The prophet Isaiah lamented the state of his nation, Israel, as it persisted in its sinful revolt against God.
“Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint” (Isaiah 1:5).
It’s hard to imagine a more apt description for the spiritual state of America in 2017, despite the political reprieve following last year’s elections.
And what could explain America’s woeful condition better than its widespread biblical illiteracy? As Albert Mohler noted, “Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60% of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments.”
“No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time,” said George Barna, founder of the firm. “They don’t know what they are.”
When biblical illiteracy begins to characterize a church, sound doctrine begins to unravel. For example, one study of the beliefs of members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) found that only 39% agreed “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” Even worse, the percentage of pastors was even lower (35%).
However, in some churches, the clear teaching of Scripture is not only being questioned but denied outright.
For example, country singer Carrie Underwood, an outspoken Christian, has been outspoken about something else – her support for same sex “marriage.” This is in line with the position held by GracePointe Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where she attends, and its pastor, Stan Mitchell. Popular women’s Bible teacher Jen Hatmaker also disappointed many evangelicals with her support for homosexuality and same sex “marriage.”
How can this be happening in the Christian community itself? The church is supposed to be “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) – not a bulldozer against it.
However, the fact is that the church has always wrestled against false teachers and false prophets. The New Testament is filled with warnings that these counterfeits would come.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Few of us probably consider the frightening implication of what Jesus said here. He warned that there would be people in church who looked like Christians but who would actually be “ravenous wolves.”
Of course, church leaders are to act as guardians of God’s people, protecting them from false teachers and false prophets. As Paul said in his exhortation to the elders of the church in Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock …” (Acts 20:28). Be on guard against whom? These very same “savage wolves” of whom Jesus forewarned, who would arise and promulgate heretical teachings (vv. 29-30).
Jesus states clearly that these wolves are recognizable: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16).
On this point, some Christians get a bit confused. They assume that, because the word “fruits” seems like the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22, Jesus must be referring to things like “joy” or “love.” Many believers are deceived by false teachers because they think, “Well, they are just so nice – they must be Christians – and therefore their teaching must be right.”
However, when the Bible uses “fruit” (or “fruits”), it is being used as a metaphor, representing something deep in our lives that produces something else that we can see. So, in Galatians 5, the activity of the Holy Spirit will produce characteristics that identify us as Christians.
As we probe more deeply into Matthew 7, we discover that, when Jesus mentions the fruit by which we could identify false prophets, He wasn’t talking about people being “nice” or “not nice” at all.
Remember, it wouldn’t be easy to identify them. These people are wolves in sheep’s clothing, so it should not surprise us to see these individuals pictured as outwardly Christian. They called Jesus “Lord;” they prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles; and they did all these things in His name – as if they were His representatives (vv. 21-22).
That’s what they did; what they didn’t do, however, formed the basis of their terrifying judgment: They practiced “lawlessness” (vs. 23). Their lives were unrestrained by God’s commandments. They said to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” but did not obey God. They did not do “the will of My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus said these false prophets will not enter the kingdom of heaven (vs. 21).
Let me say right now that I do not think Carrie Underwood, Jen Hatmaker, Stan Mitchell, and others like them are false teachers or false prophets. They are not denying the divinity of Christ, His crucifixion, His resurrection, or any of the other cardinal doctrines of the historic faith.
On the issue of homosexuality, however, I think that they, themselves, have been deceived. As a result, they are in danger of running afoul of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:19:
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Moreover, the error they teach about homosexuality does have potentially grave consequences for others. The people who believe the lie that God is pleased with their broken sexuality will undoubtedly practice sodomy as a lifestyle. They will continue in a sin that will prevent them from entering the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
How do we know where to draw these lines concerning truth and error? Jesus tells us in the section that follows immediately in Matthew 7:24-27. Our answers are found in the Word. If we hear what it teaches and act on that truth, we are building a foundation that can sustain us. If we do not, we are foolish and building on sand. Our ruin will be great.
Because the world and, increasingly, the church are threatened by spiritual darkness, there is only one path through the devil’s trickery: the Word of God.
The Bible says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). Our job is to understand what the Scripture says and teach it. That is the only hope for us and for a people drowning in the polluted waters of a darkened world.
Editor’s Noted: Unless otherwise stated, all Scriptures used above are from the New American Standard Bible.