Perhaps the clearest of these warnings is in II Peter.
"But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of." (II Pet. 2;1,2)
The phrase "damnable heresies" is not acceptable in many modern churches. Certain people up the street, about a stone's throw away, probably never hear this passage in church, because it is not very nice. It suggests that some errors are so bad, that they may lead to damnation. It sounds too much like Hellfire, brimstone and damnation to suit their modern tastes. But, we see it in the Bible, in the New Testament, where some people imagine it cannot be. Perhaps it would help them to read it.
How serious is it to believe in a false gospel? It is certainly very serious to preach a false gospel. Hear the words of St. Paul:
"I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:8,9)
This may have been the first Apostolic anathema ever pronounced.
Briefly, a couple more examples:
"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables." (II Tim. 4:3,4)
"Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)" (Philippians 3:17-19)
These are directly relevant to the Epistle reading we have heard. "Brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." This follows a long passage about baptism that began back in the sixth chapter of the same Epistle.
"What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. " (Romans 6:1-7)
The reason we are not debtors to sin, not subject to obey its impulses as some kind of law, is because we were baptized into Jesus Christ. We are dead to sin and obligated to pursue a life of holiness with the aid of Divine Grace that sanctifies us. Remember what we have learned from that little phrase that opens this Epistle, and the First Epistle to the Corinthians as well. That we are called to be saints. Remember that this is one vocation every Christian has, the call to sainthood, that is, to holiness. Whether or not you like this calling, it is a calling that God has placed on your life. It is more important than any other calling, including the call to the priesthood. Sainthood is the first and highest calling, the primary vocation, of everybody in this room. In baptism you were given the grace of entrance into the life of the resurrected Christ, and in Confirmation you received richer grace and several gifts of the Holy Spirit, who is in you.
Now, a stone's throw away up the street, a certain denomination has come up with the Biblical sounding phrase "baptismal covenant." Five years ago, a certain prelate from there justified his vote to allow a publicly known, unrepentant adulterer, who left his wife and daughter for a carnal relationship with a man, to become a bishop in their sect, by invoking the "baptismal covenant." He used that phrase to mean that we must not discriminate against anyone's lifestyle as long as that person is baptized. I suppose that to many people that sounds kind and tolerant.
But, your bishop and my fellow priests have pastoral responsibility for the cure of your souls. And, this requires that we work together with your bishop as he banishes strange doctrines contrary to the Gospel of Christ. The problem with how that other local prelate, not far from here, justified his vote is simple. He has taught another gospel. He has introduced another Jesus, and a spirit we have not received. In fact, he has taught his people something that seems very much to fit those terrifying words of St. Peter: A "damnable heresy."
It is not prejudice, intolerance or hate speech to teach morality, namely, the commandments of God. Not that it can't be used sinfully as hate speech, for indeed, it can be used that way by clumsy preachers. Nonetheless, it is genuine love to teach God's commandments, with the warnings of the scripture, firmly and with authority. For, I am not preaching simply about other people out there somewhere. I am not preaching, or I hope I am not preaching, anything that moves you to speak as that unjustified Pharisee in the Lord's parable: "I thank thee God that I am not like other men." (Luke 18:9-14) For, everyone here is living in the flesh, and so everyone here must endure temptations.
So, if we buy a doctrine which says that baptism gives you a license to sin, we place ourselves, and all of you in danger. Whatever temptations anyone may live with, enduring temptations is part of each Christian's share in Christ's passion. That is, they are part of that life of discipleship that Jesus called taking up our cross, and following him daily. The temptations are not a gift, but they may be used wisely as part of our sanctification. For, enduring and resisting temptation is everybody's battle. My own flesh does not sympathize with the specific sin to which they have given license. But, it does sympathize with sin. Therefore, you and I do not need a doctrine of license. It is poison, not medicine.
St. Paul says the very opposite of that false gospel taught by the prelate up the street. Baptism is not a license to sin, but the sacrament whereby you have died to sin and come alive with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. In your baptism you were not granted a license to do whatever you desire, but instead you were called to become a saint. And, so I do not need, on top of the temptations that are common to every man, any doctrine that allows me to live in whatever sins may appeal to me; and you don't need any such doctrine either.
Different individuals have different temptations. But, one thing everyone has is temptation itself. If one man may leave his wife and child for a new lover of any kind, and his baptism is said to give him license, then why may I not have a license to kill? Or to steal? Or to covet my neighbor's goods? Or to gossip? This same chapter of St. Paul's Epistle, today's Epistle, goes on to speak of "the manifestation of the sons of God." It speaks of the glorious and eternal hope of being fully resurrected with Christ, and with him to be glorified. Who would want to miss so glorious a future for anything in the world?
We speak not from anger, but love. We see people destroying themselves, hardening their hearts, and deceiving people; we see wolves feeding themselves on the flock, and we want that flock to be spared. Indeed, we want them to come over to us, so that instead of being a prey they may be fed a steady diet of the word of God, and a steady diet of Christ's flesh and blood as the food and drink of eternal life.
The antidote for a false gospel is the true Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The true gift that we want to impart is not toleration of evil, but forgiveness of sin. The Gospel gives something so much better than tolerance. When I hear confessions, the penitent does not need to hear my approval. Indeed, he needs for me to agree with his own disapproval that moved his conscience to come for healing. Otherwise, I cannot give absolution, for who can forgive something of which he approves? I am not there to argue with the penitent. Rather he needs me to agree with his reasonable accusations against himself. Forgiveness is very judgmental, in fact condemning. Forgiveness absolutely judges and condemns sin, and both spares and restores the repentant sinner. Mercy is better than tolerance, and compassion is better than approval. We can speak very firmly about sin, because we do so with the heart of pastors, of fathers, who speak with love. We do so as men who have needed forgiveness of our own sins, and who will need forgiveness, no doubt, again.
And, when we warn against false teachers with false gospels, we speak as men who know the weakness of the flesh, and who also need to heed the same warning.
Looking internationally, due to my research for The Christian Challenge, here is my perspective on the global Anglican situation. Right now, some people think they are safe because they follow evil at a distance. As more and more people succumb to worse and worse heresy, some are satisfied to compare themselves against those whose errors have progressed even further. They react always to the latest heresy, and never deal with the root problem of heresy itself. In so doing, they accept a situation that is not holy, not good, and not true. In so doing, they let the devil lead the way, following him from afar because they do not accept the latest and seemingly worse new idea. They feel righteous nonetheless, because they have determined that someone else is even worse than they are. This too is a false gospel and a license to do wrong.
We must not allow error to set the agenda. Following the Devil instead of Christ is very easy. And, those who follow the Devil from a long distance need to grasp one simple fact: No matter from how far away, there is no safe distance. We live in a time when we must beware of relative righteousness and relative orthodoxy. For these relative standards are not the standard of God's holy word. They are less than a call to holiness. Again, we don't want to be like the Pharisee in the parable. When he said, "I thank thee God I am not like other men," he did so by comparing himself to other people, and feeling satisfied with his own righteousness. If he had taken proper account of his life, he would have realized that he too was a sinner. Maybe not in outward and obvious ways, but a sinner nonetheless. If he had looked seriously at the word of God, and into his own heart, he would have said the same earnest prayer as the Publican: "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner."
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."