Apologetics 101: Part 8 — How can I identify false prophets?
This is session eight in a 10-part series designed to help Christians defend their faith
“But I fear that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your minds may be corrupted from a complete and pure devotion to Christ. For if a person comes and preaches another Jesus, whom we did not preach, or you receive a different spirit, which you had not received, or a different gospel, which you had not accepted, you put up with it splendidly!” (2 Cor. 11:3-4 HCSB)
The words of the apostle Paul are clear: Those who are not grounded in the Word of God are subject to deceptive teachings about “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” – three distinctive markers that help us identify false prophets. Whether they are Muslim prophets like Muhammad, or self-proclaimed messiahs like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, these false teachers invariably promote an unbiblical view of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel. We will use these three markers, along with a comparative chart, to examine the teachings of Islam, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in light of what God’s Word proclaims.
The Bible cautions us to beware of false messiahs, false prophets and false teachers who “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” and promote “doctrines of demons” (see Matt. 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:3-4). But before we go deeper, let’s define some key terms.
Defining our terms
False religion. From a New Testament perspective, a false religion is any system of belief that opposes the central teachings of the Christian faith. While all cults of Christianity are false religions, not all false religions are cults, because not all religions claim to be Christian. Islam, for example, is a false religion but not a cult, because Islam does not claim to be Christian.
Cult. A cult is a religious organization whose members claim to be Christians, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity. Simply put, a cult is a counterfeit form of Christianity.
Heresy. This may be defined as a teaching strongly opposed to the doctrines of historical Christianity, for example the denial of Christ’s deity, full humanity, virgin birth, or bodily resurrection.
Sect. A sect is an otherwise orthodox group having established its own identity and teachings distinct from the group to which it belongs. In Jesus’ day for example, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were sects of Judaism.
Another Jesus, a different spirit, a different gospel
Every Christian can identify false belief systems by asking three important questions: 1) Who is Jesus? 2) Who is the Holy Spirit? and 3) How am I saved? As we go to the comparative chart and place the teachings of God’s Word against the teachings of Islam, Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, let’s remind ourselves of some key biblical truths that address these crucial questions.
Key truths about the real Jesus
- The eternal Son of God, without beginning or end
- God / deity
- Co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit
- Virgin born
- The God-Man / fully divine and fully human
- Sinless in His humanity
- Our substitute through His sacrificial death on the cross
- Alive, having been raised physically from the dead
- The only way of salvation
- Seated today in heaven as our Mediator and Intercessor
- Coming visibly and physically one day in power and great glory
- The One who will judge all people and to whom, one day, all creatures will bow
Key truths about the real Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is:
- The eternal Spirit, without beginning or end
- God / deity
- Personal (not an impersonal force)
- Co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son
- The Author of Scripture
- The One who convicts the lost of their need for Christ
- The One who regenerates believing sinners, causing them to be made spiritually alive
- The One who indwells, seals and sanctifies believers, and who places them positionally into the Body of Christ
- The Giver of spiritual gifts
- God’s down payment /guarantee of our home in heaven
Key truths about the real Gospel
- All people are sinners
- Sin separates us from holy God, resulting in spiritual and physical death and, ultimately, eternity apart from God in hell
- People are incapable of saving themselves
- Christ died on the cross for our sins and, as our Substitute, paid our sin debt in full
- Christ was buried and rose physically from the dead
- His finished work at Calvary conquered sin and death for us
- As a result, salvation is by God’s grace through faith – not by works
- Salvation is God’s gift – and everlasting, unbreakable, covenant relationship with Him
An exhortation from John the apostle
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now. You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:1-4 HCSB)
The Bible not only warns believers about false prophets; it describes them graphically as:
- Ravaging wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15; see also Acts 20:29)
- Deceitful workers (2 Cor. 11:13)
- Springs without water, mists driven by a whirlwind (2 Peter 2:17)
- Dreamers who defile their flesh, despise authority, and blaspheme glorious beings (Jude 1:8)
- Liars (Rev. 2:2)
- Antichrists (1 John 2:18)
How do we define a false prophet? Simply put, a false prophet is one who preaches, teaches, or foretells events contrary to the Word of God – sometimes claiming God as his or her source. As believers, we can guard our hearts from the teachings of false prophets by obeying three commands of the apostle John:
- Do not believe every spirit. Kenneth Wuest’s translation of 1 John 4:1 puts it this way: “Stop believing every spirit.” The term “spirit” refers to those who claim to have divine gifts for service, according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary. We should beware. Jesus warns us of miracle-working false messiahs and false prophets (Matt. 24:24). Paul says Satan masquerades as an angel of light, and his followers disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-5). Paul further cautions against “deceitful spirits” and “the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). And he warns that the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine, but turn aside to myths (2 Tim. 4:3-4). We should be like the Bereans who greeted Paul and Silas. Acts 17:11 says “they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (emphasis mine).
- Test the spirits. The Word of God is the yardstick by which all truth claims must be measured. Here are a few markers. True prophets: a) Are 100 percent accurate when they speak in the Lord’s name (Deut. 18:21-2); b) Exalt God, not themselves or false gods (Deut. 13:1-4); c) Tell the whole truth, not tickle the ears (Ezek. 13:22-3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4); d) Proclaim salvation by grace through faith (Gal. 1:8-9); e) Set lifestyle examples (2 Peter 2:1-3).
- Know the Spirit of God. In his first epistle, John challenges the views of the “antichrists” about the identity of Jesus. The most important question Jesus ever asked – and the question upon which every person’s eternal destiny hangs – is, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter answered correctly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16). Believers need to know who the real Jesus is. Indeed, He is:
- The eternal Son of God, Creator and sovereign Lord (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-18; 2:9-10; Heb. 1:3).
- Virgin born (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25).
- Full deity and full humanity in His incarnation (John 1:14).
- Sinless Savior whose death paid our sin debt (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21).
- Raised and ascended in the flesh; seated at the right hand of the Father as our Mediator and Intercessor; and returning Lord who will appear visibly and physically one day (John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 4:15-16; Rev. 19-22).
John’s words are simple and effective. Christians are people of faith – not a blind, ignorant faith, but a reasonable faith based on the evidence God has given us in creation, Scripture, and in the Person of His Son. While there have always been false prophets, and while there will continue to be those who fleece the flock rather than feed it, we can guard our hearts – and protect our families and our churches – from false teachings if we follow John’s commands: Don’t believe every spirit (that is, every person claiming divine gifting); test the spirits (according to Scripture); and know the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit’s teaching about the real Jesus as revealed in the Bible).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
What is a cult?
We are defining a cult as: a religious organization whose members claim to be Christians, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity. Simply put, a cult is counterfeit Christianity.
The Bible cautions us to beware of false messiahs, false prophets and false teachers who “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” and promote “doctrines of demons” (see Matt. 24:23-27; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).
What are some words and concepts related to the word “cult”?
False religion/false belief system. From a New Testament perspective, a false religion is any system of belief that opposes the central teachings of the Christian faith. While all cults of Christianity are false religions, not all false religions are cults, because not all religions claim to be Christian. Islam, for example, is a false religion but not a cult, because Islam does not claim to be Christian.
Occult. The occult generally is classified in three ways: 1) spiritism or spiritualism – the view that spirit is a prime element or reality, or a belief that the spirits of the dead can commune with the living, usually through a medium; 2) fortune telling or sorcery – divination by the assistance of evil spirits; and 3) magic– the use of means such as charms or spells believed to have power over natural forces. Although cults should not be confused with the occult, some cults and cult founders, such as Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, do engage in occultic practices.
Heresy. This may be defined as a teaching that directly opposes the essentials of the Christian faith, so that true Christians must separate themselves from those who hold to that teaching. Examples of heresy include a denial of Christ’s deity, full humanity, virgin birth, or bodily resurrection.
Sect. Within Christianity, a sect is a distinctive, persisting and separately organized group of believers who reject the established religious authorities, but who claim to adhere to the authentic elements of the faith. So the term may refer to genuinely Christian groups that have distanced themselves from established churches or denominations – and to some degree the predominant culture they represent – in order to emphasize one or more beliefs or practices they feel have been lost. Example: The International Church of Christ, which adheres to a Biblical view of God and Christ but claims to be the only movement proclaiming the true message of salvation today.
How many people are in cults?
It’s difficult to know with certainty the number of people engaged in cults because of varying definitions of the term cult. But if you consider only Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – the two largest cults that fit our definition – the number of cult members totals nearly 20 million.
What are common characteristics of cults?
While cults vary widely in beliefs and practices, some common threads run through them, for example:
A single charismatic leader or authority figure apart from Jesus Christ. Examples include Victor Paul Wierwille (now deceased), founder of The Way International; and the Unification Church’s Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah who came to complete Jesus’ failed mission.
Belief in “new” revelation, which often contradicts and always overrides previous revelations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), for example, is led by a president who is called “prophet, seer and revelator.” He receives and passes down new revelation – such as the “new” and unscriptural revelation that humans are essentially “gods in embryo.”
Acceptance of new written authority, which either supercedes the Bible or is necessary to “properly understand” scripture. For example, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is the Christian Scientist’s way to interpret the Bible. And The Book of Mormon is one of several “inspired” writings considered authoritative by Latter-day Saints.
Changed theology, which redefines Christian terms, remakes Jesus Christ and reforms His finished work at Calvary. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, claim Jesus was once Michael the Archangel, a created being; and Latter-day Saints believe that men may become gods. Key theological characteristics of the cults include:
- A denial of the Trinity.
- A denial of salvation by grace alone through faith.
- Denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
- Reduction of the absolute authority of Scripture.
- Rejection of the doctrine of eternal punishment.
- Emphasis on experience over doctrine.
- Emphasis on direct revelations and visions from God.
- Unhealthy fixation on the end times.
- Over-emphasis on minor points of theology.
To boil it down, cult leaders consistently counterfeit Christianity in three ways, according to the apostle Paul: They preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). By masquerading as “servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:15), they twist the doctrines concerning the person and work of Christ; the Holy Spirit and the spiritual realm; and the gospel message of salvation by grace through faith, apart from human effort.
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Copyright 2008 Rob Phillips