Heretics and Heresy


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“Heretics and Heresy”
2 Corinthians 11:1-15
June 29, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

Text Comment

v.1 This next section of the letter, extending to 12:10 drips with irony. A title for the entire section might be “A Little Foolishness.” [Witherington, 445] Paul has just said, at the end of the previous chapter, that it is not self-commendation but God’s commendation that matters. So now he asks the indulgence of his readers while he talks at some length about himself. No wonder the irony. He is exposing the false teachers self-commendation by a form of self-commendation of his own. Paul’s point is not to confirm the tarnished image of himself that the Corinthians have been given by the false teachers, but to expose them for the bogus apostles that they are.

v.2 In the imagery of the NT the engagement comes with faith in Christ in this world, the wedding is at his Second Coming.

v.4 The irony thickens. He hopes that the Corinthians will put up with him as he speaks about himself and his ministry; for they seem quite ready to put up with those and their ministry who have come to subvert and undercut the gospel he taught them.

v.5 “Super-apostles” is sarcastic; a play on their aspirations for the status of an apostle.

v.6 Vv. 4-6 indicate that the problems concerned not only the so-called apostles’ criticism of Paul for his weakness as a trained speaker and for what they saw as his amateurish and weak handling of matters in the church, but also the content of their teaching. They were bringing another gospel, though Paul does not here explain precisely what it was they taught that was heretical. Whatever may be his deficiencies as a public speaker, there is nothing wrong with the truth that Paul taught these Christians! They must stick with that at all costs.

v.9 It is clear that the false teachers had convinced some in the church that it was beneath the dignity of an apostle to make his living as a tradesman. They didn’t appreciate the sacrifice Paul had made for the gospel’s sake. They didn’t like their standard-bearer to be so low-class, working in a shop. Professional philosophers who sold their wisdom for money were a common feature of Greco-Roman life. Paul should have been like them, it was said. But Paul was committed not to encourage any thinking among the Corinthians that he had come for their money or that they, by providing for his ministry, somehow deserved the gospel he brought. Such attitudes stood in the way of their seeing salvation as a matter of God’s grace and gift to them. Reciprocity, not charity, and an elitist spirit were fundamental to the Corinthian worldview and Paul knew he had to dig those ideas and those attitudes out of these new believers. And he was so concerned about this that when he ran short on one occasion in Corinth, he sought help from the Macedonian Christians rather than turn to the Corinthian believers. The Philippians, for example, we learn elsewhere, were noted for their generosity to Paul and their enthusiastic support of his mission.

v.12 The point is clear: Paul does not want to provide any pretext whatsoever for the charge that he was defrauding the Corinthian believers. He will not put himself on the same level with those men because it would send precisely the wrong message.

v.14 Now the gloves come off. These men who were misleading the church were self-made apostles. They had no calling or authority from God. They came but they had not been sent. Or, they were sent alright, but by Satan, not God. As Cyprian once put it: “Satan invented heresies.” Paul concludes with a warning. God does not “pass sentence…on the mask, but on the man” [Hodge] and, in the end, a person will be judged not according to what he thought of himself and his conduct, or what other men thought of him, but according to what God thinks about what he was and did.

We don’t know what it was precisely that the false teachers in Corinth were teaching. It is most likely that they brought with them a version of the judaizing heresy that others like them had taught to the Galatian churches. Not only does Paul, in 11:4, call their teaching “another gospel,” which is the same way he described the false teaching in Galatia, in Gal. 1:6-9, but in 11:22 – which we have not yet read – he indicates that these teachers made a great deal of their Jewishness, as did all judaizers. The judaizers, as you remember, were Jewish Christians who demanded that Gentile believers participate in the ritual life of Judaism and did so, Paul argues in several of his letters and as we learn in Acts, because they had not fully understood or accepted the principle of salvation by free grace and justification by faith alone. Perhaps the greater interests of these teachers were simply applause, influence, and financial reward. In this letter Paul deals more with their undermining of his apostolic authority and with the motive and spirit of their ministry than he does with their teaching per se. But the teaching was itself deadly. It was another gospel.

In any case, we have here one of the very important statements in the New Testament regarding heresy and heretics. Those terms sound nowadays so antique, so outmoded. In our day, with its bias against timeless truth and divine judgment, and with its tendency to place all emphasis on experience rather than orthodoxy, the very notion of heresy has been diluted in even evangelical Christianity, and in some parts of Christianity has disappeared altogether. Nowadays the heretic is more likely to be someone who complains of false teaching in the church and criticizes men for it, rather than the one who has deviated from the teaching of Holy Scripture and the doctrines of the church.

We Presbyterians are well enough acquainted with this phenomenon. My father was deposed from the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church in the late 1940s. He was accused of thinking about leaving that denomination because of its toleration of unbelief among its ministers. He had not, in fact, planned to leave, there was no evidence of that, but he had been asked to leave by conservative Presbyterians in other churches and that was enough to secure his conviction in those days.

You may have seen the news item recently about the Danish Lutheran priest, Thorkild Grosboel, the pastor of a church near Copenhagen, who said in an interview with the press that “there is no heavenly God, there is no eternal life, there is no resurrection.” Surprisingly, his bishop suspended him for a week for his comments and demanded that he retract them. Ms. Rebel, the bishop, said that his comments were “totally unacceptable” and were likely to create confusion and uncertainty about what the church stands for. Anyone who knows the Danish Lutheran Church already wonders what the church stands for, if anything. Mogens Lindhardt, for example, the director of Denmark’s Theological College of Education described Grosboel’s comments as “refreshing.”

Well, whatever we may think about that, we know that doctrinal deviation in the church is nothing new. The NT bears its own witness to the fact that as soon as the gospel began to be proclaimed to the world false forms of the faith began to circulate beside it. Wherever the truth went, deviant forms, corruptions of the truth followed close behind. Already in the first century, the apostles themselves had to deal with heresies touching the way of salvation and the person of Jesus Christ. Letters such as those to the Galatians and John’s first letter, were specifically directed against aberrant teachings that were beguiling the church even when the apostles were still alive.

In the second century the church was troubled by new types of heresy, or false teaching. Heresy is not simply falsehood. Christians would regard secular philosophies of life or other religions, such as Buddhism or Islam, as false, but not as heresies. Heresy is, by definition, a false form of Christianity, a serious distortion of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. In the second century the church faced such heresies in Marcionism and Gnosticism, both in their unique ways, combinations of Christian thought with the prevailing philosophies of the time. Interestingly, both heresies are still with us today. G. Bromiley Oxnam, Bishop of the United Methodist Church in the middle 20th century once referred to the God of the OT as “a dirty bully.” That was Marcion’s view. And Peter Jones, who has preached in this pulpit on several occasions, has demonstrated that so-called Christian feminism is, theologically and philosophically a new version of gnosticism. The greatest work of Christian theology produced in the second century was Against Heresies by Irenaeus, the great missionary theologian. It was an anti-gnostic work.

In the 4th century Arius propagated his deadly heresy regarding Jesus Christ and for most of that tumultuous century that error found great place in the church and was finally rooted out only through the heroic efforts and struggles and sufferings of Athanasius and other church fathers. Great creeds were written in the 4th and 5th centuries precisely to protect the church forever from those deadly errors that had seduced her and destroyed thousands upon thousands of her sons and daughters.

And so it has continued ever since. The heresies of sacerdotalism, or salvation through ceremony, a recapitulation of the heresy that seduced Israel in the times of the prophets, and Socinianism, or rationalistic forms of Christianity, were fought in the Church in the days of the Reformation and have had to be fought ever since. And we have faced the same sort of heresies and others in our own day.

If you ask why the truth is forever beset by distortion and corruption, Paul’s answer, given twice in our text – in v. 3 and again in v. 14 – is that the Devil, the father of lies, lies behind this effort to distract people from the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. If he can do that he will succeed in his effort to overturn Christ’s kingdom. And, subtle deceiver that he is, he uses the truth to overturn the truth. Rather than come with what is the obvious contradiction of the truth, he beguiles the church with plausible amendments and improvements. Nothing can deceive unless it bears a plausible resemblance to reality. Christians are not likely to be taken in by the outright denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So Satan masquerades himself as an angel of light and his followers are dressed up the same way. There may be something galling in this for Satan, for he has to use God’s truth to overturn it and our attraction for that truth to deceive us. Heresies prosper only because the truth imparts some credibility to them. They are close enough to the gospel to gain power from its authority in the church’s mind and heart. False teachers will always keep up appearances and they will always sell their vices with virtues.

It was a desire to preserve the unity of the church in the early 20th century – surely a commendable concern – that the Devil used to convince the Protestant church not to fight for the truth of the Bible’s teaching. Once duped by that fateful deceit, once convinced to surrender the truth for the sake of the virtue of unity, the heretics took over and now the great protestant churches can’t bring themselves to rid themselves of ministers who don’t believe that God exists or who think it the very meaning of the gospel to conduct a wedding for two homosexual men. Believe me, there were many well-meaning people in those churches in those days who had no idea that it would come to this. But they had been persuaded, for very high-sounding reasons, not to treat heresy or heretics as Paul treats them here. But, as history has far too often shown, heresy must be rooted out at once or allowed to sink roots will sink them too deep ever to be pulled up. Heresy is like ivy. As they say in the South, the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third it leaps.

Now, it is a fair question as to what precisely a heresy is. After all, Christians disagree about many things. Are Presbyterians to think of Baptists as heretics because they will not give the covenant sign to their infant children? Are Lutherans to regard Presbyterians as heretics because they cannot accept certain features of Lutheranism’s doctrine of the two natures in the one person of Christ or her understanding of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper?

Well Paul says several things here that help to answer those questions and to define heresy, to identify those deviations from Christian orthodoxy that must be spoken of and dealt with in the severe way in which Paul deals with the false teachers in Corinth. And what he says indicates clearly that we are talking not about minor deviations of thought or practice, but corruptions of the fundamentals of our faith as it is revealed in Holy Scripture.

I. In the first place, Paul speaks of these false teachers as bringing “another Jesus.”

Many heresies have been of this type. There are many abroad in Christendom of this type today. Many have a purely human Jesus who serves only as our example. We have a feminist Jesus and a gay Jesus and a Marxist Jesus and, yes, a conservative Republican Jesus. Already in the days of the New Testament, the church was troubled with aberrant views of Jesus, such as those of Cerinthus and addressed by John in his First Letter. Cerinthus was a Jewish Christian teacher, branded a “pseudo-Apostle” by later Christians. He taught that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism and abandoned him before his death. It was another form of teaching that diminished Jesus Christ from the fully God and fully man person he is revealed in Holy Scripture to be. Paul does not say here precisely how these teachers in Corinth tampered with the truth about Jesus Christ, but they did in some way.

There is nothing more fundamental to Christian faith than Jesus himself. Tamper with the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ and everything in Christianity changes. This was Athanasius’ great argument in his immortal work On the Incarnation of the Word of God. In his day the tampering was being done by Arius and Athanasius’ argument was that the entire edifice of Christian teaching about salvation absolutely depended upon a Mediator who was both fully God and fully Man. Change your Christology – your doctrine of Christ – and you must inevitably change your soteriology – your doctrine of salvation. That is heresy.

II. In the second place, Paul speaks of these false teachers as bringing “another gospel.”

Nothing is more fundamental than the gospel, the good news that sinners can find salvation and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. That is the main theme of the Bible, it is the urgent message of the Bible. The Bible addresses us as sinners needing salvation and tells us where we might find that salvation and how we might obtain it. And these false teachers were bringing a different message, a false message about all of that! That is no minor amendment, no small difference of interpretation. What they taught, the falsehood they were selling in Corinth, struck at the vitals of the Christian faith. They were encouraging people to obtain the salvation of Jesus Christ by their own effort, their own performance, instead of by faith in him. That is heresy, and that is eventual death, and so it must be exposed, rooted out, and got rid of.

In Deuteronomy 13 Israel is warned against those who will draw them away to worship other gods. And there she is told to brook no delay. She is to ascertain the facts, and if it is true, she is to excise the virus from the body of God’s people, lest it infect and destroy. Well, worshipping other gods is like embracing another gospel. Such teaching overturns the entire faith, it turns us away from God, and renders his salvation powerless in our lives because we no longer understand it or embrace it. We have accepted a lie in its place. The Devil has taken us captive.

II. In the third place, Paul says that these false teachers brought a different Spirit, that is, a Spirit other than the Holy Spirit.

What that means is that the false teachers were bringing not the power of the Holy Spirit of God to transform lives by uniting them to Christ, but a worldly spirit, a spirit of worldly wisdom, perhaps especially they were teaching a view of the Christian life that found its principle in religious observances and human effort rather than in living communion with Christ by the Spirit. It was not a spirit of liberty but of bondage because it rested everything on human effort instead of divine grace and love and power and working. But human effort is futile to achieve peace with God.

These teachers conceived of the life to be lived by the children of God as resting not on God’s working but on man’s. That too is a heresy that has often reappeared in Christendom and is widely embraced today. Ask the first 20 worshipers leaving a Catholic church in New York City, or a Lutheran church in Minneapolis, a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles or an Episcopal church in Seattle ask them how they can get to heaven and see how long it is before anyone mentions Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.

But, take Paul’s point. He is not talking about differences of opinion that separate real believers from one another. Much as we regret those things, we know when we are disagreeing with a brother who is as committed to the gospel as we are, however we may feel his understanding or practice is inadequate in some way. But Paul is talking about killing error, error that, if left undetected and unmolested, in time, will destroy the faith of the church and cause her to squander her salvation. That has happened times without number; it is not warning about nothing that we have here in our text.

Now, are you tempted to think that a sermon like this, on a text like this, is not of much practical relevance to you? “What,” you may be tempted to ask, “does this have to do with the struggles or the interests of my life right now: heresy and heretics?” Well, it has everything to do with your life. No matter what your struggles, your sorrows or your joys, no matter what is preoccupying you at this moment of your life, you are yourself safe, secure, blessed, and headed for heaven and the world of everlasting joy so long as you continue to drink the pure water of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But you have adversaries who are planning, even now, to turn you away from that fountain to other waters, waters that will, at first, taste as sweet to you as waters ever have, but will be, at last, as bitter as gall.

Listen, we are not immune from these pressures and dangers. The Corinthians had been taught the gospel by no one less than the Apostle Paul, one of the greatest men who ever lived. When he preached it to them, it was accompanied by miraculous demonstrations. And yet here they are being swayed by outright unbelief masquerading as Christian teaching. If Christians with those privileges could be so easily distracted from the truth, how much more we today.

Listen, someone has said, Heresies arise on Christian territory by a fixed law [like a mirage in the atmosphere]. They are a “necessary deflection of the light of Christianity in the spiritual atmosphere of a given age.” [Kuyper in Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, 9-10]

What that means is that we will have our heresies too and find them particularly attractive because they will take a form especially suitable to our time and our culture. They will seem right to us, natural, easy to believe. A Puritan said “The Devil does not allow the wind of error to blow long in the same direction.” [In I. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, xiii] That is, we cannot count on the Devil to attack us with old fashioned and long discredited ideas. No, he will bring what seems to us to be a new and fresh and relevant form of our ancient faith. And we will be tempted to accept it because it is what people in our day find easy to believe. We will seem to be up-to-date and modern; people will praise us for how we have brought our Christianity into the contemporary world.

Surely, if we take all of this seriously we will certainly be much more grateful for the truth, realizing how violently and subtly and cleverly it is always being undermined. We will be more grateful to God for having kept us from killing error as easily as such error can take root in hearts and minds. We will take greater care to guard the truth against the attacks that will certainly be brought against it and against the substitutions that the Devil will seek to make for it. Generations of Christians, no more sinful than we, have been beguiled into handing over the faith and giving themselves and their children over to death. And all the while the Devil had convinced them that they were being only the more faithful to the truth. If that does not worry us and put us on our guard, nothing will.

I know that some of you are learning in this time of your life how much you love your grandchildren, what a surprising affection rises in your hearts for your children’s children. Will they be taught the true faith? When they are older, will their hearts be nourished on the faith once and for all delivered to the saints? Or will corruptions have been substituted and Sunday by Sunday instead of the words of life they, all unsuspecting, will be fed another dose of poison? The church in 2000 years has not learned to keep heresy out of its doors. How few individual churches have managed to live for three or four generations without embracing killing error at some point, all the while thinking they were being faithful to the truth.

We will not be spared at Faith Presbyterian. And whether our grandchildren find Christ and his truth here, hear it from this pulpit, and be nourished by it Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day – fifty years from now or seventy or a hundred – will depend upon our taking Paul to heart and keeping out every teaching that does not conform to what we have been taught in the Word of God.

Some passages of God’s word teach us how to embrace God’s salvation for ourselves right now. Other passages teach us how to ensure that there will still be salvation to embrace ten or twenty or a hundred years from now. How many multitudes of people there are in the world today who live and die without the influence of the gospel of Christ because years ago the Christian church where they live abandoned the faith under the influence of some impressive, charismatic, seemingly virtuous men who persuaded them that the way to honor God and Christ was to change the Bible’s message about them. You can hear the cheering in the underworld. Whole nations dead to God and Christ!

But, you can also hear the giant gate of heaven swing shut with a melancholy bang. “Their end will be what their actions deserve.”