By Elizabeth Prata
A reader asked this question the other day, “Do you think, they believe they are doing what God is calling them to do?” In other words, do they know they’re false or do they sincerely believe that they are in the right?
The answer is yes, no, and we can’t know. Let me explain.
I look to the Bible for examples of false teachers and whether the Bible answers the question. In the New Testament, we have one answer of ‘Yes’, the false ones know they are false. Nicodemus was in the Sanhedrin, which was the Supreme Court of Israel. He was a Pharisee. When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, John chapter 3, he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2b). “We” means the fellow Pharisees and teachers. They knew He was from God. As John MacArthur said, out of the 6,000 Pharisees, only one came to investigate the man ‘they knew was from God.’ Instead they and the Sadducees became angry and jealous. (Acts 5:17). As RC Sproul said, “[N]othing reveals a counterfeit like the presence of the genuine.
On the other hand, the answer is no, because Paul, also a Pharisee, says that he acted in ignorance and unbelief. (1 Timothy 1:13) “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” (Acts 26:9). Indeed, Paul could be included among those whom Jesus prophesied earlier that “the time is coming where those who kill you think they are doing a service to God”. (John 16:2).
The question boils down to motivation. What motivates a false teacher? A wayward sincerity that can be corrected? Or a deeply warped, conscious pursuit of evil? One thing we know, if a person is a true teacher temporarily teaching falsely they will correct. They will respond to reproof. How do we know? Because in a true believer their primary motivation is glorifying God. If they are told their teaching does not glorify God they will be aghast and seek to improve, for the sake of the Name. Look at Apollos. He wasn’t teaching falsely, just incompletely. He was already competent in the scriptures and teaching accurately. (Acts 18:24, Acts 18:25). When shown the truth, he corrected course and became known as an eloquent teacher with many devoted students. (Acts 18:28).
Does your teacher act like that? Teach accurately but incompletely? Immediately correct when shown? Use scriptures to show who Jesus is? If so, they are motivated by giving God glory.
Or is he like Diotrephes, who like to put himself first? Who refused to acknowledge John’s authority? Who spoke malicious words against the one trying to engage with him? (3 John 1:9). False teachers actively reject oversight, and it’s one way to tell if they are false, and likely is one way they know they are false themselves. Their pride will out them to their conscience. The Pharisees did this. They knew Jesus spoke with an amazing authority and not just as a teacher (Mark 1:22). But in pride they suppressed this knowledge and sought to arrest, then kill, Jesus.
As for the truly false teachers, ultimately unless the Bible explicitly states their interior motivations, their specific motivation will be hard to prove. We know one motivation the false teachers have is jealousy. (Acts 5:17). Another is their own appetites. (Romans 16:18). Another is greed. (2 Peter 2:14). Does a false teacher know they they want to satisfy their own appetites rather than Jesus? Probably. But they suppress it. Whether they suppress it tot he point of convincing one’s self they are doing right, like Paul did, is something we can’t really know unless the Bible tells us, like Paul did.
Ultimately I personally think the answer is yes, deep down they know, but it’s covered with sin and seared in unrighteousness, so their own motivation might be hidden from their own self. False Teachers are unbelievers, and unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1:18). When someone suppresses the truth they are actively engaging in a mental choice. Yet sin is also a powerful deceiver, and hides, masquerades, and rationalizes, so much so that someone who kills another human being can morally accept it as a ‘good.’ Look at Saul/Paul persecuting Christians. Look at abortion. If murder is easy to rationalize, it would be easier to convince one’s self that one is teaching something good even thought they know deep down they are not. So the answer is we can’t know.
In the end it’s not important for us to know if they themselves know they are false. We are given signs to look for in teachers so they we may know if they are true or not. It’s enough. If they are false, their end will be hell. (2 Peter 2:3, 2 Peter 3:16, 2 Corinthians 11:15, Galatians 1:8).
If they are true, they will be corrected by the Spirit via the word of God, a friend, or another authority and they will submit to that correction. False teachers are unbelievers and unbelievers operate in sin and evil, like all sinners. What it comes down to is that if they are false, they are an accursed brood. (2 Peter 2:14). And Jesus will deal with the accursed.
Meanwhile let us glorify Jesus by pursuing holiness in ourselves, by measuring a teacher’s words against His word, and by continuing in our walk along the narrow path.