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On the judging of heretics —
Why, when and how does one judge heretics and their salvation
Axiom: Righteous judgements are biblical and are commanded by Scripture
In this article, I would like to go through why, when and how we should judge heretics and their salvation. To support my case, I would first show that there are people who are wolves in sheep's skin, and thus there are people who call themselves Christians but are actually not. Secondly, I would show that it is possible to know and in fact we are commanded to judge between true Christians and those wolves in sheep's skin. After the rationale behind such an action has been shown, I would go into the practical application of this teaching of Scripture, such that we can apply this truth to safeguard the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On heretics and unbelievers
The first point is easily proved. The Scriptures clearly tell us that there will be wolves who will come in into the churches, and even some of these wolves would be indigenous; coming out from within the flocks in order to ravage the flock (Acts. 20:29-30, 1 Tim. 1:3-7, 1 Tim. 6:3-5, 1 Jn. 2:18-19. Jude 1:4). Jesus Himself warns us against wolves who would come in sheep's clothing (Mt. 7:15) to deceive us, even the elect if it were possible (Mt. 24:24). Therefore, the presence of such people who would come as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:13-15) is hereby proved. Since some of the wolves would come from within the church, there would be people who call themselves Christians who would come from within the Church, yet they are in fact wolves who would ravage the flock if they could do so.
For the second point, it must be said that the Scriptures do tell us time and again to watch out for the wolves. In the passages quoted above, all of them involve the apostles and Jesus Himself warning against the false prophets. Now, such a warning would be useless unless one can identify who the wolves are, so that we can beware of them. To make it even more explicit, the apostle Paul in Rom. 16:17 tell us to mark out those who cause divisions contrary to the doctrine of Christ, which therefore prove to us that it is possible to know and in fact we are commanded to judge between Christians and the wolves in sheep's clothing.
Now, so how exactly do we discern the sheep from the wolves; the saved from the unsaved and the deceivers? Well, since the Scriptures tell us to discern the sheep from the wolves, it will also provide to us the criteria by which we make our righteous judgments (Jn. 7:24).
From the verses warning us against false prophets and false teachings, we can already see some of the criteria we can use. 1 Tim. 1:3-7, 6:3-5 tell us that the teachings of false doctrines constitute one of the criteria by which false prophets and false teachers are known. 1 Jn. 2:18-19 also show us that another criteria is that they leave the invisible Body of Christ by means of apostasy. From Jude 1:4, such false teachers and prophets change the grace of God into licentiousness. Furthermore, they deny the Lord Jesus Christ. In the passage of Mt. 7:15-20, Jesus summarized all the features of the false prophets and teachers by saying that they can be known by their fruits. Since a good tree bear good fruit and a bad tree bear bad fruit (v. 17), the presence of bad fruit signifies that the tree is a bad tree and not a good tree who 'happens' to 'mysteriously bear bad fruit' at one time.
Further information regarding the nature of the bad fruit can be found in the usage of the word anathema (Gr. αναθεμα) in the Scriptures as proclaimed by the apostle Paul. From 1 Cor. 16:22, Paul pronounces anathema on people who do not love the Lord. Similarly, in Gal. 1:8-9, the apostle Paul proclaims anathema on those who preached a different 'gospel'. The word anathema when used on people pronounces a curse on them such that there are doomed to destruction, thus they cannot be saved. From this, therefore, we see that anyone who does not love the Lord and those who preach another 'gospel', for example a gospel of faith plus observance of the Law (i.e. the Judaizers), are considered false teachers and are not saved.
Now, looking at the Mt. 7 passage in detail and in context, we can see that Jesus is illustrating by means of contrast in the different passages (Mt. 7: 12-27) the difference between those who are saved and those who are not saved. Therefore, those who are analogous to bad trees which produce bad fruits are not saved also, consistent with the Scriptures whereby the apostle Paul wrote the inspired Scriptures saying that those who display the specific fruit of doctrinal error on not loving God and preaching another 'gospel' are not saved either.
Since the Scriptures link the manifestation of the bad fruit in its various expressions to the idea that those who do so are false teachers and prophets and are not saved, it can be seen that those who can be seen to produce the bad fruits are definitely not saved at all! Therefore, true Christians can through assessing the fruits of another person discern whether the person is saved or not. Of course, this means that the person condemned must show forth bad fruits. Absence of fruit does not signify anything about the salvific state of the professing Christian concerned, only perhaps that the person is not abiding in Christ (Jn. 15:1-6), and thus he/she may have backslidden. If that is the case, that person is in danger of hellfire (Jn. 15:6) and if this continues on till his death, indicates that the person doesn't love Christ and placed him/herself under the anathema of 1 Cor. 16:22, thus that person wasn't a Christian in the first place (1 Jn. 2:19).
Therefore, some of the fruits by which we can discern heretics and even judge the salvation of others are:
Bad fruits of unbelief
We can judge a person's teachings and his/her salvation through whether they teach false doctrines and whether they preach another gospel. This shows definitely that the act of teaching and preaching is a very serious affair (James 3:1), since the teaching of false doctrines would damn us. Note first of all that this teaching of false doctrines is something that happens consistently, that is when the people involved truly do believe in them and thus teach them. However, how are we to find out whether a person who teaches something truly believes in what he teaches, and does not do so honestly out of ignorance? We can discern what a person believes through exposing him/her to the truth, and then noticing the reaction of the person who is teaching serious errors. If the person is honestly ignorant, that person would immediately repent. If, however, that person remains defiant, and that happens for quite some time, we can know for sure that the person is truly a false teacher and is not saved at all. This can be seen in the biblical example of the Judaizers. Initially, in the Jerusalem council as mentioned in Acts 15:1-31, the early Judaizers were shown their errors in trying to force the new Gentile believers to observe the Mosaic ceremonial laws. Later on however, after quite some time, the apostle Paul, when writing against this same group of people, pronounced anathema on them for teaching that Gentile believers are to observe the Mosaic ceremonial laws. Thus, we can see that the same group of people (the Judaizers) were treated differently, the first time as erring brethren and later the second time as heretics.
In the same way, when judging people who teach errors, we are to apply the same method of judging as taught by Scripture. For those who teach errors, we are to rebuke them and correct them in love through the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16), so that if they are truly saved, that they would repent of their sins. If, however, they persistently teach heresy, they are unsaved heretics and are to be regarded as such. If this standard seems rather harsh, then realize that the Scripture teaches that those who teach are to subjected to greater strictness in judgment (James 3:1). Reinforcing this concept, the Scriptures, echoing the fact that bad trees bear bad fruit, mention in Mt. 12:37 that 'by your words you will be justified, and by your words you would be condemned'. Since the context of this verse is with regards to knowing the trees by their fruits, this verse is an explicit declaration that through the fruits of our teaching others may discern and judge our fruits, and thus know the conditions of our standing and salvific status before God.
Some people may object to the fact that since Man has free will and is naturally weak, couldn't a true believer be deceived into believing and teaching heresy? I don't see why this couldn't be the case, and Scripture tell of people like Job's friends Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite who spoke wrongly of God ( Job 42:7-9) yet they are most probably saved. However, since Scripture says that a good tree can never bear bad fruit, it is obvious that those who are saved can never teach wrong doctrines willfully in defiance of God. God would thus correct them and basically His Spirit would preserve us believers so that we would never be able to fall away so grievously such that we produce bad fruits of teaching heresy defiantly and persistently like the unsaved heretics. If it is needed, God will execute disciplinary measures against His children who are teaching heresies to 'break' them and bring them to repentance in Him. In the case of Job's friends, God rebuked them and they did repent of their errors.
Now, we have been talking about people who preach and teach heresies. How about people who believe in them? Do different standards apply here?
In the case of people who believe in heresies, it is harder to judge since most beliefs are not clearly stated or not stated in the first place. However, if a person voices his belief in heresies, then we can justly rebuke and correct the person if possible, in love. If the person persistently voices his belief in heresies, then he could be treated the same way as those who teach those heresies, since this shows forth the bad fruit that he denies the Lord Jesus Christ by denying His truth. However, since people who believe in heresies do not often voice out their heretical beliefs, unless for the purpose of teaching them, it is normally not the case whereby someone will need to excommunicate a person for believing in heresies. Similarly, a person's heretical beliefs will normally be found out ONLY when the person attempts to teach those beliefs to others.
We will now look at the remaining bad fruits. Not loving the Lord is another fruit on par with denying the Lord Jesus Christ, insomuch as they could and most often are not seen visibly, and if such we cannot judge them. Since loving the Lord is by itself improvable either way, as service rendered to the Lord could have ulterior motives involved, the only way that love for the Lord can be shown is in the person's walk with God through the doctrines he believe. We shall know them by their fruits, and thus we can judge a person's love for God if fruits are manifested which show forth either the presence or absence of a vibrant love for Christ. Of course, such fruits are hard to discern, but when it comes down to certain concrete things like honoring God's truth and having passion for God, fruits such as showing contempt for God's truth and embracing heresies, and showing hatred and contempt for God are definitely signs which point to the existence of bad fruits which are produced by bad trees.
Finally, the bad fruit of changing the grace of God into licentiousness shows that those who live like the world, having the moral standards of the world, and engaging in the same type of moral debauchery, are not saved. The bad fruits of moral decadence and its attendant heresy of antinomianism shows forth that one doesn't know Christ. Therefore, anyone who lives a life of persistent sinfulness can be judged to be unsaved.
Answers to various objections
After looking through the various bad fruits upon which we can make righteous judgments, I would like to look at various objections here.
One objection which could be made is the fact that though Scripture tells us to judge, the act of judging is reserved for the Church as a whole, and thus only the leaders and elders of the church could do such judging. To be sure, the leaders and elders of the church can and must judge and discern between true and false teachers, and between true Christians, erring Christians to be disciplined, and false Christians who are actually wolves in sheep clothing out to destroy the flock. However, the Scriptures also do ask 'normal' Christians to judge. The command to beware of false prophets was given by Jesus to the ordinary people of God at that time, and Jesus many times warn the disciples and even the people of the religious leaders of their day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This is because of their false religiosity and self-righteousness, coming from their wrong interpretation of Scripture resulting to their adding of traditions which nullify the Word of God (Mt. 15:6). In the apostolic churches, the letters written by the apostles like Paul to the churches were to be read to the entire congregation (Acts 15:30-31, Col. 4:16). Since some of them contain admonitions against false teachers like for example 2 Cor. 11:1-15 which were to be read to the whole church, it can be seen that individual believers are also to judge and discern between the true Christians and the false Christians. The most explicit command relating to the church, as made up of individual members of the Body of Christ judging false teachers, was given by the apostle Paul to the church at Galatia in Gal. 3:1; 4:12-20, where Paul was pleading for the Galatians, individually and corporately, to stop listening to the Judaizers and return back to the pure Gospel of salvation by faith alone apart from the merits of obeying the Law.
After dealing with this objection, another question which we need to deal with is the idea of backsliding. After all, if a person stops loving Christ, stops going to church, and perhaps may start believing in various heresies also, are they to be considered backsliders or heretics? To answer this question, we must know what backsliding is. Backsliding as a concept is not explicitly found in the Bible. Nevertheless, Christians have used it to describe other Christians who were formerly growing strong (or not too strong) in the faith and then falling away.
As a Reformed Christian, I subscribe to the biblical doctrine of the preservation of the saints, so a Christian who is truly a Christian will never fall away. However, not all who call themselves 'Christian' are truly Christians, with those coming out of us showing forth their true status as non-Christians (1 Jn. 2:19). Furthermore, as a Reformed Christian, I believe in the coupling of justification and sanctification, that ALL who are justified will be sanctified.
Since such is the case, the physical phenomenon of backsliding could be construed to be apostasy or just backsliding. In the case of truly not loving God and truly embracing serious heresy, that person has shown forth that he/she is a heretic and is not to be treated as a backsliding Christian. However, if a person does not seem to love God, but this could be due to experiences of some hurts and painful experiences, and that the person does not embrace serious heresy but instead appears indifferent to sound doctrine, then the person could be treated as a backslidden Christian who has lost his/her way and is thus to be ministered to in the hope that he turns back to God, which the elect do eventually. Ultimately, judging in such cases should be done on a case by case basis with much discretion by the leaders of the church after much prayer to God and ministry to the party(ies) concerned.
In conclusion, I have proven from the Scriptures that Scripture does tell us to and even commands us to make righteous judgments, and that we should beware of false prophets, — to discern the true from the false teachers and prophets. I have also shown the criteria and the nature of the bad fruits used to evaluate and judge others, showing and explaining the way and method of judging people to be heretics and unbelievers. Therefore, with this, we can learn how to make righteous judgments when the Lord requires us to do so, and thus bring glory to His name in the safeguarding of the purity of His bride, the Church.