The Devil's Merchandise: Heresy - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonHistorical Theology Articles
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A perverse heart is what we call heresy or false doctrine, for they pervert God’s Word and service. They turn the Word around and improve it. – Martin Luther.
Heresy is – Humano sensu electa, Scripturae sacrae contraria, palam docta, pertinaciter, defensa, – begot of a man’s brain, contrary to the Holy Scriptures, openly taught, and peremptorily defended. – Thomas Adams.
Deceitful doctrine is a poison and venom which, under the taste and name of verity, once drunk and received, with great difficulty can afterward be purged. – John Knox.
They deduce the truth by heretical adultery. – Richard Vines
Though the church is physically persecuted or crushed by despotic tyrants, pagan kings and apologetic religious factions, the greatest destructive force to come against her is heresy. The apostle Peter in his second general epistle makes mention of these merchants of the devil who sell destructive wares to the church in hopes that their cankerous sores will infect and culminate in the gangrenous festering of damnable heresy. 2 Peter 2:3, “And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.” The words these heretics speak are “feigned,” or “moulded and formed, as from clay, wax, or stone.” They seem very much like the expression one would make of idolatry – idols that are carved to detract from the glory of God. Instead these πλαστοῖς (plastos) or molded words, are idols of the mouth, which detract from the glory of the Scriptures and the truth set forth by the Bible as orthodox. Such words arise from covetousness, which is for the most part a companion of heresy. Such covetousness false teachers, as the Geneva Bible notes, “makes trade in souls. They will abuse you, and sell you as they sell cattle in an auction.” Such heresy is “making merchandise” as if these heretics are attempting to gain a profit over the church. The word “merchandise” ἐμπορεύσονται (emporeuomai) suggests that heretics are as a merchant traveling for business and are using people for gain. Whether it is done in pretense or by presumption makes little difference, for the affect is the same. Damnable heresies are brought into the church to subvert people away from the truth. From this sin of covetousness and pride all heresies have arisen: “ambition is the mother of all heresies and sects.”
Heresy comes in like a flood, and takes years to purge. This flood arrives ultimately from the serpent’s mouth (Revelation 12:15-16) and is a destructive force against the church of Christ that will not ultimately prevail, but may inflict great damage on unsuspecting people. It is no doubt that heresy is decreed by God and sometimes sent for the ultimate good of the church (2 Thess. 2:11). Certainly, in the midst of the greatest trials from the doctrinally deviant have creeds arisen to overcome the blows of the devil and the flood of the serpent. But a more learned church will yield less and less to the destructive heresies that continually plague her in every age.
It may be helpful to deal specifically with the term “heresy”. The root meaning of the Greek word hairesis (αἱρέσεις) revolves around the act of taking, or capturing something and placing it into a schismatic sect. It can also have connotations of choosing something, or in a more base form, simply the act of “choice.” Yet, by combining both of these definitions, it is more likely to mean the various “dissensions arising from diversity of opinions or aims.” Thus, one who is a heretic is a person who espouses opinions which are contrary with the views embraced by Christ’s Church as a whole and those which have been traditionally handed down as the rule of faith. Such views are divergent from the accepted interpretations of Scripture, and the orthodox creeds of Christendom. “The heretical spirit,” observes Dr. Plummer, “is seen in that cold critical temper, that self-confident and self-willed attitude, which accepts and rejects opinions on principles of its own, quite independently of the principles which are the guaranteed and historical guides of the Church.” The English word heresy is a version of the Greek noun heiresses, originally meaning in English “party,” as if certain people made up a certain “party” or faction. Though the word had a relatively innocent beginning, it came to be used by Jewish opponents of Christianity for Christians; and in the Christian church, heresy was used of a “separation or split resulting from a false faith (1 Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20 ). Thomas Adams states rightly, “Indeed heresy cannot possess a church, but it gives a subversion to it.” Heresy will not ultimately engulf the entire church as if to render it non-existent, but it certainly will throw it into confusion if it is not dealt with immediately and with great theological precision.
The noun heretic is used only one time in the New Testament (Titus 3:10), and the adjective is used twice in 1 Corinthians 11:19 and in Galatians 5:20. Titus 3:10-11 state, “A man that is an heretick (αἱρετικὸν) after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” As Jonathan Edwards states, “This implies that the church disapproves the person as a Christian. It cannot any longer charitably look upon him as a saint, or fellow-worshipper of God, and can do no other than, on the contrary, esteem him an enemy of God.” In another sermon, Edwards speaks to one who is self-condemned, a heretic, when he says, “By this inconsistency with yourself, you are condemned out of your own mouth in that you act contrary to your own conscience. Your own conscience condemns you in your will and practice being contrary to your own reason. Your own reason condemns you in acting contrary to your profession. Your own profession condemns you in the sense in which the apostle speaks of a heretic as being condemned of himself. Tit. 3:10, 11, “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself:” i.e. he in departing from his former profession is inconsistent with himself. His present heretical tenets are contrary to his former solemn profession, and therefore that former profession condemns him.” Calvin states:
We must now see what he means by the word heretic. There is a common and well-known distinction between a heretic and a schismatic. But here, in my opinion, Paul disregards that distinction: for, by the term “heretic” he describes not only those who cherish and defend an erroneous or perverse doctrine, but in general all who do not yield assent to the sound doctrine which he laid down a little before. Thus under this name he includes all ambitious, unruly, contentious parsons, who, led away by sinful passions, disturb the peace of the Church, and raise disputings. In short, every person who, by his overweening pride, breaks up the unity of the Church, is pronounced by Paul to be “heretic.” But we must exercise moderation, so as not instantly to declare every man to be a “heretic” who does not agree with our opinion. There are some matters on which Christians may differ from each other, without being divided into sects. Paul himself commands that they shall not be so divided, when he bids them keep their harmony unbroken, and wait for the revelation of God. (Philippians 3:16.) But whenever the obstinacy of any person grows to such an extent, that, led by selfish motives, he either separates from the body, or draws away some of the flock, or interrupts the course of sound doctrine, in such a case we must boldly resist. In a word, a heresy or sect and the unity of the Church — are things totally opposite to each other. Since the unity of the Church is dear to God, and ought to be held by us in the highest estimation, we ought to entertain the strongest abhorrence of heresy. Accordingly, the name of sect or heresy, though philosophers and statesmen reckon it to be honorable, is justly accounted infamous among Christians. We now understand who are meant by Paul, when he bids us dismiss and avoid heretics.
One can only concur with a hearty Amen! Though opinions are not heresies, those divisive to break up the unity of the church which is bound by sound doctrine should be rightly called heretics.
In 1 Corinthians 11:19 the idea behind “heresy” is used in much the same way, “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” Galatians 5:20-21 echoes this as well, “Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Heresy here does not simply mean something that was opposed to Christianity, but that which subverted the faith entirely, and made faith “non-faith” for it directed the believer of such things away from the Bible and toward a destructive opinion that shattered truth. Heretics and heresies are things that keep people from entering into the Kingdom of God and condemn them to hell. Yet, even though heresy may infiltrate the church, and cause it much harm, heretics and their heresies will never win the church over. Christ is the final victor and will continue to uphold His people even in the midst of heresy. No matter how the word heresy is used, the old saying is that heresy is the position held by the group that loses.
The early church apologist and polemicist Irenaeus employed two illustrious analogies in understanding heresy and those who embrace subversive doctrine. In the first he compared the heretics’ treatment of Scripture to those who take a beautifully crafted mosaic of a king and rearrange the pieces into a dog or a fox, and then have the impudence to assert that the later deformation was the authentic mosaic since it contained the same fundamental pieces. Heretics, then, are those who arbitrarily rearrange the poetry of Homer so that, while the verses themselves are original, the genuine meaning has been grossly distorted. Only by adhering to the apostolic tradition, the regula fide, the “rule of truth,” will the Church avoid the hermeneutical misrepresentations of heretics and not mistake kings for dogs or trifling rewordings for the real words of Christ. The Greek Latin father, Tertullian defined heresies as “human and demonic doctrines that were opposed to the divine truth of faith.” He says, “I have no use for a Stoic, Platonic, or dialectic Christianity. After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation…when we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else.” Such is the belief of the Second Council of Constantinople, “We hold that faith which our Lord Jesus Christ, the true God, delivered to his holy apostles, and through them to the holy churches, and which they who after them were holy fathers and doctors, handed down to the people committed to them.” Thus, the regula fide, or rule of faith, or as in modern times it is stated – the creeds and confessions of the orthodox church – demonstrate for the church what she believes regarding sacred Writ. This, on the other hand, is commonly referred to as Sola Scriptura. Obadiah Sedgwick affirms this when he states that “heresy” is heresy when it is the opinion “contra fidem traditam, contrary to the faith, to the doctrine of faith in the Scriptures.” “Scripture and creeds serve as the bases for orthodoxy. Scripture is norma nornians (norming the norm, the ultimate standard) while the creeds are norma normata (normed norm, standardized standard).” One would be foolish not to accept the wisdom of the great orthodox thinkers of the past when establishing one’s own theology. Though the historic creeds must be judged by the Scripture, the creeds are not to be ignored in expressing the uniform teaching of the Church and providing a safeguard against distortion of doctrine and novelty of viewpoints. Failure to have continuity with historic Christianity leaves one wandering apart from the communion of the saints with the multitude of counselors.
When distinguishing the true apostolic faith from heresy, Vincent of Lerins noted that while Scripture is “for all things complete and more than sufficient,” even the heretics appealed to Scripture. “It seemed,” Vincent said, that “owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it with one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.” Thus, in order to “detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith,” we need the authority of tradition, specifically, “that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” “This ecumenicity of time and space thus serves the reader of Scripture with a hermeneutical prism so that, following Hilary and Jerome, we do not merely read the text but understand it rightly. For Vincent, as Florovsky notes, “Tradition was, in fact, the authentic interpretation of Scripture. And in this sense it was co-extensive with Scripture. Tradition was actually “Scripture rightly understood.” And Scripture for St. Vincent was the only, primary, and ultimate canon of Christian truth.” Polycarp, running along these same lines, stated, “Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the Word which has been handed down to us from the beginning…” And as Tertullian said, “For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions.” Without the hermeneutical explanations that reside alongside of the Holy Bible, there will never be any comment on the Bible, but just the Bile itself. This is not God’s intended mode of communication, but instead, pastors and doctors should communicate the Word in such a way that continues the traditions of the church and the meaning behind the Scriptures to ensure the propagation of true doctrine.
Though the church fathers strongly attacked the erroneous ideas of many of the Gnostics, often they were viewed as really outside of the community of the faithful. On the other hand, church leaders such as Marcion or Arius were treated with biblical viciousness for their variation from the true doctrines delivered to the church from the apostles. Part of the reason for this was that the heretic was the graver threat to the Christian than the pagan, for the pagan ultimately killed only the body while the heretics’ actions and teachings threatened salvation itself. Consequently the false teachers within the church were more dangerous than the savage persecutors of the temporal Roman Empire. Harold Brown says, “The persecutors could and frequently did—put Christians to death, but they could not deprive them of eternal life, nor of the confidence they had in eternal life. This heretics threatened to do, and therefore they were regarded with the utmost loathing.”
What exactly, then, is “heresy?” Irenaeus states, “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself.” Obadiah Sedgwick states, “The word “heresy” admits a threefold signification and use. 1) Sometimes it is taken for any new and select opinion, contrary to the common and usually-received opinions of other men; in which the word “heresy” may sometimes bear a good construction, Acts 24:14, “For after that which the Jews called heresy, did Paul worship the God of his fathers.” 2) Sometimes it is taken for any false opinion whatsoever, wherein a person recedes from any divine truth, and, thereby, creates division, sects, and contentions. 3) But strictly among divines, it is taken for some notorious, false, and perverse opinion, opposing and subverting the faith once delivered to the saints, as Jude says, or overthrowing the form of wholesome words, as Paul says.” It is the erroneous opinion, or falsum sentential or falsum dogma, which extends into matters of faith. “Heresy is usually a slight, though fatal, deviation from the orthodox view due to the heretics attempt to resolve a misunderstood or unacceptable element in the true view.” And it should also be noted that all heresies have been started, or at least have been encouraged, by pastors and scholars. Martin Luther gripes rightly, “If they were unreliable at a time when they were better, more learned, and more diligent, why shall we trust them now when they no longer even serve the church and have become secular lords? Do we insist on being blind?”
In the refutation of heresy, or expulsion of it from the church, there must be a careful balance between admonition to bring the apostate back to the fold in repentance, as well as the desire to purge the church of leaven that infects the whole lump. In this the church must be sure that they are not treating error as heresy. Those in error are people misinformed or ignorant in a certain teaching of a professing Christian that are not actually in accordance with Scripture. For example, Amillennialism, Postmillennialism and Premillennialism are three different views of eschatology. All of them cannot be right. Holding to one or the other in and of itself is not damning if one was to hold to the wrong view. It is not heresy to hold to Amillennialism if it wrong; it simply makes the Christian in error. Heresy, on the other hand, is damnable. It will send the one holding it to hell. It subverts the truth into eternal damnation by overthrowing the Gospel, or some other key and important doctrine – such as the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the person of Christ, salvation, good works, and the like. Heresy is something that destroys a fundamental truth of the Bible that cannot be taken away for the salvation of the Christian professor. There may be diverse opinions on the manner of preaching, or singing of certain songs during corporate worship, or perhaps the meaning of eschatology. But the difference between error and heresy must stand true – one is not the other, and the other will damn while the one will not. As the dictum has been attributed to both Augustine and Chrysostom, its truth is most essential, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials charity, in all things liberty.” However, once “heresy” has been Historically, Confessionally, and Scripturally established, there should be no question as to its expulsion from the church. As Obadiah Sedgwick states, “it should be noted, that to make the erroneous opinion to be heretical, it is necessary (as to the person who holds it) that he be a professed Christian.” This means that heresy resides in the church, and must be expelled from the church.
Obadiah Sedgwick, in a sermon given to Parliament in the 17th century, made a list of present heresies that were plaguing the church in his own day. Now it is important to note that in the age of orthodoxy (the 16th-17th century Reformation and Puritan influence) the pastors, divines, and scholars of the day believed these points to be of the utmost danger to the church, and blatantly heretical. They are as follows (this is their list):
1) The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament do not bind us Christians, not those of the New Testament either, and further than the Spirit (for the present) reveals unto us that such a place is the Word of God.
2) That God never loved one man more than another before the world, and that all the decrees are conditional.
3) That there is no original sin.
4) That the will of man is still free, even to supernaturals.
5) That the saints may fall totally and finally from grace.
6) That Christ died alike for all, yea, that his salvific virtue of His death extends to all the reprobates as well as the elect, yea, to the very devils as well as unto men.
7) That Jesus Christ came into the world not for satisfaction, but for publication; not to procure for us and to us the love of God, but only to be a glorious Publisher of the Gospel.
8) That God is not displeased at all if His children sin.
9) that sanctification is a dirty and dungy qualification.
10) That the doctrine of repentance is a soul destroying doctrine.
11) That fastings and humblings are legal and abominable.
12) That the souls of men are not immortal but mortal.
13) That there is no heaven to crown the godly and no hell to torment the ungodly.
14) That civil magistrate is anti-Christian, and but a usurpation.
15) That the whole ministry of the land, as to their present ordination is anti-Christian.
16) That it is as lawful to baptize cats and dogs and horses (which some have done for some of them, if not for all and more) as it is to baptize the infants of believers.
17) That there is not true ministry this day in all the world, nor was since the general apostasy which, they say, began since the death of the last of the Apostles.
- That there will be no ministry either until some apostles are raised up and sent; and, when those apostles come, then there will be true evangelists also, and pastors, and not until then.
These heresies are what they thought were damnable according to the truth given opposite to them in the Word of God. And so it may be asked, which churches and which denominations would still be left today if measured by the same rule of faith? If the historical church, reformers, scholars and pastors of the 16th-17th century imposed the Scriptural standards they had upon the church today, who would be left to stand? Tolerance, then, seems to be today’s standard, while conviction to Scriptural truth is a byword among “Evangelicals.” Sedgwick again states correctly, “Consider us as covenanting Christians. So we have, every one of us, bound our souls to God. Can any mortal creature release us? We have lifted up our hands to the Most High God in our several places to extirpate heresies and false doctrine.” There is no doubt that Sedgwick is referring to the Covenanting done by the divines and Parliament along with the Scottish Church under the Solemn League and Covenant. Yet, we find writers and preachers such as these battling the serpent’s merchandising while heretic after heretic rears his ugly head in modern Christendom without as much as word spoken to them, much less the threat of excommunication. Maybe it would do the Church good to come together again under a new Solemn League and Covenant? Ah – but that would press whole denominations to action, which, in contemporary culture, would seem most unseemly overall. It would be impossible that all denomination today agree since schism is the norm. Denominations would have to agree on the fundamentals of truth, when it is blatantly apparent that they have yet to agree with Sedgwick’s short list given above. In other words, historically ancient scholars, pastors and divines agreed that Gnosticism, Montanism, Patripassianism, Subordinationism, Monarchianism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Apollinarianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Arminianism, Finneyism, and a host of other “isms” were all heresies. How then can the church tolerate such today? What makes the church more tolerable than it was 250 years ago?
It is regrettable that Christians today cannot seem to take a strong stance on the doctrines that seemed to hold such convictions in earlier centuries. The Scriptures charge sin, perniciousness, and damnation upon heretics. Abstractly, people have no problem with saying that heretics are in fact heretics. But once people have to particularly point them out, such convictions fall apart. Such is the case with the New Perspectives on Paul and the like, or the Federal Vision, which have corrupted many in the last 15 years. Have the seminaries excluded them as heresies, or have they bought into them, or made room for them? Have ministers excommunicated them, or have they allowed them to transfer to new pulpits and new congregations? It is as if the serpent’s flood is overflowing upon the church afresh with old lies repackaged. Peter, as previously quoted, says that their damnation slumbers not (2 Peter 2:1-3). Paul says that such heresies shut people out of the Kingdom (Galatians 5:20-21). But for some reason, the Church will not shut them out of their fellowship! The Church seems to be forgetting that a man’s opinion makes him sinful, as well as his practice. Why, then, is heresy tolerated? And why does it take so long for the pastors and doctors of the church to do away with the wicked through the stated means of grace that includes the processes of excommunication? Have they forgotten that heresies are compared in Scripture to gangrene or cancer (2 Timothy 2:17)? Maybe they are simply ignorant of what cancer does to a man! Sometimes heresies are compared to a shipwreck (1 Timothy 1:19-20). Christ Himself calls heresy leaven, and Paul calls it bewitching. This writer calls it leprosy of the brain! Others call it a tempest overshadowing the church. Scripture again calls it merchandising the serpent’s wares (2 Peter 2:3). How much heresy is enough? Or rather, should there be a measure of grace and state it this way – the church is being careful to a fault. It is true, as Turretin rightly asserts, that heretics can be coerced, and have been coerced back to the truth. This everyone should pray. It would be far greater for a man who taught false doctrines and a false Gospel to be converted and to teach the truth. The Apostle Paul comes to mind. However, leniency at the expense of prudence is foolishness. George Swinnock rightly states, as a consequence, “If the poison be got into the glass, and you cannot wash it out, the poison and glass too is to be thrown into the sink.” We ought never to forget that it is “Christian wisdom to kill serpents, wolves, foxes, bears, and the like…Song of Solomon 2:15, “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, For our vines have tender grapes.”
Christ, Paul and Peter gave special attention to heretics. Mark 8:15, “Then He charged them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” Matthew 24:4-5, “And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.” Paul said in Philippians 3:2, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers.” Peter said in 2 Peter 3:17, “You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked.” Certainly, there is a grave danger in allowing heresy to fester. But the danger gives way to the destruction of many souls and the destruction of many men. Heresy is not just a danger to the church, subverting the faith, but is actually used by God to damn men. This should cause the church to reflect on what she is going in allowing heretics roam her halls. Is she so ignorant of the halls of Church History?
What ought the Christian church today do about heresy in the Church? Taking cue from John Owen, “That heresies and errors ought not to be tolerated; — that is, men ought not to connive at, or comply with, those ways and opinions which they are convinced to be false, erroneous, contrary to sound doctrine, and that form of wholesome words which is delivered unto us as (next unto Christ) the greatest treasure of our souls, — especially if credibly supposed to shake any fundamentals of the common faith; but with all their strength and abilities, in all lawful ways, upon every just call, to oppose, suppress, and overthrow them, — rote root them up and east them out, that they may not, as noxious weeds and tares, overgrow and choke the good corn, amongst which they are covertly scattered.” This may be well said in theory, but how, then, in practice is this upheld? He says, “Let, then, the Scriptures be searched, and all ways embraced which the gospel holdeth forth, for the discovering, convincing, silencing, reproving, confuting of errors and persons erring, by admonitions, reproofs, mighty Scripture convictions, evidencing of the truth, with fervent prayers to Almighty God, the God of truth, that he would give us one heart and one way; and if these weapons of our warfare do not prevail, we must let them know that one day their disobedience will be revenged with being cut off, and “cast out as unprofitable branches, fit to be cast into the fire.” This requires something that is often neglected in modern Christendom – study! Study of the Scriptures, study of historical theology, study of systematics, and study of church history should be, at the least, known in general by every pastor, scholar and teacher that associates themselves with the church. If such would have a simple cursory understanding of these subjects, most of the heresy in the church would be forcibly dispelled. Satan attacks the church with pernicious errors and heresies – with deformed words – and the church allows Satan’s helpers to preach in their pulpits, teach in their seminaries, and write books for publishing houses on theological topics. Where is the conviction of truth in all this? Thomas Adams calls heretics “monsters…in the wilderness.” These are men with drunken minds. The sin they propagate robs God of His truth. They are thieves who cause dissention in the church toward the weak minded that give into their pernicious errors. Adams lists the Brownists, papists, Cerinthus, Arius, Manicheans, Marcion, Nestorius and others among heresies in his own day and anciently. How many would the average Christian today be able to name?
Heresy should be expelled from the Church. No one disputes this, but few are able to act upon such a weak conviction of simply stating it. The church must be resolved to act. Witherspoon comments, “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject (Titus 3:10). Does not this suppose that it is possible for a man to be a heretic? Does not the apostle here ordain a sentence of expulsion to be passed against him, and after the pains taken to reclaim him appear to be fruitless? It is plain, therefore, that if charity be the same with forbearance, it must have limits for it everybody must be forborne then certainly nobody can be expelled.” Thus, the church must hold up the standard of the truth and fall back upon the Word. Expulsion and censure is outlined well in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In chapter thirty it states:
- The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.
- Isa. 9:6-7; Col. 1:18; 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Acts 20:17, 28; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; Eph. 4:11-12; I Cor. 12:28; Matt. 28:18-20; John 18:36
- To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.
- Matt. 16:19; 18:17-18; John 20:21-23; 2 Cor. 2:6-8
III. Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.
- 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 11:27-34; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:20; Matt. 7:6; Jude 1:23
- For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.
- 1 Thess. 5:12; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; 1 Cor. 5:4-5, 13; Matt. 18:17; Titus 3:10
The Westminster Confession of Faith is quite helpful in the over arching understanding of how to deal with one who is like the “leaven which might infect the whole lump.” The keys of the Kingdom of God (the power of the keys) were given to church offices, which regulate the life of the church by proper discipline. Discipline begins with a simple admonition. It may grow into a rebuke, suspension of the offender from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper known as lesser excommunication, and greater excommunication that is deliverance over to Satan and a loosing from the church. The Confession calls it a “crime” to have come to that state in the church. Such crimes are not to be tolerated except for the admonitions granted as scriptural warrant. Otherwise, the intention is to deliver such people over “to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:20).” Could it be that divines of our own day, if any existed, would say with such resolve that such men should be thrown the sanctuary of the church into the devil’s arms? Williams Ames once said, “And these may be those white Devils that would appear in the shape of Angels of light, whilst indeed secretly and inwardly they are nothing else but fiends of darkness.” Is this the opinion of such men today? Heresy abounds unscathed, so, to answer the question, apparently not.
What might officers and Christians do to fight the white devils that abound and sow the seeds that bring swift destruction? Simply, flee to the truth and hold fast to that which has been taught in the Scriptures by the church for thousands of years. Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus says the LORD: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls.” The old paths or the old teachings of truth and righteousness are the only cure for novel treatises of white devils. Run to the Scriptures so eminently explained in the creeds and confessions of the church. Doctrine is not new and novel, it is tried and true. It is set down and ready for the saints to reap a harvest. It is not reinvented every generation, but passed down from one to another. It is not improved on, but more readily understood. Hold fast to the truth. By truth, and do not sell it. Scholars, pastors and doctors should be masters at the truth of the Word. They should not “give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith (1 Timothy 1:4). Instead, they ought to be “established in the faith (Colossians 2:7),” “grounded…and…not moved (Colossians 1:23),” “steadfast (1 Peter 5:9),” “sound” (Titus 1:13),” having “great boldness (1 Timothy 3:13),” that it may be said of them that they “watch, stand fast [are] brave, [and are] strong (1 Corinthians 16:13) in the Word.
Also, the church must be reminded that the ministry of Christ as Intercessor to His church is a great remedy against heresy since those appealing to His judgment seat and which have authority to excommunicate may bind and loose by Christ’s power. Richard Vines says of church officers, these serve “to preserve the people from being blown with every corrupt doctrine unto preservation.” So the Scriptures certainly speak to church officers in this way, as in Matthew 18:18, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Greek is to “forbid” and “allow.” Such excommunication done in accord with divine prescription will purge leaven from amidst the church. This is the duty of the of the church, and should not be done lightly, but also not be a means of procrastination.
Ephesians 4:14-15, “…that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ.”
The French Confession Article XXXIII.
However, we reject all human inventions, and all laws which men may introduce under the pretense of serving God, by which they wish to bind consciences; and we receive only that which conduces to concord and holds all in obedience, from the greatest to the least. In this we must follow that which the Lord Jesus Christ declared as to excommunication, which we approve and confess to be necessary with all its antecedents and consequences.
- Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Cor. 3:11; Col. 2:6-8; Gal. 5:1
- Matt. 18:17; I Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:9-10
The Second Helvetic Confession – Chapter XVII
Of the Catholic and Holy Church of God, and of The One Only Head of The Church
We Must Not Judge Rashly of Prematurely. Hence we must be very careful not to judge before the time, nor undertake to exclude, reject or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected, and those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church. On the other hand, we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the Church.
The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article XXXII
The Order and Discipline of the Church
In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And therefore we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with all that pertains to it, according to the Word of God.
The Canons of Dort, Conclusion
…bring to the truth those who err; shut the mouths of the calumniators of sound doctrine, and endue the faithful ministers of his Word with the spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all their discourses may tend to the glory of God, and the edification of those who hear them. Amen.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 13: Luther’s works, vol. 13 : Selected Psalms II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ps 101:5). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
 Thomas Adams, Works, vol 2, (Tanski Publications, Eureka: 1998) 160.
 John Knox, Selected Writings of John Knox, (Presbyterian Heritage Publications, Dallas: 1995), page 354.
 Richard Vines, The Authors, Nature, and Danger of Heresy, (London, np: 1662) 20.
 See the Geneva Bible notes for 2 Peter 2:3, 1599 edition.
Luther, M. (1999, c1955). Vol. 12: Luther’s works, vol. 12 : Selected Psalms I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ps 26:2). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House. As he himself pointed out in his sermons on Matthew 21 from the year 1538, Luther learned this epigram from St. Augustine; it appears in an even earlier form in Tertullian, De baptismo, 17.
 Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 95 (Vol. 95, Page 84). Dallas Theological Seminary.
 Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1984), 2.
 Thomas Adams, Works, vol 1, (Tanski Publications, Eureka: 1998), 410.
 Jonathan Edwards, Works, Sermon: Man’s Natural blindness in the Things of Religion, Banner of Truth Trust.
 Jonathan Edwards, Works, vol 2, Sermon: Wicked men Inconsistent with Themselves, (Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle: 1992).
 John Calvin, Commentary on Titus 3:10, page 58.
 Journal of Christian Apologetics Volume 1 (Vol. 1, Page 29). Michigan Theological Seminary, (1997;2002).
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies , 1.8.1 and 1.9.4.
 Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 7. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 246
 Obadiah Sedgwick, The Doubting Believer, Appendix: The Nature and Danger of Heresies, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Page 180.
 Journal of Christian Apologetics Volume 1 (Vol. 1, Page 45). Michigan Theological Seminary (1997;2002).
 Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium , 2.
 Westminster Theological Journal Volume 57 (Vol. 57, Page 398). Westminster Theological Seminary. (1995;2002).
 Polycarp, epistle 8.
 Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, page 19.
 Journal of Christian Apologetics Volume 1 (Vol. 1, Page 30-31). Michigan Theological Seminary (1997;2002)..
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.2
 Obadiah Sedgwick, The Doubting Believer, Appendix: The Nature and Danger of Heresies, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Page 178.
Journal of Christian Apologetics Volume 1 (Vol. 1, Page 39). Michigan Theological Seminary (1997;2002).
Luther, M. (1999, c1958). Vol. 32: Luther’s works, vol. 32 : Career of the Reformer II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 32, Page 9). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
 Sedgwick, 182.
 Sedgwick, 205.
 Sedgwick, 186.
 Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 3, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 328-329.
 George Swinnock, The Works of George Swinnock, Banner of Truth Trust, Page 218.
 Swinnock, Works, 219.
 John Owen, Works, vol 8, 58.
 Thomas Adams, Works, vol 1, (Tanski Publications, Eureka: 1998) 178.
 John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon, vol 4, (Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg: 2004) 56.
 William Ames, The Saint’s Security against Seducing Spirits, Sermon, original MSS, (London, Printed by M. Simmons:1651) 5.
 Richard Vines, The Imposters of Seducing Teachers Discovered, (London, np: 1644) 3.