‘Contend or Die’ Deuteronomy 13:1-18 August 16, 1992

Text Comments

v. 3         Moses is writing in an age of miracles — even Egyptian magicians had performed at least one; at other times in sacred history, the authentication of a prophet is that he performs miracles.

v. 4         But even miracles are no substitute for the Word of God and must submit to it.

As we have had occasion to notice many times before, it is characteristic of the Lord’s teaching in the Bible, to devote himself to one aspect or part of a subject in one place and to leave other aspects of the same theme for consideration in another place and time. The result is that the whole picture can be rarely gathered by the reading of a single passage of the Bible. Rather, you must read in many places before the whole truth is before you. The advantage of this manner of teaching the truth part here and part there, which is called merismus, from the Greek work meros, meaning part, I say, the advantage of this manner of teaching is that, in this way, each part of the truth is received and felt with full force and does not die the death of a thousand qualifications.

We have an excellent example of this method before us this morning and an excellent example of the reason for it. Here in Deuteronomy 13 the Lord is instructing his people that they are to contend for the truth and that any disloyalty to the Word of God, any effort to weaken the church’s commitment to God’s revealed will in the Bible, is to be vigorously and thoroughly exposed and punished. Falsehood in the community of faith is to be nipped in the bud; decapitated at the first rising of its head. That is the uncompromising and unqualified message of this chapter.

It is to that message that I want to devote our attention this morning, but not without reminding you that the Bible has much more to say about other aspects of this same subject. Elsewhere in the Bible, for example, we are taught that all differences of conviction are not of the same type or class or seriousness. Genuine Christians themselves disagree about many things, even about the proper understanding of what the Bible says about this or that, and these disagreements are not at all to be handled in the same way that true infidelity is to be handled according to Deuteronomy 13. What is more, the Bible has much to say about how and in what spirit and with what grace the truth is to be protected and defended. There is a distinctively Christian way to be unyielding in defense of God’s truth. None of this is in Deuteronomy 13 and were it to have been taught there, no doubt the central point of the chapter, the absolute necessity of contending for the truth, would have been weakened by those qualifications. As it is, the Lord teaches here most categorically the necessity of contention on behalf of his Word and Law, and teaches in the same categorical way in other parts of the Bible the manner and spirit in which we are to contend.

Godly men and women of the church’s past who have had to contend in their day for the truth of God which was being attacked, have born witness to both the difficulty of waging controversy in a truly Christian manner and of the great service which is done to God’s truth when Christian people defend it in a truly Christlike way.

Augustine, who, in his time, was called of God to defend certain cardinal principles of divine revelation which were then under assault from within the church, was a great champion of the truth both for the intellectual power he brought to its defense and for the genuinely Christian manner in which he did battle on its behalf. They said of him in his own day that in such controversies for the truth, he was fortiter in re, suaviter in modo, strong and inflexible in the matter, but gentle in his manner.

How different controversialists have often been. Augustus Toplady and John Wesley were both deeply earnest Christians, both famous preachers, both gifted poets and hymn writers, but one was a Calvinist and the other an Arminian and they conducted for years a bitter and unseemly warfare in print against one another. They always defended their attacks against one another by claiming that they were driven to it for the sake of the truth of God that the other was denying, but, years later, Bishop J.C. Ryle would write, in this case of Toplady, his fellow Calvinist, ‘Never, I regret to say, did an advocate of truth appear to me so entirely to forget the text, “Those who oppose [the servant of God] he must gently instruct in hopes that God will give them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.'” [Christian Leaders…, pp. 380-381.]

Alexander Whyte went so far as to recommend that ‘if we cannot [defend the truth] with clean and all-men loving hearts, let us leave all debate and contention to stronger and better men than we are.’

John Newton was absolutely right when he said that there is a tendency in all of us to despise those with whom we disagree. But obviously personal hatred has no place in the battles we wage for the truth of God’s Word.

So, it is well that we remember, as we consider Deuteronomy 13, that there is a great deal more that the Bible will teach us about how God’s truth is to be preserved and defended in and by the church. Harsh as this chapter is in certain ways, it is clearly no invitation to the hatred of others or to haughty and high-handed ways.

But, all of that notwithstanding, there can be no doubt about the emphasis placed here upon the absolute necessity of the church standing firmly, resolutely, behind the truth and the covenant of God and permitting no breach of that covenant to go undetected and uncorrected. Whatever else must be said about the proper attitude and spirit in which this should be done, there can be no doubt that it must be done.

There should be no doubt that this is a passage far too much forgotten in the church of our day. I heard an address a few months ago in one of our Presbytery churches in which a well-known speaker inveighed against evangelical Christians for making doctrine a matter of division, which he felt was the chief cause of the church’s weakness at the present moment. The entire speech reminded me of the warning which C.S. Lewis gave some years ago to the effect that every age tends to set itself most resolutely against those sins which it is least in danger of committing. Cruel ages warn against sentimentality. Overtly wicked and licentious ages put us on guard against puritanism, and so on. We need few sermons against doctrinal precisionism in the church today, because almost no one cares much any more about exact doctrine, about orthodoxy in the classical sense of that term. For every Christian who worries that the church is no longer affirming with a clear voice all of the Bible’s doctrines, even the unpopular ones, such as election or divine judgment, there are a hundred Christians sure that arguments over what the Bible teaches and the preaching of doctrines over which people are likely to stumble are counter-productive and harmful to the church’s forward advance. ‘Leave questions of theological truth to the seminary professors,’ they say, ‘while we get on [to] winning the world, loving the brethren, and unifying the church.’ What has concern for right teaching got us but unnumbered denominations and a fractured Christendom. So most Christians say today.

I was pleasantly surprised, on my vacation, to hear a sermon in a church we attended attacking our Calvinistic doctrine of sovereign grace. I would rather, of course, have heard him affirm and celebrate that most wonderful and true and plainly biblical doctrine; but, at least, this man understood that the truth mattered, that it was important to contend for what one understood to be the teaching of God’s Word and to resist what one judges to be falsehood under the guise of Christian teaching. Far better that Christians continue to argue about doctrine than that no one care any longer what people believe. Very few sermons of this kind are preached in American evangelical churches anymore and it is no wonder the church’s convictions about the truth and about its importance are breaking down as well. We live in a relativistic age in which the greatest sin which can be committed is to judge and condemn the convictions of others. The church should have mounted a massive attack on that point of view — as inevitably destructive of Christianity itself –, but, in far too many ways, she has embraced that indifference to the truth herself. Not in so many words, and not yet with respect to all the truths of the Bible — only some of them — but what is clear is that she seems to have forgotten that Deuteronomy 13 is even in the Bible, or at least she hopes that no one will stumble on it in his or her infrequent forays into the uncharted regions of the Old Testament. And, in one way, that is only to be expected, I mean that an indifference to the truth for the truth’s sake should arise in the church in this particular day and age.

Abraham Kuyper once pointed out that heresies arise on Christian territory by a fixed law — as a mirage appears in the desert. They are the ‘necessary deflection of the light of Christianity in the spiritual atmosphere of a given age.’ [In Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, pp. 9-10] A non-absolutist Christianity is the late 20th century, American deflection of the true light.

We are not left to guess the reason for the severe tone of this chapter. We are given at least three reasons in the chapter for the great importance of the church’s constant vigilance on behalf of the truth and her determined opposition to anyone who would preach or teach contrary to what God has said.

The first reason why the church must be constantly alert to this danger and determined to root it out and resist falsehood at its first appearance is that falsehood is pervasive within her membership and arises from many different directions. If the church is not placed on her guard and is not kept aware of the great danger of falsehood, she will be overtaken by it before she knows, because it will arise within her from many different directions at once, and from the least likely of places. The real danger, of course, lies not with false ideas held in the world, but with falsehood which arises in the church itself and makes itself out to be the truth of God. The world will always be living in the profoundest darkness of error and deceit. That is to be expected. The world is in full flight from the truth of God. But, when the church, which knows the truth, exchanges it for a lie — that is the far greater and more deadly tragedy.

You may have noticed as we read Deuteronomy 13 that materially the chapter contains the same warning repeated three different times, but each time with reference to a different group of people within the covenant community who may tempt the church to infidelity to God and his Word. In vv. 1-5 the church is warned that her own preachers and teachers may undermine the truth and that she must stand ready to oppose even those with authority and reputation in the church if they contradict the Word of God.

I recently finished reading a biography of Charles Simeon, the great champion of evangelical Christianity at the close of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th. Simeon occupied the pulpit of Holy Trinity church in Cambridge for 54 years! But, as too often happens, his successors did not have his convictions. E. S. Woods, a successor of Simeon in the Holy Trinity pulpit, relates with amusement that one Monday morning an old Sunday School teacher came to the vicarage and tendered his resignation. The previous day, a guest preacher had, in Simeon’s old pulpit, belittled the Biblical teaching on Christ’s redemption of sinners. The old man had been unable to sleep all night. Woods later commented, ‘I could scarcely conceal my amusement.’ He thought it comical that someone should be so distressed by questions of Christian truth and falsehood. More than anyone else ministers have brought falsehood into the church. And they are to be shown no mercy for doing so! The old man did what he could. In this church government here, we can do more!

Then, in vv. 6-11 we are put on guard even against members of our own family, whose wanderings from the truth we would be most likely to excuse and whose punishment we would be most reticent to impose. It would not be a difficult thing to name any number of sons (or husbands, or wives, or brothers) of godly people whose teaching led the church astray through the generations.

And then in vv. 12-18 we are warned that in the towns especially there may be a general revolt that takes place against the Word and law of God as fashions and tastes change from time to time. One commentator speaks of ‘urban revolutionaries,’ but he means, I think, only those sort of modern people, with modern ideas which have appeared in every generation, as they appear today, arguing that in one way or another the Word of God is out of date and needs revision. It is in the urban areas in which fashions change so quickly and in which the pressure to conform to these new ideas becomes so strong.

In an age like ours, which in some important ways is very similar to that of Canaan in the time of Moses, in a day when relativism and a distaste for absolute truth and standards is orthodoxy and when there is no greater heresy than to judge the opinions of others, there will be constant pressure on the truth. And Moses’ point is that that pressure will spring up everywhere: in the teaching ministry of the church itself; in our own Christian families, and in new consensuses forming in the Christian population.

If we are not constantly on guard, that is his point, we will be overwhelmed by falsehoods insinuating themselves into the body of the church.

Second, we must brook no tolerance to falsehood but remain always alert to its appearance, because theological and spiritual error is so powerful and so persuasive to sinful men that unless the church has her full wits about her she will succumb to killing untruth never aware that she has done so. Surely that is a remarkable warning in v. 2, that false teachers may be able to work miraculous signs. I don’t think that that is always true, of course. Indeed, it may be that it was only true for a few moments in the history of the Kingdom of God. But it is a further demonstration of the general fact that falsehood will always have its powerful inducements and arguments: if not miracles, then reasonableness or the appearance of compassion or charity or broadmindedness or the approbation of the world.

The Bible warns us over and again that the Devil never is so foolish as to alert us to his deceits. He disguises himself as an angel of light. Every killing heresy that has disturbed the church of God has commended itself not only as truth but as superior to the old, outmoded thinking of the church. Every heretic has his verses and his arguments and every heresy has its set of attractions. If they weren’t so appealing and so convincing Christians wouldn’t leap for them as they do.

And what is true of the Devil’s wiles is true of the very nature of sin. It is deceitful the Bible says. It fools us into admiring it and hides its stinger and its poison so that we do not see it until it is too late. In v. 2, we read that these false teachers will entice the church saying ‘let us follow other gods.’ But that is the biblical judgment as to the true meaning of their message. Very few false teachers come out and say: ‘Let’s abandon God’s truth and follow this new way.’ Oh, no! They almost always say that they are really the defenders and promoters of God’s truth and that the old way is actually the false way. We see the same today.

For example, only a few intrepid folk in the church today are willing to say that the Apostle Paul was mistaken in what he wrote about women or homosexuals. Paul King Jewett, a Fuller Seminary professor had the courage to write in a book of his that Paul simply blew it at this point and the Holy Scripture he wrote concerning the calling of women is not to be believed or obeyed. But he got into trouble for his honesty. Most people nowadays much prefer to argue, in the most ingenious ways, that actually the Bible never meant what the church has taken it to mean these thousands of years and that they have discovered its true meaning to be the exact reverse of what its words seem to say. And so it has always been and will always be. If falsehood does not arise in the church with miracles to back it up, it will always have its attractions and its earnest pretensions to truth.

The church is never so foolish as when she imagines that if and when falsehood arises in her midst it will immediately and easily be seen for what it is.

The third reason why the church must remain ever vigilant against the encroachment of error and determined to brook no infidelity to the Word of God is that the ramifications of such unfaithfulness and heresy are so frightening and the consequences so destructive and everlasting. It is this fact that explains why, as we read in vv. 12-14, if the church catches even a whiff of the scent of such infidelity, she is to take immediate action to find out whether the rumors and reports have substance. She is not to wait to see if heresy comes to full flower, she is to make every effort to locate it and nip it in the bud. That is a very extreme course of action and is always deeply resented by both those who are suspected of the errors and their friends. They speak of witch-hunts and head-hunters. And it is a difficult task the Lord sets us on here, likely to be misunderstood, because falsehood hardly ever makes its first appearance mature and full-blown and easily recognized for what it is. It is always first doubts about received truth or tendencies to move away from it or beyond it.

But, despite all these inevitable difficulties, the Lord requires immediate action.

And, then, he requires the most severe punishment for those who are found guilty of infidelity to the Word of God: execution in those days; its equivalent in our day would be excommunication, banishment from the church, and it matters not if it is a family member, or one’s own minister, or friends. The reason is just this: this falsehood will kill the souls of many in the church forever and ever. It is leaven which left unchecked will leaven the whole lump. As Moses says in v. 11, only punishments as severe as these will serve to prevent others embracing the same deadly errors and evils.

It is for this same reason that the NT is just as severe as the Old in its condemnation of false teaching and in the steps it requires to be taken to protect the church from it. ‘Don’t have anything to do with such a man,’ says the gentle Apostle John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, ‘don’t invite him into your house, don’t show him any hospitality, don’t give him the time of day.’ He speaks that way for the same reason Moses spoke as he did…the heresies these people foster in the church destroy the soul and bring the wrath of God. No one is to toy with eternal damnation!

You know my affection and reverence for Alexander Whyte, the Scottish preacher whom I quote to you probably more than I quote any other mere man. And so you will understand how it pains me to have to criticize him, but just at this point I must do so. During Whyte’s mature ministry false teaching began to appear in the divinity school or seminary of his Presbyterian Church. A brilliant and prominent professor by the name of William Robertson Smith began to cast doubt on the infallibility, integrity, authority, and divine origin of the Bible. He, of course, protested that he still believed in the Bible as the Word of God, but his conclusions about the Bible and its contents and its literary history undermined that claim. But Alexander Whyte stood up for Smith and he did so for the best and most human reasons: he was a personal friend of Robertson Smith’s and he believed what his friend told him about his continuing commitment to the Bible as the Word of God. Whyte made a great speech in defense of his friend on the floor of the General Assembly.

Years later, when Smith’s views had thoroughly penetrated the Scottish church and it was dying spiritually, Whyte bemoaned the spiritual collapse and expressed great fear over the growing skepticism in the church regarding biblical truth, but he never saw, so far as I know, his own place in contributing to that spiritual death which overtook the Scottish church in the grip of which she largely remains today. He never saw how his response to the first appearance of falsehood in the teaching of the church was so very different from what Moses requires here in Deuteronomy 13. He was more concerned to protect the reputation of his friend, than to preserve the souls of Christian people which would eventually be destroyed by the teaching of Smith and others like him. It was a deadly error and sin on his part and shows us how susceptible even the best men are to disloyalty to God at this point.

May we not be. May we be like Alexander Whyte in the respect and humility and gentleness and love and patience and kindness with which we deal with Christian who disagree with us and with which we deal with the enemies of the church. But, may we do better than he in unflinching loyalty to the truth of God’s Word as he has given us to see that truth. Our friends should know not only what we believe, but that we believe it with all our might and expect others to do the same because it is taught by God himself in his holy book.

And so that we are not and cannot be seen to be hypocrites, let us first promise the Lord again that before we defend that truth and contend for it in every part, we will first obey it and believe it ourselves. The best defenders of God’s truth are always those whom everyone can see truly believe that: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’