How to GROW IN DISCERNMENT
By Terry L. Craig
Study Habits that can Keep You from False Teaching
a lesson in the Critical Thinking Series
©2005 Terry L. Craig
Yes, there are false teachers out there who are willing to take you for everything you've got. Yes, they will one day be held accountable for their deception . . . but don't forget your own accountability in the matter. You will also stand accountable before the Lord for what you chose to believe in the light of what you could have known. Obviously, a serf from the Middle Ages, or a Chinese believer who has never held a Bible in his hands will not be held to the same standard as Western believers from this day and age. We have access to education and to an almost unlimited number of Bible versions, dictionaries, concordances, and lexicons. Christian colleges and universities abound. The gospel can be heard on multiple television and radio stations around the clock. In short, we've had easy access to the truth—and we'll be held to account for what we did with this freedom.
Make a commitment to know for yourself what God is saying, not just what other people tell you he's saying. The people of Israel could have heard God's voice—but they didn't want the responsibility of hearing. Instead, they wanted Moses to remain as the go-between. Even though Moses was faithful in doing this, his personal faithfulness isn't the point here. The fact is, by insisting that Moses be their only source of contact with God, the people of Israel were saying they wanted to keep God at a distance. . . . Are you sitting in a church meeting once or twice a week hoping that your "Moses" (pastor/teacher) will have gotten a message to relate to you—even though you haven't studied the Bible for yourself or spent time in prayer? Do you realize what this says to the Lord? God knows you–and He wants to be known by you.
Pray that God's Holy Spirit will lead you as you study. He's up to the task! Desire to know truth (not just what's comfortable or what supports your view) and give the Lord permission to show you Truth.
Read it all. When a statement is lifted out of context, it's easy to shape the meaning to one's own view. We need to check the context—the surrounding verses of a scripture—to be sure that we understand what God is saying through it, not just what we think it says or what we want it to say.
While there are many verses of scripture that can be understood and quoted as single units that accurately reflect an aspect of the will/heart of God, there are also many verses which, when lifted out of context, can be interpreted to say something that they don't really say. Ultimately, the best safety net is to see the verse in the light of the WHOLE Bible. There are many instances where people have used a verse or a collection of verses to "prove" a concept that—when measured by all of God's word—isn't consistent with what He says or who He is. Some examples:
1. People will extract verses out of the Old Testament to support legalism, demanding that we adhere to the laws of the Old Testament, and find works to atone for it when we fall short of a law. The whole truth is that Jesus came to fulfil the law. We could never save ourselves from our sins, so Jesus came to pay the debt that the law declared we must pay (death). Jesus didn't abolish or void the law—He fulfilled it's requirement by dying for our sins. He did this to bring us life and freedom. Without realizing it, many people are doing what Adam and Eve did and settling for eating from the tree of the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil rather than partaking of Life—who is Jesus. Knowledge of "the rules" will never save you. Following the law will never make you clean, holy, or forgiven in God's eyes. Only Jesus can set you free from the law of sin and death.
2. The harshness of legalism has spawned the resurgence of another error: Universalism. Those who teach universalism find snippets of scripture to say that it's all about grace now, that everyone will be saved regardless of the religion (or rule of life) that they choose to live by or how much they sin. Some teach that even Hitler and the devil will eventually be in Heaven. While this idea may appeal to those who don't want to admit their bondage to sin or those who are running from iron-fisted denominations, Universalism is no more a Christian concept than legalism.
3. I've seen people use selected verses of scripture to say that the Bible confirms reincarnation, a belief which centers on the idea that over the course of many life times, a person can perfect him/herself. But a larger Bible study of life, death, judgement—or even of how one gets saved (by admitting that we cannot save ourselves)—reveals that reincarnation is completely contrary to the Bible’s central message. If we could eventually cleanse ourselves through multiple lifetimes (the law in a prolonged form!) we wouldn't need a savior. The actual message of the Bible is that all have fallen short, that no one comes to the Father except by the Son.
Hebrews 5:14. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. [NIV, underline added]
There is a difference between one who is deceived (misled) and one who is a deceiver (a false teacher). A deceived person is one who—through ignorance,laziness, or selfishness—has fallen for a lie and let it change their life in some way. Deceivers (some in ignorance, others knowingly) spend dedicated time sharing their deception with others.
We should respect the rights of others to choose to believe in reincarnation, or universalism, or that there is no God at all. However, if someone uses scripture to support a doctrine that the Bible declares is sin or error—even after it has been pointed out to them—such a person shouldn’t be considered a "teacher" (given a directive voice) in our lives.
Understand that the books of the Bible (such as Genesis, Matthew, or Revelation) weren't originally divided up into chapters and verses the way they are now. (The chapter and verse numbers simply help people locate specific passages more quickly.) Many times, the "context" of your study verse might take you into the chapter(s) before or after the one where you find your verse.
Be willing to look things up for yourself in a Bible, a dictionary, or a concordance. The original language of the Bible isn't English. A Bible dictionary gives you definitions for words and terms used in the Bible. A concordance (such as Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible) is somewhat like a dictionary that you'd use when you travel to a foreign country and want to be able to use words that the locals would understand. The front portion of a concordance lists all the words used in the Bible, alphabetically. You look up a word, such as "mercy," and the concordance will give you a listing of every place in the Bible where the word translated "mercy" appears. Next to each listing is a number which corresponds to the Hebrew or Greek word that was used in the passage. The number for the word can be looked up in the back of the book where each Hebrew or Greek word is listed (by number). The spelling, pronunciation, and definition of the word are given here. Honestly, it's not hard to use a concordance. If you can follow a recipe in a cookbook or learn how to use the remote control for your TV, you can use a concordance. Once you learn how, you can look up any word and see for yourself what the original Hebrew or Greek meaning for that word is. While some people would have you believe that we can't know the meaning of the Bible (that the meaning has been lost in all the translations over time)—this simply isn't the case. Looking the words up for yourself will give you greater confidence in refuting this sort of argument. If you don't have money for a Bible, a Bible dictionary, or a concordance, they are available for viewing online—for free! Many websites, such as Biblegateway.com and Blue Letter Bible list versions of the Bible and other study helps without charge. Again, you may have to learn how to navigate around on these websites to make use of them, but it's well worth the effort and not that hard to do!
Error often springs up as a result of people wanting to correct a perceived injustice
or to defend an area of sin.
For serious study, use a version of the Bible that's actually a TRANSLATION, not a "paraphrased" version. Paraphrased editions may help you see the gist or general idea of the text, or they may bring you a fresh perspective, or they may make the Bible seem more personal to you, but the words in a paraphrased version aren't necessarily an accurate translation of specific words used in a particular passage. I love reading many (including paraphrased) versions of the Bible—but for serious STUDY, a translation is a better choice.
FINALLY, BE AWARE OF YOUR OWN "HOT BUTTON" ISSUES—because they can lead you astray. Error often springs up as a result of people wanting to correct a perceived injustice or to defend an area of sin. It’s easy to begin moving in your own strength or reasoning, then find the scripture verses that seem to justify your actions. You might be able to fool people with your list of verses, but you're not fooling the God who sees your heart. Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up. Be willing to let the Lord set you free from any misguided loyalties, human doctrines, or Godless traditions. Be willing to let The Truth show you where you may have misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misapplied scripture. Be willing to admit it and move on--and you will be amazed at what God can do.
If this article has blessed you, feel free to print it out and/or pass it along. All we ask is that you keep the entire article (including the copyright notice) as is, and that you don’t sell it or use it for commercial purposes.
Terry has written an apologetic book on the topic of Universalism
Does God love all people?
Can/Does the Gospel "evolve"?
Can someone be saved and not know it?
Is Hell eternal?
Did people in the first century Church believe in Universalism?
Does God's intent for me get lost in man's translation?
Is Jesus both merciful and just?
If you are genuinely confused by “Christian Universalism” or love someone who claims to be a Christian Universalist, this book can help you to understand where Universalism diverges from Christianity, and give you some footing in conversations about faith.