Proposition One: Doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation, by Phil Sanders
I am grateful to discuss the Bible with anyone, but I am grieved that this controversy has created confusion among us. It appears some are questioning whether or not we should dismiss the threat of false beliefs and practices, since the grace of God is abundant. The abundance of grace, however, must never be an inducement to ignore or continue in sin. True hope must ground itself on the eternal words of God (Col. 2:6-8), and we find no promise attached to the false hopes of humanly constructed doctrines.
We are not here in this discussion to replace God. We do not know how far the grace of God will extend to those who are unwittingly mistaken. Our task is to proclaim what God says about false doctrines and strange practices that go beyond the teaching of the Lord in the New Testament. God has spoken for himself on these matters. Our second task is to remain as free from error as possible and to lead others to remain free. We have no desire to be cruel to others by leaving them with false hope that they may remain in error.
Proposition 1: The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation.
Didache is a noun found thirty times in the New Testament to mean “doctrine,” “teaching.” Didaskalia is a synonym for didache, and denotes “doctrine,” or “teaching” throughout the nearly twenty occurrences of the term. The teaching or doctrine of Jesus Christ comes through his words revealed in his personal ministry and assured to the apostles and prophets in the first century through the work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:12-13). The Lord Jesus declared his Word to be the standard by which all people living today will be judged (John 12:48). One cannot reject him or his teaching and remain guiltless.
Jesus often expresses his authority over men by his teaching (Matt. 7:21-28; 28:18-20; Luke 6:46; 11:28; John 8:31-32; 8:51; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:8-10). Those who wish to remain in a right relationship with the Lord and be his true disciples must abide in and observe his teaching. Jesus highly valued his words, and he expects his people to value them as well.
Matthew 7:21-23 ( NASB ) 21“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
Jesus regards the person who hears his words and does not do them as foolish and headed for destruction (Matthew 7:26-27).
Jesus does not separate one teaching from another here. Rebellion to his teaching, any teaching, is rebellion toward him. Lawlessness occurs when an individual lives in disregard for the law of Christ and acts as if there were no laws. A person who will not do the will of the Father but practices lawlessness will not enter heaven. Lawlessness is a salvation issue. One is both lawless and foolish who hears the words of Christ but will not do them. Many are deceived into thinking because they have done something, they have done the words of Jesus. Those who ignore the belief, for instance, that baptism is necessary to salvation (John 3:5; Acts 22:16)
The Lord Jesus said to the Jews who believed him, “If you continue [remain or abide] in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). The adverb alethos in this passage is used some twenty times in the New Testament and means “truly” or “surely,” “corresponding to what is really so, truly, in truth, really, actually.”[i] Danker translates the phrase in John 8:31, “you are real disciples of mine.” Real or true disciples abide in the word of Jesus. This suggests those who do not abide in the word of Jesus are not real disciples, though they think they are.
2 John 1:9-11 ( NASB ) Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.
While we grant “the teaching of Christ” may very well be the specific teaching about Christ that challenged the church in the second century, we recognize that whether one takes the phrase “teaching of Christ” as an objective genitive or a subjective genitive to be a moot question. The sin of 2 John 9 is in going too far and not abiding in what is taught. One is in error for trying to distort the nature of Christ’s deity, but the act of distorting or changing any teaching from God is abhorrent and condemned throughout Scripture (Deut. 12:32; 2 Cor. 4:2; Gal. 1:6-9). By way of the application of this principle, one must not distort any teaching of Christ. Should he do so, he risks losing his relationship with God. Our relationship with God is tied to what we believe (Heb. 11:6).
What Is Error?
A person in error is a person who is deceived. The Greek term plane means “error, deception, deceit.” In all New Testament occurrences of plane, the word refers figuratively to moral (Rom. 1:27) or spiritual (1 John 4:6) deception or error. Paul’s appeal for maturity is so that people no longer be deceived by ‘error’ (Eph. 4:14; 2 Pet. 2:18; 3:17; Jude 11).[ii]
Louw and Nida describe plane as the content of that which misleads or deceives-‘misleading belief, deceptive belief, error, mistaken view.’[iii]
Peter warned Christians about the untaught and unstable who distort Paul’s writings and the rest of the Scriptures to their own destruction. He warned, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:17-18).
James 5:19-20 ( NASB ) 19My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, 20let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Interestingly, we are not told which truth this “brother” has strayed from. We are told that he has strayed from the truth. J. W. Roberts makes this comment: “To wander from the truth is to be deceived (mistaken) and thus led away from the truth, the truth being the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is possible for one to deceive himself or be deceived by others.”[iv]
The origin of this problem is found in the statement “wander from the truth” (James 5:19). The truth means, of course, the Word of God. “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). Unless the believer stays close to the truth, he will start to drift away. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1, nasb).[v]
False Doctrine is Evil
A person who teaches false doctrines either lies about God or about his will for mankind. All lying is evil and damnable (Rev. 21:8). What is often called “mistaken” is in reality deception. It is evil to deceive others (John 8:44). Lying to another by giving them false hope is cruel. Allowing a person to remain in deceived, when the truth could lead them out of error is cruel and criminal, even by human terms (Ezek. 3:18-21).
A person who supports the teaching of false doctrine participates in its “evil deeds” (2 John 10-11).
A person who leads others to believe a false doctrine also leads them into “further ungodliness” and may shipwreck their faith (2 Tim. 2:16-18; Tit. 1:10-11).
A person who presses a false belief or practice to the division of the church has committed great sin (Titus 3:10-11), such sin that will cause a person not to inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21).
The Perversion of the Gospel
Galatians 1:6-9 ( NASB ) 6I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
The Judaizers of the first century who sought to bind circumcision and the Law of Moses on Christians taught many others things right. There is no indication they denied the resurrection, denied the deity of Jesus, or contended for salvation before baptism. We have no reason to believe they contended for instrumental music in worship, sought to change the Lord’s Supper, or believed in denominational Christianity. They taught contrary to the gospel and were accursed for it.
When people think they can pervert or distort the will of God on any matter, they have become in essence “lawless.” They are acting outside the will and teaching of God. Distorting God’s teaching is a crime against God; it may be presumptuous rebellion or callous indifference. In either case it shows no love for God.
Paul “renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). The cunning of the devil comes in his ability to distort the truth just enough to lead one into error. Rat poison is mostly corn meal with very little poison. It is mostly corn meal so that the rats will eat it but just enough poison so that it will kill. The devil and his apostles appear as angels of light to deceive the elect, but their end shall be according to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
Whether in matters large or small, distorting God’s Word is offensive to God and sinful. Any sinful behavior arising from distorted teaching that disturbs the brethren is sand theology (Matthew 7:24-27).
1 Timothy 4:13, 16 ( NASB ) 13Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. … 16Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.
Here again, the principle applies to teaching on any topic. If what one teaches does not matter, such language as Paul uses in 4:16 is indeed absurd. Teaching does indeed affect one’s salvation. If it is a matter of salvation, it must also be a matter of fellowship.
People Who Cause Division with Their Teaching
Romans 16:17-18 ( NASB ) 17Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 18For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.
Titus 1:9-11 ( NASB ) 9holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.
For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain.
Titus 3:9-11 ( NASB ) But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.
The term “factious” (heretikos) refers to a person who is a schismatic, who divides a congregation with false teaching. Such a one is to be isolated from the community.[vi]
Romans and Titus tell several things about schismatics in the church.
1. Their motives are selfish.
2. They use deceitful means to influence the unsuspecting.
3. Their teaching is contrary to the apostolic teaching.
4. They create dissensions and factions.
5. They are to be “watched,” “turned away from,” and “rejected.”[vii]
Jimmy Jividen noted this about schismatics:
Schismatics will be judged by God for their destructive behavior in the fellowship of the church. They also must be judged by the church itself. Those who cause division in the church must not be tolerated. The body of Christ must cut off any member who is divisive. If they do not, the body itself will be destroyed. Every church split could have been prevented if the church had excluded the schismatics from its fellowship before they formed a party.[viii]
Jude 11-13 ( NASB ) 11Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. 12These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; 13wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.
Jude 1:17-19 ( NASB ) 17But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, 18that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” 19These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.
Testing the spirits
1 John 4:1-3 ( NASB ) 1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
The Scriptures regard the Bereans as noble, “for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
2 Timothy 2:15-18 ( NASB ) 15Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 16But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.
While the message of the Lord to the Ephesian church in Revelation shows disappointment for their loss of love, the Lord praises them for testing the false apostles and dealing with them (Revelation 2:2-3). Jesus found fault with the church at Pergammum for holding to the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:14-16). The Lord warned them to repent or he would come and make war against them with the sword of his mouth.
The Lord rebuked the church at Thyatira for their willingness to tolerate false teachers with their false doctrine which led to immorality and error. The Son of God gave them time to repent, but it is clear there would be a limit to his grace, since she does not want to repent of her immorality (Rev. 2:20-23). The Lord rebuked the act of tolerating in this instance. Tolerating false doctrine allows it to perpetuate. It is sinful not to speak out and act against false doctrine.
[i] BDAG, alethos, 44.
[ii] William D. Mounce, Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 217.
[iii] Louw, Johannes P. ; Nida, Eugene Albert: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York : United Bible societies, 1996, c1989, S. 1:366.
[iv] J. W. Roberts, “The Letter of James,” The Living Word Commentary, 178.
[v] Wiersbe, Warren W.: The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, Ill. : Victor Books, 1996, c1989, S. Jas 5:19
[vi] Stephen Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, “heretic.”
[vii] Jimmy Jividen, Koinonia, 99.