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The Distinguishing Marks of False Teachers
by Thomas Brooks
Satan labors with all his strength by false teachers, which are his messengers and ambassadors, to deceive, delude and forever destroy the precious souls of men. The prophet Jeremiah declared, "And I have seen folly in the prophets of Samaria: They prophesied by Baal and caused My people Israel to err" (Jeremiah 23:13). And through the prophet Micah, the Lord Himself complained, "The prophets make My people stray" (Micah 3:5a) . They seduce them, and carry them out of the right way into by-paths and blind thickets of error, blasphemy and wickedness, where they are lost forever.
Jesus Himself warned, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15). These scoundrels lick and suck the blood of souls, "Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers... (Phil. 3:2). These evil men kiss and kill; they cry, "Peace, peace" until souls fall into everlasting flames (see Proverbs 7) Now the best way to deliver poor souls from being deluded and destroyed by these messengers of Satan is to display them in their true colors, so that being known poor souls may shun them, and flee from them as from hell itself. Now you may know a false teacher by the following distinguishing marks:
1) The first distinguishing mark is that they are men-pleasers.
They preach more to please the ear than to profit the heart. Isaiah thus described the longing of God's rebellious people, "Who say to the seers, 'See not,' and to the prophets, 'Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits'" (Isa. 30:10). And again the Lord complained through Jeremiah in these words: "An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?" (Jer. 5:30,31). These men handle holy things rather with wit and entertainment than with godly fear and reverence. False teachers are soul-destroyers. They are like evil surgeons, that skin over the wound, but never heal it. Flattery destroyed Ahab and Herod, Nero and Alexander. False teachers are hell's great enrichers. It is not bitter, but flattering words which do all the mischief, said Valerian, the Roman emperor. Such smooth teachers are sweet soul-poisoners (Jeremiah 23:16,17).
2) The second distinguishing mark of false teachers is that they are notable for casting dirt, scorn and reproach upon the person, names and credits of Christ's most faithful ambassadors.
Thus Korah, Dathan and Abiram charged Moses and Aaron that they took too much upon themselves, seeing all the congregation was holy (Numbers 16:3). "You take", they said, "too much state, too much power, too much honor, too much holiness on you; for what are you more than others, that you take so much upon you?" And likewise Ahab's false prophets fell upon good Micaiah, paying him with fits and fists instead of a reasonable reply (see 1 Kings 22:10-26). Yes, even Paul, that great apostle of the Gentiles, had his ministry undermined and his reputation blasted by false teachers: "For his letters," they say, "are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible" (2 Cor. 10:10).
They rather despise him than admire him; they look upon him as a dunce rather than a doctor. And indeed, the same harsh treatment had our Lord Jesus from the scribes and Pharisees, who labored as if their life depended on it, to construct their own esteem upon the ruins of His reputation. And never did the devil have a more prosperous business in this way than he does in these days (Matthew 27:63). Oh, the dirt, the filth, the scorn that is thrown upon those of whom the world is not worthy! I suppose false teachers fail to consider that saying of Augustine, "He that willingly takes from my good name, unwillingly adds to my reward."
3) The third distinguishing mark of false teachers is that they spew out the devices and visions of their own heads and hearts.
"Then the Lord said to me, 'The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart'" (Jer. 14:14). "Thus says the Lord of hosts: 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord'" (Jer. 23:16). Are there not multitudes in this nation whose visions are but golden delusions, lying vanities, brain-sick fantasies? These are presently Satan's great benefactors, but one day divine justice will hang them up in hell as the greatest malefactors, unless the Physician of souls graciously delivers them.
4) The fourth distinguishing mark of false teachers is that they easily pass over the great and weighty things both of the law and the gospel, and dwell mostly upon those things that are of the least importance and concern to the souls of men.
Thus Paul warned Timothy: "Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from 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 1:5-7). And our Lord rebuked the Pharisees: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith.
These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23). False teachers are meticulous in the lesser things of the law, and quite negligent in the greater! Once more the Apostle Paul spoke strong words to Timothy when he said: "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself" (1 Tim. 6:3-5). If such teachers are not genuine hypocrites, I know nothing (Romans 2:21,22). The earth groans to bear such wicked men, and hell is fitted for them.
5) The fifth distinguishing mark of false teachers is that they cleverly disguise their dangerous principles and soul-deceiving notions with very attractive speeches and golden expressions.
Many in these days are bewitched and deceived by the magnificent words, lofty strains and stately terms of deceivers, such as illumination, revelation and deification. As harlots paint their faces and adorn and perfume their beds, the better to allure and deceive simple souls, so false teachers will put a great deal of paint and garnish upon their most dangerous principles and blasphemies, in order that they may better deceive and delude poor ignorant souls. They know that sugared poison goes down sweetly; they wrap up their pernicious, soul-killing pills in gold.
In the days of Hadrian the emperor, there was a man Ben-Cosbi who gathered a multitude of Jews together, and called himself Bencocuba, the son of a star, applying the promise of Numbers 24:17 to himself; but he proved to be Bar-chosaba, the son of a lie. And so will all false teachers, for all their lofty expressions will prove at last to be the sons of lies.
6) The sixth distinguishing mark of false teachers is that they strive more earnestly to win men over to their opinions, than to improve their behavior.
The Lord Jesus again spoke with great soberness when He said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" (Matt. 23:15). They busy themselves most about men's heads. Their work is not to better men's hearts, and mend their lives; and in this they are very much like their father the devil, who will spare no pains to gain converts.
7) The seventh distinguishing mark of false teachers is that they exploit their followers through covetousness.
The Apostle Peter, nearing his own death (see 2 Peter 1:12-15), warned his followers: "But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers 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. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber" (2 Peter 2:1-3).
They eye your goods more than your good; and care more for the serving of themselves, than the saving of your souls. So long as they have your possessions, they care not though Satan possess your souls (Revelation 18:11-13). In order that they may better pick your pocket, they will hold forth such principles as are very indulgent to the flesh. False teachers are the great worshippers of the golden calf, as the Lord declares: "Because from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even to the priest, everyone deals falsely" (Jer. 6:13) .
Crates threw his money into the sea, resolving to drown it, lest it should drown him. But false teachers care not who they drown, so long as they may have their money.
Now, by these seven distinguishing marks you may know false teachers, shun them and so deliver your souls out of their dangerous snares. And that you may, my prayers shall meet yours at the throne of grace.