This is the conclusion to a series exploring the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was the main source of heresy in New Testament times. The Apostles' writings in John, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Jude, and 1 John all combat various elements of it.
The philosophy of the Gnostics is re-emerging today, and it doesn't look that much different from the Gnosticism in the former days, either. It is a wide-ranging philosophy, with different aspects appearing in Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age, Liberal Christianity, Catholicism, Wicca, Psychology, and many other false religions and secular practices. However, there is a set of main elements that do regularly appear in Gnosticism. They are:
1. secret knowledge,
3. depreciation of Christ (lowering Him in name and in glory),
4. strict rule-keeping, ceremonies, or rituals
5. worship of angels,
6. and reliance on human wisdom and traditions
In my opinion, the most telling element is the promotion of secret knowledge. After all, Gnosis means knowledge.
"Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up." (1 Cor 8:1). Strong's explains the word knowledge as used here, "Gnostics boasted of their "applied knowledge" gained by their personal spiritual experiences – and it was (is) disastrous!" Gnosticism is literally, "the cult based on having special, personal knowledge."
Many people today boast they have personal knowledge gained directly from God, and they have been charged with sharing it. Even some so-called reformed or Southern Baptist teachers, preachers and authors do this in these apostate days. There is no religious corner, no denomination, no church that is free from the possibility of this infection.
Such false doctrine will spread like gangrene, as Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:16-17. Gangrene spreads fast. If you believe that your church can withstand a false teaching once it has infected, Paul's deliberate use of the word gangrene via inspiration of the Holy Spirit should shake that notion right from your head.
The Spirit didn't say false teaching is like leprosy, or like influenza, or like syphilis. He said gangrene. So what are the properties of a gangrenous infection?
First, the medical definition states, "Gangrene is the death of tissue in part of the body." We know the global born-again church is a body. Jesus uses the metaphor of us being the body and He being the head. (Colossians 1:18). Gangrene is literally the death of some of the living tissue. How much gangrene does it take to kill living tissue? A pinprick. Further, gangrene is described as occurring when the affected tissue loses its blood supply. In the metaphor, when a person is apart from Jesus they do not have His blood covering, washing them clean from sin. The wages of sin is death, and gangrene is a disease that kills if left unattended.
Third, gangrene spreads fast. If you have been reading about the 'new' flesh-eating bacteria that has killed several people, this disease is really a form of gangrene. Within a day or so of the infections' spread, large amounts of tissue must be excised in order to save the body. So in continuing the metaphor, if the infectious doctrine is not excised immediately, it will spread like a toxic wildfire and consume the flesh of all who absorb it.
The most famous recent example of this is the sermon Pastor Jim Murphy of First Baptist Church of Johnson City NY last July. One blogger summed up his sermon this way,
clearly traces the disintegration of Christianity and its falling away
from the truth of the gospel and into more and more error through
history – from the attacks on the authority of scripture in the late
1940s, through 1960s liberalism, to modern day mysticism and
contemplative spirituality. But in the final ten minutes of the message
it becomes crystal clear that this is not mere academics for Pastor
Murphy, he is brokenhearted by the error he sees within his own church
body and frustrated by the lack of discernment which is due entirely to
people not knowing and studying the Bible."
In his sermon, Pastor
Murphy said, "I'm here to ask your forgiveness. I expressed my concerns
along the way in several areas but there were some things that I heard
and saw that I was not comfortable with and I thought well, let’s just
roll with this. It may be not that bad."
that bad. Pastor Jim lamented that left unattended, the vines of false
doctrine began choking their church library, the teaching curricula used
in Sunday School, and eventually infected the minds and hearts of those
in his congregation. They were being strangled by the kudzu tendrils of
mysticism, gnosticism, paganism and every other -ism inching their way
around their necks, stifling the life out of them. Pr. Murphy said he
was rooting all that stuff out, and he was starting right then. I wrote
about him and his sermon, The Subtlety of Satan, here, and here.
We started this series by mentioning the first Gnostic, satan, and his deception in the Garden. We end with it too. MacArthur said in his sermon The Danger of False Teaching,
"The people of God have always been plagued with false doctrine. The invasion of false prophets, false teachers, false apostles, false Christs has been something which the people of God have endured through all the ages of time. Satan attempts to oversow the truth with lies. He attempts to confuse the world so that they cannot perceive the truth of God by drowning them in a sea of deceit. It was Satan's evil intended and clever misrepresentation of truth to Eve that plunged the whole of the human race into sin."
People all want to be 'in the know.' The quest for secret knowledge is alluring, hence the success of satan in the Garden, and the success of Gnostics around the world. Yet what did the LORD say?
He says “the secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)
For example, John the Revelator was caught up to heaven and shown the things of the Day of the Lord. We know this as the book of Revelation. Because the Lord showed John, told John to write these things down, and they are now in the bible, we are supposed to know them. (Revelation 1:1-3). As a matter of fact, a person who hears the things in Revelation and takes them to heart is blessed. Therefore, we do not need to run after modern day prophets or Neo-Gnostics who claim they have an additional word to share, or a special prophecy about the end time, or have had a visit to heaven and must now tell others. I'd much rather stick with the promised blessing Jesus gave than some internet person or Christian celebrity who says he had an experience that is as authoritative as divine revelation.
Secondly: as to the secret knowledge, what is secret is secret! Even though John was given a thoroughly detailed prophecy, there is still a secret in Revelation.
"And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down." (Revelation 10:4)
If it is secret, it belongs to God. If it is revealed in the bible, it is for us to know. Period. How rebellious it is to continue to seek what is God's!
I hope this series has illuminated to you the importance of seeking knowledge from Whom the one who has all knowledge. His knowledge does not puff up, but instead awes us and humbles us. The truth is in the Word, not a person's experience ... not secret knowledge privately gained (2 Peter 2:20), not an emotional response to an event. At root, Gnosticism is a self-religion, and isn't that exactly what the first lie is, anyway? Hath God said...? indicating that his word is not sufficent and we must do other things to gain the knowledge that will make us be like Him. (Genesis 3:4-5).
How wrongheaded this is!
If someone tells you they have the secret key to anything regarding God, run in the other direction. We are not God and no amount of secret information will make us be like Him. The saving knowledge is only repentance and trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus is, and that's the Gospel truth.
For further study related to this topic:
What Is Spiritual Formation and Why Does It Matter?
John MacArthur on Spiritual Formation and Biblical Sanctification
The Steps of Biblical Sanctification
The Importance of Careful Bible Study
The Pitfalls of Biblical (Mis)Interpretation, Part 1
Pastor Jim Murphy's sermon The Subtlety of Satan
Previous Gnosticism entries:
Part 1: Secret Knowledge
Part 2: Asceticism
Part 3: Depreciation of Jesus
Part 4: Ceremonies & Rituals
Part 5: Worship of Angels
Part 6: Human traditions