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Gospel Imposters: Self-Centric Sprirituality

Dr. Jon Morrissette - 10/14/2018

Take a look at these verses in Colossians 2:6-7: “So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude”.

These past few weeks we’ve been talking about gospel imposters—those things that can sneak into our lives and steal our joy of salvation. The whole basis for our relationship with God is His own mercy and grace. For example, we wouldn’t even know God if he didn’t take the initiative to make Himself known. You might “sense” the reality of God’s eternal power dipping your toe in the ocean, peering into the night sky, or feeling the power of a storm front. You might “sense” the reality of God’ divine nature, seeing how tenderly he cares for the sparrow, or causes the sun to rise/rain to fall on the righteous/ unrighteous. But we’re it not for God taking the initiative, there’s no way we’d truly know God… certainly not in a personal way.

The First Gospel Imposter the Apostle Paul warns us about is Highly-Speculative Philosophy. This is what Colossians 2:8 is all about: “Be careful that no one takes you captive through hollow philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elementary forces of the world, and not based on Christ.”

Philosophy began in the Garden of Eden. There, God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve. In love, he walked with them, spoke to them, and commanded them concerning eternal life. But along comes the Serpent. The Serpent was the world’s first philosopher. With deceptive charm, he usurped God’s authority, led Eve astray, and then also Adam. Only after they were taken captive did they feel the sting of sin, that is death. How were they taken captive? By a thought, the idea, they could be like God.

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 perfectly describes the battle. Paul says, “For although we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh. . . We demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” The battle is fundamentally philosophical. It’s “thoughts/ideas” that take us captive, then enslave us, then destroy us. That’s what make the struggle so hard… the imposters aren’t flesh/blood people. It’s people’s opinions, judgements, ideas, ideologies, traditions, subjective viewpoints, art, lyrics, feelings, personal sentiments, speculations, godless presuppositions.

In Ephesians 4:14-15 Paul’s concern is that “. . . we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. We’ve got to engage ideas, and engage one another, with the truth. Otherwise we’re in a world of trouble.

The Second Gospel Imposter the Apostle Paul warns us about is Works-Based Religion. Again, the whole basis for our relationship with God is His own mercy and grace. Paul speaks with such crystal clarity about the nature of our salvation. In Colossians 1:19-23 he says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. 21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.”

When it comes to salvation, God is always the subject… He is the initiator, the primary actor, the reconciler, the peacemaker, the Savior, the rescuer, the redeemer, the gardener who roots/prunes, the builder who establishes us, the Lawgiver/Judge who justifies us by his own righteousness. Colossians 1:13-14, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

But along comes religion, to pervert the gospel. Religion makes you the subject, the chief actor, the hero. Religion shines the spotlight on you. Salvation is no longer what God has D-O-N-E, but becomes all about what you D-O. No longer must you repent, and bow before the God of the Universe, and thank him for such a great salvation… rather God should bow before you, and thank you, and salute you.

Colossians 2:9-17 Paul just doesn’t stop. He’s relentless… “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. . . 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

In regard to salvation God is the subject, and we are the beneficiaries. Our confidence isn’t in what we can do for ourselves, but in what God has done. In Christ Jesus God rescues us, redeems us, forgives us, raises us, justifies, sanctifies, completes his work in us, glorifies us. Colossians 2:16-17 Paul says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Let’s be careful to always keep the spotlight on Christ’s finished work on the cross.

The third gospel imposter is “Self-Centric Spirituality.” In Colossians 2:18-19 Paul warns, “Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. [Such a person] doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God.”

There is nothing more trendy today that Self-Centric Spirituality. In Philosophy, you have people speculating about knowledge. In Religion, you have people boasting about their religious works. In Self-Centric Spirituality, you have people touting their experiences. Spiritual experiences come in all shapes and sizes.

Earlier this year I was listening to a high-profile pastor in America. No, it wasn’t Joel Osteen! You’ll never guess! This pastor was explaining how, while he was praying, he heard a “word” directly from God. The word might have been “endurance” or “faithfulness” or something like that. But he believed God was telling him to focus upon this one thing for the whole year. Now I’m not sure if he meant he literally, audibly, heard this word from God? I’m not sure whether God’s Spirit imprinted this word in his subconscious, and he just kind of latched onto it? But whether intentionally, or unintentionally, he was conveying that he was somehow receiving a direct “word” from God. Recently someone asked, “Jon, why don’t I hear some word like that from God?”

Arguably, that’s a pretty harmless assertion…I think this pastor was just talking in a roundabout way, and really just meant that God’s Spirit had impressed upon him the need for perseverance, or whatever. Through the years, I’ve known a number of pastors who claimed to have heard sentences/paragraphs from the Lord. And what they were hearing didn’t seem congruent with God’s Word at all. In fact, it seemed contradictory, it seemed manipulative. Was this person really hearing from God? Were they just trying to bully their way forward? We’re they trying to silence their critics? We’re they feeling threatened by those asking questions, trying to discern God’s Spirit?

Several years back we had a man show up at Lakeside, who immediately started “ministering” to people. I knew of this man, because in another church he attended, things went really bad. He created terrible division and strife, and turned people against that church’s leaders. When asked about this, his explanation was that he had the “spiritual gift of confrontation.” I’d never heard of that spiritual gift. But not only did he have the gift of confrontation, he claimed to have ALL of the Spiritual Gifts mentioned in the Bible. He was quite the provocative conversationalist. He was so engaging and interesting. He went to Bible College. He’d spent his life in ministry. He claimed God spoke to him. He claimed to have worked all sorts of miracles. He was continually having vivid dreams and visions, in which God would share his special knowledge/insight.

Even though I knew about this man, I was alarmed at how quickly he gained influence with people. Before long he had worked his way into teaching a Sunday School class, and a small group, and ministering to newcomers. He was a handful. Jay Brooks and I met with him several times, because of all the confusion he was causing. We bluntly asked him to stick to the Bible and stop talking about all the other garbage. Pretty soon he started taking advantage of people financially.

One day I came into the office and found a shoebox in front of my door. The Unabomber had been caught, so I took my chances and opened the box. It contained some cryptic message scrawled on a piece of paper and supper creepy object lesson. So, I setup a meeting with, set the box on the table, and asked him to explain. He went into this elaborate explanation of some dream or vision he had, and how our leaders had the spirit of Jezebel, and we were trying to put the Holy Spirit in the box (in the box he had a Kleenex box with a Kleenex in it… and the Kleenex was to symbolize the Holy Spirit that we’d put in the box.). God told him how he was about to be persecuted for speaking up.

The main thing I remember from the conversation was his prophecy that I would die before the end of the year! I’d never had anyone say anything like that to me before! I asked him to clarify, and he wasn’t mincing words. So, I went to the Bible and read the passage in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 where God says, “When a prophet speaks in the Lord’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.” I also point out Deuteronomy 18:20 where God says, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a message in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.’”

Then I looked him in the eye and said: “If what you are saying doesn’t come to pass, and if I happen to still be alive after the New Year, am I then to conclude that not only are a false-prophet but that you also stand condemned?” He nodded yes. Lara was quite relieved that New Year’s Day when I got up out of bed. The guy was a total fraud. We asked him to leave the church and stop contacting our people.

Recently there was a young man from Africa who was making his way through our churches. One ministry even gave him a summer position, teaching young people. Nobody sat down with the guy to understand what he really believed. When I sat down with him, he started claiming all sort of special knowledge, and went into vivid detail about various demons he was seeing, and boy if he didn’t have a name for everyone one of them. I opened up a Bible and set it in front of them. I asked him to explain how everything he was seeing meshed with God’s Word. He couldn’t do it.

Over the past few years a whole spat of books and movies have come out about after-death experiences. There are so many! But the gist of the accounts is that someone dies (a child, a doctor, etc.). They leave their body and follow a bright light. They look down and see their body on the operating table, with loved one’s weeping. They go to heaven and see angels, or Jesus, or various loved ones, and then when they return to earth, they become best-selling authors! We Christians eat this stuff up!

Right now, I have a close relative who was a Christian. He had a near-death experience but was resuscitated after a heart failure. Ever since that day he’s been posting selfies on Facebook where he is staring up into the sky, with a glazed look in his eyes. And the caption is always something to the effect of, “Oh my, if only you could see what I see, this is such an amazing gift.”

What’s the deal with all these self-centric Spiritual Experiences? Are they real or imagined? Do they have a special channel with God that no one else has? Are they more special, more anointed, more spiritual, more open, more whatever than the rest of us? Or, is the person just misspeaking? Are they exaggerating? Are they sane? Are they emotionally disturbed? Is there mental illness at play? Is there some drug or narcotic in their system? Is the person just seeking attention? Are they trying to elevate themselves? Are they being deceptive, lying, trying to manipulate, trying to gain authority over naïve people? Are they evil? Are they being deceived by a demon?

Listen to what Paul says: “Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. [Such a person] doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God.”

The bottom line with spiritual experience is don’t let people take you for a ride. In time you’ll always recognize a tree by its fruit. At the top of the chapter the Apostle Paul gives us some great advice, and we’d do well to take it. Colossians 2:6-7: “So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.” *My hope is rooted in Jesus, and his words. Not your experience, or your words. Thanks, but no thanks! God’s Word is sufficient.

2 Timothy 3:13-17: “Evil people and impostors will become worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, 15 and you know that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Scripture Verses

Colossians 2:18-19; Colossians 2:6-7; 2 Timothy 3:13-17

Study Questions

  1. Read Colossians 2:18-19. What danger does Paul warn about in 2:18 that may cheat Christians of their reward? What kinds of counterfeit spirituality do we see in our culture today.
  2. What is false humility? Explain how someone could be puffed up even while professing to be humble. What is an example of you you've struggled with this?
  3. How might human doctrines or special experiences harm our relationship to Jesus? What does the head do for the body? Why is it important to hold fast to Christ?
  4. How do we avoid spiritual false steps and hold on to Christ the head? (See John 14:6-7; Ephesians 1:20-23; Colossians 2:19).
  5. The Colossians faced gospel imposters. What gospel imposters do we face today? How do we protect ourselves from them? (See 1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 4:1-6.)
  6. How might you help someone you believe might be caught up in a false gospel?
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