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by Jacob Ninan
There was a time when the Bible was only available to the clergy in the church and not to the common man when it was believed that the common man did not have the knowledge or ability to be able to read and understand it by himself. The church had an official version of the meaning of Scripture, and no other interpretation was permitted. That is not the case now when the Bible is available in the languages of the common man, and everyone is free to read it for himself and understand the meaning. Things have now gone to another extreme where different interpretations are flourishing, churches are getting split on the basis of interpretations, and erroneous teachings are abounding. Also, many people rely on experiences to form doctrines without checking to see if they conform to what is written down in the Bible, not realising that experiences themselves may come from the Deceiver and interpretations of even ordinary experiences could also be wrong. Jesus and the apostles have warned us saying that in the last days there would be many false teachers, prophets and miracle workers who would lead many astray (Matt.24:24;2Pet.2:1). Here we want to look at some of the most common errors that are prevalent in the universal church today.
We receive our salvation from God through His grace when we go to Him in faith (Eph.2:8,9). True faith is our trust and confidence in Him as a Person because of which we are willing to yield ourselves to Him and His words. When someone hears the Gospel, the response that comes from him which leads him to salvation has a few essential elements to it. 1) He recognises and admits he is a sinner who stands condemned before the holy God. 2) He wants to give up sinning even though he feels helpless against sin. 3) He realises that the death of Jesus on the cross is God’s remedy for his sins. 4) He yields to Jesus as his Saviour and Lord and receives salvation as a free gift from Him. These are all part of saving faith along with the belief in facts about Jesus. The word which is used for ‘believe’ in the original Greek of the New Testament means “to adhere to, cleave to, to trust, to have faith in, to rely on.”
Faith is crucial because it is what makes, or the absence of which breaks, relationship with God (Heb.11:6). So, Satan has found many ways of counterfeiting this faith because he wants people to imagine that they have faith when they actually do not. Such people will not receive anything from God and they may actually miss out on salvation for eternity. Let us examine a few of the counterfeits.
Mere intellectual belief. Faith is associated with ‘belief’ because we can have faith only when we believe facts. But merely believing facts is not faith. The Devil believes all the facts about God, but he has no faith in God which could lead to salvation (Jas.2:19). Many people, especially those born in Christian families and who are familiar with the truths in the Bible, are in danger of having only this kind of faith. True faith causes us to take action based on what we believe. For example, if we believe that God is One and Jesus is the only way to get to this God, we will leave every other ‘god’ and become willing to do whatever Jesus tells us to do. If we realise that a certain behaviour we have is not right in the sight of God, we begin looking for ways to stop it. This kind of ‘action’ shows that our faith is genuine (v.18).
Faith to bargain with. A major error concerning faith that is common these days is that faith is something we produce in order to receive what we want from God. In this way, people try to do a ‘business deal’ with God to get something from Him in exchange for the ‘faith’ they show! They make themselves ‘believe’ that they are going to get what they are asking God for by repeating promises of God to themselves and repeatedly telling themselves that they will get what they ask Him, and trying to remove every doubt that comes up in their mind. When they think that they have reached a sufficient level of faith, they claim their request from God thinking that now He is bound to give it to them. They think that in this way they can ‘name and claim’ whatever they want. People lay their hands on what they want or walk around places they wish to have and claim them ‘in faith’.
We must not forget that whatever we receive from God is out of His grace, and not something we can demand as a matter of right or as a business deal. To think that “Your faith has made you well” and “According to your faith be it unto you” indicate that it is our faith that produces miracles is to forget that it is not we but God who does miracles in response to our requests. These phrases have to be understood in their contexts as the equivalent of saying, “I am making you well because you believed” and “I am doing for you just as you expected.” We can see how ridiculous it would be to think that our ‘faith’ itself has the ability to accomplish miracles when we realise that in that case we would not even need God!
True faith is based on what God has said (Rom.10:17), and not on what we make ourselves believe. A factor that contributes to this kind of wrong thinking about faith is that people view faith as confidence in God’s ability. Some people find it difficult to believe that God can do miracles. When they finally come to believe that it is possible for God, they imagine that now they have faith that God will do it. It is comparatively easy to believe that God can do everything. But just because God is able to do anything He wants, it does not mean He will do whatever we ask for (1Jn.5:14). He chooses to do only things that He considers good and wise. Therefore, it is not right to think we have faith that He will do something we ask for, just because we know He has the ability to do that. When Jesus said that we could ask for whatever wanted in His name and that He would give it, He was encouraging us to ask Him boldly and without hesitation. Even our earthly fathers had enough wisdom not to give us whatever we asked. It is ridiculous to imagine that our heavenly Father would be less wise! Therefore, whenever we ask for something from God, it is good to have an attitude of “Not my will, but Yours, Lord.”
When people consider faith is something with which they can get things from God, they think of less faith, more faith, etc., in terms of what they need to get a smaller or bigger thing from God! Jesus tore down this argument absolutely when He said that a faith as small as a mustard seed was enough to throw a mountain into the sea! In other words, it is not about the quantity of our faith, but the object of our faith or who we have faith in! Faith involves a personal relationship with God, and not an impersonal transaction or manipulation as taught by Eastern religions.
On the contrary, when we begin to have faith in Him, we begin to trust Him and His word. When we experience more and more that He is true to what He has said in His word, our faith (trust) in Him grows. Then we also become more willing to yield to His will, and to do whatever He tells us.
It is a sad fact that many people come to Jesus not for salvation from sin, but merely for earthly blessings. When Jesus was preaching to people in His days, He knew that most of them were seeking Him only for miracles for their earthly life (Jn.6:26,27). It is true that when we suffer from problems on earth we need help from God. God is fully aware of that (Matt.6:31-33). But we must not forget that the main reason Jesus came to the world was to save us from our sins (Matt.1:21).
Many preachers are taking advantage of people who are suffering due to sicknesses or poverty by turning the gospel of Jesus into a ‘health and wealth’ gospel. Some of them present the gospel as if prosperity is the main offer of the gospel, and some others as if full health and riches are the rights of every Christian which should be believed in and claimed. We can see that “By His stripes we are healed” (Isa.53:5) was referring to spiritual healing if we read it in the context of the whole chapter as well as 1 Peter 2:24. Even though Matthew quoted Isa.53:4 to point out that Jesus was fulfilling it through physical healing (Matt.8:17), he was not saying that therefore all sicknesses could be healed miraculously or that His people would not have any sicknesses, as many preachers claim. Timothy’s stomach problem is enough proof, among others from the New Testament, that God was not promising a sickness free life to His people.
Jesus told the disciples that there would always be poor people with them (Matt.26:11), and Paul said that it would be good to be content if we have food and clothing, and dangerous if we sought after much wealth (1Tim.6:8,9). It is also plain to see that Jesus and His apostles were not materially rich at all, disproving the wrong doctrine that all God’s children ought to be rich. The prosperity preachers usually quote Old Testament examples of riches, and some even accuse Jesus of having been rich!
Many unrighteous methods are used to convince people to make donations to such ministries, but finally, it is only these preachers who are becoming prosperous at the cost of the people who got deceived. ‘Healing preachers’ also become ill at times.
‘Only believe’ teaching
Another wrong practice which some preachers follow is to make people believe that whatever problems they have, the only thing they need to do is to believe that God will solve their problem if they ask in faith. In many cases, people go to these preachers for prayer, and sometimes they are also encouraged to fast and pray or to give some ‘seed money’ and then to pray. When what they prayed for does not take place, the preachers place the blame on the people saying either that they did not have enough faith, or that they might have been some unconfessed sin in their lives. They forget that Jesus healed and delivered thousands of people who came to Him and He never had to give such excuses!
It is true that when Israel was facing the Red Sea God asked them to stand still and see His salvation. But that is not an instruction for all times! In Canaan they had to fight with and conquer their enemies! The error in this teaching is to imply that faith alone or prayer alone is sufficient. It must be remembered that many of our problems are due to wrong things we or other people have done, and that without correcting these errors, just praying is not going to resolve the problems. That would imply passing all the responsibility to God without owning up any responsibility ourselves!
Word of faith
This is an erroneous teaching that started comparatively recently, but which has spread all over the world in a short time. This has influenced even teachers who are otherwise recognised as good teachers.
In simple words, this teaching says that our words have a power of their own, and that when we speak, we cause things to happen, for good or bad. Basically there are two arguments which people use to support this belief.
The most common thing is to take Prov.18:21 literally, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” The mistake is to take a proverb, which, by definition, is a pithy statement about something that is generally> (not necessarily always) seen to be true, and apply it literally. Proverbs may use figurative language in order to enhance the effect, and so, in general, they should not be taken literally. But what has happened here is that people have taken this as if God is making a statement about the power of a tongue to cause death or to give life! It has no such power! What the proverb is telling us is that we should be careful how we speak, because careless words can cause severe consequences, and encouraging us to speak words that will lead to good results.
The second argument comes from the knowledge that God has made us His children. If God the Father could make things happen by just speaking (e.g., “Let there be light.”), we should also be able to do it by speaking the right words, ‘in faith’. The mistake is that God has only adopted us to become His children. We have not actually become God, but we remain as human beings even though God dwells within us. Some of the proponents of this teaching have gone so far as to say that we are to consider ourselves as gods with a small ‘g’!
As a result of believing this teaching, people are going around ‘declaring’ how things are going to be in their lives in terms of success, fulfilment of ambitions, health, prosperity, etc. Leaders are ‘speaking blessings’ over people, ‘speaking healing’ over sick ones and those with problems, and ‘speaking life’ into others in order for them to prosper in every way. Even though this has been going on for some time now, people do not seem to realise that what they have spoken has not really been happening! But they keep hoping that changes are just around the corner!
For many people, prayer has changed from making requests to God to declaring what they want, hoping to make them happen. Now the power is in their hands, and when they declare anything in faith, God is bound to make that happen. Have we become superior to God?
The flip side of this is that people get really scared whenever any words of fear, doubts or calamity escape their lips, thinking that those words are going to cause those things to happen to them. When other people curse or tell them that something bad will happen to them, they believe that and get scared out of their wits.
The truth that will set us free is that we are only created beings and do not have any supernatural powers. Power belongs only to God (Psa.62:11). Let us not have grandiose ideas such as thinking we have become gods! Our safety is to trust God and to submit to Him.
‘Grace’ is commonly understood as an unmerited favour from God which we can receive through faith in Jesus (Eph.8,9). But there is also another side to grace as seen in the Bible, as a help or strength God gives us to do what is pleasing to Him. “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb.4:16). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Tit.2:11,12). The erroneous teaching known as hyper grace takes the unmerited nature of grace and exaggerates it, making it out of proportion.
God is both righteous and merciful (Tit.3:5), both kind and severe (Rom.11:22), both impartial (Rom.2:11) and showing favour (2Cor.1:11). The ‘severe’ side of God makes demands on us human beings, which we do not naturally like. But we tend to like the goodness, mercy and kindness of God and we rejoice greatly when God extends these to us. ‘Hyper grace’ exaggerates the goodness of God to the extent that any severity He may have gets applied to others and not to us, His children! What is deceptive about this teaching is that one part of the truth is presented with such emphasis that many hearers cannot see anything wrong with it, and the deception comes from what is not being presented.
There are two main thrusts to this teaching.
One is that a man who has become a child of God is free from the demands of the law. This is, in fact, very true (Rom.7:6). But we need to know that what we have been freed from is the need to find acceptance from God on the basis of keeping the law. On the basis of keeping the law it is impossible for anyone to be accepted by God (Rom.3:20). We are now accepted on the basis of grace through our faith (Eph.2:8,9). But this does not mean that the moral law given by God no longer has any demand on us. The ceremonial aspect of the Law and the hygiene related part of the Law do not apply to us in the new covenant. But, in fact, the moral requirement of the Law is now to be fulfilled inside us through the work of the Holy Spirit in contrast to it being fulfilled only externally under the old covenant (Rom.8:2-4). Therefore, now we are to walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (vv.5-9). We are not keeping the Law now in order to find acceptance with God, but because He has now accepted us through grace and given us a new nature.
Hyper grace indicates that since we have been freed from the law through grace, the law is no longer applicable to us, and that however we actually live, God sees us only through Christ as perfect people. In effect, this implies that it does not really matter now how we live!
Another thrust that is given through hyper grace is that when we come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, the blood of Jesus Christ forgives us all sin – all sins in the past, present and future. Therefore, they teach that now there is no place for repentance in a believer’s life, or to confess any sin we might fall into, because it has all been forgiven already. They tell us to simply give thanks for what God has done. It is even taught that it would be an insult to God’s grace if we confess any sin now, because the implication would be that the blood of Jesus did not forgive that sin when we came to Him!
This teaching also negates any sense of conviction that we may have after we fall into sin, because that is said to come from the devil who accuses. Accordingly they teach that the Holy Spirit does not convict any child of God because he or she has been already declared righteous! These kind of teachings take a few verses from the Bible for support, and neglect many others which speak differently!
The letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation show us that Christians can go wrong, and when they do, they need to repent and return to God. God tells us that when we confess our sins He would forgive us and cleanse us (1Jn.1:9). It is true that when Jesus died once on the cross, He has paid the price for the sins of the whole world, including those in the past, present or future. In this way God has made the provision for the forgiveness of all people. But it is only when people actually repent from their sins and put their trust in the Lord that they actually receive their forgiveness. There is therefore a difference between God’s provisions and our actual experience. We can also say that when we come to Jesus and receive our forgiveness, it includes the forgiveness for even the sins we might fall into later. We are forgiven as a person and not just for the sins we confess. In fact, no one can manage to remember and confess every sin in his life. In that sense, even if we die without being able to confess some sin it does not deny us our salvation. However, we also ought to recognise that if we sin after we come to know the Lord, it affects our fellowship. When we confess those sins we not only acknowledge our sins but also we get back into fellowship with God.
As we can see, this kind of hyper grace teaching has an appearance of glorifying God for the greatness of His grace. It also happens that it helps people temporarily who are struggling under a burden of guilt and who are basing their acceptance with God on following the Law. When such people hear about the glory of God’s grace it becomes a source of great deliverance. But afterwards this teaching leads them to carelessness towards sin.
Prophets and prophecies
After the fad of ‘speaking in tongues’ which came up some years ago, the current fashion seems to be to prophesy. Many people are going around prophesying into people’s lives and giving them directions as coming from the Lord. When many people hear such prophecies they become scared of disobeying God and end up doing even things which are obviously wrong.
The gift of prophecy, like all the other spiritual gifts, is not something we can choose by ourselves but something God chooses to give to certain people (1Cor.12:4-11). Self-styled prophets do great harm to others. A true prophet is one who brings a message from God to the people. It may sometimes be to warn about the future, but the New Testament emphasis is on speaking words that are for edification and exhortation and consolation (1Cor.14:3). In the New Testament time when even the least of God’s people know God personally (Heb.8:11), it is unusual to expect another person to directly tell us what all we need to do, as these ‘prophets’ are doing. God wants us to recognise the operation of prophets, but He wants us to examine prophecies carefully (in the light of the written words of God in the Bible) and to accept only those that are approved by God’s standards (1Thess.5:19-21).
Understanding the Bible
The Bible itself states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2Tim.3:16,17). But some people, with a desire to magnify the sovereignty of God and to enhance the credibility and authority to the Bible, present an exaggerated form of inspiration that misleads people and cause them to make erroneous interpretations.
We may have preferred it, from a human point of view, if the Bible was written like any standard text book, where subjects are discussed systematically, in an accurate and precise manner and in such way that every concept will be clear and unambiguous. But that is not how God has chosen to reveal Himself and His truths to us. He has chosen more than 40 different authors from highly differing backgrounds, cultures, educational and intellectual qualifications and different times of history to write their books, mostly without having met one another or even without knowing the others. We can see easily when we read the Bible that different authors use different writing styles, vocabulary, figures of speech, etc. But the amazing thing is that God has succeeded in bringing out a unified presentation of the truth. They all talk about the same God and His works, and all their narratives connect to one another to form one big picture. That is what inspiration has achieved.
Scholars differ about how exactly this inspiration was carried out in a practical sense. They have ruled out the possibility of God dictating His words, and the authors simply writing them down. If this were so, we would have found the same style (God’s style) all through the Bible. It is clear that God has allowed the knowledge, personalities, skills and understanding of the different authors to form the basic structure of their writing. Some scholars are of the view that in some mysterious way, God inspired people to receive His ideas, and write them in their own language styles, but God supervised them in such a way that He managed to ensure that every word that finally got written in the original manuscript was what God had chosen. In this way, errors of any form which are seen now are attributed to the human act of making copies. Since the autographs (the original manuscripts) are no longer available, it is impossible for anyone now to validate this theory. But from a practical point of view, we can imagine that if this was what God did, it would have amounted to the same result as if God had dictated every word to the authors! So there is some inherent contradiction in this explanation of inspiration.
When people are generally left with the idea that the Bible is the inspired word of God which is infallible and inerrant, many tend to take a wrong approach towards it and interpret it erroneously. Some pick up verses out of their context (E.g., Are these words of God or some man? Is this only some part of a truth which has to be seen in combination with other parts?) as if they were standalone truths, and interpret them. Some interpret every word literally without considering whether there is any figure of speech involved. Some allegorise (see hidden meanings behind) every story or parable. Some combine verses from here and there as one would do with statements in logic, and come to conclusions without checking whether those verses were fit candidates for such combinations. Some take certain verses arbitrarily as words of prophecy for them. We can see how personal lives go wrong with such interpretations, and also see how many false teachings rise up.
In order to arrive at the meaning God has intended for His words, we need to interpret the words in the Bible in the right way. When we look at the work of God’s inspiration we must also recognise in that process the involvement of imperfect human beings as the authors. God must have taken this, the imperfection coming from the human involvement, into consideration when He chose to reveal Himself to people. This would mean in reality that God has made allowance for a certain level of humanness getting into the presentation of His words and ensured that the truths He wished to convey would come through in spite of this. From our side, what we need to do is to try to separate the human elements from God’s words so that His truths can come out as clearly as possible.
Once we recognise this, it will influence the way we try to interpret the words of the Bible. We must take into consideration the effect of the culture, historical background, the context of the text under consideration, figures of speech used, etc. We must also realise the since God used many authors through a long period of time to bring out His truths in bits and pieces we would need to piece them together as in assembling a jigsaw puzzle to get the overall understanding of the truth.
The better we base our understanding on the truths God has revealed in His word, and the better we learn to interpret them from the Bible in a reliable manner, the greater will be our success in eliminating false teachings that come up from time to time.
Presented at the National Conference of the Association of Christian Counsellors (South Asia), Bangalore, February 2017.
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