It is something of a paradox.
You can only see deception before you get into it. Once you are there, deception makes it almost impossible to know whether you are deceived. In fact, one of the hallmarks of being deceived is the conviction that you couldn’t possibly be deceived. It is always possible. Moreover, false teachers are mentioned in the New Testament by everyone including Jesus.
You need discernment, and discernment comes from the Holy Spirit. Even though some more mature Christians could tell from the outset that somebody is preaching or practicing error just from their own experience. Sometimes it is hard even for them to tell the difference between false and true. That is why you need God himself to give you the ability to tell the difference. If you fall into the sin of pride and believe that it is not possible for you to be deceived because of all your experience, you are then in the greatest danger of deception because you are deceived already. Nobody is immune.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon has famously said “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right”.
And as anyone who has had to try and tell a fake from the original would know, most counterfeiters will go to great lengths to make their version appear true to form. They always manage to make some tiny mistake which tells you that this is not the genuine article however insignificant it may seem at first. Of course some scam artists are not that concerned with making perfect forgeries. They are aware that the general public aren’t looking too closely at that designer handbag or expensive perfume. They make it look almost correct and that is usually good enough. Fortunately, or not, false teachers are not that good at faking it any more either. They don’t need to be. Most Christians don’t bother to check the labels on their new pastor or their exciting guest speaker, they just go with the flow.
In order not to be deceived, you have to be on the lookout for deception. Jesus told us that in the last days, there would be many false teachers and He even said that there would be many false Christs.
Now there are those who claim to be Jesus, but most genuine believes would of course recognise these men as insane straight away. The ones to look out for would come in His name, and we know for sure that many false teachers claim to be believers. Yet the Christ they claim to be or rather teach is a false Christ, for of course there is only one second advent and that hasn’t happened yet.
We have been deceived before. We belonged to a small church in Brisbane whose elders listened to false teaching without their theological thinking caps on. The message was about unity. So they were deceived even further when a religious cult which also preached unity wanted our church to join them. However, this cult’s version of ‘unity’ was – they were the true church in our city, everyone else had to come and join them, moreover, everyone had to come under the leadership of their ‘apostles’. Well, you know you are in a cult when you are flattered, cajoled and deceived into joining a group, but as soon as you do the knives come out. Everyone who has left this cult has done so under duress. Anyone who leaves it according to them is now going to hell, because they are leaving the true church.
While you are being deceived, it doesn’t seem like deception. When you are in the midst of the deception you can’t know that you are deceived because you would swear black and blue that you are not. Have you ever had a conversation with a cult member? Maybe a Jehovah’s Witness is at your door and you mistakenly think all you need to do is show them the truth from scripture and they will see the light? It isn’t easy to talk to them, they are literally brainwashed. Their minds run a particular course, they are taught how to respond to the people they ‘witness’ to. It is like talking to computer software. They only know one type of response, the one they are programmed with. Cults are an extreme example, but in fact the problem is the same regardless of whether people are in a cult or not. Deception creates people who repeat what they are told.
In fact, one of the best ways you can tell if somebody, or a group of somebody’s are deceived is if they keep quoting their favourite teacher, take any and every opportunity to spruik that teacher’s words, and in fact keep using the same language that their teacher uses. One group I can think of off hand that we had to deal with kept using the term ‘Father’ instead of our Father when referring to God. “Father says this, or Father wants me to do that”. This may not seem to be that much of a sign people are deceived, but it is the way they say it, the number of times they say it and the fact that everyone is using the same terms without picking up that they are simply repeating somebody else. In short, there is no sign of independence of thought, simply a reiteration of the teacher or teachers.
It is only people who can question what they believe and weigh the evidence who know they are not deceived. A deceived person, in my experience, neither knows nor is able to question the deception. When we were presented with the foregone conclusion that our church was going to join this other larger cult church, half of our congregation refused to join and left. The rest of us, who were mostly in our twenties with not much experience of churches in general other than the one we belonged to, trusted our pastors and let them lead us into a destructive and deceiving cult. We realise now of course if we had not been so lazy about our walk with Jesus, nor so trusting of men, we would have stopped and checked things out. But let me just say this. If you follow men, you won’t bother checking them when they fall into error. You will believe that these teachers love you and wouldn’t willingly lead you into false teaching. But if they themselves are deceived, and they then lead you into deception, it will be the blind leading the blind and we did fall into a very deep ditch.
The antidote to this is not to follow men, but to be in Christ. That way, when error comes, and it will, the Holy Spirit will be able to speak to your spirit and warn you that something is not right. You don’t even need to be a theologian, just awake to the voice of your Lord and God, the true Jesus.
Now, this is a tricky business. Paul called false teachers twice accursed, and he asked the Galatians ‘who has bewitched you’. (Galatians 1) Deception is like being under a spell.
Look at Eve in Genesis 3. It was only after God spoke to her and asked her what had happened that the spell was broken and she was able to say “I was deceived”. Nobody who is actually within the spell of the deception is able to see that. Eve sinned and partook of the punishment that was meted out to both Adam and herself, but she was able to recognise the source of the lie. Adam however is not recorded as ever having recognised Satan as the deceiver. He actually blamed God for giving him the woman who gave him the fruit. In fact, he, the keeper of the garden, allowed Satan to get in in the first place, stood idly by while his wife was being manipulated and then took the fruit which he was told not to take. And for centuries Eve and subsequently all women, have been made the source of all temptation and evil by both unbelievers and believers. Manifestly, Satan is the source of all evil, and deception. Yet Eve was called ‘the mother of all living’. It was also Eve who was the first to announce that God was her ‘Lord’ when she gave birth to Cain. I think those who have woken up from deception, repented of it and dealt with the sin of pride which precedes deceptions are probably in the best position to recognise error in the future.
I say pride is the source of deception because Satan himself, who was the greatest of all living creatures God had made at that point, decided it wasn’t enough just to lead the worship of God, he wanted to be like God and sit in the place of God. This of course is not just pride, it is insanity or psychopathy at the very least. It seems impossible to us as earthbound humans from whose eyes God is hidden that Satan who stood before the throne of God would actually think that he could be God himself. I don’t know what went on in his brain, but I do know that ever after this, he has tempted human beings to do what he did. He deceived Eve into believing that God had not given her everything she could ever need. Eve was perfect! She had a perfect relationship with God! As Satan used to. Yet he convinced her that the fruit of this tree would ‘make you wise’ knowing good and evil. Eve forgot that she was already perfectly wise, she knew God what else was there to know? Satan’s knowledge is corrupt, gives death not life, and is in fact not knowledge at all, it is a corruption of the truth, and is in fact all lies. There is no knowledge that Satan has which is not a counterfeit of God’s eternal truth. It may seem novel and exciting when men sell everything they have to attain it, but for centuries all Satan has done is lure men to their deaths, simply because that is his nature. He is profane, wicked, evil and sadistic and hates all life.
If we succumb to lies, to deception which lies are, then we will taste something of Satan’s kingdom. Make no mistake, deception, theological error, false teachers, are cursed simply because they are undermining the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are presenting a false Christ, and therefore they are leading others from the true Jesus of Scripture.
How do you know if you are deceived? If you can’t question what you believe, check it out against the Bible, do some research and look at your leaders and teachers and see if these men have been accused of heresy by other Christians, then you are probably under deception. If you have already checked out what is being taught to you against scripture and know for sure that you can defend what you believe sincerely and without hostility there is a good chance you are not deceived.
But even I can’t tell you that you are not deceived. Only the Holy Spirit can show you. Our hearts are deceitfully wicked and can lead us into error even in our own minds. We can believe we are without sin, but only God can show us that to be true, because only God is perfect. This is why it is so important for us to continually pray, commune with God, read His word and even listen to others when they tell you might be wrong. There is nothing wrong with having a conviction of truth, in fact we are told not to be double-minded. There are many Christians who at one time or another have listened to or believed falsehoods. It is the Christian who follows the teaching and practice of liars and frauds and then defends that teaching without checking to see if it is true who are deceived to the point of deadly error. If these ones don’t change their ways, they will be counted as wicked as the teachers they agree with.
It is a serious thing to fall into error, but it is not the end of your spiritual life. We know in our own lives that the Holy Spirit continually spoke quietly to us that all was not well. Our cult leaders were destroying peoples marriages, controlling people’s lives and telling everyone if they didn’t obey them they were not saved. It isn’t rocket science. Anyone could have told us that we were in a bad place. But we didn’t see it. Scripture tells us that you are a slave to the one whom you obey. Once you are a slave, you have to wait for Jesus to free you from the prison you have locked yourself into. I still remember praying that prayer, very simple, but from the heart one day in my bedroom. “God deliver us”. I knew straight away that God had heard that prayer. I knew something was wrong and woke up much faster than Steve did. Within two years, God had engineered our circumstances so that they were so bad, so difficult that Steve was forced to admit that we were surrounded by enemies, and that we needed to escape. It took 15 years all up. And then a couple of years after that of dabbling in emerging church error and other bad theology before the Holy Spirit taught us to stand on our own two feet and do our own bible studies and research and find out what is the difference between right and almost right.
God can save anyone, and the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Do not give up on anyone in a cult. But don’t be deceived yourself. False teachers, especially false teachers who have been plying their trades for decades and destroyed many other Christians will have to pay for their sins. If they don’t repent, they will go to hell. For these ones are not saved. It is doubtful they were even saved to begin with. There are many who profess to be Christians, who even know exactly how to preach the truth, or what sounds exactly like the truth, yet who are not in the body of Christ. Pray for discernment, use wisdom and do your research.
May God keep us all from deception and false teachers.