By Rick Becker 6 October 2022
The Bible is replete with warnings about deception, warnings that go largely unheeded. Believers are not immune to deception and should be cognisant of the fact that the visible church is where wolves find their prey. The Apostle Paul recognized and warned about this threat: “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). Nowadays, it’s difficult to find a believer that has not been under the influence of some form of false doctrine. False teachers – or fierce wolves as Paul describes them are one of the sources of deception, but there are more. In this article, we’ll look at 3 sources of deception, and conclude with 3 safeguards against deception.
THREE SOURCES OF DECEPTION
Jesus described Satan as follows: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Satan was the first deceiver or seducer and used his cunning to deceive Eve. He caused Eve to question God’s word (and in doing so God’s character) and replaced the truth with a lie. Satan is called “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), and regarding his activity within the church he is called an “angel of light” ( 2 Cor 11:14). The world is not a threat to Satan: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4).
The church is a threat to Satan’s kingdom, and as a result, he wages war against those who have been delivered from his kingdom of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God. Satan does all he can to hinder the work of God: “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, again and again – but Satan hindered us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18).
Satan will do all he can to interfere in our lives through his subtle schemes: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).
Generally, two extremes within the visible church play into Satan’s hands. The first is a mocking and lackadaisical attitude towards our enemy, which allows him to employ his schemes and counterfeits. His task is made easier when his servants in the form of human seducers encourage their followers to pursue mystical experiences, unbiblical manifestations, and trust in new revelations “because if you worry about deception then your God is too small and your devil too big” or “you have more faith in the Devil than in God.” The second is an unhealthy obsession with his activities, culminating in a host of unbiblical teachings and methodologies. The burgeoning “deliverance ministries” and false spiritual warfare activities in the visible church are leading many into bondage – the very thing they purport to set people free from.
Satan is not omnipresent and we’re unlikely to encounter him in the form of a serpent, but one-third of the angels who joined his rebellion against God are at his disposal. These fallen angels, or demons, carry out his evil schemes: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim 4:1).
The believer’s strategy against Satan
We must be aware of Satan’s schemes and stay alert.
“…so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor 2:11).
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6: 10-12).
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:8-10).
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
It’s the first part of the verse that many ignore, and the reason why their resistance is futile. They are proud instead of being humble (vs 6) and do not submit themselves to God. Satan’s nature is that of a liar, and his schemes involve all kinds of deception. The first weapon God has given us is truth. God has supplied us with his armor – the offensive weapon is the word of God (Eph 6:17) which Jesus used against Satan in the wilderness.
Evil spirits are not the only agents or servants that Satan uses, he uses flesh and blood agents:
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
“But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13).
Once again, it’s important to realize that the domain these seducers operate in is the visible church. In his epistle, Jude exhorted the saints to “earnestly contend for the faith” because “certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
The danger lurks within the visible church. The threat stands behind the pulpit, on the stage at revival crusades, and comes in the form of popular men and women teachers who are deemed “anointed.” They are sought out because of their new revelations, impartations, and “encouraging” or “prophetic” words. They come in the name of the Lord and will prophesy in his name, cast out demons in his name, and do many mighty works in his name (Matthew 7:21-23). They will come across as loving, and encouraging, and denounce disunity in the church. They will say we should all set aside our theological differences, and refrain from judging one another because without this unity they speak of the church will never mature or be able to complete its mission on earth. They will claim to know certain mysteries or hidden secrets – without which you cannot attain their level of spirituality or success.
The believer’s strategy against seducers in the church.
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
The question arises, how do we identify or recognize seducers or wolves? The answer is in the second part of the verse – seducers had in word or practice contradicted the doctrine that had been taught by the Apostles. Jesus gave us further insight on identifying wolves: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles” (Matthew 7:15-16).
Now typically, these “fruits” are erroneously thought to be the size of a ministry, the popularity of the preacher, the charitable works of the ministry, the presence of so-called signs and wonders, the fact that the preacher quotes from scripture, or the eloquence of the preacher, etc. Think of all the well-known leaders in the visible church that have been exposed as wolves in recent years – they all ticked the boxes above.
The fruits we should look for are their life and their doctrine. The importance of these two “fruits” are found in Paul’s instructions to Timothy:
Life and doctrine: “Keep a close watch on yourself (life) and on the teaching (doctrine). Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
By “life” scripture is referring to character. The scriptures make it plain – a leader must be self-controlled, the husband of one wife, respectable, gentle, not a lover of money, not a recent convert, not domineering, and set a good example in speech and conduct, etc (1 Tim 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Tim 4:12).
A teacher must be able to exegete the word of God and teach sound doctrine: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine…” (Titus 1:9A).
• Rebuke & Resist
“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:9-11).
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching 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 or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 1:7-11).
As you can see from the context John is referring to deceivers, and the correct response is to resist them. They are to be treated as unbelievers, and not be given a platform to spread their deceit.
There can be no passive response toward deceivers – “They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11).
Sadly, the pervasive attitude today is to avoid naming false teachers, and ignore their false teachings because “it’s not my place to judge” or “I let God deal with those individuals.” That is not what scripture teaches.
Click here for ten ways to identify false teachings.
Click here for ten ways false teachers ensnare people.
Click here for ten signs that you’ve been captivated by false teachers or false doctrines.
“The Christian’s security against sin is distrust of himself” – Matthew Henry.
Self is probably the most overlooked source of deception. As an example, consider the previous source of deception – seducers. We are quick to blame them for the deception their false doctrines have caused in the visible church, but we ignore the role “self” had to play: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). The itching ears were the problem – folk wanted their carnal desires placated and found teachers who told them what they wanted to hear.
While we are at war with the kingdom of darkness, there’s a foe much closer to home and just as deceptive – self. This is the second battlefield the believer faces – the war between self and the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-18). We forget that as disciples of Christ we are called to self-denial (Matthew16:24), but self will always want to sit on a throne instead of bearing a cross. Self will always justify sin, and exult our own will above the will of God.
A few passages of scripture that warn of self-deception:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor” (Galatians 6:1-4).
We are too quick to forget the pitiful condition we were in when Christ saved us. Even worse, is when we imagine that anything good in ourselves is of our own doing. This is when we become proud and arrogant, and view others who are caught in sin as weaker than ourselves. This is called self-elevation, and another way we fall into the trap is when we compare ourselves with others concerning the gifts God has given us all.
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). In context this verse is referring to the various grace gifts God has distributed among his church. The temptation of some was to think that they were superior due to their gifts. This is why Paul had to make it clear to the Corinthians that all the parts of the body are of equal value (1 Cor 12:12-26).
One particular danger is when head knowledge does not impact the heart. Some are aware of the schemes of Satan, and can identify seducers and point out their error, but remain blind to their own condition. The church at Laodicea serves as a warning to those who are oblivious of their true condition: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:16-17).
James gives us another example of how we can deceive ourselves: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” James 1:22-24.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
Realization of the state of our hearts is imperative if we desire to live a life worthy of our calling. Without awareness and acknowledgment of our condition, hypocrisy, pride, and other sins, gain footholds in our lives. We test our work by comparing ourselves to what the scriptures require of us. The trap is to compare ourselves with others, instead of looking in the mirror of God’s word. Realization is accomplished through self-examination – something the scriptures instruct us to do: “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor” (Galatians 6: 3-4).
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor 13:5).
There were numerous problems in the church at Corinth – factions, abuse of the gifts, immorality, and the influence of false apostles to name a few. The first and most serious issue is that the deceived are not born again – they are not “in the faith.” The second issue is that believers were deceived in some areas. They were “sowing to the flesh” instead of the Spirit. It was a lack of self-examination that caused some in Corinth to be disciplined:
“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (2 Cor 11:28-32).
We must examine ourselves to avoid self-deception. We should be checking our motives, confessing our sins, ensuring that we are not walking in wilful disobedience, and ultimately asking God to reveal the condition of our hearts to us because self cannot be trusted.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.
1. SCRIPTURE – in context (sound doctrine)
The scriptures are infallible, and our only source of divine revelation. Nothing can be added to the scriptures, and nothing should be taken away. When we walk away from the sure foundation of scripture (cover image), we have opened ourselves up for deception. The scriptures are essential in combating all three sources of deception. The scriptures are our weapon against Satan, our means of exposing seducers and their teachings, and a mirror that exposes our hearts to prevent self-deception. The Holy Spirit uses the word of God to perform a work in us. It convicts us, sanctifies us, instructs us, renews our minds, and ultimately keeps pointing us to Christ.
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The word of God is powerful and effective (Hebrews 4:12) but rendered powerless when it’s neglected or distorted.
Where is it written?
The majority of false teachings can be easily discerned by simply reading the Bible in context, and comparing what is being taught or practiced to the word of God. The Bereans are a good example of trusting in what was written, to examine what was being taught. Perhaps they had heard how Paul had performed signs and wonders, and how God had transformed this man who once gave his approval when Stephen was stoned to death. Nevertheless, they tested what Paul was teaching by comparing it to the word of God: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Scripture as a safeguard against deception is a principle found throughout the Epistles:
• “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you” (1 John 2:26).
The Apostle John in his warning concerning antichrists encourages his readers to abide by what they had been taught. “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you” (1 John 2:24).
• In 2 Thessalonians Paul warns the church about deception regarding the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. He warns of the coming apostasy and the false signs and wonders that will be a result of Satan’s activity. The safeguard for the believers during these times are the truths of the gospel, the doctrines that the Apostles had written or taught: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
• Yet again, in the context of deception, Paul reminds Timothy of the sure safeguard – the sufficiency of God’s word: “while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:13-16).
Any teacher that deviated from the scriptures and the Apostle’s doctrine was in error. And so it is today, any teacher that deviates from the doctrines we find in scripture is in error. When a teacher bases their message on an encounter or experience they had with God, or some new revelation, be assured that error has crept in. This is the first safeguard against deception – abide in the word. The second is The Spirit that abides in us.
2. SPIRIT OF GOD.
The Bible is the most read book in the world, yet few believe it and understand it – that’s because unless God saves us and dwells in us by his Spirit, we are blinded to the truth. As believers, we are under the influence of the Holy Spirit who illuminates the scriptures, and causes us to comprehend the vital truths: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:12-16).
Deception creeps in when we separate the Spirit of God from the scriptures He inspired. You cannot have a high view of the Holy Spirit and a low view of scripture – yet that is a common characteristic in the visible church. Seducers have intentionally sought to divide the Spirit from the scriptures to justify their new revelations and bizarre manifestations that take place under their “ministry.” In fact “doctrine” has become a dirty word in many circles, and those who view doctrine as something bad are usually unaware that they have simply replaced sound doctrine with a doctrine of their own making.
The Spirit of God is referred to as “the Spirit of truth” (John 16:13). One of his roles in our lives is to protect us from deception and seducers: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth” (1 John 2:18-21).
“I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie – just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 John 2:26-27).
This does not mean believers don’t need teaching – or John would not be teaching them through his letter. It does not mean believers know everything or receive some mystical teachings from the Spirit apart from the scriptures. It meant that John knew his readers had the indwelling Spirit and sufficient knowledge of essential truths to combat the seducers (In context, John was referring to seducers who taught that Jesus was not God, not the Messiah).
John is not writing to a special class of believers who have attained intimacy with God, learned how to “hear God’s voice,” or received some special impartation or anointing. Every believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling within (1 John 3:24; Eph 2:22; 1 Cor 3:16), and in that sense, every believer has been anointed with the Spirit of God.
3. SOUND MIND
“And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 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.” Matthew 22:35-37.
Deception creeps in when we separate the heart from the mind. False teachers will say the mind is an obstacle to progress in the things of God and that questioning their teachings or practices is to quench the Holy Spirit. If they can prevent you from thinking and cause you to rely on your feelings and simply “follow your heart” they can manipulate you. If they can prevent you from using your mind to search and study the scriptures, and test everything (1 Thess 5:21), they have become an obstacle. They prevent the word from working in you, and the result is an endless quest for “more.” Naturally, this means you have to buy their material, attend their conferences, trust in their ability to “hear from God” on your behalf and hope that you finally receive a prophetic word or impartation. You’ve essentially become their slave.
The believer has been given the infallible scriptures, has the Holy Spirit dwelling within, and has also been given a mind to use. A sound mind does not mean that our intellect or reason overrides the scriptures, but that we are enlightened by the scriptures and submit to the scriptures. The scriptures become reasonable to the sound mind. To have a sound mind does not simply mean that we use our minds, but that we have renewed minds. In its natural state, the mind is corrupted and opposed to God: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened”(Romans 1:21).
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds” (Ephesians 4:17).
Once God has saved us, we are transformed by the renewal of our minds:
“to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:22-23).
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
A sound mind is a renewed mind that studies the scriptures, and through them gains knowledge of what is “good and acceptable and perfect.”
God has provided all we need to guard against deception, but it does require discipline on our part. Look out for the next article – Signs of Deception.