We must view false teachers the way God describes them. We must see their teaching as that which can sink a soul into the pits of hell like a reef takes down a cruise ship or oil tanker. We must see the doctrine they teach like sea foam filled with death and decay, knowing that they are fruitless and uprooted, awaiting God’s judgment, and then we should be spurred on to guard our own doctrine even as we pray that some will be snatched out of the flames.
Since the beginning of time, there has been a war against God’s truth. From Satan’s fall to the garden of Eden to the false prophets of Ezekiel’s day who cried “peace” when there was no peace, to our day, there have always been those who speak against God’s Word and lead God’s people astray if they can. The world has always known false teachers.
In our day, we are bursting at the seams with them. Everyone knows they exist, even if they are unable to identify them, but not all seem to realize the danger they pose. For some, false teachers are the fringe group that is better ignored; for others, they are just Christians who think differently than we do. So how do we rightly view false teachers, and are they as threatening as some suggest?
We should first define what we mean by a false teacher. What we do not mean is someone who gets a doctrine such as the issue of baptism wrong. That would be an error, not a heresy. When we think of a false teacher, we think of the example given by the Apostle Paul, who writes to the Galatian Church, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Gal 1:8). A false teacher distorts the gospel in some way. In other words, false teaching often touches the person or work of Christ. Doctrines such as salvation by grace alone through faith alone, the sinless life of Christ, the deity of Christ, the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, the gospel, and the necessity of repentance, are non-negotiable doctrines, and to teach anything contrary is to become a false teacher.
A second distinction of a false teacher is someone who, after having an error corrected, refuses to adjust his teaching. Of course, we all teach error, and for most of us, if we realized where that error was, we would correct it. But refusing to correct an error once exposed as an error makes one a false teacher when we speak of central doctrines that affect one’s faith. One has to move from “I didn’t know what the Bible said” to “I don’t care.” At that moment, a false teacher is born.
In the book of Acts, Apollos is an excellent example of someone teaching an error because he was teaching the Baptism of John, not knowing anything different. However, when corrected, he adjusted his teaching accordingly, and it is said that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28).
So the first question is: just how dangerous are false teachers? Secondly, how do we respond to false teachers? To answer these questions, there’s no better person to turn to than Jude, the half-brother of our Lord. Jude paints the most robust imagery of the false teacher anywhere in Scripture. He describes false teachers using five main illustrations and, in those, answers the question, “how dangerous are false teachers?”