How To Combat False Teachers

William Perkins
Commentary on Revelation 1-3
Works IV, pp. 422-427.

In what things this discerning of false apostles does consist.

It is a judicial action of the church, consisting in two things here noted: first, in examination of false doctrine and false teachers; secondly, in condemnation afterward. The examination of them is set down in these words: “and hast examined them that say they are apostles, and are not” (Rev. 2:2); and their condemning or sentence giving in the words following, “and has found them liars” (Rev. 2:2).

For the first, examination is a gift of God to His church and was here used for the trial of false apostles. Question. How may any church try a false teacher? Answer. This is a point of large discourse, but the heads of true examination are these.

First, that church or that man that would rightly examine a false teacher must prepare himself thereunto after this manner: he must look that he has a meek spirit and a humble heart; for God reveals His will not to the proud but to the meek and lowly and, as Isaiah says, to them that are of a contrite spirit (Isa. 57:15). And in this humbling of himself, a man must renounce his own natural wit and reason and become nothing in himself but even a fool in respect of his own conceit. Also, he must unfeignedly pray to God, that He would reveal to him His truth. “Ask,” says Christ, “and it shall be given unto you, even the Holy Ghost, unto them that desire of the Father” [Luke 11:13]. And St. James says, “If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, which giveth to all men liberally” [1:5].

Secondly, after preparation, he must labor to know thoroughly what the false teachers are and what are their opinions with the grounds and foundations thereof wherein they agree and wherein they differ from the truth of God maintained by the church. For it is a foul oversight to misconceive the state of the adversary’s question by propounding it otherwise than they hold, as it falls out with many in the handling of controversies.

Thirdly, due proof must be made whether the adversaries’ doctrine is of men or of God. This is God’s commandment: “prove the spirits, whether they be of God, or not” (1 John 4:1). And for trial hereof, we must have recourse unto the Word of God. It must be judge in this cause. “To the law and to the testimonies, if they speak not according to this word it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye look to have eternal life” (John 5:39). Who so sit to judge in the matters of God, as God Himself? And so He does in His written Word of all doctrine and opinions in religion. The Scriptures show whether the doctrine examined is directly gathered thence, and by just consequent or not.

Fourthly, serious consideration must be had of the faith and lives of the teachers examined, for a false teacher by God’s just judgment is usually a wicked liver. And therefore Christ says, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” [Matt. 7:16]. If they are thoroughly examined, such they will appear, howsoever for a time they may blear the eyes of men—as the histories of the church in many famous heretics do plainly declare.

The second branch of this discovery is sentence giving, in these words: “and hast found them liars” (Rev. 2:2). The church here gives out a sharp and severe sentence against them. She calls them false apostles and liars. And yet she sins not, for Christ commends her for it. Though to rail or taunt cannot beseem any, yet magistrates and ministers in their places may give out severe speeches against offenders in token of detestation to their sins and not offend. Thus, John called the scribes and Pharisees a “generation of vipers” (Matt. 3:7), and our Savior Christ called Herod “a fox” (Luke 13:32), and Paul called the Galatians “fools” (Gal. 3:1). And in this place the church calls these false teachers “liars,” which is very much, for therein she accuses them of three things: first, of teaching that which was false indeed; secondly, that they know it to be false, and so sinned of knowledge; thirdly, that they did it of malice with intent to blind the eyes of the church and to deceive the people.

The Use. In this discovery, we may observe the just accomplishment of Paul’s prophecy—namely, that there should rise up among the Ephesians grievous wolves and men speaking perverse things (Acts 20:29). And such were these false apostles, who after examination were found liars.

Again, seeing in the days of this apostle John men dare presume to claim apostolic authority and call themselves apostles when they were not, no marvel if the pope of Rome six hundred years after did challenge to himself to be Peter’s successor and to have apostolic authority, and that they dare now to avouch some books to be Scripture which are not, as also bring in their traditions and unwritten verities to be received and obeyed equally with God’s Word.

Opposing False Prophets.

“Thou hast suffered, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast labored” (Rev. 2:3). Here our Savior Christ declares how this minister and church of Ephesus opposed themselves against false teachers after their discovery. The manner we shall see in handling the points particularly as they lie in order.

Point 1. “Thou hast suffered,” or, “You have borne a burden”; for the word signifies to be pressed down under a great burden. This burden was the trouble which false apostles brought upon them after they were discovered, partly by open affliction and persecution, partly by the spreading of their heretical and schismatic doctrine. These false teachers were Ebion, Cerinthus, Marcion, and such like, who in the days of John troubled this church, as histories do show.

Here we may observe that it is God’s will that the best churches should be troubled by wicked men and heretical teachers, who both by false doctrine and persecution become grievous burdens. This the Lord permits for weighty causes. First, that true believers may be excited more constantly to embrace the sincere doctrine of the gospel. And therefore Jude most worthily exhorts the Christians in his time to fight for the common faith [Jude 3]. Secondly, that professors may be tried whether they soundly hold the doctrine of the gospel or not. “It is meet,” says Paul, “that there should be heresies in the church, that they which are sound in the faith, and oppressed may be known” (1 Cor. 11:19). Thirdly, that God may execute His judgments upon wicked men and hypocrites that have not loved His truth revealed unto them. “God gave them up to strange illusions to believe lies, because they have not loved his truth” (2 Thess. 2:10–11). For many know the Word, that love it not.

The Use. This must teach us to take heed of a common scandal in the world, which is to be offended at religion because there are in the church schisms and heresies, which come not from the gospel but from the malice of Satan, who sows his tares among the Lord’s wheat. We must consider that it is the will of God there should be such evils in His church and therefore should labor to be so far from offence that hereby we are rather provoked with more cheerfulness and courage to love and embrace religion.

Point 2. Secondly, “and hast patience, and for my name hast suffered.” Here is set down the dealing of this church against these false apostles in all their persecutions. But first note the coherence of this virtue with the former. “Thou hast suffered trouble, and hast had patience.” Question. How can these stand together? It is against man’s nature in trouble to be patient, for troubles and afflictions make men discontent and to fret against God and man. Answer. They stand not by nature but by grace. “Tribulations bringeth forth patience” (Rom. 5:4)—namely, to all those that have received to believe in Christ; for to them God gives the spirit of meekness in their troubles, shedding His love into their hearts, whereby they are enabled to suffer anything for His name, even with joy.

“And hast patience.” This is the first means whereby this church opposed herself against the false apostles. They troubled her two ways: by persecution and by false doctrine. Now by patience this church opposes herself against their persecutions. And indeed that is the most excellent means for any man or any church to oppose themselves against their enemies and to vanquish them, for hereby they shall stop their mouths and if it is possible win them to their faith and religion.

In their practice, we have an example for our direction how to oppose ourselves against wicked men with whom we live or any enemy that shall trouble us, either by oppression or heretical doctrines. We must not render taunt for taunt and abuse for abuse but labor for patience, not in bearing with their sins (that may not be) but in a meek enduring of their injuries and wrongs whereby they trouble us. Thus shall we stop their mouths and soonest overcome them.

“And for my name’s sake hast labored.” Here Christ sets down the second means whereby this church opposes herself against the spreading of false doctrine by these false apostles, which was the second way whereby they became a burden unto her. The meaning of the words is this: that they had taken much pains to maintain the glory of God and the true doctrine of Christ Jesus, laboring therein as much as the false apostles did to broach their damnable heresies.

Here we are taught a second duty: how we are to oppose ourselves against all heretical and schismatic teachers—namely, as they labor to publish their false doctrine, so must we endeavor to maintain the glory of God and His true religion. Hereunto a twofold labor is required: partly of the minister and partly of the people.

The labor of the minister stands in these things principally.

First, he must endeavor by reading and study to furnish himself with the true knowledge of the foundation and substance of the gospel and true religion, that he may be able soundly and plainly to teach the same. For this cause St. John is commanded to eat the little book (Rev. 10:9–10), which was as it were by study and meditation to have the same digested and settled in his heart. Hence Malachi says, “The priest’s lips should prefer wisdom and thither should the people come for instruction” [Mal. 2:7]. And every scribe taught of God must have “store in the treasury of his heart, like a good householder” (Matt. 13:52).

Secondly, he must deliver the whole will and counsel of God concerning salvation truly and distinctly unto his people, as it is propounded in the books of the prophets and apostles. This Paul commands by his own example, testifying unto this church that “he had taught them all the will of God, and kept back nothing which he was commanded to deliver unto them” (Acts 20:27).

Thirdly, he must labor to discern and be able to discover false teachers unto the people, that he may not only know them himself but also cause the church to take notice of them. Paul requires that the teacher in the church is able to convince the gainsayers to his truth (Titus 1:9). In this discovery, he must do two things: first, detect the heretical doctrines; secondly, their wicked manners. Thus dealt our Savior Christ in His own person, living in the church of the Jews, with the scribes and Pharisees. He did detect unto the people their false interpretations of the law to the end (Matt. 5:21) and also their wicked lives and damnable hypocrisy, etc. to the end (23:3–4). And St. Paul in all his epistles labors to discover the wicked lives and to confute the heretical opinions of the false apostles.

Fourthly, he must endeavor that the doctrine of the gospel thus published may edify. This is the end of all teaching, as Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 14 (throughout the whole chapter). Now it does edify when it is so applied to the hearers that thereby they are won to Christ, suffering themselves to be reformed by it in heart and life and so made fit for the kingdom of God.

Fifthly, he must be careful in his own person to become a pattern of the doctrine of the gospel which he teaches, so that the people may have a double light to follow. This is a notable means in the minister to make men to love the gospel, and the neglect thereof causes many to condemn and despise the same.

Sixthly, he must be diligent in praying for his own and other particular churches of God, that they may know, believe, and obey the same doctrine which is taught them out of God’s Word. Thus did Paul as we may see in his particular epistles pray for every church, that by the blessing of the Spirit they might embrace and obey the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:4, 9–10; Col. 1:9–11).

The people also for the name of Christ and His religion must undergo a threefold labor.

First, everyone must see that he himself knows and believes the true and sincere doctrine of the gospel. This Christ enjoins to all in this commandment: “repent and believe,” which none can do unless they first know and understand the doctrine thereof. And therefore everyone must do as Mary did, for which Christ so commends her—namely, lay aside matters of lesser moment and give ourselves to hear and learn the doctrine of Christ (Luke 10:39–42).

Secondly, everyone must use all good means that knowledge of religion, which he himself has received, is conveyed to others. And indeed, if we truly believe, we cannot contain ourselves but must needs teach others. For as Christ says, “He that drinketh of the water of life, out of his belly shall flow rivers of water of life” [John 7:38], streaming out for the good of others. Question. How should private men convey their knowledge unto others? Answer 1. All masters and governors of families are bound in conscience to teach those that are under them the main points and grounds of true religion. His place requires gifts, and God looks for increase. For every Christian family should be a little church, as it is said of the house of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19). Answer 2. Every man in his place must labor to convey that knowledge he has unto his neighbor, yea, to his enemies. The Jews would compass sea and land to make a man a proselyte [Matt. 23:15]. And idolaters at this day will travel far and near to make a man of their profession. Much more therefore must all true Christians labor to convey their knowledge to others, so to win them unto Christ. Answer 3. Every man is to edify those that are members of the same church in these three things: faith, hope, and love—as Jude notably exhorts in the end of his epistle: “edify one another in your most holy faith” (v. 20). “Have compassion of some in putting difference and others save with fear in pulling them out of the fire” (vv. 22–23). Answer 4. Every private man must profess and defend the true religion of Christ against all the enemies thereof. “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). And this confession must be not only in word but in deed, for by a blameless and holy conversation every Christian holds forth the word of life (Phil. 2:15–16).

Thirdly, seeing the maintenance of true religion is so excellent a work, we must be admonished, everyone in our place, to take pains in all the duties that belong unto us, that by us Christ’s religion may be furthered. For God’s church is not called the pillar of truth (1 Tim. 3:15) only because the minister thereof maintains God’s truth, but also because every member of the church is as a pillar in his place to maintain and profess the true doctrine of Christ for His glory. Besides, this is a duty of the first table, and therefore we must have more special care for the performance thereof.

And thus we see the two means whereby the church of Ephesus opposed herself against false teaching.

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