An Apostle's Fears
Perhaps no servant of Christ has left such a mark for good on the world as the apostle Paul. When he was born the whole Roman Empire, excepting one little corner, was sunk in the darkest idolatry; when he died the mighty fabric of heathenism had been shaken to its very centre, and was ready to fall. None of the agents whom God used to produce this marvellous change did more than Saul of Tarsus after his conversion. Yet even in the midst of these successes we find him crying out “I fear” (2 Cor. 11: 3).
There is a melancholy ring about these words which demands our attention. They show a man of many cares and anxieties. He who supposes Paul lived a life of ease because he was a chosen apostle, performed miracles, founded assemblies, and wrote inspired epistles, has much to learn. Nothing can be further from the truth. The eleventh chapter of the second epistle to the Corinthians tells a very different tale. It is a chapter that deserves attentive study. Partly from the opposition of the heathen philosophers and priests whose craft was in danger, partly from the bitter enmity of his own unbelieving countrymen, partly from false or weak brethren, and partly from his own thorn in the flesh, the great apostle of the Gentiles was like his Master––“a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53: 3).
Of all the burdens which Paul had to carry, none seemed to have weighed him down so much as “the care of all the churches” (2 Cor. 11: 28 AV). The scanty knowledge of many primitive Christians, their weak faith, their shallow experience, their dim hope, their low standard of holiness––all these things made them particularly liable to be led astray by false teachers, and to depart from the faith. Like little children, hardly able to walk, they needed to be treated with immense patience. Like exotics in a hothouse, they had to be watched with incessant care. Can we doubt that they kept their apostolic founder in a state of constant, tender anxiety? Can we wonder that he says to the Colossians, “what combat I have for you”, and to the Galatians “I wonder that ye thus quickly change, from him that called you in Christ’s grace, to a different gospel…O senseless Galatians, who has bewitched you...?” (Col. 2: 1; Gal. 1: 6; 3: 1)? No attentive reader can study the epistles without seeing this subject repeatedly cropping up. The text before us is but a sample of what I mean: “I fear lest by any means, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craft, [so] your thoughts should be corrupted from simplicity as to the Christ” (2 Cor. 11: 3). This passage contains three important lessons which I wish to press on the attention of all my readers. I believe in my conscience that they are lessons for the times.
First, the text shows us a spiritual disease to which we are all liable, and which we ought to fear. That disease is corruption of our thoughts.
Second, the text shows us an example which we ought to remember, as a beacon––“the serpent deceived Eve by his craft”.
Third, the text shows us a point about which we ought especially to be on our guard. That point is corruption from the “simplicity as to the Christ”.
The passage is a deep mine, and is not without difficulty, but let us go down into it boldly, and we shall find that it contains much precious metal.
Firstly then, there is a spiritual disease which we all ought to fear––corruption of our thoughts. I take this to mean injury to our minds by the reception of false and unscriptural doctrines. Paul is saying that he feared lest the minds of the saints should imbibe erroneous and unsound views of Christianity. He feared lest they should take up, as truths, principles which are not the truth. He feared lest they should depart from the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and embrace views which were practically destructive of the Gospel of Christ.
The fear expressed by the apostle is painfully instructive, and at first sight may create surprise. Who would have though that under the eyes of Christ’s chosen apostles––while the memory of Calvary was still fresh, and the age of miracles had not quite passed away––who would have thought that in a day like that there was any danger of Christians departing from the faith? Yet nothing is more certain than that “the mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2: 7) had begun to work before the apostles were dead. “Even now” says John “there have come many antichrists, whence we know that it is [the] last hour” (1 John 2: 18). Indeed, no fact in Church history is more clearly proved than that for twenty centuries, false doctrine has been the debilitating plague of that which claims the name of Christ. Looking forward with the eye of a prophet, Paul might well say “I fear”––not merely the corruption of your morals, bad as that is––but corruption of “your thoughts” (2 Cor. 11: 3).
The plain truth is that false doctrine has been the chosen engine which Satan has employed in every age to stop the progress of the Gospel of Christ. Finding himself unable to prevent the Fountain of Life being opened, he has laboured incessantly to poison the streams which flow from it. If he could not destroy, he has too often neutralised it by addition, subtraction or substitution. In a word he has “corrupted” men’s thoughts.
False doctrine in our day is eating out the heart of the professing church. What was sacrosanct yesterday is today openly questioned. The heterodoxies of former years are now welcomed by the ever–widening arms of “orthodoxy”. On every hand things are slipping and sliding. In the face of facts such as these, we may well lay to heart the words of the apostle. Like him we have abundant cause to feel afraid. Never, I think, was there such a need for Christians to stand on their guard. “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for war?” (1 Cor. 14: 8).
I charge every member of the Church of God to open his eyes to the peril. Controversy is an odious thing, but there are days when it is a positive duty. Peace is a great possession but, like gold, it may be bought too dear. Unity is a mighty blessing, but it is worthless if it is purchased at the cost of truth. Once more I say, Open your eyes and be on your guard. The nation that rests satisfied with its commercial prosperity, and neglects its national defences, is likely to become a prey to the first Napoleon who chooses to attack it. In spiritual things how easy it is to become complacent, and to flatter ourselves that we will not be touched by evil––to say, in effect, we “have need of nothing” (Rev. 3: 17)! The church that is careless about doctrine is careless about its future. I vehemently protest against that spirit of slumber which seems to seal the eyes of many a Christian, and to blind them to the enormous peril in which we are placed by the rise and progress of false doctrine in these days. How I abhor the common notion so often proclaimed by men in high places that unity is of more importance than sound doctrine, and peace more valuable than truth. Our noble forbears bought the truth at the price of their own blood, and handed it down to us. Let us take heed that we do not sell it for a mess of pottage, under the specious name of unity and peace. Never forget Paul’s charge: “Be vigilant; stand fast in the faith; quit yourselves like men; be strong” (1 Cor. 16: 13).
The second thing I wish to bring before you is an example we do well to remember: “as the serpent deceived Eve by his craft” (2 Cor. 11: 3). The point here is the “craft” by which the Devil led Eve into sin. He did not tell her that he wished to deceive her and do her harm. Oh no, on the contrary he persuaded her to believe that to depart from God’s plain command was for her advantage. Now this “craft”, Paul tells us, is precisely what we have to fear in false doctrine. We are not to expect it to approach our minds in the garment of error, but in the form of truth. Counterfeit money would never obtain currency if it had not some likeness to good. Satan is far too wise a general to manage a campaign in such a fashion as this. He employs fine words in order that evil doctrines may find a lodging in unwary minds. We are to “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but within are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7: 15).
I ask your special attention to this point. Such is the simplicity and innocence of many Christians today that they actually expect false doctrine to look false, and do not understand that the very essence of its mischievousness is its resemblance to God’s truth. A young believer, for example, brought up from his cradle to hear sound doctrine, is invited someday to hear a preacher in another place whom his own company regard as defective. He goes to the preaching, expecting in his simplicity to hear nothing but error from beginning to end. To his amazement he hears an eloquent, powerful sermon, containing a vast amount of truth, and only a few, scarcely noticed, drops of error. Too often a violent reaction takes place in his simple, unsuspicious mind, and he begins to think his former mentors as narrow–minded and uncharitable, and his confidence in them is shaken, perhaps forever. In many a case, it ends with his enrolment in the ranks of the followers of error. As the serpent deceived Eve by his craft, so Satan beguiles unwary souls in the twenty–first century by approaching them under the garb of truth.
I beseech every reader of this article to be on his guard. The false teacher may give all the appearance of being so good, devoted, kind, zealous, humble, self–denying, charitable, earnest, fervent and sincere, that it may be difficult for the unsuspecting to imagine him to be unsound. How easy it is to point to the evident truth that is proclaimed and be blind to the unobtrusive falsehoods in the message. We ought not to expect the false teacher to be an open vendor of poison––he will often appear as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11: 14). Some believers are so liberal in their outlook as to give the impression they would sit under anyone so long as he fell within today’s broad definition of “Christian”. It is almost as if Peter got it wrong when he prophesied that “there shall be also among you false teachers, who shall bring in by the bye destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2: 1). Among you! Not in the world, but in the company of the saints. Never was it so needful to remember those words “the serpent deceived Eve by his craft” (2 Cor. 11: 3). We have fallen upon times when suspicion of doctrine is not only a duty but a virtue. It is not the avowed Pharisee or Sadducee that we have to fear, but the leaven of such (Matt. 16: 6)––that evil which is insidious in character. He that would be safe must cultivate the spirit of a sentinel at a critical post.
The third and last lesson of the text remains yet to be considered. It shows us a point about which we ought to be vigorously on our guard. That point is called “simplicity as to the Christ” (2 Cor. 11: 3). In the apostle’s day, even some at Ephesus had let go this principle, as Paul’s words to Timothy show: “that thou mightest enjoin some not to teach other doctrines, nor to turn their minds to fables and interminable genealogies, which bring questionings rather than [further] God’s dispensation, which [is] in faith” (1 Tim. 1: 3, 4). We want the simple truth as it is in Jesus (see Eph. 4: 21)––nothing added, nothing taken away. If people have to enter into a long course of argument in order to support a system which they are trying to foist on the saints of God, then we may be sure it is not the truth of God. Truth lies on the surface of Scripture; man’s substitute for it leaves us “always learning, and never able to come to [the] knowledge of [the] truth” (2 Tim. 3: 7). We are to be jealously on our guard lest we depart from and corrupt the simple faith which was once delivered to the saints. Christians must endeavour to adhere rigidly to Scripture in every jot, tittle and particular, and test everything by it (Acts 17: 11).
If we are to be kept from falling into false doctrine, we must arm our minds with a thorough knowledge of God’s Word. Ignorance of the Bible is the root of many an error, and a superficial acquaintance with it accounts for many of the sad perversions and defections of the present day. In a hurrying age of aeroplanes and computers, high–speed trains and telephones, I am firmly persuaded that many saints do not give enough time to private reading of the Scriptures. The consequence is that they are “tossed and carried about by every wind of that teaching [which is] in the sleight of men” (Eph. 4: 14). Familiarity with the text of the Bible, as our Lord proved in temptation, (Matt. 4: 4, 7, 10) is one of the best safeguards against error. Arm yourself then with “the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word” (Eph. 6: 17) and let your hand become used to it. I am well aware that there is no easy road to Bible knowledge. Without diligence and pains no one ever becomes “mighty in the scriptures” (Acts 18: 24). As someone once said “Justification is by faith, but knowledge of the Bible comes by works”. Yet one thing is certain––there is no labour which will be so richly repaid as regular, daily study of the “sacred letters” (2 Tim 3: 15). The mind that is saturated with Scripture will not be easily corrupted from “simplicity as to the Christ” or deceived by Satan’s “craft”. Let us not be like those of whom the apostle could write: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have again need that [one] should teach you what [are] the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5: 12).