Tuesday, October 16, 2012
The Test of Spiritual Genuineness
One of the standard village atheist arguments against religion involves the bad behavior of people who claim to be religious. The atheists love to dredge up the muck of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and modern sex abuse scandals. The criticism is a little hypocritical – they generally do not like to talk about Stalin or Mao. If we may paraphrase Scripture here, if the Catholic Church has killed its thousands, the Communist Party has the blood of literally millions on its hands. But nevertheless, the record of organized religion is hardly unblemished, and requires some sort of response.
Jesus made it clear right at the outset that there would be such a thing as a false Christianity. "Beware," He said, "of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves" (Matt. 7:15; NKJV). Not all is what it seems to be.
A "false prophet" is someone who purports to be speaking on behalf of God, but really is not. In the Old Testament the prophet Jeremiah was told by God "The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart" (Jer. 14:14).
The character of these false prophets is insidious. Disguised as sheep, they are really "ravenous wolves" ("ravenous" in the sense of "rapacious" or "voracious"). In other words, their true aim is not to promote the truth and welfare of the people, but to advance a hidden agenda, usually for their own profit or benefit. They are a deadly cancer, eating away in secret at the vitals of the Christian community.
How then, can we tell them apart? Jesus offers a remarkably simple, common sense solution to the problem: "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16). Look at how they live – how they think and behave. "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit" (v. 18). In other words, the inward character will eventually reveal itself; we need to look for the signs of inconsistency, signs of behavior not in keeping with the character of Christ Himself.
The use of religious rhetoric, and even the ability to perform miracles, is no sure indication of spiritual genuineness. "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!'" (vv. 22,23).
Churches, if they claim to be Christian churches, must screen their candidates for the ministry more carefully. It is not enough merely to have a theological degree. To be a spiritual guide the pastor himself should be a man of God – a man of prayer, of Scripture, of holiness and heart-felt compassion. He must "walk the talk." Most people will go by what they see, not by what they hear, and what they need to see in their pastor and the other spiritual leaders of the congregation are clear models of what the Christian life should be like. The blind cannot lead the blind, and the lust for power, wealth and fame has no place in the ministry.
In choosing our spiritual leaders A.W. Tozer put it well when he said, "Listen to no man who fails to listen to God" (The Root of the Righteous).