that the institution is so clouded in misunderstanding and/or lack of explanation to the people involved.

    Joost Gemeren

  • To Joost and Matt, good points about infant baptism, me and my wife had all three of our sons christened in the Anglican church but to me this is not a baptism as you both rightly point out. I see mine and my wife’s actions in Matt’s words as “the public expression of our faith and our commitment to bring up our children”. We have duly done this and now nurture hopes in our hearts that one day all three of our sons will come to God for salvation through His son Jesus.

    Steve Davis

  • I have attended a number of infant baptisms and each time as far as I can recall I’ve heard that “a child still needs to grow up and profess personal faith in Jesus for his/her individual salvation” (which is good but sadly far too many in the wider community don’t seem to believe that) as John puts it, but whether you call it infant baptism, a christening or whatever else, I still believe that infant baptism is wrong and not supported by Scripture.

    However I know others disagree. It’s one of those issues that will probably continue to be debated till Christ returns.

    However there are fundamental facts that we can/should all agree on some of which Bill mentioned in his article above.

    Matt Vinay

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