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The Rise of a Counterfeit Christianity

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“Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name … and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-5 Matthew 24:4-5 4 And Jesus answered and said to them, Take heed that no man deceive you. 5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
American King James Version×
).

Jesus Christ told His apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in His name. Most people who are familiar with the Bible realize that those apostles zealously embarked on that mission. Their converts were first called Christians in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26 Acts 11:26And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
American King James Version×
). Over the centuries, vast numbers of people were born or converted into what eventually became the hundreds of denominations known collectively as “Christianity”—to the point that it became and still remains one of the world’s most popular and dominant religions.

People assume that all, or at least almost all, who bear the name Christian follow the beliefs, teachings and practices of Jesus Christ. But the Bible tells us that not everyone who accepts the name of Christ is really a Christian!

Jesus foretold that some would claim His name but deny Him by their actions. He said they would “call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’” but “not do the things which I say” (Luke 6:46 Luke 6:46And why call you me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?
American King James Version×
).

Christ and His apostles spoke of false prophets, false apostles and false brethren. They revealed that two opposing religions would emerge, both claiming to be Christian. One—the actual Church Jesus founded—would be led by God’s Spirit and remain faithful to His teachings. The other—guided and influenced by a different spirit—would accept the name of Christ but twist His teachings to create a convincing counterfeit of the true Church of God.

Both would use Christ’s name and claim His authority. Both would perform works that would outwardly appear good and right. Both would claim to be following Christ’s true teachings. But only one would faithfully represent its founder, Jesus Christ. The other would capture the minds and hearts of humanity by attaching the name of Christ to biblically insupportable religious customs and doctrines that Jesus and His apostles neither practiced nor approved.

The apostles repeatedly warned Jesus’ followers to beware of false teachers who would introduce counterfeit-Christian beliefs. Jesus Himself warned: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name…and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-5 Matthew 24:4-5 4 And Jesus answered and said to them, Take heed that no man deceive you. 5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
American King James Version×
).

The New Testament presents a concise historical sketch of the roots of these two religions that profess to be Christian—one real, one counterfeit. Christ’s apostles described the origin of each and their fundamental characteristics.

We have already examined the apostles’ description of the Church Jesus founded. Now let’s look at the record they left us of another supposedly Christian religion—one that distorted and corrupted the truth and grew to become far more powerful and influential than the small Church Jesus promised would never die out.

Teaching the traditions of men

Where do most churches get their teachings and practices? Most of their members assume they come from the Bible or from Jesus Christ Himself. But do they?

Jesus commanded His apostles to teach others exactly what He had taught—”teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20 Matthew 28:20Teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you: and, see, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. Amen.
American King James Version×
, NIV). He condemned the replacing of God’s commandments with traditions and human reason. Speaking to the Pharisees, Jewish religious leaders of His day, He said: “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men…All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9 Mark 7:8-9 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do. 9 And he said to them, Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition.
American King James Version×
).

Jesus taught that His Church should keep the commandments of God: “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17 Matthew 19:17And he said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.
American King James Version×
). He warned: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied [preached] in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:22-23 Matthew 7:22-23 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.
American King James Version×
). He knew that false teachers would arise who would reject the commandments of God for a distorted gospel of no law—lawlessness!

Like Jesus, the apostles consistently taught obedience to God. Peter and the other apostles risked their lives to make it clear that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 Acts 5:29Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.
American King James Version×
). Paul expressed the same commitment he shared with the other apostles—of a life of obedience. “Through him [Christ] and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5 Romans 1:5By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name:
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Paul later cautioned members of the congregation in Colosse to hold fast to what he had taught them: “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught” (Colossians 2:6-7 Colossians 2:6-7 6 As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk you in him: 7 Rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
American King James Version×
).

Following Christ’s example, Paul warned the Colossians not to accept traditions as replacements for the commandments of God: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
American King James Version×
; compare Mark 7:8-13 Mark 7:8-13 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do. 9 And he said to them, Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition. 10 For Moses said, Honor your father and your mother; and, Whoever curses father or mother, let him die the death: 11 But you say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatever you might be profited by me; he shall be free. 12 And you suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things do you.
American King James Version×
).

Why did Jesus Christ and the apostles sound such urgent warnings to avoid the traditions of men?

Subversion from within the Church

As the apostles strove to establish still more congregations of believers among the nations, a phenomenon arose that eventually produced an alternate and outwardly Christian religion—but one quite different from the Church Jesus and His apostles established.

New and different doctrines were subtly introduced. Some began subverting the Church by challenging and contradicting the teachings of Christ’s apostles. Paul warned, “For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus 1:10-11 Titus 1:10-11 10 For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: 11 Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.
American King James Version×
).

To counter this trend, Paul instructed fellow elder Titus to carefully consider the background, knowledge and character of anyone being considered for ordination: “Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless… He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:7-9, NIV).

Increasingly, “false apostles” began contradicting and undermining the teachings of the true apostles of Christ. Paul cautioned the church in Rome: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil” (Romans 16:17-19 Romans 16:17-19 17 Now I beseech you, brothers, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned; and avoid them. 18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. 19 For your obedience is come abroad to all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise to that which is good, and simple concerning evil.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

Competing religious leaders, masquerading as ministers of Christ, began teaching their own false doctrines “in opposition to” Christ’s apostles and other of his faithful servants. At first they came predominantly from a Jewish background. But then false teachers emerged from people of other backgrounds within the Church. The subversive doctrines that eventually grew to be the most influential were a blend of pagan and misguided Jewish philosophies synthesized with the mysticism popular at that time.

Simon the Sorcerer was one such false teacher mentioned early in the Scriptures. After his baptism by Philip, Simon attempted to buy the office of apostle from Peter, hoping to obtain the power to grant others the Holy Spirit. Motivated by greed for power and influence, he faked conversion and managed to receive baptism to appear Christian (Acts 8:9-23 Acts 8:9-23 9 But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: 10 To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. 11 And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done. 14 Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John: 15 Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: 16 (For as yet he was fallen on none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) 17 Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. 18 And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, 19 Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. 20 But Peter said to him, Your money perish with you, because you have thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter: for your heart is not right in the sight of God. 22 Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I perceive that you are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.
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). Later historical sources indicate that he blended various elements of paganism and mysticism into a counterfeit Christian philosophy.

A dangerous trend was established. Soon “false apostles,” “false teachers” and “false brethren” abounded.

A counterfeit Christianity was born. And it would grow. In saying his farewell to the elders of the church of Ephesus, Paul stated: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29-31 Acts 20:29-31 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
American King James Version×
).

A different gospel gains ground

The impact of distorted teachings devastated the early Church. For example, Christians in the Roman province of Galatia turned en masse from the teachings of the apostle Paul and to a corrupted, cunningly devised but counterfeit gospel promoted by these false apostles.

Paul described the approach they used and the effect the false teachers had on Christians in Galatia: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7 Galatians 1:6-7 6 I marvel that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ to another gospel: 7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
American King James Version×
).

The brethren in that area were being swept into one of the many sects making up the emerging false Christianity. Paul had to contend with religious strife generated by Jewish and gentile elements in the Galatian congregations.

These cunning pretenders did not reject outright the gospel Paul taught. They simply perverted aspects of it. Then they seduced the Galatian Christians into accepting their gospel—a deadly mixture of truth and error. It contained enough truth to appear righteous and Christian, but it contained sufficient error to prevent any who would accept it from receiving salvation.

Notice Paul’s blistering condemnation of that “different” gospel: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9 Galatians 1:8-9 8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel to you than that you have received, let him be accursed.
American King James Version×
).

A gospel of no law

Jesus warned His apostles this would happen: “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:11-12 Matthew 24:11-12 11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. 12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
American King James Version×
). Jesus explained that lawlessness, the key element in the message of the false teachers, would make their ideas appealing and popular. Disregard for God’s law would finally become the foundation of a popular and successful counterfeit Christianity.

The false prophets devised their message and doctrines by verbally acknowledging Jesus as “Lord” while refusing to obey Him (Luke 6:46 Luke 6:46And why call you me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?
American King James Version×
). Jesus Himself warned of their deceitful, cunning approach: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15 Matthew 7:15Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
American King James Version×
).

Jesus made it clear that teachers of lawlessness, who outwardly appear as innocent sheep performing devoutly religious acts, are not His apostles or servants: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:22-23 Matthew 7:22-23 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.
American King James Version×
).

God’s law: the religious battleground

Controversy over God’s law erupted within the Church as soon as the first gentiles were converted. Certain Jewish believers wanted to force circumcision and other physical requirements on the gentiles. They demanded that gentile converts be physically circumcised to receive salvation (Acts 15:1 Acts 15:1And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brothers, and said, Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.
American King James Version×
).

In a major conference in Jerusalem, the apostles and elders determined that physical circumcision should not be regarded as a requirement for the gentiles’ salvation (Acts 15:2-10 Acts 15:2-10 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. 3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy to all the brothers. 4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. 5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said to them, Men and brothers, you know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knows the hearts, bore them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did to us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt you God, to put a yoke on the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
American King James Version×
). Peter noted that God had recently given the Holy Spirit to several gentiles without their being circumcised, demonstrating His will in the matter (Acts 15:8 Acts 15:8And God, which knows the hearts, bore them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did to us;
American King James Version×
; Acts 11:1-18 Acts 11:1-18 1 And the apostles and brothers that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2 And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, 3 Saying, You went in to men uncircumcised, and did eat with them. 4 But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order to them, saying, 5 I was in the city of Joppa praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, A certain vessel descend, as it had been a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came even to me: 6 On the which when I had fastened my eyes, I considered, and saw four footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat. 8 But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has at any time entered into my mouth. 9 But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God has cleansed, that call not you common. 10 And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven. 11 And, behold, immediately there were three men already come to the house where I was, sent from Caesarea to me. 12 And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brothers accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house: 13 And he showed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said to him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; 14 Who shall tell you words, whereby you and all your house shall be saved. 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. 16 Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. 17 For as much then as God gave them the like gift as he did to us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? 18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance to life.
American King James Version×
).

The same Jews also demanded that gentiles observe the temple ceremonies and rituals, which pointed to greater spiritual realities such as the sacrifice of Christ. The apostles insisted that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for the forgiveness of sins through the grace of God (Hebrews 7:26-27 Hebrews 7:26-27 26 For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; 27 Who needs not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.
American King James Version×
).

The temple sacrifices and rituals were only temporary institutions until the sacrifice of the real “Lamb of God” (John 1:29 John 1:29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.
American King James Version×
) and His work in the lives of believers. The apostles taught that they were no longer required (Acts 15:11 Acts 15:11But we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
American King James Version×
; Hebrews 9:1-15 Hebrews 9:1-15 1 Then truly the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. 2 For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the show bread; which is called the sanctuary. 3 And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; 4 Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; 5 And over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. 6 Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. 7 But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: 8 The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: 9 Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; 10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation. 11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; 12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. 13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh: 14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.
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) because they were “concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10 Hebrews 9:10Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.
American King James Version×
).

But the apostles never regarded God’s spiritual laws, summarized by the Ten Commandments, as being in the same category with “fleshly ordinances.” They always supported obedience to God’s commandments. Paul made this clear: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19 1 Corinthians 7:19Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.
American King James Version×
). He concluded: “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31 Romans 3:31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.
American King James Version×
).

Distorted view of God’s grace

Just as Jesus had foretold, unscrupulous teachers pounced on the teachings of Paul and the other apostles and twisted their meaning (2 Peter 3:15-16 2 Peter 3:15-16 15 And account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given to him has written to you; 16 As also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.
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). By distorting the apostles’ words, first about grace and then about those “fleshly ordinances” that are no longer necessary, they discovered a way to excuse their unlawful behavior: “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness [shameful behavior] and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4 Jude 1:4For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×
).

To them, grace excused sin—the breaking of God’s law—by allowing them to disregard scriptural teachings they did not like. They twisted Paul’s explanation that we cannot earn salvation with our own “works” into an excuse for making no effort to obey God.

Peter pinpointed their real problem. They “despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed. They are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries” (2 Peter 2:10 2 Peter 2:10But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government. Presumptuous are they, self-willed, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.
American King James Version×
). A dominant characteristic of these deceivers was their eagerness to verbally attack and undermine the apostles and elders who were the true shepherds of God’s flock.

As a consequence, said Peter, “they have forsaken the right way and gone astray…For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:15-19 2 Peter 2:15-19 15 Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; 16 But was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbade the madness of the prophet. 17 These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever. 18 For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error. 19 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage.
American King James Version×
).

Now a problem even more sinister developed among the scattered congregations of God’s people. False teachers, instead of trying to impose more law on gentiles, began exploiting God’s mercy—the grace of God—to advocate the idea that Christians have been liberated from the law and no longer need to obey it. However, God says transgressing His law is sin (1 John 3:4 1 John 3:4Whoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
American King James Version×
).

These teachers misrepresented God’s law as an unnecessary burden. John responded: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3 1 John 5:3For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
American King James Version×
).

Contrary to the idea of being liberated from law, James calls God’s commandments a “royal law” and the “law of liberty” (James 2:8-12 James 2:8-12 8 If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you do well: 9 But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if you commit no adultery, yet if you kill, you are become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak you, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
American King James Version×
). God designed His law to guarantee freedom from the consequences of such evils as adultery, murder, theft, fraud and covetousness.

It is sin, not God’s law, that enslaves us (Romans 6:6 Romans 6:6Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that from now on we should not serve sin.
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). We become free from the enslavement to sin by obeying God (Romans 6:17 Romans 6:17But God be thanked, that you were the servants of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.
American King James Version×
). Paul explains that obedience and righteousness are inseparable. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Romans 2:13 Romans 2:13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

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Satan the devil: master deceiver

Scripture reveals that those who promoted these lawless principles were influenced by an unseen spiritual power, Satan the devil. Paul said: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
American King James Version×
).

Satan hates God’s law. He is a master deceiver. Naturally, he will spare no effort to infiltrate the Church Christ founded.

To accomplish his purpose, Satan uses people to mislead other people. It is easy for him to influence human beings who desire to teach others when they are motivated by personal ambition. This is especially true if they lack a proper understanding of the Scriptures. Satan simply takes advantage of their desire to be spiritual teachers. He seduces susceptible individuals to pay lip service to Christ while creating their own new sets of beliefs and ignoring or disobeying portions of God’s laws.

Paul told Timothy to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” and have a “pure heart,” “good conscience” and “sincere faith…from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (1 Timothy 1:3-7 1 Timothy 1:3-7 3 As I sought you to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that you might charge some that they teach no other doctrine, 4 Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. 5 Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: 6 From which some having swerved have turned aside to vain jangling; 7 Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.
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Sincere but misguided religious leaders can and do accept doctrines that in their mind permit them to break some of God’s commandments. Then they persuade others to believe as they do. Sadly, through the devil’s influence, they convince themselves that their misguided concepts are righteous—that God is pleased with them. They believe the false doctrines they teach. Although sincere, they are sincerely mistaken.

Paul says, “The coming of the lawless one [a future teacher who will advocate doctrines contrary to God’s laws] is according to the working of Satan…with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:9-11 2 Thessalonians 2:9-11 9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, 10 And with all delusion of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
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). Probably none of the misguided teachers perceives he is in reality advocating Satan’s point of view.

However, by creating a counterfeit Christian religion—one that is not entirely different from the true Church but rejects some of the essential biblical teachings that lead to eternal life—Satan is attempting to thwart God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. Remember, Jesus says, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17 Matthew 19:17And he said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.
American King James Version×
). That is exactly what the devil wants to prevent. He promotes a lawless Christianity that teaches we can selectively obey—or even ignore—God’s commandments.

Lawlessness in varying degrees is the centerpiece of Satan’s counterfeit doctrines. His purpose is to convince people that they are serving Christ while cutting them off from salvation by clouding their understanding of what sin is so they will continue in sin—so they will practice at least some degree of lawlessness.

To accomplish his purpose, Satan exploits human nature. He sways people to believe his deceptions (1 John 5:19 1 John 5:19And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in wickedness.
American King James Version×
; Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
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). Satan retains just enough truth in his doctrines to persuade people they are following Christ. But he introduces sufficient error to prevent them from living the way that God requires as a condition for inheriting eternal life.

Why disobedience appeals to human nature

Satan is successful in deceiving humanity for good reason. The apostle Paul explains that the natural mind of man—the mind that is not guided by God’s Spirit—cannot always see the purpose behind God’s laws. “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 1 Corinthians 2:14But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
American King James Version×
).

Most people are not overtly hostile toward many of God’s laws. They usually recognize that deeds such as murder and theft are wrong. However, they are hostile—perhaps without recognizing their ingrained hostility—toward laws that challenge their own personal, natural way of thinking. In that sense lawlessness appeals to people.

Paul explains why disobedience can appeal to our baser instincts: “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7 Romans 8:7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
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). The carnal, or fleshly, mind not only lacks spiritual discernment, it resents God’s authority as expressed in His laws. The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates this verse: “The mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so.”

We call this sinful tendency human nature— a combination of human weakness and acquired attitudes resulting from Satan’s influence on people. Satan exploits human nature. He uses his false teachers to convince other people that they are “liberated” from the laws of God, thus excusing their tendency to be hostile toward God’s laws. So, rather than abandoning a life of lawlessness, those led astray by this deception continue in sin. Thinking their disobedient actions are permissible to God, they fail to recognize, at least in some of their beliefs and behavior, the seriousness of their sinful actions.

But the apostle James makes it clear that this approach and attitude to God’s royal law are entirely wrong: “For whoever shall keep the whole law and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10 James 2:10For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
American King James Version×
). The context shows that James is speaking of the Ten Commandments (James 8-11). God’s fundamental law is made up of 10 points, and He requires us to observe them all—in letter and spirit.

A falling away from truth begins

Christ praised the church in Ephesus for refusing to follow false apostles who tried to take advantage of their human nature and seduce them: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Revelation 2:2 Revelation 2:2I know your works, and your labor, and your patience, and how you can not bear them which are evil: and you have tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars:
American King James Version×
).

But not everyone in every congregation followed the example of the church in Ephesus. Many accepted the teachings of the false apostles and reverted to sinning. That is why Peter wrote: “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter 2:20-21 2 Peter 2:20-21 20 For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. 21 For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.
American King James Version×
).

People began turning away from the teachings of Christ’s true apostles. They accepted the philosophies of false teachers. Peter had explicitly warned that this would occur. He said false teachers would arise “among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Peter 2:1-2 2 Peter 2:1-2 1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privately shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. 2 And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.
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).

Peter anticipated that not just a few—but many— Christians would turn aside from the truth to follow doctrines that were more appealing to the carnal mind. Later John confirms that this is indeed what happened: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19 1 John 2:19They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
American King James Version×
).

Barnabas and Paul encountered a false prophet determined to turn people away from the truth. “Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus…But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith” (Acts 13:6-8 Acts 13:6-8 6 And when they had gone through the isle to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: 7 Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.
American King James Version×
).

On other occasions the problem lay with false brethren (Galatians 2:4 Galatians 2:4And that because of false brothers unawares brought in, who came in privately to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage:
American King James Version×
). Paul referred to his trials “in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren” (2 Corinthians 11:26 2 Corinthians 11:26In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brothers;
American King James Version×
).

These false Christians had not become a genuine threat just to Paul’s safety and effectiveness, but they had also become a significant part of the visible Christian community. Some may have finally gone out from God’s special people but continued calling themselves Christian. Others became members of new and supposedly liberated sects that retained the name Christian. Still others probably remained in the fellowship of true believers and over time subverted congregations to their own heretical teachings.

A false Christianity was beginning to take a firm hold.

True Christians forced out of congregations

As the teachings of false ministers gained in popularity, their followers gradually grew to be the majority in some congregations. The apostle John records one such tragic example: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (3 John 1:9-10 3 John 1:9-10 9 I wrote to the church: but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, receives us not. 10 Why, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither does he himself receive the brothers, and forbids them that would, and casts them out of the church.
American King James Version×
).

Incredible as it sounds, those who were faithful to the teaching of the apostles were expelled from this congregation! They had become the minority. The majority had chosen to follow Diotrephes, who, in his own lust for power and influence, falsely accused the apostle John. Satan had succeeded in placing his minister over this congregation, expelling the faithful servants of Jesus Christ.

Remember, Jesus had already warned His true servants that this would happen: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:13-15 Matthew 7:13-15 13 Enter you in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it. 15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
American King James Version×
).

He also said, as earlier quoted: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mark 7:6-8 Mark 7:6-8 6 He answered and said to them, Well has Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7 However, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do.
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, NIV).

Now we can understand why Paul explained to Christians in Rome the appropriate response to those who were stirring up division within the Church: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17 Romans 16:17Now I beseech you, brothers, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned; and avoid them.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Counterfeit Christianity become dominant

By the end of the third century the true servants of God had become a distinct minority among those who called themselves Christians. The counterfeit Christianity had become the majority.

False teachers had successfully gained a far larger following than the faithful ministers of God. However, history shows the counterfeit sects were not united in their beliefs. Many factions existed among them.

Nevertheless, divided and unconverted as it was, this new brand of Christianity rapidly expanded its membership and became the visible Christian church. Claiming to offer salvation, but without the necessity of real repentance, it held just enough truth to appeal to the masses.

In spite of its faults, it appeared to offer a hope unequaled by any pagan religion at that time. None of the pagan religions offered a believable way for people to receive forgiveness of sins and obtain eternal life. This new religion seemed to offer just that. Little did its followers realize that its promises, without real repentance, were made in vain.

By the end of the third century this counterfeit Christianity was a squabbling, bitterly divided religion. But at the beginning of the fourth century two things happened that abruptly altered the course of Christian history. First, the Roman emperor Diocletian intensified the policy of many previous Roman emperors of persecuting Christians and ordered that all Christian manuscripts be burned. This dramatically renewed a climate of fear throughout the Christian community.

Ten years later another emperor, Constantine, came to power. He had defeated another powerful contender for the right to replace Diocletian as emperor, but he still had many enemies, and his political position remained insecure. In all the empire, only Christians were unaligned politically. Constantine immediately saw an opportunity to use this formerly persecuted and politically alienated religious body to strengthen his hold on the empire.

First he legalized Christianity. Then, only two years later, he called all the divided professing Christian groups together to hammer out a unified system of belief. He wanted a united religious body that was politically committed to him.

To achieve this, Constantine presided over doctrinal deliberations and dictated statements of belief whenever disagreements could not be resolved amicably. He soon successfully molded the bickering groups of counterfeit Christians who were willing to accept state control into a strong and unified vassal of the Roman Empire.

Williston Walker, former professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale University, tells us that, in the year 323, “Constantine was at last the sole ruler of the Roman world. The church was everywhere free from persecution … But, in winning its freedom from its enemies, it had come largely under the control of the occupant of the Roman imperial throne. A fateful union with the state had begun” ( A History of the Christian Church, 1946, p. 111).

A religion transformed through syncretism

As this new religion—now supported by the Roman emperors—grew in power and influence, it sought to become a truly universal church. In its ambition to add more members, many new converts—and many new practices—were welcomed into its fold.

Charles Guignebert, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Paris, described the process: “Now at the beginning of the fifth century, the ignorant and the semi-Christians thronged into the Church in numbers… They had forgotten none of their pagan customs . . . The bishops of that period had to content themselves with redressing, as best they could, and in experimental fashion, the shocking malformations of the Christian faith which they perceived around them…

“[Properly instructing converts] was out of the question; they had to be content with teaching them no more than the symbol of baptism and then baptizing them en masse, postponing until a later date the task of eradicating their superstitions, which they preserved intact …This ‘later date’ never arrived, and the Church adapted to herself, as well as she could, them and their customs and beliefs. On their side, they were content to dress up their paganism in a Christian cloak” ( The Early History of Christianity, 1927, pp. 208-210).

What was the result? This state-dominated Christianity became a bizarre synthesis of beliefs, practices and customs from many sources.

As Professor Guignebert explained, “It is sometimes very difficult to tell exactly from which pagan rite a particular Christian rite is derived, but it remains certain that the spirit of pagan ritualism became impressed upon Christianity, to such an extent that at last the whole of it might be found distributed through its ceremonies” (p. 121).

In those early centuries the counterfeit Christianity that the apostles of Jesus Christ had fought so hard to contain grew in size and popularity. In later centuries this religion would fragment repeatedly into competing denominations. Tragically, however, none completely returned to the original practices and teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles. This fact is recognized by many modern biblical scholars.

Meanwhile, those who through these many centuries have faithfully continued to yield their lives to God in sincere obedience to His laws are still, comparatively speaking, only a “little flock” in a confused world.

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