Apostasy, Part 3 – Doctrinal Apostasy in the NT Church

I-The Problem of Doctrinal Apostasy in the New Testament Church

The threat apostasy posed to the health of the New Testament church was certainly a problem that the apostles had to contend with. It is evident in the letters of the New Testament that much of what troubled the church then hinged upon matters that involved the doctrinal integrity of the gospel. To be more exact it was the doctrine of justification that was at the heart of much that was written. In the ultimate sense the reception of all doctrinal error is sin and an act of apostasy from God, but justification being the foundation truth of salvation makes it of primary concern for the church. As believers in Jesus Christ, if we indulge our faith in a doctrine of justification which is in error we are then exposed to apostasy and in danger of full-blown defection from God. The maintenance of doctrinal integrity in salvation has been from the beginning of the New Testament church a matter of the utmost importance, one in which we do well to pay close attention to.

Apostasy is a present reality in the church today, one that hinges as well in large part upon the true doctrine, or lack thereof, of justification. To be sure, there are many other issues that play into the present condition of the church in terms of its health, but even these more often than not still come back to a defection from the true doctrine of justification. Both legalism and antinomianism stems from errors related to justification. Neonomianism and Neo-Orthodoxy are errors that stem from a false doctrine of justification too. More recently, the church has been confronted with such teachings as Federal Visionism and the New Perspectives on Pauls teaching of the doctrine of justification. These two new teachings, revive the old errors of Roman Catholicism which John Calvin and Martin Luther sufficiently exposed in their writings, as inconsistent with Scripture five hundred years ago.

Much of the problem today in the church has to do with a deviation from Scripture’s teaching on this important doctrine of justification. It is due to a long running anti creedal, anti intellectual attitude concerning systematic Theology that has crept in. There seems to be a plethora of new and novel approaches to theology in most of the major seminaries. Biblical Theology, which is a legitimate study in its own right, when divorced of systematic theology, views salvation as simply being a matter of historical perspective. This translates into Jesus having one theology and each of the New Testament writers having their own. And of course, the New Testament concept of salvation is different from the Old Testament concept. When this kind of mentality is foisted upon the Bible then the inevitable outcome is that philosophy wins the day in Bible interpretation. This brings us right to what is happening today, which is the re adoption of Aristotelian philosophy as it was once packaged and marketed by Thomas Aquinas.

Ironically, Christians in every era and in every denomination have always tried to view themselves as New Testament believers. With this idea in mind, every sect and every wing of the church has always tended to grab some theme from the New Testament that strikes them as epitomizing the church that existed at the time as their own pattern or prototype of what the church should be. And it certainly is legitimate to look into the pages of the New Testament to try to discover what Christianity is in pristine condition. But Christianity, indeed all true religion is not something which is simply or exclusively defined by its basic form and practice. Jesus set forth the regulative principle of Scripture in revealing that “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Form and practice are built upon objective teaching of truth received in faith. When we look at the New Testament, if we are to discover what Christianity is it must be through the discovery of its objective teaching of truth in opposition to error.

There is an amazing timelessness found in the pages of Scripture. Sin and salvation have always been the same no matter what generation the Scripture is addressing concerning these things. God is the same; Sin is the same; Salvation is the same; People are the same too. Even though the means and opportunities to sin may change from one generation to another, the character of sin always remains the same, it is unrighteousness with God based on unbelief. This is because man is fundamentally the same no matter what era in history he lives in. For this reason when we look into the pages of the New Testament and read of the problems that plagued the church we see that it relates directly to our own situation today. And the solutions that are found in Scripture to those problems are just as relevant now as they were then when the apostles penned them.

The thing that distinguishes the New Testament from the Old is the more didactic character of most of its contents. That is not to say that the Old Testament does not teach any straightforward truth in propositional form, it most certainly does so in many ways, especially in direct commands given by God to His people or in truth given in proverbial form. But the Old Testament limits its doctrinal teaching more to matters such as creation, covenant, law and prophecy. Of course, salvation is prominent but not prominently displayed in it. The New Testament on the other hand seeks to expound the glories of God in salvation through His Son Jesus Christ at the cross, especially as it relates to His spiritual kingdom. Worship is the grand theme of all ages and in both Testaments is interwoven with its primary doctrinal emphases of whatever sort.

The letters written to the various churches in the New Testament by the apostles were done so to address the problems that they faced as the new covenant church of Jesus Christ. These letters are primarily doctrinal in nature even though they carry the warmth of personal concern and love from their writers to the people in these churches. The churches of the New Testament were assaulted with not only matters related to the sins of the flesh, but by false teachings that encouraged or excused in one way or another these sins. This is why justification is such a dominant theme in the New Testament. The need to persevere in faith and holiness in Christian profession all rests upon the soundness, or, lack thereof, of this doctrine in a believer’s life. Apostasy from a profession of faith in Jesus Christ usually seems to stem from errors of understanding and faith in the matter of how one is made righteous before God. Even more fundamental is the question, what is justification?

Let us consider further what Charles Buck has to say about this concerning apostasy from his definition of it, this time from the standpoint of the early church. “The primitive Christian church distinguished several kinds of apostasy; the first, of those who went entirely from Christianity to Judaism; the second, of those who complied so far with the Jews, as to communicate with them in many of their unlawful practices, without making a formal profession of their religion; thirdly, of those who mingled Judaism and Christianity together; and, fourthly, of those who voluntarily relapsed into paganism.”[1] These four kinds of doctrinal apostasy are enumerated in the pages of the New Testament. We will do well to break these down into their parts with a consideration of their significance, in seeking to come to an understanding of what apostasy is.

1-Departing Christian Faith for Judaism

There were first of all those in the early church who succumbed to an argument made by believing Jews that they should observe the ordinances in the Mosaic law in order to be justified. They did this after receiving the gospel of Gods free grace in Jesus Christ by faith. It was especially in the churches of Galatia that this doctrinal apostasy was taking place. Therefore, the entire book to the Galatian church is based primarily on correcting this very thing in seeking to turn those Christians back to the truth which accords with salvation. In understanding the gravity of the situation we must consider what Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatian church. “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Gal. 1:6,7). There is but one gospel, and only one way of being justified before God, but the people Paul addressed were turning from it to a different message and means of obtaining it.

At this point it is expedient for us to consider what the content and the nature of this other gospel were. In order to do this, it is necessary to understand the situation that existed in the early church at the time that this epistle was written and the true message that they had received. The first people to turn to Jesus Christ as were witnessed by the conversion of three thousand souls under the preaching of the apostle Peter at Pentecost, were Jews (Acts 2:41). There was nothing in the message that Peter preached against the Mosaic law, on the contrary, what he preached about Jesus was that He was the long awaited Messiah and that they had crucified Him (Acts 2:36). Peter pointed in his message to the prophet Joel saying that this event was a fulfillment of his prophecy (Acts 2:16-21). Also, Peter quoted the words of David in a vison he had of his Savior, that He would be raised from the dead as the guarantee of his own salvation (Acts 2:25-28).

For a time only the Jews were turning to Jesus as the Messiah, for they were the ones to whom the promise was to be made known first (Acts 2:39). It was only after the Jews stopped turning to the gospel that the focus of gospel preaching changed to include the Gentiles in the world outside of Judaism. At that point large numbers of Gentiles came into the church believing on the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. This, no doubt caused tremendous consternation on the part of those Jews who were already antagonistic against Jesus Christ and His followers. Indeed, the apostle Paul himself was a former Pharisee who zealously persecuted and killed those Jews who were turning in faith to Jesus as the Messiah, until he was converted. The Jews who were first being saved were not being told by the apostles to stop being Jews, indeed they were told that believing in Jesus was being truly Jewish (Rom. 2:28,29). Regeneration is what circumcision typified.

Temple Judaism continued until the destruction of Jerusalem in seventy AD. For until that time, both believing and unbelieving Jews intermingled in the Temple together. Since Jesus is the end of the law to those who believe and that was the substance of the message preached by which they were converted, those who received Him were required to cease the practice of animal sacrifice for sins (Rom. 10:4). The friction this caused among the Jews should be quite obvious. It was also the occasion for the writing of the book of Hebrews in explanation to them of these things.[2] And it should be made clear in this place that no one was ever justified under the Mosaic law by any part of its service. The design of the law was to point the believing worshiper to Jesus Christ and His righteous sacrifice which would end all the others.

The keeping of other ordinances of the Mosaic law however, if unregarded as justifying in themselves presented no harm to the gospel or the Jew who kept them. When Gentiles started to confess Jesus as the Messiah who did not have any background in the Mosaic law like the believing Jew did, this became a matter of conflict in the early church that required teaching and resolution. The critical issue arose in the church when it became clear that there were Jews who professed faith in Jesus as the Messiah but did not relinquish a false belief in the Mosaic law as a means to justification too. In other words, to these men, both were necessary to receive and keep for justification. To understand this matter it is incumbent on us who are Gentiles in this later end of the church age to realize that under the Mosaic law, those who were truly saved, were saved by faith only. But those who were saved were required to keep the law as a shadow or type of the gospel so that they saw no righteousness in the ordinances but only in the substance which was Christ.

Gentiles coming into the church would not know any better about these things, they would easily be persuaded by a seemingly Scriptural argument in favor of the Judaizing Christians, those who it must be reminded were in error on the nature of justification (Acts 15:1). The matter really came to a head when the false gospel, the one Paul spoke against to the Galatians became exposed (Acts 15:2). For then it was obvious that many of the Jews who believed in Christ did so falsely, believing that faith must be mixed with works in order to be saved. The controversy arose when Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles required no such thing from them. Instead, Paul insisted and rightly so that righteousness if it is accepted by God must be apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:21). It was always so, and therefore, there was no need for Gentiles who believed in Christ to become Jews in a traditional or cultural sense.

Righteousness is imputed by God to the Christian believer for his or her justification (Rom. 5:1). Even faith itself is not what justifies, but the free grace of God imputing the active and passive obedience of Christ to a sinner (Eph. 2:8,9). It must be noted from Ephesians two that faith itself is a gift of Gods grace just as much as the justification for salvation is too. This is how repentance is made an inseparable part of saving faith in the gospel message, for neither of these two things is the ground of justification, but faith is the means through which it comes (Acts 20:21; Rom. 3:24; 5:9). Mixing grace in any way with works as the ground for ones justification is a complete negation of Gods’ free grace. Paul made the distinction in speaking of these two principles, grace and works, to the saints in the Roman church made up of both Jew and Gentile (Rom. 11:6). In Romans nine through eleven, Paul explained the fall of Israel as occurring for this very reason, that they relied on a righteousness that was not of God. So this was what at issue concerning the Galatian believers falling for a revised gospel message, one that brought works into the mix in a way which canceled the meaning of grace.

The controversy surrounding the Galatian error was such that it became necessary for the broad church to hold a council at Jerusalem in order to address this and other issues involving the Gentile converts (Acts 15:3-5). So the first error in the early church to be dealt with by way of a council was that of justification by faith apart from the works of the Mosaic law. And not just for Gentiles who were never under it in the first place, but for all who did and would believe in the gospel message (Acts 15:6-11). Now it must be made clear, for there have been many in the church who have misinterpreted the Galatian letter, supposing that it was the moral law which was at issue here at the Jerusalem council. The moral law, although appended to the Mosaic covenant preceded it as the ordinance of God made known since the beginning of time. And not in the same way as the written code, but through innate knowledge wrote on the mind and heart of men from creation (Rom. 1:18-2:2).

The Jerusalem council did uphold the moral law of God in their instructions to the Gentile believers (Acts 15:19-21). This was very instructive for there was no prohibition placed upon any of the Mosaic ordinances not in conflict with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but only those things which the Pagans were accustomed to committing in their false and idolatrous temple worship. Idol worship, ceremonial prostitution and the offering of blood on their altars, these were the things that the council prohibited, all things which pertained to the moral law. Nowhere in the letter to the Galatians is Paul arguing against the necessity of keeping Gods moral commandments. Rather, in this book we see a thorough explanation given against the works righteousness that comes from seeking to be justified by the Mosaic law as opposed to being justified by faith in Christ apart from it (Gal. 3:11).

Paul chides the Galatians believers in chapter three with the error of what they were doing in reference to this doctrine. “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1-3). It is apostasy to start with the truth of the gospel only to modify it later with some work or ritual that man does and call it the same thing. We can see from the argument Paul gives here in this chapter of his letter that he is teaching both Jew and Gentile alike. He does this in explaining the difference between the Mosaic law and its use and the justifying faith of the gospel. For those who receive Christ as the Messiah there is nothing in Moses law that is needed to live by, for it was nothing but a curse to them who formerly sought to be justified in its keeping apart from faith (Gal. 3:10-13).

The promise of salvation according to faith is in Jesus Christ the sole substance of Gods covenant promise (Gal. 3:15,16). The true children of Abraham are those who believe in Christ alone even the Gentiles (Gal. 3:14). The Spirit of God is the Agent who communicates the blessing of Gods promise to His children, the sovereign Spirit who gives life to the dead through the resurrection power of God in Christ. And just as regeneration is sovereignly dispensed by God to His people, so isn’t justification also, the later being objective and the former being subjective. When a person is regenerated, they believe, when they believe they are justified, and when they are justified they are forgiven. Works of the Spirit then flow from them, works that display the glorious grace of God.

The apostle Paul even gives us a breakdown of the difference between good and bad works in Galatians, the one proceeding from the flesh and the other from the Spirit. “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21). Notice, heresy is listed as one of the works of the flesh that God condemns. This false gospel of the Judaizers is the heresy most directly referred to in this letter by Paul. Heresy is the root of all doctrinal apostasy from the true faith in Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul gives us an outline of those works that flow from the Spirit within them who are regenerate. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Gal. 5:22-25). These things that are listed are matters of the heart and character of a person of true faith in Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God is the source of such works as these wherever they are found. But here is the important thing to understand, Christian graces are inseparably connected to truth and doctrine. The one who seeks to be justified by the works of the law will have none of these fruits of the Spirit. But here is a problem too, oftentimes an apostate is someone who has grown up in the church being influenced and conditioned by its quality atmosphere. At least that is if it is assumed that the community that the apostate resides within is truly a Christian one.

2-Synergising Christian Faith with Works

We come now to the second type of doctrinal apostasy mentioned by Charles Buck. In this second sort of doctrinal error we refer the reader back to Pauls words in Galatians three. “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1-3). These words have reference not only to justification but to sanctification as well, both of them being closely related. The difference between these two doctrines should be stated thus, justification is objective truth and sanctification is subjective truth. A person’s sanctification begins the moment they are justified, but one precedes the other in what is called the “Ordo Salutis” in Latin, or, the Order of Salvation.

Just like justification itself sanctification has always been a doctrine subject to innumerable errors leading to apostasy. Generally, this occurs as a confusion of the two together, for example, believing that sanctification precedes justification, or, that the two are the same thing at the same time. Both of these are Roman Catholic heresies that stem from a belief in infused grace leading to justification rather than an imputed righteousness for justification which Paul lays out in Romans (Rom. 4:5-8). Although justification and sanctification are two fundamentally distinct doctrines here is where they are the same, or, rather where they connect. Both of the doctrines are the result of a prior work of Gods grace. In other words, God gives grace in the order of salvation first, before there is any response from us. A case in point is what Jesus said to Nicodemus about being born again (John 3:3).

The grace that saves is the grace that sanctifies plain and simple (Heb. 4:15,16). We are not justified by grace first, then we do works by our self that makes us holy. Nor, do we mix our works with Gods grace in order to become holy, even though Paul said “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13). What God does do in a person is work grace in them, an empowering liberating principle so that they can respond to Him in obedience. God gives grace for us to seek grace through the means of grace that He provides. Any idea that there is some sort of synergism at work in sanctification is just as much doctrinal error as works-based justification. Synergism means Gods nature and ours somehow mix together in some sort of mystical union for holiness. The second Person of the Trinity assumed our nature in the hypostatical union of the two in His one Person. Our unity with God is in Christ, His Spirit working this principle of grace in us, not some sort of hypostatical union between us and Him.

Works-based sanctification is just as much in error as works-based justification. Paul makes this point all to clear in the first three verses of Galatians chapter three. Paul says to the Gentile believers in so many words “if you started out in the Spirit, why do you end up in the flesh?” There is legalism being practiced here in more than one way that Paul is exposing in the Galatian heresy. That error is in thinking that righteousness whether it is forensic or practical is somehow something that flesh can muster under its own wisdom and strength. And not only that it (the flesh) can act on its own power, but also that it merits some blessing from God. The legal mentality betrays itself to be nothing but natural religion. Unless a mind is completely devoid of grace and the Spirit, it can never see any value in the accomplishment of human effort.

But this too exposes doctrinal apostasy for what it is, the religion of hypocrites. It is the Spirit alone that works true sanctifying influence upon an individual. There is no comparison to be made between the Spirit and the flesh, for these are of two completely different principles. Those who are truly saved have a desire to please God in the manner in which He is to be served, through love of Him and the brethren, through spiritual sacrifices of praise, and of service that He ordains (Matt. 22:37; I John 3:11; I Pet. 2:5; John 4:24). Legalism, of no matter what sort it might be is not only of the flesh but also of the world. The material things of the world have no value in them concerning practical holiness. Even worse than that the world is in opposition to God in what it has to offer to the flesh by way of any spiritual substance, therefore, He warns Christians against it (I John 2:15-17). Rites and ceremonies such as circumcision, ceremonial cleansing, dietary restrictions, etc., are not the means to obtaining a degree of holy character.

There are many today who will give a profession of their faith in Jesus Christ who will at the same time hold to corrupt ideas of sanctification. Some of this sort will also adopt many of the novelties of current day Judaism. There are two types of people who do this in the church. First, there is a movement of Christ believing Jews today who are called Messianic Jews. These Messianic Jews practice a form of Christianity that believes in Jesus as the Messiah. Not only that, but these same Jews also believe in the substitutionary work of Christ at the cross, so far, so good. At the same time however, these Jews also practice Old Covenant Judaism concerning many of its rites and ceremonies, believing this to be necessary for them as Jews. This is the very sin that the apostle Paul denounces in Galatians. Paul wrote by inspiration that both Jew and Gentile are one in the body of Christ, which is the church (Eph. 2:14-16). It is not just that the Gentile has been joined to the Jew but that the Jew has also been joined to the Gentile.

The second type of Christian that is guilty of the same sin as the Messianic Jew is the Zionist Christian. We pause to make a distinction in this however, for some of these only consider Zionism in regard to the re emergence of a Messianic Jewish Christian nation state at some future time in history. These are not those whom we mean here by the term Zionist Christian. The apostates we refer to are those Christians who go so far as to practice Jewish rites and ceremonies, just like the Messianic Jews. They do this thing with the thought that it somehow makes their profession of faith in Jesus Christ more authentic, thereby adding something to their experience as Christians. These Christians do, just like their Messianic Jewish counterpart, view the Old Testament as more authoritative than the New Testament. They deliberately ignore the entire body of teaching in the New Testament to the contrary.

The kind of apostasy that Paul speaks of here happens when anyone, who has previously received Jesus Christ in the gospel by faith alone, begins to feel at some point that he lacks something in his religious experience. It is a conviction that something needs to be added to faith to ensure that the experience one has of Christ is on a higher plain than what had been attained. So they turn to the works of the flesh, whether to ceremony or pomp for assurance. Religious activity that is outward and visible has much appeal for a religious hypocrite. Perhaps some liturgy in worship, or some association to a particular religious organization works to bring satisfaction to them. This is not gospel righteousness but actually a denial of it, for Paul says to the Roman church that it is not experience from works that make one blessed, but simple reliance upon Christ in the gospel in His imputed righteousness (Rom. 4:4-8). Adding unnecessary and un required works to the Christian experience for authenticity is works’ righteousness too.

This matter of fleshly works goes even deeper than what the particular issues were at Galatia. The New Testament prescribes those things to the church that is legitimately termed “means of grace.” What are the means of grace that God ordains for His people? These can be viewed in two different categories of experience, public and private worship. The church as a gathered community of redeemed people for fellowship and worship is the first and primary means of grace to a Christian. Sadly, this is overlooked today in much of so-called Christendom. We do not say nor endorse the idea that mere membership on a corporate church roster, or, mere attendance as a matter of legal duty is what is comprehended in the idea of the church as a means of grace. Association with a visible church for the Christian is the primary source of God ordained sanctification. Notice, first of all that the church is the mystical body of Christ, and as such it derives vital spiritual life from Him (Eph. 1:22,23).

But secondly and just as importantly, the church is a visible assembly of people (Eph. 1:1). The church is Gods “house” in the sense that it is His construction, one that He dwells in and that He owns. “But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Tim. 3:15). The church is the place where truth resides, where it is preached and taught, and where it must be maintained. And this does not in any way imply that a building is somehow the fulfillment of this ideal. Christians did not meet in buildings constructed for this purpose until the fourth century when Christianity became accepted as the state religion. The visible assembly of Christians conducting themselves in God’s prescribed manner is what constitutes the New Testament church as a means of grace.

The gathered church for worship in a particular locality on any Sabbath day is a microcosm of that heavenly worship that awaits the true believer in the new heaven and the new earth. In fact, those saints who are already with the Lord are engaged right now in what the New Testament church is designed to reflect in its service on earth (Rev. 4,5). The parts of Christian worship which we call the means of grace are given to us in plain, unambiguous language. Baptism, doctrine, fellowship, the Lords’ supper, prayer, discipline, preaching, praise, and the offering of tangible goods to the Lord, these are all the necessary elements of New Testament worship in the church (Acts 2:41,42; Matt. 18:15-20; II Tim. 4:2; Heb. 2:12; II Cor. 8:3,4). When these are performed as spiritual sacrifices, offered in the name of the Lord they are the means of grace to the Christian.

Private worship and service are the normal experience of any true saint, but nothing done in private is a substitute for the dynamic of corporate fellowship and worship. Not all means of grace found in the church are meant or suitable for private worship, such as baptism and the Lords supper. But the reading of Scripture and prayer, these are extremely useful and necessary means of grace in a Christian life. The neglect of these will stunt Christian growth and make one susceptible to all manners of fleshly sin and the imbibing of errors. Church attendance too is no substitute for private worship and growth, although it may be a means that God calls back an erring saint, provided that it is a proper church context.

It should be said too, that the introduction of unbiblical elements into the church and its worship will ultimately corrupt it and everyone in it. Paul understood this danger, this is why he employed such strong language as he did in his letter. “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8,9). Paul is a particularist doctrinally speaking, for he understood that any piety that deviates from Scripture is not of God but of the Devil (II Cor. 11:1-4,14). So-called spiritual disciplines which are nothing but fleshly programs that promise spiritual blessing and reward should be shunned by the Christian. Claims to charismatic gifts of tongues and prophecy that ceased with the close of Scripture Canon are sinful delusions of the Devil. And finally, second blessing teaching through some baptism of the Spirit, or, health and wealth claims from faith are all false piety, and even worse damnable heresy.

3-Compromising Christian Faith

Coming now to the third example Charles Buck gives us of doctrinal apostasy in the New Testament church we see once again that this is one which Paul addresses in Galatians too. There were those who knew better about the gospel and the law concerning justification, who nevertheless, waffled in their commitment to it. They did this in failing to deny doctrinal error in others at certain times when in their presence. When an opportunity for association came either with Jews or Gentiles of mixed opinion, these would play the hypocrite. This hypocrisy was committed by pretending agreement with one group or the other at different times. In other words they compromised the truth and their own conviction of it in matters of doctrine or practice simply to gain favor with one or the other. In matters which are indifferent to saving faith this kind of behavior would be considered sinful, yet not necessarily heretical by itself. But when this is being done in reference to the doctrine of justification, the fruit of apostasy is at hand.

The example of this kind of doctrinal compromise was committed by the apostle Peter himself in Galatia. The error of Peter and the subsequent confrontation by Paul over this appears in the book of Galatians chapter two. “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” (Gal. 2:11-13). The place these words appear in Galatians between chapters one and three already cited in reference to apostasy, give the distinct impression that Peter was responsible for it. That is to say, the hypocrisy Paul was speaking of to Peter and others in chapter two is what tempted those who departed in Galatia in their unfaithfulness.

Looking at this further we read: “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Gal. 2:14-16). According to what Paul says in the passage it can be seen that what Peter was doing amounted to a compromise of justification by faith alone. How was this done in reference to the doctrine of justification? It was in the eating or in the not eating of things prohibited by the Mosaic law, suggesting to the parties that were present that this was a work of justification.

Someone might raise an objection to this assessment saying, doesn’t Paul in other places say that the eating of foods is a matter of indifference between brethren (Rom. 14:1-3)? First of all, in Romans chapter fourteen the matter of eating only vegetables are not and never was a matter of the Mosaic law. Those Jewish Christians that held to this scruple did so in avoidance of any possibility of eating that which the Mosaic law had previously restricted. Preferences in food are matters of tradition for most people. It was not incumbent on them to observe the dietary law of the Mosaic covenant any longer, but habit is hard to break, especially in something as delicate a matter as food preferences. They didn’t do this believing that they were justified by it in any way, for then Paul would have condemned it. No, the issue in Romans fourteen and other places about what things Christians have as scruples are in reference to matters of liberty, not justification. Yes, it is true that a weak brother may be legalistic in his scruples. As long as a Christian does not see these matters as relating to justification by faith alone, it is not heretical.

That was not the case with what was happening in Galatia. There was a contention between the believing Jews from Jerusalem and the believing Gentiles of Galatia over the issue of what constituted justification. This was a deep contention as is ascertained in Pauls teaching to them on the nature of covenant grace. Paul deemed it necessary to explain Gods Covenant to them according to all of its subordinate parts being comprehended within the Abrahamic, the Mosaic and the New Covenants (Gal. 3,4). The Mosaic law was to be subordinate to the grace contained in Gods Everlasting Covenant, rather than it being subordinate to the law (Gal. 3:14,15; Heb. 13:20). These things contained in the law were aids to those who were believers under the previous dispensation. The Mosaic law was also typical of the spiritual things revealed in the New Covenant (Gal. 4:21-26).

The apostasy uncovered by Paul in Galatians chapter two is that of knowing the truth, but compromising it in order to get along comfortably with others. This is philosophical Ecumenism in its purest form. Jesus did not come and institute the New Covenant in His blood by promoting an Ecumenical spirit. No, Jesus came to bring division in the world. This is a division between the true and false worshipers of God. Nor did Jesus come to unite the world in some sort of Ecumenical comradery. Oh, to be sure we know that it is the will of God that we “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” But it is true just as well that we are “looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God.” And why is this? “Lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.” That is, bitterness against the Lord sending His providences that arise from persecution. “Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright.” That is, selling out the Lord for some personal comfort or pleasure the world has to offer (Heb. 12:14-16).

The potential for apostasy is so acute when truth is compromised for personal gain in the church. Getting along with others is something the world values dearly when comfort and ease are involved. This is political philosophy too, which says, the greatest good for the greatest number of people regardless of what are true or not, or, right and wrong. Ecumenical compromise will always result in the lowest common denominator. This translates doctrinally speaking into an ill defined, wishy washy man centered, one size fits all religion. Not only does it destroy the church but it destroys the individual.“For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” (Heb. 12:17). When the day of reckoning comes there is no comfort for the compromiser.

This kind of an Ecumenical spirit found in Peter (repented of thankfully) is an apostate attitude that is not an uncommon thing today in the present post modern church. Irrational inconsistent thinking on doctrine, and unbiblical behavior seem to characterize American Christian church culture, making this issue a matter of real importance. The signing of ridiculously worded statements for the sake of joining in certain political causes has almost destroyed everything God gave to His church in the Protestant Reformation. Now, Protestants and Catholics recognize each other as “brothers” in the faith. And an attitude of all out overseas missions at all costs has lead to the doctrinal travesty of “cross-cultural evangelism” world wide. The gospel is tailored to the people it is brought to in order to win them over. Take Pauls advice. Nobody is won for Christ in any real sense apart from the truth.

The modern mind does not seem to comprehend that ideas and behavior go hand in hand with each other. Ideology, religious doctrine and confession of faith are not merely a matter of personal opinion. What a person happens to believe and practice in their life does matter to God, therefore, a logical understanding of truth is necessary. The act of apostasy in its truest sense can only be from a God who is truth itself (Deut. 32:4, John 1:1). The apostle Paul understood this even if Peter was waylaid for a time in the course of his ministry. The rebuke was effective for Peter however, who commented at a later date in his epistle on the deep and difficult nature of some doctrines which the Lord had revealed to both him and Paul (II Pet. 3:14-18). It should be noted too, that those apostates in Galatia that were not recovered by Pauls rebuke should be considered reprobated, provided that they never did repent at some future time. John summed this up in saying that those who depart from the faith are actually never of it in the first place (I John 2:19).

4-Returning to Paganism

In the last part of Charles Bucks outline on doctrinal apostasy in the New Testament church, we turn our attention to those who went so far into a certain kind of it that they ended up as they started as Pagans. Paganism is the very culture that Christianity began in, so that its roots and fruits were felt deeply throughout the early church. For a Pagan Gentile to come out of this culture into the Christian faith was nothing less than astounding. But how sad it was that so many would fall for false teaching from false prophets into new and varied forms of paganistic belief and practice. The way this was accomplished was through the propagation of pseudo Christian ideas that misled the still spiritually blind who had at one time professed faith in true Christianity. Having imbibed in false teaching these apostates ended up in far worse condition than they started making complete sense of Peter’s saying, “But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” (II Pet. 2:22).

The fourth example we have in Scripture of doctrinal apostasy in the church is of those who imported certain pagan ideas into it and hence, unbiblical practices into their faith thereby corrupting it. Of this sort of apostate there are two kinds here in view. Of the first type were those who received false teaching about the faith by unapproved, ungodly men who insisted that they should follow certain teachings and outward disciplines as part of their experience as Christians. Of the second type were those who went in the opposite direction concerning those disciplines, but were influenced by the same fundamental pagan doctrines. The church had come out of and was surrounded by the pagan culture of the Roman empire which was what accounted for the problem. It was also the reason for several of the New Testament letters which came from the apostles on the nature of the Christian faith. The temptation for this posed a tremendous danger for those who were converted from paganism.

To understand the situation better we should view the development of the New Testament in terms of the many false ideas that came up in the churches which tended to lead people astray. The Christian church had superceded temple Judaism, not as a replacement of it, but rather in fulfillment of what it foreshadowed, thereby creating an antithesis between the two. This antithesis is what led to the antagonism which came from unbelieving Jews toward Jewish Christians and was the basis for all of the argumentation about the Mosaic law. The New Testament writers responded to the conflicts that arose accordingly in their letters explaining that Jesus is the Messiah, that His death and resurrection on the cross were what the law prefigured, and that the church is what all the Old Covenant promises pertained too.

A-Hellenism

There was also the situation concerning the preaching of the gospel to the pagan world of the Roman Empire which resulted in many Gentiles embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior. These new Christians were engrafted into the family of God, the separation that had previously existed being removed, and made one with the Jewish believers who were already in the church (Rom. 11:24; Eph. 2:14-16). The Gentiles had been taught an entirely different world view than the Jew, which made it too, entirely antithetical to the Christian world view. As we have already seen, there were Jews who tried to persuade Gentiles to adopt Jewish traditions, even the error of being justified by keeping the law of Moses. But the other doctrinal error of which we speak was in essence another form of paganism, a type of which had its roots in certain Jewish teachers as well. These were Jews who had adopted Greek culture, or, Hellenism as it was called. To understand this clearly it needs to be said that Hellenism was the adopted culture of the Roman Empire. Also, Hellenism was by design syncretistic, thereby making it easily adaptable to different religious ideas.

Hellenism was exported throughout the ancient world by Alexander the Great as a religio-politico philosophy in an attempt to unite the peoples he had conquered under a single language and culture. Hellenist Jews were those who had adopted this culture as their own, mixing it with the Mosaic traditions of their fathers. There was an antagonism that naturally existed between the Hellenist Jews and the more orthodox Jews represented by the Pharisees. The paganistic world view that existed in Rome was placed firmly upon Greek religious philosophy, making these Hellenistic Jews pagans themselves. This is why the apostle Paul used the term Jew and Greek in reference to the contrast that existed between Jews and Gentiles of his day. Paul did this in his epistle to the church at Rome which was obviously filled with Roman Christians (Rom. 1:16). Paul used these two terms in reference to the individual world views of both of these ethnic groups in his terminology, explaining the Christian world view which incidentally, was built upon the Old Testament concept of God and salvation (Rom. 1:17).

Jewish teachers promoted Hellenism between the Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity everywhere in the Empire. This was packaged as a collection of doctrinal errors that required refutation by the apostles. Philo of Alexandria Egypt was just such a teacher. Philo was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who taught a certain type of logos doctrine which was Platonic in origin, and not that which was in any way the same as what the apostle John used in his gospel and epistles. Philo’s logos doctrine can be summed up in these basic points.

1-The logos is created and it interacts between Plato’s concept of the supreme divinity and creation.

2-The logos is a number of emanations that come from the mind of the supreme divinity, and they too are divine.

3-The logos emanations are a divine extension of the supreme divinity on earth, so that they act as intermediaries.

4-The logos is a concept of rational expression.

5-The logos acts in an intermediary role in the ethical salvation of men.

6-There is no moral sacrificial redemption found in the logos.

If anything, John used the concept of the Logos in his writings on Jesus as the Word of God in correction of the Hellenistic idea. In doing so, he challenged the pagan world view. The Word is one with God who is the Creator of all that exists (John 1:1-4). The Word is the source of all life (John 1:4; I John 1:1). And special note should be taken of the fact that Jesus, who is the Word was with God before time began, meaning that He was not a man who became a god as the Arians later on asserted. In fact, it is quite the other way around for God in Christ became man (John 1:14). The Word is incarnate who is in the very bosom of the otherwise unknowable Deity (John 1:18). The Word is the Son of God who is eternally begotten of the Father (John 1:14,18). The Word of God is one of the three Persons that comprise the single triune God (I John 5:7). And the Word who is God and became man is also the Savior of those who believe in Him (Rev. 19:13, John 1:12,13).

Also it is abundantly clear that the writer of the book of Hebrews, whoever that might have been was doing the same in refutation of Hellenistic Jewish doctrine. For there are many things covered in the book of Hebrews the give the suggestion that it was written as an apologetic argument against Hellenism. The entire form of the book of Hebrews is not written as a letter, but rather as a sermon, putting forth a series of developing points and exhortations in it from start to finish. The single main theme of Hebrews is the excellence of Jesus Christ over all other mediators, whether of purely Jewish origin or of Hellenism. Jesus Christ is set forth in Hebrews as the Living Word above all other powers or ideas, as such He is the true Prophet of God (Heb. 4:12,1:1,2). Jesus is set forth as the Creator and Sustainer of the worlds, which He does by His word (Heb. 1:3). It is He who has also accomplished salvation for His people.

The word worlds, or, Aeons in Greek is the concept of eternity as denoted in various successive ages in pagan thought. In Greek thought the Supreme Deity that transcended eternity is not one who created the material world, but is rather instead one who created a pantheon of lesser deities. One lesser deity, or, the demiurge as he is called created the cosmos. In Platonic Hellenism there exists a dual principle between matter and spirit with the later being evil and the former perfect. The demiurge was in fact, evil himself like the creation for which he was responsible. Salvation was then something in which to be released from the confines of matter, beyond its limitations into the realm of the pure spirit intellect. The writer of Hebrews asserted the exact opposite, saying that the aeons were framed by the eternal God and not some lesser, created being (Heb. 11:1-3). Also, that faith in the unseen God is faith in reality and not some escape from it (Heb. 11:6). Therefore, there are no other intermediaries between God and man but Jesus, the God-Man, who is the Mediator above all others including angels (Heb. 1:4-7).

In Hebrews the writer was also refuting Jewish errors of thought, asserting as well that it is Jesus alone whom God set forth as the Messiah. Jesus is above Moses in stature who acted as a deliverer of Israel from Egypt and as a law giving Mediator while they were in the wilderness. In this sense Moses was a type of Christ (Heb. 3:1-3). Jesus was the true High Priest of Israel that every other priest going back to Aaron prefigured (Heb. 5:1-5). Jesus as the Priest of God for His people is greater in stature than even Aaron who was a type of Christ too. The Aaronic priesthood was not original in any sense either, but only for Israel as a covenant nation of God on earth. There was a mysterious figure called Melchizadek in the Old Testament who preceded Aaron and was said to be the priest of an eternal order. This Melchizadek did also in his person prefigure Jesus Christ, being an eternal Priest of God (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 5:5,6,10).

We mentioned earlier that there were pagan teachers who troubled the church by seeking to win converts to themselves among the converts of Christianity. In the book of Hebrews the primary concern of its writer was the fact that many of the Jewish converts were tempted, if they had not already succumbed, to the persuasive arguments of the Hellenist Jews who pointed them back to their roots in Judaism. At the time of its writing the temple still stood and was in full operation. The Jewish converts in Jerusalem had undergone tremendous persecution from the Jews in general, and also from the Romans who by this time were well aware of this new sect of Judaism as they called it. Many of the Christian Jews were tempted to regress from the faith back into temple Judaism. Therefore, the main theme of Hebrews, is the avoidance of apostasy from the faith by recognizing the greatness and glory of Jesus Christ in His salvation (Heb. 3:12; 4:11; 6:4-6; 10:23-25).

Hebrews explains in sermonic form the difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant in Christ. This difference is one of progression from one to the other, not in terms of substance but in form. Salvation was under the Old Covenant by faith alone just as in the New. This explains the entire eleventh chapter where we have the eternal hall of faith declared in those Old Testament saints who have gone before. The Mosaic law was a type and shadow of Christ who came and fulfilled all that it looked toward in His person and work (Heb. 8:1-5). Even more significant is the fact that the New Covenant is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and his spiritual descendants, rather than to the earthly nation of Israel under Moses (Heb. 8:6-12). The Old Covenant with its earthly service is now obsolete, done away with and over for good (Heb. 8:13). It was only a few short years later that God confirmed this in His providence through the last and final destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD.

B-Gnosticism

But there was another element included in Hellenism which was especially problematic for the New Testament church. This additional element within paganism which threatened the faithfulness of the New Testament church which we speak of is especially evident in the letters of Paul to the Colossians, Johns epistles, and the Letters of Jude and Peter. In a broader sense, this particular theme of apostasy toward paganism is also taken up to some extent in Acts, in Pauls letters to the Corinthians, the Ephesians, and to Timothy and Titus. Much of what is covered in these books, as well as other scattered references in the New Testament address this particular problem that this further form of paganism posed to the church in the first century. This particular error became widespread throughout the churches of the Roman Empire and it is impossible to understand the New Testament apart from understanding what this was.

This collection of beliefs we refer to is known by the name of Gnosticism. Gnosis in the Greek literally means knowledge. This term as it was used by those involved in this teaching which troubled the church was made in reference to a certain kind of knowledge completely foreign to Scripture. The knowledge in question was not of the type the apostles nor the rest of Scripture teaches about God, knowledge based on His revelation. Scripture teaches that God is known by the objective revelation He gives of Himself to mankind in His word. Sinful man fails to recognize God accurately through the general revelation given in nature, therefore, He has made Himself known through special revelation in His word. And even though men are blind to special revelation unless God imparts His Spirit of grace to them, still this revelation is put forth for a testimony to the world.

Gnosticism claimed that it possessed a special mystical knowledge of God known only to select initiates, these were the teachers the apostles warned against in many places in the New Testament. The appeal of Gnosticism was not to the general public like the gospel message from the apostles, but only to a select number of privileged individuals. This Gnosis they spoke of was an esoteric religious philosophy that acted to undermine the Christian faith by a claim to greater light than what the apostles taught in the gospel. Its appeal was made to those who were unsatisfied with the gospel message of salvation alone, by faith alone, in the atoning work of Christ. Gnosticism at the time of the New Testament era was a collection of pagan religious beliefs combined together to form a single religious identity. It also involved occult powers as is witnessed by a certain practitioner of it Simon the Sorcerer, who converted to Christianity only to be discovered an apostate later by Peter (Acts 8:9-25).

As a belief system Gnosticism went back more than a thousand years BC to where it originated in Egypt as a mystery religion. It was then imported to Greece where Plato adopted it into his teaching of philosophy. It is also believed by many that Gnosticism has been influenced by certain other religious elements in the east from such places as Persia and India. Gnosticism is a distinct set of teachings but it appears to be inseparably connected to Hellenism. Hellenism was adopted by Jews into their culture during the Maccabeen period following the end of Alexanders reign. By the middle of the first century it was the cultural identity of many Jews throughout the Roman empire. The discoveries at Qumran have linked it directly to a certain sect of Jews known as the Essenes too. These Jews however, were of such an extremely separatist sect that it is hard to see how they could have been much of an influence. There appears to have been a wide influence of Greek culture on Judaism in general throughout the ancient world.

There is no direct mention of Gnosticism by name in the New Testament, but it is this same false teaching that Paul makes reference to in his letter to Timothy. “O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (I Tim. 6:20). This false knowledge that Paul warned Timothy about is that same false doctrine as the Gnostics were spreading throughout the church at large. There are three things here that can be gleaned about the Gnostics and their teaching in what Paul wrote to Timothy. First, there was a certain profaness about these people and what they taught. Second, this Gnosis was a collection of nonsensical doctrines. Third, the doctrines of the Gnostics were steeped in contradiction. Combined together, the teachings of the Gnostic sect confused people about God and salvation leading them astray from Christ.

Here is a brief summary of the main tenets of the Gnostic heresy in its several points. In looking at these it will help us to understand what the apostles were up against, and what they were saying to the Christian churches in several places of the New Testament.

1-Divinity is transcendent in Being, as well as pure Spirit.

2-Platonic dualism exists between spirit and matter.

3-A Descending order of emanated beings that link supreme divinity with matter.

4-There is a division within the chain of emanated beings by a supernatural creator of matter called a Demiurge.

5-The matter created by the Demiurge of which man is included, is evil.

6-A principle of divinity called spirit is implanted in man at his creation.

7-Release of this divine principle is by a means of light obtained through knowledge, which is redemption.

8-A Christ who redeems by being the revelation of this light.

9-Salvation is by the realization of divine light within through self-knowledge.

The only point which has the appearance of agreeing with Scripture in this list is the first one concerning God being a transcendent Deity that is pure Spirit, but that is as far is it goes. The God of Scripture is indeed one that transcends space and time, but He is also one who has revealed Himself to man in His word. No one needs some special teacher to tell them the way to find God or salvation for this is clearly revealed to us in Scripture. The Holy Spirit who communicated Gods inspired word through ordinary men is the same One who interprets it to those who read it (I Cor. 2:9-12). The Gnostic deity is not actually a personal Being, nor is salvation to them a matter of being made right with him through salvation, but rather a self-centered realization of one’s own perfection. Because Platonic dualism sets spirit and matter in direct opposition to each other, the object of perfection then is the separation of the two. In Gnosis, matter is corrupt and spirit is pure so that the two exist as contrary principles within man.

Nothing like this is taught in Scripture, for when God made man from dust and breathed life into him, He made him a unity of being that was very good (Gen. 2:7; 1:31). And mans problem requiring salvation is not simply because his material nature is joined to some higher and better principle which is held in bondage to it. But rather, it is man’s entire being that has been polluted by the curse and effect of original sin. It is not self realization that the gospel teaches about salvation but the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ whom He sent to accomplish it (John 17:3). Scripture does indeed teach that there is a conflict which exists within a Christian between their flesh and spirit, but not in the way Gnosis defines it. Pauls exhortation for Christians to walk in the Spirit is for them to live a sanctified life, not to escape from it (Gal. 5:16-18). Notice what Paul says about the works of the flesh, they are not only acts that are performed externally but motivations as well, showing that salvation is concerned with the whole of mans being (Gal. 5:19-21).

Most of all, the Gnostic error presented a false doctrine of Christ. This is evident in what the apostle John had to say about it in his writings. First of all, John was not only a disciple of Jesus Christ but an eyewitness to the resurrected Savior. As an inspired writer John warned his readers of this Gnostic deception concerning Jesus (I John 2:26). John refers to the Gnostic teachers in his letter as antichrists. He does so primarily because what they said of Christ actually denied Him. Johns reference to both a single Antichrist as well as many antichrists has led too much confusion over the centuries and does not fail to do so today (I John 2:18). The distinction that John makes here is between a single person who will appear some day to deceive the world and others who epitomize this person by their false and deceptive teaching of Christ. The single person John is referring too here is the one spoken of by the apostle Paul who will commandeer an apostate church and lead it in a world wide defection from the faith through deception (II Thess. 2:3,4,9,10).

The antichrists that John compares in his time to this one future figure are like him in that they teach heresy that is antichristian and leads those who believe it away from Christ. In fact, this is what happened to many in the early church as a result of Gnostic teaching (I John 2:19). John was concerned to explain this to the believers that they might have proper discernment about these things. It always happens that when numbers of people leave the church in pursuit of a particular doctrine or teacher that this causes consternation in the minds of Gods people. But John was careful to point out that those who left following the Gnostic error were in fact, never Christians in the first place. This is important to understand for this is how Satan seeks to undermine the Christian church and to assault the faith of wary and weak believers.

The doctrine of Christ that these teachers spread was at the heart of the issue. Only a proper orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ accords with true saving faith, this is what concerned John in his epistle. When the doctrine of Christ is corrupted through false teaching, everything else concerning the gospel and salvation is at stake. When people believe error and follow it this amounts to apostasy pure and simple. The world is always lost so that they do not have the ability to discern between truth and error. This is why John exhorted the believers to not love the world or the things in it (I John 2:15). There is plenty of false teaching about religion and certainly about Jesus Christ. But John dealt with heresy and the apostates who followed it in his letter, in order to strengthen the faith of true Christians by giving them doctrines by which to place their confidence in. We will do well to learn this today for there are still many antichrist teachers of false doctrine that infest the church of Jesus Christ with their errors, leading many astray.

John takes a direct shot across the bow of Gnosticism when he says that true believers in Jesus Christ enjoy a unique spiritual anointing, ie., light, which leads them in the way of truth rather than error (I John 2:20,27). We have this light provided through the Holy Spirit who resides within every true believer in Christ, for the Holy Spirit reveals Him to us. But here is the caveat, the Holy Spirit reveals Christ as He is shown in the word of God. And even more to the point than that, in reference to Johns day, the word of God is the apostolic witness of Jesus Christ. These special teachers claiming to have light speak according to their own light, their own religious philosophy or doctrine and not Gods word. The Holy Spirit witnesses only to the truth and nothing else. John does not mean to say as some have always falsely supposed him too that they have some special authority by Gods Spirit to speak as a prophet either, or, to interpret exclusively the prophetic word for themselves apart from any other test or standard of orthodoxy.

No, John simply states that every true believer will and must abide in Jesus Christ, and that he will do, according to the understanding given by Gods Spirit to each and every believer. The Gnostic does not have the Spirit, nor have any been born of the Spirit who imbibe in heresy concerning the person of Jesus Christ. Well then, what heresy was it that the Gnostic teachers were propagating? There were two main branches of this Christological error in the apostolic church associated with Gnosticism. The first was Docetic, the second Cerinthian. Docetic or “Dokein” in Greek means an apparition. The second came from an Ephesian man named Cerinthus who was the originator of the error so named. The Docetics believed that Christ did not come in the flesh, but rather, only appeared to do so. The Cerinthians believed that Christ was only a man and not God in the flesh. These two heresies plagued the church in its first three hundred years until they were finally condemned by church councils once and for all, and their adherents declared to be heretics.

Docetism is the belief that Christ was only an apparition and not really God incarnate. The Gnostics who taught this believed that Christ’s appearance was only in the imagination of men, that He was not really a man but imagined so by those who saw Him. This would make Jesus some sort of Ghostlike deity. The Docetics believed that to say God became man was to deny who He was as God. If God became man so they reasoned, then He could not be perfect too. Of course, if Docetism is true then the death of Christ was something less than the death of a man. And even more than that, it would not be the death of the incarnate God in substitutionary sacrifice for sin. The Docetic teaching of Christ was an attempt on their part to make the Christian message more acceptable to the pagan mind.

The Docetic error is exactly what John is referring to in the immediate text we have been considering in his first epistle (I John 2:22). The Holy Spirit testifies to this fact, “that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (II Cor. 5:19). John established this very thing right off in his gospel; “the Word was with God, and the Word was God”; “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14). The apostle John attributes this error to the antichrist not only because it is a denial of Christ and who He is as the God man, but because it is a denial of God Himself as the Trinity (I John 2:22,23). Jesus is God, coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Nor is Jesus some lesser deity as the Gnostics taught as though there were some sort of descending quality within the persons of the Godhead, or even worse, that there is more than one deity.

The Cerinthian heresy tried to make a distinction between Christ as man and Christ as God. Cerinthus taught that God came upon the man Jesus at His baptism in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16), but He left Him later as He died upon the cross. In other words, there were two persons of two different natures at the same time in the person of Jesus. So it was then that it was not the Christ who died on the cross but only the man Jesus. The logic in this is obvious, how could God take on the nature of man, and then how could God then die? The implications of this are just as obvious, for if God was not the One dying on the cross then there was no penal suffering for sin there either. And just as obvious was the fact that if Christ did not die a vicarious death on the cross then what is the meaning if any of His resurrection (I Cor. 15:12-17)?

John addressed the Cerinthian error too in his first epistle (I John 5:6-8). But first there is something here worth noting about it in order to make the appropriate points. Modern textual criticism denies I John 5:7 claiming that it does not appear in the oldest manuscripts. Therefore, it is left out of the newer translations. But a reading of the three verses in reference to the Cerinthian error refutes the validity of this claim. “This is He who came by water and blood — Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.” (Verses 6-8). What John wrote in these three verses of chapter five addressed exactly what the Cerinthian heresy was all about concerning Christ.

The witness of God is in the agreement between the water baptism of Jesus and the blood that was shed of the Son of God who died upon the cross for sinners. Far from that event being a temporary thing as the Gnostics claimed, it was the first and perhaps clearest testimony in Scripture of God as the Trinity (Matt. 3:16,17). All three persons of the Trinity are present and revealed at Jesus’ baptism. It was not upon an ordinary man that God bestowed His Spirit and His approbation. John sets that straight in his gospel when he records the words of John the Baptist who says “He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.” (John 3:31-34).

The inspired prophet John testified that Jesus was God, the apostle John confirmed this in his writings, and the Holy Spirit witnesses to this truth to those who truly receive Him (John 3:35,36). To pull verse seven out of I John 5 is to do damage to the context of what is said here in refutation of the Cerinthian error. And it should not be any surprise that this verse is missing in the Greek manuscripts that are currently approved by the critics. Those manuscripts are Alexandrian in origin, a hotbed for Gnostic heresy at the time they were written. Anyone who reads church history knows that the Gnostics corrupted the Scriptures by removing verses that challenged their errors. Therefore, those particular manuscripts were rejected and not used by the church. The validity of verse seven is attested to by its use among the church fathers, as well as its use in the first two translations from the original Greek, the Syriac (150 AD) and the Old Latin (157 AD) versions.

John urged his readers to be wary of the spirit that claimed either of these two errors of the Gnostics to be truth (I John 4:1-3; 5:9,10). Those who teach such things are frauds, phonies who do not know God and should not be given our time and attention. That is, unless it is to set them straight by the truth as it is in Jesus. As we have seen, the Gnostic teachers took the language of the Bible and assigned different meaning to it in order to gain adherents to their false doctrines. True biblical religion is faith based, grounded upon the objective historical reality of a Divine incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, His substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for sinners, and His resurrection from the dead for their justification. Theology is essential to true saving faith. Our post modern era claims that doctrine is divisive, intellectual and somehow opposed to the principle of love. Experience is the mantra of our day, but the apostle’s new no such faith as that which divorced doctrine from experience.

C-Gnostic Asceticism

Because Gnostic teaching was experience based, it focused heavily on the spiritual experience and personal discipline of the initiate. This was done in the attempt to free their spirit from the confines of bodily existence. The Gnostics were of two different opinions on how to do this. The first of these two opinions viewed rigid ascetic practice as the best means for obtaining deliverance from the evils of the material world. These Gnostics believed that the spirit found its liberation through the discipline of self denial and legal observance. It was this particular type of Gnosticism that motivated Paul to write to the Colossian church. Paul warned the Colossian believers of the worldly nature of this teaching, how it did not accord with Christ and His teaching. “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8). Human philosophy is always behind false religion of no matter what sort it might be.

Paul wrote his epistle to the Colossians to those who were being mislead by Jewish Gnostic asceticism. Once again, circumcision was being promoted by the Jews among the Gentile believers as having something of value toward faith. The apostle Paul took the opportunity in his letter to teach them the true meaning of this Old Covenant rite. Circumcision provided no spiritual gain whatsoever, for it had typified the spiritual reality of the new birth in a believer (Col. 2:11,12). The new birth is what God gives to spiritually dead sinners for their experience of redemption, not the keeping of the Mosaic law. When we say experience, we do not mean to imply that regeneration is some kind of mystical experience. The work of Gods Spirit on a person is mysterious and quiet, something unknown to them at first (John 3:8). But when the Spirit of God gives spiritual life to a person raising them from spiritual death, that person most certainly becomes aware that something has happened.

A dead sinner can do nothing to effect any change in his spiritual condition, this is the work of a sovereign God who dispenses grace for spiritual life to those whom He wills (Eph. 1:3-5; 2:1). All of the evidences that describe conversion are the fruit of regeneration rather than the ground of it. This is often confused by people who lack understanding of doctrine for being some kind of a religious experience. And certainly some people do undergo more profound circumstances in their life when God regenerates them than others do. One such example of this is that of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts (Acts 9:1-9). We put the question to the reader though, how many does this happen to at conversion? Obviously Paul was specially chosen to be an apostle. Therefore, he must see and hear Christ personally for that qualification. The ordinary “experience” of the average Christian however, is uneventful at the point of regeneration. It is the fruit of that regeneration in a new spiritual life which indicates something has happened. This would include all the evidences of conversion.

Jewish Gnosticism blended elements of Mosaic tradition into the discipline they claimed the Gentiles should observe. It was believed by them that there was some sort of magical power in these elements that Gnosis would unleash to the initiated followers of it. Therefore, the keeping of these elements served as a spiritual rule from which they could derive power for emancipation from the corrupt elements of the world that imprisoned their spirit. It also engendered a certain fear from the people concerning these rites. But there is nothing in them that should do so, for the only power at work in Christian salvation is that of the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus Christ from His word to the believer. Any other power we might look to comes from the unholy spirit and his underworld of demonic beings. Paul puts this to the Colossians in terms of the deliverance Christ accomplished for them from such powers (Col. 2:13-15).

Paul categorized the Gnostic disciplines as a form of bondage to the one who makes use of them for salvation or satisfaction in his life. The one who fears the evil of death and looks for deliverance should rather be afraid of such false teaching as this which leads men from Christ. In doing so, Paul magnified the fullness of Jesus Christ in His Person, and the completeness of His work of redemption as that which liberates the believer from all that oppress him (Col. 2:9). The completeness of Jesus’ salvation is such for the believer that there is no other thing needed or necessary for them to find a perfect salvation from that which truly oppresses the human spirit, which is sin and death. What Paul was saying to them was that a true Christian is complete and satisfied in Christ alone as He is taught in the doctrines of the gospel, not as those false teachers were teaching.

In chapter two of Colossians Paul gives a sample of what these disciplines were in support of their special knowledge. These disciplines were concerned with the use of certain foods and drinks; various festivals; astrological interest in new moons; legal Sabbath observances; the worship of angels and neglect of the body through self imposed denial of legitimate things (Col. 2:16-23). Those things’ Paul lists show how Jewish and pagan elements had mixed together in creating the Gnostic error. The nature of this error is clear from Paul calling these disciplines “the basic principles of the world,” “regulations,” the commandments and doctrines of men” and “self imposed religion.” Self-imposed religion is always a form of will worship as Paul so rightly points out too in Colossians two. There is absolutely nothing of spiritual value at all in the observance of aesthetic rites and routines not commanded from God. This kind of thing which Paul was speaking of is better defined simply as natural religion, as something that is thoroughly pagan in nature and totally contrary to Christ and the gospel (Col. 2:8).

It is easy to see just how such practices as these will eventually work their way out. Observe the same thing in the Roman Catholic church several centuries later. There are many parallels that exist between Gnosticism, and Catholicism, even the worship of various intermediaries like Mary and the saints just as the Colossians did of angels. The idea that bodily exercises of abstinence in legitimate things like food and drink, which incidentally the Catholics do also, can be used toward spiritual advancement is patently false and worse yet, an offense to God. Natural religion always betrays a false view of God in its various ordinances of legalistic piety. This is most certainly true of the Gnostic idea of divinity.

The apostle Paul warned his understudy Timothy that he would encounter in his ministry this same kind of aesthetic religion by those who eventually depart from the faith (I Tim. 4:1-3). This passage is often interpreted as referring to the end of the age before Jesus returns, as indicative of the church situation that would prevail in the world when He comes. This is certainly true of what Scripture reveals about that future date. But Paul speaks here to Timothy concerning his present ministry, that this is a concern of his. Paul spoke with prophetic knowledge of these things not knowing how far off in the distant future they would come to pass. Again, we point to the fulfillment of this warning at least in part, in the Roman Catholic church. This kind of self denial in matters of food and marriage as well as other things would become the basis for Medieval piety, the groundwork for it being layed in the Colossian error. The difference between spiritual and aesthetic disciplines being such that the two cannot rightly be compared (I Tim. 4:8).

The heart of the error of asceticism lies in false doctrine about the kingdom of God and what it consists of. Paul emphasized this fact in his writing to the Roman believers in settling disputes over such matters as what brethren can or can’t do out of conscience (Rom. 14:17). At Rome there were some who had personal scruples over some of the things mentioned in the Colossian letter such as the use of or abstinence of certain foods, and the keeping of special days (Rom. 14:5,6). But notice here that Paul is addressing matters of conscience on personal opinions of Christian liberty rather than religious disciplines designed to increase piety. No, those who corrupt true religion with such things think that they gain something from them in a religious sense. Certainly, this is what motivated Paul to warn Timothy of it in his letter to him of the false doctrine of false teachers which underlies such assumptions (I Tim. 6:3-5).

What is especially grievous in reference to the Colossian heresy is the mention of angels in connection with their worship. Pagan belief assigned power to angels as “gods,” those emanations of the supreme deity that acted as intermediaries. There is no doubt that here in Colossae this is what was being taught and practiced by the Gnostics. To the Gnostics Jesus was but one power or emanation among many, albeit one that was believed to be a special spirit guide through whom personal Gnosis was found. Such an idea or “philosophy” as this is utterly false and offensive to God who shares His worship with no other god (Ex. 20:3-5). The commandment against idolatry and false worship necessitates a proper doctrinal definition of whom Christ is as well as what He has accomplished in salvation. This is exactly what Paul did in his letter to the Colossians.

Just like John and the writer to the Hebrews the apostle Paul set forth Jesus Christ as greater in stature than the Gnostic concept of Him. Jesus Christ in His Person is the visible human manifestation of the invisible God (Co. 1:15). As such, Jesus declares that God is Personal Being, not just some vague notion of esoteric philosophical speculation. And Jesus is not simply one particular mediator among many, a sort of lesser god, but the preeminent Head over all creation, making Him one with the eternal, otherwise unknowable God. “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.” (Col. 1:16). The object then of all things created, including the salvation of men, is the glory of God as witnessed through Jesus Christ the Redeemer. To say that matter is evil is to say that the God who created it is evil, thereby making Gnosticism an evil religion to be rejected. And furthermore, Jesus who is God upholds every atom that exists within the universe by His power (Col. 1:17).

D-Gnostic Libertinism

The second type of Gnostic devotee took the exact opposite approach to the supposed problem of evil than the ascetic did. Believing the flesh to be evil because of its material nature and the spirit pure, these Gnostics imagined that they were being held captive to their created condition. Because of this view they reasoned that the flesh could be indulged in all of its passions without any consequence to them at all. They reasoned thus, if human flesh is corrupt and dies, then there is no point in mortifying its lusts in any way. Redemption, according to this view applied only to the spirit of man. Therefore, only the spirit is the object of Gods grace, the flesh has no interest whatsoever in the matter of religious piety. If we live a life of faith and love as followers of Jesus that is all that matters because the flesh and the spirit are completely contrary principles. Since grace delivers us from the law and its penalties, we are free to indulge our fleshly desires without fear.

This point of view is referred to as antinomianism, or anti law religion. Jude spoke in his epistle of these particular Gnostics as perverters of the Christian faith and church. “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4). These Gnostics were brazen and open about their libertinism in reference to Gods law, prompting Jude to pen his epistle in a rebuke of such error. Jude describes these men in this way, “These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage.” (Jude 16). In other words, these men were shameless in their conduct before the world. But even more grievous than that however, was the fact that they took the name of Christ upon themselves.

This error was not just false teaching which of course it certainly was, but outright apostasy from the Christian faith and a complete return to paganism for anyone who had come out of it only to end up in their camp. In a similar way to John in his epistle, Jude mentions the fact that these men were prophesied of as coming in the last days (Jude 17-19). But apostasy from the faith was present then in the church just as it is always a problem in every age. Perhaps these were those false shepherds that Paul warned the Ephesian Elders about who would come in after he was gone and speak perverse things, drawing others after themselves and causing divisions (Acts 20:29,30). At any rate, Jude’s exhortation to the church was to contend for the faith, guarding themselves against such teaching of perversion and immorality (Jude 3). The purity of the faith from a doctrinal position is the very foundation of all that we should practice or experience as Christians.

The apostle Peter addressed this sort of antinomian Gnosticism in his second epistle too. Peter, speaking of these teachers says that it was through a promise of blessing in being licentious that they sought to lure those away to their doctrine who already had escaped such a lifestyle (II Pet. 2:18,19). Some of Peter’s sentiment here in this chapter of his second epistle seems to mirror that of Jude’s so closely that many modern critics have claimed that Peter simply copied them from him. But when we begin to see the enormity of this problem in so many areas of the New Testament it is not a surprise that some of the same things regarding them are reiterated by different writers. Both Jude and Peter were writing general epistles not specifically directed to any particular church. The Gnostic heresy in general of both types was present in more than one location, hence the similarity found in these two letters from these two writers. And so Peter speaks of these men being among them in their worship and fellowship of the Lord just like Jude did (II Pet. 2:12,13).

Furthermore, it is clear from what Peter writes in this his second chapter of his second epistle that the immorality of these teachers was being taught as a positive thing among the people of God (II Pet. 2:14). There have always been false religionists that have accused the Christian doctrine of Justification by faith as an invitation to sin without concern. After the apostle Paul taught on justification in his epistle to the Romans (Chs. 3-5), he then addressed this very issue that is raised by the detractors of the doctrine (Rom. 6). And not surprisingly, the Roman Catholics who are perverters of true religion, accused the reformers of the very same thing. No true believer in Christ, born of His Spirit believes such a thing or disavows good works in the life of a Christian. But here we see the Gnostics actually believing and teaching that adultery is acceptable in the life of a Christian!

And what is the purpose of such teachers as Peter here describes? They are out to gather followers, to entice them with the pleasures of sin as though they were free from its penalty in Christ. But Peter calls these teachers accursed, meaning they are apostates. And so we have here a test of true faith in Christ given by the apostle Peter. Sin in a believer’s life does not negate salvation or the presence of grace. But deliberate unrestrained sin accompanied by an attitude of its acceptance by any person is most definitely an evidence of them being an apostate. For anyone to believe otherwise is to be deceived by these frauds whom Peter was denouncing in no uncertain terms (II Pet. 2:18,19). Mark here first of all, what Peter says about their teaching, that it is empty, that is doctrinally devoid of truth that accords with godliness. And second of all, Peter says that it is liberty that is being offered by them to those who will listen.

Liberty is a buzz word for many in the Christian faith. Of course, there is such a thing as Christian liberty, Paul taught that the Christian is indeed free in Christ (II Cor. 3:17). But this is spiritual not, carnal liberty he speaks of. Liberty in the Christian life is freedom to serve God in Christ in much the same way that the exodus of Israel from Egypt typified the same. For when God sent His servant to speak to Pharaoh, what did Moses say to him but to free His people so they might serve Him. “Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.’ “ (Ex. 5:1). Deliverance from evil and its oppression is freedom to worship and serve God, not the other way around. And so we see that Peter concludes his point concerning these men by showing that they were false from the start (II Pet. 2:20-22). There was never an ounce of sincerity in their profession in the first place. These came into the Christian church to pervert its teaching and to lead others astray after themselves.

We have already made note of this before, that the apostle John wrote extensively in his writings against the Gnostic heresy. Of this antinomian sort John also wrote in his first epistle, condemning the attitude of anyone calling themselves Christian who would also deny that they ever sin (I John 1:5-10). Verse nine is a popularly used verse in modern evangelicalism that is referred to as a “gospel” verse, suggesting that the confession of sin guarantees forgiveness from God on Christ’s account. The concept of confession as an act of faith and a fruit of the Spirits work of grace in the heart of a Christian is most certainly not denied by us. But this verse, as in many other texts of Scripture has abuse done to it in giving it primarily a gospel message application. The context of this passage and the point being made, indeed the entire book of first John, is that of defining what is true Christian faith. This verse is written to those who profess Christian faith exhorting them to consider that it is a salvation from, and not an invitation to sin.

We are taught in Scripture that it is not just our sinful flesh that is carnal and not subject to the law of God but our minds too, because of the curse and pollution of sin (Rom. 8:7). To say that the spirit of man is pure is utterly false. Jeremiah said to the Jews of his day that the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:10). Jesus said to the Jews of His day the same thing too (Matt. 15:19). And it certainly is true that there is a struggle between the flesh and mind of a Christian concerning what he desires in devotion to God and that which he actually performs (Rom. 7:18, Gal. 5:17). But here is what the apostle John says in that first chapter of his first epistle. To the believer in Christ who is conscious of his sinful shortcoming, there is relief at the cross for we have an advocate in Christ, a propitiation for our sins (I John 2:1,2). Therefore, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9).

But we can see here that John is speaking to those who claim they have no sin to confess, he tells them that they are liars (verses 8,10). These were the antinomian Gnostics that John was speaking to, those who placed themselves alongside true Christians but thought otherwise about sin in their lives. John was out to assure the conscience of the true Christian concerning the validity of their faith, while at the same time trying to disturb the conscience of the antinomian heretic. And what do we see John basing his assertion of Christian piety on before them? The Gnostic thought of God as pure Light, and so He is (I John 1:5). But God is a personal Being, not some abstract principle. And God saves through Christ in order to have fellowship with His creature (I John 1:6). This is why God took on the nature of man in Christ, that His glory might be manifest in this way in those who are saved and have fellowship with Him. God who is Light says to us “but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (I Pet. 1:15,16).

To think otherwise about God either in His character or in what He expects of those who are His is blasphemy against Him. But these teachers who promoted the antinomianism were those who did this very thing in the church during the apostolic era, and continued on into the next two centuries doing the very same thing. At the end of the apostolic era, just as the Canon of Scripture was at its close, this very thing was being warned against by the Lord in Johns revelation to the Asian churches (Rev. 2:9). These were those Jewish Gnostics whose doctrine ran rampant in those churches. Although each one of the seven churches in Asia had its peculiar issues that the Lord spoke of to them, still this corrupt teaching of the Gnostics seemed to permeate virtually every church. The church at Ephesus was commended by Christ for their stand against a sect calling themselves the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6). This was a sect of Gnostics too, whose doctrine and practice were detestable to the Lord (Rev. 2:15).

The Nicolaitans were antinomian Gnostics. We learn more about them from Irenaeus (120–202 AD) where he writes: “John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith (the deity of Christ), and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that “knowledge” falsely so called, that he might confound them, and persuade them that there is but one God, who made all things by His Word” (Against Heresies, ANF Vol.1, Book 3, Chap. 11, Par. 1, Pg.1085, Philip Schaff [1819-1893] Editor). This sect was still around and active in his day.

Both John and Peter mention the Old Testament story of Balaam and Balak as examples of this corrupt behavior among the Gnostics (Num. 25:1; II Pet. 2:14,15; Rev. 2:14). During the course of Israel’s wilderness wandering they were set upon by two ungodly, unscrupulous men by the name of Balaam and Balak, the first was a prophet of the occult variety and the second was a king. Balak wanted this sorcerer to cast a spell upon Gods people that would thwart their forward movement toward the promised land, a movement that went right through his district. Instead of having success in this Balaam was thwarted by God in that he could do no other than to bless the nation of Israel. Balaam attempted to curse them four times and four times he ended up pronouncing a blessing upon them to the consternation of King Balak. This event is recorded in chapters 22-24 of Numbers.

Written with literary subtlety however, is the report Moses gave of Israel immediately following the previous chapters in Numbers. “Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.” (Num. 25:1,2). This grove was a place of idolatrous worship for the Moabites of whom Balak was their king. The crafty Balak realized that no direct assault upon these people could be successful, so instead he instructed his people to tempt them with immorality and idolatry, sins leading to apostasy. In other words, the way to undermine the commitment of Gods elect toward Him is through these kinds of sin.

And so it is clear why this event is made an example of by the apostles. The antinomian Gnostics were trying to do the same thing in the early church with the Christians who had by Gods grace been delivered from paganism. The letters to the seven churches came at a time which ended the apostolic era, and they show us the condition which prevailed among them in a general way. Christ commended these churches in some things but in others, He warned them to repent. A lack of repentance where these people were exhorted to do so is most likely the reason for their disappearance from history following the first century, giving to us a sobering example of the danger that lies in these doctrinal errors and the practices they engender.

Today, there are many people in the Christian church who are just like these men, who apart from any distinctly Gnostic ideas, would otherwise be referred to as antinomians. Closer to our day we have seen the spectacle of what is called free grace, non Lordship Christianity. For the very same reason as the Gnostics in apostolic days these folks claim that the freeness of Gods grace precludes the notion of necessary submission to Christ as a present reigning King. They do this by a crass focus upon the words of Scripture that set grace and law against each other. In order to skirt the charge of being antinomian they talk of obedience to Christ as a matter of voluntary submission rather than duty. They are right of course, concerning the first part. Duty to Christ must always be voluntary for it to be acceptable as worship. But on the second point these people do grievously err not knowing the Scripture (Matt 22:29).

Popular teaching has been around for some time called “The Carnal Christian” doctrine which is taken from Pauls first epistle to the Corinthians and accompanies the free grace doctrine of these folk (I Cor. 3:1-3). But Paul does not say that these Corinthians are carnal in the absolute sense of that word and still legitimately Christian, rather he says they are acting as though they were. There is nothing commendable or assuring in his speech toward them. The free gracers say that not only can a Christian live as a carnal person while saved, but also that they are “eternally secure” in it too. This is the manner in which these people seek to exalt the voluntariness of Christian service. In Romans however, Paul denies the carnal Christian idea as inconsistent with eternal life (Rom. 8:5-7). While Paul is not suggesting that eternal life depends upon human conduct, nor that one who is saved can lose their salvation because of sin in their life, only that carnality in a Christian speaks against their witness as Christians.

Such teaching as the carnal Christian encourages those who war on a daily basis with the corruption of the flesh, to abandon that war and give in to the sinful urges of a corrupt nature. And there is something that is even worse than that about this idea, as if that could be possible. This is that such teaching as non Lordship salvation suggests to the unregenerate unrepentant sinner that they can be saved, yet go on sinning freely without concern. For this reason it is safe to assume those large numbers of people who have imbibed in such error are completely deceived and not saved at all. When this sort of error accompanies an extremely shallow, man-centered presentation of the gospel, there are most likely many who will gladly say they want to “accept Christ” as their Savior, while at the same time having no interest in Him as their Lord. Is it any wonder today that so many claim to be “born again” Christians, yet, they have no evidence of it in their lives?

In conclusion, the New Testament gives ample evidence to prove that apostasy is inextricably linked to false thinking about God, and about sin and salvation as it is presented to us in the gospel. Therefore, if we wonder why the church today is in such deplorable condition as it is, the first place to look at is the New Testament with the view to defining what it teaches doctrinally concerning these things. Since discernment and conviction of truth is just as much a gift from God as grace is, this we will do God permitting.

Notes

[1] Charles Buck, A Theological Dictionary, Woodward Edition, 1825.

[2] Hebrews has the appearance of a sermon rather than a letter. This explains the lack of author and audience in it that other letters contained. The audience is obvious however, it was written to believing Jews before the destruction of Temple Judaism in seventy AD.

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