Confronting the Christian Cults
By Pastor Ron Jones © The Titus Institute, 2002
How did the apostles confront the false doctrine of the Christian cults they faced in the first century?
There were basically two Christian "cults" that arose during the time of the apostles.
They are the following:
1. A Jewish/Christian cult
Heresy: Believing in Jesus Christ and performing human works (i.e. following the Jewish Law) is the way of salvation.
Paul disputes this heresy in his letters to the Galatians and to the Colossians.
a. Paul describes this heresy as he rebukes the Christians in Galatia for falling into it.
v.12 "As many as desire to make a fair showing in the flesh, they compel you to be circumcised; only because they don’t want to suffer persecution for the cross of Christ."
v.13 "For they themselves who are circumcised do not keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh."
v.14 "But God forbid that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.
v.15 "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails any thing, nor does uncircumcision, but a new creature."
False teachers had come into the Galatian churches teaching that trusting in Jesus alone was not enough to be saved. One had to become a convert to Judaism also. He had to be circumcised and he or she had to follow the Mosaic Laws. This included also observing the Jewish feasts.
v.9 "But now, after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how do you turn again to the weak and poor elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?"
v.10 "You observe days, and months, and times, and years."
Following the Jewish Law is one example of the belief in "human works righteousness," that is, one can be saved if one performs certain works that makes one righteous before God. The heresy is adding "human works righteousness" to faith in Christ in order to be saved.
b. Paul calls this heresy another gospel, a false one, and condemns to hell all the false teachers who proclaim it.
v.6 "I marvel that you are so quickly deserting him that called you into the grace of Christ to another gospel;"
v.7 "Which is not another, but there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ."
v.8 "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed."
v.9 "As we said before, so say I now again, If any one preaches any other gospel to you than that which you have received, let him be accursed."
c. Paul proclaims the truth that salvation is by God’s grace through faith alone not by following the Law.
v.20 "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
v.21 "I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ died in vain."
v.5 "He therefore that ministers the Spirit to you, and works miracles among you, does he do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?"
v.6 "Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness."
v.7 "Know therefore that they who are of faith are the children of Abraham."
v.8 "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached the gospel to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all nations be blessed.’
v.9 "So then they who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham."
Two other verses that clearly reinforce this truth are Rom.4:1-5 and Eph.2:8-9.
v. 1 "What shall we say then that Abraham our father, regarding the flesh found?"
v.2 "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God."
v.3 "For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.’"
v.4 "Now to him that works the reward is not accounted according to grace, but according to debt."
v.5 "But to him that does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness."
v.8 "For by grace you are saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God,"
v.9 "Not of works, lest any man should boast."
v.10 "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to [do] good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."
Paul says in v.8-9 that we are saved by grace through faith alone, no works. In v.10 he explains that we were saved so that we might perform good works. Good works comes after one is already saved, not before salvation.
d. Paul proclaims that rituals mean nothing and Christians should not be judged for not following them.
v.16 "Let no man therefore judge you in food, or in drink, or in respect of a holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days."
v.17 "Which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ."
v.18 "Let no man condemn you in a false humility and worshipping of angels, taking his stand upon those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,"
How do we know that Paul and we Christians who follow Paul are right and that these false teachers were wrong?
Because Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ given direct revelation from God.
v. 1 "Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead)…"
v.10 "For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ."
v.11 "But I certify to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not from man."
v.12 "For I neither received it from man, neither was I taught it, but [I received it] by the revelation of Jesus Christ."
Apostolic doctrine is the only true doctrine of the New Testament. We follow apostolic doctrine and therefore we follow the truth.
2. A Cult denying the true identity of Jesus Christ.
Heresy: Jesus is not the Christ, the same person as the Son of God.
John the apostle dealt with a Christian cult that had arisen in the churches of Asia Minor (most likely the same churches mentioned in Rev.2-3). A group of people calling themselves Christian had begun to claim that they had a new knowledge about God that the other Christians did not have. This new knowledge was centered in the falsehood that the human Jesus was not the same person and being as the Christ, the Son of God. The divine Christ spirit had inhabited the human Jesus, but they were not the same. This belief was the forerunner of the second century heresy, Gnosticism.
a. John describes this heresy as he writes to the churches
v. 19 "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be made manifest that they were not all of us."
"They" refer to this group of false Christians. "Us" refers to the true Christians that believed the truth about Jesus that John and the other apostles had taught them. This is a characteristic of a Christian cult. They always separate themselves from the true Christians claiming that they alone have the ultimate truth.
v. 20 "But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things."
"You" refers to the true Christians. All Christians have an anointing from the Holy Spirit so that we know all things we need to know about the true identity of Jesus Christ."
John uses the term "all things" because the false teachers were saying that the true Christians did not know all the true things about the identity of the Christ they needed to know, such as he was not the same person as Jesus. "All things" in this context means the truth about the true identity of Jesus Christ. All true Christians believe the same truth about Jesus, that he was the Son of God who became a man, that he is both God and man. We all believe the same thing about Christ because of this anointing by the Holy Spirit.
v.21 "I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth."
Again, the true believers know the truth about Jesus Christ. No lie is of the truth. John is implying that if someone brings a lie about Christ, they are not of the truth.
v.22 "Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, the one that denies the Father and the Son."
v.23 "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father, but he that acknowledges the Son has the Father also."
This is the heresy of all Christian cults, they deny the true identity of Jesus Christ. In some way, they deny that Jesus is the true Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, of the same being and nature as God the Father. In doing this, they deny the Trinity!
This cult denied that Jesus was the same person as the Christ, the Son of God. The Bible teaches that Jesus was both human and divine. He was one person with two natures, divine and human.
For more information see the articles "Defending the Trinity" and "Defending the Deity and Humanity of Jesus."
John says that anyone who denies the true identity of Jesus, the Son of God, denies God the Father. The Christian cults try to exalt God the Father and deny the Son. John says if one denies the Son, they deny the Father.
This is a characteristic of a Christian cult. They deny the true identity
of Jesus Christ. They deny the Trinity.
b. John proclaims the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
v. 1 "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world."
v.2 "Here is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God."
v.3 "And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God; and this is the spirit of antichrist, in which you have heard that it would come and even now is already in the world."
John looks at the "spirit" behind these false teachers. False teachers always "parrot" the doctrine of Satan, a demonic spirit. He is the ultimate source of the doctrine of Christian cults. Christian cults teach the doctrine of demons.
John says that all true Christians believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, that Jesus is the one who came into the world and became a human being.
v.14 "And we have seen and testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world."
v.15 "Whoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him, and he in God."
John says that God the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world; therefore Jesus must be the Son of God. Then he says that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God is a Christian.
How do we know that John and we Christians who follow John are right and that these false teachers were wrong?
It is because John was an apostle of Jesus Christ who knew Christ personally.
v.1 "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life;"
v.2 "For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show to you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested to us;"
v.3 That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
In v.1 "that which…" is an expression used to cover the attributes, words, and works of the Word of life who is Jesus.
How do we know the "Word of Life" refers to Jesus?
In Jn.1:1 Jesus is called the Word and in Jn.1:4 John says that in this Word was life. This is a similar expression used by the same author to refer to Jesus Christ.
"We" must refer to the apostles who along with John were the ones who heard, saw, and touched Jesus, the Word of Life, from the beginning of his ministry.
These apostles were given the special privilege of knowing Jesus personally and were recognized as such. Their testimony of Jesus is irrefutable.
They must be right about Jesus. John is establishing the fact that he and the other apostles know the truth about the true identity of Jesus. All who follow the apostolic doctrine of Jesus are true believers.
For more info on this topic see article entitled "Defending the Credibility of the Apostles."
All Christian cults throughout history have one or both of the main characteristics of these two early cults. They either deny the true way of salvation or they deny the true identity of Jesus Christ and the Triune nature of God.
How do we confront the Christian cults as Paul and John did?
Paul and John (as seen above) focused their apologetic on the following two-fold strategy:
I. Focus on the central heresies denying the true way of salvation or the deity of Christ and Trinity by proclaiming the truth about the true way of salvation or the deity of Jesus Christ from the Scriptures
II. Focus on the authority of the NT apostles to speak the truth about Jesus, an authority no one else has ever had
I. Focus on the central heresies denying the true way of salvation or the deity of Christ and Trinity by proclaiming the truth about the true way of salvation or the deity of Jesus Christ from the Scriptures.
The apostolic pattern we see from Paul and John is to focus on the central doctrines of the nature of God and the deity of Christ and the way of salvation.
That is what they did; they did not focus on the other lesser doctrines and we shouldn’t either. The cults try to barrage people with so many doctrines and proofs that it is leads to confusion and doubt.
We must stick to the central doctrines of our faith. Do not let the cults turn you away from those doctrines.
I. Focus on defending the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ or the true way of salvation by grace through faith alone.
The Biblical defense that the apostles for these doctrines is that these were the doctrines they received by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Our Biblical defense is proclaiming and proving from the Bible what the Bible teaches about the true identity of Jesus Christ and the true way of salvation. We do not have to find proofs outside of the Bible for the doctrine of the Trinity or how salvation could be a free gift. We do not have to prove that the doctrine of the Trinity is humanly logical or that total forgiveness at salvation is humanly logical.
We only have to prove that the Bible teaches these truths, then confront those who are in the cults to prove the Bible does not teach these truths.
As we proclaim the truth of the Bible, the doctrines of the cults are exposed as clearly contradicting the Bible.
We do not need to become experts in the false doctrines of the cults. We need to become experts in what the Scriptures clearly teach, the doctrine of the Trinity and salvation by grace through faith alone.
For more information on the Trinity see "Defending the Trinity" and "Defending the True Identity of Jesus." For more information on the true way of salvation see "Salvation in Christ" in the Bible Study Outlines Section.
You need to know more than just the truths, you must know the Scriptures that teach these truths!
It helps to have a basic understanding of the heresy of the various cults so you can know what they are going to be saying, but it is not absolutely necessary. What is necessary is understanding the Biblical truth they are denying.
Do not focus on the verses they bring up that you might not be sure of and try to offer an explanation, instead say, "I’m not sure of that verse, but let’s look at a verse that very clearly states the truth about the nature of God." And then take them to one of the Trinitarian verses. Ask them to explain to you how their verse could be consistent with this verse. They will not be able to.
Do not let them put you in a corner trying to explain difficult verses of the Bible. Let the clear statements of Scripture force them to find a consistent explanation of the less clear verses.
This puts them on the defensive rather than you. Never let them control the discussion, you control it.
Save the doctrine of the Trinity outline and put it in your Bible so you always have it with you.
II. Focus on the authority of the NT apostles to speak the truth about Jesus
All Christian cults base their different doctrines on the teachings and writings of other men and women who have come later than the apostles claiming to have revelation from God. Their followers add their writings to the Scriptures and end up denying the Scriptures.
The true teaching about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation come from the apostles or their close associates written down in the New Testament founded upon the Old Testament.
The apostles had special authority from Jesus Christ to teach the truth about him. That truth cannot be added to.
See the article "Defending the Credibility of the Apostles."
What about if the cults make the following statement?
"The Bible is inerrant, infallible, and inspired as it was originally given, but it has been changed and is not reliably translated except in our translation."
"Are you a Greek or Bible manuscript scholar?" (They will say "No.")
"Neither am I and it is very difficult to discuss this issue. For every scholar that you can produce I can produce one as well so it is useless for us to discuss the translations and manuscripts since neither of us can really prove we know what we are talking about."
"The Bible has been translated so many times throughout the ages by scholars both Christian and non-Christian. Do you know of any scholars outside your own group that can substantiate that claim from your group?"
(They will say know "No.") If they say yes, ask them to give you a quote and where they got it from so you can verify it and then you will talk to them about it.
Should we as Christians debate cult members who come to our doors?
v.9 "Whoever goes too far and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, does not have God. Then one that abides in the doctrine of Christ, he has both the Father and the Son.
v.10 "If anyone comes to you, and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house, nor give him a greeting. "
1. Those coming are "bringing doctrine." They are not cult members who are friends, relatives, or others who are regular guests in your home or who need help. They are coming to your home to bring their doctrine, for the purpose of teaching their falsehoods.
So this would apply to cult members who go door to door. They are coming to your home to "bring their false doctrine."
How are we as Christians to treat them?
2. We are not to "receive" them or welcome them into our homes.
v. 10 "…do not receive him into your house…"
This means welcome them into our homes and take care of them.
In the first century itinerant preachers calling themselves Christians would look to the true Christians to give them a place to stay and then would share their false doctrine with them in their homes.
3. We are not to even give them a greeting or wish them well.
v. 10 "…nor give him a greeting. "
A "greeting" (or wishing them well) would be something like "thanks for coming" or "hope you have success" or "nice to talk with you." It is any kind of positive response.
John says do not even give them any positive response for what they are doing. That does not mean a negative response; a neutral one is the appropriate response.
To follow this exhortation, when they come to the door we can say politely "no thank you" or I’m not interested" or the like.
v.11 "For he that gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds."
John says that these false teachers are doing evil and should not be encouraged in any way. If we encourage them, we participate in their evil.
This would not be violated if we had a friend or acquaintance come to our house because they are interested in talking about Christ. We have an honest and open dialogue and mutual sharing. However, if they come for the purpose of only "bringing their doctrine," we are not to invite them over.
Those in the cults that we should be interested in reaching are those around us that we know, relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors and the like. We should pray for them and ask the Lord to give us an opportunity to speak with them the claims of Christ.