How Not to Be a Heretic

Many people attend churches with dynamic ministers who deliver inspiring sermons. While these messages are uplifting, they don't always convey the truths of Christianity. Every Christian needs accurate answers to the most important questions of life:

What will happen to me when I die?
Is this awful trial happening to me because I didn’t love God enough, pray enough, or trust Jesus enough?
What if my child isn’t walking with the Lord?
What difference does being a Christian make in my life now, as well as for eternity?
Can I lose my salvation?
What is God’s purpose in creating the world?
What is God’s purpose in creating me?

Christians also need to be able to distinguish between different doctrinal views on a certain subject in order to assess the correctness of the teaching they receive. For instance,

Does God do all the work in salvation, or is it a cooperative act between God and humans?
Did God elect some people to salvation, or did he only foreknow who would choose him?
Is our right standing (justification) before God based upon a transformation within us or a declaration of something done outside of us?

On what basis will believers determine their views on salvation, election, and justification from the alternatives listed above? Proper guidelines for interpreting Scripture restrain us from trying to make God’s Word say what we think it should say, and instead, keep us on course in determining the correct meaning of any given biblical text.

Good doctrine is not the only thing people need. They need to be the givers and recipients of Christianity applied in everyday life through thoughtful and loving deeds. I was personally the recipient of this kind of love from Christians—and non-Christians—after my son died ten years ago. Yet, what I needed most of all in those dark days was truth about God, and to know what that truth meant for my family. It was sound doctrine that ultimately gave me the courage to keep going—to know that my circumstances did not have the final say and that God is faithful, no matter what I may encounter in this world.

We don't need to start from scratch when interpreting the Bible. The church has well defined, well defended, and well established doctrine that has been established over the many centuries since Christ's resurrection and ascension. We need to know and understand these truths and avoid at all costs becoming opponents of God’s church—heretics who hold strange teachings disconnected from Scripture. Of course, no one ever plans to become a heretic, but it still happens. Here are three things that can help keep you on God’s Scripture-obeying path.

First, history can help us discern truth from error. 

Studying the history of Christianity and the major theological disputes over the centuries gives us a good grasp of when and where doctrinal differences developed and the resulting legacies that exist to this day.[1] For instance, the Reformation in the early fifteen hundreds was a very big deal. There was a reason Christians protested at the time: the prevailing church leadership was erroneously teaching that people could only be saved through a process of sanctification that would someday result in their justification. Whatever sanctification a person didn’t achieve in this life through the exercising of the church sacraments would need to be completed by spending some arbitrary time in purgatory.

The Reformers studied their Bibles and realized that Scripture actually taught the opposite: sinners are first justified through faith in Christ—which is God’s gift—in which God counts to them the completed work of Christ and counts to Christ their sins. They also discovered that sanctification is a benefit of justification by which believers are conformed to the image of Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Reformers went back to Scripture to see what it actually said, and they discovered that the gospel is the good news of what Jesus did, not something we do with the church’s help to eventually earn salvation some day.

Second, know what your church believes. 

If you haven’t done so already, become informed regarding your church’s positions on key biblical teachings. Most churches have a statement of faith. Are you familiar with what your church’s statement declares?  Who taught the person who is teaching you? How do his or her positions differ from those of other ministers/Bible teachers? On certain topics, multiple views cannot logically all be correct. Ask your pastor why he holds certain doctrinal positions. Most pastors would be all too happy to discuss biblical topics with their congregants.

Bible study programs also have underlying doctrinal positions; find out what they are. There are many great Internet resources available to Christians today at the click of a finger, but not all teaching is equal in quality. God has given the world many able teachers to help us understand the Bible, but don’t be fooled into thinking that a great public speaker or a moving, heartfelt lecture equals sound biblical doctrine.

Third, know the truth by learning the differences. 

A seminary professor once said: “You have to know your view, the other views, and the difference between them.” Christians have to decide for themselves which doctrinal positions they will take, but let’s at least strive to know the different positions so we can make the most informed decisions possible. This way, the next time your pastor preaches or your Bible study leader teaches, you will be better prepared to respond like the Berean Jews, who “were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11 NIV).

[1] For an excellent introduction to the major doctrinal controversies facing the church over the centuries, please see Justin S. Holcomb’s Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics, both from the Know Series, Zondervan, 2014.

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Le Ann Trees

Le Ann is a writer, editor, speaker, wife, and mom who enjoys the Southern California lifestyle, including flip-flops, the beach, riding electric bicycles along the 101, and an occasional salted caramel Americano from Lofty Coffee in Solana Beach. She is exceedingly grateful for both the loving kindness of many people and the sound Christian doctrine that helped her to keep on living after her son died in a skiing accident in 2006. She holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Westminster Seminary California. Le Ann is managing editor of Beautiful Christian Life.

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