Tag Archives: Discernment

The Subtleties of Satan

Recently, during my daily Bible reading, I came across a familiar section in Genesis that caused me to reflect on some common problems in today’s churches.  Both observations occurred in Genesis at the fall of man in the Garden:

Gen. 3:1-5
“3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Note that God’s Word begins here by telling us that Satan, the serpent, was more crafty, i.e., deceitful, than any other beast of the field and we see that certainly played out in his interaction with Eve.  His first words really give us a clue to how he operates even to this day, “Did God actually say?”  This presupposes that God’s Word is spoken (or read) and then Satan cleverly interjects doubt into the truthfulness of God’s Word. This first subtlety that he uses, creating doubt into God’s Word, has done nothing but increase since then, particularly post-Enlightenment (~1650-1800).  We see it played out in everyday life when people doubt God’s stance on marriage between a man and a woman as He has revealed in His Word.  We see it through the promotion of science and evolution to the exclusion of the Bible, doubting then the truthfulness of God saying it is He that has created and sustains the earth.  But we also see it in our churches.  Multiple mainstream “pastors” have created doubt over the existence of Hell, the aforementioned forbiddance of homosexual marriages and relationships, even doubting what the Bible says about Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  Satan’s real subtlety isn’t operating outside our churches, it’s operating within.

But note in this passage a second subtle way that Satan works, “‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  Where did Satan get this statement?  Whom is he attributing this quote to here? He follows up his doubt of God’s Word with a distortion of what God actually said.  Note carefully how he tries to quote or paraphrase what God told Adam in the previous chapter, “16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17).  God’s command was that Adam (and Eve) could eat of every tree except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  But Satan, in his deceitful way changes that and asks did God really say (the doubt) that you couldn’t eat of any tree (the distortion) in the garden.  Interesting isn’t it.  A subtle creation of doubt followed by a twisting of words can steer someone completely away from what God has actually commanded.  Despite the numerous false religions in the world today which have certainly blinded the eyes of many, the closer one gets to truth, the more difficult it is to spot the deception and the more easy it becomes to be lulled into a false sense of truth and security.  This can be illustrated by the graphic below.

When you start at a known point of truth and begin to deviate from it, before you know it you’re on a trajectory that leads to miles away from the truth, even though it hasn’t seemed like that drastic of a shift.  Thus, the subtlety of Satan.  See, Satan’s best work isn’t done through the promotion of secularism, or false religions (though make no mistake he is working very successfully there), it’s done through deception on the inside of churches.  Just think strategically about this brethren.  If he can create doubt and distortion among the people who have the most access to the truth, then who will be left to point those on the outside toward the truth?  It then becomes increasing important for professing Christians to know their Bibles and diligently hone their gifts of discernment in order to recognize error, not primarily outside their churches, but inside.  The Apostle John makes this exhortation very clear in his first epistle, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1

Discernment, Defiled

12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “’I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’” Revelation 2:12-17

In picking back up our series on discernment (See: Discernment Now, Discernment Defined, Discernment Applied), which we paused while reviewing some things from the Desiring God conference, it seems logical to look next at the dangers of lacking discernment, specifically within the Church.  There is a sense today that is prevailing within the modern everyday church that accepts any and everything published, spoken, sung, or written with the label of “Christian”.  In fact, this lack of discernment is not something new, but instead is a prevailing attitude that dates back to biblical times.  The Apostle Paul faced this in Galatia, 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7), in Colossae, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ,” (Colossians 2:8) and warned of great apostasy within the Church as written in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 and 1 Timothy 4:1-3.  Just as it was in Paul’s day, so it was with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, Whitfield, Spurgeon, and this battle rages on among professing Christians to this day.  In fact, it was Spurgeon when faced with the “Downgrade Controversy” concerning the Church of England penned the following:

“We live in very singular times just now.  The professing Church has been flattering itself that, notwithstanding all our divisions with regard to doctrine, we are all right in the main.  A false and spurious liberality has been growing up which has covered us all, so that we have dreamed that all who bore the name of ministers were indeed God’s servants – that all who occupied pulpits, of whatever denominations they might be, were entitled to our respect, as being stewards, of the mystery of Christ.  But, lately, the weeds upon the surface of the stagnant pool have been a little stirred up and we have been enabled to look down into the depths.  This is a day of strife – a day of division – a time of war and fighting between professing Christians!  God be thanked for it!  Far better that it should be so than that the false calm shall any longer exert its fatal spell over us!”     

Charles Spurgeon was exhorting the true Christians of his day to stand up and fight against those who professing the name of Christ had invaded churches and pulpits and were preaching those things contrary to the Gospel.  Several hundred years before Spurgeon, John Calvin wrote, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.”  The necessity to weed out those false teachers, writers, speakers, et.al has never been more necessary than today, because just as the Apostle Paul warned, apostasy will increase in latter days.  Yet despite the battles fought by faithful men in the past, today our discernment within the Church has become so lax that false teaching is rarely recognized, though more often embraced.  In his book The Truth War (review forthcoming), John MacArthur points out that “The Church today is quite possibly more susceptible to false teachers, doctrinal saboteurs, and spiritual terrorism than any other generation in Church history.  Biblical ignorance within the Church may well be deeper and more widespread than at any other time since the Protestant Reformation.”  He adds, “I am convinced that the greatest danger facing Christians today has infiltrated the Church already.  Countless false teachers already have prominent platforms in the evangelical movement; evangelicals themselves are loath to practice discernment or question or challenge anything taught within their movement; and many leading evangelicals have concluded no doctrine or point of theology is worth earnestly contending for.”  Our age of tolerance and acceptance has impacted Christianity to such extremes that to question or refute false teaching within the Church is to be considered antagonistic or divisive. 

Which leaves us with 2 options, 1) Become more spiritually discerning, such that those who defile Christ will be identified and removed thereby instituting Church discipline or 2) Face the warning of Peter, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” 1 Peter 4:17   I fear that we may instead face the latter and be joined with the likes of those at the Church of Pergamum mentioned above in the passage from Revelation

In this letter, which Jesus is instructing John to write, the church has compromised herself allowing heretical doctrines to invade.  In verse 14 we read of those in the church holding to the “teaching of Balaam”, or that which the King James Version calls the “doctrine of Balaam” which is synonymous with the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans” mentioned in verse 15.  John MacArthur identifies this teaching as the attempt of Balaam to prostitute his prophetic gift and curse Israel by having Moabite women seduce Israelite men into intermarriage resulting in a blasphemous union of Israel with fornication and idolatrous feasts.  Interestingly, Jude, who specifically addresses contending for the faith against apostasy and false teaching, mentions this attack of false doctrine promoted by Balaam in verse 11 of his epistle.

In his commentary, Matthew Henry makes the following observation of the Church at Pergamum and subsequently those churches of today that lack discernment and have fallen prey to false teaching, “1) The filthiness of the spirit and the filthiness of the flesh often go together. Corrupt doctrines and a corrupt worship often lead to a corrupt conversation.  2) It is very lawful to fix the name of the leaders of any heresy upon those who follow them. It is the shortest way of telling whom we mean.  3) To continue in communion with persons of corrupt principles and practices is displeasing to God, draws a guilt and blemish upon the whole society: they become partakers of other men’s sins.”  As Henry points out, corrupt doctrine, i.e. false teaching, infiltrates the Church in such a way that it corrupts not only teaching, but worship, and subsequently our interactions within the body.  Likewise, he asserts that we who sit under false teaching are held accountable and therefore wear the label of the heresy of the leaders we follow. 

Note again the warning of Jesus from the passage in Revelation, He is not singling out merely the leader of the Church, but the entire Church.  He rebukes them and threatens war against them with the sword of His tongue unless they repent.  Those that do he will absolve from guilt and restore communion.  Discernment is not something to be taken lightly; it’s serious business when the Word of God is defamed and false doctrine is allowed to cultivate and spread within the Church.  Not only are those that teach it held accountable, but those who sit under such teaching.  Lack of discernment defiles the Church body from within and when it goes unchallenged as MacArthur points out, “breeds more confusion and draws still more shallow and insincere people into the fold.”

Therefore as Christians we have an obligation to develop spiritual discernment within ourselves and within our congregations.  Even more so those in leadership positions have this responsibility as the Apostle Paul points out in Titus 1:9 to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”  Study the Word, devote yourself to it, “practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.  Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 1 Timothy 4:15-16

Discernment, Applied

15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”  Matthew 7:15-20

In continuing this week’s discussion on discernment (Discernment, Now and Discernment, Defined), it’s important next to look at how we can apply it in our lives, namely how we can sharpen our senses of discernment as we read in Hebrews 5:12-14 through studying the Word of God and then be able to put those senses into practice.  Far too often in today’s Evangelical Church preachers, teachers, books, quotes, etc. are accepted simply on the basis of saying they are Christian or having the appearance of being “Christian”.  The problem is we’ve sacrificed discernment for acceptance and knowledge for naivety.  The Biblical truth is that all throughout Scripture, particularly the New Testament, we are warned of false teachers.  In the passage above, from Matthew, Jesus is providing a test for identifying these false teachers.  First, He tells us that they will take the appearance of being like one of the flock.  John MacArthur’s study Bible provides an interesting note here that not only can they appear as a sheep, but wearing the “sheep’s clothing” was sign of a shepherd in ancient days, adding that these inwardly “ravenous wolves” may be either sheep or shepherds.  In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 we get additional insight into the tactics of deception employed by false teachers, 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.  Their end will correspond to their deeds.” 

Two key passages we’ve outlined so far that show false teachers are not those who attack from the outside, but instead those that take the appearance of truth and attack from within the church.  This is how Satan works best; he disguises himself as an “angel of light”, namely a representative of truth, but secretly his goal is destruction of a church, group of people, or person.  In Jude 4 we gain additional insight into the means and methods of deception that has infiltrated the Church, 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”   In this passage we begin to see how these false teachers have made their way in, “unnoticed”, meaning those who were supposed to be on guard, namely the Church, were asleep or distracted.  Finally let’s look at Paul’s words from Acts 20:28-30, 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among  your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Again we read the emphasis placed on false teachers arising from the inside, woven into the fabric of the church via pulpits, seminary’s, books, television, radio, etc.

Having now established that false teachers/preachers/prophets are among those of us who profess Christ and are disguised as one of us, taking the form of either sheep or shepherd within the church, let us continue in the passage from Matthew and our Lord’s warning.  In verse 16 we read of how to identify these teachers, specifically by their fruits.  We must first ask, what are these fruits so that we can then identify when something is contrary to them, or more importantly lacking all together.   The word fruit here is the Greek word karpos, which refers to a work, act or deed.  It is the kind of fruit described in John 15:8, 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”  Those who abide in Christ will bear much fruit, contrasted against those who bear no fruit, or bad fruit.  In Philippians 1:11 we read of this same word in reference to producing “fruits of righteousness.”  Similarly this same fruit is referred to in Hebrews 12:11 and both refer to virtue, honesty, morality or decency.  Those false teachers that have crept in lack this fruit.  This is verified by the passage from Jude 4 that we read earlier which refers to these ravenous wolves as “ungodly people” or by contrast unrighteous.

A second fruit can be found in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”  Here we have a fruit that is born forth from repentance which is defined as an agreement with God that the “bad things” in a person’s life are sin and therefore unpleasing to God.  Subsequently, repentance is the turning away from those sins.  So the fruit mentioned here is produced from the recognition and abandonment of sin.  False teachers lack this fruit because again as Jude 4 states they “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.”  They pervert the grace of God, in that there is no repentance from them for their sins.  They continue in their sinful, prideful manner “and many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed, and in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” 2 Peter 2:2-3 Later on in this same chapter of Peter it says, “they have their eyes full of adultery, insatiable sin.  They entice unsteady souls.  They have hearts trained in greed” and because of their licentious behavior they are unable to bear fruit in accordance with repentance.

A third bad fruit, or absence of good fruit, that we can use to recognize false teachers can again be found in Jude 4, “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”  2 Peter 2:1 corroborates this by saying these false teachers will “secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.”   Titus 1:16 makes reference to the defiled, empty talkers, and deceivers of the Church that “profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works.  They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”  In keeping with false teachers, to deny Christ is to be unwilling to recognize who He is and what He has done.  Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:17 His incarnation was the fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 He was born of a virgin. Matthew 1:23 He lived as both fully God and fully man. Colossians 1:19, 2:9 He is the only name which saves. Acts 4:13, Romans 10:13 He is the only way to God. John 14:6 He was beaten and crucified and took upon him the sins of all those who believe. Isaiah 53:5, John 3:16, Romans 4:25, Romans 5:6-8  He died, rose again, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. Luke 23:46,52-53, Luke 24:6, Mark 16:19, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2  He will return for His people. Matthew 24:44  To deny any of these in part is to deny Christ in full and to live apart from the vine, incapable of producing fruit.

In concluding His warning on the presence of false teachers Jesus points out that these people will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.”  He then gives us a second exhortation to examine them by their fruits.  In part, what we’ve studied today are 3 characteristic fruits which these wolves lack, righteousness, repentance, and belief in the nature and work of Christ.  This is in no way a comprehensive list, but instead should serve as a Biblical guide to recognizing those wolves that have crept in among the sheep.  Make no mistake they are among us, they will continue, and their frequency will increase, but if we apply discernment in our personal lives it will translate to our churches, bible studies, and conversations, so that detection of these apostates and heretics will become more widespread.