General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, said the following at the dawn of the twentieth century:
“I am of the opinion that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost; Christianity with Christ; forgiveness without repentance; salvation without regeneration; politics without God, and heaven without hell.”
As you read through some of the examples below, you’ll find that General Booth had remarkable foresight.
- What defines a cult?
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
- Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Church of the Nazarene
- New Apostolic Reformation
- Prosperity Gospel
- Christian Science
What defines a cult?
World history is littered with various religions, and many of them are completely pagan (Greek pantheon, Norse mythology, Animism, etc.). These are easy to identify as false religions because their teachings have almost nothing in common with Christianity.
A cult on the other hand is a religion that has its basis in Christianity but which also includes heretical doctrines. To help you clearly identify cults, Watchman Fellowship suggests memorizing the following mnemonic:
- Addition – Does this group add to God’s word with new scripture? Do they require additional texts to reinterpret the Bible? Do they claim unique new revelation directly from God that only they receive?
- Subtraction – Does this group detract from who Jesus is, either claiming that He was not fully human or that He was not fully God? Do they claim that Jesus was just an angel or just a prophet and a teacher?
- Multiplication – Do they multiply the ways required for salvation? Do they claim that Jesus alone cannot save you and that you need a combination of Jesus plus good works? Do they say things like “Jesus’ death and resurrection were necessary but not sufficient for your salvation”?
- Division – Do they divide the followers loyalties? Do they say things like “If you want to have eternal life, you have to follow us because we are the one true church”? Do they provide a mediator or interpreter who requires that you go through them to get to God?
Sometimes a church’s teachings may veer into false doctrine but not quite rise to the level of heresy. Sometimes their teachings may be so muddled that it’s hard to tell what they believe. To help with that situation, I recommend using Ray Comfort’s “three minutes to live” strategy:
- Tell them that someone has just stuck a knife in your back and that you’ve only got three minutes left to live. You’ve heard about Christianity, and you’d like to know what does it take to become a Christian and get into Heaven.
- If they can’t give you something that you can do with your dying breaths (i.e. repent of your sins and put your trust in Jesus Christ to save you), then you’ve got a problem. For example, if they start telling you that you have to do some good works to make up for the bad things in your life or that you have to get baptized or take communion at their mass, then what good is that to a dying person? They have a soteriology based on works righteousness, which is false doctrine.
Using these methods, let’s take a look at a few cults.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
The LDS Church (members are commonly known as Mormons) has added to the Bible with additional sacred texts including The Book of Mormon. These sacred texts contradict the Bible, for example in saying that Jesus was born in Jerusalem (Alma 7:10). They claim that Jesus was a separate, created being rather than the same being as the eternally existing creator God. They say that salvation is through Jesus’ death, plus tithing to the LDS Church, plus avoiding bad behavior, etc. Finally, they teach in multiple levels of Heaven in the afterlife, and they teach that only those who are members in good standing with the LDS Church will attain the highest level of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. As you can see, the LDS Church fails every single test we outlined above, putting them squarely in the cult category. They teach many more false doctrines, but this list gives us enough to know that they are clearly not teaching Biblical Christianity.
If you find yourself witnessing to Mormons, the trickiest thing to watch for is that they use the same terms that we do, but they mean something totally different. For example, if you ask them whether they believe in grace through faith, they will say yes. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find out that what they actually believe is that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23) In other words, our good works get us part of the way to salvation, and Jesus’ death and resurrection makes up the rest. See Gospel Objection #11. And since we can always do more, Mormons face endless pressure to keep raising the bar in the hopes that one day they can hopefully be good enough to enter the glory of the Celestial Kingdom.
Like the LDS Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the Arianism heresy, which means that they do not consider Jesus to be the same being as the eternally existing creator God. They also believe that you can lose your salvation unless you obey God’s law. In other words, they believe in works righteousness rather than grace through faith for salvation. See Gospel Objection #17
Paul warns that we must not be deceived. We must believe in the right Jesus as well as the right gospel (2 Corinthians 11:3-4), and anyone who preaches a different gospel will be under God’s curse. (Galatians 1:8-9)
Note that Jehovah’s Witnesses rely on their own special translation of the Bible which alters key verses to minimize the deity of Jesus. They claim that all other Bible translations have been corrupted or mistranslated, so they will easily swat away any of your attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.
Their Bible translation has also been edited to downplay the doctrine of Hell. Instead of eternal punishment, they believe that people will just be destroyed and lose consciousness. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. So if a serial rapist and murderer dies still in his sins, then he can look forward to a long night’s sleep? There doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to fear God’s wrath then, because even if he were to die a horribly painful death, it would only last a short time.
The best thing to do is to when witnessing to them is to use the “three minutes to live” strategy. Tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses that you’ve committed many sins in your life: you’ve lied, coveted things, and even lusted countless times. Tell them that there’s a knife in your back and you’ve only got three minutes left to live. Then, ask them what you need to do to obtain salvation and enter The Kingdom (their terminology for Heaven).
They will probably stumble trying to explain that you haven’t done enough works to make up for your sins. At that point you need to share with them Luke 23 where the thief was hung on a cross next to Jesus and couldn’t possibly climb down to do good works. Instead, the criminal repented of his sins in his final moments and put his faith in Jesus to save him. Jesus replied, “‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23:43)
Second, use their very own Bible translation and walk them through the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 to convict them of their own sins. Next, walk them through Luke 16 and Revelation 20 to explain that death for the unrighteous means everlasting torment in Hell. Finally, walk them through the Book of Galatians, which explains that salvation is by grace through faith and not through works of the Law.
Conservative talk radio hosts often accuse Islam of being a violent religion, and they quote verses from the Quran that seem to advocate violence against unbelievers. However, Muslim apologists point out that the only inerrant, infallible version of the Quran is the one written in Arabic. Furthermore, they argue that these verses are taken out of context and not meant to apply to all people at all times. This is a similar type of argument used by Christian apologists to defend violent verses in the Old Testament.
Likewise, people like to point out the violent history of Islam, but Muslim apologists argue that these violent people are not true Muslims. This is similar to how Christian apologists defend accusations that Christianity has led to the Catholic Inquisition, the Holy Crusades, and abortion center bombings.
Instead of taking a conservative talk radio approach to discussing Islam, I will focus on the fact that Muslims do not consider Jesus (Iesa) to be the same being as the eternal creator God (Allah). I will also focus on the fact that Islam teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross, but rather that He was taken into Heaven without dying and replaced by a look-alike.
Since the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God and since Islam claims to be based on Biblical history and yet contradicts the Bible, then Islam is a cult. Islam claims that the Bible has not been preserved in its original form, which is why Allah had to reveal the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. However, the ancient manuscript evidence and the documented church history both confirm that any errors in today’s Bible translations are minor and do not impact core doctrine–the same doctrine that Islam contradicts. See Bible Objection #5.
Islam also teaches works righteousness, and that a Muslim can never truly know whether they will enter Heaven. Islam teaches that one must first become a Muslim and then do good works while avoiding sin in order to possibly become righteous enough to get into Heaven. However, Allah will ultimately decide whether someone is righteous enough to get into Heaven. Also, Muslims believe that even non-Muslims can enter Heaven if they are good people and Allah wills it. This teaching contradicts the Bible’s message of salvation by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone. See Gospel Objection #9.
Islam is also self-contradictory. For example, Allah apparently inspired sin in humans, and yet he will hold humans accountable for their sins. Also, Allah is unknowable, and yet we supposedly know all about him. Finally, Allah is just and must therefore punish sin, and yet he is merciful and forgives those whom he chooses to forgive.
In contrast, the Bible teaches that humans, not God, are responsible for bringing sin and death into the world. Also, the Bible teaches that God is personal and has chosen to reveal Himself to us and to have a relationship with His chosen people. Finally, the Bible teaches that God is just and will punish sin, and since He has already punished Jesus for the sins of the whole world then He can have mercy on anyone who repents of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ to save them.
Although Catholics don’t have any additional sacred texts besides the Bible, the Catholic Bible itself includes additional texts called the Deuterocanonical books or the Apocrypha, and Catholics use these to support some of their unique doctrines. Notably, historic Judaism has never held these ancient texts to the same level of authority as the rest of the Old Testament, and therefore Protestants have never considered the Apocrypha to be part of the inerrant, inspired word of God.
Also, the Apocrypha are far from inerrant because they contradict the rest of the Bible in several places. For example, these verses teach a form of works righteousness, contradicting the Bible’s message of salvation by grace through faith.
- “Those who honor their father atone for sins.” (Sirach 3:3)
- “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin.” (Sirach 3:30)
- “For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness.” (Tobit 4:10)
- “For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin.” (Tobit 12:9)
Rather than honoring your father or giving alms to atone for sins, the Bible teaches that atonement requires the shedding of blood:
- “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (Leviticus 17:11)
- “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” (Romans 3:25)
- “The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)
- “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)
Here’s a passage that teaches that humans can be born basically good:
- “As a child I [Solomon] was naturally gifted, and a good soul fell to my lot; or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body.” (Wisdom 8:19-20)
In contrast, the Bible teaches that all humans are sinners from conception because original sin has been passed down from Adam:
- “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
- “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
This passage instructs us to only help good people and never bad people:
- “Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner.” (Sirach 12:4-7)
Meanwhile, the Bible teaches that we are to love our enemies:
- “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20, cf Proverbs 25:21)
- “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)
These verses show Raphael, an archangel according to the Catholic Church, lying to humans and encouraging them to practice magic:
- “[The angel Raphael] replied, ‘I am Azariah, the son of the great Hananiah, one of your relatives.'” (Tobit 5:13)
- “[The angel Raphael] replied, ‘As for the fish’s heart and liver, you must burn them to make a smoke in the presence of a man or woman afflicted by a demon or evil spirit, and every affliction will flee away and never remain with that person any longer.'” (Tobit 6:8)
This character Raphael sounds more like a demon of Satan rather than an angel of God, since he clearly breaks commandments not to lie or practice magic:
- “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.” (Leviticus 19:11)
- “Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it. Do not practice divination or seek omens.” (Leviticus 19:26)
- “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:31)
- “Do not allow a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)
- “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God. The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-14)
These verses contain historical errors:
- “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana.” (Judith 1:1)
- The Bible teaches that Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon (Jeremiah 25:1).
- “Therefore when you have come to Babylon you will remain there for many years, for a long time, up to seven generations; after that I will bring you away from there in peace.” (Baruch 6:3)
- The Bible teaches that the Jews taken from Jerusalem would be in captivity for 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11).
While this passage doesn’t contradict the Bible outright, it is equal parts nonsense and misogyny:
- “Do not let [your daughter] parade her beauty before any man, or spend her time among married women; for from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness. Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace.” (Sirach 42:12-14)
Unity of Doctrine
Ostensibly, the Catholic Church agrees that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God. However, an infallible sacred text requires an infallible interpreter. After all, why would God entrust us with His written word only to have it misinterpreted? Thankfully, God has provided that interpreter in the form of the Holy Spirit which indwells all born-again Christians:
“These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:10-16)
Conveniently, the Catholic Church claims that they alone qualify as the final authority on interpretation of scripture, apparently because they think that they can do a better job than God the Holy Spirit. They argue that the Catholic Church began when Jesus instructed the apostles to plant many congregations governed by one central council in Jerusalem, and that they continue that model today with the various dioceses headed by bishops who all maintain a bond of unity among themselves and with the bishop of Rome (the pope). The Catholic Church is thereby able to maintain unity of doctrine because the correct interpretation of the Bible is established by the body of bishops as a whole, such as when they are gathered together in an ecumenical council.
In contrast to the purported unity of the Catholic Church, Protestant Christianity consists of many denominations, each with a slightly different interpretation of scripture. However, in most cases these denominations differ only on minor points and not on the core doctrines of the faith (e.g. the Holy Trinity and salvation by grace alone by faith alone through Christ alone). Also, it appears that the Catholic Church’s wonderful unity of doctrine doesn’t extend beyond the council of bishops because many Catholic parishioners aren’t aware of everything that their Church actually teaches, and they don’t necessarily agree with all of the teachings anyway.
A favorite claim of the Catholic Church is that they can trace their history all the way back to the apostles (they claim that Peter was the first bishop of Rome), which therefore makes them the one true church.
First, the Catholic Church is not unique in their claim to be able to trace their history back to the apostles–the Eastern Orthodox Church for example makes the exact same claim. Second, what difference does it make to be able to trace your history back to the apostles? A well documented church history says nothing about the truth of that church’s doctrines. If a strong lineage were proof of authority, then why do both James and Jude omit from their epistles the fact that they are half-brothers to Jesus Christ?
Besides, the line of papal succession is not as clearly defined as the Catholic Church would have us believe. The Catholic Church lacks any official documentation regarding the existence of the papal office during the first few centuries, forcing them to make guesses about who the earliest popes might have been. Sometimes there wasn’t even a pope reigning at all, such as during the papal election of 1268-1271, which was the longest papal election in the history of the Catholic Church. Even the location of the papal office in Rome hasn’t always existed, such as the period of Avignon Papacy of 1309-1377, when the bishop of Rome served in absentia. There were even several times in history when multiple people claimed to be pope simultaneously. The most notorious of these contested periods was during the Western Schism of 1378-1417, where as many as three people held legitimate claims to papal succession. Not even the uncontested papal elections were without controversy. For example, allegations of simony, or buying of votes, surrounded the papal conclave of 1492.
The reason the Catholic Church has worked so diligently to document and whitewash their lineage is because they need it to support their claim that the mantle of apostleship has been passed down to each successive generation of church bishops, granting them authority to create sacred tradition even today (more on this in the following section).
However, to qualify as an apostle you had to have been a witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:21-22) and been sent by Jesus (Acts 26:17 and Galatians 1:1). Only the apostles were divinely inspired to write scripture and make tradition, and God gave them the power to perform signs, wonders, and miracles as proof of their unique authority (2 Corinthians 12:12). The office of apostle has been officially closed since the end of the first century. The Bible clearly outlines the roles of pastors/elders/overseers (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and Acts 20:28) and deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13 and Acts 6:1-6), and they do not include making tradition.
The apostle Peter referred to himself as an elder (1 Peter 5:1-2), but he was not saying that apostles and elders are the same thing, only that he could hold both offices simultaneously. Also, he was not instructing his fellow elders that they should make doctrine, but rather that they should shepherd God’s flock, likely recalling Jesus’ instructions to him to feed His sheep (John 21:17) with the written word of God (Matthew 4:4).
One of the Catholic Church’s favorite passages to support Apostolic Succession is:
“Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.'” (Matthew 16:17-19)
Catholicism teaches that this is where Jesus sets up the council of bishops (twelve apostles) with Peter as the visible head of the Catholic Church. However, the Greek word for Peter here is the masculine form (Pétros), which refers to a stone or pebble, such as a small rock found along a pathway that someone might throw. This is similar to the Aramaic term (Képhas) used in John 1:42. In contrast, the Greek word for rock here is the feminine form (pétra), which refers to a huge mass of connected rock such as a cliff or boulder, or solid or native rock rising up through the earth. The same feminine form of pétra is what Jesus uses when he tells the parable of the wise man whose house can weather the storms because he had built the foundation on a rock (Matthew 7:24-27). It wouldn’t make sense for the wise man to build his house on a pebble, nor does it make sense to build the church on the foundation of a fallible human. Indeed the Bible teaches in both the Old and New Testaments that Jesus Christ is the rock and the foundation of the church (Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11, Romans 9:30-33, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, and 1 Peter 2:4-8). Therefore, Jesus was saying that upon the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, He will build His Church.
Furthermore, Peter cannot be the visible head of the church because Jesus is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18), and He isn’t sharing that role with anyone. The Catholic Church’s teaching that the Pope has inherited Peter’s office as head of the council of bishops, and therefore head of the visible church, is blasphemy. They call the Pope the ‘vicar of Christ’, and the word vicar originates from the Latin word vicarius, meaning substitute (same origin as English word vicarious). How could a mere human ever be a stand-in for the eternal creator of the universe? Even the Catholic priests are given the title of Father, even though Jesus said, “do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9) Indeed, many Catholics venerate the clergy to such an extreme that a house call from a priest is comparable to a visit from God Himself. No doubt this idolizing of Catholic clergy is one factor that has allowed pedophile priests to operate with impunity.
In addition to the Bible, Catholicism also places a heavy emphasis on sacred or apostolic tradition as another source of ultimate truth on doctrinal matters. The claim goes like this:
- Since the Church preceded the canon of scripture and since the canon evolved within and was finally authorized as canon by the Church, the conclusion is that the Catholic Church is the mother of scripture.
- Tradition on the other hand includes many things that the apostles preached but which were not included in scripture. Therefore, the Catholic Church argues that the word of God has been given to us in two forms: written scripture and unwritten tradition.
- When the apostles passed on their mantle of apostleship, they also entrusted to their successors the responsibility to maintain the sacred oral tradition. Through their unbroken line of continued apostleship, the Catholic Church has faithfully preserved that tradition over the centuries.
- Throughout much of Church history, not all church congregations had access to written copies of the scriptures and not all Christians had the ability to read. Therefore, oral tradition has long held a more important role than written scripture.
- Unlike the Eastern Orthodox Church, who believes that tradition was established only by the original apostles during the early Church, the Catholic Church claims that they have been uniquely imbued, by God through their unbroken succession of apostleship, with the ability to continue making tradition even today.
In reality, the books of the New Testament were already being written very soon after the first churches were planted by the apostles. See Bible Objection #2. As these documents began circulating among the churches, it became clear both from their authorship and from their consistency with the rest of scripture that these were the word of God. Rather than receiving divine revelation telling them which books to include in the canon of scripture, the Catholic Church merely affirmed in a formal council which books to include. Notably, they also decided to include the Apocrypha in the canon, which as we’ve already discussed was a mistake.
Regarding the claim that secret knowledge existed outside of scripture which was known by only a select few, that idea is dangerously close to the heresy of Gnosticism that threatened the early Church. Based on John 20:30, we know that events occurred which are not recorded in scripture. However, we would expect those things to complement rather than contradict scripture because “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind.” (Numbers 23:19)
In addition, we have already established that the office of apostle has been closed since the end of the first century, and we have no reason to believe that the mantle of apostleship was passed on to a group of successors. To repeat my earlier point: the Bible instructs church leaders to disciple fellow Christians in the written word, not make new traditions that contradict the written word.
Certainly the Church ought to have done a better job over the years of getting the written word of God into the hands of more Christians and educating them to be able to read it. However, just because many Christians over the years were forced to rely on learning the Bible exclusively through their pastor’s Sunday sermon does not mean that we should continue that practice. Today more people than ever before have access to the Bible, so why should we continue to subject ourselves to learning it only through the filter of the Catholic Church?
The Bible even tells us to rely on the written word:
- “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11)
- “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
- “Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.” (1 Corinthians 4:6)
How many times in the Bible does it refer to the written Law of Moses? How many times did the apostles and also Jesus Himself use the phrase “it is written” when quoting all of the Old Testament? The apostle Peter considered Paul’s writings to be divinely inspired and warned against Bible twisters (2 Peter 3:15-16). What better way to discern between true and false doctrine than by referring back to the written and unchanging word?
Paul probably wrote his letter to the Galatians around AD 60, and already false doctrines were infiltrating Christianity. (Galatians 1:6-7) Paul warned them, regardless of someone’s qualifications (Galatians 1:8), never to accept a different gospel other than the one he preached to them, which came directly from Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:12) If the churches planted by the apostles themselves fell into false doctrine so soon after beginning, and if Paul was willing to put himself subject to the authority of the written word, then it stands to reason that any church today should also fall under the authority of the written word.
Similar to Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism also relies heavily on oral tradition (eventually compiled into the Talmud) which they claim originated when God taught Moses both a written and an oral Torah. But why would God tell Moses to write down some teachings (Exodus 17:14 and Deuteronomy 17:18-20) but not others? If both sets of teachings were equally important, wouldn’t God tell Moses to write them both down? We can only conclude that either the written Torah was considered more authoritative than the oral Torah or more likely that God never gave Moses an oral Torah at all.
Fast forward to the New Testament, and we see how Jesus reacts when the Pharisees try to attack Him using their oral tradition. He says, “‘You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’” (Mark 7:8) He also rebukes them by quoting from the written book of Isaiah: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” (Matthew 15:8-9) Having oral tradition is fine as long as we don’t give it greater authority than the written word of God.
Requirements for Salvation
Catholicism teaches that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, or phrased more positively, “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.” (CCC 846) They claim that Jesus is the only way to salvation, but then they say that in order to receive Jesus, you must partake in the sacraments of baptism, confession, and the Eucharist. Conveniently, those sacraments can only be administered by a validly ordained Catholic priest. This immediately fails the “three minutes to live” strategy.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Catholic Doctrine directly contradicts this passage of scripture:
- “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session 6 in 1547, Canon 9)
- “The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: ‘The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.’” (CCC 2068)
Baptism is not required for salvation, but rather it is an outward symbol of an internal change and also an act of obedience. See the article on Baptism for more.
Confession is not required for salvation, at least not confession to a Catholic priest. No Catholic priests were around in the Old Testament, and yet Hebrews 11 lists name after name of people in the Old Testament who were saved by their faith in the Christ to come. In the New Covenant, there is no more need to approach God through a high priest, but instead all believers are a holy priesthood. (1 Peter 2:5) In the New Covenant, Jesus is our high priest, so we can personally “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.” (Hebrews 4:16)
What the Catholic Church should be teaching is godly sorrow that brings repentance and leads to salvation. (2 Corinthians 7:10) When we sin after we have already been born again, we should confess our sins to God (Psalm 32:5, Proverbs 28:13, and 1 John 1:9). However, we know that those sins have already been forgiven, so our confession is not to regain our salvation, but rather to repair our broken relationship with God. This is no different than when a child offends his human father–the father won’t disown him, but the relationship is strained until the child apologizes.
I will say this much for the Catholic sacrament of confession: it becomes much more difficult for a sin to rule over you once you confess it to someone else. Just the fact that you have an accountability partner who knows about your besetting sin can give you strength in your struggle against it compared to someone else who may be struggling with a private sin.
Partaking in the Eucharist or receiving communion is not required for salvation, but rather it is a symbol that reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Jesus told us to participate in the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him. (Luke 22:19) Paul writes that participating in the Lord’s Supper is proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)
Furthermore, the Catholic Church teaches that when the priest blesses the bread and wine, they become the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood. They base their teaching primarily on John 6:32-58, but they are not reading John 6:63 where Jesus says, “‘The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.’” Clearly Jesus was speaking metaphorically in this chapter, similar to how He often spoke in parables to hide the truth from those who would not be saved. (Matthew 13:11) Interesting that Catholics don’t hold to this same literal reading of Jesus words when He says to gouge out your eye and cut off your hand to keep from sinning. (Matthew 5:29-30)
But wait, there’s a loophole. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is still possible for those who have never heard about Jesus, the gospel, or the Catholic Church “but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (CCC 847)
However, the Bible makes it clear that Jesus is the only way into Heaven:
- Jesus said: “‘I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.’” (John 10:9)
- Jesus said: “‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)
- Peter said about Jesus: “‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’” (Acts 4:12)
Mortal Sin vs. Venial Sin
The sacraments are given to Catholics as visible signs that they remain in a state of friendship with God, or more specifically a state of grace. Catholicism teach that anyone who dies in a state of grace will enter Heaven after death. Anyone who is not in a state of grace is in a state of mortal sin, and dying in a state of mortal sin means an eternity in Hell. So what is a mortal sin?
- A sin is considered mortal if it pertains to a grave matter, such as the Ten Commandments.
- Not all sins are equal. For example, murder is graver than theft. Also, the gravity of the sin is affected by the person against whom the sin is committed. For example, violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
- To be considered mortal, a sin would also have to be committed by someone who has full knowledge that they are transgressing God’s commandments and who willingly proceeds despite that knowledge.
- Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every person.
- The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
- Mortal sins must be confessed to a Catholic priest.
Catholicism teaches that sins that are not mortal are considered venial sins:
- A sin is considered venial sin when it pertains to a less serious matter. For example, if a person drinks too much and passes out without hurting anyone, that would be a venial sin.
- A sin could also be considered a venial sin when it deals with a grave matter, but the person who committed it did so either without full knowledge of God’s commandments or without complete consent. For example, if someone threatened the life of your family unless you stole something, then that would be without your complete consent.
- Venial sin does not remove us from a state of grace. However, a pattern of venial sin can lead us to commit a mortal sin. For example, if someone repeatedly abuses alcohol and eventually kills someone while drunk driving, that would be a mortal sin.
- Venial sins may be confessed directly to God.
Granted, the Bible supports the notion that some sins are more serious than other sins (1 Corinthians 6:18 and 1 John 5:16), and it also draws a distinction between those who sin willfully and those who sin in ignorance (Numbers 15:28-31 and Luke 12:47-48). However, ranking sins is a side issue because God’s standard is perfection, and any sin, whether venial or mortal, is enough to keep us out of Heaven (1 John 1:5, Romans 3:23, and Isaiah 59:2).
Justification vs. Sanctification
The Catholic Church encourages regular participation in the sacraments as a means to protect Catholics from falling away from a relationship with God and into a lifestyle of sin. Their belief is that the sacraments will keep God’s commandments top-of-mind, providing a feedback loop so that Catholics can do a course correction before they get too deep into sin.
The Catholic Church has the right motive, but they are teaching the false gospel of works righteousness: that we are responsible to earn our own salvation. The fear of never being good enough is a huge burden to put on someone’s conscience. Peter described works righteousness as “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). In contrast, Jesus preached salvation by grace through faith and said, “‘For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.'” (Matthew 11:30)
But even more important is the fact that the false gospel of works righteousness may give someone the false impression that they are saved when they are not. Someone may be considered good in the eyes of the Catholic Church, but they will not get into Heaven unless they have repented and put their faith in Jesus to save them.
The problem is that the Catholic Church has tossed out the Biblical doctrine of justification, and instead focused only on the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. Justification is the concept that in the moment we are saved, God immediately declares us 100% righteous forever. He literally takes our list of sins and pins it on Jesus and takes Jesus’ perfect sinless life and pins it on us. Here are some supporting verses:
- “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
- “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:25)
- “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)
Catholics will argue a sort of “Jesus plus” type of justification: they believe that Jesus died so that we could have justification and enter a state of grace, but they also believe that we must work hard to keep it or else we’ll lose it and end up in Hell. So apparently, Jesus’ death wasn’t sufficient and we have to make up the difference? Ephesians 2:8-9 makes it clear that salvation is a free gift that no one can earn because God wants 100% of the credit for saving us. He doesn’t want anyone to be able to boast about how they worked hard and kept their salvation. See Gospel Objection #17.
Catholics argue that the Protestant view of justification means that someone can get saved and then go on sinning all they want to without ever losing their salvation. Therefore, they argue that someone living in a life of sin is demonstrating that they do not want to be in a relationship with God. This is addressed in Gospel Objection #16.
The answer is sanctification. When we are born again (justified), we become a new creation with the Holy Spirit living within us and sanctifying us for the rest of our lives. This means that we begin a progressive journey of becoming less like the fallen world and more of a reflection of God’s holiness as we grow in spiritual maturity.
- “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
- “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14)
- “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
We would expect a false convert to fall back into sin, but we would expect a born again Christian to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. We don’t do good works to earn our salvation, but we do good works as a result of our salvation. A Christian can’t help but do good works because that’s part of what being a Christian means.
Catholicism teaches that those who die in a state of grace but who are guilty of venial sin will be punished a time in Purgatory before entering Heaven. The souls in Purgatory are guaranteed entrance into Heaven as soon as God’s justice has been fully satisfied. The Catholic Church knows that they lack Biblical support for the concept of Purgatory, so this is an example where they must appeal to sacred tradition as the source for this false doctrine.
What is Purgatory like? It is difficult to find an official Catholic description of Purgatory, but since they claim that it is basically a state of limbo and temporary separation from God, it is arguable that Purgatory feels like Hell. This argument is supported by the fact that Catholics use 1 Corinthians 3:15, which talks about believers escaping through fire, as scriptural support for the existence of Purgatory. Rather than focus on the painful fires of Purgatory, the Catholic Church prefers to focus on the fact that believers in Purgatory will be comforted in the knowledge that they will eventually get to Heaven. They also remind Catholics that Purgatory is God’s loving discipline for those to whom He shows mercy.
The concept of Purgatory is both unnecessary and offensive to those who understand that the Bible teaches salvation by grace through faith. It is only because the Catholic Church was already off course with their belief in works righteousness that they had to invent the concept of Purgatory in the first place. It must have been very difficult to tell the first Catholics that their loved ones were not quite good enough to get into Heaven, especially when compared to a mass murderer who clearly deserved Hell. Therefore, they decided to invent a means of purification and paying the debt of sins for those not fit for Hell, but not quite deserving of immediate entrance into Heaven.
Although Purgatory is supposed to be a temporary state of separation from God before entering Heaven, the duration could last many years depending on how many venial sins must be paid for. However, the Catholic Church teaches that we have a chance to reduce the length of our own time in Purgatory by performing acts to obtain plenary and partial indulgences:
- A partial indulgence removes some of the temporal punishment for a venial sin. For example, if we assume that a particular lie merits 20 years of time in Purgatory, a partial indulgence might remove a month’s time from that sentence. Of course there’s no way of knowing which sins still remain on your soul or how much time is required for punishment of those sins. Nor does the Catholic Church teach how much time a partial indulgence removes from the sentence.
- To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached.
- A plenary indulgence removes all of the punishment for a venial sin, sort of like that particular sin no longer exists.
- To gain a plenary indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart, plus you must go to confession (one confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences), receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions. (An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the pope’s intentions are sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choice.) The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin. If you attempt to receive a plenary indulgence, but are unable to meet the last condition, a partial indulgence is received instead.
Here are some examples of acts which can earn indulgences:
- An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence. Spiritual communion is a prayer that you recite in case you can’t actually make it to mass and participate in an actual communion. The examples I’ve read sound like the Catholic equivalent of asking Jesus into your heart.
- A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spends time in mental prayer. Mental prayer is a structured prayer which consists of preparation, meditation, and conclusion. The examples I read include some good old verbal self-flagellation, a promise to avoid a particular sin in the future, and of course a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys thrown in for good measure. Nevermind that Jesus warned, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)
- A plenary indulgence is granted when the rosary is recited in a church or oratory or when it is recited in a family, a religious community, or a pious association. A partial indulgence is granted for its recitation in all other circumstances. Note that the rosary consists of many repetitions of the Hail Mary prayer. Even if we ignore the fact that the Bible teaches us to pray to God alone and no one else, the Hail Mary itself contains some language that contradicts Biblical teaching.
- A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met]. Spiritual reading is reading for the sole purpose of becoming closer to knowledge of God and improving our faith. I like this one because it gives the reader a chance to find salvation despite the Catholic Church.
- A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” This is just superstition.
In addition to shortening our own time in Purgatory, our prayers and good works can also shorten the time of a deceased loved one’s time in Purgatory. The following passage encourages prayer and almsgiving to make atonement for the sins of the dead. This is the only scriptural support the Catholic Church can claim, and it comes from the Apocrypha. Keep in mind that prayers for the dead make no sense if you believe the true gospel of salvation through grace by faith.
“and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:42-45)
Doctrine of Mary
The Catholic Church refers to Mary as the mother of God. In one sense, this is a factual statement since Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is part of the Trinity. However, the Catholic Church is also using this term blasphemously because they have elevated Mary to an almost godlike status, as you’ll see from their additional teachings below.
First, the Catholic Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin for her entire life, despite the fact that Jesus clearly had siblings (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55, and Acts 1:14), including New Testament writers James and Jude (1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19, and Jude 1:1). Also, it seems highly unlikely that Joseph never consummated his marriage to Mary after the birth of Jesus.
Second, the Catholic Church teaches that Mary was not born with original sin or a sin nature and that she remained free of personal sin for her entire life. This teaching clearly contradicts the Bible’s message that no one is without sin (1 Kings 8:46, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Romans 3:23). The Catholic Church argues that Mary had to be sinless so that Jesus could be conceived entirely without sin. However, the Bible doesn’t teach that Jesus required a sinless mother to be protected from original sin. Surely the fact that He is God would protect Him from sin. Furthermore, the Catholic Church’s argument sets up an infinite regression: to keep Mary free from sin would require a sinless virgin to conceive her, and Mary’s mother would have required a sinless virgin to conceive her, and so on. Perhaps that’s why the Catholic Church didn’t declare Immaculate Conception to be official dogma until 1854. The bottom line is that Mary was a sinner just like every other human besides Jesus. If Mary were truly sinless, then she wouldn’t need a savior to enter Heaven, and she wouldn’t have referred to God as her savior in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47). It seems that Mary herself acknowledged her own sinfulness and need for a savior.
Third, despite their dogmatic stance that Mary never had any other biological children, the Catholic Church teaches that Mary is the spiritual mother of all who are saved. The Bible teaches that Jesus’ perfect sacrifice healed the rift between God and mankind created by Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:19 and 1 Corinthians 15:45), but the Catholic Church teaches that in a similar way Mary’s obedience healed the rift created by Eve’s disobedience. Their argument is that there was a first Adam and a last Adam, therefore since there was a first Eve there must also be a last Eve. However, the Bible is clear that God held Adam responsible for both his and Eve’s sins in the Garden of Eden because the husband is supposed to be the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church (see Tough Question #5). Adam was with Eve when the serpent deceived her and she sinned (Genesis 3:6), and because Adam did not warn her or protect her, God associated death and the curse to Adam’s sin rather than Eve’s (Genesis 3:17-19). It is blasphemous for Catholicism to compare Jesus (the last Adam) to Mary (the last Eve).
Fourth, the Catholic Church teaches that because Mary willingly decided to submit to God’s plan and allow Jesus’ birth and death to proceed, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. They argue that Mary had free will and could have chosen at any time not to go along with God’s plan, which would have destroyed our chances for salvation. However, God is omniscient and sovereign, so just as He knew humans would sin and require a savior, He obviously knew that Mary would submit to His divine plan of salvation. Also, Mary was a sinner just like everyone else, and therefore before she could even make the choice to follow God, He had to give her the gifts of repentance and faith so she could escape her slavery to sin and become a born again Christian.
Finally, Catholicism teaches that Mary did not die, but instead she was taken up body and soul into Heaven and exalted by God as Queen over all things. They teach that from her position in Heaven, Mary prays continually for us and intercedes with God to bring us the gift of eternal salvation. She is the Church’s model of faith and charity. However, the Bible only teaches that Enoch (Genesis 5:24 and Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1 and 2 Kings 2:11) were taken into Heaven without dying first. It’s possible that God could have taken Mary in the same way, but why should we believe that without a clear Biblical text to support such a notion? Also, why would we rely on a mere human to intercede with God for us when we already have Jesus as our high priest and intercessor? (Hebrews 4:14-16, Hebrews 5:8-10, Hebrews 7:23-25, and Hebrews 8:1-2) And why would Mary, a sinner like us, be our model of faith and charity rather than Jesus?
To summarize, Mary has been called:
- The Mother of God
- A perpetual virgin
- Completely sinless
- The spiritual mother of all who are saved
- The last Eve
- The cause of salvation for all of humanity
- Free from death
- Exalted as Queen over all things
- Our intercessor with God to bring us salvation
- The model of faith and charity
The Catholic Church must realize how offensive this doctrine is because they try to downplay it somewhat in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power…No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer.” (CCC 970)
Yet if I gave you a description like this and asked you to guess who it describes, you would probably say that I am describing a goddess. So how is this not blasphemy?
Doctrine on Saints
The Catholic Church exalts certain Christians who have lived exemplary lives of faith and charity above the rest of us through a process of formal canonization (naming to sainthood). However, the Greek word for saints is hágios, which translates to holy ones or holy people, and it refers to all those whom God has made holy (Philippians 1:1), in other words all Christians , not just a subset of extra holy people.
Catholicism also teaches that we should pray to the saints to intercede with God on our behalf. They argue that we are not to pray to the saints, but rather with the saints, who are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us (Hebrews 12:1). In their eyes, asking the saints to pray with you is no different than asking other Christians to pray for you, except that the saints are in God’s presence. In addition, some saints are called patron saints, which means they have been chosen as special protectors or guardians or some location or some area of life. For example, Saint Anthony of Padua is patron saint of finding lost things or lost people, so you would ask him for help if you misplaced your car keys. However, nowhere does the Bible teach that getting more people to pray for you is some kind of magic formula for getting God to do what you ask. Also, in order for the saints to hear our prayers, they would have to be omnipresent or omniscient like God is, a concept that is not taught in the Bible. In addition, although the Catholic Church may say that they don’t advocate praying to the saints, their prayers clearly belie this claim. For example, here is the “Unfailing Prayer to St. Anthony”:
“O Holy St. Anthony, gentlest of Saints, your love for God and Charity for His creatures, made you worthy, when on earth, to possess miraculous powers. Encouraged by this thought, I implore you to obtain for me [my lost car keys]. O gentle and loving St. Anthony, whose heart was ever full of human sympathy, whisper my petition into the ears of the sweet Infant Jesus, who loved to be folded in your arms; and the gratitude of my heart will ever be yours. Amen.”
The mention of the sweet infant Jesus in this prayer sounds similar to the dinner scene in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Here’s another prayer to a saint which should be quite familiar to any Catholic. The “Hail Mary” is an integral part of the rosary:
“Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen.”
These prayers are clearly addressed to the saints, which is contrary to the Biblical teaching that we should pray only to God (Psalm 5:2) and that only God has the power to hear (Psalm 6:9 and Psalm 66:19) and answer our prayers (Psalm 17:6). Furthermore, the Bible actually warns us not to consult the dead (Deuteronomy 18:10-12 and Isaiah 8:19-20). Finally, what happens if we pray to a saint for help, and then we get the answer we were seeking? God ends up having to share the glory with the saint, which is highly offensive.
Even the process of formal canonization is problematic. The process begins after the candidate’s death when people begin to pray to that candidate with specific petitions. When their specific petitions are answered, it is considered proof that the candidate is in Heaven interceding for us. Before someone is formally canonized, the Catholic Church requires evidence that they have performed two such miracles, though the bar for what is considered evidence is set pretty low judging by the recent canonization of Mother Teresa:
- Beatification miracle — On the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, two nuns prayed to Mother Teresa while pressing a medallion bearing her image to the stomach of an Indian woman with a stomach tumor. Supposedly the woman experienced a miraculous and unexplained healing which was attributed to Mother Teresa, although the woman’s husband and at least one doctor attributed the healing to medicine she was taking at the time.
- Canonization miracle — A man in Brazil with eight abscesses in his brain due to bacterial infection was not responding well to treatments and needed a risky operation. His family prayed to Mother Teresa, and the man was unexpectedly cured. Conveniently, the man’s identity has been kept confidential so the Catholic Church could complete their investigation.
The dubious claims about these posthumous miracles is based on circumstantial evidence, and they only serve to make Christians look like flat-earthers. Rather than praising the saints for miracles or dedicating churches to honor saints, we should seek to glorify God in all that we do (1 Corinthians 10:31 and 1 Peter 4:11).
Church of the Nazarene
The Church of the Nazarene has sound doctrine for the most part. However, they teach the doctrine of entire sanctification, which states that a true Christian can eventually reach perfection and stop sinning. Since we all sin (see Gospel Objection #16), someone who is taught the doctrine of entire sanctification will constantly question their salvation. Eventually when the pressure of being perfect becomes too much, they will leave the church and may even become an atheist.
In contrast, Paul teaches that there is no such thing as a Christian who doesn’t sin because although the Holy Spirit lives within us, we still war against our sinful flesh (Romans 7:14-25). The Bible also teaches us that sanctification by the Holy Spirit is a progressive work, never a completed work, that continues throughout our entire lives (Philippians 1:6, Hebrews 10:14 and 2 Corinthians 3:18).
We should see fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives as evidence that we are saved (Luke 6:43-45 and Galatians 5:22), but that doesn’t mean that we will ever reach perfection and stop sinning entirely. It just means that we will sometimes stumble into sin and hate it rather than diving into sin and enjoying it.
Various churches exist that fall in the category of Pentecostal or Charismatic. Many of them stick very close to true Biblical Christianity, while a few veer off into false teachings or heresy. However, the key distinguishing characteristic of these churches is their overemphasis on the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues.
What is speaking in tongues?
Speaking in tongues is the supernatural ability to speak in a language that was previously unknown, and it was first demonstrated when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:4)
We also read about this miracle when Peter preaches the gospel to the household of Cornelius the Roman centurion: “For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” (Acts 10:46) Again we read about it when Paul preaches the gospel to twelve disciples in Ephesus: “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:6)
In every case that we read about the spiritual gifts of tongues manifesting, it is only after someone has heard the gospel and received the Holy Spirit (i.e. they have become a born-again Christian). However, it is not a requirement that someone must speak tongues to demonstrate that they are a Christian.
What is a tongue?
As we continue in Acts 2, the text makes it abundantly clear that a tongue means a human language:
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!'” (Acts 2:5-11)
Notice that the apostles were not speaking gibberish because the people who heard them speak were able to understand the words being spoken.
What is the purpose of speaking in tongues?
The gift of speaking in tongues was done for a couple reasons:
- When Jesus ascended into Heaven, the apostles had to convince the entire world that they were uniquely ordained to preach the word of God. Since Jesus used miracles to prove his divinity, it makes sense that the Holy Spirit would allow the apostles to perform miracles to prove that their message came from God. Now that we have the complete Bible, we already know God’s message to us. Therefore, someone only has to prove that their message lines up with God’s written word to prove that their message comes from God.
- The Jews were accustomed to hearing the scriptures read in Hebrew only, and the fact that they were hearing them read in another language for the first time was shocking. Any Jews familiar with the Old Testament would have recognized that God wouldn’t speak to them in a foreign language unless it was a sign of His coming judgement against Israel. For example, Isaiah 28:11 warned of Babylon’s coming invasion of Judah when he wrote, “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people.” When God allowed Gentiles (Acts 10:46) to speak in tongues, it proved to the first century Jews that God was now doing a new thing by bringing all nations into his church instead of working exclusively with the nation of Israel. See also 1 Corinthians 14:21-22.
Problems with the Pentecostal/Charismatic definition of speaking in tongues
Pentecostal/Charismatic theology teaches that speaking in tongues is required to demonstrate that you have received the Holy Spirit. Some churches teach that you can become a Christian first and then receive the Holy Spirit later when someone lays hands on you, at which point you will begin to speak in tongues. However, Romans 8:9 contradicts this false doctrine.
Other churches teach that you must demonstrate the gift of speaking in tongues to prove that you are a Christian at all. Church members feel so much peer pressure that they inevitably end up faking speaking in tongues to avoid being considered an unbeliever. Since no one can speak an unknown language without a miracle, the fake gift of speaking in tongues always sounds like gibberish rather than a structured language.
First, it’s not a miracle to be able to speak gibberish; infants do this all the time. Furthermore, if God’s desire is for us to preach the gospel to all nations, He wouldn’t want us to confuse people by babbling nonsensically at them: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (1 Corinthians 14:33) This is particularly true for an orderly church service. Paul writes that no one is to speak in tongues in church unless someone interprets the language so the entire body of Christ can be edified: “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.” (1 Corinthians 14:28) And if the “interpretation” of the gibberish doesn’t line up with the written word of God, then we throw out the “interpretation” as false doctrine.
Second, the Bible does not teach that speaking in tongues is required for salvation. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains that God gives a variety of spiritual gifts to Christians but that every Christian should not expect to receive all these gifts:
“And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:28-30)
This passage is clear enough in English, but in case there is still any question about what Paul is saying here, the original Greek language removes all ambiguity. Each of these rhetorical questions contains the Greek particle mé which means that the answer to the question is no. Therefore, this is a more accurate translation of the same questions: “Are all apostles? No. Are all prophets? No. Are all teachers? No. Do all work miracles? No. Do all have gifts of healing? No. Do all speak in tongues? No. Do all interpret? No.
Third, the way people fake the gift of speaking tongues today it’s used more as a way to show off or claim spiritual authority. That is contrary to the Biblical description where the gift was used to convict the Jews and glorify God.
Finally, some theologians believe that the spiritual gifts which the apostles demonstrated in the first century have ceased since the New Testament was completed: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) To be fair, this verse never says when these spiritual gifts will cease. In fact, based on the context this verse may mean that these gifts may not cease until we are living with God in Heaven, at which point they would be unnecessary. Whichever way you interpret this verse, the fact remains that we never read anymore about people speaking in tongues after the book of 1 Corinthians was written, which is a strong indication that they ceased at the end of the apostolic age. Is it possible that the spiritual gift of tongues still manifests today? Of course anything is possible with God, but we have to ask ourselves if someone claims to be speaking in tongues, “Is this gift being used to glorify God or glorify the one speaking in tongues?”
Additional false doctrines
Pentecostal/Charismatic churches teach several more false doctrines starting with praying in tongues. It seems that they have combined several verses out of context (1 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Corinthians 14:14, Romans 8:26, Ephesians 6:18, and Jude 1:20) to support the idea that you can pray in an unknown spirit language. Apparently this spirit language is like a secret code that encrypts your prayers so that Satan and his demons won’t be able to understand and take advantage of you.
First, if this were such an all important principle for us to learn, then why didn’t Jesus tell us that when he gave an example to his apostles of how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13)? Second, if God wanted to answer your prayers, Satan and his demons would not be able to prevent God from accomplishing His will.
Some Pentecostal/Charismatic churches also advocate getting drunk in the spirit, again supported by several verses out of context (Isaiah 29:9, Acts 2:13, and Ephesians 5:18). They will exhibit classic signs of intoxication such as staggering, slurring speech, and excessive giddiness, but they claim that this is a good thing since it comes from the Holy Spirit. First, the Bible clearly teaches that drunkenness is a sin (Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 5:11, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Galatians 5:21, and 1 Peter 4:3) and it’s not the alcohol that’s the problem but the loss of self-control. Second, why doesn’t Jesus give us a clear teaching that we should get drunk in the Holy Spirit? I would argue that either these people are faking it and deceiving people, or they are drunk in a demonic spirit rather than the Holy Spirit.
Second, Oneness Pentecostal churches deny the doctrine of the Trinity. They teach something like modalism, which is that instead of God existing in the form of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), God may take on different forms. This is an extremely insidious teaching since people cannot be saved without a proper understanding of the concept of the Trinity. See the article on the Holy Trinity for the complete Biblical response.
Finally, a very small number of churches with roots in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement still encourage snake handling to demonstrate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Some will say that I am perpetuating an unfair stereotype of Pentecostals because this practice was abandoned many years ago, but I have seen news articles as recently as July 2015 proving that people are still dying of snake bites while participating in this senseless ritual. People who practice snake handling refer to Mark 16:18 as support for their idiotic behavior. Due to the fact that Mark 16:9-20 does not exist in the earliest and most respected manuscripts (See Bible Objection #6) and may not be part of the original gospel, we should not treat these verses as authoritative as the rest of scripture. Specifically, we should not ignore Jesus’ clear instructions not to put your life in unnecessary danger (Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12). Furthermore, Jesus’ words at the end of Mark’s gospel were spoken specifically to the apostles that He commissioned to be the foundation of the New Testament Church, so they should not be applied to all Christians at all times. It may be that Jesus was prophesying about Acts 28:3-6 where Paul suffered no ill effects from a snakebite. Again, Paul was called by Jesus to be an apostle and author a huge portion of the New Testament, so we should not assume that Christians today will be supernaturally protected from snakebites the way Paul was.
New Apostolic Reformation
The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) exemplifies the Prophetic movement, which itself is a subset within the larger Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. NAR churches can be difficult to identify since they are only loosely affiliated and may obscure the fact that they follow NAR doctrines. In the past, they have used the terms Third Wave and Latter Rain instead of NAR. However, the identifying characteristic is that they teach that God is raising up a new group of apostles and prophets to share new revelations with His people.
As we’ve already discussed regarding the Catholic Church’s doctrine of Apostolic Succession, there haven’t been any new apostles since the end of the first century, primarily because no one since then has witnessed the resurrection of Jesus.
What about prophets? Is it possible that God would raise up new prophets today? Of course it’s possible, but let’s consider why God raised up prophets in the first place. Before the Bible was written, the only way people could know the will of God was to get direct revelation from God through one of His prophets. After the Bible was written, prophets became superfluous, and the gift of prophecy declined while the gift of teaching from God’s written word became more necessary.
Furthermore, we would expect any teachings of a true prophet of God to line up with the Bible, which is the inerrant word of God: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Peter 1:20-21) Since a prophet was supposed to be speaking God’s words, He made it clear that their job was not to be taken lightly:
“I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death. You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.” (Deuteronomy 18:19-22)
I’m not aware of any modern day prophets making predictions that come true. In fact, all of their prophecies include almost the exact same vague or nonsensical language. Here’s an example of what a typical “prophecy” sounds like:
“God is about to release a season of supernatural anointing. I had a God encounter in which an angel revealed to me that the church is about to experience a greater outpouring of God’s glory, but not until we birth an atmosphere to generate a portal for pulling down kingdom holiness into our nation. Then we will see a revival of signs and wonders such as never before.”
Keep in mind that if this were an actual direct revelation from God, it would be as authoritative as the Bible, and yet they never ask us to write it down and staple it to the back of our Bibles so that we can preach it to all the nations. Also, notice how their prophecies always indicate that something is just about to happen, and yet we never quite get there. That way they can never be proven wrong. If you want to see how a real prophet handles his business, consider that the prophet Isaiah predicted, roughly 150 years before Cyrus the Great was even born, that he would release the Jews from captivity and give them back their treasures to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Isaiah 44:28 and Isaiah 45:13)…and he referred to Cyrus by NAME!
In addition, prophets in the Bible were typically empowered to perform miracles to prove their authority to speak for God, so we would expect that any modern day prophets would be able to perform miracles as well. However, Jesus warned us that “many false prophets will appear and deceive many people” (Matthew 24:11) as a sign of judgement in the last days. He even warns that “false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:24) In 2 Thessalonians 2:9, we read that the man of lawlessness “will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders.” Therefore, we cannot trust in miracles alone, but again we must weigh any prophet’s teachings against the written word of God to make sure that it lines up. Galatians 1:8 says that regardless of who the messenger is, even if they are an apostle or an angel from heaven, they should not preach any other gospel other than the one already preached in the Bible.
Dominionism or Kingdom Now theology
The NAR teachings also include the belief that humans had dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) but lost it when Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden. Apparently Satan tricked Adam so that he could steal the keys to the kingdom because now Satan is called the ruler of this world (John 12:31 and 2 Corinthians 4:4). However, Jesus’ death and resurrection not only conquered sin but also empowered humans to resume our position of authority by giving us back the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19).
In the seven mountains mandate, they teach that there are 7 areas of life over which Christians are supposed to take back our dominion: government, arts, finances, education, religion, family, and media. Of these, government is the most crucial since it has the power to influence the other areas. However, this is more than just a push to elect politicians with similar values; this is a movement to establish a Christian theocracy. Critics have compared Dominionism to Islamism and the push to establish Islamic theocracies under sharia law.
According to Kingdom Now theology, the second coming of Jesus will happen after Christians have taken control over the world and stamped out evil by establishing God’s kingdom on earth. Then, Christ will come to take over the kingdom from us. They base this belief on a line from the Lord’s Prayer: “‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’” (Matthew 6:10) Note that this is the same verse used by liberal denominations to support their claim that Jesus was some kind of hippie socialist whose only goal was peace, love, and social justice.
First century Jews held a similar view that the Messiah would come to establish his kingdom on earth (Luke 19:11) in fulfillment of several Old Testament prophecies, but Jesus explained that his kingdom was not on earth (John 18:36) nor was it something that could be observed (Luke 17:20-21). That’s because the purpose of Jesus’ first coming was for our salvation, while the focus of his second coming will be to establish his millennial kingdom on earth (Revelation 20:4). Nowhere does the Bible teach that Christians are responsible to establish Christ’s kingdom on earth. That belief is eerily similar to the Iranian fundamentalist eschatology that teaches that Israel and the United States must be destroyed to bring back the twelfth imam and establish his global Islamic caliphate. Rather than seeking to use the government to impose morality on society, we should follow Jesus’ example of preaching the gospel so that people will become born again and their behavior will change from the inside out.
Unlike the previous examples, the Prosperity Gospel is a false doctrine rather than a cult. However, it is a deadly virus that has infected many churches, particularly some of the largest evangelical and non-denominational ones.
Law of Sowing and Reaping
The first thing that Prosperity Gospel churches will teach is that God works through the universal law of sowing and reaping:
- If your goal is to reap a huge harvest of corn, you have to start by planting an entire field of corn. Then, you water and fertilize it, spray it with pesticides, and wait for God to cause it to grow.
- Similarly, if you want better relationships in your life, you have to sow friendship and love into those relationships first. Then, those people will begin to mirror the same behavior back to you.
- This law works the same even in your finances. If you want a better financial situation, then you first have to start tithing. Then, God will bless you financially.
Did you catch the subtle manipulation in that line of reasoning? First, they start with an example based on farming, which no one would argue because God promised that he would always maintain seedtime and harvest (Genesis 8:22). Then, they transition to a claim about relationships which is true for the most part and which also falls in line with God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). Of course the results don’t always work out perfectly; sometimes you’re nice to someone and they hurt you anyway. But you go ahead and agree with this second example of the law of sowing and reaping because in general, being nice to people usually results in better relationships. Finally, after you’ve bought into their first two examples, your mind is prepared to accept the final claim that financial success follows the law of sowing and reaping as well.
According to the law of sowing and reaping, the first step on the road to financial success is to give a seed offering (start tithing to your local church). After all, if you don’t sow first, then you can’t reap, right? And you can’t just give anywhere; you want to sow into fertile soil. At this point, they will start trotting out success stories from the congregation, but none of them prove that tithing is responsible for financial blessings. When God provides a financial miracle, it’s not because of how much we gave (Psalm 50:9-10 and Hebrews 10:5) but because He honors the heart behind the gift (Psalm 51:16-17 and Luke 21:3-4). Also, they won’t tell you about all the times that someone started tithing and then their finances went from bad to worse. In fact, often people who aren’t successful are pressured to leave the congregation since their failure is a poor testimony.
What about the situation where you’re completely behind on your credit card debt? According to the Prosperity Gospel, that’s all the more reason to keep tithing. However, that’s not an example of giving from the heart, but instead it’s giving what doesn’t belong to you. It’s no different than tithing off of your income from robbing a bank.
Finally, if being a Christian and tithing is such a crucial part of the formula, then why are there so many wealthy unbelievers? To get around this problem, the Prosperity Gospel appeals to the law of attraction.
Law of Attraction
The second thing that Prosperity Gospel churches will teach is that God works through the universal law of attraction:
- Your mind is constantly picking up either positive or negative influences from your daily life. If your mind gets mostly negative influences, then you’ll get mostly negative results in life, and if your mind gets mostly positive influences, then you’ll get mostly positive results. For example, a bad day at work will probably put you in a bad mood, which makes you more likely to get angry at your family and put a strain on those relationships. But a great day at work will probably put you in a good mood, which makes you more likely to do something nice for your family and improve those relationships.
- This law works the same even in your finances. If you want a better financial situation, then you first have to eliminate negative influences in your life and replace them with positive influences. Then, God will bless you financially. For example, you should surround yourself with dreamers and get rid of of the doubters.
Again they use subtle manipulation in their line of reasoning. First, they start with everyday examples which no one would argue because we’ve all had similar experiences. Then, after you’ve bought into their first claim, your mind is prepared to accept the second claim that financial success also follows the law of attraction.
According to the law of attraction, the first step on the road to financial success is to reprogram your mind. If you want to get positive results, then you have to bathe yourself continually in positive influences:
- Read motivational books
- Listen to uplifting music
- Hang around “winners” — successful, positive people with can-do attitudes
- Use self-affirmations — pull a Stuart Smalley and say to yourself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
- Dream-build — spend time touring expensive homes, test-driving luxury cars, and putting up pictures of exotic travel destinations
The teachers of the Prosperity Gospel will again cherry pick examples to prove that this law works, but typically these examples come from celebrities rather than from the congregation. They will say, “See? The law is so universal that it even works for all the heathens out there.”
Since the law of sowing and reaping appears to be for Christians only and the law of attraction seems to be for Christians and non-Christians alike, how do preachers of the Prosperity Gospel unite the two laws together? It turns out that both laws share something in common that not only unites them but also expands their reach beyond finances.
Power of Words
According to the Prosperity Gospel, the secret behind both the law of sowing and reaping and the law of attraction is the power of words. In fact, the teaching on the power of words is why the Prosperity Gospel is sometimes referred to as Word of Faith. Prosperity Gospel churches teach that words are containers for our faith and that when we speak words, we are activating the spiritual realm to bring about that which we declare. This means that if you say something positive, you’re empowering God’s angels to bring you blessings, but if you say something negative, you’re empowering Satan and his demons to attack you.
For example, you sow a seed by tithing to your local church to reap a financial reward (law of sowing and reaping), but you still hang around people who all suffer from victim mentality and it’s turning you into a negative person (law of attraction). As a result, you say things like “I’m never going to get out of debt” which allows demonic spirits to destroy the seed you planted before you can reap the financial harvest (power of words).
The teachers of the Prosperity Gospel also use the power of words to expand the two laws beyond the realm of finances. They teach that your words themselves can be the seeds that you sow to reap a reward of better health (law of sowing and reaping). If you want to get better, then you have to reprogram your mind to think healthy thoughts (law of attraction) by speaking positive self-affirmations (power of words). The most powerful self-affirmations are the ones backed up by the word of God.
Preachers of the Prosperity Gospel realize that there is no clear Biblical text to support their claims, so they have to resort to a form of proof texting that sounds more like sloganeering than preaching. Here are some verses used to support the requirement to tithe as part of the law of sowing and reaping:
- “‘Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, “How are we robbing you?” In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 3:8-11)
- “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:8)
- “‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’” (Luke 6:38)
- “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” (2 Corinthians 9:6)
- “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Galatians 6:7)
Here are some verses used to support the law of attraction and power of words:
- “So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say'” (Numbers 14:28)
- “Thou shalt also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto thee” (Job 22:28 KJV)
- “From the fruit of their mouth a person’s stomach is filled; with the harvest of their lips they are satisfied. The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 18:20-21)
- “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.” (Proverbs 21:23)
- “For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7 KJV)
- “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
- “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.'” (Matthew 17:20)
- “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.'” (Matthew 18:18-19)
- “‘Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.'” (Mark 11:24)
- “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
- “‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’” (John 15:7)
Here are some verses used for positive self-affirmations:
- “You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28:3)
- “You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.” (Deuteronomy 28:6)
- “The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to.” (Deuteronomy 28:8)
- “The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 28:12)
- “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail…you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.” (Deuteronomy 28:13)
- “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11)
- “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” (Psalm 20:4)
- “Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.” (Psalm 30:2)
- “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:2-5)
- “by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
- “‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.’” (John 10:10)
- “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)
- “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” (3 John 1:2 KJV)
Again, there is no clear Biblical passage that outlines any of the tenets of the Prosperity Gospel, and if you put at any of the above verses back into its original context, you will find that it does not support this false doctrine.
Problems with Prosperity Gospel
By far, the biggest problem with the Prosperity Gospel is that it is a huge distraction to the true Gospel. Jesus’ crucifixion should represent our path to eternal salvation, but instead it becomes a gimmick to receive God’s blessings in the here and now. The Bible is reduced to a book of magic spells, and God is reduced to a genie in a lamp who’s here to grant our wishes and make all of our dreams come true. For this reason, critics of the Prosperity Gospel refer to it as “Name It, Claim It” or “Decree it and Declare It” theology. Even the origins of the Prosperity Gospel are non-Christian since it draws on teachings from pagan religions (karma), eastern mysticism, and new age philosophy.
The Prosperity Gospel also misrepresents the power of God and Satan. It teaches that God desperately wants to bless Christians, but His hands are tied unless we follow the magic formula for success. Likewise, He doesn’t want to bless evil people, but He’s forced to follow these universal laws. Meanwhile, Satan seems to have the power to simultaneously attack all Christians around the world at the same time, and he’s constantly able to outmaneuver God and thwart His plans at every turn.
The folks sitting in the congregations listening to the preaching of the Prosperity Gospel feel guilted into tithing (which is not required for Christians), regardless of their finances, when the Bible actually teaches that we should give cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7) in keeping with our income (1 Corinthians 16:2). That could mean that the poorest members in the congregation give less than 10% while the wealthiest members give more than ten percent. However, it also means that we should be good stewards of God’s resources and get our finances in order first (i.e. get out of debt) instead of giving away money that rightly belongs to our creditors. Furthermore, while we should certainly support our local church congregation (1 Corinthians 9:14 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18), the Bible doesn’t teach that we can only give to our church. We should feel free to give to any ministry that supports the spread of the Gospel, either directly through evangelism or indirectly through aid to the needy.
Regular preaching of the Prosperity Gospel turns worship services into motivational seminars, and the pastor is more likely quote from successful business leaders than the word of God. Here are a couple of popular quotes that might sound familiar:
- “We all need a daily check-up from the neck up to avoid stinkin ‘thinkin’ which ultimately leads to hardening of the attitudes.” (Zig Ziglar)
- “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” (Henry Ford)
These churches will condition members into speaking only positive, no matter the reality of the situation. For example, if someone is diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer, a follower of the Prosperity Gospel might say to them, “This diagnosis is a lie straight from the pit of Hell. Claim your healing in the name of Jesus. By His stripes, you were healed.” While all of this may sound very pious, the Bible does not promise that we won’t get sick and die. In fact, the Bible promises that we will face many trials and persecutions, and that God will give us the strength to endure. Someone who is suffering doesn’t want to be told that they just need to take charge and get over it. They probably just need someone to sympathize with them, to agree that it’s a truly awful situation, and to reassure them that they are not alone.
Finally, a very real risk with the Prosperity Gospel is that it causes people to lose their faith. What happens when you’re sitting in a church listening to these success stories for years, but your life is still a mess despite following all the teachings? You’ve tithed, you’ve decreed and declared, and you’ve never said a negative word, and yet your finances and your health have gotten steadily worse. You go to the pastor for some answers, and one of two things will happen:
- First, the church may force you out of their congregation because of your bad testimony. You’re ruining the carefully crafted image of success they’re trying to portray, which is bad for business. Failure is like a disease that no one wants to catch.
- Second, they may just brush off your complaint and say that God hasn’t been able to bless you yet because you haven’t truly believed or had enough faith.
Either way, you’ll conclude that there’s something wrong with you, and you’ll question whether you are actually born again. After all, if you can’t see evidence that God the Holy Spirit is blessing you, then maybe you were never saved in the first place. Eventually, when you’ve reached your limit of frustration, you’ll decide that it’s too hard and you’ll never be saved. You will certainly leave the church, if they haven’t kicked you out already, and it’s highly likely that you’ll even become a professing atheist.
If it were truly God’s will for all Christians to experience an abundant life, full of health and wealth, then why weren’t the apostles experiencing that? When the apostles picked Stephen in Acts 6:5 to minister in the early church, why didn’t they teach him all these secret laws so that he wouldn’t be stoned in Acts 7:58? When Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, why didn’t he tell them about how God had made it rain in his finances? Instead he wrote that God had given him a thorn in the flesh and that his prayers couldn’t remove it (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). In fact, Paul gives an account of all the abundance that God had given him:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)
I think it’s safe to assume that since none of the apostles experienced health and wealth that we shouldn’t expect to either.
Christian Science (aka Church of Christ, Scientist) is not Christian at all. Their language seems similar to Eastern mysticism and new age spirituality, and they tend to view the Bible as a magic spell book where healing can be achieved through prayer. From that perspective, they are similar to Word of Faith healers. However, they veer way off the reservation by denying core doctrines of the Bible and by adding their own supplemental texts.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, wrote several books that Christian Scientists regard as inspired writings that must be read to interpret the Bible correctly. However, these writings contradict both Christianity and science. For example, let’s review these passages from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”:
- Scientific Errors:
- “Man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones, and other material elements.” (p. 475:6-7)
- “Man is incapable of sin, sickness, and death.” (p. 475:28)
- Deny Holy Trinity:
- “The theory of three persons in one God (that is, a personal Trinity or Tri-unity) suggests polytheism, rather than the one ever-present I AM.” (p. 255:11-15)
- “Life, Truth, and Love constitute the triune Person called God, — that is, the triply divine Principle, Love. They represent a trinity in unity, three in one, — the same in essence, though multi‐form in office: God the Father-Mother; Christ the spiritual idea of sonship; divine Science or the Holy Comforter.” (p. 331:26-31)
- “God is All-in-all. God is good. Good is Mind. God, Spirit, being all, nothing is matter.” (p. 113:16-18)
- “The Scriptures imply that God is All-in-all. From this it follows that nothing possesses reality nor existence except the divine Mind and His ideas.” (p. 331:11-13)
- Deny Hell:
- “Universal salvation rests on progression and probation, and is unattainable without them. Heaven is not a locality, but a divine state of Mind in which all the manifestations of Mind are harmonious and immortal, because sin is not there and man is found having no righteousness of his own, but in possession of ‘the mind of the Lord,’ as the Scripture says.” (p. 291:12-18)
- “No final judgment awaits mortals, for the judgment-day of wisdom comes hourly and continually, even the judgment by which mortal man is divested of all material error. As for spiritual error there is none.” (p. 291:28-32)
- Wrong Jesus:
- “Christ is the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness. The Christ is incorporeal, spiritual” (p. 332:9-12)
- “The corporeal man Jesus was human.” (p. 332:17-18)
- “Jesus demonstrated Christ; he proved that Christ is the divine idea of God — the Holy Ghost, or Comforter, revealing the divine Principle, Love, and leading into all truth.” (p.332:19-22)
- Deny Bodily Resurrection:
- “The invisible Christ was imperceptible to the so-called personal senses, whereas Jesus appeared as a bodily existence. This dual personality of the unseen and the seen, the spiritual and material, the eternal Christ and the corporeal Jesus manifest in flesh, continued until the Master’s ascension, when the human, material concept, or Jesus, disappeared, while the spiritual self, or Christ, continues to exist” (p. 334:10-17)
- Deny Substitutionary Atonement:
- “The material blood of Jesus was no more efficacious to cleanse from sin when it was shed upon “the accursed tree,” than when it was flowing in his veins as he went daily about his Father’s business.” (p. 25:6-9)
- Minimize Sin:
- “Sin, sickness, and mortality are the suppositional antipodes of Spirit, and must be contradictions of reality.” (p. 335:29-31)
- “The destruction of sin is the divine method of pardon. Divine Life destroys death, Truth destroys error, and Love destroys hate. Being destroyed, sin needs no other form of forgiveness. Does not God’s pardon, destroying any one sin, prophesy and involve the final destruction of all sin?” (p. 339:1-6)
- “To get rid of sin through Science, is to divest sin of any supposed mind or reality, and never to admit that sin can have intelligence or power, pain or pleasure. You conquer error by denying its verity.” (p. 339:28-32)
Here’s my rebuttal:
- Scientific Errors:
- I think that science and common experience have sufficiently demonstrated that man is matter and that man is capable of sickness and death, so I don’t need to spend any more time addressing those verses.
- Deny Holy Trinity:
- See the article on Holy Trinity.
- I’m going to ignore the part of these passages that teaches that nothing is real and that we are all just ideas within the infinite Mind. It’s pointless to argue with someone who believes that this universe isn’t real, or that we’re just a brain in a vat similar to “The Matrix”. If that were true, what sort of experiments could we even use to see beyond the false reality presented to us? There’s no way to prove it, so there’s no reason to believe it or spend time thinking about it. Instead, I will address the pantheistic idea that all is one.
- Psalm 139:7-8 tells us that God is everywhere at all times (omnipresent), but that doesn’t mean that He is everything and that everything is part of God. For example, God is with us in a jungle, but that doesn’t mean that every tree in that forest is God.
- If we believe that God is everything and that everything is part of God, then we will worship the creation rather than the creator (Romans 1:19-23). Instead, Psalm 148 says that it’s the other way around–all of creation was made to worship God.
- If we worship the creation rather than the creator, then we are committing a form of idolatry, and the Bible mocks those who worship false idols made of stone or wood (Deuteronomy 4:28, 2 Kings 19:18, Jeremiah 2:27-28, Daniel 5:23, and 1 Samuel 12:21). Isaiah 44:12-19 is particularly comical in the way it pokes fun at idolatry.
- If we say that God is everything and everything is part of God, we are saying that God has fellowship with sinners and implying that God is responsible for our sinful behavior rather than us. That is blasphemy to accuse God of having any part in evil. See Gospel Objection #2.
- Deny Hell:
- See the article on Hell.
- Wrong Jesus:
- See the article on Jesus.
- Deny Bodily Resurrection:
- The idea that the flesh is bad but the spirit is good falls into the heresy of Pelagianism, which teaches that humans are basically good. This teaching contradicts the Bible’s teaching of the total depravity of humans.
- Luke 24:39 destroys the argument that Jesus’ resurrection was only spiritual while his body disappeared. 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 explains that we also will have resurrected bodies that have been glorified and somehow made better than they were during our natural lives.
- Deny Substitutionary Atonement:
- The Bible makes it clear that a blood sacrifice is required to make atonement for our sins and that Jesus’ blood provided that atonement for us (Leviticus 17:11, Romans 3:25, 1 John 1:7, and Hebrews 9:22).
- Also, 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Peter 2:24 add additional confirmation that Jesus clothed us in his righteousness so that we could enter Heaven while Jesus clothed Himself in our sins so that He could bear God’s punishment that we deserved.
- Minimize Sin:
- So we’re supposed to get rid of sin simply by denying that it exists? That sounds like postmodernism to me, and it doesn’t make any sense at all. Denying sin’s existence not only fails to remove the sin, but it actually creates a new sin through lying. Nor does denying the existence of sin remove the temporal consequences of that sin.
- Let’s walk through an example to illustrate the failure of denying sin’s existence. Let’s say a husband cheats on his wife, and she starts to suspect something. She confronts him with her suspicions, but she lacks any concrete evidence of his philandering. The husband lies to his wife and tells her that he’s been faithful. Now his sin of adultery has been compounded by the sin of bearing false witness. He might have avoided the consequences for a time, but his sin will find him out eventually (Numbers 32:23).
- Furthermore, if we assert that sin isn’t real then we are denying Bible passages that make it clear that all people sin. See Gospel Objection #1.