The New Testament is full of warnings to practice discernment with regard to what we take in spiritually. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 tells us to “test everything; hold fast what is good.” 1 John 4:1 tells us, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” And Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.

In fact, we have reason to believe that many of the most popular teachers—the ones you see on TV and on the bestsellers list—will be teaching false things. Why would I say something like that? Well, 2 Timothy 4:3-4: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

So in many cases, we can expect false teachers to be quite popular, smooth, and easy to listen to. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone who’s popular is a false teacher, but popularity certainly isn’t any kind of assurance against someone being a false teacher either.

So what should we do? To borrow a phrase from a pastor friend of mine, how should we navigate this theological junkyard in which we find ourselves? And hopefully it’s obvious to most of us that this kind of discernment begins with reading the Bible on a consistent basis on our own so that we can firmly grasp what the Bible teaches as well as what it doesn’t teach. That’s by far the most important thing.

But I think it would also be helpful to lay out some principles that will prove helpful in navigating this theological junkyard (some of these come from a similar list by A. W. Tozer).

Question #1: How does it affect my attitude towards God?

In Isaiah 42:8, God declares, “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” And in Revelation 4:11, God is praised with these words: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.

So God is the only rightful center of the universe. The universe really does revolve around him. And so, as we evaluate the teachings and sermons we listen to, we always want to ask ourselves, How does this affect my attitude towards God? Has it made me love God more? Has it helped me see more of his glory and beauty and worth? Has it magnified God and exalted God in my eyes? Or…has it exalted other things? Earthly prosperity, good health, or the feelings I get when I worship God.

Question #2: How does it affect my attitude towards the Person and work of Christ?

Colossians 1:15-18 describes Christ in this way: “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.” So Jesus is supposed to be preeminent, the One who’s over everything else.

It’s no secret that Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement have exploded in influence throughout the past hundred years. These groups celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts that the Spirit gives to the church. And I think there are a lot of good things happening within the movement, and a lot of groups associated with the movement show signs of experiencing genuine revival.

However, there’s also something that troubles me about many of the other preachers, ministries, and churches that would be considered Pentecostal or Charismatic. They seem so preoccupied with the Holy Spirit and the “showy-ness” and the grand display of these miraculous spiritual gifts, that they don’t really talk very much about Jesus or about the gospel.

Do you know what Jesus himself said about the Holy Spirit? He said in John 15:26, “He will testify about me,” speaking of the Holy Spirit. “He will testify about me.” That means if it’s really the Holy Spirit at work, he’s going to be testifying about Jesus. The spotlight will be on Christ. And in some Charismatic churches, I believe the spotlight truly is on Christ. But in probably a majority of them, the spotlight unfortunately seems to be elsewhere. And if the thing that’s most noticeable in a church is “the show” and “the display” of gifts rather than the gospel message of who Jesus is and what he’s done—then it’s probably not the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is like a sign in the desert, pointing the way to where we can find water. The whole purpose of the sign is to direct our attention to the water, not attract attention for itself. The sign might be a really nice sign, but how ridiculous would it be if we “oohed” and “ahhed” over the sign but never looked past the sign to the water. I find it very hard to believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be actively involved in ministries that only pay attention to the sign.

And therefore, I strongly suspect that many of the things going on in those ministries isn’t from the Holy Spirit at all. Because if it were, the spotlight would be on Jesus and what Jesus has done for us in the gospel.

Question #3: How does it affect my attitude towards myself?

In John 3:30, John the Baptizer says, referring to Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less.” And Psalm 115:1 states, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!

So here’s what I mean with this third question: Does a teacher or teaching encourage self-promotion, self-love, self-focus, a high estimation of our own self-importance?

The Bible encourages us to think higher of God, not higher of ourselves. The secular world says, “People are the measure and the end of all things,” but the Bible says, “God is the measure and the end of all things.”

Question #4: How does it affect my attitude towards sin?

A good sign of a false teacher is that he will always tell you what you want to hear. Biblical teaching, on the other hand, will often encourage you but will also challenge you many times. It will make you feel uncomfortable and cause you to squirm in your seat a bit. Sometimes, it may even feel like it’s cutting you, much like a surgeon will make incisions for the patient’s own good.

This is actually God’s way of rescuing you from the sin in your life. But unfortunately, it’s about as popular to talk about sin in our culture as it is to talk about how hot dogs are made. Nobody wants to hear that stuff. So we don’t talk about it. Whether you’re listening to most television preachers or KLOVE on the radio—did you ever notice how there’s one topic in particular that’s always strangely absent? Now I still listen to KLOVE sometimes, but I do notice things like that. And I notice their slogan, “positive and encouraging.”

Let me ask you this. What would you say about a doctor who sees clear signs of cancer in a patient and from different tests he does on the patient, but he doesn’t ever say anything? And if you ask this doctor why he never says anything, he responds, “Yeah…I don’t really like to talk about cancer. I just like to be positive and encouraging.” 

You probably wouldn’t think very highly of that doctor at all, to say the least. And yet, when you think about it, you really shouldn’t want a preacher who will always tell you what you want to hear any more than you want a doctor who will always tell you what you want to hear.

So those are the four questions that help us navigate through the theological junkyard that’s all around us. If you ask those questions of every teaching you hear, you’ll be doing well.