A few weeks ago I was blessed to be able to take in a major league baseball game in the most beautiful ballpark in America, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. It has become somewhat of a tradition over the past few years for one of the men in the church and I to make the 3 ½ hour trip to Pittsburgh to take in a day game. So when the year’s schedule comes out I look at the season’s weekday day games and we pick one for the trip. When you are picking a baseball game to travel to one day from April to September in March, there is always a risk because there are variables, most notably the weather. (Although the Lord has blessed, and we’ve yet to experience a rain out.)
Weather is the big variable, but there is always one other variable that can greatly effect whether you enjoy the game or not, the people seated near you and what they are talking about. A couple arguing, or a pack of foul mouthed fans can ruin a game as surely as a cloudburst. (Once in D.C. an evening at the ballpark was even impacted by staffers of the National Security Council having a loud, panicked discussion, one they probably shouldn’t have been having in public about how to respond to a possible coup in Turkey and how much they hated Turkey’s president because this was the third time in the season they had to leave a game because of him & his government.)
But we have always been blessed in this regard when we have made the trek to Pittsburgh too. We have never had the afternoon ruined by the conversations around us. And I think on this most recent trip we were especially blessed; behind us was a couple in town for some kind of conference at one of the Roman Catholic universities and they had brought a friar to the game. And all through the game (which they were apparently not very interested in) they maintained a running conversation about all of things that they can do while in the Pittsburgh area that will accrue merit with God. There was talk of reliquaries and roadside shrines and where the stations of the cross are situated on a particularly step hill (some how breaking a sweat between the stations is more meritorious). It was all very hard to listen to, yet it was a blessing to hear it.
And why overhearing this conversation was a blessing is simple, it was a reminder that false teaching isn’t just a theological problem but actual people made in the image of God are actually captured and enslaved by it. This is often what we forget when we think about false teaching and bad theology, it is not just an intellectual problem it affects actual people and it will affect them for all eternity.
While I know this of course, I often functionally forget, but here were two people being advised by someone they looked to for spiritual advice to take I-79 north to a shrine once visited by a pope because that will garner God’s favor and saying they don’t want to risk missing the opportunity to visit the largest collection of saint relics (go ahead and read that as corpse parts) in the western hemisphere lest they miss an opportunity to build up the merit they are trusting in for salvation.
Coincidently, or I should say in God’s providence, I am preaching through Philippians right now (you can listen here). And one of the things that the letter directly addressed is the folly of placing your trust for salvation in religious works. The Judaizers were attacking the church at Philippi, trying to convince the (almost all) gentile church there that they had to observe the Jewish Law as if it wasn’t perfectly fulfilled by Christ in order to be saved. Here is Paul’s instruction to them:
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:2-11
The word “rubbish” in Phil 3:8 is the Greek word skubalon and this word is one of the most discussed and written about words in the New Testament, with most of the discussion centered around the question of whether or not Paul used profanity. (I would say solidly no.) Most study Bibles have a note saying that this word can be translated as dung or manure, and that is absolutely true. But after careful study, some of which took me into the hitherto unknown world of 1st century urban planning texts, I came to the conclusion that what Paul was getting at was more along the lines of raw sewage; the muck that is carried away by the drainage system. A malodorous mélange of run off, kitchen and other household waste and industrial waste (Philippi was a gold mining town).
As I was preaching this text I apparently said (and its true, I heard it on the recording) that appealing to your good works before God was tantamount to holding out two 5 gallon buckets of sewage and offering it to God. The couple behind us at that ball game was literally being advised to say when they stand before the judgement seat of Christ “well we saw some dead men’s bones and we drove 45 minutes out of our way.” If that is not holding out a 5 gallon bucket of sewage before God, I don’t know what is.
Why would anyone think such a thing? Because somebody they had been raised to trust as an authority on how to please God told them that was how to please God. Yes, they have bad theology, but they are not false teachers, they are victims of false teaching. They are utterly enslaved by a system that will make their vaporous life on earth miserable, and will ultimately lead to their damnation. Satan was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44) and these precious people created in God’s image are not his accomplices, they are his victims.
Far too often we fail to draw a distinction between heretical theology and false teachers, and those ensnared by them. Or at least we don’t think about the human and eternal toll they leave in their wake. A few years ago a video surfaced of a then (and seemingly once again) prominent false teacher kicking a cancer patient in the midsection to “heal” him. A lot was written and said about the video at the time, but there was virtually no mention of the man, who on the cusp of eternity, who was so enslaved, deluded and desperate that he went forward to be kicked in the stomach in the name of Jesus. Be honest, if you saw that video or read about it back then, how much thought did you give to the man kicked? If you are like me (to my shame) virtually none.
For those of us who are theologically minded, often we engage with heretical theology without giving adequate thought and consideration to the human toll of that errant theology. And we need to repent of that, souls are at stake. Yes, by all means, know your theology and be equipped to refute errant theology, but don’t mistake those enslaved by that theology and those that teach that theology or the theology itself. Don’t forget that Satan was not a heretic from the beginning, he was a murderer. And murderers have victims, and our hearts should break for them.