Adapted from a Sermon By J.C. Ryle
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:3 ESV
Our verse this morning contains one part of the experience of a very famous Christian. No servant of Christ perhaps has left such a mark for good on the world as the Apostle Paul. When he was born, the whole Roman Empire, excepting one little corner, was sunk in the darkest heathenism; when he died, the mighty fabric of heathenism was shaken to its very core, and ready to fall. And none of the agents whom God used to produce this marvellous change did more than Saul of Tarsus, after his conversion. Yet even in the midst of his successes and usefulness we find him crying out, “I am afraid.”
There is a sad ring about these words which demands our attention. They show a man of many cares and anxieties. Anyone who thinks that Paul lived a life of ease, because he was a chosen Apostle, worked miracles, founded Churches, and wrote inspired Epistles, is missing the picture. Nothing can be more unlike the truth! The eleventh chapter of the second Epistle to the Corinthians tells a very different tale. It is a chapter which deserves attentive study. Partly from the opposition of the heathen philosophers and priests, whose craft was in danger,—partly from the bitter enmity of his own unbelieving countrymen,—partly from false or weak brethren,—partly from his own thorn in the flesh,—the great Apostle of the Gentiles was like his Master,—“a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isa. 53:3.)
But of all the burdens which the Apostle Paul had to carry, none seems to have weighed him down so much as that to which he refers, when he writes to the Corinthians,—his “anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11: 28.)
The limited knowledge of many of the first Christians, their weak faith,—their shallow experience,—their dim hope,—their low standard of holiness,—all these things made them peculiarly liable to be led astray by false teachers, and to leave the faith. Like little children, hardly able to walk, they needed to be treated with immense patience. Like exotic plants in a greenhouse, they had to be watched with constant care.
Can we doubt that they kept their Apostolic founder in a state of constant heartfelt anxiety? Can we wonder that he says to the Colossians, “How great a struggle I have for you”?—and to the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel;”—“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Col. 2:1; Gal. 1:6; 3:1.) No attentive reader can study the Epistles without seeing this subject repeatedly cropping up. And our text this morning is a sample of this:—“I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
That text contains three important lessons, which we will do well to consider. They were lessons for the times when they were first preached and they are a lesson for the times we live in.
I. First, the text shows us a spiritual danger to which we are all liable, and which we ought to fear. That danger is being led astray in our thinking:—“I am afraid that … your thoughts will be led astray.”
II. Secondly, the text shows us an example which we ought to remember, as a beacon:—“the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning”
III. Thirdly, the text shows us a point about which we ought specially to be on our guard. That point is being “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
The text is a deep mine, and is not without difficulty. But let us go down into it boldly, and we will find it contains much precious metal.
I. First, then, there is a spiritual danger, which we ought to fear: “being led astray“
The expression “your thoughts will be led astray” means our minds being ensnared by false and unscriptural doctrines in religion. It is as if the Apostle is saying, “I fear lest your minds should drink in false and unsound views of Christianity. I fear lest you should take up, as truths, principles which are not the truth. I fear lest you should depart from the faith once delivered to the saints, and embrace views which are practically destructive to the Gospel of Christ.”
The fear expressed by the Apostle is full of instruction, and may seem, at first sight, surprising. Who would have thought that under the very eyes of Christ’s own chosen disciples,—while the blood of the cross was hardly yet dry, while the age of miracles had not yet passed away,—who would have thought that in a day like this there was any danger of Christians departing from the faith? Yet nothing is more certain than that “the mystery of iniquity” began already to work before the Apostles were dead. (2 Thess. 2:7.)
“Even now,” says the Apostle John, “there are many Antichrists.” (1 John 2:18.) And no fact in Church history is more clearly proved than this: that false doctrine has never ceased to be the plague of the church for the last two thousand years. Looking forward with the eye of a prophet, the Apostle Paul might well say, “I fear:”—“I fear not merely the corruption of your morals, but of your minds.”
The plain truth is that false doctrine has been the chosen engine which Satan has used in every age to stop the progress of the Gospel of Christ. Finding himself unable to prevent the Fountain of Life being opened, he has laboured incessantly to poison the streams which flow from it. If he could not destroy it, he has too often neutralized its usefulness by addition, subtraction, or substitution. In a word, he has led men’s thoughts astray, he has corrupted their minds.
(i) False doctrine soon overspread the Primitive Church after the death of the Apostles, whatever some may be please to say of primitive purity. Partly by strange teaching about the Trinity and the Person of Christ, partly by an absurd multiplication of invented ceremonies, partly by the introduction of monasticism and a man-made asceticism, the light of the Church was soon dimmed and its usefulness destroyed. Even in Augustine’s time it seems that ceremonies were grown to such a number that the state of Christian people was in worse case concerning this matter than were the Jews. Here was the leading astray of men’s minds.
(ii) False doctrine in the middle ages so completely overspread the Church, that the truth as it is in Jesus was just about buried or drowned. During the last three centuries before the Reformation, it is probable that very few Christians in Europe could have answered the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Popes and Cardinals, Abbots and Priors, Archbishops and Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Monks and Nuns, were, with a few rare exceptions, steeped in ignorance and superstition. They were sunk into a deep sleep, from which they were only partially roused by the earthquake of the Reformation. Here, again, was the leading astray of men’s minds.
(iii) False doctrine, since the days of the Reformation, has continually been rising up again, and marring the work which the Reformers began. Formalism in some and indifferentism in others, have withered blossoms which once promised to bear good fruit, and made Protestantism a mere barren form. Here, again, has been the leading astray of men’s minds.
(iv) False doctrine, even in our own day and under our own eyes, is eating out the heart of the Church and imperilling her existence. One school of thought does not hesitate to avow its dislike to the principles of the Reformation, and compasses sea and land to Romanize the Establishment.—Another school, with equal boldness, speaks lightly of inspiration, sneers at the very idea of a supernatural religion, and tries hard to cast overboard miracles as so much lumber.—Another school proclaims liberty to every shade and form of religious opinion, and tells us that all teachers are equally deserving our confidence, however heretical and contradictory their opinions, if they are only clever, earnest, and sincere. To each and all, the same remark applies. They illustrate the leading astray of men’s minds.
In the face of such facts as these, we may well lay to heart the words of the Apostle in our text this morning. Like him we have abundant cause to feel afraid. Never, perhaps, was there such need for Christians to stand on their guard. Never was there such need for faithful ministers to cry aloud and spare not. “if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8.)
Every member of the Church of Christ ought to open his eyes to the peril in which the Church stands, and beware lest it is injured through apathy and a morbid love of peace. Controversy is a hateful thing; but there are days when it is a positive duty. Peace is an excellent thing; but, like gold, it may be bought at too high a price. Unity is a mighty blessing; but it is worthless if it is purchased at the cost of truth. Consider this carefully and open your eyes and be on your guard.
The nation that rests satisfied with its commercial prosperity, and neglects its national defences, because they are troublesome or expensive, is likely to become a prey to the first invader who chooses to attack it. The Church which is “rich, and has prospered,” may think it has “need of nothing,” because of its antiquity, orders, and tradition. It may cry “Peace, peace,” and flatter itself it will see no evil. But if it is not careful about the maintenance of sound doctrine among its ministers and members, it must never be surprised if its candlestick is taken away.
Let us beware of that careless sleepy spirit which seems to seal the eyes of many Christians, and blind then to the enormous peril in which we are placed by the rise and progress of false doctrine in these days. Let us beware of the common notion so often proclaimed, that unity is more important than sound doctrine, and peace more valuable than truth.
Let every reader who really loves the Church of Christ recognize the dangers of the times, and do his duty, valiantly and energetically, in resisting them by united action and by prayer. It was not for nothing that our Lord said, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36.) Let us not forget the Apostle Paul’s words, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (1 Cor. 16:13.) The Reformers bought the truth at the price of their own blood, and it has been handed down to us. Let us be careful that we do not basely sell it for a single meal (Heb 12:16) under the baseless names of unity and peace.
II. Secondly, the text shows us an example we shall do well to remember, as a beacon: “the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning.”
We first notice how the Apostle Paul in this place refers to the story of the fall in the third chapter of Genesis, as a simple historical fact. He does not give the least support to the modern notion that the book of Genesis is nothing more than a pleasing collection of myths and fables. He does not hint that there is no such being as the devil, and that there was not any literal eating of the forbidden fruit, and that it was not really in this way that sin entered into the world. On the contrary, he narrates the story of the third chapter of Genesis as an accurate history of a thing that really took place.
You should remember, also, that this reference does not stand alone. It is a noteworthy fact that several of the most remarkable histories and miracles of the first five books of the Bible are expressly mentioned in the New Testament, and always as historical facts. Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, the destruction of Sodom, Esau’s selling his birthright, the destruction of the first-born in Egypt, the passage of the Red Sea, the bronze serpent, the manna, the water flowing from the rock,—all these things are named by the writers of the New Testament, and named as matters of fact and not as fables. Let that never be forgotten.
Those who are fond of pouring contempt on Old Testament miracles, and making light of the authority of the Pentateuch, would do well to consider whether they know better than our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles. To talk of Genesis as a collection of myths and fables, in the face of such a text of Scripture as we have before us this morning, sounds both unreasonable and profane. Was the Apostle Paul mistaken or not, when he narrated the story of the temptation and the fall? If he was, he was a weak-minded, credulous person, and may have been mistaken on fifty other subjects. At this rate what becomes of his authority as a writer? From such an outrageous conclusion we may well turn away with contempt. But it is well to remember that much infidelity begins with irreverent views of the Old Testament.
The point, after all, which the Apostle would have us mark in the history of Eve’s fall, is the “cunning” with which the devil led her into sin. He did not tell her flatly that he wished to deceive her and do her harm. On the contrary, he told her that the thing forbidden was a thing that was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” (Gen. 3:6.) He did not hesitate to declare that she might eat the forbidden fruit and yet “not die.” He blinded her eyes to the sinfulness and danger of transgression. He persuaded her to believe that to depart from God’s plain command was for her benefit and not for her ruin. In short, he “deceived Eve by his cunning.”
Now this “cunning,” the Apostle Paul tells us, is precisely what we have to fear in false doctrine. We are not to expect it to approach our minds all dressed up in error, but in the form of truth. Counterfeit money would never be accepted if it did not have some likeness to genuine money. The wolf would seldom get into the fold if he did not enter it in sheep’s clothing. Popery and infidelity would do little harm if they went about the world under their true names. Satan is far too wise a general to manage a campaign in such a way as this.
He employs fine words and high-sounding phrases, such as “Catholicity, Apostolicity, Unity, Church order, sound Church views, free thought, broad sense, kindly judgment, liberal interpretation of Scripture,” and the like, and thus takes up residence in unsuspecting minds. And this is precisely the “cunning” which the Apostle Paul refers to in the text. It is in harmony with his Master’s solemn words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15.)
Let me draw your attention to this point. Such is the simplicity and innocence of many Christians today, that they actually expect false doctrine to look false, and will not understand that the very essence of its danger, as a rule, is its resemblance to God’s truth.
A young Christian, for instance, brought up from infancy to hear nothing but Evangelical teaching, is suddenly invited some day to hear a sermon preached by some eminent teacher of semi-Roman Catholic, or semi-sceptical opinions. He goes into the church, expecting in his simplicity to hear nothing but heresy from the beginning to the end. To his amazement he hears a clever, eloquent sermon, containing a vast amount of truth, and only a few drops of error. Too often a violent reaction takes place in his simple, innocent, unsuspicious mind. He begins to think his former teachers were illiberal, narrow, and uncharitable, and his confidence in them is shaken, perhaps forever.
Too often, sadly, it ends with his entire perversion, and at last he is enrolled in the ranks of the Roman Catholics or some liberal so called Protestant Church! And what is the beginning of the whole case? Only a foolish forgetfulness of the lesson the Apostle Paul teaches in this text. “As the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning,” so Satan deceives unwary souls in our day by approaching them under the garb of truth.
I urge you all to remember this part of our subject, and to stand on guard. What is more common than to hear it said of some false teacher in this day,—“He is so good, so devoted, so kind, so zealous, so hard working, so humble, so self-denying, so charitable, so earnest, so fervent, so clever, so evidently sincere, there can be no danger and no harm in hearing him. Besides, he preaches so much real Gospel: no one can preach a better sermon than he does sometimes! I never can and never will believe he is unsound.”—Who does not hear continually such talk as this? What discerning eye can fail to see that many Church goers expect unsound teachers to be open vendors of poison, and cannot realize that they often appear as “angels of light,” and are far too wise to be always saying all they think, and showing their whole hand and mind. But so it is. Never was it so needful to remember the words, “The serpent deceived Eve by his cunning.”
We leave this part of our subject with the sad remark that we have fallen upon times when suspicion on the subject of sound doctrine is not only a duty but a virtue. It is not the avowed Pharisee and Sadducee that we have to fear, but the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It is the “show of wisdom” with which Ritualism is invested that makes it so dangerous to many minds. (Col. 2:23.) It seems so good, and fair, and zealous, and holy, and reverential, and devout, and kind, that it carries away many well-meaning people like a flood.
He that would be safe must cultivate the spirit of a sentinel at a critical post. He must not mind being laughed at and ridiculed, as one who “is always looking for heresy.” In days like these he must not be ashamed to suspect danger. And if any one scoffs at him for so doing, he may well be content to reply, “The serpent deceived Eve by his cunning.”
III. The third and last lesson of the text remains yet to be considered. It shows us a point about which we ought to be especially on our guard. That point is called “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
Now the expression before us is somewhat remarkable, and stands alone in the New Testament. One thing at any rate is abundantly clear: the expression sincere and pure means that which is single and unmixed, as opposed to that which is mixed and double.
Following out that idea, some have held that the expression means “singleness of affection towards Christ;”—we are to fear lest we should divide our affections between Christ and any other. This is no doubt very good theology; but there is also another opinion that the expression means the simple, unmixed, unadulterated, unaltered doctrine of Christ,—the simple “truth as it is in Jesus,” on all points,—without addition, subtraction, or substitution.
Departure from the simple genuine prescription of the Gospel, either by leaving out any part or adding any part, likely was the thing the Apostle Paul would have the Corinthians specially dread. The expression is full of meaning, and seems specially written for our learning in these last days. We are to be ever jealously on our guard, lest we depart from and corrupt the simple Gospel which Christ once delivered to the saints.
The expression before us is exceedingly instructive. The principle it contains is of unspeakable importance. If we love our souls and would keep them in a healthy state, we must endeavour to adhere closely to the simple doctrine of Christ, in every jot, tittle, and particular. Once add to it or take away anything from it, and you risk spoiling the Divine medicine, and may even turn it into poison. Let your ruling principle be,—“No other doctrine but that of Christ; nothing less, and nothing more!” Lay firm hold on that principle, and never let it go.
(1) In the first place, let us settle it firmly in our minds, that there is no way of peace but the simple way marked out by Christ. True rest of conscience and inward peace of soul will never come from anything but direct faith in Christ Himself and His finished work. Peace by attendance at Church services, or frequent reception of the Lord’s Supper, is a delusion and a snare. It is only by coming straight to Jesus Himself, labouring and heavy laden, and by believing, trusting communion with Him, that souls find rest. In this matter let us stand fast in “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
(2) Second, let us settle it in our minds that there is no other priest who can be in any way a Mediator between yourself and God but Jesus Christ. He Himself has said, and His word will not pass away, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6.) No sinful child of Adam however high his ecclesiastical title, can ever occupy Christ’s place, or do what Christ alone is appointed to do. The priesthood is Christ’s peculiar office, and it is one which He has never delegated to another. In this matter also let us stand fast in “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
(3) Let us settle it next in our minds that there is no sacrifice for sin except the one sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Do not listen for a moment to those who tell you that there is any sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, any repetition of Christ’s offering on the cross, or any offering of His body and blood, under the form of consecrated bread and wine. The one sacrifice for sins which Christ offered was a perfect and complete sacrifice, and it is nothing short of blasphemy to attempt to repeat it. “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Heb. 10:14.) In this matter also let us stand fast in a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
(4) Let us settle it next in our minds that there is no other rule of faith, and judge of controversies, but that simple one to which Christ always referred,—the written Word of God. Let no man disturb our souls by such vague expressions as “the voice of the Church, ancient traditions, the judgment of the early Fathers,” and the like. Let our only standard of truth be the Bible, God’s written Word. “What does the Scripture say?”—“What is written?”—“How do you read it?”—Search the Scriptures.” (Rom. 4:3; Luke 10:26; John 5:39.) In this matter also let us stand fast in “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
(5) In the fifth place, let us settle it in our minds that there are no other means of grace in the Church which have any binding authority, excepting those well-known and simple ones which Christ and the Apostles have sanctioned. Let us look on all ceremonies and forms of man’s invention with a jealous suspicion, when they are invested with such exaggerated importance as to thrust into the background God’s own appointments. It is the invariable tendency of man’s inventions to supersede God’s ordinances. Let us beware of making the Word of God of null and void by human devices. In this matter also let us stand fast in a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
(6) Let us settle it next in our minds that no teaching about the sacraments is sound which gives them a power of which Christ says nothing. Let us beware of admitting that either baptism or the Lord’s Supper can communicate grace by their mere outward administration, independently of the state of heart of those who receive them. Let us remember that the only proof that baptized people and communicants have grace, is the evidence of grace in their lives. The fruits of the Spirit are the only evidences that we are born of the Spirit and one with Christ, and not the mere reception of the sacraments. In this matter also let us stand fast in a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
(7) Let us settle it next in our minds that no teaching about the Holy Spirit is safe which cannot be reconciled with the simple teaching of Christ. They are not to be heard who assert that the Holy Spirit actually dwells in all baptized people, without exception, by virtue of their baptism, and that this grace within such people only needs to be “stirred up.” The simple teaching of our Lord is, that He dwells only in those who are His believing disciples, and that the world neither knows, nor sees, nor can receive the Holy Spirit. (John 14:17.) His indwelling is the special privilege of Christ’s people, and where He is He will be seen. On this point also let us stand fast in a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
(8) Finally, let us settle it in our minds that no teaching can be thoroughly sound, in which truth is not set forth in the proportion of Christ and the Apostles. Let us beware of any teaching in which the main thing is an incessant exaltation of the Church, the ministry, or the sacraments, while such grand truths as repentance, faith, conversion, holiness, are comparatively left in a secondary and inferior place. Place such teaching side by side with the teaching of the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles. Count up texts. Make a calculation. Mark how little comparatively is said in the New Testament about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Church, and the ministry; and then judge for yourself what is the proportion of truth. In this matter also, again, let us stand fast in a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
The simple doctrine and rule of Christ, then is—nothing added, nothing taken away, nothing substituted—this is the mark at which we ought to aim. This is the path which we ought to dread leaving. Can we improve on His teaching? Are we wiser than He is? Can we suppose that He left anything of real vital importance unwritten, or liable to the vague system of human traditions? Will we take it on ourselves to say that we can correct or change for the better any ordinance that He has appointed? Can we doubt that in matters about which He is silent we have cause to act very cautiously, very gently, very moderately, and must beware of pressing them on those who do not see as we do?
Above all, must we not beware of asserting anything to be needful to salvation of which Christ has said nothing at all? There is only one answer to such questions as these. We must beware of anything which has even the appearance of departure from “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
The plain truth is that we cannot sufficiently exalt the Lord Jesus Christ as the great Head of the Church, and Lord of all ordinances, no less than as the Saviour of sinners. We all fail here. We do not realize how high and great and glorious a King the Son of God is, and what undivided loyalty we owe to One who has not delegated any of His offices, or given His glory to another. The solemn words which John Owen addressed to the House of Commons in England, in a sermon on the “Greatness of Christ,” deserve to be remembered. It is certain our House of Commons hears no such sermons in our day.
“Christ is the way:” Owen preached, “ men without Him are Cains, wanderers, vagabonds. He is the truth: men without Him are liars, like the devil of old. He is the life: men without Him are dead in trespasses and sins. He is the light: men without Him are in darkness, and go they know not whither. He is the vine: men that are not in Him are withered branches prepared for the fire. He is the rock: men not built on Him are carried away with a flood. He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the author and ender, the founder and finisher of our salvation. He that hath not Him hath neither beginning of good nor shall have end of misery. Oh, blessed Jesus, how much better were it, not to be, than to be without Thee! never to be born than not to die in Thee! A thousand hells come short of this, eternally to want Jesus Christ.” This witness is true. If we can say Amen to the spirit of this passage it will be well with our souls.
And now, as we close, here is a short parting word of advice.
If we would be kept from falling away into false doctrine, let us arm our minds with a thorough knowledge of God’s Word.
Let us read our Bibles from beginning to end with daily diligence, and constant prayer for the teaching of the Holy Spirit, and so strive to become thoroughly familiar with their contents. Ignorance of the Bible is the root of all error, and a superficial knowledge of its contents for many of the sad perversions and defections of the present day. In a hurrying age of cellphones and internet, many Christians do not give time enough to private reading of the Scriptures.
Likely people knew their Bibles better three hundred years ago than they do now. The consequence is, that they are “tossed to and fro … and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” (Eph 4:14) and fall an easy prey to the first clever teacher of error who tries to influence their minds. Remember this advice, and beware of their ways. It is as true now as ever, that the good specialist in the study of the Scriptures is the only good theologian, and that a familiarity with great leading texts is, as our Lord proved in the temptation, one of the best safeguards against error.
Arm yourself then with the sword of the Spirit, and let your hand become used to it. It is true that there is no easy road to Bible knowledge. Without diligence and pains no one ever becomes “mighty in the Scriptures.” (Acts 18:24) “Justification,” as one commentator writes, “is by faith, but knowledge of the Bible comes by works.” But one thing is sure: there is no labour which will be so richly repaid as applied regular daily study of God’s Word.
Let us also pay attention to great helps such as the Westminster and Heidelberg confessions of faith as well as acquaint ourselves with the history of the church and especially the reformation so as to know and to appreciate the dangers that surround us.
Ignorance, after all, is one of the best friends of false doctrine. More light is one of the great need of the day, especially our day. Thousands are led astray by an array of false teachers from sheer lack of reading and information. If Christians would only study with attention the Bible, and be aware their history, there would be little danger of their thoughts being “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”