Counterfeits, Deceptions, Heresies and Mistakes as seen in Evangelical Revival Movements
This is a very considerable set of subjects, and they will be approached in as organised a manner as possible. But, first of all, a few basic assumptions must be stated.
- All spiritual movements are mixed in quality. Many things occur in revival movements which seem to be the direct work of the Spirit of God. But, as soon as these workings of the Spirit have to be understood or expressed by a human mind, they become mixed with misunderstandings, workings of the "lower nature", selfish motives, psychological factors, various forms of sin, unscriptural ideas and demonic activity. This mixed nature of things is both recognised in the New Testament (Matthew 13), and is also a matter of continual experience.
- Every person is different. God deals with us all differently. Everybody has different experiences, including our personal contact with God. Although common principles and factors can be recognised and studied, each personal experience has to be evaluated on its own merits.
- Each claim that we have been deceived, or that someone else is deceived, has to be evaluated separately, and on its own merits, in the light of all the wisdom that we have to draw upon.
- The only ultimate test for any deception, whether real or imagined, is the best understanding that we have of the Scriptures. Under this general heading, the main test is the one mentioned by Jesus, that it is by their fruit we shall know them. Another secondary level test is that the accumulated wisdom of God's mature, saintly people is to be ignored at our peril.
- It is desirable, however, to be able to recognise, and take evasive action about, as many deceptions as possible before they produce bad fruit, if we can wisely do so. Regrettably, at times, this is not possible.
- It is important to remember that a heresy, and beliefs on which deceptions are based, are usually at least half true. They are rarely totally incorrect. There are Scriptural teachings to support them. The problem arises because people unwisely make a part into the whole. There are other Biblical passages relevant to the matter which have been ignored, and which would have provided the healthy and wise balance. If enough mature Christians had a knowledge of heresies and problems which occurred in the past, we would have been saved from being so affected by our present heresies and problems.
What is Being Included Here?
Every time a person believes that something has come from God, when in fact it did not, the person is deceived at that particular point, and is open to further deceptions at that point. This holds true, regardless of what the deception was, or where it came from. Every person who believes a thing to be true, when in fact it is not, is deceived at that point, and is open to other deceptions at that point. Any of these deceptions can be simple mistakes, even the result of ignorance, and can be of human origin, or demonic in nature.
Four basic kinds of deceptions will be dealt with here.
- Many deceptions arise from mistakes, shoddy work, uneducated guesses, or heresies in theology, and wrong understandings of the Scriptures.
- Many deceptions arise from sinful, foolish or immature behaviour, or from actions prompted by "the lower nature".
- Many deceptions arise from misunderstanding of psychological factors, or from the mis-use of psychic or psychological factors.
- Other deceptions arise from demonic sources.
(a.) Deceptions Based in Theology, or Mis-interpreted Scriptures.
This kind of deception has a very long history, of course, and many classic examples could be quoted.
Very basic kinds of deceptions can occur when a person does not understand correctly what the character of God is like, as revealed in the Scriptures, or does not understand what it means to become and be a Christian. This can lead people to believe they are saved, or born again, when they are not, or some similar fundamental mistake about their relationship with God. So, deceptions like this can be very important.
Deceptions can arise when someone becomes too entrenched in the supposed correctness of their own understanding of the Bible. Arrogance can make a person very determined that what they believe is true, and make them unable to appreciate contrary opinions. Without realising it, they equate their own human views with the infallible thoughts of God.
A simple deception is seen in the claim to know when the Second Coming will occur. Such claims are based upon someone's belief that they have a much more reliable source of knowledge than anyone else, and on their unwillingness to learn from all that the New Testament says.
In recent decades, a new crop of deceptions have appeared, in addition. For example, claims of some preachers to have won multitudes to Christ have been radically over-estimated. Some instances of speaking in tongues are believed to come from God, when the source may be psychological, or demonic, or exercising the gift may have become simply a matter of habit. Many instances of alleged healings have later been shown to be fraudulent, because no improvement occurred. Many alleged prophetic messages have not come true as stated, or when the events prophesied were supposed to have happened. Prophetic words about coming revivals are often notorious examples of this.
Thankfully, amongst the various deceptions of this kind being practised in the Evangelical and Pentecostal worlds in recent years, an excellent analysis of many of them has been written. It discusses what they are, where they missed the mark, and offers some reasons why they may have occurred.
The book is written by Florence Bulle, and is entitled:- "'God Wants You Rich' and Other Enticing Doctrines. A Closer Look at Some Popular Teachings in the Church Today." (Bethany House Publishers. 1983.)
Amongst many other things, it covers such American folk religion theories as the Prosperity theology, much woolly-headed teaching about healing, and the claims of many that "God told me" something. Disguised claims to infallibility by ordinary people, and by many preachers, abound, and these are a fertile source of heresies, and of divisions in the body of Christ. She emphasises the role of magnetic personalities in much of this, of people who unwittingly want to exercise power over others, and of people who are building their own kingdom while thinking they are building Christ's Kingdom.
An example of teaching which is half true is found in "Miracle of Seed-Faith" by Oral Roberts. Many similar examples exist.
(b.) Deceptions Based in Immature Behaviour, or "The Lower Nature."
Deceptions of this kind cover a wide range. A simple example during a revival movement is that very often young people, or new converts, can be pushed forward to testify, and take part in meetings. This can often be a very good idea, but such people should not be given responsible leadership roles, as Saint Paul plainly taught us. When they are, unwise things can often be said and done which can damage the work, mislead others, spread strange opinions, and promote lop-sided views of the Gospel.
Charles Finney emphasised that the first lesson a new convert should be taught is to act on principle, instead of on feelings. In other words, they should learn quickly to do something because they know it is right, and not because it feels right, good, or happy, or will "save face". It is regrettable that vast numbers of Christians, who one might hope would know better, continue to act according to their feelings in all sorts of ways. Our feelings can lead us to do foolish and un-Scriptural things, and can thus create deceptions for ourselves, and for others we associate with.
Many times people decide what they think the will of God is by means of some feeling or intuition. This can lead us to pray for some particular thing to happen, and to believe we are praying in faith. While sometimes God might lead us that way, it is very unreliable as a general principle. Many times we will find our prayer is not answered as we expect. This proves that the conclusion we reached in trying to follow our feeling or intuition was mistaken. Such a thing can confound some people, and cause them to loose their faith. Generally, guidance should be through the Scriptures, as interpreted by people who know the Bible best.
Following feelings and intuitions can be useful, at times, but it is a notorious source of deceptions which causes many and major problems.
(c.) The Mis-use or Mis-understanding of Psychological Factors.
The work of the Kingdom of God is always achieved through the merits of Christ crucified and risen, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, who acts to glorify Christ, and not Himself. Our role in God's Kingdom is simply as a channel or instrument for God, and yet God has also made us into partakers or team members. The Spirit can also use many other means in doing His work, but the real, operative power is all of God.
As a result, God may use our minds, words, actions and our natural abilities, in His work of implanting eternal life within people. But, if we try to produce an effect, and manipulate or manage the situation ourselves, and take charge of producing results, these results may be on the human level only, and God may not have imparted any life at all. In such a case, we may have led people to believe they have eternal life when they do not have it.
We can use the force of our personalities, personal magnetism and charisma, the forces of mass psychology, dominating or domineering personal force, a commanding presence, argument, or psychic and hypnotic powers, to achieve something which looks like the work of the Spirit of God, to all outward appearances. The deception will only be revealed if we realise the mistake we have made, and try to recover the situation, which may be very difficult. Or, we will have to wait until the fruit appears, which will reveal the emptiness in spiritual quality of all we have done.
Deceptions of this kind can occur on a massive scale.
Helpful little books which describe this are:- "Soul and Spirit", by Jessie Penn-Lewis, and "The Latent Power of the Soul." by Watchman Nee. Parts of Watchman Nee's "The Spiritual Man" are also relevant. But, be careful of the meanings of technical terms which these books use.
In recent years, an entire literature has also developed about the abusive methods of some cults and religious groups in brainwashing their followers, depriving them of normal contacts with family and the outside world, maintaining control over their personalities, and swindling them out of their worldly wealth. The practice of dominating and controlling the personality of another is far more widespread than many people realise. It is unwise to say that the Holy Spirit never does a certain thing, but, as a general rule, the Holy Spirit does not use this kind of behaviour in the work of the Kingdom of God. It is contrary to the great commandments and the golden rule, and represents great arrogance on the part of the leaders of such activities. The long-term spiritual fruit resulting from it will be very poor, or non-existant.
Helpful books about this aspect of deceptions are:- "Churches That Abuse." by Ronald M. Enroth; "Dark Side of the Moonies" by Erica Heftmann; "Combatting Cult Mind Control." by Steven Hassan; "Witnesses of Jehovah." by Leonard and Marjorie Chretien, and "Bare-Faced Messiah." by Russell Miller, which is about L. Roy Hubbard and the origins of Scientology.
From this list, it will also be evident that people can become bound to an organisation which controls and dominates their lives, rather than bound by a leader. Jehovah's Witnesses fit into this category. Many cults today, however, are dominated by a leader. The only real path to healing is to surrender the control to Jesus Christ, and not to anyone or anything human.
The situation with the Mormons, or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is somewhat different. This is not a cult splitting off from normal Christianity, but is now believed by the experts to be a completely different religion, which happens also to involve a person named Jesus Christ. It is based in a series of visions and revelations said to have been received by Joseph Smith. The records of these visions and revelations effectively replace the New Testament as the final authority. Moslems hold the Koran in a similar way. Smith practised magic in trying to hunt for treasure. These magic practices were used in dictating the Book of Mormon. The writing of this Book was an astonishing achievement for a semi-literate man.. Later, he tried to re-edit the Bible, re-writing or removing large sections which differed from his revelations. So, the whole layout of Mormonism is opposite to the doctrines of the Reformation. Many Mormon doctrines are very different from any normal versions of Christianity.
This emphasises the need of every Christian to be very wary of anyone who professes to have visions, or to receive messages direct from God, or from angels. Such things are not impossible, but their track record is so bad that they should be avoided. New revelations alleged to come from God should not be believed. They are either demonic, or are based in mental peculiarities.
Books about Mormonism include "Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism." by Richard Bushman; "Mormonism" by Jan Schipps, and "Early Mormonism and the Magic World-View." by Michael Quinn. These writings are all by experts, whose views are accepted by authorities on Mormonism.
(d.) Deceptions More Directly Related to Demonic Activity
In one sense, everything which achieves the goal of being a deception can be said to be demonic. However, most people do not see value in using the term "demonic" in this very wide sense, but restrict it simply to those things which can be attributed more directly to denomic activity, or to the influence of evil powers of one kind or another.
Evil spirits are able to deceive Christians in many ways, and the unconverted are already successfully deceived. (2nd Cor. 4:3 - 4.) The New Testament says that the devil is able to make himself look like an angel of light. Jesus said that, at the last day, many people would say "Have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and in your name done many wonderful works?" - only to find that they were deceived.
The activity of evil spirits can be linked with many of the forms of deception listed already, especially where someone carelessly leaves themselves open to the workings of evil spirits. For example, where a person is in an attitude of prayer, with their minds open to impressions from outside of themselves, if that person leaves their mind blank, instead of concentrating on Christ, and His victory, the impressions they receive may well come from an evil spirit. If this impression is then accepted by that person as if it came from God, the person has been deceived by the evil power, and is then open to other deceptions at that point.
The best book explaining this area of concern is "War on the Saints", by Jessie Penn-Lewis and Evan Roberts. The booklet "Soul and Spirit", already mentioned, is a summary of much of it. Watchman Nee's material follows a similar line.
"War on the Saints" has a most interesting summary list, at the end of the book, where true workings of the Holy Spirit are compared to counterfeits. The differences between these two lists are very illuminating.
The only remedies for deceptions of this kind is for people to realise where and how they have been deceived, deliberately rejecting the deception, claiming victory over it through Jesus Christ, and then concentrating their thoughts upon Him. We need to pray that God will show us where we are deceived, and pray for Christ's help to recognise problems in the future, and for His protection from them.
Who Is Open to Being Deceived?
The simple answer is that anyone can be deceived in these various ways. Nobody is safe. The only real safety is in Christ Jesus, in living the fruit of the Holy Spirit, in resisting the devil, and in practising the humility that the New Testament speaks of so widely. We must be ready at all time to admit our mistakes, confess our sins, and admit that our only true righteousness is someone else's, namely Christ's.
While admitting that we are all liable to be misled, we can easily make a list of the kinds of people who are more prone to being misled than others. The list might include:-
- Uneducated or insufficiently educated preachers and teachers;
- Preachers who are not aware of the implications of what they say;
- Difficult and strong personalities;
- People using unwise methods of doing Christian work;
- Those using unwise interpretations of the Bible;
- Those claiming knowledge which is better than the Bible;
- Those who have been deceived;
- Academic theologians who are trying to build their career;
- People whose theology is affected by popular ideas in society;
- People with wrong personal motives;
- People who are uncritical about their alleged experiences of God;
- People who live by their emotions;
- People with very big egos;
- People who are stubborn or unteachable;
- People who believe anything their friends tell them;
- People who believe anything the preacher says;
- People with insufficient humility.
What to do When Confronted with an Apparent Deception.
Whether we come across this apparent deception in our personal experience, or we read about it, several initial points should be remembered.
- Because of the importance of the issue, each claim needs to be investigated, but not necessarily believed. All such claims can be learned from.
- We must be careful about the meanings of words. Probably, some technical words are involved which have meanings other than the normal meaning of the word in ordinary language. There may, indeed, be a whole range of words with special meanings. If this is not handled properly, no useful outcome will flow from the exercise. Misunderstandings will abound.
- The deception may, indeed, function on the basis of an entirely different theology from the one we are use to, and this should be explored.
As mentioned earlier, the primary test is found in the Scriptures, as they are understood by mature and experienced Bible students, who are being taught by the best wisdom that has come down to us through the Christian Church, and through the great theologians of the Church.
However, a test of beliefs and ideas is only a part of the scene. Holiness of life must be produced as well.
The test of any so-called church, as to whether it is a real church of Jesus Christ or not, has always been - Does it produce great saints?
Similarly, the test of any personal profession to be a Christian is - Is that person progressing in holiness of life? Does the "new birth" produce its proper fruits of repentance, and faith in Christ, and the fruit of the Spirit?
Any alleged deception, in ourselves, or in anyone else, must pass the same test - Am I progressing in holiness, as a result of this experience? What negative results are there? Am I fleeing from these?
So, the touchstone is obedience to the Scriptures, greater Christlikeness, more fruit of the Spirit, more holiness, more humility, more love for all God's people, more meekness and teachableness.
There will be a corresponding decline in all forms of pride and arrogance, no criticisms of God's people, more willingness to sacrifice myself in the service of Christ, greater love for God, more willingness to admit my own nothingness, and that Christ is all. There will be continual willingness to admit that others are better than I am. My only righteousness is Christ's. My only hope is in Christ. God's people are my people. The little use I am comes from God, and is not my own. If I am kept from great deceptions, the thanks belongs to God. All the wisdom I might have is from God, also.
So, safety is only found in being close to God, in being covered by Christ's blood, and in obeying Him, in all humility and meekness.
Other Helpful Publications.
- R. Evans. "Fire From Heaven." A Description and Analysis of the Revivals in the "Burned-Over District" of New York. 1800 - 1840, and Spiritual Deceptions. Published by the author. 2005.
- Iain H. Murray. "Pentecost - Today?
- B. J. Oropeza. "A Time to Laugh."
- B. P. Jones. "An Instrument of Revival." (biography of Evan Roberts).
- B. P. Jones. "The Trials and Triumphs of Mrs Jessie Penn-Lewis."
- R. Evans and R. McKenzie. "Evangelical Revivals in New Zealand."
- Jonathan Edwards. "A Treatise on the Religious Affections."
Prepared by Rev. Robert Evans OAM