By Rick Becker 30 August 2018
Discernment is not optional, it is vital to the spiritual health of individuals and the church. Discernment preserves sound doctrine, and sound doctrine enables us to have the correct view of God, self, the church, the world, and Satan. Described as wolves in sheep’s clothing, false teachers come to steal, kill, and destroy, whereas the good shepherd comes to give life. Here’s the problem – It’s possible to know who the wolves are, yet neglect the good shepherd. It’s possible to identify bad doctrine, yet fail to practice the good. It’s possible to discern the errors of the New Apostolic Reformation and other false teachings yet fail in our spiritual duties towards our families and brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s possible to erroneously mark and avoid others because they don’t fall within our denomination or because we disagree with them over non essentials of the faith. If we believe discernment is the epitome of spiritual maturity or guarantees balance in other areas, we are mistaken. The church at Ephesus serves as a reminder that sound doctrine and discernment are no guarantee that we will be useful in the Lord’s service.
Paul’s sorrowful farewell to the elders in Ephesus included a solemn warning:
“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” Acts 20:29-31
This text is a reminder that true shepherds not only feed the flock, but warn them of the wolves. The latter, is condemned by the majority of the visible church. Let’s keep in mind that Paul actually named men and movements that perverted the gospel. The apostle was moved to tears as he warned the flock about the false teachers who would appear on the scene and deceive by means of their false doctrines. What protects us from unsound doctrine? Paul gives us the answer in the next verse “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” Acts 20:32 All teachings must be tested, and compared to the word of God.
Judging from the letter to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, the elders at Ephesus seem to have taken Paul’s admonition to heart concerning “men speaking twisted things.” The seven churches of Revelation 2 & 3 were actual churches in that day, but the messages to those churches are still applicable to churches and all believers today. This was not a congregation that fell for the various winds of doctrine that swept the early church, and the fruits of Paul’s warnings are clearly stated in Revelation 2 : “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.“
This must surely be the dream church for those of us who contend for the faith – good works, doctrinally sound and discerning. Yet something was missing, and is still missing in many churches, ministries, individuals. At some point, we have probably all fallen short in this regard: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Revelation 2:4-5
Despite their positive aspects and uncompromising stance towards those who had perverted the gospel, the church at Ephesus is rebuked by our Lord. Naturally, we need to ask the following questions:
1. What does it mean to abandon “the love you had at first.”
We know what it does not mean – it does not mean they had failed to discern, neglected labouring for the gospel, or wilted under trials and tribulations. What it does mean is the love they had for God, and in a secondary sense the love they had for one another, fell short of what was expected of them.
Loving God will influence our love for one another:
• “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
1 John 4:20.
• “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,”
• “And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”
When God saves us, there is often a radical transformation in our lives. Our hierarchy of needs has undergone a revolution. Self has been slayed and replaced with a new master. No sacrifice is too great in order to please the Lord, study his word, and share this new found gospel. We were fervent in our faith, and at times could barely contain the overwhelming joy we experienced as a result of our salvation. We were motivated by love – love for God, love for fellow believers, and love for the lost. When this love has been abandoned, we may go through the motions and fool a whole church, but not Christ. We are great pretenders, and quite able to perform our duties in the church while our hearts are hostile toward the people we are serving, or even towards the Lord.
2. What is the solution?
The threefold answer is in the text – “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”
• Remember – cast your mind back to the time when the love of Christ captured your heart. Remember your zeal and your willingness to sacrifice everything for his sake. Obedience and joy characterized your faith. Prayer and the study and memorization of God’s word were a delight. Our love for Christ resulted in a love for the lost, and we shared the gospel unashamedly, and with an urgency. As time marches on, our hearts can grow dull and we quickly forget our initial response to the One who has captured our heart and transformed our lives. Fervency is replaced with a lacklustre approach to our spiritual walk.
• Repent – confess this loss of love as sin, and repent in the true sense of the word. The basic definition of repentance is to change one’s mind. It’s more than simply feeling sorry about something, and then continuing in the same manner. This change of mind is an internal shift that effects the whole person; it involves our will, and our actions will conform to the change of mind. True repentance in other words produces fruit.
• Return – rekindle the zealousness and fervor of our former days. Go back to the foundation and examine the motivating factors. Paul’s last words in his letter to the Ephesians was a prayer that their love would remain pure: “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.” Ephesians 6:24
Consider the word of the Lord to Israel through Jeremiah: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” Jeremiah 2:2
3. What if we don’t repent?
“If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Revelation 2:4 – this implies a form of judgement and discipline. The church would lose its “light” so to speak. It’s testimony and influence would be lost, and that particular church may cease to exist.
While there is a great need for discernment in the visible church, the greater need is that we are motivated by love – love for Christ and love for those caught up in deception.
The church at Ephesus got this right: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Ephesians 4:14
But possibly failed in this regard: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:15
If we cannot weep for those who have been deceived by false teachers, what is our motivation for warning them? When our love for Christ is overshadowed by our disdain for false teachers, our balance is off. If we expose the latest false doctrine with a sense of glee instead of sorrow, we have failed.
Paul had the church of Ephesus on his mind after his departure, and instructed Timothy to stay on in Ephesus with this charge: “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” 1 Timothy 1:3-7
We may be able to distinguish between truth and error, but at the same time fail to discern our own lack of love towards God and others. Some have lost their usefulness as a result of viewing anyone who is not part of their denomination as a lesser believer to some extent – or even an unbeliever. Their testimony has been tainted with a sectarian spirit. Sound doctrine must divide those who contend for the faith from those who teach a different gospel and should be marked and avoided (Romans 10:17) However, it is entirely a different matter when believers squabble over non essentials, and take pride in what they believe is their own infallible understanding of matters difficult to understand, and of the secret things that belong to the Lord our God. Think of your favourite teacher, one that perhaps helped open your eyes to the deceptive teachings of the New Apostolic Reformation, prosperity gospel, or word of faith heresy. That teacher, alongside you and I, will have parts of our theology corrected when we get to Heaven.
The lesson we should learn from the church at Ephesus is this: No matter how sound our doctrine is, no matter how discerning we are, and despite our good works, if we have abandoned our love for God, and our neighbour, we will be found wanting.
“ And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” Matthew 22:37-40