Today’s culture requires a high level of spiritual discernment. We are constantly filtering through what is true and what is a lie—and while it would be nice if this were only with worldly media, it’s also necessary in the church. We hear from pastors, teachers and modern-day prophets who claim they are sharing God’s truth for our discipleship and encouragement. But how do we know if this is true?
Prophecy literally means “truth speaking”. It’s not always (or even often) about foretelling the future. Prophecy is a spiritual gift (1 Cor. 14). However, God has already spoken all His revelation in the canon of Scripture: the Old and New Testaments. This means that while some people do possess the gift of prophecy, they will not receive any new revelation from God that has not already been spoken in Scripture. If what they speak contradicts, Scripture, we know that what they are saying is not true.
Whenever a teacher claims he is sharing truth, we have to check what he says against our absolute standard: God’s Word. And while it’s impossible to know the heart of a man, we can judge by the fruit of their actions. In 1 Peter 2, we have some instructions for identifying false prophets: people who claim to know Christ but teach a gospel that’s not true. Following are four principles based on this passage that you can use to discern a false prophet.
1. False teaching
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (1 Peter 2:1)
The first way to tell a false prophet from a real one is to look at what they teach. In order to discern what’s true from what’s false, you must know the Word of God! Be studying Scripture and exposing yourself to people who know God’s Word so you can identify lies when you hear them.
False prophets preach a different gospel than the one we see in Scripture. This gospel is often heavy on grace and light on conviction and truth. They ignore difficult topics like sin, death and hell, instead focus on the love of Jesus. While the love of Jesus is important, His grace is great because of our sin! You cannot have a complete gospel without both truth and love.
Another way false prophets deceive with their teaching is to preach a different Jesus. This Jesus is not a sovereign God, one with the Father and Holy Spirit, but a “good teacher” not much different than Buddha or Muhammad. If you hear this kind of teaching—lumping Jesus into other religions—you’re listening to a false teacher.
And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. (1 Peter 2:2-3)
False teachers often use their teaching to facilitate their own success. If a teacher continually asks for money as a “statement of faith in God” or questions the faith of those listening for not giving as much as they should, take caution in listening to him or her. False prophets are out to advance themselves first, and they use religion to get there. That’s why Peter says “in their greed they will exploit you.”
They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. (1 Peter 2:14)
False prophets use manipulation and human desire to achieve their ends. They will appeal to our natural desires for good things—a great job, home, relationship and even money—saying that God will give us all these things if we follow Him and listen to this teaching. But God does not promise us the American dream when we commit to Christ! God promises to provide for our needs—but not all our wants. Be careful when listening to those who preach a manipulative, materialistic gospel, one focused on what we get out of Jesus instead of what we give up to follow Him.
4. Does not produce fruitful disciples
…they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. (1 Peter 2:18-19)
Finally, the surest sign of a false prophet is that he cannot produce fruitful disciples. Because he isn’t preaching a real, true gospel, the people who follow that teacher won’t have true spiritual depth. They won’t understand the cost of discipleship or what it takes to follow Jesus. They will have limited theological knowledge and faith that is more about emotions than truth.
As you listen to different teachers, check back on 1 Peter 2 for direction. Let it keep you on track and guide your discernment so you are not deceived by people who neither know nor preach the real Jesus.