preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12) at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Baton Rouge
Please pray with me.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are the people of God, those called “to his own glory and excellence,” (v. 1:3), “partakers of the divine nature” (v. 1:4), those who have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desires,” (v. 1:4). This is what our God promises to us, what he bestows upon his people, that we may be a royal priesthood, holy and blameless before the Lord our God, “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (v. 1:21). Christian, this is your inheritance. This is your consolation. That God will do a good work in you and among you. And in this consolation, we are given a strange guarantee, an additional consolation of sorts: from among you heretics and false teachers will arise.
Please turn in your Bible with me to 2 Peter chapter 2. (give them time to turn there).
I would like to read for us the first eleven verses.
2Pe 2:1 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.
2Pe 2:2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.
2Pe 2:3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
2Pe 2:4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;
2Pe 2:5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;
2Pe 2:6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;
2Pe 2:7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked
2Pe 2:8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard);
2Pe 2:9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,
2Pe 2:10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones,
2Pe 2:11 whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord.
When we first read this chapter of Second Peter, we may have two tendencies. The first tendency would be to set up a police sketch of sorts and begin holding it up to others in our congregation or in other denominations, determining if that pastor across town or that person in the row behind us fits the portrait of a heretic. The second tendency we may have is to dismiss the strong language of the whole chapter and assume that modern man is immune to these sorts of categories, that heresy has been dealt with in less technologically advanced times and it no longer haunts us. Both of these are the wrong extremes. In the first extreme, the tendency is to try and see false teachers all around us. In the second extreme, the tendency is to close our eyes to any false teacher whatsoever among us. Peter gives us a different path here. The presence of false teachers is actually a consolation, a comfort of sorts. The consolation of heresy has five parts.
The first consolation of heresy is that there can only be heretics distinguished among us if there is a faithful remnant of us. One of the important things to catch in First Peter and Second Peter is the interplay of contrasting or complimentary themes, and there are many of them: exile and freedom, suffering and joy, heresy and honesty, submission and rule, shepherds and sheep, virtue and vice, remembering and forgetting, lawless and lawful, and courage and corruption. This final theme, courage and corruption, along with heresy and honesty, is the focus of Second Peter chapter two. And at first glance, it is disheartening. Here Peter is in a farewell discourse, speaking in the context of his death and his absence from the church. And he gives not a prediction, but what is a warning, a heads-up of sorts. “…just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies...and many will follow their sensuality…the way of truth will be blasphemed…in their greed they will exploit you with false words...” But we ought to hear Peter’s words as both a consolation and a warning. Be courageous and honest, Peter says, but know that corruption and heresy arise not amidst other corruption and heresy but amidst courage and honesty, amidst godliness. Bodily disease arises not in dead bodies, in corpses, but in living bodies, in hosts on whose lives they may feed.
The second consolation of heresy is that in the midst of false teachers, the faithful are strengthened in their resolve to live for Christ. If First Peter deals with suffering and persecution which comes from outside the church and is imposed upon the church, then Second Peter deals with the corruption which comes from within the church and is felt from within, by those who rise up among you. And one of the effects of false teachers among us, is that true teachers are strengthened, and they are strengthened to withstand the impending suffering spoken of in First Peter. In as much as false teachers are a form of suffering and trials which the faithful must endure, and we can tell by First Peter and Second Peter that this is the case, the faithful are strengthened in such righteous suffering. They are impassioned for truth and averse to error. Where there is suffering, joy abounds. Where there is vice, virtue stands taller. Where there is corruption, the faithful are made courageous. Where there is heresy, honesty reigns.
The third consolation of heresy is that false teachers ultimately destroy themselves; they do not destroy the people of God. As the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod, once said, "...evil planned harms the plotter most.” It is just as important to see what’s not in Second Peter chapter two as to see what is there. One thing Peter does not do is prescribe how the people of God ought to deal with false teachers. To be sure, the church ought to deal with false teachers, but Peter’s emphasis is not on what the church should do, but what God will do. False teachers will arise from among you, and God will vindicate his people. And this should be a consolation to the faithful and sobering to false teachers. This is a call to repentance for false teachers: they ought not to fear what man can do, what the local church may do, he who can destroy body only. The false teacher ought to fear what God can do, he who can destroy both body and soul (verse). This is consolation to the saints of God because false teachers are not ultimately for them to deal with. As Peter says in verse 9, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials…”
The fourth consolation of heresy is that to put off false teachers and distinguish ourselves from them, there is nothing beyond a bold and narrow pursuit of holiness. Doctrinal soundness, keen minds, and articulate tongues are all very important for distinguishing false teachers from true teachers, but that is not where Peter places the emphasis. The most important thing we can do to expose false teachers and rid the Church of false teachers is to become a truly virtuous people. That is, we must simply turn back to Second Peter chapter 1 and do what Peter instructs. Please turn there with me. (begin in v.5)
The fifth and final consolation of heresy is our ability to see how Peter and the early apostles dealt with those who opposed the truth. Had not false teachers been among Peter and the early church, we would not have such a great model for how we ought to deal with false teachers in our own day. One of the defining marks of contemporary America is our inability to distinguish truth from falsity, right from wrong, teachers from students. Because we have turned orthodoxy on its head, heretics of all kinds are set firmly on their feet. G.K. Chesterton, in his great work Heretics says it this way, “…there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.” (Heretics, p. 40) Because the center has not held, neither have any distinctions which stem from the center. Therefore, there are too many Christian churches unwilling to identify false teachers and bad philosophies, and this may very well be because in some churches there are no true teachers and true philosophies to use as a standard of comparison. Therefore, false teachers are merely the status quo, the next resume which hits the desk of the pastor search committee. But the New Testament writers, and especially Peter, knew a spade from a diamond. He knew a true teacher from a false teacher, and both rhetorically and doctrinally, Peter did not shy away from speaking the truth in love, to protect his flock and promote the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, we are willing to sacrifice Christ for the sake of tolerance and political correctness. We are willing to compromise the Gospel of grace for the sake of social graces.
But God “is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). God allows heretics to arise from among his people, that his faithful saints would be strengthened, they would be courageous and prepared for the suffering to come, they would stand firm in the faith and contend for the Gospel. Like many important things in the Christian life, this is paradoxical. God allows momentary suffering that we would have everlasting joy. He permits false doctrine to arise that true doctrine would be seen in all its splendor.
So to each of us as Christians, we have a responsibility to put on Christ each day, to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (1:5-7), that those false teachers who merely put on themselves and their own passions would be clearly detected and disciplined, that the Gospel would go forth, the people of God made holy, and Christ will reign supreme over heaven and earth.
Now hear, as we close our time, George Herbert’s “The Foil”.
If we could see below
The sphere of virtue, and each shining grace
As plainly as that above doth show;
This were the better sky, the brighter place.
God hath made stars the foil
To set off virtues; griefs to set off sinning:
Yet in this wretched world we toil,
As if grief were not foul, nor virtue winning.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.