Considered to be one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, 2 Thessalonians 2 deals with the coming of the man of lawlessness. There has been a lot of speculation about who this ‘man of lawlessness’ is. But that’s not the focus of this article. What this article is about is the strong warning for us when we read in connection with the coming of this man of lawlessness that people “refused to love the truth and so be saved” (vs 10b). Because of this lack of love for the truth, they cannot identify the man of lawlessness when he appears. Indeed, since they don’t love the truth “God sends them a power of delusion so that they will believe the lie” (vs 11).
Isn’t that the most terrible thing that could happen to you: refusing to love the truth and consequently not being saved? What could be worse than when God sends upon you a power of delusion so that you believe the lie? If Satan tries to delude you with his lies and deceit, you can, having put on the armour of God, withstand his attacks through the Spirit. But when God sends upon you a power of delusion, how will you escape? It means that God gives you over to follow the self-chosen path of waywardness, and things go from bad to worse.
This delusion is a process that begins when the truth stares you in the face, but you suppress it and choose the lie. What’s particularly disturbing is that people caught up in this power of delusion don’t realise it’s happening to them; it happens so surreptitiously. Yet the path that leads to being caught up in this delusion is a path they have chosen and therefore there is something that can be done to prevent it. And that prevention is basically very simple: it involves always submitting humbly to the will of the Lord. When people do not want to listen to God and harden their heart then God sends a power of delusion which reinforces their turning away from the Lord.
We accept it as a given that this happens in the world, but it also happens in the church.
How it happens in the world
That it happens in the world can be seen, for example, by what happened to Pharaoh way back in the days of Moses. Pharaoh rebelled against God and so God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh had turned against the people of the LORD and thereby against the LORD. First, he oppressed the Israelites through hard labour. Then he upped the ante by commanding that the baby boys be drowned. And then he rejected God’s command to let the people of Israel go into the wilderness to worship God. Even though the miracles clearly showed God’s omnipotence, Pharaoh hardened his heart. Aware of God’s almighty power, he chose to be blind to it and refused to heed God’s Word. So then God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It’s as if God said: So, you already harden your heart and will not listen to what I say? Then I will harden your heart so that you persevere in your own hardness of heart and it will bring about your own destruction.
Don’t we see something similar happening in the world around us today? The vast universe is “before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly the invisible things of God, namely, His eternal power and deity, as the apostle Paul says in Rom 1:20” (BCF, Art. 2). Until a century or so ago western society generally believed that God created it all and acknowledged the need to be governed in their life by the Christian principles of His Word. For centuries it had stood rooted in the Christian religion. Biblical principles governed marriage and family life, political values, legal and business practices and social behaviour. However, western society has increasingly departed from the truth. By and large it embraced evolutionism and turned away from God. People don’t want to hear what God has to say about private and public life. Paul says in Romans 1 that they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) and have “exchanged the truth of God for the lie” (vs25). That is what characterises secular society around us.
As with Pharaoh, when people reject God and turn away from Him, He consolidates their waywardness by a power of delusion. He gives them over to their self-chosen way. We read in Romans 1 that “For this reason God gave them up to vile passions” (vs 26) and “God gave them over to a debased mind” (vs 28). God says as it were: So, you want to reject the truth and embrace the lie? You don’t want to know me? Very well then, I will send you a power of delusion and give you over to your vile passions— “unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness covetousness”, etc (vs 29-32).
And don’t we see it? A “wicked and adulterous generation” tolerates murder of the unborn in the name of women’s rights; self-murder (‘voluntary assisted dying’) in the name of the ‘right to die with dignity’; sodomy and homosexual marriages in the name of ‘gay rights’; divorce on almost any grounds; premarital sex; the list goes on…. Having decided against God and the authority of His Word, society succumbs to a power of delusion sent by the Lord. Schilder says it’s a delusion that is, as it were, “in the air”.[i] Having embarked on a course of unbelief and revolution, there’s no turning back. Even though it reaps a harvest of revolution and all the plagues—death, disharmony, disrespect for authority, sexual promiscuity, sex related diseases, drugs, violence, crime, etc.—resulting from it, there is complete unwillingness to turn back to God and the healing truth of His Word. That’s the terrible consequence of embarking on a road of unbelief.
How it happens in the church
But it happens also in the church and that’s even more frightening. Remember how King Ahab, having married Jezebel, a Tyrian princess “who was up to her neck in synthesis”,[ii] also introduced Jezebel’s religion into Israel. And Ahab, despite God miraculously demonstrating through fire from heaven that He and not Baal is God, continued on his wicked ways. He murdered Naboth for his land and surrounded himself with 400 false prophets—yes-men, who found it expedient to ‘prophecy’ what Ahab wanted to hear. So God sent him a power of delusion. In this instance God even explained how He sent this power of delusion! We read of it in 1 Kings 22 where the faithful prophet Micaiah tells Ahab and Jehoshaphat:
“Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ The Lord said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the Lord said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so’” (vs 19-22). As Micaiah added, “Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours” (vs 23). It’s as though God had said: You want to believe the lie? Then I will reinforce you in your desire; I will send a power of delusion – the delusion of false prophecy – and it will lead to your death.
Okay, you say, that was back then. But I would reply, look around you today at the demise at so many Christian churches with their preaching watered down to accommodate secular thinking. Or, closer to ‘home’, take for example the GKv. Do we not see a power of delusion sweeping through our former sister churches with which we once had such close and loving ties and from which the FRCA and CanRC originate? For decades the GKv were blessed with faithfulness. And in the 1960s, when Satan’s attacks were rebuffed and a number of “broadminded” people (buitenverbanders)[iii] left the GKv, the GKv stood firm in defence of the truth. And we praised the LORD for again safeguarding His churches and rebuffing Satan’s attacks.
But although they “won the battle” they now appear to have “lost the war”, for the spirit of ‘buitenverband’ liberalism seems to have infected them. Over the years we noted with dismay how they rejected the antithesis and engaged in cooperative activities with believers from other religious bodies in order to present a broad Christian front against secularism. Editors from outside the GKv were invited to write in what had been set up as a distinctively GKv newspaper, the Nederlands Dagblad, other GKv organisations (political and social) opened their doors to outsiders, the GKv schools opened their doors to non-GKv children, then to non-GKv teachers, then to non-GKv board members. The triangle church-home-school was changed to Christ-home-school. Sounds good but it compromised the antithesis. The ‘new hermeneutics’ permitted Scriptures to be interpreted in different ways in relation to the 4th and 7th commandments, sacraments, and other areas, including women-in-office. Warnings and appeals to Scripture, confessions and church order did not avail. Having rejected the appeals to Scripture, confession and Church Order the ‘power of delusion’ set in and has since then increasingly manifested itself.
2 Thessalonians 2
Why does God send a strong delusion? Scripture says it’s “because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10). The pharisees, for example, were very religious people, yet they could not accept the gospel message that robs every believer of self-righteousness. It was inconceivable to them that one could be saved by grace alone through Jesus Christ without contributing anything towards that salvation. The Roman church of the middle ages were deluded into thinking the same. Many religious bodies who call themselves Christian adhere to the Arminian error that we can contribute something towards our salvation. To believe that man is dead in sin and totally dependent on Christ is a bridge too far for them.
That unbelief has eternal consequences. People may be very religious and very active in what they believe to be good works. When, later, they stand before the judgement seat, aghast at being rejected, they will say: “But Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” But note Christ’s response: “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’” (Mt. 7:22). Terrible, isn’t it, to think you are serving the Lord only to find out, when it’s too late, that you were serving your own ideology and (mis)interpretation of God’s Word.
Therefore we must cleave humbly to the authority of His Word, search out the will of the Lord, and love Him above all. These days there is so much to distract our attention from a diligent study of God’s Word and the confessions. Can we still be bothered to study the decisions of the major assemblies, or take a vital interest in what goes on in church life? Do we still read church history books, test the spirits to see if they are of God, identify and rebuff Satan’s attacks?
God, His Word, and the true marks of Christians
For fortunately, besides the power of delusion, there is another power: the power of God’s Word. The God who spoke and of nothing created the vast universe in all its beauty, interconnectedness and which is constantly upheld by His almighty power, is the same God who gave us His Son. And through the Word and the indwelling of His Spirit He makes those who are dead alive in Christ. Through that power He grants sinners to reach out for Jesus Christ, opens the eyes of the spiritually blind so that they see and believe in Christ and His work of salvation, and grants eternal life. These believers, we confess, gather as members of His true church and, like the church, also have marks:
“They believe in Jesus Christ as the only Saviour, flee from sin and pursue righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour, without turning aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh and its works. Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life. They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have the forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29).
[i] Klaas Schilder, Preken 2 (Sermons), sermon on 2 Thessalonians 2:11, Oosterbaan, Goes, 1954, p. 110.
[ii] Prof. Dr K Schilder, Your Ecumenical Task, (translation by the Publishing Committee of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania, 1975, p.4.
[iii] Church leaders and their followers who no longer regarded the Church Liberation of 1944 as a gracious work of the Lord but as the result of a squabble in church. They also believed that the Three Forms of Unity could not be considered a basis for Christ’s holy catholic Christian church, and leaned towards ‘pluriformity-of-the-church’ notions.