Thursday, December 22, 2011
The Rise of a Counterfeit Christianity
Christ gave an ominous warning—that many would come in His name, teaching a different message that would deceive many. They would create a counterfeit of true Christianity, starting a religion that would largely supplant the true Church.
“Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name . . . and will deceive many” (Matthew:24:4-5).
Jesus Christ told His apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in His name. Most people who are familiar with the Bible realize that those apostles zealously embarked on that mission. Their converts were first called Christians in the city of Antioch (Acts:11:26). Over the centuries, vast numbers of people were born or converted into what eventually became the hundreds of denominations known collectively as “Christianity”—to the point that it became and still remains one of the world’s most popular and dominant religions.
People assume that all, or at least almost all, who bear the name Christian follow the beliefs, teachings and practices of Jesus Christ. But the Bible tells us that not everyone who accepts the name of Christ is really a Christian!
Jesus foretold that some would claim His name but deny Him by their actions. He said they would “call Me ‘Lord, Lord,'” but “not do the things which I say” (Luke:6:46).
Christ and His apostles spoke of false prophets, false apostles and false brethren. They revealed that two opposing religions would emerge, both claiming to be Christian. One—the actual Church Jesus founded—would be led by God’s Spirit and remain faithful to His teachings. The other—guided and influenced by a different spirit—would accept the name of Christ but twist His teachings to create a convincing counterfeit of the true Church of God.
Both would use Christ’s name and claim His authority. Both would perform works that would outwardly appear good and right. Both would claim to be following Christ’s true teachings. But only one would faithfully represent its founder, Jesus Christ. The other would capture the minds and hearts of humanity by attaching the name of Christ to biblically insupportable religious customs and doctrines that Jesus and His apostles neither practiced nor approved.
The apostles repeatedly warned Jesus’ followers to beware of false teachers who would introduce counterfeit-Christian beliefs. Jesus Himself warned: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name…and will deceive many” (Matthew:24:4-5).
The New Testament presents a concise historical sketch of the roots of these two religions that profess to be Christian—one real, one counterfeit. Christ’s apostles described the origin of each and their fundamental characteristics.
We have already examined the apostles’ description of the Church Jesus founded. Now let’s look at the record they left us of another supposedly Christian religion—one that distorted and corrupted the truth and grew to become far more powerful and influential than the small Church Jesus promised would never die out.
Teaching the traditions of men
Where do most churches get their teachings and practices? Most of their members assume they come from the Bible or from Jesus Christ Himself. But do they?
Jesus commanded His apostles to teach others exactly what He had taught—”teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew:28:20, NIV). He condemned the replacing of God’s commandments with traditions and human reason. Speaking to the Pharisees, Jewish religious leaders of His day, He said: “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men…All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark:7:8-9).
Jesus taught that His Church should keep the commandments of God: “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew:19:17). He warned: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied [preached] in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'” (Matthew:7:22-23). He knew that false teachers would arise who would reject the commandments of God for a distorted gospel of no law—lawlessness!
Like Jesus, the apostles consistently taught obedience to God. Peter and the other apostles risked their lives to make it clear that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts:5:29). Paul expressed the same commitment he shared with the other apostles—of a life of obedience. “Through him [Christ] and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans:1:5, NIV).
Paul later cautioned members of the congregation in Colosse to hold fast to what he had taught them: “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught” (Colossians:2:6-7).
Following Christ’s example, Paul warned the Colossians not to accept traditions as replacements for the commandments of God: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians:2:8; compare Mark:7:8-9, 13).
Why did Jesus Christ and the apostles sound such urgent warnings to avoid the traditions of men?
Subversion from within the Church
As the apostles strove to establish still more congregations of believers among the nations, a phenomenon arose that eventually produced an alternate and outwardly Christian religion—but one quite different from the Church Jesus and His apostles established.
New and different doctrines were subtly introduced. Some began subverting the Church by challenging and contradicting the teachings of Christ’s apostles. Paul warned, “For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus:1:10-11).
To counter this trend, Paul instructed fellow elder Titus to carefully consider the background, knowledge and character of anyone being considered for ordination: “Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless… He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (verses 7, 9, NIV).
Increasingly, “false apostles” began contradicting and undermining the teachings of the true apostles of Christ. Paul cautioned the church in Rome: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil” (Romans:16:17-19, NRSV).
Competing religious leaders, masquerading as ministers of Christ, began teaching their own false doctrines “in opposition to” Christ’s apostles and other of his faithful servants. At first they came predominantly from a Jewish background. But then false teachers emerged from people of other backgrounds within the Church. The subversive doctrines that eventually grew to be the most influential were a blend of pagan and misguided Jewish philosophies synthesized with the mysticism popular at that time.
Simon the Sorcerer was one such false teacher mentioned early in the Scriptures. After his baptism by Philip, Simon attempted to buy the office of apostle from Peter, hoping to obtain the power to grant others the Holy Spirit. Motivated by greed for power and influence, he faked conversion and managed to receive baptism to appear Christian (Acts:8:9-23). Later historical sources indicate that he blended various elements of paganism and mysticism into a counterfeit Christian philosophy.
A dangerous trend was established. Soon “false apostles,” “false teachers” and “false brethren” abounded.
A counterfeit Christianity was born. And it would grow. In saying his farewell to the elders of the church of Ephesus, Paul stated: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts:20:29-31).
A different gospel gains ground
The impact of distorted teachings devastated the early Church. For example, Christians in the Roman province of Galatia turned en masse from the teachings of the apostle Paul and to a corrupted, cunningly devised but counterfeit gospel promoted by these false apostles.
Paul described the approach they used and the effect the false teachers had on Christians in Galatia: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians:1:6-7).
The brethren in that area were being swept into one of the many sects making up the emerging false Christianity. Paul had to contend with religious strife generated by Jewish and gentile elements in the Galatian congregations.
These cunning pretenders did not reject outright the gospel Paul taught. They simply perverted aspects of it. Then they seduced the Galatian Christians into accepting their gospel—a deadly mixture of truth and error. It contained enough truth to appear righteous and Christian, but it contained sufficient error to prevent any who would accept it from receiving salvation.
Notice Paul’s blistering condemnation of that “different” gospel: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (verses 8-9).
A gospel of no law
Jesus warned His apostles this would happen: “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew:24:11-12). Jesus explained that lawlessness, the key element in the message of the false teachers, would make their ideas appealing and popular. Disregard for God’s law would finally become the foundation of a popular and successful counterfeit Christianity.
The false prophets devised their message and doctrines by verbally acknowledging Jesus as “Lord” while refusing to obey Him (Luke:6:46). Jesus Himself warned of their deceitful, cunning approach: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew:7:15).
Jesus made it clear that teachers of lawlessness, who outwardly appear as innocent sheep performing devoutly religious acts, are not His apostles or servants: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'” (verses 22-23).
God’s law: the religious battleground
Controversy over God’s law erupted within the Church as soon as the first gentiles were converted. Certain Jewish believers wanted to force circumcision and other physical requirements on the gentiles. They demanded that gentile converts be physically circumcised to receive salvation (Acts:15:1).
In a major conference in Jerusalem, the apostles and elders determined that physical circumcision should not be regarded as a requirement for the gentiles’ salvation (Acts:15:2, 5-10). Peter noted that God had recently given the Holy Spirit to several gentiles without their being circumcised, demonstrating His will in the matter (verse 8; Acts:11:1-4, 15-18).
The same Jews also demanded that gentiles observe the temple ceremonies and rituals, which pointed to greater spiritual realities such as the sacrifice of Christ. The apostles insisted that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for the forgiveness of sins through the grace of God (Hebrews:7:26-27).
The temple sacrifices and rituals were only temporary institutions until the sacrifice of the real “Lamb of God” (John:1:29) and His work in the lives of believers. The apostles taught that they were no longer required (Acts:15:11; Hebrews:9:1-15) because they were “concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews:9:10).
But the apostles never regarded God’s spiritual laws, summarized by the Ten Commandments, as being in the same category with “fleshly ordinances.” They always supported obedience to God’s commandments. Paul made this clear: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians:7:19). He concluded: “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans:3:31).
Distorted view of God’s grace
Just as Jesus had foretold, unscrupulous teachers pounced on the teachings of Paul and the other apostles and twisted their meaning (2 Peter:3:15-16). By distorting the apostles’ words, first about grace and then about those “fleshly ordinances” that are no longer necessary, they discovered a way to excuse their unlawful behavior: “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness [shameful behavior] and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
To them, grace excused sin—the breaking of God’s law—by allowing them to disregard scriptural teachings they did not like. They twisted Paul’s explanation that we cannot earn salvation with our own “works” into an excuse for making no effort to obey God.
Peter pinpointed their real problem. They “despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed. They are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries” (2 Peter:2:10). A dominant characteristic of these deceivers was their eagerness to verbally attack and undermine the apostles and elders who were the true shepherds of God’s flock.
As a consequence, said Peter, “they have forsaken the right way and gone astray…For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption” (verses 15, 18-19).
Now a problem even more sinister developed among the scattered congregations of God’s people. False teachers, instead of trying to impose more law on gentiles, began exploiting God’s mercy—the grace of God—to advocate the idea that Christians have been liberated from the law and no longer need to obey it. However, God says transgressing His law is sin (1 John:3:4).
These teachers misrepresented God’s law as an unnecessary burden. John responded: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John:5:3).
Contrary to the idea of being liberated from law, James calls God’s commandments a “royal law” and the “law of liberty” (James:2:8-12). God designed His law to guarantee freedom from the consequences of such evils as adultery, murder, theft, fraud and covetousness.
It is sin, not God’s law, that enslaves us (Romans:6:6). We become free from the enslavement to sin by obeying God (verse 17). Paul explains that obedience and righteousness are inseparable. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Romans:2:13, NIV).
To better understand the truth about law and grace, send for or download our free book The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God’s Law?
Satan the devil: master deceiver
Scripture reveals that those who promoted these lawless principles were influenced by an unseen spiritual power, Satan the devil. Paul said: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians:11:13-15).
Satan hates God’s law. He is a master deceiver. Naturally, he will spare no effort to infiltrate the Church Christ founded.
To accomplish his purpose, Satan uses people to mislead other people. It is easy for him to influence human beings who desire to teach others when they are motivated by personal ambition. This is especially true if they lack a proper understanding of the Scriptures. Satan simply takes advantage of their desire to be spiritual teachers. He seduces susceptible individuals to pay lip service to Christ while creating their own new sets of beliefs and ignoring or disobeying portions of God’s laws.
Paul told Timothy to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” and have a “pure heart,” “good conscience” and “sincere faith…from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (1 Timothy:1:3, 6-7).
Sincere but misguided religious leaders can and do accept doctrines that in their mind permit them to break some of God’s commandments. Then they persuade others to believe as they do. Sadly, through the devil’s influence, they convince themselves that their misguided concepts are righteous—that God is pleased with them. They believe the false doctrines they teach. Although sincere, they are sincerely mistaken.
Paul says, “The coming of the lawless one [a future teacher who will advocate doctrines contrary to God’s laws] is according to the working of Satan…with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (2 Thessalonians:2:9-11). Probably none of the misguided teachers perceives he is in reality advocating Satan’s point of view.
However, by creating a counterfeit Christian religion—one that is not entirely different from the true Church but rejects some of the essential biblical teachings that lead to eternal life—Satan is attempting to thwart God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. Remember, Jesus says, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew:19:17). That is exactly what the devil wants to prevent. He promotes a lawless Christianity that teaches we can selectively obey—or even ignore—God’s commandments.
Lawlessness in varying degrees is the centerpiece of Satan’s counterfeit doctrines. His purpose is to convince people that they are serving Christ while cutting them off from salvation by clouding their understanding of what sin is so they will continue in sin—so they will practice at least some degree of lawlessness.
To accomplish his purpose, Satan exploits human nature. He sways people to believe his deceptions (1 John:5:19; Revelation:12:9). Satan retains just enough truth in his doctrines to persuade people they are following Christ. But he introduces sufficient error to prevent them from living the way that God requires as a condition for inheriting eternal life.
Why disobedience appeals to human nature
Satan is successful in deceiving humanity for good reason. The apostle Paul explains that the natural mind of man—the mind that is not guided by God’s Spirit—cannot always see the purpose behind God’s laws. “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians:2:14).
Most people are not overtly hostile toward many of God’s laws. They usually recognize that deeds such as murder and theft are wrong. However, they are hostile—perhaps without recognizing their ingrained hostility—toward laws that challenge their own personal, natural way of thinking. In that sense lawlessness appeals to people.
Paul explains why disobedience can appeal to our baser instincts: “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans:8:7). The carnal, or fleshly, mind not only lacks spiritual discernment, it resents God’s authority as expressed in His laws. The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates this verse: “The mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so.”
We call this sinful tendency human nature—a combination of human weakness and acquired attitudes resulting from Satan’s influence on people. Satan exploits human nature. He uses his false teachers to convince other people that they are “liberated” from the laws of God, thus excusing their tendency to be hostile toward God’s laws. So, rather than abandoning a life of lawlessness, those led astray by this deception continue in sin. Thinking their disobedient actions are permissible to God, they fail to recognize, at least in some of their beliefs and behavior, the seriousness of their sinful actions.
But the apostle James makes it clear that this approach and attitude to God’s royal law are entirely wrong: “For whoever shall keep the whole law and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James:2:10). The context shows that James is speaking of the Ten Commandments (verses 8-9, 11). God’s fundamental law is made up of 10 points, and He requires us to observe them all—in letter and spirit.
A falling away from truth begins
Christ praised the church in Ephesus for refusing to follow false apostles who tried to take advantage of their human nature and seduce them: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Revelation:2:2).
But not everyone in every congregation followed the example of the church in Ephesus. Many accepted the teachings of the false apostles and reverted to sinning. That is why Peter wrote: “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter:2:20-21).
People began turning away from the teachings of Christ’s true apostles. They accepted the philosophies of false teachers. Peter had explicitly warned that this would occur. He said false teachers would arise “among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Peter:2:1-2).
Peter anticipated that not just a few—but many—Christians would turn aside from the truth to follow doctrines that were more appealing to the carnal mind. Later John confirms that this is indeed what happened: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John:2:19).
Barnabas and Paul encountered a false prophet determined to turn people away from the truth. “Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus…But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith” (Acts:13:6-8).
On other occasions the problem lay with false brethren (Galatians:2:4). Paul referred to his trials “in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren” (2 Corinthians:11:26).
These false Christians had not become a genuine threat just to Paul’s safety and effectiveness, but they had also become a significant part of the visible Christian community. Some may have finally gone out from God’s special people but continued calling themselves Christian. Others became members of new and supposedly liberated sects that retained the name Christian. Still others probably remained in the fellowship of true believers and over time subverted congregations to their own heretical teachings.
A false Christianity was beginning to take a firm hold.
True Christians forced out of congregations
As the teachings of false ministers gained in popularity, their followers gradually grew to be the majority in some congregations. The apostle John records one such tragic example: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (3 John 9-10).
Incredible as it sounds, those who were faithful to the teaching of the apostles were expelled from this congregation! They had become the minority. The majority had chosen to follow Diotrephes, who, in his own lust for power and influence, falsely accused the apostle John. Satan had succeeded in placing his minister over this congregation, expelling the faithful servants of Jesus Christ.
Remember, Jesus had already warned His true servants that this would happen: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew:7:13-15).
He also said, as earlier quoted: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mark:7:6-8, NIV).
Now we can understand why Paul explained to Christians in Rome the appropriate response to those who were stirring up division within the Church: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Romans:16:17, NIV).
Counterfeit Christianity become dominant
By the end of the third century the true servants of God had become a distinct minority among those who called themselves Christians. The counterfeit Christianity had become the majority.
False teachers had successfully gained a far larger following than the faithful ministers of God. However, history shows the counterfeit sects were not united in their beliefs. Many factions existed among them.
Nevertheless, divided and unconverted as it was, this new brand of Christianity rapidly expanded its membership and became the visible Christian church. Claiming to offer salvation, but without the necessity of real repentance, it held just enough truth to appeal to the masses.
In spite of its faults, it appeared to offer a hope unequaled by any pagan religion at that time. None of the pagan religions offered a believable way for people to receive forgiveness of sins and obtain eternal life. This new religion seemed to offer just that. Little did its followers realize that its promises, without real repentance, were made in vain.
By the end of the third century this counterfeit Christianity was a squabbling, bitterly divided religion. But at the beginning of the fourth century two things happened that abruptly altered the course of Christian history. First, the Roman emperor Diocletian intensified the policy of many previous Roman emperors of persecuting Christians and ordered that all Christian manuscripts be burned. This dramatically renewed a climate of fear throughout the Christian community.
Ten years later another emperor, Constantine, came to power. He had defeated another powerful contender for the right to replace Diocletian as emperor, but he still had many enemies, and his political position remained insecure. In all the empire, only Christians were unaligned politically. Constantine immediately saw an opportunity to use this formerly persecuted and politically alienated religious body to strengthen his hold on the empire.
First he legalized Christianity. Then, only two years later, he called all the divided professing Christian groups together to hammer out a unified system of belief. He wanted a united religious body that was politically committed to him.
To achieve this, Constantine presided over doctrinal deliberations and dictated statements of belief whenever disagreements could not be resolved amicably. He soon successfully molded the bickering groups of counterfeit Christians who were willing to accept state control into a strong and unified vassal of the Roman Empire.
Williston Walker, former professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale University, tells us that, in the year 323, “Constantine was at last the sole ruler of the Roman world. The church was everywhere free from persecution . . . But, in winning its freedom from its enemies, it had come largely under the control of the occupant of the Roman imperial throne. A fateful union with the state had begun” (A History of the Christian Church, 1946, p. 111).
A religion transformed through syncretism
As this new religion—now supported by the Roman emperors—grew in power and influence, it sought to become a truly universal church. In its ambition to add more members, many new converts—and many new practices—were welcomed into its fold.
Charles Guignebert, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Paris, described the process: “Now at the beginning of the fifth century, the ignorant and the semi-Christians thronged into the Church in numbers…They had forgotten none of their pagan customs . . . The bishops of that period had to content themselves with redressing, as best they could, and in experimental fashion, the shocking malformations of the Christian faith which they perceived around them…
“[Properly instructing converts] was out of the question; they had to be content with teaching them no more than the symbol of baptism and then baptizing them en masse, postponing until a later date the task of eradicating their superstitions, which they preserved intact…This ‘later date’ never arrived, and the Church adapted to herself, as well as she could, them and their customs and beliefs. On their side, they were content to dress up their paganism in a Christian cloak” (The Early History of Christianity, 1927, pp. 208-210).
What was the result? This state-dominated Christianity became a bizarre synthesis of beliefs, practices and customs from many sources.
As Professor Guignebert explained, “It is sometimes very difficult to tell exactly from which pagan rite a particular Christian rite is derived, but it remains certain that the spirit of pagan ritualism became impressed upon Christianity, to such an extent that at last the whole of it might be found distributed through its ceremonies” (p. 121).
In those early centuries the counterfeit Christianity that the apostles of Jesus Christ had fought so hard to contain grew in size and popularity. In later centuries this religion would fragment repeatedly into competing denominations. Tragically, however, none completely returned to the original practices and teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles. This fact is recognized by many modern biblical scholars.
Meanwhile, those who through these many centuries have faithfully continued to yield their lives to God in sincere obedience to His laws are still, comparatively speaking, only a “little flock” in a confused world.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
The Fruitless Vine
C. H. SPURGEON
“And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, What is the vine-tree more than any tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest?”—Ezekiel 15:1-2.
The Jewish nation had arrogant ideas of themselves; when they sinned against God, they supposed that on account of the superior sanctity of their forefathers, or by reason of some special sanctity in themselves, they would be delivered, sin as they pleased. In consequence of the infinite mercy of Jehovah, which he had displayed toward them, in delivering them our of so many distresses, they gradually came to imagine that they were the favorite children of Providence, and that God could by no means ever cast them away. God, therefore, in order to humble their pride, tells them that they in themselves were nothing more than any other nation; and he asks them what there was about them to recommend them? “I have often called you a vine; I have planted you, and nurtured you in a very fruitful hill, but now you bring forth no fruit; what is there in you why I should continue you in my favor? If you imagine there is any thing about you more than about any other nation, you are mightily mistaken.” “What is the vine-tree more than any tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest?”
Let us remember that these things might be said without implying that God in the least degree alters his eternal purpose toward any chosen vessel of mercy; for the Israelitish nation was not chosen to eternal salvation, as a nation, but chosen to special privileges; a type and shadow of that eternal personal election which Christ has given to his church. From his own elect church God will never withdraw his love; but from the outward and visible church he sometimes may. From his own people he never will take away his affection, but from professors, from those who merely stand in his people’s external condition, and are not his children, he may, yea and he will, withdraw every token of his favor. God humbles Israel, by reminding them that they had nothing which other nations had not; that, in fact, they were a contemptible nation, not worthy to be set side by side with the cedar of Babylon, or with the oak of Samaria; they were of no use, they were worthless, unless they brought forth fruit to him. He checks their pride and humbles them, with the parable we have here before us.
Beloved, we shall, by God’s help, use this parable for ourselves, and learn two lessons from it. The first shall be a lesson of humility for saints; and the second, a lesson of searching for all who are professors.
I. First, here is A LESSON OF HUMILITY for all you who have “tasted that the Lord is gracious.” “What is the vine-tree more than any tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest?”
In looking upon all the various trees, we observe that the vine is distinguished among them; so that, in the old parable of Jotham, the trees waited upon the vine-tree, and said unto it, “Come thou and reign over us.” But merely looking at the vine, without regard to its fruitfulness, we should not see any kingship in it over other trees. In size, form, beauty, or utility, it has not the slightest advantage. We can do nothing with the wood of the vine. Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will men make a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon?” It is a useless plant apart from its fruitfulness. We sometimes see it in beauty, trained up by the side of our walls, and in the East it might be seen in all its luxuriance, and great care is bestowed in its training; but leave the vine to itself, and consider it apart from its fruitfulness, it is the most insignificant and despicable of all things that bear the name of trees. Now, beloved, this is for the humbling of God’s people. They are called God’s vine; but what are they by nature more than others? Others are as good as they; yea, some others are even greater and better than they. They, by God’s goodness, have become fruitful, have been planted in a good soil; the Lord hath trained them upon the walls of the sanctuary, and they bring forth fruit to his glory. But what are they without their God? What are they without the continual influence of the Spirit, begetting fruitfulness in them? Are they not the least among the sons of men, and the most to be despised of those that have been brought forth of women? Look upon this, believer.
Or give the Creator delight?”
II. But now here comes A LESSON OF SEARCH. As the vine without its fruit is useless and worthless; so, too, the professor, without fruit, is useless and worthless; yea, he is the most useless thing in the wide world.
Now, let us dwell upon this point. A fruitless profession. And while I am preaching on it, let the words go round to each one, and let the minister, and let his deacons, and let his hearers all try their hearts and search their reins, and see whether they have a fruitless profession.
1. First, a fruitless professor. How do we know him? what is his character? Secondly, What is the reason he is fruitless? Thirdly, What is the estimation God holds him in? He is good for nothing at all. And, then, fourthly, What will be his end? He is to be burned with fire.
First, Where are we to find fruitless professors? Everywhere, dear friends, everywhere—down here, up there, everywhere; in pulpits and in pews. False professors are to be found in every church. Let us leave other denominations alone, then. They are to be found in this church; they are to be found in this present assembly. to whatever denomination you belong, there are some false and fruitless professors in it. How know you that you may not belong to those who bring forth no fruit? There are fruitless professors to be found in every position of the church, and in every part of society. You may find the false professor among the rich; he hath much wealth, and he is hailed with gladness by the church. God hath given him much of this world’s good; and therefore, the church, forgetful that God hath chosen the poor, giveth him honor, and what doth she get from him? She getteth but little to help her. Her poor are still neglected, and her means not in the least recruited by his riches. Or if she gain a portion of his riches, yet she getteth none of his prayers; nor is she in the least supported by his holy living, for he that hath riches often liveth in sin, and rolleth in uncleanness; and, then, weareth his profession as a uniform, wherewith to cover his guilt. Rich men have sometimes been false professors; and thy are to be found among poor men too. Full many a poor man has entered into the church, and been cordially received. He has been poor, and they have thought it a good thing that poverty and grace should go together—that grace should cheer his hovel, and make his poverty-stricken home a glad one. But then, this poor man hath turned aside to follies, and hath degraded himself with drunkenness, hath sworn, and by unworthy conduct dishonored his God; or, if not, he hath been idle, and sat still, and been of little service to the church; and so he hath been false and fruitless in his profession.
False professors are to be found in the men that lead the vanguard of God’s army; the men who preach eloquently, whose opinion is law, who speak like prophets, and whose language seems to be inspired. They have brought forth the fruit of popularity, ay, and the fruit of philanthropy too, but their heart has not been right with God, therefore, the fruit, good in itself, was not fruit unto holiness; the moral benefit of their labors does not extend to everlasting life. They have not brought forth the fruits of the Spirit, seeing that they were not living branches of the living vine. Then there have been false professors in obscurity; modest people, who have said nothing, and seldom been heard of; they have glided into their pews on the Sunday morning, taken their seats, gone out, and satisfied themselves that by their presence they had fulfilled a religious duty. They have been so silent, quiet, and retired. Lazy fellows, doing nothing. You may think that all the fruitless trees grow in the hedge outside of the garden. No they don’t. There are some fruitless trees in the inside of it in the very center of it. There are some fruitless trees in the inside of it in the very center of it. There are some false professors to be found in obscurity as well as in publicity; some among the poor as well as among the rich.
And there are false professors to be found among men that doubt a great deal. They are always afraid they do not love Jesus, and always saying, “Ah, if I did but know I were his!—
Oft it causes anxious thought.”
Simply to thy cross I cling;”
For remember that these bad beginnings have had a great effect in making a man fruitless.