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Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’ ”?

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1–5).

Since the inception of sin, Satan has determined to divert attention from God and direct it to himself. He wants God’s throne. He longs for the worship, glory, and adulation only God deserves. In the Garden of Eden, beautifully framed in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he planted seeds of uncertainty in Eve’s mind. He invited her to distrust what God had said. He said she wouldn’t die, and most sinister of all, he caused her to trust her senses above all else, even the word of God.

The archdeceiver knew that the key to gaining the worship of the world was in discrediting the clear word of God, so he bent his energies in that direction. The passing millennia have refined his deceptions, and the modern manifestations are truly frightening.

The great compromise

In 2017, the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. For more than 500 years, politics, religion, and entire nations have been shaped by the Wittenberg monk who championed the Bible as the benchmark of faith and practice. But wouldn’t Martin Luther be dismayed if he could see how this great reformation has been replaced by a great compromise?

Slowly but surely, commitment to sound doctrine is being exchanged for unity at all costs. The search for practical methods of church growth has caused the ecumenical movement to jettison sound doctrine for a pleasing platform. Not surprisingly, there is little resistance from within or without the church because our culture does not favor absolutes. This climate of permissiveness is fertile ground for Satan’s ensuing deceptions, and his plan is working to perfection. Churches and societies have cut their moorings with Scripture, and the great compromise is shaping up, just as Satan planned.

Church growth is a laudable goal—but only when energized by unswerving allegiance to the Bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Appeals to tradition and mysticism are hardly the stuff of authentic revival and reformation.

At first blush, it seems harsh to call a church’s growth plan spiritual deception and even more extreme to dub it spiritualism, but a closer look shows that the modern masquerade is just as clever as it was in Eden.

The emerging church

History shows that the church of the Dark Ages routinely placed tradition above Scripture. A related but distinct deception is the ascendancy of the emerging, or emergent, church, which places the community above Scripture and shifts the focus from Biblical teaching to spirituality. This feature of the emerging church opens the door to spiritual practices that are hazardous to Christianity.

This danger is rooted in the Middle Ages, when pagan influences caused spiritual leaders to leave God’s Word and turn to mysticism. Notable influences in this direction were Saint Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order. Their incorporation of mysticism into Christian spirituality laid the foundation for the modern emphasis on experience over Bible truth.

Whether they realize it or not, emerging-church leaders reject the Holy Spirit by refusing His inspired and holy Word. Giving primacy to their inner voice, they cut themselves off from the divine protection and guidance of the Bible. In this environment, they are more easily deceived by a counterfeit spirit. They mistake that encounter as an experience with God. Their earnest desire to understand God is commendable, but they have strayed from the safety of Scripture. “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1; emphasis added).

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide believers into all truth (John 16:12–14). Jesus speaks to every sincere seeker through His Word, and the Spirit guides this spiritual experience. But Jesus never speaks contrary to His Word and never contradicts His revealed will.

The Bible counsels Christians in every age, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1–3).

Be careful of any teaching or experience that does not glorify Jesus and that does not harmonize with the Bible. “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3, 4, NKJV).

culture must be subordinate to biblical revelation

God has given biblical revelation to enlighten this fallen world, but Satan uses our culture to neutralize that revelation. In a quest for relevance, modern church movements are seeking to accommodate society. However, these movements overlook the fact that mainline churches in America have actually lost members by embracing “modernist principles in quest of greater relevance.”1

Humanly speaking, it seems to make sense that reflecting our culture would increase relevance, but any accommodation of a worldview that is inconsistent with Scripture can only mean trouble. The emerging church—or any movement—that allows a cultural worldview to be its guide is on a dangerous path.

The target of this approach is an earthly kingdom. But in a statement all but ignored by today’s kingdom builders, Christ said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders” (John 18:36). The emerging church, the ecumenical movement, and spiritualism are all directed toward an earthly kingdom, showing that they misunderstand Christ’s words to Pilate. And lest we be smug, even the disciples missed this cue when they gathered around the risen Jesus and asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They still didn’t get it. They failed to realize that they stood on the threshold of a kingdom built in hearts—a spiritual kingdom of believers called the body of Christ.

the final challenge

Just as the serpent caused Eve to trust her senses more than God’s Word, so spiritualism tempts people to trust in supernatural phenomena that run counter to His revealed will. Fallen spirits perform miracles. They forcefully teach as if bringing new messages from heaven, but their words are dangerous. Our only safety is in the Word of God.

“None but those who have fortified the mind with the truths of the Bible will stand through the last great conflict. To every soul will come the searching test: Shall I obey God rather than men? The decisive hour is even now at hand. Are our feet planted on the rock of God’s immutable word? Are we prepared to stand firm in defense of the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus?”2

Of course, it is easy to stand firm when culture and society affirm your position. But it’s not so easy when your faith is challenged. The occult, witchcraft, and other spiritualistic manifestations are sweeping the world, preparing the masses for delusion. Allegiance to the Bible will no longer be popular. What then?

This scenario is one that believers have long expected. Now, while freedom lingers, is the perfect time to remember the experience of Abraham. Called out of ancient Babylonia, he was willing to be unique for God. He could hardly predict how God would use him to bless the nations of the world, but that did not stop him from moving out in faith. God called, and he followed.

Following the call to live and preach truth is a call to be unique—not popular, but unique. Those heeding this call and following in Abraham’s footsteps will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to witness for their faith.

Unfortunately, it is true that not all professed Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus made this clear when He warned that the wheat and the tares will grow together until the harvest, and then they will be separated by God (Matthew 13:24–30). While it is tempting to pluck the tares from the wheat, that is not the church’s job. God alone is judge. He alone possesses infinite love and wisdom. He alone calls out to each heart.

We live in an exciting era. Blessed beyond all measure, the followers of Jesus are called to share the truth about Him. Many will reject the message, but that is not our concern. We are only called to witness, not manage the results.

Given the sobering nature of this commission, it’s worth remembering: “The line of distinction between professed Christians and the ungodly is now hardly distinguishable. Church members love what the world loves and are ready to join with them, and Satan determines to unite them in one body and thus strengthen his cause by sweeping all into the ranks of spiritualism.”3

We do not live in the Garden of Eden today, and people do not gaze at a serpent in a tree. But make no mistake; the issues are unchanged. They swirl around one crucial choice: whether we believe a lie or believe God. In the waning moments of earth’s history, the enemy has conditioned the entire world for deception. Everyone has a choice to make, and right now is the perfect moment to choose Jesus, trust His Word, and share your faith.

Norman R. Gulley taught systematic theology for many years at Southern Adventist University. He is noted for his Christ-centered approach to last-day events.

1. Phil Johnson, “Joyriding on the Downgrade at Breakneck Speed: The Dark Side of Diversity,” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 222.

2. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press®, 1950), 593, 594.

3. White, 588.

Conditioned for Deception

by Norman R. Gulley
From the October 2023 Signs