The 17th century minister and Scotsman, Alexander Nisbet said, “the most dangerous heretics have many followers; every error they introduce turns out to be a friend to some lust in the heart of man.”
Case in point: Several years ago, a friend of mine discovered his pastor had committed adultery with a woman in their church. In this fiercely independent church, which had no ecclesial oversight except the three men who ran things, the pastor did not step down. Instead, he developed a very elaborate doctrine of discretion and gossip enforced by his devoted henchmen.
If anyone wished to talk about his adultery, they were shut down with chapter and verse from the Bible about gossip. The pastor convinced most in the church it was a sin to speak of the issue. He convinced my friend.
Voilà! A new teaching is found that befriends a man’s lust to power and paycheck, not to mention his lust for illicit relations.
What was going on this situation? Probably a lot more than we can say or fully understand. One thing going on for sure, however, was an evil innovation in Christian teaching in order to avoid accountability for sin.
Sexual sins, of course, are not unforgivable sins (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Our Lord Jesus Christ has gathered into His kingdom by his blood many sinners who were soiled by such sins. They have been effectually called through the needle hole of repentance, forgiven, cleansed and transformed. In many cases, the Lord has blessed them with years of domestic peace and renewed fidelity.
Yet there are many more who never leave the wide way of destruction (Matt. 7:13). Tragically, often walking right there beside them, even leading them, are so-called ministers and teachers who assure them they can keep their sin and have salvation too.
The apostle Peter warned of such “wide way” teachers. In Peter’s second letter, he said they would secretly sow their ideas, philosophies and new doctrines into the churches of Jesus Christ.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they exploit you with false words. (2 Peter 2:1-3a)
Peter anticipates an age-long heretical infiltration in churches designed to satisfy man’s sensuality and greed. What is most striking about Peter’s prophecy is that what is normative in the world will find entrance into the church (2 Cor. 12:21). Why?
Why do such false teachers even bother with the church? Why not just go around the church and get right to the immorality they desire, uninhibited, undiluted and without delay?
The answer is simple enough for a child to understand yet shocking enough to cause us all to examine ourselves afresh: false teachers infiltrate the church because they want a theology that allows for a clinging to sin while also gaining salvation. In the church, they find a market for such theology.
Nothing satisfies the natural man more than a god who promises salvation while permitting all kinds of lawless behavior. A god of deliverance but not a god of judgment.
Remember the idolatry that occurred in the ancient church shortly after her deliverance from Egypt. While Moses met with God on Sinai the people fashioned a golden calf. They declared that the calf had brought them up out of the land Egypt (Ex. 32:4)! They re-assigned their deliverance to their idol! The text then says: “And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:6).
Their new god not only provided deliverance but he had no sanctions against their lusts. It is the oldest conceit dating back to Cain: to have a Savior without a cross; to have a salvation without expiation of guilt and without propitiation of wrath; to be a pilgrim with no cross to bear, no self to deny, and no sin to mortify. So much is conveniently avoided. Yet tragically avoided is also the newness of life wrought by union with Christ to the everlasting enjoyment of God.
As the hurricane force winds of sexual confusion and sexual immorality blow hard upon us, let us not be ashamed to protect the church. There is a place to engage unbelievers outside the church. I am sure we will address this in coming weeks. However, there is always a place for truth in service to Christ’s washed and justified bride. Let us not be so eager to be outside among those traveling by on the wide way that we unwittingly leave the household of God exposed to deceivers at the back door.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.