How Do You Spot a Counterfeit?

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Where did your beliefs about God come from? Are you really sure about what you believe? If you were deceived, how would you know? God's word reveals the vital answer!


When The Matrix was released in 1999, many moviegoers understandably dismissed it as just one more film stuffed with enough graphic violence to make it unwatchable for parents and children alike. Yet something set this story apart, and it captured the imagination of millions of movie fans. By addressing an age-old theme, The Matrix tapped into a yearning more profound than even its creators may have realized.

Neo, the hero of The Matrix, is an otherwise ordinary fellow who discovers that the world around him—which seems so normal and pleasantly ordinary—is in fact a counterfeit reality, carefully crafted by his enemies to keep him from knowing the shocking truth!

Would it surprise you to learn that in one sense, The Matrix came startlingly close to the truth? Might you be unknowingly living in a carefully crafted counterfeit reality? If you were, how would you know? If you want to find out, then keep reading this article!

Most people go through their lives without a great deal of reflection or examination. From their political views, to their stands on the issues of the day, most people are generally more interested in arguing—proving that they are right and the other guy is wrong—than in actually examining their beliefs to see if they square with what is true.

That lack of introspection and self-examination extends to our religious ideas, as well. How many people honestly put their beliefs about God "under the microscope"? How many people truly examine their ideas about the meaning of life, about right and wrong and about good and evil? How often do people simply continue in the religious customs and practices they were taught as children, without making sure that the god they are worshiping is the true God?

The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians living just a few decades after Christ's resurrection, had to prod them into doing such self-examination. He wrote: "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:6–7).

Paul saw that a different gospel was beginning to take root in the Christian church—a gospel other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Notice his concern: "But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!" (2 Corinthians 11:3–4).

Paul was struggling against the spread of a teaching that involved a different gospel, a different spirit—and a different Jesus! Although its doctrines and customs sounded quite similar to the true gospel of Jesus Christ, it was a counterfeit! While deceptively similar, it was not the truth.

The Bible describes a struggle to maintain the purity of the Christian faith, just a few years after Christ established His Church. Even in the next-to-last book of the Bible, we see the struggle continuing: "Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 3–4).

Who Is the Counterfeiter?

But who was the ultimate source of the counterfeit "Christianity" that was corrupting the young Church? Paul explained: "For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:13–14).

Satan the devil was the source of confusion and corruption in the early Church. Paul calls him "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4) or "the god of this world" (v. 4, KJV). It was he who was infiltrating the young Church in the first century, deceiving the gullible and presenting a counterfeit gospel, a counterfeit faith and a counterfeit Christ.

How did this struggle in the first century turn out? Here we are, twenty centuries later—surely all has turned out well, right? Or has it? We know Jesus Christ promised He would build His Church, and that the gates of Hades—the grave—would never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18)! Though it would be much persecuted, maligned and misunderstood, the Church which Jesus Christ founded to teach the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) would never perish from the earth, and is prophesied to be present at His climactic Second Coming!

Yet what do we see today? A mind-numbing variety of beliefs and practices that claim the name "Christian" but cannot all be true. The book of Revelation describes what our world will be like in the days leading up to the return of Jesus Christ. John wrote: "So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9). Yes, Satan deceives the whole world! His counterfeiting has never stopped! Satan has not given up in his effort to spread a false Christianity, a false gospel and a false Christ! He still masquerades as an angel of light. He is still the god of this world, and he is still the father of lies.

Consider this prophecy of the end-time—our time: "Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon" (Revelation 13:11). Here, in this description of a great false prophet—the coming antichrist who will soon be revealed to the entire world—we see that he looks like a lamb. Indeed, many will assume he represents Christ. But those who are discerning will recognize that he does not sound like the Lamb—rather, he speaks like a dragon, like that serpent of old, Satan the Devil, who spreads his counterfeit religion to deceive the whole world.

Counterfeit Christianity?

We have seen, from Scripture, that Satan has been at work powerfully for millennia deceiving the world. We have seen that the world will be under his influence in the end-times. So let us consider a difficult question, which few will have the courage to answer honestly: Does today's modern "mainstream Christianity" represent the real Christianity of Jesus Christ, or the counterfeit offered by Satan?

Many historians and scholars have already weighed in on this question. Notice this comment from Protestant scholar Jesse Lyman Hurlbut: "For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the Church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120ad with the writings of the earliest Church-fathers, we find a Church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul" (Story of the Christian Church, p. 41).

Hurlbut is far from alone in his assessment. But is it really possible that the counterfeit Christianity that was invading the early Church like a virus in the first century could still be present in the twenty-first century? Christ calls His true followers a "little flock" (Luke 12:32). Is it possible that the counterfeit could actually be the dominant form of what most people call "Christianity" today?

And if so, how would we know? How can we determine whether the faith we follow is the truth or the counterfeit?

In our effort to identify a counterfeit faith, we can take a cue from the United States Treasury Department, which fights against counterfeit money. One of the most effective ways to recognize a counterfeit is to be completely and intimately familiar with the real thing. When you are deeply aware of how a real $20 bill feels in your fingers—the intricate details in its artwork, the weight of its paper in your hands, the way it responds when you fold it, the way small fibers are embedded in its material, the way ink bleeds into its paper just a little bit—you can more capably recognize when you have been handed a counterfeit. When you know the "real thing," the subtle differences in the counterfeit stand out to you like night stands out from day, even though others less familiar would not even notice!

We can apply the same strategy in spotting a counterfeit faith, a counterfeit Christ or a counterfeit Christianity. Once you become familiar with the true standard, the counterfeit cannot help but stand out for its differences, no matter how subtle they are!

What is that true standard? God's word—the Holy Bible!

Look at the example of the Bereans. "Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:10–11).

The "$20 Bill Test"

So, what do we find when we apply the "$20 bill test" to some aspects of traditional Christianity? Compared to the word of God, how do they measure up?

Consider the reward of the saved. Many churches teach that when you die, you go to heaven. To some, that means floating around in the clouds with a harp in your hands. Others have described heaven as a "beatific vision" where you simply gaze at the face of God in joy for all eternity.

But what does the Bible teach us about the reward of the saved? In the passage of scripture known as the Beatitudes, Jesus reveals something important: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5).

God's word consistently describes the inheritance of the saints as being right here on this earth! But what does the Bible tell us the saints will be doing on the earth? Notice: "And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—'He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter's vessels'—as I also have received from My Father" (Revelation 2:26–27).

We also read that Christ will make us "kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:10). Later, we find that the saints will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6)!

Is that just some sort of symbolic language or metaphor, which we can rationalize away or ignore? The Apostle Paul did not think so. Look at what he wrote to Christians in Corinth: "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?" (1 Corinthians 6:1–3).

In these places—and many others—the Bible explains that the reward of the saved is literally to rule with Jesus Christ in power and glory! But is that what you hear being preached today in most churches that profess Christianity? The pure word of God gives us a rock-solid standard that allows us to identify Satan's counterfeit.

Now, consider some of the traditional celebrations associated with modern "Christianity." You have probably heard the song proclaiming Christmas as the "most wonderful time of the year." People exchange gifts, decorate trees, light Yule logs and enjoy many traditions that have been passed down for generations and celebrated in Christ's name. At Easter, parents tell their children that the "Easter Bunny" has brought them colored eggs and candies, and they enjoy hot cross buns and other long-standing traditions practiced in the name of Christ.

Yet any encyclopedia worth reading will clearly explain that these traditions and practices originated in pagan worship customs that predate Christianity by centuries—or even millennia! People who are aware of these origins sometimes say it is proper to "baptize" non-Christian customs by incorporating them into "Christian" worship. But how does God really feel about the use of pagan practices to worship Him and His Son? In Scripture, God made His feelings very clear. He plainly commanded that pagan practices are not to be used in worshiping Him (Deuteronomy 12:30–32).

As frequent readers of this publication know, Jesus Christ is the God who gave that commandment. And we should expect His true Church to obey Him. What did He say about those who reject His commandments in favor of their own ideas? He told the Pharisees, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition" (Mark 7:9). Christ condemned a practice that is pervasive in "mainstream Christianity" today—attempting to worship Him by using traditions designed for the worship of false gods!

What Will You Choose?

The Matrix is just one of many science fiction stories in which a hero discovers that the world around him is not as it seems, but is in fact a cunning deception—a counterfeit reality—designed to keep him from knowing the truth.

In these stories, a moment often comes when the hero begins to learn the truth and must make a difficult decision: "Do I go back to the comfortable world I've always known, even though I know it is a lie, or do I bravely take the next step and fully embrace the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable that decision may seem?"

As you discover the true Christianity of the Bible and understand how it differs from the "Christianity" practiced all around us, you may come to such a moment in your own life.

If you do, you will not be alone. I know that feeling. I have been there, too. It takes courage to act on what you are learning. You may even experience an anxious feeling, wondering where the road will end once you start putting into practice what you learn in your Bible.

But, as I found, there is also a real joy and exhilaration when you discover truth you have never learned before. Bible passages you may have read many times—but never fully understood—come to life, fitting into a larger picture. As you discover parts of the Bible you once ignored, you begin to see what a marvelous book the whole Bible is! You begin to appreciate that God truly is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). You experience for yourself the abundant life He has promised to those who obey Him (John 10:10).

Yet you may sometimes wonder whether you are alone in pursuing true Christianity instead of the counterfeit. Here, again, the Bible provides the answer, in Jesus Christ's promise that He would build His Church, and the grave would never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). As you read your Bible, you will come to see that His true Church does exist, and will be present at His second coming, waiting for the day when it will be presented to Him as a bride who "has made herself ready" (Revelation 19:7).

The Apostle Paul calls the true Church—not the counterfeit—"the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). Elsewhere, Jesus says, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). It takes courage to abandon a comfortable lie and begin reaching for the truth. But somewhere, like a small but precious gemstone amid a pile of counterfeits, is a Church that actually teaches the truth of Jesus Christ, the very same message and way of life that He brought to this earth.

How strong is your desire to find that Church? Then, once you find it, are you willing to let go of the counterfeit?

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