Departing from the Faith
Most of us know people who, at one time, embraced a life of faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to His Word. We saw the power of the living God transform their lives from the inside out. Their minds were being renewed by the power of God’s Word and they were becoming conformed to the image of Christ. They were hungry for the Word of God and spiritual instruction. The shameful behavior of their previous lifestyle fell away as they “put on the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
But somewhere in that process, something happened; a decision was made, and a corner was turned. Today, they no longer walk with the Lord and have made, in the words of the apostle Paul, a “shipwreck” of their lives. And we ask, “How did this happen? Why did this person turn away from the Lord?” For some, it may have been a personal crisis; in their finances, their marriage, or something else. For others, there was an imperceptible start followed by a slow but steady slide into the old patterns of their former life.
Maybe you know someone personally who fits that description. If you do, then you know the pain in your spirit because of their unbelief. If that person is a relative or a close friend, the pain is deep, and the hurt doesn’t heal. And if that person is, or was, in a place of leadership, and especially leadership within the church, the effects of their departing from the faith can be devastating to others.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he wrote to the young pastor/teacher, with important instructions on godly leadership in the church. Timothy was facing pressures from false teachers in the church at Ephesus, and Paul wrote to encourage and instruct him in the way of truth.
Today we will look at the opening verses of chapter four. In these verses, Paul warns Timothy about leaders who would depart from the faith. And he points out the steps that will lead to that departure. And while leadership is the primary focus of this instruction, we can all benefit by learning how to avoid this path which I have called, “Departing from the Faith.” Our text is I Timothy 4:1-5. Let me read that for you now.
Heavenly Father, from the words of our text, I pray your Holy Spirit will speak specifically to our needs. Open my heart and the heart of my friend to receive your truth and apply it to our lives. For your glory and the blessing of others, I ask this in the name of Jesus, Amen.
Let us observe together the several STEPS which lead to a “Departing from the Faith.”
The First STEP is,
I want you to notice something right here at the beginning of our study. The opening verses of chapter four do not begin a new topic. They’re a continuation of what Paul was saying in the previous chapters, specifically, in the closing verses of chapter three. In the KJV, the first word of verse one is, “Now.” Kenneth Wuest, in his “Word Studies in the Greek New Testament,” believes a better translation would be the word, “but.” This helps to set up a clear contrast between the truth of the Gospel and the error Paul is about to address.
He begins by telling us that the Holy Spirit spoke specifically about the latter times when this departing from the faith will take place. This isn’t just departing from any faith – but departing from THE faith; the faith of chapter three, verse sixteen. It may be, as Paul was writing this letter, that the Spirit spoke distinctly to him about the situation in Ephesus. Or it could be that he’s referring to the words of Jesus and others in Scripture who prophesied about these things in a general way. I’m not sure it’s really important for us to figure that out. What is important is that we understand the how and why of this departure from (THE) faith – so we can avoid it.
When Paul speaks of leaders – they’re his main subject in this entire letter – leaders who will depart from the faith, he is not talking about those who slowly drift away. This word means to actively instigate revolt; to stand aloof from belief or to refuse to believe. These people are like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day of whom He said, “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”
In verse one, Paul says this departure will begin with those who give heed or pay attention to, “deceiving spirits.” They will hold these spirits in high enough regard that they will be inclined to follow them. Thayer’s Greek dictionary speaks of these spirits as “vagabonds, tramps, or imposters.” These false teachers are intentionally deceptive and misleading.
The apostle John warns us in chapter four of his first letter; “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
The vagabond spirits Paul speaks of are evil spirits that empower the human agents of error. They are wandering, that is, they are hard to pin down. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where it just seemed that you went in circles? You attempted to nail down the person’s position on truth, but you got nowhere? They were elusive, evasive, and non-committal, yet cloaked themselves in an aura of spirituality. That’s a description of these seducing spirits.
According to the statements that follow, these teachers were likely influenced by Gnosticism. Gnostics believed in “salvation [exclusively] through knowledge.” In chapter one of this letter, we see them giving undo attention to fables, myths, genealogies, and pseudo-spirituality. Paul labels these, “doctrines of demons.” Empowered by these demonic spirits, the false teachers will attempt to spiritually seduce others to depart from the faith.
The Second STEP is,
Both God and Satan know that the mind is a key battleground of our faith. That’s why we’re instructed in Romans 12:2 to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind…” We must continually expose our minds to the Word of God and the Spirit of God. The Scriptures warn us repeatedly about trusting our own intellect, and our own reasoning. We are so prone to deception, to be led astray by rationalizing our sins.
Paul tells us that false teachers will promote deception by speaking lies, and by doing it in a hypocritical way; that is, they know exactly what they are doing. Kenneth Wuest says, “These deceivers are not acting under delusion, but deliberately, and against conscience.” They have become “play actors” on the stage of religious life.
They deceive the immature and unsuspecting by persuading them that God’s Word really doesn’t mean what it says. They say, “You can’t take the Bible too literally, times have changed! After all, how could a God of love ask us to refrain from certain behaviors? He gave us our senses and our physical desires, didn’t He? Surely, He will overlook your minor transgressions. You’re really not that bad!” In the process, they mess with people’s minds. They live by the motto of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
It is appalling how much of this we see today. In many churches today, pastors/teachers refuse to use words like sin, guilt, and repentance. That will upset people and make them uncomfortable. The suffering and death of Jesus Christ are considered too bloody, and too gory. Cross-bearing and discipleship are minimized, and Jesus becomes the blessing machine to manage all your problems and meet all your material needs. The unconverted are seen as needing help from Jesus to fix up their lives, rather than being doomed for hell unless they repent.
Some who proclaim this watered-down gospel are uncomfortable with it. They know that their 12-step programs will only produce sinners with better behavior! Their purpose-driven programs drive out the saints and coddle sinners. But they fear man rather than God. They have attendance goals to meet and a budget that needs to grow. How else can they measure success?
Others have long ago lost the discomfort of this deception because, as our text says, their consciences have been seared! That happens by refusing to respond to the truth. They have lost their sensitivity. Their conscience no longer functions as God intended. The metaphor is from the practice of branding slaves or criminals. It was an indelible mark.
Paul speaks of himself as bearing the marks (branding) of the Lord Jesus, Galatians 6:17. These deceivers were wearing the brand of Satan. Therefore, they actively promote the things that God’s Word condemns, and their conscience does not bother them. Romans chapter one describes them in much detail.
These teachers actively advocate change—a change that is in opposition to God’s Word. Their goal is to lead others to depart from the faith.
The Final STEP is,
When something is perverted, it is twisted. The false teachers Timothy was dealing with were promoting things God despised while prohibiting things God desired! That sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it?
Earlier, I mentioned the influence of the Gnostics in Paul’s day. They were a diverse religious group. They placed knowledge before everything else. That’s how they got their name – from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. Because of the belief that knowledge was the greatest human achievement, they taught that mind and spirit were good and matter, or the physical body, was evil. That conclusion led to the development of two extremes.
On the one hand, you had those who said, “OK, the mind and knowledge are really what matters so you can do with the body whatever you want.” These people were licentious and immoral. Since the physical body and its desires were ultimately of no consequence, you could use your body in any way you chose. The other group said, “No, since the body and matter are evil, we must deny ourselves of any unnecessary pleasures that can be experienced by our physical senses.” So, they became ascetics, living a very Spartan life. And it is this group that we see here in our text.
Paul says these false teachers will forbid marriage. The ascetics wouldn’t marry because some pleasure might come of it. The immoral people wouldn’t marry because that would produce children; more “evil matter” in their understanding. The ascetics taught that people should abstain from certain foods as a way of deepening their “spiritual experience.” As I said earlier, they promoted things God despised, while despising things God designed for the blessing of humankind.
Today, we are seeing these same kinds of perverted instructions in the church. Just recently, 58 churches left the United Methodist Church in protest over its acceptance of same-sex marriage and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals. And that’s just one denomination where this is taking place. Scripture is being twisted and perverted. Right and wrong are being reversed. And from my observation, most of the promotion of error is coming from the pulpit, rather than the pew.
While Paul encouraged celibacy for the sake of Christian service, he never required it, because Scripture doesn’t require it. If it did, the qualifications for a church leader, in chapter 3, would be different. Yet, historically, and currently, some religious groups require it, and we have seen the disastrous consequences. Paul knew that marriage was the first order God established in the human family. Children were an expression of marital love and God’s creativity. They were to be taught and trained, equipped to be the future servants of the Lord. To teach differently is to be opposed to the Word of God.
On the subject of food, Paul goes on record in several places stating that whatever has been sanctified by the Word and by prayer should be received with thanksgiving. Here again, some religious groups have placed restrictions on what can be eaten and when it can be eaten as a matter of salvation or acceptance with God. This teaching must be rejected.
Paul warned Timothy to be alert to these perversions of the truth, these things that would lead to a departing from the faith. He would need to guard the flock under his care from spiritual seduction. He needed to be alert to the false teachers whose high-sounding words and appeals to a special, spiritual experience would attract the immature and the emotionally unstable.
Timothy would need to be on guard against those whose teaching was designed to deceive. He would need to watch out for those who would intentionally use falsehood to beguile the unsuspecting and draw them away from faith and trust in God’s truth.
And finally, there would be those who would twist the Scriptures; forbidding things that God has not forbidden and requiring things that God does not require. The apostle Peter speaks of those who “twist the Scriptures to their own destruction.”
Today, like never before, we need God’s Holy Spirit of discernment! I urge you to pray for the leaders of the church, and specifically for the leaders of your congregation. They need your prayers! Ask God to protect them from error, to give them a conscience sensitive to the Word and the Spirit, and boldness to proclaim the truth of the Scriptures without apology. As you do this, you will help to prevent them and others from, “Departing from the Truth.”