In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul shot some piercing words at those who preached another gospel. He said, “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” In order to make sure he was understood, he said it again: “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse” (Galatians 1:8-9)!
When a word or phrase is repeated in Scripture, it means we must pay special attention. Something very important is being shared.
Paul was deeply concerned about the hijacking of the gospel message. He labored intensely for the gospel amongst the Galatians; yet, everything he had sown was under attack.
The New Testament is replete with warnings against false beliefs and those who advocate them. Some examples include teachings about false prophets (Matthew 7:15-16; 24:11), false messiahs (Matthew 24:5; Mark 13:22), a different Jesus or spirit (2 Corinthians 11:4), false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), and, as our text above describes, “another gospel” (Galatians 1:8).
The reality of other gospels is no less threatening for us today than it was in Paul’s day. Some people falsely assume they are Christians because their faith tradition has the title in its name even though it teaches things contrary to sound, biblical doctrine. Therefore, how can we be sure a religious group is aligned with the clear teachings of Scripture? How can we spot a cult or counterfeit gospel?
A Definition and Two Helpful Questions
The ESV Study Bible has a great definition of cults in its section “The Bible and Religious Cults.” It claims a cult is “any religious movement that claims to be derived from the Bible and/or the Christian faith, and that advocates beliefs that differ so significantly with major Christian doctrines that two consequences follow: (1) The movement cannot legitimately be considered a valid “Christian” denomination because of its serious deviation from historic Christian orthodoxy. (2) Believing the doctrines of the movement is incompatible with trusting in the Jesus Christ of the Bible for the salvation that comes by God’s grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9).”
One great way to determine whether or not a group or message is cultic is by asking the question, “What do they believe about Jesus?”
Historic Christianity is based on a very specific message. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus was God’s only Son our Lord and “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
If a group or person claims Christ was not conceived by the Holy Spirit, physically lived, died, and rose again, they cannot be considered “Christian.” I think the same should be said about anyone who disagrees with the his physical return.
Take a look at Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believe Jesus was created by Jehovah as the archangel Michael and is a lesser, though mighty, god. Biblically, however, there has never been a point when Jesus didn’t exist (John 1:1; 8:58). Also, he possesses the exact same divine nature as the Father (John 5:18; 10:30; Hebrews 1:3). In fact, Jesus claimed to be God, a belief that got him killed by the religious leaders of his day.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also believe that the second coming of Christ was an invisible, spiritual event that occurred in the year 1914. Biblically, however, the second coming of Jesus will be seen by all because he will return the same way he ascended (Acts 1:11). Not only will his return be physical and visible (Titus 2:13), but it will be accompanied by visible cosmic disturbances (Matthew 28:9; John 20:17).
Many more comparisons could be made, of course. The point is that the person and work of Jesus as articulated in the Bible is the best way to determine whether or not a group has cultic beliefs.
Another great question to ask when trying to spot a cult is: “How is a person saved?”
Some cults believe that people are saved by ceasing to believe in sin, sickness, and death. Others, such as Mormonism, believe that “God gives to (virtually) everyone a general salvation to immortal life in one of the heavenly kingdoms… belief in Christ is necessary only to obtain passage to the highest, celestial kingdom.” Again, Biblically speaking, salvation is found by faith in Christ alone (John 3:15-16; Ephesians 2:8-9). Also, all believers are promised eternal life in the presence of Jesus (Matthew 5:3-8; John 14:1-3; Revelation 21:3-7).
It’s likely you know someone who belongs to a major cult such as Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. My advice when interacting with such people is to be kind. It’s possible, I think, that they know little about their faith tradition. How many professing Christians do you know who lack biblical insight? Some people who buy into cults may not realize their denomination’s departure from clear, biblical doctrine. If they do, being combative will likely fail to enlighten them with truth but, rather, cause them to double down in their position and avoid interaction with you.
Speak truth when possible and cloak your words in grace. Yes, they need to know they are in error for the salvation of their soul; yet, grace mixed with truth can go further than browbeating. Also, never stop praying for them to know the truth. God is faithful and mighty to save.