Article by Ray Ortlund (original source tweet about, and argue against false teachers who lead people away from the truth? And how do we talk about true teachers who mistakenly counteract their own theology?
Defending the gospel against both its enemies and, at times, its friends is not easy. On the one hand, we desire not to be cowards; on the other hand, we desire not to be provocateurs.
How can we find our way? Here are four thoughts:
1. It’s a privilege to even have this problem to wrestle with.
We have been “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (1 Thess. 2:4). God has surely smiled on us, placing into our hands the stewardship of his truth here in this day when the world denies the validity of any truth. May we be fully pleasing to the Lord in how we handle our sacred trust in such a time as this!
2. The Bible speaks bluntly about false teachers.
Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the LORD, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the LORD. (Jer. 23:32)
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8–9)
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Pet. 2:1)
And Jesus himself thundered against those who opposed the truth in sneaky ways:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. (Matt. 23:29–31)
Biblical passages like these are declaring that something massive is at stake in what we and others believe and teach. They warn us to make sure we are not leading people away from God.
3. Before moving a muscle to defend the gospel, pause and ask, “Why do I think I am qualified for so holy, so exacting, so difficult a task as rebuking a false teacher?”
The pastoral letters of Paul emphasize both the value of sound doctrine and the futility of immature argumentation. But in the heat of debate, it’s easy to come to the aid of sound doctrine with an immature argument. So Paul warns us: “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:22–23).
In the context of Paul’s argument, the “youthful passions” are probably not sexual but intellectual—that sophomoric, triumphalistic passion we’ve all felt when scoring a gotcha zinger in debate. Do we really want to defend the gospel? Good. Then here’s how: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). But a feisty immaturity is disqualifying.
Sometimes when young believers discover the glories of Reformed theology, they get weird for a while, in a pushy sort of way. Without realizing it, they treat these glorious truths as footballs to kick around. And if some persons get kicked too, the debaters don’t seem to notice.
But the gospel loses credibility in the minds of people looking on. Hence, the urgency of this question when we see the gospel being undermined: “What makes me think I’m the one to bring correction? I could easily make this situation worse. Maybe all God wants me to do right now is quietly pray and wait on him.”
4. When you must step forward and defend the gospel against poisonous teachers, defend it with all the grace that inheres within the gospel itself.
We must do the Lord’s work the Lord’s way. It is not enough for us to identify a misleading voice, and then just do or say whatever feels right. As Jonathan Edwards warned us, “There is nothing that belongs to Christian experience more liable to a corrupt mixture than zeal.” Peter illustrates the folly of misplaced zeal. When the enemies of Jesus attacked, the apostle rose up in defense. His heart was doubtless in the right place. But what did he actually do? He drew his sword, proving not how brave he was but only how foolish (John 18:10–11).
Francis Schaeffer used to say that, after debating with a liberal theologian, he hoped the liberal would walk away with two equally clear impressions: one, Francis Schaeffer really disagreed with him; two, Francis Schaeffer really cared about him. So the truth was defended, and the person was respected. Can gospel people settle for less?
And then, if we must critique a fellow Christian, it becomes all the more important to be considerate and restrained, for that Christian is a member of Christ himself. Rather than go quickly to the nuclear option by charging him or her with heresy, we should slow down and cautiously articulate our concerns such that the erring brother or sister might actually be won over—not embarrassed, pressured, or cornered, but persuaded.
If, however, we plunge ahead without taking great care to bring a winsome argument, we must honestly examine our own professed love for the truth. What is it that we want, really? What is it that’s burning inside? Is it the Holy Spirit?
Ugliness Can’t Defend Beauty
Perhaps all of us have witnessed scenes of accusation and interrogation among Christian believers that did not at all appear to be moved along by the Holy Spirit of God. We saw no beauty there, no humaneness, nothing of Christ. It made the kingdom of heaven feel more like the regions of hell.
How can ugliness defend the beauty of the gospel? Francis Schaeffer again counsels us wisely and compellingly:
There is only one kind of man who can fight the Lord’s battles in anywhere near a proper way, and that is the man who by nature is unbelligerent. A belligerent man tends to do it because he is belligerent; at least it looks that way. The world must observe that, when we must differ with each other as true Christians, we do it not because we love the smell of blood, the smell of the arena, the smell of the bullfight, but because we must for God’s sake. If there are tears when we must speak, then something beautiful can be observed.