Not long ago I was talking with my grandfather, Gary Colley, about my concern regarding a preacher who was teaching something contrary to what the Bible teaches. Among other things, my grandfather said, “He knows better than that.” This insight seems simple on its face, but consider its deep significance: With this insight, my grandfather implied that it is possible for a person to endorse false positions not because he is trying his best to understand the truth and has failed, but because he has a motivation other than knowing and teaching the truth.
The debate over whether someone could knowingly err goes back at least to Plato and Aristotle. Plato said that someone could be in error only due to ignorance1, whereas Aristotle said that weakness of will could also cause error2. There is a rich medieval tradition that respects the role of the will in human decision-making3
The Bible clearly teaches that someone could take the wrong position while knowing better. When Jesus spoke about false teachers, he did not pity them for their ignorance. Rather, he criticized them for being devious: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15; cf. Matthew 10:16). Similarly, Paul warned the Ephesian elders that that “fierce wolves” would attack from outside the flock, and that false teachers would also arise from inside, “speaking twisted things” (Acts 20:28-30). We would be more confident and persuasive in confronting error if we remembered that false teachers who persist in their error after being shown the truth are doing so because they have a bad agenda. Like the demons, they know the truth yet they still oppose it (James 2:19). We must not sympathize with the enemy’s failure in such a way that we fail to confront it.
And, in 1 Corinthians 7:5, the apostle uses the same Greek word that Aristotle used for “weakness of will” (akrasia): “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (emp. added).
Furthermore, consider that someone could deliberately forestall learning the truth, thus making him guilty. For example, C.S. Lewis writes about a man who wants to avoid finding out whether Christianity is true:
The man is shirking. He is deliberately trying not to know whether Christianity is true or false, because he foresees endless trouble if it should turn out to be true. He is like the man who deliberately ‘forgets’ to look at the notice board because, if he did, he might find his name down for some unpleasant duty. He is like the man who won’t look at his bank account because he’s afraid of what he might find there. He is like the man who won’t go to the doctor when he first feels a mysterious pain, because he is afraid of what the doctor may tell him.
The man who remains an unbeliever for such reasons is not in a state of honest error. He is in a state of dishonest error, and that dishonesty will spread through all his thoughts and actions: a certain shiftiness, a vague worry in the background, a blunting of his whole mental edge, will result. He has lost his intellectual virginity. . . . You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be a Christian; but you do know you ought to be a Man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sand.4
The impure attitude Lewis describes is the very attitude that Peter describes in 2 Peter 3:3-7:
… knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (emp. added).
In this connection, recall the example of Saul, who acted in good conscience prior to meeting the Lord (Acts 23:1). In Lewis’ words, Saul’s purity of purpose allowed him to retain his “intellectual virginity”: When Saul found was confronted with the evidence that Jesus was the Son of God, he repented and obeyed the Gospel (Acts 9:10-22).
Thankfully, my grandfather reminded me that religious error is propagated not because the Gospel truth is too hard to understand, but largely because of the sinful agendas of those who fail to teach what they know. There is a big difference between the heart of the deceptive wolf that Jesus describes and the honest, seeking heart of the lost soul Cornelius, who was soon to learn the truth and submit to it, resulting in his salvation (Acts 10). We will never attain perfect consistency with our profession of Christianity, but we can nonetheless practice being honest with ourselves in order to remain in fellowship with God and develop Christian character (1 John 1:7-9; 2 Peter 1:3-11).