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.”