The Surprising Truth About False Teaching

Our everyday lives turn on the importance of words:

  • The words we hear from roommates and family, from first thing in the morning even till late at night
  • What we hear on the radio or on podcasts, or the words in the music we listen to on our way to work
  • Words of instruction from a boss or with coworkers at the office
  • What we read online and in books and magazines
  • What we see on and hear from screens — whether the big screen or the TV screen or the smartphone screen
  • What we hear from others in conversation

We live by words, and not just isolated words, but words strung together to communicate messages. And think how often the messages we hear each day are not just words of information exchange, but the words of teaching — not simply words meant for static interaction, but words meant to influence and change. In songs, on the screen, in your ears, before your eyes, teachers — some of them true, many of them false — want to change you. They want to influence how you think and feel about and act in the world. And when it’s before your eyes, the most dangerous of teachers can look the nicest. And when it’s in your ear, the most dangerous of teachers can sound the best. Perhaps you’ve heard words like these:

. . . a certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all / But it’s a damn good place to start / No law is gonna change us / We have to change us / Whatever God you believe in / We come from the same one / Strip away the fear / Underneath it’s all the same love

That’s Macklemore’s ballad for so-called gay marriage called “Same Love.” But pop music is one thing. What about Christian radio? When the false teachers inhabit our own circles, whether locally or online, and hold many of the same truths we do and share the same insider jargon, how do we discern which teachers are true, and which teachers are false?

The question presses us even more in the globalized, Internet-connected world of the twenty-first century. When the New Testament was written things were copied by hand, and teachers traveled by foot. There were no cars or airplanes, and no printing presses, no websites, no Facebook pages. To influence new people, you needed to travel to their town and teach in public. But today just about every false teacher alive has a Twitter account. How does the church discern true teachers from false ones in a world like this?

In 2 Peter 2, we find some of the strongest language in the whole Bible describing and denouncing false teachers. Peter wrote his first letter to Christians in a fairly large area; he mentions five distinct municipalities (1 Peter 1:1) in a region of what we know as Turkey today. In his second letter, he addresses the same group (2 Peter 3:1), and this time at the heart of his letter is an extended exposé about false teachers. And they are not a few false teachers in one church in one city. Peter is writing to multiple churches, in different cities, spread across a large region — and because of it, we get timeless principles here in this chapter not in response to one specific false teacher, but in some ways to general false teaching across the board.

Even though many of the avenues and practices for spreading false teaching today are strikingly different than two thousand years ago, Peter has principles here for us that have helped the church for two millennia, and are just as relevant for us today. Let’s look at three in particular.

1. False teachers will come. (verses 1–3)

Look again at verses 1–3:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

Verse 1 makes it plain: “There will be false teachers among you.” This was true in the early church, as false prophets emerged even in the book of Acts (Acts 13:6), and it’s been true throughout the history of the church, all the way down to the multiplication of false teachers we have today.

And we should not be surprised by it. Jesus warned so clearly that false teachers would arise:

Mark 13:22–23: “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand. (see also Matthew 24:24)

And the apostle Paul warned the Ephesians elders and his protégé Timothy:

Acts 20:29–31: “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. Therefore be alert . . .

2 Timothy 4:3–4: The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (see also 1 Timothy 4:1 and 2 Timothy 3:1–6)

So it should be no shock to find false teachers in Peter’s day, and false teachers in our day, in our own city. But it’s not just a hot tip from Jesus; it’s a promise. Listen to how many “wills” there are in the verses we just read:

  • “false prophets will arise”
  • “fierce wolves will come in”
  • “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things”
  • “people will not endure sound teaching, but . . . will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth”

So, Peter’s voice is not unique in promising “there will be false teachers among you.” The promise is false teachers will come. And so there are false teachers today: on the radio, on TV, in your social media streams, in our own city, perhaps (but hopefully not) in our own church. The question is not whether you ever hear the voice of false teachers. The question is: Do you discern which messages are false, or are you being deceived? If you cannot identify any voices you hear as false, it’s not because you aren’t being exposed to false teaching, but that you’re falling for it in some way.

What Kind of Error?

It is worth asking at this point about the nature of the “false words” (verse 3) Peter’s talking about. Is this like the disagreement between believer-baptists and baby-baptists? Or is this a disagreement about worship style or whether to drink alcohol or not? It’s important to see here that we are talking about error in what we might call “Level A” doctrines, rather than “Level B.” This disagreement is not about various views of the end times, but whether there is an end time — not what sequences of events will lead up to Jesus’s return, but whether Jesus will return at all.

Note the seriousness of the situation. Damnation is at stake; this is not disagreement over secondary or tertiary matters: “Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (verse 3). In the false teacher’s heretical teaching and unholy living, they are living out the eternal destruction to which they are destined. This is where the language is at its strongest in the chapter:

  • Verse 12: they were “born to be caught and destroyed”
  • Verses 12–13: they will be “destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing”
  • Verse 14: they are “Accursed children!”
  • Verse 17: “For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved”

So we are not talking here about good-faith disagreements on secondary or tertiary matters; the false teachers are distorting or denying central, non-negotiable Christian truths that compromise the gospel itself — views that lead to the eternal destruction of people’s souls.

The Real Surprise

But before we go on to the second point, there is one real surprise here in verses 1–3. We said it shouldn’t be a surprise that false teachers arise. Jesus promised that. But we might say the surprise in this chapter is how little we find about their teaching, and how much Peter focuses on their living.

Verse 1 says they “secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.” That’s about teaching. And verse 3 says they “exploit you with false words.” Again, teaching. But then, as far as I can tell, there is nothing further in this chapter about their doctrine or teaching. Everything else is about their lives.

We can boil it down to three essential categories (introduced here in verses 1–3), and not one of them is teaching; all three are about character and conduct: pride, greed, and sensuality.

  • Pride (or defying authority), Verse 1: they “[deny] the Master who bought them”
  • Sensuality, which “most often refers to sexual sin” (ESVSB), Verse 2: “many will follow their sensuality”
  • Greed, Verse 3: “in their greed they will exploit you”

Greed, sensuality, and pride — or you might say money, sex, and power. And what false teachers throughout church history have shared in common is not the specific nature of their doctrinal error, but the inevitability (over time) of moral compromise in one of these three areas.

So the initial description we get of the false teachers in verses 1–3 is not mainly about their teaching, but their living. Which leads to the second point.

2. False teachers can be hard to recognize in the moment. (verses 17–22)

Jump down to verses 17–22:

These [false teachers] are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. 18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”

These are not false teachers out in society; these are false teachers within the church. They claim to be Christian. They are members of churches, even pastors of churches (“they feast with you,” verse 13). So one reason it can be hard to recognize these false teachers is because they have identified with Jesus. They claim Christ. They have confessed Jesus as Lord, but now their life and doctrine have become de facto denials of the Master who (seemingly) bought them. They had “escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” but now “they are again entangled in them and overcome.”

They knew “the way of righteousness,” but now they “turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” They once seemed to be genuine believers, bought by the Master, but now they show themselves to have been dogs and pigs all along.

So one reason false teachers can be hard to spot is that they are in the church and have claimed Christ. But a second reason they’re hard to spot is because of what we saw in verses 1–3: beneath their subtle, deceptive doctrinal error are ethical compromises in their lives. And those don’t usually come out overnight; they take time. But they will come. As Jesus said in Matthew 7,

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15–20; see also Luke 6:43–44)

Trees don’t bear fruit overnight. But eventually, they either do, or they don’t. And so it is with ethical compromises. They may only begin as whispers in a private room, but soon enough they will be proclaimed from the housetops (Luke 12:3).

Which is why false teachers may be difficult to recognize in the moment. Their doctrinal compromises haven’t yet been manifest in their ethical compromises, but it is coming. They will be known by their fruit — even if not always right away.

But I said from verses 1–3 that this chapter was mainly about ethical compromise, not doctrinal error. Let’s see that played out in the rest of this chapter — and we can see it in the categories of money, sex, and power:

  1. Money / greed / taking from others (opposite of true teachers, who are givers):
  2. We already saw verse 3: “in their greed they will exploit you”
  3. Verse 14: they have “hearts trained in greed”
  4. Verse 15: “They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing”

  5. Sex / sensuality / compromise personal holiness (opposite of true teachers, who exercise self-control): (we had three for greed; I count six for sex)

  6. Verse 2, we already saw: “many will follow their sensuality”
  7. Verse 10: “indulge in the lust of defiling passion”
  8. Verse 12: they are “irrational animals, creatures of instinct”
  9. Verse 13: “They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime”
  10. Verse 14: their “eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin”
  11. Verse 19: they are “slaves of corruption”

  12. Power / pride / arrogance / posture of soul toward God (opposite of true teachers, who should be humble):

  13. Verse 1, as we saw: they “[deny] the Master who bought them”
  14. Verse 10: they “despise authority”
  15. Verse 10: “bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones” (in other words, in their arrogance, they don’t hesitate to denounce angels, who are higher beings, of greater power and authority)
  16. Verse 12: they are “blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant”
  17. Verse 13: “They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime” (also sensuous)
  18. Verse 13: they are “reveling in their deceptions”
  19. Verse 18: they “[speak] loud boasts of folly”

Another way to see it is that they sin against themselves, against others, and against God. In their greed, they fleece the flock for material gain. Or in their lust, they compromise sexually (whether fornication, adultery, or homosexuality). Or in their pride, they “despise authority,” and the greatest authority, who upholds all authorities, is God himself.

The question, then, for our church is this: How do we guard against false teachers? There is a doctrinal component to that, and then, likely even more important (as we’ve seen), is the ethical accountability. So to get very practical, here’s how we’re trying to guard against false teaching at Cities Church.

Guarding What We Teach

Doctrinally, all our pastors and community group leaders must gladly embrace, and commit to teach only in accord with, a shared, detailed Leadership Affirmation of Faith that seeks to articulate a biblically and historically faithful Reformed, baptistic statement of Level-A doctrines. We have a shared confession, and we hold each other accountable to it — and we want our members to hold our teachers accountable to it.

We encourage you to read and study and know the confession we hold our leaders to so that as a church we can, as our Member Covenant says, “welcome, and test biblically, instruction from the Scriptures by the leaders of the church in accordance with the Leadership Affirmation of Faith.” This is not the kind of church where you’re not supposed to ask questions. We love questions, especially when they are questions in good faith. True teachers love genuine questions. I speak for all the pastors when I say keep us accountable in what we teach, even as we keep each other accountable.

The greatest defense against false teaching is a church community that knows, enjoys, and lives the word of God. That’s the setting of this chapter. Chapter 1, as we saw last week, ends with the true teachers (the prophets who speak God’s word, 1:19–21), and chapter 3, as we’ll see next week, begins with the prophets and apostles, who speak God’s word (3:2). Essential in recognizing and defeating false words is knowing the true words of God.

Guarding How We Live

Then, secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, is ethical accountability. We believe that pastors should be with the people. Shepherds should smell like sheep, because we’re not sequestered from the flock, but walk and live among the sheep. So at Cities Church, all of our teachers are in community groups for team mission. And all our teachers are in life groups for personal growth and accountability. Then on top of that, as another layer of accountability, each pastor and his wife is paired with another pastor and wife to keep each other accountable in our marriages and parenting, in our character and conduct.

But you know what? We have our systems — and we should have our systems — and we do our best — and we must do our best — but in the end there is no foolproof human system or effort. This is why verse 9 is so sweet in 2 Peter 2 — this is the apex of the chapter. Look at verse 9: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials.” This leads to our third and final point.

3. God will rescue his people from false teachers. (verses 4–10)

Peter ramps up rhetorically to celebrate this point about God’s deliverance. It is just too good to say without much ado. He mentions four lessons from history: 1) the fall of angels, 2) Noah and the flood, 3) the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and 4) the rescue of Lot. Look at verses 4–10:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

Peter argues from minor premises (in verses 4–8), to the major premise (in verses 9–10), in order to give us confidence in our Sovereign Lord. No matter how twisted the teaching, no matter how publicly shamed the church may feel over the exposé of an unethical leader, no matter how dark it seems, no matter how helpless we may feel in guarding gospel doctrine and preserving gospel-worthy lives, we have this great hope: Jesus knows how to rescue the godly.

Jesus is the greatest and truest teacher who ever lived, but he is so much more than a teacher. He’s also a rescuer, the great rescuer, who has redeemed us from sin and will keep his true people from soul-destroying error. No matter how small a minority the church becomes, and no matter how fragile you feel, the very one who is both the subject of true teaching and the model of true living is also the preserver of our souls. God preserved Noah. God rescued Lot. And the Lord Jesus will rescue us, come what may.

And not only will Jesus rescue us from false teachers — that’s not where Peter lands in verse 9. Look where he lands: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials.” Not only is he powerful enough to win any battle against any false teaching — and he will (no false teaching will finally prevail) — but he is able to deliver us from any and every trial.

To the Table

As we come to the Table, we end with this very tangible taste: the bread and cup are part of Jesus’s rescue. How does he rescue the godly from trials? One way, among many, is offering this meal for our souls, to eat and drink by faith from this table, and thus nourish our souls, and reinforce gospel doctrine, and re-consecrate our lives.

Perhaps you feel like the barrier for you to this great promise in verse 9 is that word “godly.” Yes, Jesus knows how to rescue the godly from trials — but am I really among “the godly”? Listen carefully: “godly” in verse 9 is not about perfection; it’s about direction. Are you running from Jesus, or running to him?

And this table calls the question: Do you want to eat and drink in faith? Your being among “the godly” is as real as the bread and cup you hold in hand and put in your mouth. Weak as you may feel, has God given you just the kernel of faith to receive these gifts? If so, count yourself among the godly, claim the powerful promise of verse 9 for yourself, and eat and drink with us now.