As Christians, we are commanded against following teachers blindly but are told rather to “test everything; hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The Apostle Peter warns us in 2 Peter 2:1-3 that there will be false teachers in our day just as there were false teachers in his day. Among their false teachings is a denial of the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to take away sin, which is a common theme among cultists today. Another characteristic of false teachers is the greed which motivates them in everything they do. Paul offers a similar warning to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29-31, calling the false teachers “savage wolves” who mercilessly attempt to destroy the faith of the sheep and draw them away from the Shepherd. Paul warned the church continually, pleading with them night and day to be on their guard against such deceivers.
From these passages, we see clearly that we are to distinguish between true and false teachers. How then are we to do that? First, as Paul instructs the Ephesians, we are to “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). Rather, we are to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” and we do this by “the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). The knowledge of Christ can only be obtained through the Word of God, and it is by that Word that we distinguish between the true and the false.
In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus offers some critical advice in discerning who is a false prophet: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruits you will recognize them.” Plainly stated, is the teacher’s life marked by a progressive conformity to the likeness of Christ? Is the teacher bearing the fruits of the Spirit? Just as only good trees produce good fruit, so do only true teachers of Christ display the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), whereas false prophets and teachers display the acts of their sinful natures (Galatians 5:19-21). By these fruits, we recognize true and false teachers.
Second, does the teaching that is being presented conform to the message as proclaimed by the early church and the apostles? As Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” These are harsh words indeed that Paul has for the false teachers, but eternal condemnation is what they store up for themselves until the day of God’s wrath (Romans 2:5-6).
The Apostle John tells us in his first epistle (1 John 4:1-6) how we are to discern which spirits are from God. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”
It is of utmost importance that Christians are well grounded in the Scriptures so that they are able to discern which teachers speak from God and which are false in their proclamation. Only then can we reject what is false and “hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).