In a day in which we are inundated with counterfeit gospels, counterfeit spirituality, counterfeit religions, and counterfeit devotional practices it is important for us to keep in mind that believers are ever in danger of falling into what older theologians called, “a half-learned Christ.” Instead of keeping our eyes steadfastly fixed on the fullness of Christ, we are ever in danger of losing our grip on the gospel in favor of embracing some counterfeit aspects of counterfeit spirituality.
Colossians 2:6-23 is the locus classicus for the way in which the Apostle Paul focuses his readers attention on the ever present danger of being deceived by counterfeit gospels, religions and practices. It would serve us well to return there often and consider what Paul says to a congregation full of new believers who were vulnerable to being deceived by false teachers.
First, in verse 8-15, Paul addressed the subject of counterfeit philosophies, when he said, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Then, in verses 16-23, he explained the importance of guarding against counterfeit spiritual disciplines. He wrote, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh…”
Paul has the problem of “a half-learned Christ” in mind. As Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains,
“The problem of a half–learned Christ is that it makes you gullible; it makes you open to all kinds of religious teaching that sounds right, but is actually erroneous and deeply sinister.”1
In Colossians 1:15-19, the Apostle Paul set out the divine, cosmic, redemptive, and mediatorial glory of Christ, when he wrote,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
We constantly need to be reminded of the fulness of Christ in order for us to turn our eyes away from any and all counterfeits and put them onto the Lord Jesus Christ. If the divine, cosmic, redemptive, and mediatorial glory of Christ was the solution to the problem of counterfeit gospels, religions, philosophies, and spiritual practices in the early days of the New Testament church, how much more necessary is it for us in a day when false ideologies stream into our living rooms by means of the television and internet! If the early church members were in danger of being deceived by various false teaching, how much more we so after the accumulation of thousands of years of false teaching!
I fear that many in the church are impervious to the dangers with which we are daily faced. Whether it is a subtle appropriation of aspects of New Age spirituality, ritualistic asceticism, eastern mysticism, religious moralism, ecclesiastical ecumenism, cultural marxism, prosperity gospels, self-improvement and financial-improvement programs, or human psyche evaluations, we are all too easily deceived into diluting the fulness of Christ into a form of synchronized quasi-Christianity. To dilute biblical Christianity with any aspects of counterfeit gospels, religions, and spiritual practices is to have embraced “a half-learned Christ.”
To this end, Ferguson gives us a simple formula by which we can easily test whatever influential teacher we are hearing or reading. He says,
“Whenever you hear an influential teacher, you need to ask three questions: First, who is being exalted? Is the Lord Jesus Christ being exalted? Second, what is he not saying? Is the glory of Jesus Christ missing? Third, what’s the effect of this teaching? Is the body of Christ being built up?”
Ferguson summed up the subtly with which a teacher can encourage you to embrace “a half-learned Christ,” when he explained,
“A teacher can tell us ninety-nine true things; but, if he doesn’t give us the one hundredth true and most important thing–that only Jesus Christ can save us, only Jesus Christ can satisfy us–then he is giving us false teaching that will lead us astray.”
1. All of the citations in the post come from Sinclair Ferguson’s sermon on Colossians 2:16-23, “Judged Not!”