Who are those deceptive enough to lead astray, if possible, even the elect?

For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if [it were] possible, they shall deceive the very elect (AV/KJV – Matthew 24:24).

For false christs and false prophets will rise up. And they will give great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect (LITV – Matthew 24:24).

For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and they shall give great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, also the chosen (YLT – Matthew 24:24).

Those not deceptive enough

I. When many in the religious world think of Matthew 24:24, they think of men like David Koresh, Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, Joseph Smith, and other famous cult leaders. Surely no regenerate child of God would ever, or could ever, be led astray by such blatant deceivers as these.

II. Still others in the world would add the Mormons as a whole, the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Charismatics, the Quakers, and other such fringe, pseudo-christian, assemblies as being in view. Again, what soul born of God would mistake such blindness for truth?

III. Some a bit closer to the truth will include the Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, the various “Orthodox,” and related Sacramentalist denominations as well. Though no child of God would be deceived by such, sadly many who claim to believe in sovereign grace were and are so deceived (J.I. Packer is one notable example).

IV. Some approach yet closer to truth and declare that Arminians and Semi-Pelagians are also in view. However, what child of God (having been regenerated and converted) is led astray into the Arminian/Semi-Pelagian will-worshiping belief system? Thank God, the answer is none!

V. Finally, there are those who approach even closer to the truth than any of the previous. They, like the true Christian, would include the tolerant Calvinists (i.e., compromising Calvinists, those who partake in the will-worshipers evil deeds by bidding them Godspeed). Tolerant Calvinists evidence their unregenerate and unconverted state by (a) knowingly counting any of those who hold to these errors as brethren in the Lord, and/or (b) claiming that they, themselves, were regenerate when they were actively holding to, promoting, defending, or otherwise believing in the error of dead works.  We see this deception rampant in the Free Presbyterian Church, several of the various Reformed denominations in America,  and amongst many of the more popular Calvinists of old (Spurgeon, Whitefield, etc.). Had these false brethren had a true experience of the sinfulness of their sin, their utter inability to save themselves, and the holiness and glory of God, they would not cling to the “free-will” error as they do, nor would they count as brethren those who do.

Those who are deceptive enough…

The true child of God cannot stop at the above. There is one other type of false prophet to consider, one who is far more deceptive than any of the above. These specific deceivers are found amongst those of us who profess the Christ of the Bible. This error is specifically found amongst those who reject such heresies as Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism and Sacramentalism, and who appear to hold to the same vital doctrines as the regenerate saints of God (the doctrines of grace, which is the Doctrine of Christ).

What is this deadly error, and who are those who hold to it? The error is Formalism and those who hold to it are called Notionalists, Formalists, Letter-men, and Dead-Calvinists. Although formalists proclaim essential Gospel doctrine, they err in thinking that mental assent to these doctrines alone (albeit in conjunction with obedience) is the essence of that true faith that accompanies regeneration and conversion. They believe that as long as one is in agreement with Gospel truths (or for some, certain creeds, traditions, and or logical suppositions related to these Gospel truths), then one is saved. The following is a very common example of their erroneous thinking on these matters:

  1. The Gospel is God’s promise to save elect sinners based not on their character and conduct, but on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ alone.”

  2. Salvation consists of simply believing that the above statement is true and evidencing this belief by striving to obey God;

  3. I believe that the above statement is true, and I strive to obey God, therefore I must have salvation (i.e. I must be saved).

This type of “salvation” is nothing more than a dry, formulaic, system of belief that only superficially pertains to the Gospel truth. This system is either empty of, or distant from, emotion and experience as wrought by the Spirit of God. It is strong on talking about doctrine and salvation, but not living out the doctrine (and thus salvation) in their day-to-day lives. To the religious Notionalist, faith has to do with logic and precepts exclusively; some stick to the Bible alone, but many more have effectively replaced the Bible with their denomination’s creed, confession, and tradition.

While the Christian would denounce excess, mawkishness, and carnal emoting in the name of true religion, these letter-men have no need or desire for those things legitimately felt and experienced by the people of God. The formalists would reject Joseph Hart’s poetic assertion that “Vain is all our best devotion, If on false foundations built; True religion’s more than notion, Something must be known and felt.” Thus, they are like Moab, they have been at ease from their “high doctrinal” youth, and have settled on their “intellectual” lees. They have not experienced the humbling of being emptied from vessel to vessel, nor do they have any understanding of what it is like to go into captivity when that felt sense of communion with the Lord is lost for a season (Jeremiah 48:11). They likewise have no spiritual changes (no highs, no lows, no dry spells, no bathings in the living waters of life), therefore they have no true, Holy Spirit-generated fear of God (Psalm 55:19). Their struggles, troubles, and (what they deem) “chastisements” are nothing more than the problems that everyone in the world faces. Spiritually, they have no sense of being wretched and undone because  their carnal strength is firm; they are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued by a felt sense of sin and inability (as the regenerate children of God are — Psalm 73:4-5).

What becomes of these false professors

If God does not arrest them, quicken them, and turn them from their evil ways, they shall surely perish along with all of the other unbelievers. However, I fear that their everlasting torment will be worse than most, having been so close to the truth (in doctrine and intellectual learning) yet being so far away. What a weight of guilt and lost opportunity to have to bear in the conscience for all eternity. Such a thought should be enough to give anyone pause, and to remind us all that we must make our own calling and election sure (prayerfully seeking God for His grace and mercy, and for a right understanding in these matters).

But in this life, what becomes of the reprobate Formalist?

  • Some remain “experts” at promoting right doctrine (e.g. election, absolute predestination, imputed righteousness, etc.), but never come to a real, experimental, knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ;

  • Some forsake their former profession and embrace one or more of the heresies mentioned above (like one Strict Baptist who, not so long ago, left his former profession and went off to join with the Greek Orthodox denomination);

  • Some forsake their former profession by becoming hyper-literalists and taking verses completely out of context (or otherwise formulating their own heretical doctrines). These are they who, being unlearned (never taught of God) and unstable, wrest those things in Scripture that are hard to be understood – and they do so unto their own destruction (II Peter 3:16);

  • Some forsake religion altogether (like one former high-Calvinist who allegedly became an evolution-touting atheist); and

  • Others amongst the Formalists take an even more deceptive route. For a season at least, having learned to mimick the language of the true saint (in describing their walk, faith, troubles and overall experience), some become very convincing when they feel they need to be. They may call themselves dogs, worms, wretched, etc.; however, when the novelty wears off and the opportunity arises, they will often forsake their experimental play-acting for something new and novel (like the “Reformed pastor” who went from adding S.S. after his name in honour of William Huntington, to forsaking true (experimental) religion altogether – proclaiming instead, the false gospel of Legalism as found in the errors of Reconstructionism/Theonomy/Dominionism.

In the Bible we see several examples of those who appeared to be godly for a season, only to fall away at the end. Judas no doubt appeared to be a brother in Christ to the other Apostles before he betrayed the Lord; Demas, Balaam, Phygellus, Hermogenes, Hymenaeus and Alexander are also examples of those who appeared to be faithful for a season, but who went out from the saints, evidencing that they were not of us (I John 2:19). These examples exist in the Bible as a reminder for us to be watchful and to try the spirits (I John 4:1). Likewise, these examples exist to comfort us when such false brethren are made manifest. We are comforted in knowing that there is nothing new under the sun, the saints of old have experienced this menace and have come out all the better for it (for God worketh all things together for the good of His people; all things are ordained of Him and come to pass by His strength, power, wisdom, and fore-ordination).

John Rusk, who sat under the ministry of Mr. Huntington, had this to say about Formalists:

Now we are by nature in this state spiritually, till the voice of Christ reaches us, and calls us out of this world, saying to this effect, “Come out from amongst them, and be ye separate,” etc.”Forsake the foolish and live.” Now in this work there is light and life communicated to the soul, and we see more and more the state of this world, and what an awful end they will make, and ourselves also. Yes, and we feel wretched, and wonder what is the matter with us; and these wretched feelings sets us to work to alter our ways, to avoid what appears evil, and embrace what appears good; we therefore shun our former companions, and go to a place of worship, but it is ten to one we unite at first with formalists; however, in time God will have us out from these; and here He calls again, telling us to turn from them that have a form of godliness, without the power. But some go on long before this takes place; for it is not easy to believe that one who preaches the letter very sound is altogether destitute of the power; and therefore they hold us fast, and refuse to let us go; but God says, “My people shall know in that day that it is I that do speak; behold it is I!” How well do I remember running after these preachers, truly wretched and miserable, that my life was a burden to me! But I never found one to describe my state till God brought me under Mr. Huntington; neither could I believe that these preachers were only in the letter, but tried hard to unite them altogether, hearing him on the Tuesday night, and them on the Sunday; but the Lord called me in time from them.

May God call all of His people out from amongst those who have this exceedingly deceptive form of godliness without the power thereof. May He also cause His people to cling more tightly to Him, and to one another, and to all that is true (especially as the darkness spreads and apostasy becomes more and more the norm rather than the exception in this wicked world).

Curt Wildy

For more on this topic please click on the links below:

1.  Mental assent alone is not true faith

2. A Seven-fold Description of the Stony-ground Hearer

3. The misuse of logic in biblical discourse

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