Spiritual deception lurks everywhere. It is probably stronger in our country now than at any time in our history. On the other hand, it isn’t new.
We saw in the late 19th and early 20th century liberalism take over the mainline denominations in our country. They turned against the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. Liberalism denied the miracles and the supernatural, the virgin birth, the need for a substitutionary atonement, the inerrancy of the Bible, and so on. What they substituted for it was another Jesus and another gospel. The heart and soul of their religion was this: What it means to be a Christian is be nice, be moral, be kind.
J. Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian scholar and founder of Westminster Seminary, exposed what was going on in his great book Christianity and Liberalism, which he wrote in 1923. I have always loved the title of the book, for it is says it all. There is Christianity and then there is Liberalism. They are two different religions, for whatever Liberalism is it isn’t Christianity.
Machen explains why the “be nice and moral” religion of liberalism should lead us to despair. He says,
Strange indeed is the complacency with which modern men can say that the Golden Rule and the high ethical principles of Jesus are all that they need. In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be, we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and how shall we attain to that righteousness of the heart which Jesus demands? The Sermon on the Mount, rightly interpreted, then, makes man a seeker after some divine means of salvation by which entrance into the Kingdom can be obtained. Even Moses was too high for us; but before this higher law of Jesus who shall stand without being condemned? The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the Cross.
In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul continues his attack on the false apostles who proclaim a false gospel. He wants the Corinthians to side with him against the false teachers. He warns them about the danger of deceit. We will look at three dangers today: spiritual harlotry, financial manipulation, and masquerading messengers.
(Read 2 Cor. 11:1-4)
Paul is giving what he calls his fool’s speech, because he is commending and defending himself for the sake of the gospel. It is a fool’s speech for commending oneself is awkward, but in this case Paul has to do it for the sake of the Corinthians. This is very clear in 2 Corinthians 12:19. Paul says, “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved.”
Paul says: do you think I am worried about myself? Absolutely not! I am defending myself because you need it, not me. He is worried that the Corinthians will prostitute themselves to false gods, just as Israel in the OT forsook the worship of the Lord for the idols of other nations.
Israel in the OT was guilty of spiritual harlotry, and the Corinthians must not fall into the same sin.
Their conversion to Christ is pictured as an engagement here. If they remain faithful until the final day, until Jesus comes again, they will be presented as a pure virgin—a faithful bride to Christ. If they are faithful, they will enjoy the marriage supper of the Lamb. The danger is that that they will be deceived during their engagement. They might fall for another lover, for a false husband. If we give ourselves to another husband, to a false god, then we won’t be saved on the final day. We will show that we never truly belonged to Jesus Christ. Paul reminds his readers that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent so too they could be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
If you have read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy maybe you remember the part where Natasha, who is engaged to Prince Andrey, falls prey to the deceit of the lout Anatole Kuraggin who claims to love her, even though he is already married. He is a complete deceiver but she falls for him head over heels. She ruins her chance to marry Prince Andrey because she gave her affections to Kuraggin.
That is Paul’s spiritual concern here. Eve was duped and led astray by Satan. Remember that Satan is far smarter than we are. We can only conquer him if we rely on the word of God. If we trust our own intuitions and our own wisdom, we are dead ducks.
Some of you have seen the show West Wing. In one of the episodes President Bartlett’s beloved secretary dies in a car wreck, and the President is alone in the church after the funeral, and he takes her death out on God. And he doesn’t stop there: he blames God for tsunamis, for tragedies, and all the awful things that happen in the world. He is very self-righteous in this scene as he tells God why he has done such a terrible job in running the world.
If you saw the movie Calvary we see the same thing. A man tells the Catholic priest how terrible God is since there is such unutterable suffering in the world. And just like President Bartlett in West Wing he rips into God with strength and full conviction.
We understand how people get frustrated with the evil in this world. This is an old problem.
Read the Book of Job. I am not going to try to explain the problem of evil today. But when people confidently and arrogantly tell God what he is doing wrong, we know that Satan is speaking through them.
Where is the fear and trembling before the Holy One of Israel? Oh how patient and kind God is. He let us nail his Son to the Cross. And mock him while doing so. All because of his great love for us. Offering us salvation if we turn from our sins and trust in him. But we won’t turn from our sins if we feel superior to God. How sad it is. How sad it is to watch people upbraid God. Satan is delighted; they show they are his citizens.
So Paul says to the Corinthians: watch out. Don’t marry another wife. Don’t prostitute yourself by giving yourself to another god. People may proclaim a different Jesus from the true Jesus. People may receive a different Spirit from the Holy Spirit. People may accept a different gospel than the gospel of Christ. We are called to be loving, but we must not be naïve and gullible. We must discern what Jesus, what Spirit, and what gospel is being offered to us.
If we look at the former preacher Rob Bell we see that he hasn’t moved far from the theological liberalism of a 100 years ago. When Rob Bell links arms with Oprah Winfrey we know that we are taking about another gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do you hear theological liberalism when he was asked if he was still an evangelical and responded this way? “If we mean Jesus’ message of God’s revolutionary love for every person, and we can surrender and give our life to acts to loving kindness, then man, sign me up.” That statement is accompanied by a rejection of historic articles of the Christian faith.
The words of Gresham Machen nearly 100 years ago apply to Rob Bell,
The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus--isolated and misinterpreted--which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus' recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas.
That my friends is spiritual harlotry. It is accepting a different Jesus, a different Spirit, a different gospel. There is a winnowing process going on. And those who are truly part of the bride of Christ will be revealed and those who are spiritual prostitutes will be exposed. Let us pray for discernment and perseverance and courage and love.
(Read 2 Cor. 11:5-12)
Paul is on the defensive in these verses, for the false apostles are on the attack. I think the super-apostles are the false apostles, and they were filled with self-confidence and self-esteem. They compared themselves with others and thought they were on top of the mountain. They thought they were better than the Apostle Paul.
We see that they felt free to criticize him. Notice Paul’s words in verse 6, “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.” They criticized Paul because they felt he wasn’t a good enough speaker. He wasn’t flashy enough. He didn’t follow the Greek rhetorical style of the day.
But Paul says the issue isn’t how flashy I am but whether I speak the truth. The issue isn’t style but substance. I don’t think Paul is saying: it is fine to be a boring teacher. But people can get swept away by rhetoric which isn’t grounded in the truth.
I remember so many years ago when Diane and I worked with a big youth group in Portland, Oregon. We had a very compelling and flashy speaker come in but he lacked substance. Nearly all the kids who weren’t following the Lord repented! For a week or two! How excited parents were, but it lasted about as long as snowfall when the sun begins to shine on it. And then all the commitments were forgotten.
The false apostles in Corinth were financial manipulators. They were actually in the whole thing for money. And then they had the gall to criticize Paul because he didn’t ask for money from the Corinthians! Listen to Paul’s words in verse 7, “Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God's gospel to you free of charge?”
You can see Paul is under attack here. Some in Corinth criticized him because he didn’t ask for pay! Maybe they said: Paul knows he is a bad apostle because he doesn’t take pay. If you are good, you know it, and you show it by demanding pay. If you have got it, you flaunt it. But they are wrong in saying that Paul never accepts money.
Instead, Paul doesn’t take money in Corinth, for he needs to show the Corinthians that he is different from the false apostles, for they were in the ministry for money. It is evident in verse 8 that Paul does accept money in some situations, “I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you.” Obviously, this is hyperbole. Paul didn’t rob other churches. Paul is frustrated that the Corinthians are so deceived by these frauds and cheats. He shows that he isn’t in the ministry for money.
Paul will not take money from the Corinthians. This is no small matter to him. The boast Paul refers to in verse 10 is the refusal to take money. No one will stop this boast of Paul. He will not take money from the Corinthians under any circumstances. No way or no how is he taking money.
When you are under suspicion everything you do is questioned. Paul anticipates another accusation against him in verse 11. You can almost hear some whining: Paul takes money from the Macedonians but not from us. It is because he loves them, but not us. You can almost hear Gollum saying: He hates us; he hates us!
What a strange world where Paul’s refusal to take pay is interpreted as lack of love. Paul throws up his hands. What can he do and say? He can only appeal to God, so he says, “God knows I love you!”
But why doesn’t Paul take pay? He explains in verse 12, “And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do.” So now we see the reason. Paul doesn’t take pay so it will be clear that he isn’t like the false teachers. They are in the ministry for money, and in this case, in this instance, Paul doesn’t take money to show that he is different from the false teachers.
Do you see what is happening? Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen were coming to town and asking for contributions. And Paul must separate himself from such ministries. One of the key indications that one is a false apostle is financial chicanery. The prosperity gospel is the most popular false gospel in the world. Many cling to it in the hope that they will get wealthy and healthy. But one thing we can be sure of. Those who preach it get incredibly wealthy on the contributions of their followers. They stay in the most expensive hotels as they travel and are treated almost like gods. Meanwhile, most of those they minister to continue their destitute way of life.
(Read 2 Cor. 11:13-15)
The false teachers here didn’t claim to be unbelievers. They didn’t espouse atheism or agnosticism. They didn’t say they worshiped other gods. No, they claimed to be apostles of Christ. They claimed to represent his message to the world. But instead of being apostles of Christ they were false apostles. Indeed, they were Satanic. Satan claimed to be a messenger of light—perhaps another allusion to his temptation of Eve—but was really a messenger of darkness.
Again, we are called to be discerning and wise. Yes, we must beware of being overly critical and cynical. But we must also be on guard against naiveté and gullibility.
One of our friends who claimed to be a believer and had a very sweet disposition came to visit us many years ago. In fact, she had an impact on both me and Diane when we first became believers. But when she visited us, she was reading a book called The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson. I asked if I could look at it. Basically, the book argued that inside we are gods and that judging others is always wrong. I remonstrated with our friend that this wasn’t historic Christianity. But she was listening to different messengers. And this book seemed to her to be a messenger of light, but it was actually from Satan and not from God.
Our discussion was not an abstract one. A couple of years later she divorced her husband, and not because he was unfaithful or anything of that sort. She decided she wanted to fly with her own wings. But they weren’t the wings of the Spirit. And how do we know this? From the fruit of her life.
Notice what Paul says here about the false apostles. “Their end will correspond to their deeds.” Theology always shows up in the life that is lived. Always. Jesus taught the same truth in Matthew 7:15-20.
False prophets aren’t obvious on first glance.They come in sheep’s clothing. They are often humorous, friendly, intelligent, and engaging. They are nice people in many ways. But there is something eating at them on the inside, even if they don’t recognize it, and it is rage against God. We discern who they are by the fruit.
As Paul says in 2 Cor 11:15 they are known by their works. How many times I have experienced this. I just heard this week about a person I know rather well. He has denied the truthfulness of Scripture for some time now. And now it is revealed that he has had multiple affairs. He is a very bright person. But it is no accident that he was sexually immoral. Our heads and our hearts are connected.
That is one of the themes in 1-2 Timothy and Titus. False doctrine comes from a heart that is straying from the Lord. The head follows the heart. We rationalize to fit our doctrines to what we want to do. Tim Keller has pointed out that the doubts of many college students are correlated with lives of sexual looseness. God knows our secret sins. He knows what is truly going on. He will judge our secrets on the last day according to Christ Jesus. We aren’t saved on the basis of our good works, but our good works, imperfect as they are, show that we belong to God. They testify that we have become new.
A good test of orthodoxy is whether a person or a group thinks it is important to share the gospel. Liberal Christianity doesn’t share the gospel, for they believe all good people are saved. Nominal Christians don’t share the gospel, for the Christian faith hasn’t truly taken hold of them. They think they are part of the kingdom of light but they are in fact part of the kingdom of darkness.
Does what I am saying relate to us in here? Yes, to everyone of us. Satan wants us all to depart from the truth. Probably some of you in here will turn away—maybe some who will turn away would shock us. Remember what Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “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” (Acts 20:29-30).
As we close, we recognize how serious the message we have heard is today. How clever Satan is. How many turn from the truth. How many turned from following Jesus when he was on earth. Let us ask God to protect us from falsehood. Let us ask him to guard our hearts. Hold us up, Lord. Hold us up!
Tom Schreiner is a preaching pastor at Clifton Baptist and teaches New Testament and Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.