Discerning Truth from Error
Discerning Truth from Error — Jay Zinn
Over the years, people have asked me to approve or disapprove of the doctrine of another preacher or teacher on television, radio, social media, another church, another ministry, or one who’s an author. Being a theologian, they expected me to know and discern immediately where the issues were and either accuse or excuse the teaching. That would take time and me to read or to listen to the mountains of sermons and teachings to make an accurate assessment. Time, I didn’t have.
I’m not in a hurry to join forces with fighting fundamentalists who condemn another colleague who preaches the gospel. Many preachers and teachers have pet doctrines that they focus on more than others as their “branding,” but that might be what God has called them to do if it’s accurate. Opportunities abound in judging popular preachers and authors, but I am not God who alone can judge the intent of our hearts. It’s not my assignment to judge a person’s heart, character, or standing with God. I can read or hear about what they teach and agree or disagree with it (if it is what they genuinely believe). But I won’t condemn them to hell like many I’ve heard from the pulpit who do that (with good intentions, perhaps, to protect their flock from false teachings).
Any Biblical judgment must be done “with facts.” Sometimes it’s easy to take a sentence or phrase (from a controversial preacher) out of context and conclude it’s the foundation or cornerstone of their beliefs. It’s a slippery slope to become a fruit-inspector rather than a fruit-producer. I answer the critics looking for my opinion with, “How much have you devoted yourself to searching out the context of what that preacher has said or written? Have you read all their books, listened to all their messages?” If they say they’ve not done their homework and are only repeating rumor, then I tell them, “Leave the matter to God and let him deal with the preacher, if indeed they’re spreading heresy.” Then I ask them what they believe about the controversy? If they’re able to explain their beliefs and convictions well, then I might say something like, “Good, I believe that, too. So let’s pray for that person and ourselves if God needs to show one of us the better way.”
Subjective Bias or Objective Exegesis?
Controversial teaching generally comes down to the difference between biased opinion and objective exegesis. Bias is subjective and shaped usually by convictions embedded in someone’s tradition, culture, or bad experience with “religion.” One can look at the same verse or passages in the Bible (on most given subjects) and interpret it by their bias. Bias can ignore an objective alternative view if that person’s biased opinion is unyielding.
Objective interpretation, however, sidesteps bias and reaches into the context of the passage, the original language, and the culture of the time to determine the writer’s intent. It strives for the balance between extremes that can occur in many topics in the Bible.
Heresy is mostly spawned by “truth out-of-balance.” The opposite ends of a subject are where the controversy begins—e.g., too much grace or not enough grace? Too much about works or not enough works? Maintaining a balance in our beliefs is critical because our beliefs determine our behavior and judgment. Too much grace can turn into a license to sin. Not enough grace can turn into life-choking legalism and works to gain right-standing with God. Either extreme determines the way we approach God’s grace and walk it out.
Disciple, you will always be challenged by someone about your beliefs and come up against matters of controversy. Sooner or later, you’ll come across “some strange, new teaching, too, that challenges what you’ve long held fast to as your conviction. So, I thought it would be appropriate to end this blog with seven questions below from A.W. Tozer on how to discern the difference between sound and false teaching. Apply these questions as a plumb line to doctrinal beliefs and teachings. Here they are:
- How does the teaching affect your relationship to God, your concept of God, and your attitude toward Him? Does it make you love God more, magnify Him more, and appear more wonderful to you than ever before? Does it make you want to live a more holy life?
- How does the teaching affect your attitude toward the Lord Jesus Christ? Does it give Jesus top place in your life as Lord? Does it teach that he is God come in the flesh? Does it make Jesus dear to you? Does it make a relationship with Him indispensable to you?
- How does the teaching affect your attitude toward the Holy Scriptures? Does it spring from the Word of God or some stimulus (tradition, culture, or experience) outside the Bible? Is it fact-based, scripture-based? Does scriptural proof validate the doctrine (or view)? Does it fill your heart with an avid hunger to meditate more in the Scriptures day and night?
- Does the teaching cause you to concentrate more on your “self-life” or on Christ’s life? That is, does the teaching help you to decrease self, die more to self, and increase Christ’s life in you? Does the experience of the teaching serve to humble and make you smaller in your eyes before God, or does it make you full of self-satisfaction and pride that everything is okay with your life and there is nothing that needs to change? No teaching coming from God will minister to our ego or self-congratulation. It is in the Lord we boast.
- How does the teaching affect your relationship and attitude toward fellow Christians? Does it make you feel superior, fault-finding, or in an advanced state of grace over others in the church? Does it make you impatient with others who are not as committed to God as you are? Or does it inspire you to have more grace and patience with those who are weaker than you in their faith and struggles? Does it make you more compassionate and gentler and gracious, yet without condoning sin? Does it make you withdraw from your fellow Christians, or love them and reach out to them more, despite the status or condition of their current journey in Christ?
- How does the teaching affect your attitude and relation to the world (i.e., the world of fleshly enjoyments)? Does it teach you to compromise with the world, to imitate the world?
- How does the teaching affect your attitude toward sin? The operation of grace not only enables us to walk godly lives but teaches us to turn away from everything the Bible calls sin and to turn toward God in holiness. Any teaching that weakens our hatred toward sin may immediately be identified as false.
Note: You can apply these principles to your teaching to accomplish the same results for those who learn from you.
Grace and Peace!
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 Exegesis — critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture.
 Synthesized and adapted from A.W. Tozer’s chapter 29 on How to Try the Spirits in his book, Man: The Dwelling Place of God.