The Poison in the Church

This week, my wife and I were at Walmart getting groceries and we like to look around before we get to the grocery section of the store. We saw a cookie jar that we really liked, but then realized that the jar would not serve a purpose in our house. Anytime we bake cookies, we always eat them all. A cookie jar, in our house, would just be an empty jar sitting on the counter. How disappointing would it be for someone to see the cookie jar, open the top, and see nothing inside? We might all be disappointed by the lack of substance. We would probably begin to sing the popular tune, “Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?”

In his first letter, Peter emphasized God’s sovereignty in the work of election. He continues to draw this idea out in his second letter, applying the principle of God’s sovereignty to false teachers and unsound doctrine amidst God’s people. He admonishes God’s people to make their election sure, by gaining godly knowledge and conforming more to Christ’s image in their conduct. In fact, I had two sermons prepared for today, but I will only preach one of them. We have made the other available on the website if you wanted to find it and read. In short, those who know Christ, the elect, will grow in right belief and in right practice. God supplies this orthodoxy and orthopraxis by the giving of the true knowledge of Jesus Christ, or sound doctrine based in Christ’s word (2 Peter 1:2-3). Those who know Jesus genuinely will grow in maturity. This is a sign that they are, indeed, elect and have been supplied entrance abundantly into Christ’s everlasting kingdom.

What of those who claim the name of Christ, but never grow in maturity? What of those who teach what is contrary to Christ’s words? Are they as the empty jar, taking up space with no substance? Just how severe are false teaching and unsound doctrine in the midst of God’s people?

2 Peter 1:16-2:3 HCSB

For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, a voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory:

This is My beloved Son.

I take delight in Him!

And we heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their unrestrained ways, and the way of truth will be blasphemed because of them. They will exploit you in their greed with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced long ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep.

Origin of sound doctrine

For more than a month, now, we have been delving into the doctrine of election, particularly as presented by Peter and informed by Paul’s letters. This doctrine is probably the most humbling doctrine to investigate because it removes all perceived authority from people and presents God as absolutely sovereign over all things, including salvation. So, if the Christian were a cookie jar, one would expect to open up the top and see, inside, the substance of God’s word because God is indeed sovereign and His word is good, eternal, and more beneficial than anything else that we might use to inform our lives. The beauty of election, here, is that we have a king who cares enough for us that He wants to reveal truth to us in a way that is actually beneficial.

Peter, here, humbles himself to say that he did not come up with a single word that he was preaching. He observed Christ, but he did not even rely on his own experience. He heard the voice from Heaven, but he did not even base his preaching on his own perceptions. He went on to write that they (the apostles) had a prophetic word that was strongly confirmed. They saw everything that was happening with Jesus. They went to confirm it in the text of Scripture, God’s Word! This is why Peter states that the word of the apostles, the preaching of the elders like himself, was so important to listen to and to consider. It didn’t come from them, but from the Scriptures that God had inspired by His Holy Spirit through the prophets. Peter observed, then went to the scriptures (particularly the prophets) to confirm his own observation.

In this, we discover two principles. First, God is the source of sound doctrine (right knowledge and practice). Second, sound doctrine will never be contrary to the text of Scripture. Election highlights God’s sovereignty. If God is sovereign, then we cannot be (as much as we like to try and maintain some sort of control).

Sound doctrine, then, is not based on what we hear or what we observe. When we fail to check what is taught, to check our lifestyle, to check the way we do things as a church body, or to check our own beliefs against God’s revealed word, we, essentially, indicate that we have more knowledge and are wiser than the God of the universe. Peter is screaming, “Sola Scriptura!” as he writes. This is important enough that this is what he chooses to say in his final days, with his final letter (1:14). I imagine Peter, with his last breath, uttering the words, “Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (3:17-18).

It is so beautiful when we make this realization and apply this doctrine in our lives. When we operate under the assumption that we have something to offer, we end up thinking, even if silently, things like the following:

“I am smarter than this person.”

“Others require my approval. If I don’t personally approve, then they need to change.”

“I have to prove myself, or try to earn the approval of others.”

“I have to receive recognition for what I’ve done.”

Each of these phrases assumes that we have something to offer. Election makes it clear that we do not. It humbles us (perhaps this is why so many don’t like to talk about it). Furthermore, according to Peter, here, it means that our standard is not our own intelligence, our approval of others, our being accepted by others, or our being recognized. Our standard is God and God alone. He has revealed His instruction in His own Word. Commitment to sound doctrine is freeing because it recognizes God’s sovereignty.

So, the person next to you doesn’t like the way in which you live life. So what? You did something great and no one noticed? So? I tell you this, God is your king, He is your judge, He is your reward. That person’s opinion doesn’t matter unless they come to you from the text of Scripture and lovingly call you to repentance. You think you are the smartest person? You think that you have to approve of what others are doing? We all might do well to repent and commit to sound doctrine that comes from God. Sola Scriptura.

Origin of unsound doctrine

As Peter encouraged God’s chosen people to stick with God’s word and to grow on to greater maturity in Christ, he also warned about false prophets who bring destructive heresies into the midst of God’s people. We remember this cookie jar sitting on the counter. False teaching, those who preach heresies, are not like this empty cookie jar. There is not just some passive disappointment when unsound doctrine presents in the church (whether by word or operation). Peter actually refers to unsound doctrine as destructive. It would be like opening a cookie jar, seeing something that looked like cookies, taking a bite, and discovering that the treat was laced with arsenic. This is the sort of picture of unsound doctrine that Peter presents to the church because doctrine or teaching or operation that is contrary to the word of the sovereign God turns the people away from God and toward themselves.

From where might this destructive doctrine come? Peter is clear in chapter 2, verse 3: false teaching, unsound doctrine, and operation that is contrary to God’s instruction are brought in by the greed or covetousness of people. This was not only a problem in the midst of God’s people as Peter wrote this letter. It has been a prominent struggle in the midst of the church for centuries, because Satan, I think, is always trying to introduce false teaching, sinful living, and wrongful operation to spite our Father in Heaven.

Adam and Eve saw God face-to-face, walked with Him in the Garden of Eden and still believed their own way to be better than God’s. It was not until the third generation after they were removed from the Garden that people began to call upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26).

500 years ago, Roman Catholicism had gotten to a point where it had tried to place the power of salvation in the hands of the church, beginning with the Pope and ending with the responsibility of the person. It got so bad that the Pope offered to sell salvation or a reduced sentence in purgatory to members of the church. Martin Luther read the Scriptures and noticed that salvation was by grace through faith alone. It was a gift and Christ was the gift giver. Hoping to reform the Catholic Church, Luther penned ninety-five theses and nailed them to the front of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany. This sparked the Protestant Reformation.

Luther asked this question: “What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?’’ (Thesis 87). In essence, he asked what the pope could give or forgive what Christ has not already given or forgiven perfectly? The answer is, “Nothing!” Christ’s sacrifice was perfect. Greed and selfishness produced false doctrine in an entire widespread religious tradition. God brought about men who were not afraid to stand with Christ and give glory to Christ no matter the cost.

As a Southern Baptist, a tradition that resulted eventually from the protestant reformation, I get to have the great heritage of standing upon the truth of Scripture. Our own denomination is not free from its blemishes (none are).

About two hundred years ago, a guy named Isaac Backus, in response to the colonialism under which he suffered, popularized a church structure based on individualism. He was right in campaigning against the state-established church of England, but took his campaign so far that he was unable to build a church structure upon the instruction of Scripture. At that time, many Southern Baptist churches had elder councils who led the church together and deacons who were simple servants (reflected in the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, and still in line with the 2000 revision). Backus introduced a single-pastor model and a hyper-congregationalism that is still the norm today. It is based more on Andrew Jackson’s philosophy than on the text of Scripture. Backus developed a model from greed and selfishness that put people in charge and discouraged true devotion and submission to God. I don’t think he intended these results. His model cultivated an environment in which there could be more conflict, more division, more selfishness, etc… It is a trend that many churches still adhere to today in some fashion. Some churches approach the trend as biblically as possible, while most are filled with conflict and division that does not honor Christ.

We can measure the doctrine that is in our midst today. Does it glorify people, or does it honor God? Unsound doctrine comes from greed and selfishness. Sound doctrine comes when we are humbled enough to follow the instruction that God has given. It truly does require an astounding degree of humility. In fact, considering Peter’s call for us to make our election sure earlier in this chapter, it is impossible unless God Himself provides that humility to us. The calling here is for us to simply fix our eyes firmly upon Jesus Christ. The more we understand His sovereignty, the more we recognize our own frailty. I am so thankful that my weakness makes God’s perfect strength evident. I am so glad that there is forgiveness when my selfishness shows itself in my heart. There is forgiveness and redemption for those who were in the Roman Catholic Church. There is forgiveness and redemption for Isaac Backus. There is forgiveness and redemption for Andrew Cannon. There is forgiveness and redemption for each one of us. It is a glorious gift from Jesus that we can reach out and accept.

Result of unsound doctrine

While there is a great deal of grace and great steadfast love that we witness coming from our heavenly Father, Peter does not stop at telling the church that unsound doctrine comes from greed. Unsound doctrine works out in a dangerous way. It is so dangerous that Peter, here in his last days, felt it prudent to warn the people of God.

We might just walk through this together:

  • 2 Peter 2:2- Unsound doctrine is blasphemy concerning God’s name.
  • 2 Peter 2:3- Unsound doctrine brings quick judgment from God.
  • 2 Peter 2:9- Those who perpetrate unsound doctrine are reserved under punishment for the day of judgment.
  • 2 Peter 2:12-13- They speak of things that they do not understand and perish in their own corruption, earning their own wages of unrighteousness.
  • 2 Peter 2:17- They are wells without water (a cookie jar without cookies?) for whom the blackness of darkness is reserved forever.
  • 2 Peter 2:18- They draw people into their corruption.
  • 2 Peter 2:21- It would be better for them and those who are deceived by them to not have even known about Jesus Christ.

These are some strong last words from Peter. Peter is not the only one to warn us. All of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, reveals the importance of sound doctrine in our lives and ministries. Every book highlights the dangers of disobedience to the God of the universe and spells out God’s amazing grace.

For instance, in Hebrews we might observe the first six chapters (PRAISE):

  1. Preeminence: Christ is preeminent in Salvation.
  2. Response: We are called to, in response to Christ’s gift, progress in the faith and participate in His work of salvation.
  3. Adherence: There is a further call to faithfulness without hardening hearts in rebellion.
  4. Inclination: God’s Word, His doctrine, actually reveals the condition of our hearts.
  5. Spiritual deafness: People are hard of hearing. Those who ought to be teachers by now needed to be taught the basics again.
  6. Evolution: There must be a maturing in sound doctrine, in belief and in practice.

Growth in maturity (belief and practice) is a hallmark of genuine Christian faith. It is our praise (really worship) response to God. If we are not growing in maturity regarding both belief and practice, it is likely that we do not know Jesus. Let us, today, heed these warnings. For those who belong to Christ, let us remain steadfast in the sound teaching that comes from Scripture. Let us honor God’s sovereignty. Let us parent, love, shepherd, operate, pray, rest, listen, read, evaluate, reflect, critique, teach and serve while abiding in Christ; not in our own selfishness or greed.

Next week, we will discover the great reward for those who are resolved, by God’s grace, to be committed to sound doctrine in Christ!

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