The Bible emphatically states concerning false teachers, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16). There is far more instruction in this dictum than meets the eye for many Christians. This is not merely a different way of saying that you can know bad teachers by their bad doctrine. This actually gives us a further test for discerning them. This says we can know the propagators of false doctrine by their fruits—i.e. by such things as the way they deal with people, the way they handle the Bible, and the way they treat the facts.
First, a little clarification. I am not applying this principle in the strictest sense—heretics will manifest the fruits of their heresy. I am applying it in a moderated sense—godly men who teach prominent error will generally manifest evidence that the enemy has infiltrated their ministry in ways that extend far beyond the mere fact of bad doctrine. While their character in general indicates that they are good trees, yet the bad tree of their error produces tangible bad fruits. Bad doctrines are no different than bad characters. We can “know them by their fruits.”
The truth is, when men give ear to the father of lies, they learn more from him than merely unsound doctrine. Some of his character rubs off on them too. To the degree that they are deceived (to the degree that they have trampled on facts, reason, and revealed truth), to that degree they will dishonor Christ with un-Christlike character, dishonor the Bible with Bible undermining practices, and hamstring reason with brute-force arguments. And they will manifest the spirit of the accuser of the brethren.
This isn’t merely my interpretation and application. God says the same thing. “Be not deceived. Evil company corrupts good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33). When men turn their back on light, it has immediate consequences on their character. When men deny fundamental doctrines of the faith—like the resurrection, which is the theme of the above passage, or the true divinity of Christ, or Jesus as the only way of salvation, etc—their character goes into a death spiral which will lead them ever deeper into spiritual darkness. When men turn their back on lesser light to maintain their distinctive error, they are left with chinks in their armor. Weakenesses and flaws will appear, enabling us to “know them by their fruits.”
This principle of recognizing errorists and errors by their fruit is one of the most useful discernment tools in the mature believer’s toolbox. It is helpful because sometimes doctrinal issues are hard to figure out. Which side is right? But with all major doctrinal issues, the error is revealed just as clearly in its fruits as it is in the pages of Scripture. And it is often easier to judge the fruits of an error than it is to work through the entire question exegetically and theologically.
Without any further ado, here are ten prominent symptoms of error which regularly appear in those who teach false doctrine, symptoms which enable us to “know them by their fruits.” Those who see and apprehend this principle of discernment will be able to add more observations of their own.
1) Introducing tension where there is no tension.
For example: putting tension between the Spirit of God and the word of God, or putting tension between God’s love and eternal damnation.
2) Introducing contradiction or mutual exclusion where there is none.
For example: insisting that man’s free will is incompatible with God’s sovereignty, or putting incompatibility between the spiritual realm and the physical realm (regarding the physical realm as unworthy or sinful is a linchpin of gnosticism), or contrasting the Holy Spirit and reason, or contrasting serving God for his glory with serving God for reward.
3) Confusing things which should be distinguished.
For example: confusing human nature and sin nature (a common gnostic error), confusing love for the world (the world system) with love for the world (mankind), confusing love for holiness with legalism, and weakening the distinction between believers and unbelievers.
4) Using unforgiveably bad exegesis.
For example: explaining away passages that challenge a position, or refusing to let the context clarify the meaning of a verse or passage.
5) Employing argumentum ad hominem (character slander).
This is taking the argument out of the arena of “what saith the Scripture” and putting it in the arena of mud slinging. For example: accusing opposers of pride and heresy, levelling harsh accusations against your opponents, and blackening your opponents with lies. (An example of the latter is anti-pretribulationists spreading the egregiously false claim that the pretribulation rapture teaching was first taught by false prophets in the Irvingite movement.)
6) Refusing falsification.
By this I mean refusing to employ objective tests that could falsify your position. For example: refusing to apply the tests for false prophets given in the Bible, refusing to test the spirits, and refusing to let the historical-grammatical approach to Bible interpretation have its day in court. If a position refuses to be subject to a falsification test, that is proof positive that it is error.
7) Refusing reason and logic.
Reason and logic are not opposed to the revelation God has given us in the Bible. God exhorts us, “Come let us reason together.” And Paul claims that living a sacrificial Christian life “is your rational (reasonable) service.” For example: refusing to follow arguments to their logical conclusion, ridiculing reason and logic, and letting spirits convince you to surrender your reason and blindly trust what they say.
8) Practicing equivocation and evasion.
For example: refusing to be pinned down to an exact position, refusing to engage in propositional truth, or giving evasive answers.
9) Diminishing spiritual exercise.
For example: lowering the definition of sin, encouraging earthly mindedness and worldly mindedness, marginalizing the fear of God, ridiculing the idea of serving God for reward, watering down the contrast between “in the world” and “of the world.”
For example: pretending to be free from sin, pretending to have spiritual gifts you don’t have, pretending to be walking on the heights of spirituality because you believe some small point, pretending to have some unique spiritual blessing, but that supposed blessing doesn’t translate into exceptional holiness, devotion, fruitfulness, fruit of the Spirit, etc.
May God help you to walk in discernment, judging not merely the doctrinal errors themselves but the fruits of those errors.
Eyes wide open, brain engaged, heart on fire.
Lee W. Brainard