Now, that may sound like a strange statement on a blog called “A Radical for Jesus”. Especially when I have no plans of changing the blog name anytime soon.
But I still don’t want you to be a radical, because it’s spiritually dangerous.
Radicalized Islam Christianity
At age 20, Jonathan Hollingsworth boarded a plane for Africa.
He had already given away his possessions, started sleeping on the floor, begun reaching out to the homeless, and taken a mission trip to Honduras. Jonathan had taken a path of radical Christianity. And now he was headed to be a missionary.
But six months later, he was back home, crushed, disillusioned, and questioning his faith. The mission agency had turned out to be a disreputable organization, and they had prevented Jonathan from ministering as he had desired to do. They controlled every aspect of his life, even what he wrote on his blog.
And then, when Jonathan came home, his church didn’t want him to share his story, and they forced him and his parents into silence.
That only made matters a lot worse.
In retrospect, Jonathan realized that his desire to be radical and do radical things had set him up for being used and abused. As he told Boz Tchividjian:
…the unfortunate paradox of spiritual abuse, I think, is that the more devout you are, the more susceptible you are to it. My church leaders knew me inside and out. They knew I would do anything to please God, help the church, support missions, etc. So when I made the incredibly difficult decision to end my mission in Africa, they knew exactly what to say to keep me quiet and ashamed. They used my own spiritual values to beat me into submission…
There are a lot of people out there willing to exploit those who give up their whole lives for a cause. For every radical who gets on a plane, there’s a con artist waiting for him on the other side. And sadly, sometimes that con artist is a church or a mission agency. Before I left for Africa, everyone told me to watch out for kidnappers and hustlers and pickpockets, when in reality, it was the people I least expected who posed the biggest threat.
The danger of being radical
I read about Jonathan’s story a few months ago, and it resonated with me. Fortunately, I never went as radical as he did, but I had certainly adopted some of the same “be a radical” mentality.
I was struck by his point that those who desire to be radical are more likely to be used and abused. Such people believe that obedience to Jesus means doing something radical, and they are willing to do crazy things because they think Jesus is leading them to do it. Or because someone put a guilt trip on them to do it.
So often, I think, we “radicals” have been driven by fear. We’re afraid that we’re uncaring, unloving, too rich, too happy, too fun-loving, whatever. We’re afraid that we aren’t making God happy enough. We’re afraid that, unless we act more radically, we don’t love God enough.
Or that God won’t love us enough.
And when we turn to the Bible, we find plenty of verses to back up our fears. “Take up your cross and deny yourself.” “Be not conformed to this world.” “Forsake everything you have.”
But as time has gone along, I’ve discovered that I didn’t really know God during those “radical” days. I have come to realize that, while God may call us to do radical things, He has not called us to be radicals.
Jesus calls us to follow Him
We need to look at the rest of the passage where Jesus said to take up our crosses:
He said to all, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Jesus doesn’t just call us to take up our crosses. He calls us to follow Him.
We do have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses (in other words, present our bodies as living sacrifices [see Romans 12:2]) in order to follow Him. But that is the means to the end, not the end itself.
We can deny ourselves and take up our crosses all we want, and yet never follow Jesus. Unless we actually follow Him, we gain nothing from denying ourselves.
Led by the Spirit
More and more, I am convinced that what we lack the most in the church today is the working of the Holy Spirit.
We each need to be filled with the Spirit and be led by Him, because the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth.
And not only that, He is the antidote to our toxic, radicalizing fears.
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God. For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:14-15)
The Christian life is not merely a life of “not-doing”: not doing what we want to do. The Christian life is a life of doing: doing what God wants us to do.
But how do we know what God wants us to do? That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in.
For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:11-12)
A true radical for Jesus–the kind that God is looking for–is filled by the Holy Spirit and led by Him.
To those of you who are trying to be radical to please God and be good enough to make Him happy with you, I have a simple word for you:
Be filled by the Holy Spirit and ask God to teach you to know when he is leading. Because, in my experience, Satan loves to hijack our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, and any other means by which we think we can hear God. And when we have been “radicalized”, we come to expect a different message from God than what He actually wants to give us.
When I was 16 years old, I wrote an article entitled, “Is the Headcovering for Today?” I laid out the case from 1 Corinthians 11 that a woman ought to cover her head. And I still believe that a woman should cover her head when she prays or prophesies, just as God has instructed.
However, one thing that I taught in this article was that a headcovering gave protection to a woman and her family—that demons had to leave her alone if her head was covered. After all, the Bible said that “a woman ought to have power on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10), and the best explanation I had heard was that this meant that the bad angels would leave her alone, and the good angels would protect her.
But recently, I was talking with God about headcovering, and He showed me that, for some people, the headcovering had become a lucky charm.
Worse yet, I myself had perpetuated the mentality that turns a headcovering into a lucky charm, and I had to repent. The article is no longer available.
But how does a head covering become a lucky charm?
Think a moment: what do we call an object that is supposed to protect the wearer from evil spirits and bad luck? It’s quite common in some cultures and religions. We have a name for it: a lucky charm.
I said in my article that the headcovering was not a lucky charm, but I actually, in the end, did believe and teach that it was a lucky charm that would protect the woman and her family. When we say that a head covering is supposed to bring protection to the wearer, we turn it into a lucky charm that supposedly:
Protects her from physical harm
Protects her from evil spirits
Helps her prayers be answered better
Signals to the world that she is a Christian
Folks, that is not Scriptural. I don’t care what testimonies you’ve heard. I don’t care what experiences you have had. It is wrong to adopt the mentality of the heathen and tell women (or imply) that the headcovering is a “scarf of hidden power” when God has not said so.
God never actually said that a headcovering would bring any type of protection. He just said that a woman should have power on her head because of the angels. It never says anything about protection. After all, God never said what a headcovering would look like. What if a woman didn’t wear the right type? Or what if an ungodly woman covered her head? Would the angels protect her just because she had something on her head?
The purpose of head covering (and uncovering, for the men) is to bring glory and honor to God, not to protect the wearer.
Ignore the testimonies
I am well aware that there are testimonies out there about how the headcovering brought protection to its wearer. However, of what I can remember, in many cases, there was not a clear correlation between the headcovering and the incident of protection.
In other words, if a headcovered woman is approached by a robber, but he suddenly doubles over with pain and runs off, we can’t give credit to the headcovering. In the end, it was God who protected her. We don’t know from this testimony whether God would have still protected her if she had been bareheaded.
I want to be clear: just because a woman covers her head at all times, she is not necessarily viewing the headcovering as a lucky charm. It is when the piece of fabric itself is supposed to bring protection and spiritual power to the wearer and her family that it becomes a good luck charm.
It’s time for repentance
If you have fallen prey to the “lucky headcovering” mentality, I urge you to repent of it. God does not want us to dabble in witchcraft by hanging lucky charms on ourselves. It’s not that you must repent of covering your head, or telling your wife that she should. What you need is a heart change from believing that a woman gains special spiritual power from a piece of cloth on her head.
I also urge you to ask God to show you His view on 1 Corinthians 11 and head covering. What is it really all about? What is the purpose? When must we observe it?
Last week, I wrote probably the most controversial thing I’ve ever written. I told the story of visiting a church, and realizing that the pastor was preaching a dead sermon. I said that he was a zombie—a walking dead man—and that his church was a zombie church. I also called Paul Emerson, a prominent preacher in the moderately-conservative Mennonite church, a zombie.
And now, I would like to tell all those who were offended by that post: I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t share God’s words without offending you.
However, not in the least am I sorry that I called anyone a zombie.
The Problem in the Church Today
We have a problem today. If someone gets up and shares something that God has given them—a function that the Bible calls prophecy—and it doesn’t fit with what people want to believe, they shoot it down and ignore it.
I had people tell me that I shouldn’t talk about church leadership that way.
I had people question my ability to hear God’s voice.
I had people who didn’t think I knew what I was talking about.
I have been a Christian for over 20 years. I have seen a lot of things go on within the church in those 20+ years. Folks, the American church is dead.
You ask me: is my church dead? Worse yet, am I dead? Am I one of those zombies that you’re talking about?
I will put it bluntly. If you don’t know whether you are alive or dead, or if you don’t know whether your church is alive or dead, the answer is probably yes, you or your church are a zombie, or at least on the way to being dead unless you or your church make some changes.
Few people question if they are physically alive. The answer is obvious. You know if you are alive. You are walking around, breathing, carrying on conversations.
However, we do have a problem. There are many churches and people who think they are alive, but are not. They are the walking dead. They are zombies. And that’s where prophecy comes in.
Follow after love, and earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)
But if all prophesy, and someone unbelieving or unlearned comes in, he is reproved by all, and he is judged by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed. So he will fall down on his face and worship God, declaring that God is among you indeed. (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)
But he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification, exhortation, and consolation. (1 Corinthians 14:3)
When God wants to talk to someone, He will generally do it one of two ways. Either He will speak directly to that person, or He will send a prophet. He gives His words to the prophet, and sends the prophet to whoever needs to hear from Him.
This is exactly what God did with the Apostle John in Revelation 3. The church in the city of Sardis was dead. They were a zombie church, appearing to be alive, but actually dead. So Jesus wrote them a letter by the hand of His servant John, and sent it to them:
And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars:
I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. (Revelation 3:1-6)
I don’t know what happened when the church of Sardis received their letter. Can you imagine getting a letter from Jesus, telling you that your church was dead? I hope that they took heed and repented.
Likewise, today, God is still speaking through His prophets. He is sending His prophets to the dead church, telling them to repent. The door of repentance is still open, folks! This isn’t the end! On the contrary, if people will take heed to the prophets and repent, it will be the beginning of new life!
But many people are telling the prophets to shut up.
Hearing from God
One problem we have is that there are many false prophets in the world, and many people who have not heard from God, yet claim that they have. Therefore, many people are skeptical of those who claim to have heard God’s voice and received a message from Him.
Just because there are some false prophets, should we throw out all prophecy? No way! How absurd! Instead, we each need to be hearing God’s voice so that we can recognize when someone is a false prophet. Wait. Everybody needs to hear God’s voice?
Yes. Jesus said:
“Most certainly I tell you, he who hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life, and doesn’t come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Most certainly, I tell you, the hour comes, and now is, when the dead will hear the Son of God’s voice; and those who hear will live.” (John 5:24-25)
This does not mean that we hear Jesus’ word one time and come to life. We have to believe on God, not just once, but our entire Christian life. Likewise, “hears”, in the Greek, is in the present, active tense, indicating that it should be ongoing.
The Jews therefore came around him and said to him, “How long will you hold us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you don’t believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, these testify about me. But you don’t believe, because you are not of my sheep, as I told you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:24-27)
When Jesus speaks, His sheep recognize His voice and follow Him. They believe Him because they recognize His voice.
From Genesis to Revelation, we have record of God speaking to people and leading them, over and over again. Why would we think that He has stopped, or that the Bible is the only guide we need in life? Make no mistake: the Bible is God’s Word, wholly inspired by Him. It is infallible and inerrant. We can totally trust whatever we find in it.
But the Bible doesn’t tell you who to marry. Yet, marriage is a decision that can affect the course of history—literally. Imagine if George Washington’s dad had married someone else. Or if Adolph Hitler’s mom had married someone else. If it’s such an important decision, why would we rely on our own feelings and desires? I would sure like some help from the One who knows the future!
Will we make mistakes sometimes? Sure. Will we think that God is speaking when He is not, or miss His leading when He does speak? Sure. I have experienced these things myself. But that is okay! That is part of the learning process! All it means is that we need to continue asking God to teach us to know His voice.
But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)
God wants us to teach by His Spirit, in the words that He teaches us to say. He does not want us to use human wisdom to teach others. That is fleshly and does not profit. As Jesus said:
It is the spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life. (John 6:63)
An academic sermon is a fleshly, carnal sermon. It comes not from the spirit, but from the flesh. It is based on the fleshly wisdom of men instead of the spiritual wisdom of God. The words of the flesh do not profit us. The spiritual words of Jesus give life. Therefore, if we want to speak life-giving words to others, they must be the words of Jesus, not our own.
Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual discerns all things, and he himself is judged by no one. (1 Corinthians 2:14-15)
Zombie preachers and teachers have told everyone that the only way to judge a message is academically. Don’t go by feelings or impressions. If you can’t find anything wrong with the message academically, then there’s nothing wrong with it.
However, God says that the things of His Spirit are spiritually discerned. We have to be guided by the Holy Spirit in our judgment of a message. A spiritual man discerns spiritually whether or not a message is coming from God.
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He has taken the wise in their craftiness.” And again, “The Lord knows the reasoning of the wise, that it is worthless.” Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:18-23)
This passage further explains why a zombie sermon is not only problematic, but disobedience to God. God tells us that this world’s wisdom is foolishness with Him, and that a worldly-wise person needs to become a fool so that he may become wise before God. A person can be highly educated, but lack God’s wisdom.
In case you didn’t know, besides being a former pastor at Calvary Mennonite Fellowship near Harrisonburg, VA, Paul Emerson is also the former moderator of Biblical Mennonite Alliance (BMA), a group of Mennonite churches that I used to be part of. He currently is Principal at Elnora Bible Institute, the Bible school of BMA, as well as the editor of The Sword and Trumpet and The FCM Informer (the newsletter of the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites, of which he is also the Executive Director).
And I believe that God led me to write these words in the previous article: “Folks, I’m not going to ‘pretty it up’: Paul Emerson is a zombie preacher.”
How dare I say that!?
Over the last 15+ years, I have listened to Paul Emerson speak. I have read his writings in the Biblical Mennonite Alliance Newsletter. I have read the publications that he has edited. And I have been disturbed. Just yesterday, I read yet another article that he wrote, and I’m even more disturbed. You will read part of it later.
I want to state that what Joel stated about Paul Emerson is true. I have known Mr. Emerson for many years.
George Brunk I handed his mantle and the editorship of the Sword and Trumpet to his son George Brunk II. George Brunk II handed his mantle to Paul Emerson – the pastorate at Calvary Mennonite, the editorship of the Sword and Trumpet, and leadership in the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites.
The false teachings and false gospel of these men have negatively impacted the lives of tens of thousands of people. The failures and errors of their teachings are greater and broader in scope than what you have any idea is happening. Sin is running rampant in secret in pious “godly” Mennonite homes, even in the lives of men of renown in the church…
God has been revealing these things to me and I have been in shock that these things are true and that Mennonites are doing them. I will be sharing with you what God has been revealing to me in my book that hopefully will be coming out later this year titled – The Failure of the Great Amish and Conservative Mennonite Dress Experiment.
As an example of the sin that Dad is referring to, I bring up another piece of evidence: a survey from a Mennonite blog called Radi-Call.
In 2015, Radi-Call ran a survey about media usage, targeting young, conservative Anabaptist people. It was a voluntary online survey, taken by about 250 young people, pretty well evenly split between men and women. 56% were from BMA Mennonite churches.
Here are the results about porn usage:
Folks, this is the fruit of the teaching of Emerson and others like him. It isn’t working! To help you visualize these results, take a look at this picture from the Mennonite Shenandoah Christian Music Camp in Ohio, 2016.
It’s sobering to realize that of the 46 men you see in this picture, only 12 of them, statistically, have never been involved in habitual porn usage. It doesn’t mean that they don’t pick up porn once in a while or struggle with lust. It just means that they have not had a habitual problem. In fact, the true numbers are probably even worse, because this was a voluntary Web survey, not a random-sample phone survey. It’s amazing, in fact, that 74% percent of men were willing to admit that they had, or had had, a porn problem, including 4% who admitted to using porn that day!
Can we blame Paul Emerson for the porn usage of young men in a Mennonite conference that he helped to found, and headed up for 10 years? While he may not be directly responsible, it shows that his philosophies, doctrines, and principles have not helped give young men the victory over porn.
In order to properly practice Biblical nonconformity, it is probably best to imagine the putting on of a pair of eye glasses that filter everything through the Biblical Anabaptist perspective. This thought may aggravate some who are attempting to free themselves from what they call Anabaptist slavery. These are they who desire credibility within the larger evangelical community. The true disciple of Christ is exclusively desiring credibility with the Lord. Nothing else really matters. If, as we believe, Anabaptism is the correct perspective from which to see the world, said eye glasses are in order…
In direct proportion to the loss of practical nonconformity, the whole testimony of Anabaptism will be lost.
This is how error is perpetuated. Jesus has never called us to view the world through an Anabaptist lens! Instead, we are to be led by God in our interaction with the world.
Especially if you are an Anabaptist, this may seem like a small difference. But here’s the thing: even if the Anabaptist perspective is 100% correct, we must not seek to view the world from an Anabaptist perspective! Why? Because then, instead of following Jesus, we are following Anabaptism. In order to follow Jesus, we must listen to Him, not follow Anabaptism or any other denomination, group, or teacher:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27)
Friends, the quote above from the Sword and Trumpet is the path to spiritual death and zombie-hood.
Jesus Speaks to the Zombie Churches Today
At the beginning, we read Jesus’ words to a zombie church. Let’s go back and review them for the answer of “So what do we do?”:
Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee…
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. (Revelation 3:2-3, 6)
In our study of God’s love so far, we’ve seen that God is love, and that He doesn’t want us to be afraid of Him. We’ve seen that we need to understand His nature, including His love, in order to not be afraid of Him. We also need to glorify Him and seek His help, so that He has the opportunity to demonstrate His love for us. And when we don’t understand His love, we need to ask Him to show us what His love is really like.
As we learn to know our Father better, and His love fills our hearts and lives, how do we respond to that love? And how can we find others who truly love Him?
Since God is love, part of the evidence of His love in our lives is when we have love for each other.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love has been perfected in us. (1 John 4:10-12)
You would think, perhaps, that God would say, “Since I have loved you this much, you ought to love Me in return.” But instead He says, “Love one another.”
Jesus says, “Because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40) When God adopts us into His family, we become brothers of Jesus. In fact, Jesus dwells with each of God’s children, and so, when we show love to one of God’s children, we are showing love to God!
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. Whoever loves the Father also loves the child who is born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is loving God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:1-5)
I used to read these verses and believe that it was my job to keep God’s commands on my own, with His help. I thought that anyone who was saved got as much help from God to keep His commands as any other Christian. In other words, I believed that all Christians, including myself, were receiving God’s help to obey Him, and if I had trouble following Him, I needed to try harder.
Brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work that way, for two reasons. One is that some of us need more help than others, and some of us need help in different areas than others—for example, overcoming an addiction. The second reason is that God doesn’t help us unless we allow Him to do so.
God is not a control freak. He does not force us to do what He wants us to do. Nor does He force us to accept His help. He definitely gives us guidance, changes circumstances, and works all things together for good. But He knows that, if He were to control us into doing the right thing, it would not lead us to truly love Him. We would just be robots.
Forcing people to do the right thing can actually be detrimental. When a person has a personal drive to do something, they will work with a will and try to accomplish the task. However, if someone forces them to do it, or bribes them to do it with some sort of reward/punishment system, it kills the person’s inward drive. This, I believe, is one reason why some homeschool families have fallen apart, despite looking so good when the children were young. Because the well-meaning parents tried to control their teenagers into doing the right thing, it actually turned their children against the parents and against the “right thing”.
Spiritually abusive systems, which stress human effort to achieve a man-made standard, prevent us from receiving God’s love and help, while loading us down with guilt and shame over our inability to follow God (and the pile of human commands the system gives us). This is one reason why you may have to change your beliefs about God and His nature in order to receive His love. If you’re always trying to live the Christian life on your own, God never has a chance to demonstrate His love to you!
The truth is that, when we put our faith in God, realizing that on our own strength we will never measure up to His standards, He gives us the victory to overcome the world and keep His commandments.
Jesus said, “One who has my commandments, and keeps them, that person is one who loves me. One who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will reveal myself to him.” (John 14:21) In other words, when we love God, we will naturally want to keep His commands. I used to think this was run in reverse: you keep God’s commands, and then He loves you.
The truth is that we love God because He first loved us. If we don’t know the love of God, we will not love Him in return. If we think He is just a hard taskmaster who is burdening us down with a grievous load, we will never love Him, and we will despise the very commands we are endeavoring to keep.
What Jesus is saying is that, when we know God, receive His love in our hearts, and love Him in return, we will also love His words and keep them. This is not a “if you really loved me, you would do…” guilt trip.
God is love. Therefore, without God, we will never have true love. Moreover, since we cannot manufacture God, we also cannot manufacture love. If you find yourself unable to love others properly, don’t just “try harder” to love them. That will never work. Ask God to fill you with His love and give you love for others!
So what does that look like? What are loving actions, anyway? We already saw part of the answer to that question earlier: God’s commands explain what loving actions are. They were written in love, and they are our guidelines for walking in love. Someone who claims to love Jesus, yet fails to obey Him, does not love both Jesus and his fellow men.
Not only that, though, God shows us from day to day how to love one another:
But concerning brotherly love, you have no need that one write to you. For you yourselves are taught by God to love one another… (1 Thessalonians 4:9)
With God’s love ruling in our hearts, He will teach us how to love one another. He will guide us how to help one another in the most beneficial way. He will show us areas where we lack love for one another or are treating one another unlovingly.
Remember, love for one another is the result of God’s love first dwelling within our hearts, and then overflowing in love for others. It is not something that you can create on your own!
If you would like to study God’s love some more, I recommend the free e-book He Loves Me! by Wayne Jacobsen. I do not endorse this book completely; I believe that Jacobsen downplays the fear of God too much. God does tell us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), and unless we recognize that He is also holy, just, righteous, and all-powerful, as well as loving, we will not serve Him or even love Him as we ought. However, I recommend this e-book for those who have heard much about the fear of God, yet do not understand the love of God. It will help to shift your thinking in the proper direction.
That may sound like an obvious choice for a Christian on a Sunday morning, but I usually worship at home with my family. This Sunday, however, God led me to attend church elsewhere. I settled on Parkway Community Church in Frederick, MD, a church I had driven past many times, but never attended.
The people were friendly. The singing consisted mostly of hymns and Gospel songs instead of fluff-and-nonsense praise and worship songs, accompanied by piano, keyboard and drums. The pastor led the singing, since both the song leader and assistant song leader were on vacation. Then, after prayer-and-praise time, and taking up the collection, it was time for the sermon.
This reporter has been in many churches and heard many sermons over the years. The sermon today was like many that I have heard before. The pastor preached on Matthew 11:25-30:
At that time, Jesus answered, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight. All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)
As the pastor, Dr. Howard Zurley, preached his sermon, I felt as though something was wrong. But I couldn’t pinpoint it. For the most part, everything he said was accurate. Indeed, Jesus reaches out to those who labor and are heavily burdened. Indeed, Jesus gives us rest. Indeed, Jesus’ yoke is lighter than the yoke of bondage to sin, and those who wear it receive the reward of Heaven. Indeed, too, Jesus has told us to “Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” (Galatians 5:1)
It was accurate—nothing that I could say was heresy or falsehood. And yet, the pastor seemed to be going on and on without really saying anything.
And then God showed me the answer: the pastor understood the Bible academically, and was preaching a message that was Biblical, yet he was not guided by God. To put it succinctly, the pastor knew about Jesus, but he didn’t know Jesus. He had years of Bible knowledge and could put one verse with another to form a sound message. But he didn’t really understand the yoke of Christ that he was preaching about.
As I left the church, I felt grieved in my spirit. To be honest, it wasn’t as though this was the first time I had experienced such a message. But this time, God had showed me His perspective and crystallized my understanding in a new way.
At the beginning of the sermon, a man from the congregation read the pastor’s text. But he started with verse 24 instead verse 25: “But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the Day of Judgment, than for you.” He stopped, confused, realizing that this was not what the pastor would be preaching about that day.
That was not a mistake. That was God’s message to the congregation today. I know because He told me so. The pastor should have been calling his congregation to repentance before Jesus Christ.
Sadly, I don’t believe there is hope for this church. I do believe that there are sincere believers in Christ who attend there, who will not be part of the harsh judgment prophesied this morning. But they are not part of a living church. They are part of a zombie church—a church led and attended by the walking dead.
Zombie Christians don’t realize that they’re dead. Like Lazarus, they have been unwrapped and set free. Unlike Lazarus, they have not been raised to life. Or maybe they have died again, yet haven’t been buried. They are walking around, going to church, playing Christian music on the radio, slapping Christian fish symbols on the back of their cars, even going to seminary and getting Doctor of Divinity degrees, but they do not have the life of Christ living within them.
Their sermons are more or less Biblically accurate, yet an atheist could preach them, with about the same impact—because the sermon does not require a personal relationship with Christ. It is not the result of walking with Christ and learning from Him, but the result of academic study of the Word. They take the living words of Jesus and turn them into a dead sermon.
I wish that this was an isolated case. It is not. As I drove home, I realized that Sunday, in America, is not a happy day for God. Certainly, there are living churches and living Christians in whom God rejoices and is glorified. But America is filled with zombie Christians and zombie churches, who preach empty messages and sing empty songs, and grieve the heart of the One who they think that they know.
I had a similar experience listening to Paul Emerson preach at Calvary Mennonite Fellowship in Virginia. At the time, I didn’t realize everything that I do now, but I sensed that something was wrong. The message was dead. Everything he said was true and good, yet it lacked the power of the Spirit of God. Now I understand. Folks, I’m not going to “pretty it up”: Paul Emerson is a zombie preacher.
It brings me no joy to share this message with you. I was planning to conclude the series on the love of God, but He led me to interrupt it with this report. I wish that I could offer hope and change. And as long as there is physical life, the door is still open for repentance. Some will repent. But many, just as in the days of Jesus’ time on earth, will see God’s mighty works, but fail to yield themselves to Him.
“You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until today. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matthew 11:23-24)
As we begin our study on how to identify false prophets, it’s important to revisit what Jesus said:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
Many times, our impression of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is something like the picture on the right. We expect to be able to identify the wolf by something that “just doesn’t quite line up” or “just doesn’t look right”. But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus said, “Inwardly they are ravening wolves”. In other words, the false prophet is a wolf on the inside, not the outside.
So what should we look for?
Jesus told us how to identify false teachers in the very next verses:
By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree produces good fruit; but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit. A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
Jesus tells us to look, not at the tree, but what it produces. In other words, look at the results of the teacher’s teaching, and look at their own life. Are they Godly people who are truly following Jesus, or are they ministers of Satan who are pretending to be ministers of righteousness?
Jesus is using two analogies in this passage: wolves in sheep’s clothing, and fruit trees. It’s important to remember that we need to find the point that He is making and not merely make extrapolations from the analogies. Those extrapolations may or may not be accurate.
So here’s Jesus’ points:
Beware of false prophets.
False prophets conceal their true nature. They appear to be true Christians, but on the inside, they are the Devil’s agents.
We need to look at their fruits. Are they acting in the way that God has said that His children will behave?
A false prophet cannot follow God and fully obey Him. He will not bring forth truly good fruit in his life.
A Godly person will not live in sin.
Therefore, when we find a teacher who appears to be Godly, yet is disobedient to God and/or exhibits signs of hypocrisy, we need to beware. They could simply be deceived and ignorant of the truth, but there is a good possibility that they are false prophets.
A false prophet is rotten to the core.
Here is an extremely important point to remember: a false prophet’s problems are internal, not external. As Jesus said:
“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt; for the tree is known by its fruit. You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings out good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings out evil things.”
The bad fruit of a false prophet only reveals that he is a false prophet; it does not make him a false prophet. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it makes all the difference in the world when we go to correct the problem. It’s not a matter of getting the false prophet to “clean up his act” and do the right thing. He needs to be changed on the inside so that he brings forth good fruit.
If we try to help the false prophet “do better” and stop sinning without correcting the internal problem, we are actually helping him to be a better “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The real problem is not his sin. The sin is only revealing that this person is not a Godly person. The real problem is that he is following Satan instead of God. The real problem is that he needs to be changed on the inside.
So what do we look for?
The following is not an exhaustive list. It contains some things that God has taught me about signs of a false teacher. If you have more to contribute, please share them with me!
1. Godly-sounding teachings that make the teacher look good.
For example, saying things like:
“If you think about something other than God, more than you think about God, that thing has become your idol.”
“Never miss an opportunity to witness.”
“When the world sees you, it should immediately know that you are a Christian.”
Many of these things sound very spiritual, but they’re not taught by God. They can simply be guilt trips. You may have no way of knowing whether the teacher actually implements them in his or her own life, but it sure makes the teacher look spiritual.
2. Emphasizing “spiritual disciplines” that are actually not spiritual.
This can go along with the previous point. Some examples:
Teaching that you need to spend a lot of time alone in prayer with God. This might include recommendations for spending an hour per day in prayer, for example. (Prayer is vital for the Christian, but anyone can pray a lot, regardless of their relationship with God.)
Fasting. (Again, there’s nothing wrong with fasting, but you can starve yourself without the power of the Holy Spirit–it’s called a hunger strike.)
The thing that all of these have in common is that they sound really spiritual and look like ways to get closer to God. And, in fact, they can draw you closer to God. However, because they do not require the Holy Spirit’s power to do them, anyone can do them. There are some atheists who know the Bible better than some Christians.
3. Telling you about their spiritual discipline.
Jesus tells us:
“Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them, or else you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…
“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men…
“In praying, don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking…
“Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
One of the early warning signs about Bill Gothard was that he behaved as a hypocrite. Every January, he would spend a month at his retreat at “Northwoods” in Minnesota, fasting and praying. We all knew about this because he told us. He also told us about how he got up at 4:00 AM and “spent time with God”. (We now know that he also was spending time with teenage girls in the very early morning, but that’s another matter.) Unfortunately, we took this as a sign of his spirituality, instead of a warning sign that he was a hypocrite.
Another example: in their November 2015 “Mom’s Corner”, Steve and Teri Maxwell shared the following:
November 9th we will have another ladies’ prayer and fasting day. Teri is committing that day to fast and pray with others who have burdens on their hearts…
When you join the fast, you will briefly share your prayer focus so that Teri can pray alongside you…
For men who are interested in prayer and fasting with Steve, they have the option of one or more days starting Saturday, November 7th, and ending Monday morning, November 16th. Choose a day(s) that works for you. Steve is fasting and praying that whole time.
Hmm, is it really necessary to advertise that “Steve is fasting and praying that whole time”?
And how many times have you heard somebody talk about how “we had so many people praying, and God acted” as though God had heard them for their much speaking?
4. Teaching rules and standards that sound “spiritual” but are really just self-improvement.
This can also go along with the last two points, but I want to bring out a specific aspect. False teachers will make up rules of men that sound very spiritual, but are not commanded by God. As God says:
If you died with Christ from the elements of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to ordinances, “Don’t handle, nor taste, nor touch” (all of which perish with use), according to the precepts and doctrines of men? Which things indeed appear like wisdom in self-imposed worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but aren’t of any value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Note that last verse. These rules and standards appear to be wise, humble, and denying oneself, but they don’t actually help us to be more Godly.
For example, having a “hands-off” courtship, supervised by the parents, sounds like a great way to prevent premarital sex. Unfortunately, it also prevents a couple from having the sort of conversations that they need to have in order to really get to know one another. I have read stories of women who ended up marrying abusive husbands because they felt pressure to do so and/or they didn’t know their boyfriend’s true nature until after they married.
And guess who came up with modern courtship? Bill Gothard–a false prophet.
5. Requiring obedience to the Law.
The Law of Moses is, on one hand, a spiritual law.
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin. (Romans 7:14)
However, God tells us that when we try to keep it after we become Christians, we are attempting to gain perfection through the flesh.
I just want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now completed in the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3)
A false prophet is not walking in the Spirit. If he was, he wouldn’t be a false prophet, but a follower of Christ. Therefore, he will cherry-pick commands from the Old Testament and tell you that you should follow them. This is very wrong.
For more on the Law of Moses, watch the video below.
6. Living in sin.
When we see bad fruit, it means that the tree is bad. When we see a supposedly Godly person who is living in outright sin, it means that they are not Godly. Period. God tells us:
Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed: that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother. (1 John 3:7-10)
Both the Greek and the context would indicate that what God is saying here is that those who are born again do not live in sin (as opposed to believing that one small sin means that the person is not born again). Jesus came to set us free from sin. Those who are truly born again will have a hatred toward sin and no desire to live in it. Those who live in sin do not have the Holy Spirit living within them.
Unfortunately, many people want you to believe that you can lie, commit adultery, commit murder, be a drunkard, etc., and still go to Heaven. Sorry. Whether you want to say that the person became a Christian and backslid, or whether you want to say that they never truly became a Christian at all, the bottom line is this: when someone is living in sin, and knows they are living in sin, they are not children of God. They are children of the Devil.
This is a key to detecting wolves. Do not give people a pass because you can’t bear to call them unbelievers. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing “many wonderful works in Jesus’ name” (Matthew 7:22). If they are living in sin, they are not the children of God and will not go to Heaven unless they repent.
7. Bad results from their teachings.
When you see that the fruit of a teacher’s teaching is not good, you know that they are a false teacher. If they try to “disciple” people, and those “disciples” end up living for the Devil, they did not make true disciples of Christ. Something is wrong with their teaching.
It’s important to evaluate the overall picture. Don’t pick out one or two good results and use them to ignore a whole bunch of bad results. At the same time, don’t use one or two cases of bad results to disqualify a whole bunch of good results.
To use a specific example, if one teacher’s teaching on parenting results in a bunch of wayward young people, don’t pick out a few examples of Godly young people whose parents followed that teaching and say that everyone else is an exception. Conversely, if most of the young people are turning out to be Godly, zealous adults, but a few families end up with wayward children, it may be a problem with those specific parents or children, and not the teacher’s fault.
Also, not all that looks good is good. I speak from personal experience. I looked, to some people, like a very Godly, wise, committed Christian at age 20. I know because they told me so. Under the surface, though, I was not as good as they thought I was. I had a lot of problems, and I wasn’t nearly as wise as they thought. Had it not been for the grace of God, I don’t know where I might be today.
Don’t Be Afraid to Look for Wolves
Jesus has told us to beware of false prophets. Don’t listen to the people that tell you that you should give others the benefit of the doubt, when there are clear indications that things are not right.
Because the consequences of ignoring a wolf can be deadly.
Last week I wrote one of my longest posts ever, on the subject of grace. I also believe it is one of the most important posts I have ever made, because the Christian life revolves around God’s grace. Without His grace, Christianity is just another idealistic religion.
But maybe you don’t have time to read a 3,000+ word article. Maybe you missed an important point among all those words. So I want to emphasize something that I only briefly touched on in the middle of the article.
As we saw in “What is Grace?”, grace is much more than just “God’s unmerited favor”. Instead, it is the power of God working within us. But make no mistake: grace is not “the desire and power to do God’s will”, as Bill Gothard defined it. He was 90% correct. But the fatal error is the belief that God empowers me to do His will. On the contrary, grace is God working in me. In Bill’s definition, I do the work and get the credit. In God’s definition, He does the work and gets the credit. As Paul said:
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
As God says, “…not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:9)
Since grace is the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, we can understand Romans 8:13: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Ignore this verse, and you will end up spiritually dead. Why? Because we are saved by God’s grace, and without His grace, we cannot and will not fulfill His will.
There are two ways that a misunderstanding of grace can kill you.
Misunderstanding #1: It doesn’t matter what I do
The first way is when you think that grace is “God’s unmerited favor” that saves you regardless of what you do. You “say the words” and go on your merry way, doing whatever you want. This is “living after the flesh”, as Romans 8:13 says. You are doing what your flesh wants to do, instead of what the Spirit of God wants you to do.
Jesus did not die on the cross merely to forgive your sins. He didn’t need to do that. In the Old Testament, God forgave people’s sins without Jesus’ death:
“Thou [God] hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.”(Psalms 85:2)
“For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.” (Psalms 86:5)
Jesus came and shed His blood, died, and rose again, not just to forgive you, but to kill you—your sinful self with its sinful desires—and then raise you to life again as a new creature, purified from sin (singular, not plural). He wants you to be righteous and holy, just as He is, but He knew that the only way to truly conquer sin was for Him to put it to death—so He died for us.
Jesus didn’t come to hide your sin with a robe of righteousness. He came to take away your sin and replace it with righteousness—on the inside.
This is why you are saved by grace—because you are incapable of changing yourself on the inside and killing your sin. God’s grace is so much better than just allowing you to do what you want. He gives you the power to live a righteous life!
Misunderstanding #2: It really matters what I do, so I need to work really hard!
The flip side will also kill you. This is when you believe that God’s grace gets you saved, and then it’s up to you, with the help of God and your church/friends/parents/accountability group, to live a life of obedience to Christ. You implement various formulas and five-step plans to help you do what’s right. If you stumble and fall into sin, you pick yourself up and resolve to do better next time. Just like the person who doesn’t care what they do, you are walking in the flesh.
If we could implement Jesus’ commands on our own strength, He didn’t need to die. If the Bible is just a self-help book that gives us high ideals for how to live, God could have given these new ideals to His prophets—or just put them in the Law of Moses to begin with!
We all realize (I hope) that we need to be born again in order to obey Jesus. We need to also understand that it is only by the grace of God that we can live for Him on a daily basis. He is the One who enables us to live for Him, and manmade plans, formulas, and steps of action will not give us God’s grace. Instead, they give us pride—which causes God to withhold His grace. Oops!
When you realize that you are not living as God wants you to live, you need to humble yourself before God, repent, and ask Him to give you the grace to obey Him and be the person He wants you to be. Remember, grace only comes to the humble. “…God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6).
Sin in your life is a sign of a lack of God’s grace. Don’t become defensive and try to excuse or ignore the sin. Repent, and ask God for the grace to stop! It’s so much better to get rid of the sin instead of hiding it.