When answering questions about the Gospel or working with people who disagree with us in good faith, we must give reasons for our position with gentleness. In fact, this must be our default position. Yet if we encounter false teachers who deny Christ, prey on others, live for greedy gain, and refuse to change, then we must use strong words to show the severity of this evil and to protect others from false teachers.
Therefore, while reasoned gentleness should be our default stance, we should not shrink from using strong language when necessary. And I think strong language is necessary to use when dealing with the following groups of people.
Reserve the strongest language for religious hypocrites
Jesus railed against religious hypocrites. He did not suffer long those who knew the truth but denied it for greedy gain. For example, when Jesus cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Pharisees accused Jesus of doing so by the power of the prince of demons (Matt 12:24). But Jesus calls the Pharisees out on their horrid commentary on his miracles. In short, he exposes the weakness in their thinking and then implies that they are “speaking against the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt 12:31-32). In short, Jesus implies that the Pharisees committed the unforgivable sin by denying the Holy Spirit’s power in Jesus and attributing that power to the prince of demons.
Put even more simply, the unforgivable sin is seeing the Spirit work and not only denying it but calling it evil. It’s calling evil good. It’s denying Christ’s spiritual anointing. It’s denying the Gospel. And that’s unforgivable because only the Gospel can offer forgiveness.
So Jesus reserves the strongest condemnation for religious hypocrites. They should know better. They should know the work of God. Instead, they deny God’s work. Jesus says that they will never be forgiven. That’s strong language.
Reserve strong language for false teachers whose life shows where their heart is
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. 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. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
False teachers secretly bring heresies into churches, which can culminate in denying the Master. Yet Peter explains that this heresy in practice looks like sensuality, blaspheming the Christian way of life, and greed. In short, Peter condemns these false teachers for evil behaviour.
Jude likewise underscores the ethical nature of heresies: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Again, false teachers (or “certain people”) participate in sensuality and deny Jesus.
Evil actions and false confession go hand in hand.
But this reality also helps us to understand how to use strong language. If someone both denies a Christian reality and greedily preys on people (entering into sensuality), then call them for what they are: greedy, sensual, heretics.
Yet if someone confesses something wrongly yet genuinely lives virtuously, then we need to be slower to condemn and ready to listen. Three possibilities can happen. First, they might be wrong and will be persuaded to the truth because they desire to know the truth. Second, you might be wrong and be persuaded to the truth. Third, they might be exposed to be what they are: hypocritical religious leaders out for greedy gain.
Here’s a biblical example. Paul saw that Peter acted out of step with the Gospel. Instead of condemning Peter, he asked him a reasoned question: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14). And Peter changed.
Reserve strong language for false teachers who deny the Gospel
Paul writes: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8-9). Yet this denial is more than a mere intellectual denial. This denial included adding various old covenant laws to the Christian life (Gal 1:18) and not living by the Spirit (Gal 3:3).
In short, Paul strongly condemns those who deny the Gospel and live contrary to the Gospel. This follows the same pattern of Peter and Jude in which false teachers deny the Master and live sensuously. It’s doctrine and life because bad doctrine always corrupts life (and vice versa). In fact, these false teachers in Galatia blaspheme the way of Christianity, adding circumcision as part of the new covenant way. Paul finds this absurd, equating it with emasculation (Gal 5:12).
So whether someone denies the Master or the Gospel of the Master, the issue is the same because Christ and Gospel are so closely related. More than that, the Bible doesn’t appear to have a category for false teachers who don’t also live contrary to the Gospel and persuade others to sin also.
By influencing others, they cross a line. It would be better if they had a millstone hung on their neck than to deceive one of Christ’s little ones.
We should use strong language against religious hypocrites because they lead others into destruction, which includes leading people into a false confession and a depraved lifestyle. But when someone confesses doctrine wrongly yet does not (1) act for greedy gain and (2) lead people into sin, then we must be slow to speak and quick to listen. Usually, this means that the person genuinely believes what he or she says, and we should persuade them as brethren in Christ to a clearer view of the truth.