Engaging with False Faith
Years after Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus, the magician and Jewish false prophet on the island of Cyprus, Paul would write the following to the church at Corinth in a different, yet related, context: “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Cor 10:3-6 ESV).
With these words, Paul expresses a number of ideas that are present in his confrontation with Bar-Jesus. Beginning with v3, Paul lays out an important reality regarding his relationship to this warfare in which he engages. “In conceding that he ‘walks in the flesh’ but asserting that he does not wage war ‘according to the flesh,’ Paul establishes two important and related truths about his ministry. On the one hand, he disclaims any special powers that might imply that he is in himself the instrument of God; quite to the contrary, he is ‘in the flesh.’ On the other hand, he denies any personal ineffectiveness in ministry, but implies effectiveness in that ministry.”1
In Paul’s confrontation with Bar-Jesus, Luke is clear to note the special filling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:9). The special power that was at work in Paul on Cyprus was the sentencing activity of the Spirit against the arguments and lofty opinions of this false prophet who was “seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith” (Acts 13:8).
As an initial practical application for engaging with false faith, acknowledging that the power to wage war against false faith does not find its origin in you but in the Spirit of God working in the world to advance the kingdom of God. This acknowledgement maintains the important point that even you and I have power to wage war against lofty opinions against the knowledge of God while pointing to the Spirit as the origin of that power. This is an important starting point because we wage war in the name of Christ by the power of the Spirit for the good of souls who are otherwise lost.
Returning to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, we should also note that Paul wages war in the realm of ideas through the use of the gospel. What Paul’s ministry “destroys” consists in arguments and opinions arrayed against the knowledge of God, or the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Importantly, it is the gospel itself that is the weapon against such arguments and opinions (cf. Eph 6:17). “In [Paul’s] mind may be the preaching of Christ crucified.”2
This accords well with Luke’s description of Paul’s confrontation with Bar-Jesus. After Bar-Jesus is struck with blindness, Luke reports, “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12 ESV). It may be a bit unexpected that the reason for the proconsul’s belief was his astonishment at the teaching of the Lord, but it is wholly consistent with the power of the gospel to cause real change. After all, if Bar-Jesus was even a half-decent magician, Paul’s power to temporarily blind him would only impress the proconsul if that power was accompanied by a convincing argument. The point for us, then, is to focus on the gospel presentation rather than the temporary blindness as the true power in conversion.
Leaving Paul’s words to the Corinthians, I’ll conclude with a more practical consideration on engaging with false faith. In the power of the Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel, you should engage with false faith with a focus on the particular truth that is being suppressed or substituted. Since false faiths require the true faith in order to be plausible, the best approach is to highlight the ultimate bankruptcy of that false faith’s distortion of the truth.
To use a common example, many in our communities worship wealth as their god and savior. A robust buying power can solve a lot of problems and insulate from the grievous nature of this fallen world. But faith in wealth is a false faith. It is a fickle god, suddenly sprouting wings and flying away often when you need it most (Prov 23:4-5). It has no power beyond the grave, only giving temporary relief from the vanity of this life, if that (Eccl 5:13-17). Even the modern prophets, The Beatles, point out the exceedingly short arm of wealth as a god: “money can’t buy me love.” But the good news of Jesus Christ is that his precious blood has bought eternal, steadfast love, for those who put their faith in him.
1Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 463.
2Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 466.