July 13, 2008
In stark contrast to counterfeit religion, confessional Christianity is a direct response to God’s revelation in Scripture. Alistair Begg warns of the risk of being sidetracked from the truth and reminds us to continue in the faith on a path marked by righteousness. We are called to persevere, encouraging one another daily until Christ returns.
Sermon Transcript: Print
And I invite you to turn to 2 John, which you’ll find at the very end of your Bible. If you work back from Revelation, you’ll come to it very quickly. We’re going to read from verse 7 of this brief letter. It’s 2 John 7:
“Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what you[’ve] worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
“I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
“The children of your chosen sister send their greetings.”
And now, Father, we humbly pray, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, some of you will perhaps recall that we’ve begun a brief series in the two shortest and arguably most neglected letters in the New Testament. And since it is a month since we were in this particular passage of Scripture, let me, by way of reminder to some and introduction to others, sketch in a little bit of our background thought.
We are conducting this series under the heading Walking in the Truth, a phrase which is found in 2 John 4 and which is also found in verse 3 John 4. And John has declared in this letter that the news that he has received of this congregation, over which he has some pastoral care, of those who are walking in the truth has been for him a source of great encouragement.
Now, when we recognize this phrase “walking in the truth,” or even “the truth” itself, we need to understand that when the Bible references “truth,” it’s not talking about something that is vague or variable, but it is rather addressing that which is revealed, objective, defined, and absolute. It is not a truth that is discovered as a result of going inside of ourselves. It is not a truth—the kind of truth—that is in vogue in contemporary thought that is developed as a result of our own social constructions of ideas and concepts. But rather, it is a truth that God has revealed concerning himself, embodied ultimately, finally, and savingly in Jesus himself when, memorably, he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.”
Up until partway through the second half of the twentieth century, those of us who have lived long enough will know that arguments concerning truth always centered on rival claims about truth, so that people said, “Well, I don’t think that that is true—that there is a resurrection,” or “I don’t think that it is true to say that.” And so the rival notions of truth were there in the public arena for debate. The present climate is such that, philosophically, the very notion of truth as something that is objective and verifiable and fixed and universal and defined—that very notion itself is obsolete. And that is what makes it particularly challenging to take a little series like this and study it under the heading Walking in the Truth. The mood of contemporary philosophical thought is a mood that sets itself apart from the certainties of a modern age, from the things that were regarded as being fixed and absolute. Now the idea of the absolute is under attack. We need to keep that in mind because when we speak concerning these things, we need to be far more adept, we need to be much clearer, we need to be far cleverer in the way we marshal our arguments and speak apologetically concerning the things of Jesus.
And it is, of course, a telling issue, given that the weed, if you like, of postmodern thought has induced some within the framework of evangelicalism into a kind of trendy cluelessness. And as a result of that, we discover that there are those who are unsure, unclear, increasingly vague concerning the things of the gospel. And they actually think that all of that vagueness and cluelessness is a tremendous mechanism for encouraging others to embrace the truth. It’s actually a mechanism to encourage them to embrace our own particular form of cluelessness.
We, last time, noted the challenge of David Wells’s words when he said if the evangelical church doesn’t want to lose its voice, then at this point in history it must remember two points in particular: number one, “that Christianity is about truth,” and number two, “that those who say they are Christians must model this truth by their integrity.” Number one, “Christianity is about truth”; number two, it is a truth that is to be modeled in integrity. And of course, this is the very essence of this little letter, because John is interweaving truth and love—a truth that prevents our love from becoming sentimentalism and a love which prevents our truth from becoming brittle and unkind in its presentation of itself.
Now, what John has done, first of all, is issue, if you like, an indictment on what we refer to as counterfeit Christianity. Counterfeit Christianity. And in verse 7, he makes it quite clear that “deceivers … have gone out” into these communities. So there are deceptive people abroad in the time, in the first century, in which John is writing and amongst the communities to which he is writing. And these charlatans use language that sounds plausible and sounds orthodox, but in actual fact, it is deviant. They are insinuating their error amongst these communities and in these congregations.
And these counterfeiters are marked, he points out, by two aspects: number one, they “do not [confess] Jesus Christ … coming in the flesh.” That is there in verse 7. I’m not going to go back through this. If it’s helpful to you, or even if it isn’t, you can get the CD and mug up on it yourself. Let me simply let you know that these individuals being addressed here as “deceivers,” as bringing the spirit of the antichrist, are the forerunners of all cultish activity where the cult is founded on a deviance in relationship to the person and work of Jesus. These individuals denied that the man Jesus and the eternal Son were and are the same person. And if you don’t understand what that means, then you just need to go away and think about it—go in our bookstore and get books that will help you. Because what they were actually doing was calling in question the fact of the two perfect natures in Jesus, both divine and human. They were challenging the very notion of an orthodox view of the incarnation. They refused to confess Jesus “as coming in the flesh.” They had a notion that a divine emanation came and invaded Jesus of Nazareth, who was a mere mortal; the emanation lived in him for a while and left before his crucifixion. That is completely deviant and deceitful.
Number one, they do not confess; secondly, they do not “continue.” They do not “continue.” They are, according to verse 9, those “who [run] ahead and [don’t] continue in the teaching” of Jesus. In other words, they advanced beyond the boundaries of Christian belief. And, says Plummer, to advance beyond Christ “is not progress but [it is] apostasy.” They were along with something new, something improved, something different, something that would complete the picture, something that they could draw away folks from this old, boring material that they were now beginning to espouse concerning Jesus of Nazareth as none other than the incarnate God, and so on.
Now, it is in direct contrast to that counterfeit stuff that the disciples of Jesus make an honest confession. And the earliest Christian creed is simply three words: “Jesus is Lord.” “Jesus is Lord.” And in the saying of that, the early Christians were not making a statement concerning their personal devotional life. They were actually making a statement concerning the identity of Jesus, so that the word in the Old Testament for God, Yahweh, when translated into a Greek version of the Old Testament, was, almost without exception, over six thousand times translated as kurios, so that when you have a Greek version of the Old Testament and you come to Yahweh, you come almost exclusively to kurios, thereby identifying God himself with kurios, with “Lord.” And so when Paul classically, in Philippians 2, gives us that great hymn of praise, he says,
[And one day,] at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow …
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
And what Paul was affirming there was not the strength of his devotion but the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. These deceivers, these interlopers, both then and now, deny that—do not tell us they’re denying it, but they deny it. Hence the deceitfulness. So the true Christian is the one who confesses properly and is the one who continues routinely in the faith.
Now, in light of that, let us move to what we might refer to as confessional Christianity. If what he is indicting is a form of consumerism that is counterfeit, then what he is affirming is what we might refer to as a Christianity that confesses. In other words, there is a body of truth that is understood. There are creedal statements that are both defined and explicable and lived by, so that it is not whatever you want it to be. It’s not the average Bible study that says, “Well what does the Bible mean to you?” First of all, we need to know, as I’ve told you before, what the Bible means, and once we know what it means, then we can talk about what it means to us—but not until. Otherwise, the Bible may mean whatever we want it to mean. And that, of course, is the great challenge of postmodern thought, that says, “You can only know meaning as a result of social constructions. You can only know meaning as a result of your ability to process it in light of who you are. There is no objective meaning to the text outside of yourself and your experience.” “No,” the Bible says, “absolutely bogus!”
The revelation of God is the revelation that comes from without. It comes from above. It is as a result of his self-disclosure. It is not the Gaia philosophy embraced in one of James Taylor’s earlier albums, where he sings about “Gaia, Gaia, Gaia.” And as much as I love James Taylor, it makes me sad every time I hear him sing that song, for it is simply an embracing of a spirituality that comes from beneath, that comes from within, whereby people are called to look within themselves to find God or to look into creation because God is one with creation, and since we are also part of creation, therefore, we are one with God; therefore, before we know where we are, we’re out on a limb with that famous actress who was the sister of that very handsome fellow, Warren Beatty. (Yeah, I knew who it was! I didn’t pause for you to fill in the gaps. I was just thinking about how handsome Warren Beatty is.)
So, let’s get back to thinking about what we should be thinking about, which is the fact that he distinguishes here, very clearly, between what he has pointed out by way of warning and what he now affirms by way of encouragement. And he says to these confessional Christians—and I take it that that is some of us here this morning, although I recognize that some will be here who are examining the Bible, who are thinking about things. Some may be very opposed to it all, but nevertheless, you’re here, and I for one am very glad you’re here. But what we’re doing is looking at this in light of the fact that he is writing to those who are truly confessing Jesus as Lord. And notice what he says.
Number one: “Watch out so that you don’t lose out.” That’s verse 8, isn’t it? “Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for.” He’s now addressing those who are the followers of Jesus. He’s warned them about the counterfeit, he now is affirming them in their confession, and he immediately issues a warning.
Now, he is not suggesting that they may lose their salvation, for that is a free gift of God. They didn’t earn it in the first place. It was as a result of God’s grace and goodness to them. But what he’s urging them concerning is that they might continue faithful to the end. We find this through the whole Bible, don’t we? We find it in Peter’s exhortation. He says, you know, “I want you to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, self-control,” and so on, “so that you might make your calling and election sure and so that you might receive an abundant welcome into heaven.” He says, “I want you to make sure that you are not sidetracked.” And the danger that is faced is the danger of being deceived: “Make sure that you are not deceived.”
You say, “Well, is this just a hobby horse of John?” No, it’s in keeping with Jesus. Mark records for us how Jesus on one occasion, in the company of Peter and James and John and Andrew, says to them, “Watch out [so] that no one deceives you.” What? They are in the presence of Jesus, they are able to ask questions of Jesus, they are in the company of Christ for a period of three years, and yet he turns to them, and he says, “Despite all that you know of me, despite all that I have told you face-to-face, here is my warning to you: watch out so that you don’t lose out. Watch out so that you are not deceived.”
Now, loved ones, let me say to you this morning: this is a warning that we must heed in the twenty-first century. If it was realistic in the first, it is vital now. It is surely the height of folly to think that we can listen consistently to those who tamper with the truth without finding that we’re impacted by their message—that we can read books that constantly chip away at biblical orthodoxy without ourselves being caused to doubt and to embrace a disfigured form of Christianity. That is why we urge upon you the reading of good books. There is only so much time left in life; we can only read so much material; therefore, why not read the best? Why not seize the opportunity to make sure that we have a solid grasp of the rudiments of our Christian convictions? Concise Theology by Packer, Know the Truth by Bruce Milne—there are many, many books in there that will be of terrific help to the one who wants, over a period of time, to make sure that they are watching out so that they’re not deceived.
For you see, one of the saddest aspects of pastoral ministry is to observe those who are losing out or who have lost out. I remember the first time I heard the phrase. I was driving in the car with Derek Prime. He was my boss, and we were going to visit somebody, and I said, “Now, what’s going to happen when we go to this particular house?”
And he said, “Well, the sad thing about this is that the husband in this house has basically lost out.”
And I said, “Well, what do you mean, ‘lost out’?”
He said, “Well, he’s a believing man, but he has made no progress in years. He has lost out.”
And it is one of the sad features of pastoral life to observe those who are losing out. And I’ll tell you how you’ll know if you are: it has to do with the early enthusiasm waning, with convictions no longer strong and stirring, with influences for good upon us and from us being extinguished, with the companionship that we begin to keep—the kind of companionship that veers us off the pathway of righteousness for his name’s sake and veers us very easily into By-Path Meadow; that, in Pilgrim’s Progress terms, we find ourselves more interested in spending time with Timorous and Mistrust than we do in walking with Faithful; that we are more interested in listening to Talkative and to his well-spun theories and notions than we are in paying attention to keep that Shining Light before our gaze and that Wicket-Gate before our eyes. To those who are confessing to follow Jesus, he issues this vital warning: “Watch out that you do not lose out.”
And on a much broader canvas, the fact is that denominationalism and evangelicalism over the twentieth century has, in many instances, wavered and faltered. That’s not a blanket indictment on everything. It is simply to recognize that the warning of the Bible is a realistic warning, and if it attaches to individuals, so it attaches to local congregations, so it attaches to clusters of local congregations, so it attaches to denominations, and so it attaches to the whole broad sweep of those who believe themselves to be following after Christ. Publishing houses that once only published solidly orthodox and evangelical material have begun to publish all kinds of hogwash. You can’t be certain anymore that you’re safe under their imprint. Why? Presumably, because of the profit margin. “But surely the profit margin alone would not be enough to account for the deviation.” No, that is absolutely right: it is profit margin plus a loss of conviction about the things of the faith—about an unwillingness to receive the warnings of the Bible when Jesus says to his disciples, “You better watch out that you’re not deceived”; when John writes to the first century a message which runs right down in a linear progression to the twenty-first century American church: “Watch out that you don’t lose out.”
Historic evangelicalism was classically confessional. It is ironic, and sadly so, that many have jettisoned, in the name of tolerance, the very foundations of the faith, so much so that confessional Christians—those who are creedal in their views, those who want to be submissive to Scripture in its definitive statements—confessional Christians are often portrayed as ill-advised and bigoted.
So, for example, I just came from England. And the Anglican Church, as you will know from reading your newspapers, is embroiled in this huge issue concerning the nature of authority within the Anglican Communion—most of it brought on, sadly, we have to acknowledge, as a result of the American bishop who decided that it was fine to do what he did in relationship to the ordination of homosexuals. As a result of that, it creates absolute chaos in Canterbury. As a result of that, a group of people concerned for the truth then convene in Jerusalem prior to the gathering in Canterbury. How does the press portray the people who are in Jerusalem? As those who are schismatic and bigoted and desirous to disrupt the fellowship of Anglican Communion. Sorry? I thought that these people that went to Jerusalem went to Jerusalem because they were trying to say, “The foundations of the faith matter, the authority of Scripture matters, our submission to orthodox truth matters, and this is historic Anglicanism at its best. You’re the deviant ones.” But no! They are represented as the deviant, as the bigoted, as the destroyers of communion. Very subtle, isn’t it?
Prothero, who is a professor at Boston College and who wrote a book recently, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, makes the comment in passing, as he talks about the nature of illiteracy in twenty-first century America—and he’s talking about how various aspects of religion and Protestantism and Catholicism and so on are represented in different ways—and he says, “But there are some people left who are confessional Christians.” He says,
The voices of confessional Christians have not been entirely drowned out, however. A group named the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals issued a manifesto in … 1990s calling for evangelicals to confess their “unfaithfulness” to the historic teachings of the church.
On a memorable evening here, I read that manifesto, having been a part of its creation. It bored everybody horribly to death, and I’ve never done it since, but it was a pretty good manifesto. He says,
“Historic evangelicalism was confessional,” …. But today, “the essential truths of Christianity … have faded from Christian consciousness.” Confessional Christians … seem to be a voice crying in the wilderness. As the nation…
Listen to this. He’s not writing here as a professing Christian. He’s writing here as a sociologist and a professor of religion.
As the nation has migrated from understanding itself as Protestant to understanding itself as Christian, then Judeo-Christian, and then Abrahamic, many have jettisoned (in the name of tolerance) the great teachings and stories of the Christian tradition.
He’s absolutely right. You only need to listen, you only need to read the newspapers and magazines, and find that is the case. And here you come right back to what he says concerning the confessional Christian: “You better watch out so that you don’t lose out.”
Now, I’ve spent too long on that, and I’ll catch up now with just a comment on the remaining two. “Watch out so you don’t lose out.” Secondly, “Continue in the teaching of Christ.” “Continue in the teaching of Christ.” If it is a mark of their counterfeit notions not to continue in the teaching of Christ, then it is a mark of orthodoxy to continue in the teaching.
Again, this is nothing other than Jesus. You remember he says, “If you hold to my teaching, you will be really my disciples.” And the New Testament is replete with those calls, not least of all the writer of the Hebrews. Again and again, he’s calling people to make sure that they don’t lose out, that they don’t quit. “See to it, brothers,” for example—Hebrews [3:12]—“see to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
You see, that’s why we’re supposed to encourage one another in our songs, in our participation, in our involvement, in our relationships: so that we might actually help one another not to end up in By-Path Meadow; that the teaching of the Bible is part of it, but it’s not all of it; that it is in our relationships with each other that, like coals in a fire, if you put the coals together, they burn one another up and they keep each other warm, but if you take one coal out and put it off on the hearth by itself, it extinguishes itself; it goes out; it goes cold. I think oftentimes, when people are sitting in the pews, they think that exhortations to attend worship, to be involved in praise, to join a small group, to engage in discipleship, and so on is all some kind of mechanism that is generated from the front somehow or another to keep us all in a job. No, it’s not that at all! It’s actually so as to provide the means of grace whereby what is being called for here actually takes place.
It comes again and again. “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who[’s] gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Right? That’s number one. And then he says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence.” Let me tell you who doesn’t pray in their churches—where there are no prayer meetings, where people don’t pray. They don’t pray in nonconfessional churches. Oh, they say things like, “Uh, lub-a-dub, dub-a-dub-a-dub-dub-dub,” but they don’t actually pray. They don’t seek God. Prayer is a form of self-expression. It’s a therapy. It’s a mechanism. It’s like “spiritual breathing.” It’s to try and help you get through your life. But the idea of actually calling on a God who is objective and the creator of time and eternity and stands outside of us—that doesn’t happen. Why don’t they do that? Because unless you “hold firmly to the faith” you confess, you have no basis to draw near confidently to the place of provision.
So you see how the two things go together. People give up on the authority of the Bible, they give up on orthodoxy, they give up on the strength of their convictions, and then they’re clever enough to know: “There’s no reason to pray; there’s no one there. There’s no reason to pray; there’s no one listens. God is within you. God is everything.” No, God is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He created the universe, and he made your DNA. He has revealed himself in the beauty of his world and given to us the Bible, which is a revelation of his truth. He has provided in the person of himself, in Jesus of Nazareth, this amazing declaration. And he stands outside of time, having been part of time, and he will come back to end it all. See how vastly different that is?
“Continue in the teaching.” “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, [and] unbelieving heart.” And for those of you who were brought up on this “once saved, always saved” dogma… I get frustrated with people who always want to come and find out if I believe in “once saved, always saved,” as if it was a mantra—as if somehow or another, as long as you said yes to that, you were okay, or as long as you said you believed that, you were okay. I believe the Bible. And I believe that the missing emphasis in those who want quickly to affirm that they are “once saved and always saved” is that they miss the fact that a person is saved through perseverance, not apart from it. It is as we persevere that we are saved. The ground of our salvation is a work of Jesus on the cross. The evidence that we are in Christ is the fact that we continue to the end. And how do we continue to the end? As a result of God’s persevering grace, which he has given to us in Christ by the Scriptures. The means of grace—prayer, the fellowship of God’s people, the engagement in witnessing, and so on—all of those things are part and parcel. So the person who says, “Well, I don’t have to pay attention to the warnings of the Bible, because I believe in ‘once saved, always saved’”—is what they’re saying there that they could do anything they want, and it doesn’t matter? That’s called presumption. That’s not called Christian assurance. That’s actually called stupidity.
Finally… Number one: “Watch out so you don’t lose out.” Number two: “You better continue, because those who don’t continue don’t have God.” And finally, “Make sure you don’t facilitate falsehood.” “Make sure you don’t facilitate falsehood.” That’s the implication of all this stuff about “If anyone comes to you and does[n’t] bring this teaching, do[n’t] take him into your house or welcome him.”
John is concerned that the influence of these false teachers will be curbed. We recognize that the hospitality of God’s people was vital to the work of the traveling evangelists and teachers. By offering hospitality to someone, we were engaging with them, we were affirming what they were doing, and so on. We were at least giving tacit approval to what they were teaching, if not actually encouraging the propagation of what they were on about. And in light of that, John says, “I don’t want you to bring these false teachers into your home and thereby create the impression for people that you are involved in this counterfeit Christianity or that you are yourself a proponent of it.”
Now, I recognize that in the past, these verses have been pressed into a form of misguided service that is probably unhelpful. But the present danger is a different danger. The present danger is a kind of wooly-headed ambiguity that ignores this altogether. And the point that John is making here needs to be reiterated in his day because of the possibility of the toleration of deviation and heresy. And it needs, therefore, to be reiterated in every generation where there is vagueness concerning the truth. It will be one thing for us to entertain angels unawares, quite another thing to entertain deceivers unapologetically. And John is not advising his readers to fail to show common courtesy to doctrinal opponents. He’s warning them pointedly about providing a platform for their spurious ideas and for their counterfeit message.
And then he says, “Well, I could go on, but I’m not going to. I could write for quite a while, but I don’t want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you, talk with you face-to-face, so that we might just have a wonderful time together. And by the way, the children of this congregation send their greetings as well.” Well, I haven’t run out of things to say either, but we’ll come back and say them face-to-face at a later date. But for now, we’ll leave 2 John here.
And now, Father, we commend one another into your care and keeping. May the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with all who believe, now and forevermore. Amen.
 John 14:6 (paraphrased).
 David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 92.
 A. Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, with Notes, Introduction and Appendices, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1887), 182.
 See Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3.
 Philippians 2:10–11 (NIV 1984).
 James Taylor, “Gaia” (1997).
 2 Peter 1:5–7, 10–11 (paraphrased).
 Mark 13:5 (NIV 1984).
 See Psalm 23:3.
 Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (San Francisco[?]: HarperOne, 2007), 120.
 John 8:31 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 4:14, 16 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 See Hebrews 13:2.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.