Recognizing False Teachers

Text: 1 Timothy 4:1-5

We can’t tell a false teacher by how they look or how well they know the Bible. Most often, false teachers look like you and me. We won’t be able to tell them by their appearance or even their demeanor. Jesus said we will know them by their fruit, by what they teach and how they live (Matthew 7:15-20).

It’s the job of the pastors to guard the flock against wolves and to warn against false teachers. But every Christian needs to be on guard. We all need to know the difference between the true gospel and a different gospel, between godly leaders and wolves in sheep’s clothing.

That’s one of the main reasons Paul writes this letter to Timothy – to help the Christians in Ephesus (and to help the church today) to confront the false teachers and be anchored in the truth.

1. False teachers don’t surprise the Holy Spirit.

[4:1] Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith…

God knew false teachers will come, but He warned the church many times (2 Peter 2:1, 1 Tim 6:3-5, 1 John 4:1, Jude 18-19). Paul is telling Timothy, “Remember, God warned us. The Spirit expressly, or clearly, told us this would happen. He’s not surprised. He wanted us to be prepared.”

And then we see the tragic results of these false teachers on themselves and the church when we says “some will actually depart from the faith”. This reminds us how urgent, how important it is to know the truth and guard the gospel tenaciously.

We know from many other places in Scripture that if a person is genuinely saved, they can never be unsaved. Whom the Son has set free is free indeed. Jesus never loses one of His elect. The one who saves you is the one who keeps you. God is sovereign in salvation – we know this to be true, and we hold it dear.

So what does it mean that some will fall away from the faith? It means there are people who attend church every Sunday, who call themselves Christians, but are not. It means that some who say they believe in God or who have repeated a sinner’s prayer or who may be a member of a church, some of those people are not saved.

Enter the false teacher. Knowingly or unknowingly, when one begins to downplay the authority of Scripture, when a person begins departing from the explicit teachings of the Bible in this area or that, and when we begin listening to and trusting teachers who are doing the same, we are on the slippery slope of departing from the faith altogether.

God warned us this would happen. This does not surprise the Holy Spirit. So it should not surprise us. We should be prepared.

2. False teachers are doing Satan’s work.

Paul says in v. 1, “some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons…”

That takes away all ambiguity. There are only two sides – God or the devil. We are either following Christ, or we are devoted to the devil. And this describes the false teacher as well as those who follow his teaching: They have the appearance of a Christian, but a heart that has been captured by Hell.

[4:2] through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,

Some know their false teachers and just don’t care. Maybe they grew up in the church. Maybe they knew the truth at one time, but the riches of the world became too tempting. They know better, but are deliberately leading people astray, presumably for personal gain (money, power, honor, etc).

You and I could say, “How do they do it and sleep at night?” Paul just told us. Their consciences are seared. That literally means “seared with a hot iron” – it’s where we get the word “cauterized” from. Their hearts are cauterized scar tissue. Some commentators believe this means they have been branded by Satan, his mark of ownership on their souls.

And this doesn’t apply only to false teachers. This can describe anyone who knows the truth, but we constantly resist or ignore the truth. Eventually, if we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit long enough, we will stop hearing Him. We will stop feeling God’s presence.

Thankfully we don’t have to keep going that direction. We can turn. We can repent and trust in Christ. We can call out to Him and He is quick to faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

[4:3] who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

These are forms of asceticism – self-denial or self-punishment, abstaining from things as a measure of your salvation. In this case, these false teachers were telling Christians it’s a sin to get married, probably because they were trying to teach that sex is wrong and fleshly, as well as there are certain foods that for Christians would be a sin to eat. Measuring salvation by outward works instead of by grace through faith in Christ is not the gospel. It is a doctrine of devils.

3. False teaching is exposed with the truth of the Gospel.

The rest of verse 3 says these good things like marriage and food, that the false teachers were forbidding, were things “…that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”

When we believe and know the truth – the truth of Scripture, what the Bibles teaches – when we know the good news of the gospel and believe it, then we will be armed with the truth as a firm foundation that we can stand on, that we hold to, that is unshakable, that is trustworthy.

That’s why we want to be a people of the Book – a church that anchors all we teach and believe and live in the truth of the Bible, so that we will honor God, so that will enjoy his good gifts, and so that we can combat false teaching, for our own spiritual growth and to help others grow as well.

[4:4] For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, [5] for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Marriage, and sex inside the covenant of marriage, are gifts from God. Food is a gift and should be received as such. All of God’s gifts in this life should be received with thanksgiving, with a heart of gratitude to God.

To be made “holy” means to consecrate, to sanctify and set apart. For these good gifts to be made “holy by the word of God” could be a couple of things: It could be pointing to the Genesis account of creation. God made everything, and with His own word declared everything “good”. And it could also mean the Christian who submits to the Bible and submits their hearts in prayer, we will recognize marriage and food and friendship or whatever blessing in this life, as a gift from God and give him thanks. We will set apart these gifts – not as an end of themselves, but as a reminder and as a means to give God glory.


As a church, we must be prepared to recognize and combat false teaching – whether it comes from someone on television, or from someone in your own church. And to be prepared, we don’t have to know all the false doctrine out there. We just need to know the truth.

So let’s focus our lives on the gospel. Let’s be in Scripture together – on Sundays as well as all through the week – not just to spot what is not the gospel, but so that we can rejoice and celebrate and grow in the glorious truth of who Jesus is, and what He’s done, and give Him all the praise.

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