How do we discern false teachers? It’s a hot topic in the inbox. It always has been. Here’s one representative email, sent by a listener to the podcast named Krikor. “Hello, Pastor John! I am a huge fan and love listening to these podcasts. APJ has really helped me grow in my faith and convictions as well as in making me better at helping others in their own struggles.” Amen! Let me just stop there. That’s one reason why this podcast exists: to see that you are being equipped to help the people in your life in their moments of need. It’s so encouraging to read that. Okay, back to Krikor’s question. “My question is this: The Bible gives us a lot of warnings about false teachers, but how can I identify if someone I listen to on the Internet is a false teacher? A number of people have been accused of being false teachers. How would I discern this? What should we be looking for?”
Well, I would start by saying, don’t set the bar so low that you only stop listening to people if they can be properly called false teachers. Lots of people are teachers who are simply misguided and unhelpful in many ways, but might not come under the ban of being called a false teacher. Set your standards high. Listen to people who are truly God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, Spirit-dependent, who bear the marks in their lives of authenticity.
But since you asked about identifying false teaching and false teachers, let me give you four biblical ways to assess whether someone is a false teacher. I do this just because the Bible agrees with you that we should be alert to the reality of false teachers, and it gives us tests.
1. Fruit Test
First, there’s the test of the fruit of their lives. Jesus says in Matthew 7:15–20,
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? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will recognize them by their fruits.
Now, Paul put a huge premium on this principle of holiness and righteousness in his own life-giving credibility to his gospel. I saw this recently, just because I’m working my way through 1 Thessalonians in Look at the Book. I mean, he made such a huge deal out of it for two chapters.
Here’s what he says in 1 Thessalonians 1:5: “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” That’s amazing. And then he unpacks that for two chapters: “You know what men we proved to be, so judge us by our lives.”
Now, of course, it’s not always easy to see the behavioral fruit of a teacher, especially Internet teachers, right? Which is why you need to look carefully and take time and belong to a church — a real live, human-being, flesh-and-blood, in-person church with a real live preacher whose life you know. So whether it’s hard or not, Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.”
2. Doctrine Test
Second, there’s the test of sound, central doctrines — for example, the doctrine of the incarnation in 1 John 4:1–3, where John says,
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you will know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
“We need to measure the doctrines that are being taught by the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In other words, if someone denies that Jesus Christ is the God-man, God come in the flesh, he’s a false teacher or a false prophet. John doesn’t mean to say that if you get the incarnation right, there are no other mistakes you can make that are serious. That’s not the point. He was simply dealing with that particular issue in that church, and on that issue, confessing that Christ had come in the flesh meant that you were speaking the truth of God. You got that one right, and that was the issue in that church.
Paul emphasized the same doctrinal importance, the doctrinal test, in 1 Timothy 6:3–4. He says,
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.
In other words, we need to measure the doctrines that are being taught by the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and by their implications for godliness. That’s test number two: doctrine, sound doctrine.
3. Scripture Test
Third, there is the test of submission to Scripture. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:37–38, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” That’s amazing. The authority of the apostles must be submitted to, or you’re a false teacher; you’re not recognized.
John said it this way in 1 John 4:6: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
“Everybody says true things from time to time — even the devil. But that doesn’t make them reliable teachers.”
In other words, the apostles elevated their teaching to the level of a test of truth. If a person does not submit his thinking and his teaching to the authority of the apostles — to the authorized teachers of Christ who wrote the New Testament — then they’re not going to be reliable teachers. It doesn’t mean they won’t say true things. Everybody says true things from time to time — even the devil. But that doesn’t make them reliable teachers.
4. Gospel Test
Finally, there is the test of the gospel itself. Paul is just red-hot about this one. Galatians 1:8–9:
Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
And the gospel he had in mind when he said that was the gospel laid out in the book of Galatians, and it’s the gospel of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. And he sums it up like this in Galatians 5:2–3:
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision [that is, as a step toward getting right with God in justification], Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.
In other words, if you insist on law-keeping as a way of justification before God, you’ve got to keep it all, and you’ve got to keep it perfectly. And then he ends with this terrible warning: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).
Our Best Protection
So, there are at least four biblical tests for false teaching:
- the test of the fruit of behavior
- the test of sound doctrine
- the test of submission to Scripture
- the test of teaching the pure gospel of justification by faith
And I would end by simply reminding us that the best way to protect ourselves from false teachers is to be part of a healthy, Bible-preaching church, and to be prayerfully saturated with the Bible every day.