It was Sunday morning, and we were at church listening to a guest speaker. I appreciate that our pastor brings in speakers from other churches; one person can’t possibly cover every topic with excellence. However, in this case, the speaker was preaching popular psychology rather than Biblical truth. And I was getting agitated.
I tried to pinpoint exactly what the speaker was saying that was bothering me. I finally realized—instead of being centered on loving Jesus, the sermon was all about loving ourselves. And while I’m sure some people put themselves down, the solution isn’t to focus more on ourselves, but rather to get our eyes off ourselves and onto the God who loves us unconditionally.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed in that week’s message. The following Sunday, without naming names or referring to the last week’s guest, our pastor spent some time on “how to recognize sound theology.” I bet I know one speaker who won’t be invited back.
So how do you discern between truth and error? According to our pastor, a Godly message (or book or article) should compel us to:
- know Jesus and follow Him.
- love people who are different than we are.
- serve others.
- be generous.
Those are definitely all things God wants us to do, although we’re unlikely to hear all of them in one sermon. Sermons should preach Jesus, first and foremost; without Jesus, is the sermon even Christian? And sermons should preach what Jesus preached, that we love God, primarily by loving one another.
The list is good, gut I think it’s inadequate. Why? Well, for one example, even prosperity preachers want us to be generous—toward them! That’s why Pete and I add four more considerations that we have found extremely helpful over the years.
The first is what Pete calls his “Bangladesh test.” Will the sermon’s content apply equally well in Bangladesh (or any other place that has a culture and economic status different from that in the prosperous West)? Keep in mind that God’s truth is universal, not dependent on a particular standard of living. Unsurprisingly, prosperity preachers fail this test.
Next, examine your motives. Do you want to hear the truth—or do you prefer to hear something that makes you feel good, even if it’s not true? Do you want teaching that gives you permission to do something you want to do, even if God already said no? Or will you obey God even when it’s hard?
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
The third is to be a Berean. Acts 17:11 reads,
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Like the Bereans, we should verify what we hear against what we read in the Bible. If we’re familiar with what Scripture actually says, we’ll know when something doesn’t sound quite right. God doesn’t contradict Himself.
Finally, read about the Gibeonite deception in Joshua 9. The Gibeonites lived in the path of Joshua and his conquering army. Fearful of what was coming, they sought to make a treaty with the Israelites that would save their lives. And since God had commanded Joshua not to make treaties with the neighboring tribes, the Gibeonites pretended to have come from far away, wearing worn-out sandals and filling their saddlebags with dry and moldy bread.
Joshua was taken in by the deception. Note verse 14: “The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord” (italics mine).
Why was Joshua deceived? He didn’t ask God to reveal the truth. How can we avoid being deceived by things that sound nice but that will lead us away from God? It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to help us discern truth from error.