As I’ve been writing a critical review of Joel Osteen’s, Your Best Life Now, I’ve been increasingly struck by how God often overrules the evil intentions of false prophets in order to ultimately bless His church.

Now I don’t want to minimize in any way the horrendous damage that false prophets do to the church and to individual souls. But our sovereign and wise God can turn even this great evil into a good in four ways:

  • by helping us discover the questions people are asking
  • by guiding us to a better understanding of the Bible
  • by highlighting where the church has been silent
  • by encouraging true Christians

What’s the question?
If there’s one thing false prophets are really good at, it’s identifying the questions that people are asking. They “sniff the wind” with their super-sensitive marketing antennae and skillfully pick up signals about the issues people are struggling with. They provide the wrong answers of course, but they are experts at detecting where people are at, with the aim of maximizing their audience.

For example, when “evangelicals” start moving their churches to accept gay marriage, we should realize that they are responding to serious challenges and pressures from within their congregations and/or families.

When Rob Bell “questions” the doctrine of hell, we should understand that many are asking real questions about hell and are not liking the traditional answers.

When Joel Osteen promotes the prosperity Gospel, we should conclude that many are trying to find a way to think more positively about themselves and their lives.

When a preacher throws out God’s commandments and replaces them with his own “10 Guidelines,” we should figure that lots of people are wondering about how to get rid of God’s law.

What does the Bible say?
The second benefit is that we are forced to study the Bible more closely to figure out what God really says about these issues. That’s been the pattern throughout church history. For example, whole epistles of Scripture were written in response to errors in the New Testament church. 

Also, challenges to the deity of Christ in the early church resulted in more thorough Bible study and then clearer credal and confessional statements about what the Bible really teaches about Jesus Christ. Similarly for justification at the time of the Reformation.

And that’s what we see happening today as well. Witness the tremendous work that’s been done by conservative modern scholars in exegeting the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality and gender. The same goes for the multiple books and papers that have recently been written to prove the eternality of a literal hell. My own study of Osteen has forced me into the Scriptures to discern the accurate interpretation of passages that Osteen perverts, and also to find passages which disprove what he teaches.

Where have we been silent?
As lies thrive in a vacuum, false prophets usually target subjects that the church has neglected, moving in where Christians have been silent. For example:

  • When ministers are not teaching and preaching about hell, that’s fertile ground for Rob Bell.
  • When the church doesn’t explain the place of the law in the Christian life, you get the law being discarded or being re-written as personal guidance.
  • When the church hasn’t constructively addressed sexuality, you end up with confused Christians embracing homosexual propaganda and caving in to the redefinition of marriage.
  • When the church doesn’t address the nature and use of suffering, Benny Hinn will step in with promises to remove it for a fee.
  • When the church doesn’t help people develop a healthy self-image, Joel Osteen’s self-image-making will attract many.

Whenever I see the particular emphasis of a false prophet, I ask myself, “When was the last time you taught or preached about that?”

Who are true Christians?
The Bible says that one reason for heresies in the church is to expose and highlight those who are not real Christians, but only have the name of Christian (1 Cor. 11:19). When people are swept away with false teaching, they demonstrate that they were never really true Christians. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19).

But if we stay the course when others are dropping out, if we refuse to be swept away by false teaching, we may use that to encourage and assure ourselves that we really are true Christians by the grace of God.

Notice, I’m not saying that we should all study what false prophets are teaching – that would be a foolish waste of time for most, and a dangerous path for many. But in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s difficult not to encounter their teaching here and there, and even in some very surprising places. As we do, let’s use their falsehood to help us discern what questions people are asking, to make us study our Bible more thoroughly, to highlight where the church has been too silent, and to encourage ourselves that He who has begun a good work in us is continuing it until the Day of Jesus Christ.

  • Gordon Woods

    Really good post, David. Thanks. I’ve for sometime considered the necessity of the early Church councils’ debates of various views (e.g., Augustine v. Pelagius) of what constitutes correct teaching of Scripture. Of course, the central heresies continue today but they’re identifiable and for the average layperson such as me, I don’t have to thrash them out on my own. God’s ways are mysterious and prefect.

    • David Murray

      Good point Gordon. yes, we should indeed be grateful that so many of these battles have been fought for us already.

  • Pingback: February 4, 2015 Truth2Freedom Daily Blog/Article Collection | Truth2Freedom's Blog

  • Pingback: Browse Worthy: Living as a Believer | Gentle Reformation

  • Tim

    Your first and third points: “by helping us discover the questions people are asking” and “by highlighting where the church has been silent” re. how to profit from false prophets are points I have felt challenged about recently, and maybe to one degree or another for much longer. That spirit has impacted some comments I’ve made here and there at church and on Facebook re. what I think sound like self-righteous and sanctimonious criticism of many others of people like Doug Phillips and Mark Driscoll – and Osteen, etc. Too often I get the feeling that such comments fall on deaf ears because too many seem to like their self-righteousness and sanctimonious attitudes and don’t know how to converse around the kind of profits proposed by Murray! Lord, deliver us from our smug self-righteousness so that we don’t become like the people we criticize, even when they are legitimate objects of criticism.

  • Tim

    I suppose I should also clarify that I don’t think Driscoll and Phillips are false prophets, but I’m widening the application to include others whose actions and/or teaching have been damaging in the Church, and who have also been objects of much criticism, often by people who don’t put up anything constructive as alternatives for those who they think were misguided in their interest in such leaders.

  • ademolaadebayo

    Hi and thanks very much for the issues that you have identified. I recently bought a book from a professing reformed bookshop titled “Liberating Ministry from Success Syndrome by Kent Hughes “. What attracted me to buy the book is the fact that I found a book that critiques the “success” mentality that many ministries have today. However, the book was awful and I realised that the reason for me buying this book is that the issue is not currently being talked about in reformed circles. Please follow this link for my review of the book.

  • Pingback: Read It: 2/7 | Resolution 28

  • Pingback: Today in Blogworld 02.11.15 - Borrowed Light

  • Brad

    I think it’s funny when people put down other people’s interpretation of the “bible” and back it up with their own interpretation of the same book, all the different denominations and interpretations arguing with each other about who’s right or wrong and the whole time basing their argument on the same book that itself is a plagiarism of pre-existing pagan beliefs.. I think you all need to study the history of the bible itself (as in how the bible came to be the bible, who wrote it and when) and you may find that you no longer need to put down others for their interpretation of what essentially is a rewrite of much older pagan myth, a good book on the subject is called (from memory) “the secret origins of the bible”.. I’m sure if you look into the subject you may enlighten yourselves a bit and maybe you who call yourselves christian won’t look like such childish idiots with all your infighting and judgement against those who have a different opinion.. Pages like this one do more damage your cause than help it.. I just laugh and shake my head but sometimes I have a bit of fun by throwing in my two cents worth for the sake of it, and to make you question your own beliefs, I trust you believe what you preach, my challenge is for you to question the book you so cherish to see if it is in fact the truth that you are believing in