Paul revealed in his own lifetime that the apocalyptic 'mystery of iniquity' was already at work. In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20), he prophesied that false teachers and heresy in Christian congregations would greatly multiply after his death. The mystery of iniquity is more than original sin. It is the strange and unique sin of irreversible apostasy from God and Christ. In 1 and 2 Timothy, Paul has a definite change of tone from his earlier letters. The portion of false professors in the visible body of Christ had severely increased--in contrast to the time of Paul's early ministry and the triumph of his gospel in the power of God. The heresies of Alexander the metalworker, Philetus, Hymeneaus, Demas, Phygellus, and Hermogenes were convincing false professors and spreading like wildfire or cancer (2 Tim. 2:17). Paul actually perceived that 'all those in Asia have turned away from me' (2 Tim. 1:15). The heretics were teaching things like the last resurrection being 'already past' (1 Tim. 2:18). Thus the foundation was laid for the great apostasy and the destruction of the NT ekklesia. We need not focus on later generations in an attempt to figure out where the true gospel was destroyed. It happened in the later part of the first century A.D.
The definition of 'heresy' is something that needs a serious rethinking. Is heresy only obvious cultic doctrine--such as the Jehovah's Winesses denial of Christ's deity, the 'Christian Science' denial of God's material creation (including the coming of Jesus in the flesh), or the damnable SDA doctrine of investigative judgment? That is what a number of today's 'evangelical' teachers would have us believe. The answer is a definite No!
Heresy includes cultic doctrine--but is so much more. Heresy is schism. It is anything that causes division in the true body of Christ by departing from the original doctrine of the apostles (Acts 2:42). When a particular teaching contrary to apostolic doctrine causes one sect of professed believers to divorce another group of true believers, that doctrine is heresy. John says that we know we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren (I John 3:14,15). The same passage states that anyone who does not love his brother is a murderer. Sometimes it is hard to see the connection between love and doctrine. But it is a definite and absolute reality!
Most would conclude that anyone believing a 'minority' doctrine is the heretic! But history does not demonstrate this. If someone promotes a minority doctrine that denies the gospel, of course that belief is true heresy. However, not all minority teaching is anti-gospel. The soteriology (salvation doctrine) of the Reformation was and is the minority doctrine--still today! How many other teachings denied by the majority are the true counsel of God?
In contrast, the history of Christianity is filled with instances where heretical teachings from the 'lunatic fringe,' once in the minority, suddenly became the majority view. The result was always the same: those who denied the heresy (divisive teaching)--after it became the majority position--were ostracized from the professed Christian mainstream and pronounced by many as damned souls. There are rare instances where truth triumphed over heresy (such as at Chalcedon and the Reformation)--but not a huge number.
The heresies in any cult are not unique. They are simply variations of long-standing deceptions of Satan designed to nullify the gospel. There is absolutely no difference in principle between any of the sects teaching salvation by character (works), whether God's gracious assistance in performing the self-redemption is affirmed or not. Although the external pronouncements in belief are very different, the principles lying behind the dogma of each false sect are totally the same.
The doctrinal roots of all character salvation sects (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Methodism, Holiness/Pentecostal cults, Seventh-day Adventism, & the radical pseudo-christian cults) are common. They date back to the late 1st and entire 2nd centuries. We could talk about much later predecessors of all of these heresies (Constantine, Thomas Aquinas, the Jesuits, etc.)--but the original basis is clear. All later phenomenon are but imitations of the 'original'. They are not really original even in the great apostasy of professed Christendom--but had their origin in Philonic and pre-Christian Judaism. Many of the sayings of Christ are direct challenges to false rabbinic teaching!
All of the following originated in the first great apostasy predicted by Paul in 1 and 2 Timothy. The doctrines of Alexander the metalworker, Hymenaeus, and Philetus became so prominent after the death of the apostles that a Christian who believed in the material resurrection was hard to find. A PBS network special on early Christianity in the 1980's pointed out this fact: there were as many Gnostic practitioners of free sex who died in the Roman arena as Christian believers who accepted Paul's gospel. Unfortunately, they are not far off in their assertions. The Gnostic heresies were many and varied, however, the principle was common: denial of the Pauline and apostolic gospel. These doctrines as a whole comprise the summation of almost all the later heresies. There is nothing new about these:
- Perfectionism. Since the Gnostic heresy divorced the spirit from the body, the doctrine of sinless perfection in this life was a logical and inevitable consequence. According to Philonic and Greek philosophy, sin resided only in the physical flesh--not in the spirit of man. Paul is adamant that sin is a spiritual 'law' of death (termed the 'flesh')--opposed to the law of Christ's spirit (Rom. 8:1-17)--persistently dwelling within us. It is not a physical principle at all. Sin is not material--it is pure spirit. Otherwise, the sinless Christ could not have assumed a physical human body (as denied by the Gnostics).
The Gnostic perversions of apostolic teaching are all perfectionistic. The first and best example is the false epistle of Laodecia, which states "in all things do not sin." Paul wrote a true epistle to the Laodiceans (Col 4:16), however, it is not the commonly-published letter known by that name. Even early Christian expositors from the second century on--who were partially influenced by Gnostic ideas-- knew that the published epistle of Laodicea was a fraud. It contains exhortations to sinless perfection, as do countless other post-apostolic writings influenced by Gnostic thought. It is very unwise to be discouraged when reading early Christian 'fathers' who advance ideals of human sinlessness in this life. It is all Gnosticism.
The devil's greatest and most subtle counterfeit of salvation by grace is salvation by character transformation. The 'glorious change' in a soul who achieves redemption by pursuing a good 'character index' is always proposed to owe the achievement to God's gracious assistance. Unconverted people who remain in their sins love to believe Gnostic fables, whatever exact form the fable may take.
- Autonomous Man. This theory is also Gnostic and was 'legitimized' by the 'christianized' free-will paganism of Justin Martyr. If man has no spiritual law of sin in his members (since sin resides only in the physical body), he has true freedom of will and the natural ability to choose what is right. This philosophy quickly became the majority position in professed Christian circles, making belief in the skeptic objections of Rom. 9:19 a 'testing truth!' It has remained the dominant view to this day. Men such as Augustine, Huss, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Zanchius, Knox, Twisse, Owen, Spurgeon, and countless other believers in sovereign grace have engaged in a passionate but futile effort to move mainstream Christianity back to the inspired perspective--taught by Joseph, David, Job, Isaiah, Daniel, John, Peter, Luke, and Paul. They were unwittingly trying to undo the damage of the early deceivers (Alexander, Justin Martyr, etc.) in their attempt to synthesize Christianity with Philonic and Greek philosophy. The effort has failed in terms of convincing the majority of professed Christians. The last century witnessed an infinitely greater triumph in free-will dogma than was seen in the early centuries of Christianity--and any time since. It really doesn't matter whether we are talking about professed Christianity or false religion in this regard: all have joined in the grand celebration. Rejoice Plato, Philo, Alexander, Justin, Origen, Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, Occum, Council of Trent formulators, Arminius, Wesley, Finney, Alexander Campbell, Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Taze Russell, Edward Irving, Joe Campbell, and George Lucas! Your day has come, if spiritual success is to be judged by strength in numbers! Even Hollywood would be proud of your defense of human autonomy and the proud assertion in the Invictus that "I only am the master of my fate and destiny!"
Modern and post-modern churchianity is obsessed with will-worship and and free choice. Salvation by faith AND the human will! Who can deny it with any degree of honesty? Salvation begins in 'faith' (whatever that is) and ends with right choices owed to human autonomy.
- Neo-legalism, or the New Law. Acting contrary to the dynamic gospel-ethic of the apostles, neo-law teachers ascended to prominence very early in Christian history. This was a logical corollary to Gnostic perfectionism and belief in human autonomy. The epistle of Barnabas is a prime example of how this teaching gained recognition and respect very quickly. Some 'church fathers' of the second century were outraged that Barnabas was not accepted in the canon of scripture! Keep in mind that these same leaders absolutely rejected the book of James as a bulwark of false teaching . James was not accepted into the canon until at least the 4th century and not widely until the 5th--after the 'churchianity' of Constantine became mandatory and was forced upon the conscience (at least by attempt--mostly successful in terms of the numeric majority). At that time, it was deemed important to unite Jewish Christianity (for whom James had always been prominent & Paul was suspect) and mainstream Christians (who had always believed in Paul as the recipient of God's superior revelation & completely denied James). Strangely, even those who accepted the perfectionistic, free-will, and neo-law teaching of Gnosticism had reservations for many centuries about accepting James!
It was inevitable that neo-law teaching would eventually attempt to incorporate a revisionist concept of the old law into Christian ethics. The 'obligation' of Christians to obey the 10 commandments (including a 'new' and revised version of the 4th) was a major part of this revisionism. Even Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, and all of their heirs bought into some form of turning back to the former era (condemned in Hebrews). There is no question that the majority of Christians today believe that many laws from the Old Covenant are binding upon believers--Sabbaths, tithes, sacred buildings, clergy, food and drink regulations, civil laws (reconstructionism), sacred times, the covenant of circumcision (infant sprinkling), etc.
All of these heresies deny Galatians, Romans, Hebrews, the Johannine writings, and the whole witness of the New Testament against promoting foolish regulation as a method of acknowledging and completing salvation by grace.
- Apocalypticism. The speculative approach to prophecy is a Gnostic essential. There is a 'hidden' meaning to all inspired prediction which must be discovered by 'elite' Christians. This idea was prominent to the early Gnostics denying a physical resurrection, reactionary Montanists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and extreme 'last-day' movements ever since. I say 'reactionary' because the Montanists (as other early apologists) thought that they were opposing Gnosticism. To give readers a brief idea of the radical perspective of Montanism, Montanus said under assumed inspiration from God: "I am the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit"! He believed that his words were nothing but God speaking through him. That exactly parallels the views of so many persons claiming to have a revelatory gift of prophecy.
The modern apocalypticism of the 2nd Advent Awakening originated in Roman Catholic Jesuit attempts to stir up the 'faithful' with theories of last-day prophetic fulfillment. Manuel Lacunza's book on the Second Coming and speculative prophecy appeared around 1800. It was the catalyst for the massive prophetic theories of Edward Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church, which were virtually the entire basis of both the American Adventism of William Miller (which falsely predicted the return of Christ in 1843-44) and the whole pre-tribulation and dispensational theory of Bible prophecy advanced by Darby--which was once dubbed as British Adventism.
The Baptist movement is a prime example of how strange and heretical views on the 'lunatic fringe' can quickly become the majority position--judging and condemning all minority defectors. The historical development of Baptist (and later Pentecostal) sectarianism illustrates the principle how heresy (schism) operates. The stink about water submersion was viewed as lunacy to the early Baptists in the first half of the 17th century. They knew well the historical objections illustrating the ridiculous and absurd origin of this theory--as did most of the Anabaptists and all of the Mennonites. It was another form of neo-law and neo-legalism. Yet it quickly became the majority view among the English Baptists--within less than a single generation! They quickly learned, as did the Reformed paedobaptists, that heresy of form is absolutely necessary to accomplish the goal of forcing institutional 'churchianity' and political correctness upon the conscience. History was repeated two centuries later, when the prophetic views of Darby and Scofield (viewed as lunacy at first) became the mandatory position among Baptists within a few brief years after their inception. All who opposed it (and oppose it today) were and are kicked out of any influence in their churches--without sympathy or regret--as those who deny the clear and certain Word of God!
- Rabbinic and Constantinian views of the people of God. This one is huge! Strangely, it is merely the final result of Gnostic views forced upon the conscience by external, institutional, and governmental force. It was Constantine who founded what may be termed 'churchianity': the notion that the people of God must be incorporated into an external institution approved by political leaders in order to be approved of God. He was only furthering the political agenda of traditional Judaism, under a different guise and motive. These views remain in the majority to this day. People ask how can we have Christ and Christianity without institutional 'church?' There is no virtually no concept in existence of how this is possible.
Only the Spirit of God can ever accomplish a Reformation so mighty and seemingly impossible as to deliver us from an apostasy so intense as occurred after the death of God's chosen apostle of grace. We hope and earnestly pray for the day that our sovereign God takes decisive action.