Escaping the Tragic Trap Of Our Treacherous Enemy!
Have You Been Deceived?
Have you been deceived? Consider whether you, personally, have been deceived in life!
- The persuasive televangelist convinces thousands of faithful followers to send him money as a sign of their trust in God—only to be later exposed by the media as a charlatan.
- The charming gentleman claiming to be a bank official convinces a widow to withdraw her life savings and give them to him—but later is convicted as a swindler.
- The desperate, suffering cancer patient flies to Germany in search of a “miracle” cure for his disease—but soon he succumbs to his illness after he has lost $25,000 for an ineffective, “quack” treatment.
- A teenage girl yields to the persuasive talk of the young boyfriend who affirms his lifelong love for her—but later she becomes pregnant and soon discovers that his words were empty and deceptive promises.
These and other examples of deception could be discussed at great length. However cruel and damaging these cases may be, there is an even greater example of deception that has eternal consequences: spiritual deception!
God will eternally banish countless people from His presence on the Judgment Day because they have been deceived. At first, this may seem like an extreme statement, but as we proceed to look at Scripture we will see how tragically true it is. What can we personally learn now about this worldwide and age-long problem so that we can avoid being spiritually deceived?
A Great Spiritual Conflict
We must realize that God is the God of truth. John wrote, “[Christ] has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Not only is God true, but the Scriptures He has inspired and given are true. Jesus prayed to the Father, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Furthermore, Jesus affirmed, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), said, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth” (18:37). He referred to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26). As children of God, we must have an inward truth in our heart (Psalm 51:6) and must speak truth with our mouth (Eph. 4:15).
In contrast to this, Satan, our spiritual adversary, is opposed to the truth. Jesus said that he “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (John 8:44). This malicious enemy of our soul is a perverse, inveterate liar who wishes to lead us astray. Scripture says that he “deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). W.E. Vine points out that the word “deceives” is from the Greek planao and literally denotes “the deceiving one.” Satan is the epitome of spiritual deception. He wants to deceive us and lead us astray from the truth of God and the God of truth.
This evil one often uses human beings to accomplish his wicked designs. These may even be religious leaders. Paul warns of certain teachers at Corinth: “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Satan the deceiver often employs his servants to deceive unsuspecting people.
Jesus also warned of the danger of deception in false teachers: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). The sheep naturally run from a wolf—but if it is disguised in some manner, the sheep will not know to run from such a natural enemy. Likewise, false teachers must come in a deceptive way if they expect to exert their destructive influence on the people of God.
In our own day, many pastors, preachers, teachers, priests, and evangelists are spiritual deceivers—either knowingly or unknowingly. They may be known as Doctor Jones, Pastor Smith, Father McKinney, Brother Bob, or Reverend Williams—but, from God’s perspective, they are deceivers.
One of the dangers of deception comes from the fact that people are often misled without knowing it. Yet they are not entirely innocent since God expects us to study His truth, know His truth, and be able to make wise decisions regarding what is true. Lichtenberg asked, “Who is right—the man who believes that he is being deceived, or the man who believes that he is not?” The answer is that both are deceived, the one willingly and the other unknowingly—but they both face the consequences of deception.
How May We Be Deceived?
God knows how prone we are to being deceived, thus He provides many warnings to keep us from this danger. Let us discuss several areas of temptation to deception. Keep in mind that this discussion may very well keep you from deception—or release you from it. Therefore, you may be able to escape the destruction awaiting those who are deceived.
(1) Deceived by Sin
Many people take sin for granted and assume that we can freely indulge in it without facing God’s judgment. They have been assured that Christ’s blood automatically cleanses them from all sin, thus they need not worry about falling into unrighteousness, immorality, and other sin. Paul gives us serious warning against adopting this false reasoning: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Do not be deceived! No practicing, unrepentant sinner can inherit God’s wonderful kingdom!
Because sin is so misleading, the Hebrew writer issues this command: “Encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). Sin sometimes poses as a friend, but in reality it is an enemy! It poses as something beautiful, attractive, and desirable; in reality, it is harmful, hurtful, and eternally destructive! MacDonald says, “Sin often looks beautiful in anticipation. Here [in the Hebrew letter] it offers escape from the reproach of Christ, lower standards of holiness, rituals that appeal to the aesthetic senses, and the promise of earthly gain. But it is hideous in retrospect. It leaves a man with no forgiveness of sins, no hope beyond the grave, and no possibility of repentance” (Believer’s Bible Commentary). Someone conveyed this thought in words similar to these:
Sin is a monster of such awful mien
That to be hated needs but to be seen.
But seen too oft, familiar of face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace!
Because of its deceitful nature, Scripture says that we are to “encourage” or exhort our brothers and sisters in the faith lest they be deceived and fall into sin and thereby be hardened. If we can detect sin making inroads into a fellow-believer’s life, let us heed this command to become involved to the point of warning the person of sin’s danger. If we fail in this, the brother or sister may become so hardened to the truth and closed to admonishment that they cannot be reached. Let each of us beware of the deception of sin!
If a brother or sister in Christ comes to you personally and uncovers an area of compromise in your own life, how do you respond? Are you defensive, closed, or resentful? Be glad that he or she is willing to approach you with the issue. If there is any substance to the concern, be willing to repent. They have done you a great service since it should be our sincere desire to turn from every sin in our life. Let us beware of deceiving ourselves in some overlooked sin!
(2) Deceived about the Judgment
There will be great numbers of people surprised on the coming great Day of Judgment! There will be people who assumed they were serving God but they will discover—when it is too late—that they were utterly mistaken. Jesus gives us a glimpse of what will happen on that awesome day: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Yes, some will call Jesus “Lord,” but they will not enter the kingdom of God! Jesus continues, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” (v. 22). They will claim to be Christians! They will claim to have performed supernatural works! But what will Jesus say to them? “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness [sin]’” (v. 23). Although they thought they were saved, and thought they were serving Jesus, and thought they would be accepted by Him in the Judgment, they will be rejected. They will have been deceived!
We must also realize that vast numbers of sinners and professing Christians assume that they will not be judged for what they do or fail to do in life. This seems like an extreme statement but it is entirely true. Most sinners believe they will go to heaven; very few believe they will go to hell for their sins. People somehow think that they will escape paying the penalty for their sins in the future. There were some 63,000 unsolved murders during one ten year period in the United States. The murderers were not brought to justice. But they will be brought to justice by God! Jesus warned, “There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known” (Luke 12:2). Paul says that when Christ returns, He will “bring to light the things hidden in the darkness” (1 Cor. 4:5). Although most people are deceived into thinking that God will not judge them, they are dreadfully mistaken. God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31; cf. 2 Cor. 5:10). God will righteously judge all of those who have deceived themselves about their sin!
Furthermore, many people who claim to be Christians seem to freely indulge in sin of various kinds and assume that they will simply lose “rewards” in heaven but will not be eternally condemned since Jesus died to save them from that destiny. To such people, Paul warns, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8). If we indulge the flesh by committing sexual sin (premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, and other lusts), we will indeed reap eternal “corruption” or “destruction.” Notice that this is the very opposite of eternal life which is promised to those who sow to the Spirit, thus “corruption” refers to the lake of fire or hell (Rev. 21:8).
In another place, Paul states, “This you know with certainty, that no [sexually] immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5). The apostle knew that some would deny this truth and think that the sexually immoral, the impure person, and the greedy or materialistic person will somehow go to be with God. In order to dispel this false idea, he continued, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things [sins] the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them” (vv. 6-7). We must not allow anyone to deceive us into thinking that sexual immorality and other sins will not be judged by a God of holy wrath. Those who die in unrepentant sin will face the judgment of God. Let us beware of deception!
(3) Deceived by False Teaching
A leading form of spiritual deception is that which comes from a denial of Scriptural truth on Jesus’ identity and saving work. Jesus warned His followers of the dangers lying before them: “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many” (Matt. 24:4-5). The term “misleads” can also be translated “deceives” (NIV). Jesus goes on to say, “Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many” (v. 11). We must be settled in our faith in the Christ of Scripture. We must not be shaken from our commitment to the truths of God’s word and fall prey to the false Christs and different gospels of the cults, the occult, or New Age philosophies.
As we examine the New Testament, we are amazed with the frequent mention of false teachers. John warns his readers: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world” (2 John 7). Paul also says that “there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:10). He says further that “evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). The apostle warns the Colossians of the danger that they face: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).
Paul is aware of a terrible “falling away” from the true faith, thus he warns Timothy: “The Spirit explicitly says that in latter times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). How many who fall away from Scriptural faith are aware that they are following deceitful spirits? How many Watchtower Witnesses are aware that they are being deceived by the Watchtower hierarchy? How many Mormons know they are being deceived by Joseph Smith and Mormon “apostles”? How many Christian Scientists recognize that Mary Baker Eddy has deceived them? How many Reformed proponents are aware that they are deceived by the writings of Calvin and his followers? They are unaware for the very reason that the spirits who deceive them are deceitful!
Paul also warned the Romans of certain false teachers, saying that “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:18). As he explained the coming apostasy from the faith of Christ, Paul warned the brethren, “Let no one in any way deceive you” (2 Thess. 2:3). Paul also encouraged the Ephesians with this admonishment: “We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).
In our thorough expose, Beware of False Teachers!, we give the example of the pastor of a leading United Methodist Church who denied creation, the inspiration of the Bible, miracles, the virgin birth of Christ, His atoning death, His bodily resurrection, His bodily return, the resurrection of man, the judgment, and hell. Those who believe the Bible would see the rank heresy in this Methodist leader, but, sadly, they would be deceived by the more subtle forms of deception in their own evangelical, fundamentalist, or charismatic churches.
Just as Paul saw the need to warn believers of the danger of deception in many of his letters, so we need to be aware of such a danger in our own day. Deception comes not only from certain esoteric cults and New Age philosophies, but also from false teachings promoted by leading churches and denominations. This is the more subtle form of deception that may entrap us and lead us astray from the sound teaching of Scripture.
It is also possible that relatively conservative churches and fundamentalist denominations will serve to deceive vast numbers. While they may hold to certain “fundamentals of the faith” such as creation, the virgin birth of Christ, the atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the reality of heaven and hell, they may be in deep deception on other crucial areas of truth and Christian living. While combating liberal theology, conservative pastors and teachers may hold various false teachings and promote an array of false practices. False teaching comes in different forms and we must beware of being deceived by all of them!
(4) Deceived by Worldly Companionships
Many well-meaning people think they can maintain close and intimate friendships with people of the world and not be harmed. They may defend their compromise by recalling that Jesus was called by His enemies “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19) and note that Jesus had contact with the ungodly and even ate with them (cf. Matt. 9:9-13; Luke 7:36-50). However, they fail to understand the reason for his association with sinners. He explained to the Pharisees: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). His contact with sinners was “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). He did not have spiritual, intimate, and prolonged fellowship with them. This He reserved for those who were related to Him in a spiritual dimension (Matt. 12:46-50).
Paul warns us against worldly friendships: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’” (1 Cor. 15:33). Another translation has: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character” (NIV). Wrongful influence comes from intimate contact. Negative influence comes from close and regular friendships.
This is a warning found repeatedly in the Old Testament as well. “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20; 22:24-25; 14:7; cf. Psalm 1:1; 101:6-7; 119:63). After Paul lists the sinfull characteristics of many people in the “difficult times” of “the last days,” he says to “avoid such men as these” (2 Tim. 3:1-5). God plainly commands, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers. . . . ‘Come out from their midst and be separate’” (2 Cor. 6:14a, 17a). In contrast, we are to be in fellowship with “those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).
Sadly, many professing Christians are oblivious to the serious danger of evil companionships. They have been deceived! Some parents seem to overlook the danger of allowing their impressionable children to play with worldly children for extended periods of time. They foolishly send their sons and daughters to the worldly public schools and think their children will somehow turn out right. They allow their children to have intimate contact with vile, worldly personalities (via the television and music) and overlook the peril to their souls. Some professing “Christian” young people wrongly think they can have worldly companions and even date those who are not genuine Christians. All of this is the path of destruction! Paul’s words are true, “Bad company corrupts good morals,” thus, “Do not be deceived”!
(5) Deceived by Sinful Speech
Some professing Christians in our day seek to maintain respectable behavioral standards but fail to control their speech. This may include worldly talk, vulgar language, angry retorts, and dishonest speech. Paul points out that we must put aside “slander, and abusive speech from your mouth” since we have “laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (Col. 3:8-10). Sinful speech is part of the former life and old self that is crucified and laid aside when one is baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3-11). The apostle also writes: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). We must lay aside sinful speech and put on righteous speech.
Our speech reveals what is in our heart (Matt. 12:34-37). James shows the inconsistency of claiming to be a Christian while allowing our speech to be colored by the world around us. He writes, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). James goes on to say that “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity [sin, lawlessness]” (3:6; cf. vv. 1-12). If we profess Christ and claim to be living a Christian life, we must guard our speech. David prayed, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3; cf. 39:1; Prov. 13:3; 21:23). We must speak with thoughtfulness (James 1:19; Prov. 29:20). We must refrain from speaking too much (Prov. 10:19) and speaking without care (Matt. 12:36-37).
One may first be impressed by a person’s profession of Christ—but then the speech betrays the inner person. Speech filled with sports, sex, movies, clothes, money, material things, and worldly pleasures reveal the heart! On the other hand, speech filled with the love of God, Scripture passages, the will of God, the joy of the Lord, service to Christ, the application of Biblical principles, the love of the saints, and other positive content also reveals the heart! Surely it is clear that we deceive our own heart if we claim to be a follower of Christ yet have a mouth filled with things of the world.
(6) Deceived by Hearing and Not Doing
It is good to read and study Scripture (Acts 17:11) and it is also good to listen when God’s word is taught (Rev. 1:3). However, James shows how futile this may be if we go no further: “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22). If we are content to only hear the word spoken or if we merely read the Scriptures, we deceive ourselves! Some people read “Christian” books today. Others listen to sermons and lectures with Christian themes. Still others listen to radio speakers or cassette recordings. However, all of this listening or reading will do no good unless it is coupled with practical obedience to God’s word!
Jesus emphasized the need to go beyond merely listening. He illustrated this truth by giving a parable: “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt. 7:24). This house was able to withstand the rain, the floods, and the winds since it was built on the solid foundation of Christ’s word. On the other hand, Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (v. 26). This house fell when the storm came since it was not built on the rock of Christ’s word. We must not only hear or read God’s word; we must believe it and diligently apply that word to our life by obeying it. Merely believing a truth will not avail. Simply knowing God’s will in a given matter will do no good. We deceive ourselves if we do not obey God’s will when we know it. As James stated, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves” (1:22, NIV).
(7) Deceived by the World and Riches
One of the more prominent parables that Jesus gave is known as the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23). He tells of a sower who scattered seed on four types of soil, representing four conditions of heart. Jesus describes the third type in this way: “Others [other seed] fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out” (v. 7). When He gave the interpretation of this soil, the Lord said, “The one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (v. 22). Mark gives a slightly fuller account of Jesus’ words when he wrote that “the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19), while Luke speaks of the “worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). Christ is saying that even after one has come to Christ, various influences may lead the new believer astray. Among these are the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, the desires for other things, and the pleasures of this life. Riches can be deceitful—and other worldly influences are equally deceitful!
Millions of people have shown an interest in the gospel of Christ and in the word of God, but worldly pleasures and materialistic temptations draw away their hearts from the Lord and spiritual things. John shows the critical danger of these influences: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts, but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
All of us are enticed by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. One translation renders part of verse 16, “Whatever is in the world, with its lusts, its covetousness, and it empty pride in possessions” (Translator’s N.T.). Another puts it this way: “wanting sinful things to please our bodies, wanting the things we see, being proud of the things we have” (Simple English). The NIV renders this portion as follows: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and done.” However we understand these categories of worldly enticements, we can see how people can be easily deceived by them. Many assume that they can be good Christians while living like this. John says that it cannot be done: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
Professing Christians claim to love Jesus, but they really love their bank accounts, income, and investments. They say they want treasures in heaven, but they are sinfully laying up treasures on earth. They profess to be spiritually-minded and seek the things of Christ, but they are grasping for worldly pleasures, luxury cars, elegant homes, fine furnishings, boats, expensive fashions, and other worldly possessions. Jesus warning comes to us through the years: the deceitfulness of riches, the pleasures of life, the desires for other things choke the word to our own destruction (1 Tim. 6:9-10)! Even pastors and other religious leaders are living in worldly affluence. They may drive a Cadillac, Lincoln, or Mercedes. They may take costly vacations to Hawaii, the Caribbean, or Europe. Certain well-known religious personalities live in worldly splendor and carnal opulence. Christ’s word comes to us through the ages that “the deceitfulness of riches” will destroy!
(8) Deceived by Unholy Living
Vast numbers of professing Christians are deceived into thinking that they can live a nominal, ordinary life just like others and still be considered as Christians by God. The Lord said that this cannot be done. John shows this impossibility: “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil” (1 John 3:7-8a). Apparently John is showing the fallacy of those who would make allowance for some unrighteousness in the life of a Christian. He says that this must not be permitted! We must not be deceived by those who would say a Christian may live with any amount of unrighteousness!
John goes on to expose the faulty claim of certain professing Christians: “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). Again he declares, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1:6). The point that the apostle is making is this: We cannot make any allowance for unholiness and sin in our life. We deceive ourselves if we think that we can know the Lord and have fellowship with Him while living in unholiness.
Some professing Christians play the lottery, watch immoral videos, view compromising television programs, dress immodestly, read worldly literature, listen to country and rock music, and indulge in a wide variety of unholy practices. God says that they are deceived! If one professes to know God and partakes of unholy living, he is a “liar” and “the truth is not in him.” If one professes to have fellowship with God but walks in sinful darkness, he lies and does “not practice the truth.” Let us not be deceived by unholy living!
(9) Deceived about Salvation
Of all the areas of deception that should concern us, none is more important than that of salvation itself. Today there are vast numbers of people who assume they are saved, who think they know the Lord, who believe they are on the way to heaven—but they are tragically mistaken! Without doubt, the majority of those who profess Christianity have never been born again (John 3:3, 5), have never been forgiven of their past sins (2 Peter 1:9), have never passed out of darkness into light (Acts 26:18), and have never entered the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13).
Jesus warns us that many people will be surprised on the coming day of judgment. There will be vast numbers of people who will expect to enter God’s kingdom but will be shocked to learn that they will not enter. As we noted earlier, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). They may claim to belong to Christ, but they have not obeyed the Lord—thus they will be forbidden to enter the kingdom. Jesus went on to say that such people will profess to have been involved in many different “Christian” activities (v. 22), but the Lord will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me” (v. 23a). Jesus will say that He never knew these people; they never belonged to Him even though they thought they were Christians and claimed to be Christians. They were deceived!
Jesus gave a parable to make the same point (Luke 13:24-30). Jesus will disown some who “seek to enter” the kingdom but “will not be able” even though they will assume that they have had a relationship with Jesus (vv. 24-25). In another context, Jesus said that a great number of people will be surprised on the day of judgment and will be eternally banished from the Lord’s presence (Matt. 25:41-46). We can see how the Lord could say that “many” are called but only a “few” are chosen (22:14). The day of judgment will be a day of surprises because the majority of people are deceived about their own salvation and relationship with God.
Why should people be deceived about such a vital topic to them and their eternal destiny? Why will they not be saved and enter God’s blessed presence even though they assume they will be? Several answers may be offered:
- They have never placed all of their faith and trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior from sin (Rom. 5:1; John 3:15-18).
- They have attempted to earn their salvation by their own good deeds and worthy, moral life (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9).
- They have been unwilling to turn from all known sin and determine to begin a life of righteousness and holiness (Acts 3:19; 1 Pet. 2:24).
- They have not humbly confessed Jesus as Lord nor purposed to make Him the center of their life (Rom. 10:9).
- They have refused to be baptized into Christ and rise to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-6; Col. 2:11-13; 3:1-2).
- They are not genuinely living for the Lord Jesus with a heart of love and devotion (2 Cor. 5:14-15; Phil. 1:21).
- They have relied upon certain religious traditions and church regulations to assure their relationship with God (Col. 2:8; Mark 7:6-13).
- They have depended on membership in a certain church or denomination for their standing with God (Matt. 15:13-14).
For these and many other reasons, many professing Christians have not genuinely been born again and forgiven of their past sins. They have merely accepted a counterfeit salvation experience that settles their conscience and serves to deceive them about their spiritual condition.
If an honest and seeking soul comes to God with a sincere heart and is open to God’s way of salvation, Scripture says that he will find it. God makes Himself known in nature (Rom. 1:19-21), in the human conscience (Rom. 1:19; 2:14-15), in the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and particularly in His Son (Heb. 1:1; John 1:18). God’s grace has appeared to all (Titus 2:11) and He will draw the sincere heart to Himself through Jesus Christ. All others who are satisfied with their spiritual condition and religious affiliation will be allowed to remain in their spiritual blindness and deception.
This should provide every conscientious soul the motivation to honestly come to God, seeking for spiritual answers and true conversion to Christ. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). This principle of seeking God is also applicable to the unsaved (Acts 17:26-28) even though God is the One who reveals Himself to man (Rom. 1:19-20). God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). He doesn’t want “any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). No one needs to remain in spiritual deception regarding his or her salvation!
The Sources of Deception
We have seen that Scripture warns us of the danger of deception. We have also noticed the origin of deception. Let us review and discuss this somewhat further.
Satan definitely is a leading source of spiritual deception. He is the evil instigator who “deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9; cf. 20:3, 8, 10). At the very beginning of earth’s history in the beautiful Garden of Eden, the devil was active. Paul says that “the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Tim. 2:14). The Greek term here may be rendered “completely deceived” (Hendriksen, N.T. Commentary). Paul plainly says that “the serpent [Satan] deceived Eve by his craftiness” (2 Cor. 11:3). Satan deceived Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit and she gave it to Adam to eat, with the result that the entire human race would face physical death (Gen. 3:1-19; 1 Cor. 15:22; Heb. 9:27). This malicious enemy’s deceptive work is revealed in the fact that he has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving” lest they see the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Even today, Satan’s wicked angels seek to deceive and lead us astray from the true faith (1 Tim. 4:1).
Other factors are also involved in the process of deception. We are deceived by the world (1 John 2:15-17) and by the flesh (Rom. 8:6-9). We are deceived by religious leaders (2 Cor. 11:13-15; cf. Deut. 13:1-5), by family members (Deut. 13:6-11), and by friends and acquaintances (1 Cor. 15:33).
Perhaps the most subtle and dangerous aspect of deception is that we may deceive ourselves! Jesus says that “deceit” comes “from within, out of the heart of men” and this defiles the man (Mark 7:21-23). The desire to deceive others comes from the heart as well as the tendency to deceive ourselves with evil. The very essence of being an unbeliever is that one is inwardly deceived (cf. Titus 3:3).
God has not left us in the dark about our tendency toward being deceived. He revealed through Jeremiah: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). This accounts for the fact that a person may convince himself or herself that some act or relationship is right—when it actually is wrong and displeasing to God. Or a person may neglect a command of God when it actually is required of him. The heart is deceived. Scripture warns, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. 28:26a). Another sober warning should grasp our hearts: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12).
Throughout 2,000 years of church history, professing Christians have been led into false views and a false sense of security by relying on assumed but deceptive personal revelations. This is particularly a problem in our own day. Many are convinced they have “heard the voice of God” in their heart or “received an impression from the Lord” in their spirit or been “prompted by the Spirit” to do something. They are convinced that God, through the Holy Spirit, has inwardly revealed a certain idea, thought, leading, teaching, command, or interpretation. Sadly, nearly all of this has been merely self-delusion. They have deceived themselves into thinking they have received a direct but inward communication. However, surely they have received “a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD” (Jer. 23:16b). The message generally comes from “the deception of their own heart” (v. 26b). While God certainly has the ability to speak to a person, evidently nearly all of the time people have been deceived.
Two consequences come from this self-deception. (1) The person may be led to accept a false interpretation, false view, or false doctrine that conflicts with Scripture because he thinks that God has revealed it. (2) The person may wrongly conclude that he must have a saving relationship with God (because God blessed him with the personal revelation), when, in reality, he is probably lost in sin, though deeply religious. Satan, therefore, may deceive the person extensively—along with self-deception—to bring the person’s eternal condemnation. (Our books, The Savior or the Scriptures? and Subjective Feelings or Objective Truth, deal with this more carefully.)
Again and again God warns us against deceiving ourselves. Paul declares, “Let no man deceive himself” (1 Cor. 3:18a). He refers to one who “deceives himself” (Gal. 6:3). James also refers to those who “delude themselves” (James 1:22b) or “deceive themselves” (NIV). How may we deceive ourselves?
- By thinking that God is not very concerned about our absolute, uncompromising love for Him.
- By failing to see the need to carefully and completely obey God’s will.
- By denying the fact that the eternal kingdom of God is conditioned on our obedient faith.
- By denying the reality and danger of eternal condemnation.
- By failing to love, bless, and be devoted to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
- By failing to compassionately warn others of the danger of dying in their sins.
- By living our life without a consuming desire to glorify Jesus.
- By living a lifestyle little different from those in the world.
In these and other ways, we give evidence of being self-deceived. It is serious enough to be deceived by another person (2 Tim. 3:13). It is probably worse to deceive our own mind and heart. How can this self-deception arise?
- We may want to believe in a false teaching. It may appeal to the flesh or make us feel comfortable and secure. The teaching may be popular and accepted by society, thus we inwardly seek to justify it in Scripture. We may know that it pleases a pastor, a spouse, or other family members—thus we cannot give up the false teaching. We seek to “prove” it by distorting the Bible.
- We may want to indulge fleshly lusts. A homosexual may try to “prove” that his sin is justified in Scripture and thus deceive himself. A man may want an unsaved girl so much that he deceives himself into thinking this is pleasing to God—after all, God provided her! A divorced woman may want to marry someone so intensely that she convinces her heart that this sinful relationship would be pleasing to God.
- We may crave fellowship and peaceful relationships. Although continuing in a given church or denomination that is false may express disloyalty to God, we seek to convince ourselves that it would be pleasing to Him. We want continued friendship with the members and continued participation in the activities of the church, thus we simply tell ourselves that God approves of this continued compromising alliance.
- We want to please our spouse, our parents, or other family members. We may know that changing views because of what we have learned in the Bible would disrupt our relationship with loved ones. Because of this threat to our family unit, we still our conscience and assume that God will be pleased with the compromise. We allow these human relationships to take priority over our relationship with God and obedience to His word—and we deceive ourselves into thinking this is the right thing to do.
- We seek to be content with the status quo. We don’t want our position at work to be disturbed or don’t want to renounce a questionable occupation. We don’t want to risk turmoil in our marriage. We don’t want to alter our valued but worldly and compromising lifestyle. Therefore, we deceive ourselves into thinking that our present position and relationships and lifestyle would be pleasing to God.
In these and many other ways, we deceive ourselves into thinking that something sinful, compromising, evil, or immoral is actually right! We silence our conscience by marshaling all of the reasons why we should do something that violates the will of God. We even convince ourselves that God would want us to commit a certain sin or indulge in a forbidden relationship. In time, our conscience ceases to warn us of the violation and we are deceived into thinking that what is wrong is actually right, and what is immoral is actually moral, and what is false teaching is actually Biblical teaching! Paul speaks of some who rejected a “good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:19). God warns, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20a).
Let us examine one of the most dreadful dangers of deception. Paul discusses this in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12. The apostle, in this section, speaks of the plan of Satan and the coming apostasy or falling away from the faith.
Paul refers to “the activity of Satan” and “the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (vv. 9-10). Beware of the deception of sin—for those who indulge in it and remain in it will indeed perish! If one has no “love of the truth” he will be deceived by error and sin! Paul continues, “And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (vv. 11-12). Again we see that when one takes pleasure in wrongdoing and refuses to believe or love the truth, God will send a “deluding” or “deceiving” influence or “a powerful delusion” on them so they might believe that which is false! They do believe in something—they believe the false rather than the true! They will no doubt believe false doctrines, false views, and false interpretations. They will follow false ways and obey false teachings. And God will judge them for it (v. 12)! Deception comes when one does not love the truth and is content with sinful pleasures.
The danger for the believer is also real. The Hebrew writer speaks of some who have been “enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (6:4-5). They have all of these spiritual experiences and blessings. However, they may fall away and be so deceived, hardened, and closed that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (v. 6). How tragic to fall into self-deception!
The same writer issued another serious warning to his readers: “If we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27). He continues, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v. 31). The writer seeks to show his Christian readers (called “brethren” in verse 19) of the very real danger of falling into willful, deliberate, and unrepentant sin and thereby facing God’s judgment, the fury of a fire, and His vengeance (v. 30). He urges his readers to not fall into such deception, to not be “of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (v. 39; cf. vv. 32-38).
How to Avoid Deception
It is utterly clear that we must avoid being deceived by Satan, by the world and the flesh, by other people, and by ourselves. With this very real threat, how can we avoid falling into deception that “the whole world” falls into (Rev. 12:9)? We must not be defeated by this dreadful danger. We are “protected by the power of God through faith” (1 Peter 1:5) but there are many practical things we may do as individual believers. God gives us abundant resources to protect ourselves. Let us notice several leading points to bear in mind.
Seek God’s help to know truth and avoid deception.
Since God is the God of truth, He wants all of us “to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). He doesn’t want you to be spiritually deceived and will actively help you to learn His saving truth.
Diligently search God’s word to know the truth.
Since God’s word is truth (John 17:17) and He has revealed “the message [word] of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13; cf. Col. 1:5), we must be open to the Scriptures. We must be diligent students who will examine the Scriptures daily to seek out the truth and thus avoid deception (Acts 17:11).
Love the truth more than any other possession.
Only the lover of God’s saving truth can expect to escape the snare of spiritual deception (2 Thess. 2:10-12). With the psalmist, we must love God’s word (119:47, 48, 97, 127, 159). Be willing to cling to the truth God reveals regardless of any personal sacrifice you must make.
Be open to Scriptural counsel and admonishment.
Although most people have fallen into spiritual deception, some few souls do understand the truth of God and are able to communicate it for our benefit (Matt. 7:14; 2 Tim 4:2-4). Be willing to seek truth wherever it may be found, always comparing what you hear and read with the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Acts 17:11). As you do this, beware of the many religious leaders who would deceive you or would solidify any present deception you may presently have (1 John 4:1; Matt. 15:13-14).
Examine your motives and understandings before God.
Seek to have pure motives in your desire for truth. Beware of seeking to substantiate false views, erroneous teachings, or sins and so deceive yourself. Remember that our deceptive heart may want to cling to a particularly desirable sin, thus we look for ways to justify it with the use of Scripture passages that are “twisted” or “distorted” to our own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Be rigorously honest with yourself before God as you ask Him to search you and know your heart (Psalm 139:23-24).
Rest in the truth God reveals to you now but be open for further clarification.
The truth-lover seeks to be settled in his Scriptural convictions but not be closed to further understandings of the truth. God wants to reveal more and more of His truth as you mature in the faith but He doesn’t want you to be unstable and easily moved in your views. Paul says that “we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). We must be settled but sincerely open to understand more. Paul writes, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil. 3:15). God will open up even more of His will if we have a heart to believe it and obey it.
Do not allow others to deceive you or move you from the truth.
Beware of the books, magazines, publications, and tracts that you read. Beware of the sermons, lessons, and lectures you hear. Beware of friends and associates and even your own family who may hold erroneous positions and false practices. Know the truth so well that you will not be deceived by others or led away from the truth you now have.
Communicate truth so that others will be led out of deception.
Since unbelievers are blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4) and subject to his deception (2 Cor. 11:3-4), we must carefully, prayerfully, and diligently communicate truth to them. Not only must the content of our message be truthful (Col. 1:5; Eph. 4:15), our motives must also be truthful. Paul was careful to examine his heart when he communicated with others: “Our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:3-4; cf. 1 Cor. 4:3-5). Again, Paul said, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God” (2 Cor. 4:2, NIV). The communicator of truth (and this is every Christian) must determine to share truth in an honest and truthful manner, with pure motives and a clear conscience.
What About You?
Deception. It is a very real threat! It is a dangerous enemy that has defeated the whole world. Only by God’s grace can we be delivered from it. Our loving God of truth can deliver you from spiritual deception by the Spirit of truth through the word of truth when you respond to Jesus Christ, the personification of truth. Won’t you come to Him in repentant faith, confess His universal sovereignty, and be baptized into Him that you may escape the eternal judgement of those who remain captivated by the deceitfulness of sin and deluded by false ways!
Questions for Discussion
It may be that a small group of believers will mutually read this article and would like to discuss the dangers of deception and the means of overcoming deception. Remember that we are admonished: “Encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). The following questions may be answered if you are an individual reading this booklet or they may be openly discussed if members of a group are reading it.
(1) Give several examples of deception from everyday life of which you personally are aware.
(2) Find examples in the Bible of people who were deceived and discuss the results of the deception (cf. Gen. 3:1-7; 27:1-41; 37:29-35).
(3) Offer an example of how you were deceived by some sin of which you were unaware.
(4) How may one avoid deception and being surprised on the day of judgment?
(5) Discuss how false teaching may deceive you and give an example of this form of deception from your own life.
(6) What doctrines are especially deceptive? Discuss how they look attractive and Biblical—until one examines the Scriptures more thoroughly.
(7) Why is it that thousands upon thousands of people have been willing to die for their faith (e.g., Muslims, Hindus, etc.)—a faith that has deceived them? Why have thousands of deceived, professing Christians been willing to suffer persecution for their faith?
(8) Why is deception through companionships so subtle?
(9) Find several verses that show the peril of sinful speech.
(10) Why is it so deceptive to read the Scriptures without obeying what it teaches? What is the remedy for this?
(11) Gives examples of how difficult it is to avoid being deceived by the world and riches—particularly in this present affluent age.
(12) Why do we have a tendency to overlook the need for practical holiness of life?
(13) If you were deceived into thinking your were saved when you actually were lost, explain how you escaped from this trap of Satan.
(14) Give an example or two of how some people use certain verses of Scripture in a deceptive way to substantiate a false interpretation or erroneous theological position.
(15) Discuss how you can help others to escape from a false conversion and salvation.
(16) If we cannot trust our heart, our mind, and our conscience as ultimate guides of right and wrong, how can we avoid being deceived in spiritual matters?
(17) Discuss why there is such a danger in deception when we live in the midst of others who are deceived on a given matter.
(18) What attitude of heart will God honor by giving light to lead a sincere soul from deception and darkness to truth and light?
(19) Discuss the eight points in avoiding deception. What other ones would you add to the list?
(20) Spend some time in prayer to our God of truth—either alone or as an assembly. Thank Him for delivering you from deception by revealing His truth. And ask Him for additional light from Scripture through the Holy Spirit that you might be released from any remnants of present deception.