Ignorance, as the saying goes, is indeed bliss…until you realize that you are ignorant. Then it is embarrassing. And sometimes horrifying.
I know what I’m talking about, having experienced the shameful realization that what I’d been teaching for years under the banner of “incontestable biblical truth” was dead wrong. People trusted me, and I misled them on matters of eternal importance. Worse, some of that misleading teaching is still in print, scattered in places where I can’t possibly recover it, like hidden land mines buried during a war that is long over. (How thankful I am that cassette tapes have become an outmoded technology, effectively silencing thousands of my old sermons.)
Almost three decades ago, I wrote a book titled, Your Best Year Yet, a devotional and commentary that followed the daily reading plan of the One-Year Bible. Although Your Best Year Yet has been out of print for many years, we still occasionally receive requests from folks who want to buy copies. In fact, a representative from the original publisher approached me a couple of years ago, requesting the literary rights to republish it. I explained to her that I would need to devote a significant amount of time editing my old book, as I have since realized that some of my original commentary was unbiblical. No matter, she said, and she proceeded to gain approval for the reprinting of Your Best Year Yet from the publication committee of her company.
But after that, I never heard from her again. What happened? I suspect she researched my updated theology on our website and realized that a revised version—with my more enlightened theology—wouldn’t sell, at least to her publisher’s readers. Who wants to pay for a book that might expose their need to repent? Although the last thing Jesus said before He ascended to heaven was all about teaching people to obey His commandments, how many books can you find on the shelves of Christian bookstores that have anything to do with that?
My wife, Becky, is reading through the Bible this year and, to my chagrin, she pulled out a 20-year-old copy of Your Best Year Yet so that she can read my daily commentary on the Old and New Testament readings. I’m thankful she is not reading the original 1987 version, but rather the revised 1996 version that includes an additional preface in which I wrote:
It has been about ten years since I originally wrote Your Best Year Yet, and time has necessitated a revised edition. As I look back over the past decade, I can attest to God’s faithfulness to “complete the good work He began in me” (see Phil. 1:6). By His grace, I’ve grown in my understanding of His Word, and I now know Him much better (although I still have a long way to go). In particular, the redemptive work of Christ on the cross means so much more to me. Former readers will notice in this edition a stronger emphasis on the significance of Calvary and the ramifications of the gospel. I’ve joined the ranks of those who believe (like Jesus, Paul, John, Peter, James and Jude!) that the call to salvation is a call to discipleship. Believing in Jesus means embracing Him as Lord, and I make this point often as Scripture provides opportunity….
It is with sincere gratitude to our Lord, who is perfect and who never changes, that I offer this revised edition, which, should Jesus tarry, will undoubtedly need to be revised again.
As I read those paragraphs, I’m glad I realized in 1996 that I hadn’t yet arrived at a perfect understanding of the Bible. A few days ago, Becky confirmed that in 1996 there was still some growth waiting for me as she read to me what I’d written then regarding Matthew 25:31-46:
This judgment we read about today is usually…referred to as “the judgment of the nations.” Opinions differ from then on. Some say this is a final judgment, and each individual will either be a “sheep” or a “goat.” Those who treated Christ’s brothers in a compassionate way will enter eternal life, and those who showed Christ’s brothers no compassion will go to eternal punishment….
Others look upon this judgment as a separation of different nations based upon how they treated Jewish believers in Israel during the tribulation. Those nations which had compassion will be permitted to enter into the millennial reign of Christ. Those that didn’t will be removed from the earth.
I side with the first interpretation, but I see some validity in the second.
How my words written in 1996 make me cringe now! How could I have been so blind to think there was any validity to the second interpretation? According to Jesus, the sheep are granted eternal life (not simply “permitted to enter the millennial reign of Christ”), whereas the goats are cast into eternal flames (not simply “removed from the earth”). If the second interpretation has any validity, it means that future people who love Jesus might be cast into hell if they happen to live in the wrong nation during the tribulation. Similarly, future people who hate Jesus might inherit eternal life if they happen to live in the right nation during the tribulation.
How this grieves me that people might be misled today by what I wrote in 1987 or 1996. Even though I’ve asked for God’s forgiveness in this matter, it doesn’t seem to help me feel any better about the damage my writings have caused and may still yet cause. No doubt that is why James wrote, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:1). My only consolation is that at least I’m no longer promoting a lie.
Before I continue any further, please allow me to set the record straight: Jesus taught in Matthew 25:31-46 that those who do nothing to relieve the sufferings of the “least of these”—His spiritual family members who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, or incarcerated—will not inherit eternal life, but will rather be cast into hell. Their lack of compassion and sacrifice reveals that they don’t love Jesus. And that is incontestable biblical truth.
Of course, everyone among the millions of people who teach the Bible—from paid professionals, such as seminary professors and pastors, to amateurs, such as armchair theologians and Facebook posters—all believe that they are teaching incontestable biblical truth. Yet they disagree on scores of biblical issues, interpreting Scripture differently. Therefore it is quite safe to say that, on every issue, a percentage must be wrong.
So how can the average Christian figure out who is right and who is wrong?
Of course the standard answer to that question is this: Every Christian needs to become a student of the Bible himself/herself. But, in my opinion, that answer is unrealistic. The reason is because all the “professional” Bible teachers are also students of the Bible. Many have been studying it for decades. And many of those decades-long Bible studiers disagree on various points of theology. Thus, on every point, some of them must be wrong. So becoming a serious Bible student yourself obviously doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it right.
Moreover, to ask the average Christian to study the Bible so that he is as proficient as a seminary professor is a little bit unreasonable. That is somewhat like asking a sick person who doesn’t know which doctor to trust to pursue a degree in medicine.
I recently watched a video by a well-educated theologian who was promoting a controversial doctrine with which I entirely disagree. Having spent many years dissecting similar teachings, I was able to easily identify the flaws in his argument. But his presentation was so polished, and his reasoning seemed so sound, I could see how many Christians could easily swallow it, having no defense against it (other than their God-given conscience screaming within them, which this particular teacher brushed off by claiming that that intuitive rejection of his doctrine was actually “the flesh”).
Expecting average Christians to beat bearded theologians at their own game is like pitting Barney Fife against a sumo wrestler. And the fact is, the average Christian is going to trust someone to lead him spiritually, just like he trusts someone else to repair his car or inform him of what is happening in Syria.
So is there a way to know who to trust when it comes to correct biblical doctrine? Let us start with something Jesus said on the subject:
Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:15-23).
Jesus affirms that there is one surefire way to pick out false prophets (and teachers): Look at their fruit. Obviously He was not talking about the fruit of “big crowds,” “impressive titles” or “miraculous powers,” but the fruit of holiness, because that is how God judges them. In the end, He will cast spiritual leaders “who practice lawlessness” into the fire.
Applying what Jesus said, I have occasionally avoided wasting my time when challenged to doctrinal debates simply by asking my challenger, “Before we start our debate, can you describe for me what you’ve done over the past 12 months to meet the needs of those in Christ’s body who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick or incarcerated? Because if you haven’t done anything, according to Jesus, you are a hell-bound goat, and the important thing is not that you convince me of the error of my doctrine, but that you become a follower of Jesus.”
One can be a life-long theologian—who has made a career out of studying and teaching the Bible—and not know God. The scribes and Pharisees were perfect examples of that. There is no shortage today of spiritual leaders who aren’t yet submitted to the only true Leader (see Matt. 23:10).
And that leads me to my final point. Some may say, “Yes, Jesus made it clear that we can trust spiritual leaders who bear good fruit. But there are many spiritual leaders who bear good fruit but who still disagree on various doctrinal matters. How can we determine whose teaching is correct?”
My answer is, perhaps those doctrinal issues that have no bearing on holiness are not as important as we think. It seems to me that within Christendom, right doctrine has been elevated far above right living. One proof is that we continually divide over doctrine, destroying the precious unity of those who believe in Jesus, and disobeying His foremost commandment to love one another. Another proof are the doctrinal tests (rather than fruitfulness tests) of church membership and denominational acceptance. Yet another proof is the plethora of sermons on topics that have nothing to do with holiness or simple obedience to the commandments of Christ.
Jesus did not say, “Go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them all the correct doctrines.” Rather, He told us to make disciples, teaching them to obey all of His commandments.
And Jesus won’t be saying to the sheep on His right, “Enter into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, because your doctrinal positions were spot on.”
My final confession in this month’s e-teaching is this: I’m really looking forward to heaven, and especially to that wonderful time when all the people who disagreed with me doctrinally on earth will be lined up to apologize to me, once God has straightened them out. (By the way, sure hoping it won’t be me who is lined up to apologize…no, surely not…) But I’m wondering, Will all the things we debate about now even be remembered in heaven, as we bow before the throne of the Lamb who has saved us? — David