On this Monday, we jump right into the deep end to talk about the pathway from orthodoxy to demon theology. It’s a heavy topic, one inspired by a text we find in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy.
Here’s the question, from a podcast listener named Leland: “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for taking heavy questions on the podcast. I have one of my own.” Indeed, he does. “In 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul writes that some professing Christians ‘will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.’ This seems like a very stark transition for once-professing believers. What does this look like? Can it really mean Christ-worshipers become blatant demon-worshipers? Or is this move far more subtle? Can you explain to me what’s happening in this text?”
This is a good question for giving us an opportunity to clarify two things. First, can a true, born-again worshiper of Jesus be led astray into the kind of demonic deception that Paul has in mind? Second, how does this happen? What’s going on here? Does the departure from the church into involvement with demonic teaching happen suddenly or gradually?
Now, the reason I raised that first question is because Leland’s question for me has an ambiguity in it. On the one hand, he refers to “professing Christians departing from the faith to demons.” On the other hand, he asked the question about Christ-worshipers departing into demon worship. It wasn’t clear to me whether he was asking about genuine Christ-worshipers or whether he was asking about professing Christians who are not genuine Christ-worshipers deep down in their hearts.
I think Romans 8:30 teaches that those who are predestined are called, and those who are called are justified, and those who are justified are glorified, so that no genuinely called and justified Christian ever falls away into demon worship — not permanently, anyway. So then, the question becomes (and I think this is what he’s asking), What is happening when people in the church, who have been in the church for years and are outwardly identifying as Christian and yet are not truly born again, are swept away into the teaching of demons?
Lured by Lies
Let me read the text that he’s referring to.
Now, the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to [or paying attention to] deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1–3)
What’s going on here? Well, first, Paul says, “There are deceitful spirits.” They would be manifesting themselves through people who claim to speak in the name of some supernatural being — in some charismatic way, perhaps, with a spirit of prophecy. This is the kind of thing John was referring to when he said, “Do not believe every spirit” — that’s what Paul is talking about here, deceitful spirits — “but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). So Paul is concerned that professing Christians will pay too much attention to deceitful spirits and not test them with biblical truth and be carried away into the teaching of demons.
Then he says that, through these spirits, there arise cult-like practices that contradict biblical teaching but look religious. In this case, he’s talking about forbidding marriage and forbidding certain foods. Then he says that these cultic practices have advocates whose consciences are seared and who lie about what the Bible teaches and deceive people away from teaching the truth and away from living by faith in Christ. When that happens, he says, “You can see that these are teachings of demons because that’s what the goal of demons is: to lure people away from Christ.”
Paul points out that this kind of departure from the faith will be intensified in the later times (1 Timothy 4:1). The danger of seduction by deceitful spirits and teachings of demons is always present throughout this fallen age, from the time of Jesus until Jesus comes back. They’re always there. But there will be a greater temptation as the end of the age approaches and the Lord draws near.
“The danger of seduction by deceitful spirits and teachings of demons is always present throughout this fallen age.”
Paul describes this in 2 Thessalonians 2. The people are worried that the day of the Lord may have come, and Paul says, “No, it hasn’t come, because first there has to be this great apostasy, this falling away, this rebellion, this deception.” A great deception comes first. “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the [apostasy] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Then he says in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” In other words, even though there will be a great deception of lawlessness at the very end of the age, the spirit of deception is always at work in some measure in this fallen age.
He describes it like this: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception” — that’s what Paul is talking about in 1 Timothy — “for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:9–12).
Jesus said in Matthew 24:12–13, “Because lawlessness” — the same lawlessness Paul’s talking about in 2 Thessalonians — “will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Slow or Sudden Turn
In other words, the mystery of lawlessness will have a huge impact on nominal Christians, whose love for Christ is shallow and unreal. They will grow cold. Their resistance to the deception of demons will give way. They will not endure to the end.
This may happen gradually, as the church falls away from preaching the truth, and the people’s love for Christ becomes more and more perfunctory. You see this in churches. It’s tragic to watch. It just becomes perfunctory. They’re just going through the motions. All the former seeming passion and biblical faithfulness for Jesus is gone. Then come the deceitful spirits, and these folks are vulnerable to being swept away into a great deception and the teaching of demons.
“If we remain in the grace of God and treasure Christ above all, we will be kept.”
Or it may happen suddenly. A satanic miracle worker comes to town with a ministry of signs and wonders, like Simon in Acts 8. He takes people by storm because their roots are so shallow. They’re more dazzled by the deceitful miracles than by the beauties of Christ and his salvation and his teaching. Oh, the need for depth and rootedness in the truth in our churches. This is a word for pastors. This is why Paul urges us in Ephesians 6 to “put on the whole armor of God, that [we] may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” and “keep alert with all perseverance,” praying earnestly to be spared this kind of deception (Ephesians 6:11, 18).
If we remain in the grace of God and treasure Christ above all, we will be kept. That’s 1 Peter 1:5. It’s so precious. I love this promise. I put it on my mother’s gravestone (with my father’s permission), in fact. “Kept by the power of God.” But here’s what the text says: “By God’s power [we] are being guarded [being kept] through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” That’s our hope. Those whom the Lord calls, the Lord keeps.