Theologian John Piper was recently asked by Leland, a listener of his “Ask Pastor John” podcast, what the Apostle Paul meant in 1 Timothy 4:1 when he said Christians will leave the faith and devote themselves to “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.”
“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?” the listener asked.
Citing Romans 8:30, Piper said he believes that the Apostle Paul is teaching “that those who are predestined are called, and those who are called are justified, and those who are justified are glorified,” and for that reason “no genuinely called and justified Christian ever falls away into demon worship—not permanently, anyway.”
Piper believes that in the Scripture passage Leland asked about, 1 Timothy 4:1, the Apostle is referring to people who have been in the church for years who say they are Christians but were never “truly born again.” Therefore they can be easily persuaded by the teachings of demons and depart from the faith.
These “deceitful spirits” the Apostle Paul is warning Timothy about will be “manifesting themselves through people who claim to speak in the name of some supernatural being,” Piper explained. “In some charismatic way, perhaps, with a spirit of prophecy.”
The Apostle Paul’s concern is that those who claim they are Christians will not do what the Apostle John tells Christians do in 1 John 4:1-4—test the spirits and not believe that every spirit comes from God. Accepting that every spirit comes from God without testing it with biblical truth will lead outwardly professing Christians, who aren’t born again, to believe deceitful demonic spirits, resulting in those people departing from the faith.
The goal of any demon is to lure people away from Christ, Piper said. So, “through these spirits, there arise cult-like practices that contradict biblical teaching but look religious.”
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy, forbidding marriage and certain foods are examples of the cult-like practices that will arise from these deceitful spirits.
“Then [the Apostle Paul] 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,” Piper said. That is when we know the teachings are coming from demons.
Piper said that deceitful spirits seducing people through false teachings has been present ever sense sin entered in to this world. This is especially true, as he mentioned before, of those who claim to know Christ, but were never born again.
“They’re always there. But there will be a greater temptation as the end of the age approaches and the Lord draws near,” Piper said.
While answering one of his disciple’s questions regarding the sign of his second coming and of the end of the age, Jesus said in Matthew 24:11-13:
See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Piper said the term “lawlessness” that Jesus uses is what “will have a huge impact on nominal Christians, whose love for Christ is shallow and unreal.” Piper explained that as they grow cold “their resistance to the deception of demons will give way [and] they will not endure to the end.”
It might happen gradually or suddenly, Piper said, describing it as a “mystery,” and gave examples of how “the church falls away from preaching the truth, and the people’s love for Christ becomes more and more perfunctory.” Or, he said, it might look like a “satanic miracle worker comes to town with a ministry of signs and wonders, like Simon in Acts 8—which dazzles Christians, who’s roots are shallow, with ‘deceitful miracles’ rather than “the beauties of Christ and his salvation and his teaching.”
The theologian warned Christians that this is “why Paul urges us in Ephesians 6 to put on the whole armor of God” so that we will recognize and avert the schemes of the devil. Piper implied that by doing so, believers will adhere to the Apostle John’s instruction to “test the spirits” and so assure they are of Christ.
In conclusion, Piper said that he loves the promise found in 1 Peter 1:5. “By God’s power [we] are being guarded [being kept] through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” Piper quoted. “That’s our hope. Those whom the Lord calls, the Lord keeps.”