Bad doctrine doesn’t come from outside the church, but from within.
“I would love to hear more artists who sing to God and fewer who include a father murdering a son in that endeavor.”
“If you can’t think of anything to sing to God other than gratitude for taking your shame away through bloodshed, stop singing and look around.”
“To see (the atonement) as literal and out of context — that God needed to be appeased with blood — is not beautiful. It’s horrific.”
These are the words of Christian musician Michael Gungor. In a memorable tweet thread in February 2017 he questioned the validity of the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus as being a literal sacrifice and a necessary component of orthodox theology.
The end of an error
Rejecting Jesus’ death on the cross as the appeasement of God’s wrath against sin is commonplace in modern church practice. But doing so denies the unbroken theological line one can draw through the church fathers and on through the past two millennia.
The insistence that Christ’s crucifixion was mere metaphor or example, that it was anything less than a substitutionary death for sinners, that it was not the propitiation of God to secure his unmerited grace, is bad doctrine. It is exactly the sort of thing Thomas Brooks writes about in this eleventh device of Satan against Christians.
“By polluting and defiling the souls and judgments of men with such dangerous errors, which in their proper tendency tend to carry the souls of men to all looseness and wickedness, as woeful experience does abundantly evidence.”
Earlier devices in this first major section of Precious Remedies focus on personal issues. They illustrate Satan’s drive toward the head and heart, the core of our being and identity. In this device, our enemy goes for our theology. If he can’t tempt us from within, he will attack the objective truth that fuels our faith and hope.
We can never assume adherence to biblical doctrine. God in his Word calls us not only to obey his commands but to keep them. We must hold tightly to them, preserve them, and teach them. The Bible is sacred, and it is our sacred duty to assent to it.
Remedy 1: Fight for your brain
In one of our early posts regarding this book we learned Brooks bases the entire proof of his point on Ephesians 6:11: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” This is important to understand as we encounter this first of seven remedies.
It’s easy to be misled by some expressions of the Christian faith that spiritual warfare is about battling demons and other evil spirits, contending daily with the Prince of Darkness. I wouldn’t exactly call this bad doctrine, though. Misguided, yes.
While it certainly is true we wage war against “principalities and powers” (rather than against flesh and blood), you’ll see in Ephesians 6 that spiritual warfare is largely a battle of the mind.
Of course, we wage war and live by faith just as much with our heart. But the Greek-speaking audience of Paul’s epistle would have understood “the heart” to be the seat of all human knowledge. Our minds are the location of what we know. What we know fuels what we do.
One of the starkest examples of this reality is found in Galatians 2:11-14. Paul writes of his rebuking Peter’s hypocrisy in avoiding Gentile Christians when his Jewish brothers were around. Note that in verse 14 Paul does not say Peter’s behavior was racist, insensitive, or rude. He doesn’t primarily apply any such descriptive term. What he says is “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.”
This is an incredibly important statement. Paul says it is the knowledge of the gospel that must drive the way we treat Christians who differ from us.
Yes, God dislikes unchristlike behavior very much. But as Brooks reminds us, he hates the vanity of the anti-gospel thoughts that lead us to be unlike Christ.
Remedy 2: Believe the truth you have before you accept the error you hear
Does it seem unloving that, as Paul states in 2 Thessalonians, God would send people delusions when they refuse to believe the truth? And yet he does.
Every false theology, every cultic vision, every pleasant-sounding and even seemingly godly distraction may be a lie those who refuse the knowledge of God have willingly embraced.
Sort of puts the whole “God told me” thing in perspective, doesn’t it?
The adage “If you won’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything” begins to make sense as well. Except the “something” isn’t any ordinary soapbox, cause, or crusade. It’s the tried and tested word of God. The gospel. His truth.
But there’s so much to know! And there are so many unanswered questions. And frankly, there are a lot of things in the Bible that are just plain hard to believe. You mean we need to believe all of it, every word, right now?
Yes, the Bible is a great big book. And sometimes it can be baffling. Or confusing. Or, admit it, sometimes just a little annoying (when it confronts our most cherished sins). And it’s old. Really old. There’s much to know, much to grasp, much to understand.
So why not start small? Just take the words of Jesus. But let’s go even smaller than that. Take one command. How about the very first command Jesus uttered?
“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Matthew 4:17, ESV).
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15, ESV).
If you believing God, you will first believe Jesus. And then to begin believing in Jesus you will obey his first command, that you have the faith that saves. This will show that you have not succumbed to the worst bit of bad doctrine the devil ever repeated: “Did god really say … ?”
Remedy 3: Error is a terrible investment
The “great recession” spelled the end of retirement dreams for many unfortunate Americans. By late 2008, as lending institutions fell like dominoes, it was estimated investors had lost $2 trillion. Only a few months later, that figure rose to over $10 trillion.
Imagine a lifetime of hard work, systematic savings, and careful planning, wiped out in a matter of days. It happened. And it can happen again.
As a voice-over artist and audiobook narrator, having reliable recording equipment is critical. And double-checking settings and connections is equally important.
During one session I forgot to hit “record” on my computer before I went in the booth. And then I narrated over an hour of a book before taking a break. Imagine my frustration when I realized my mistake. More than 9,000 words, vanished into the ether. One tiny mistake destroyed a huge chunk of work. Nothing to show for my effort.
This will be the outcome of those who sow the sterile seeds of bad doctrine into the church and other believers’ hearts. They will reap nothing but destruction.
Remedy 4: Spit out the poison
The truth of God is so precious that it can cause dead men to rise, old creatures to become new, and hearts of flesh to replace hearts of stone. Therefore we must learn to hate any so-called truth that rises to take the Word’s place.
Brooks lays out a litany of charges against bad doctrine here. It would be best to explain each one in turn, but an outline must suffice for now.
We must learn to hate teachings that …
- Allow us to make excuses and accommodations for sin;
- Add the laws and requirements of man to those of God;
- Suggest any power on earth is equal to the power of the Holy Spirit;
- Require us to achieve a certain level of righteousness on our own, apart from the sanctifying work of Christ in us;
- Say that because Christ was righteous in our place we may ignore righteous and holy living now;
- Insist that we believers today lack the power and privileges of those in the early Church.
It is as good and right – more so – for a Christian to hate bad doctrine as it is for a doctor to hate a snake-oil remedy, for a for a schoolteacher to hate the haughty attitude of a student that infects the whole classroom, for a spouse to hate the alluring advances of a stranger.
To hate what God hates is to accept that righteous hatred is a perfectly acceptable form of love.
Remedy 5: Cling to the Word
When Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus in the garden on the morning of his resurrection, she grabbed onto him (John 20:17). The Lord had to tell her not to cling to him. Do we feel the same desperation to cling to the Word of God he has left for us during these days?
Certain diseases require those who live with them to keep remedies with them at all times to protect their lives.
- An asthmatic’s rescue inhaler
- A diabetic’s insulin
- An anaphylactic’s EpiPen
- A hemophiliac’s antifibrinolytic
Brooks argues our grip on truth must be as tenacious as if our physical lives depended on it. This is because our spiritual lives – far more worthy than our flesh – really do depend on it.
“Hold fast that which you have, that no man take your crown” (Rev. 3:11). This is a fitting verse to accompany this point. A king possesses a land, a people, a palace, a legacy, a government, and a measure of power. Yet all these possessions find their representation in a crown, a relatively small thing.
As Christians we possess much as well. Righteousness, peace with God, power from the Holy Spirit, an inheritance in heaven, a global family of fellow saints, an assignment of good works to do in God’s name. Yet they all find their representation in the Word, which is the source from which all these possessions spring. Let us not so easily lay this Word down.
Remedy 6: Lay low
“Keep humble.” What a simple remedy. And yet, why now, Brooks? Humility could be a good remedy to any of Satan’s devices against believers. How would one apply humility in the case of bad doctrine?
Brooks provides a clue here:
“Oh, it is dangerous to love to be wise above what is written, to be curious and unsober in your desire of knowledge, and to trust to your own capacities and abilities to undertake to pry into all secrets, and to be puffed up with a carnal mind.”
Pride causes us to want to know more than God has said in his Word. It drives some Christians to esoteric and mystical pursuits, listening for God’s “still, small voice” in the quiet. It sends them after self-proclaimed prophets who say they have a “fresh word.” It leads them away from Scripture.
There is one verse that sums up how we should approach those gaps between what the Bible says and what it doesn’t.
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV).
Truth be told, most of us have so much further to go in understanding what God has said, it makes no sense to worry about what he hasn’t.
Remedy 7: Look at the wasteland
Charles Finney was one of America’s best-known revivalist preachers, leaving his legacy during the 19th century. He took his evangelistic efforts across the northeast, through large portions of New York State.
Some of Finney’s former ministry locales are now collectively sometimes called “the burned-over district.” The irony is, Finney coined that phrase himself about the area’s lack of evangelistic fervor. Yet it was largely his tactics, and those of his ilk, that led to the area’s degree of spiritual destitution.
Observe the output of a religious movement and you will know how is stands against God’s truth.
A movement that produces adherents who believe they are even partly responsible for their salvation is unworthy of the gospel. One that causes people to systematically abandon essential biblical doctrines is false. One that emphasizes personal wealth and success over denying one’s self and taking up a cross is from the mind of Satan, not God.
Before getting caught up in bad doctrine that seems plausible, rational, or even biblical, take a close look at its effects. Observe the lives of those who adhere to it. While outcome is not always the best measure of orthodoxy, be certain that good doctrine does not produce spiritual wastelands.