Divers And Strange Teachings
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
"Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them." Hebrews 13:9
Our text this morning is an Apostolic caution against false doctrine. It forms part of a warning addressed to Hebrew Christians. It is a caution just as much needed now as it was two thousand years ago. Never, perhaps has it been so important for Christians to hear continually, “Do not be led away.”
That old enemy of mankind, the devil, has no more subtle device for ruining souls than that of spreading false doctrine. A murderer and a liar from the beginning, (John 8:44) he never ceases going to and fro in the earth, “seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) In our country, the attacks on morality and decency, the assault on the unborn,—these are a part of Satan’s handiwork, and the fruit of his suggestions. Like a pirate, his object is to “sink, burn, and destroy.”—Inside the Church he is ever labouring to sow heresies, to propagate errors, to promote departures from the faith. If he cannot prevent the waters flowing from the Fountain of Life, he tries hard to poison them. If he cannot destroy the medicine of the Gospel, he strives to contaminate and corrupt it. No wonder that he is called Apollyon, the destroyer. (Rev 9:11)
In Ryle’s day, the Roman Catholic Church was one of the enemies' potent weapons. In our day, the outward enemy may be different but we can be sure that the one behind all opposition has the same goal and continues to use similar methods. And so, Ryle’s exhortations and encouragements, based as they are on the word of God, remain helpful and relevant.
The Divine Comforter of the Church, the Holy Spirit, has always employed one great agent to oppose Satan’s devices. That agent is the Word of God. The Word expounded and unfolded, the Word explained and opened up, the Word made clear to the head and applied to the heart,—the Word is the chosen weapon by which the devil must be confronted and confounded. The Word was the sword which the Lord Jesus wielded in the temptation. To every assault of the Tempter, He replied, “It is written.” The Word is the sword which His ministers must use in the present day, if they would successfully resist the devil. The Bible, faithfully and freely expounded, is the safeguard of Christ’s Church.
We live in an age when men profess to dislike dogmas and creeds, and are filled with a morbid dislike of controversial theology. He who dares to say of one doctrine that “it is true,” and of another that “it is false,” must expect to be called narrow-minded and uncharitable, and to lose the praise of men. Nevertheless, the Scripture was not written in vain. Let us examine the mighty lessons contained in these words to the Hebrews. They are lessons for us as well as for them.
I. First, we have here a broad warning: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.”
II. Secondly, we have here a valuable prescription: “it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods.”
III. Lastly, we have here an instructive fact: Foods “have not benefited those devoted to them.”
Let us patiently plough up this field of truth, and see what precious treasure is hidden in it.
I. First comes the broad warning: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.”
The meaning of these words is not a hard thing to understand. “Do not be tossed to and fro,” the writer seems to say, “by every blast of false teaching, like ships without a compass or rudder. False doctrines will arise as long as the world lasts, in number many, in minor details varying, in one point alone always the same,—strange, new, foreign, and departing from the Gospel of Christ. They do exist now. They will always be found within the visible Church. Remember this, and do not be led away.” Such is the warning.
And this warning does not stand alone. Even in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount our Saviour pronounced a solemn caution: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15.) Even in the apostle Paul’s last words to the Ephesian elders, though he finds no time to speak about the sacraments, he does find time to warn his friends against false doctrine: “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30.)
What says the Second Epistle to the Corinthians? “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 Cor. 11:3.)
What says the Epistle 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.” (Gal. 1:6)
What says the Epistle to the Ephesians? “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” (Eph. 4:14.)
What says the Epistle to the Colossians? “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” (Col. 2:8.)
What says the First Epistle to Timothy? “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith.” (1 Tim. 4:1.)
What says the Second Epistle of Peter? “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies.” (2 Peter 2:1.)
What says the First Epistle of John? “Do not believe every spirit, … for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John iv. 1.)
What says the Epistle of Jude? “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed .” (Jude 3, 4.)
Let us mark well these texts. These things were written for our learning.
What shall we say to these texts? Are they not striking? To tell us, as some do, in the face of these texts, that the early Churches were a model of perfection and purity, is absurd. Even in Apostolic days, it appears, there were abundant errors both in doctrine and practice.—To tell us, as others do, that ministers ought never to handle controversial subjects, and never to warn people against false views, is senseless and unreasonable. At this rate much of the New Testament might be set aside. Surely the silent dog and the sleeping shepherd are the best allies of the wolf, the thief, and the robber. It is not for nothing that the apostle Paul says, “ If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 4:6.)
A plain warning against false doctrine is specially needed in our day. The school of the Pharisees, and the school of the Sadducees, those ancient mothers of all mischief are still as active as they ever were. Between men adding to the truth on one side, and men taking away from it on the other,—between those who bury truth under additions, and those who mutilate it by subtractions,—between superstition and infidelity,—between these upper and lower millstones the Gospel is practically crushed to death
Strange views are continually promoted by popular Christian leaders about subjects of the deepest importance. About the atonement, the divinity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the reality of miracles, the eternity of future punishment,—about the Church, the ministerial office, the sacraments, the honour due to the Virgin Mary—about all these things there is nothing too monstrous to be taught by some popular Christian leaders in these last days. By the pen and by the tongue, by the press and by the pulpit, the world is incessantly deluged with a flood of erroneous opinions. The danger is real, great, and unmistakable. Never was it so needful to say, “Do not be led away.”
Many things come together to make the present inroad of false doctrine peculiarly dangerous. There is an undeniable zeal in some of the teachers of error: their earnestness and affability makes many think they must be right. There is a great appearance of learning and theological knowledge: many imagine that such clever and intellectual men must surely be safe guides. There is a general tendency to free-thought and free inquiry in these last days: many like to prove their independence of judgment, by believing novelties.
There is a wide-spread desire to appear charitable and liberal-minded: many seem half ashamed of saying that anybody can be in the wrong. There is a quantity of half-truth taught by the modern false teachers. They are incessantly using Scriptural terms and phrases in an unscriptural sense. There is a morbid craving in the Christian world for a more sensuous, ceremonial, sensational, showy worship: men have no patience for inward, invisible heart-work.
There is a silly readiness in every direction to believe everybody who talks cleverly, lovingly, and earnestly, and a determination to forget that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (2 Cor. 11:14.) There is a wide-spread “gullibility” among professing Christians. Every heretic who tells his story plausibly is sure to be believed, and everybody who doubts him is called a persecutor and a narrow-minded man.
All these things are peculiar symptoms just as much of ours as they were of Ryle’s times. They tend to make the assaults of false doctrine in our day peculiarly dangerous. They make it more than ever needful to cry aloud, “Do not be led away.”
Would anyone like to know what is the best safeguard against false doctrine?—The answer is one word, “The Bible: the Bible regularly read, regularly prayed over, regularly studied.” We must go back to the old prescription of our Master: “Search the Scriptures.” (John 5:39.) If we want a weapon to wield against the devices of Satan, there is nothing like “the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.” (Eph 6:17) But to wield it successfully, we must read it habitually, diligently, intelligently, and prayerfully. This is a point on which, sadly, many fail. In an age of hurry and bustle, few read their Bibles as much as they should. More books perhaps are read than ever, but less of the one Book which makes a person wise for salvation. False teaching could never have made such havoc in the Church in our times, if there had not been a most superficial knowledge of the Scriptures throughout the land. A Bible-reading people is the strength of a Church.
“Search the Scriptures.” Mark how the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles continually refer to the Old Testament, as a document just as authoritative as the New. Mark how they quote texts from the Old Testament, as the voice of God, as if every word was given by inspiration. Mark how the greatest miracles in the Old Testament are all referred-to in the New, as unquestioned and unquestionable facts. Mark how all the leading events in the Pentateuch are incessantly named as historical events, whose reality is beyond dispute. Mark how the atonement, and substitution, and sacrifice, run through the whole Bible from first to last, as essential doctrines of revelation. Mark how the resurrection of Christ, the greatest of all miracles, is proved by such an overwhelming mass of evidence, that he who disbelieves it may as well say he will believe no evidence at all.
Mark all these things, and it will be a great safeguard against the subtle but deadly errors infecting the modern evangelical church.
II. We go on now to examine the valuable prescription: “it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods.”
There are two words in this prescription which require a little explanation. A right understanding of them is absolutely essential to a proper use of the Apostle’s advice. One of these words is “foods,” and the other is “grace.”
To see the full force of the word “foods,” we must remember the immense importance attached by many Jewish Christians to the distinctions of the ceremonial law about food. The flesh of some animals and birds, according to Leviticus, might be eaten, and that of others might not be eaten. Some animals were, consequently, called “clean,” and others were called “unclean.” To eat certain kinds of flesh made a Jew ceremonially unholy before God, and no strict Jew would touch and eat such food on any account.—Now were these distinctions still to be kept up after Christ ascended into heaven, or were they done away by the Gospel? Were heathen converts under any obligation to attend to the ceremonial of the Levitical law about food? Were Jewish Christians required to be as strict about the foods they ate as they were before Christ died, and the veil of the temple was torn in two? Was the ceremonial law about food entirely done away with, or was it not? Was the conscience of a believer in the Lord Jesus to be troubled with fear lest his food should defile him?
Questions like these appear to have formed one of the great subjects of controversy in the Apostolic times. As is often the case, they assumed a place entirely out of proportion to their real importance. The Apostle Paul found it needful to handle the subject in no less than three of his epistles to the Churches—“Food,” he says, “will not commend us to God.”—“the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking.”—“let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink.” (1 Cor. 8:8; Rom. 14:17; Col 2:16.) Nothing shows the fallen nature of man so clearly as the readiness to turn trifles into serious things. At last the controversy seems to have spread so far and taken such dimensions, that “foods” became an expression to denote anything ceremonial added to the Gospel as a thing of primary importance, any ritual trifle thrust out of its lawful place and magnified into an essential of religion. It is likely in this sense that the word should be taken in the text now before us. By “foods” the writer of Hebrews means primarily ceremonial observances, either wholly invented by man, or else built on Mosaic precepts which have been cancelled and superseded by the Gospel. It is an expression which was well understood in the Apostolic days.
The word “grace,” on the other hand, seems to be used as a description of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ. Of that glorious Gospel, grace is the main feature,—grace in the original scheme—grace in the execution—grace in the application to man’s soul. Grace is the fountain of life from which our salvation flows. Grace is the agency through which our spiritual life is kept up. Are we justified? it is by grace.—Are we called? it is by grace.—Have we forgiveness? it is through the riches of grace.—Have we good hope? it is through grace.—Do we believe? it is through grace.—Are we elect? it is by the election of grace.—Are we saved? it is by grace. How central is grace in the whole work of redemption. No wonder that the apostle Paul says to the Romans, “we are not under law but under grace;” and tells Titus, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 1:15; Ephes. 1:7; 2 Thess.2:16; Acts18:27; Rom. 1:5; Ephes. 2:5; Rom. 6:15; Titus 2:11.)
Such are the two great principles which are put in strong contrast in the prescription we are now considering. They are placed opposite to one another “foods” and “grace,”—Ceremonialism and the Gospel—Ritualism and the free love of God in Christ Jesus. And is laid down the great principle that it is by “grace,” and “not foods,” that the heart must be strengthened.
Now the strengthening of the heart is one of the great needs of many professing Christians. Specially is it longed after by those whose knowledge is imperfect, and whose conscience is half enlightened. Such persons often feel in themselves much indwelling sin, and at the same time see very indistinctly God’s remedy and Christ’s fulness. Their faith is feeble, their hope dim, and their consolations small. They want to have more comfort. They imagine they ought to feel more and see more. They are not at ease. They cannot attain to “joy and peace in believing.” (Rom 15:13) Where will they turn? What will set their consciences at rest? Then comes the enemy of souls, and suggests some shortcut to strength of heart. He hints at the value of some addition to the simple plan of the Gospel, some man-made device, some exaggeration of a truth, some flesh-satisfying invention, some improvement on the old path, and whispers, “Only use this, and you will be established.” Plausible offers flow in at the same time from every quarter, like fake medicines. Each has its own patrons and advocates. On every side the poor unstable soul hears invitations to move in some particular direction, and then will come perfect strength of heart.
Every experienced Christian knows well that such invitations are constantly made to unsettled minds in our day. When boldly and confidently made, they produce a painful effect on some people. They often beguile unstable souls, and lead then into misery for years.
“What say the Scripture?” This is the only sure guide. Hear what the writer of Hebrews says. The Heart is settled not by joining this party or that. It comes “by grace, and not by foods.” Other things have a “appearance of wisdom,” perhaps. (Col. 2:23.) But they have no real healing power, and leave the unhappy man who trusts them nothing bettered, but rather worse.
A clearer knowledge of the Divine scheme of grace, its eternal purposes, its application to man by Christ’s redeeming work,—a firmer grasp of the doctrine of grace, of God’s free love in Christ, of Christ’s full and complete satisfaction for sin, of justification by simple faith,—a more intimate acquaintance with Christ the Giver and Fountain of grace, His offices, His sympathy, His power,—a more thorough experience of the inward work of grace in the heart,—this, this is the grand secret of strength of heart. This is the old path of peace. This is the true cure for restless consciences. It may seem at first too simple, too easy, too cheap, too commonplace, too plain. But all the wisdom of man will never show the heavy-laden a better road to heart-rest. Secret pride and self-righteousness are likely too often the reason why this good old road is not used.
Let us be careful that in our own personal religion, grace is all. Let us have clear systematic views of the Gospel of the grace of God. Nothing else will do good in the hour of sickness, in the day of trial, and on the bed of death. Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith, Christ’s free grace the only foundation under the soles of our feet,—this alone will give peace. Once let in self, and forms, and man’s inventions, as a necessary part of our religion, and we are on a quicksand. We may be amused, excited, or kept quiet for a time, like children with toys, by a religion of “foods.” Such a religion has “a show of wisdom.” But unless our religion is one in which “grace” is all, we will never feel established.
III. In the last place, we will consider the instructive fact which the letter to the Hebrews records. It says, “Foods … have not benefited those devoted to them.”
We have no means of knowing whether any particular Churches or individuals are referred to. Of course it is possible that the Judaizing Christians of Antioch and Galatia were in view,—or the Hebrew believers in every Church, without exception. It seems far more probable, however, that no particular Church or Churches are in view. That it is rather a broad, general, sweeping statement about all who in any place had exalted ceremonial at the expense of the doctrines of “grace.” And a wide declaration is made about them all:
They have got no good from their favourite notions. They have not been more inwardly happy, more outwardly holy, or more generally useful. Their religion has been most unprofitable to them. Man-made alterations of God’s precious medicine for sinners,—man-made additions to Christ’s glorious Gospel,— however cleverly defended and plausibly supported, do no real good to those that adopt them. They give no increased inward comfort; they bring no growth of real holiness; they give no enlarged usefulness to the Church and the world. Calmly, quietly, and mildly, but firmly, decidedly, and unflinchingly, the assertion is made, “Foods … have not benefited those devoted to them.”
The whole stream of Church history abundantly confirms the truth of the Apostle’s position. Consider the hermits and ascetics of the early centuries. Consider the monks and nuns and recluses of the Romish Church in the middle ages. Consider the burning zeal, the devoted self-denial, of Jesuites. The earnestness, the fervour, the self-sacrifice of all these classes, are matters beyond dispute. But none who read carefully and intelligently the records of their lives, indeed, some of the best of them, can fail to see that they had no solid peace or inward rest of soul. Their very feverish restlessness is enough to show that their consciences were not at ease. None can fail to see that, with all their furious zeal and self-denial, they never did much good to the world. They gathered round themselves admiring followers. They left a high reputation for self-denial and sincerity. They made men wonder at them while they lived, and sometimes canonize them when they died. But they did nothing to convert souls. And what is the reason of this? They attached an overweening importance to man-made ritual and ceremonial, and made less than they ought to have done of the Gospel of the grace of God. Their principle was to make much of “foods,” and little of “grace.” And so they verified the words of our text, “Foods do not benefit those devoted to them.”
Let us turn now, for a few moments, to the other side of the picture, and see what “grace” has done. Let us hear how profitable the doctrines of the Gospel have proved to those who have clung firmly to them, and have not tried to fix and improve and patch them up by adding, as essentials, the “foods” of man-made ceremonial.
It was “grace, and not foods,” that made Martin Luther do the work that he did in the world. The key to all his success was his constant declaration of justification by faith, without the deeds of the law. This was the truth which enabled him to break the chains of Rome, and let light into Europe.
It was “grace, and not foods,” that made English martyrs such as Latimer and Hooper, exercise so mighty an influence in life, and shine so brightly in death. They saw clearly, and taught plainly, the true priesthood of Christ, and salvation only by grace. They honoured God’s grace, and God put honour on them.
The list of the biographies of faithful ministers tells a striking story. Who are those who have shaken the world, and left their mark on their generation, and aroused consciences, and converted sinners, and edified saints? Not those who have made asceticism, and ceremonials, and sacraments, and services, and ordinances the main thing; but those who have made most of God’s free grace!
In a day of weakness, confusion, and doubt, men forget this. Facts are stubborn things. Let us look calmly at them, and not be moved by those who tell us that anything else but free grace is the secret of a prosperous Christianity. Let us look at plain facts. Facts in old history, and facts in modern days, facts in every part of the world, support the assertion that the religion of ‘foods’ does ‘not benefit those devoted to them.’ It is the religion of grace that brings inward peace, outward holiness, and general usefulness.
We close with a few words of practical application. We are living in an age of peculiar religious weakness. The following advice deserves our serious attention.
(1) In the first place, let us not be surprised at the rise and progress of false doctrine. It is a thing as old as the old Apostles. It began before they died. They predicted that there would be plenty of it before the end of the world. It is wisely ordered of God for the testing of our grace, and to prove who has real faith. If there were no such thing as false doctrine or heresy on earth, we could well begin to think the Bible was not true.
(2) In the next place, let us make up our minds to resist false doctrine, and not to be carried away by fashion and bad example. Let us not flinch because all around us, high and low, rich and poor, are swept away before a torrent of error. Let us be firm and stand our ground.
Let us resist false doctrine, and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. Let us not be ashamed of showing our colours and standing out for New Testament truth. Let us not he stopped by cry of “controversy.” The thief likes dogs that do not bark, and watchmen that give no alarm. The devil is a thief and a robber. If we hold our peace, and do not resist false doctrine, we please him and displease God.
(3) In the last place, let us make sure work of our own personal salvation. Let us seek to know and feel that we ourselves are “saved.”
We live in a time of great spiritual peril. Men are apt to confound orthodoxy with conversion, and to imagine that they must go to heaven if they know how to answer the heresies of the day. Yet mere earnestness without knowledge, and mere head-knowledge of Protestantism, alike save none. Let us never forget this.
Let us not rest until we feel the blood of Christ sprinkled on our consciences, and have the witness of the Spirit within us that we are born again.
This is reality.
This is true religion.
This will last.
This will never fail us.
It is the possession of grace in the heart, and not the intellectual knowledge of it, that profits and saves the soul.