False Doctrine, the Highest of the Satanic Arts

the-future-4-319199-mLuther explains the Second Commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”, as follows:

We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.

Personally, I have often found Luther’s comment about the satanic arts curious. Certainly Christians are not to engage in the occult, but isn’t that rather obvious? The “satanic arts” includes things like witchcraft, sorcery, fortune-telling, devil worship, etc. Christians are not immune to participating in these things, so perhaps Luther’s reminder is a welcome one, after all.  But the satanic arts do not always appear in forms as crass as these.  As one who seeks to disguise himself as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), Satan will often engage us with more subtle forms of his arts, the highest of which is presenting false doctrine as if it were godly.

Satan is a master of deception, and even the churches of Galatia, despite having heard St. Paul preach (Galatians 1:8), were susceptible to false doctrine.  In Galatians 3:1, the apostle laments, “who has bewitched you?”  Luther describes this “bewitching” as something that takes place when the devil causes us to see or hear things that aren’t really there.  He writes, “Thus Satan has the uncommon ability to touch all the senses in such a way that you swear you see, hear, or feel something which you nevertheless do not see, etc.”[1]

This bewitching, or witchcraft, can take place both on the physical and spiritual plane.  In the physical realm, it can be as simple as imagining you’ve seen or heard something frightening.  In the spiritual realm, it involves seeing or hearing things in Scripture that aren’t really there— false doctrine.  Luther warns us to guard against this spiritual witchcraft, where the devil

works internally, with plausible opinions and ideas about doctrine, by which, as I have said, he so dements the hearts of men that they would swear that their most vain and wicked dreams are the most certain truth.[2]

It should be noted, first of all, that Luther describes this false doctrine as “plausible opinions”, which people would “swear” are “the most certain truth.”  That is to say, they seem to be perfectly reasonable teachings to the rational mind.  Therefore, we must constantly be on our guard against pious sounding opinions which in fact contract the Word of God.

Pope FrancisMostly recently, Pope Francis has issued such a “pious sounding opinion” in which he asserted that “the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience.”[3]  According to the pope, you do not need to believe in God, let alone Jesus, to be saved.  All that is necessary is to “obey one’s conscience.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this teaching when it says that those

who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience- those too may achieve eternal salvation.[4]

The idea that salvation exists for those who haven’t heard the Gospel is pleasing enough to the rational mind.  But this teaching is problematic because it contracts Scripture, which asserts that Jesus alone is the way to the Father, apart from Whom there is no salvation; that our works count for nothing before God, and if they did, then Christ died for nothing (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:21).

One way Satan has gotten us to lower our defenses against false doctrine is by shifting the way we speak of it.  No longer do we commonly refer to those who teach false doctrine as being “bewitched” (Gal 3:1), or practitioners of the satanic arts.  Instead, we have adopted language that puts false doctrine on equal footing as the truth of the Gospel.  What St. Paul and Luther called witchcraft, we call “interpretations.”  Such language may seem at first to be neutral, as if to refuse to make a judgment of the truth or error of a teaching.  But in fact it does make a judgment, one which gives equal legitimacy to all views.  The doctrine of the real presence is seen as just another “interpretation” of the Words of Institution, alongside the (equally valid) symbolic “interpretation.”  To give the impression that false doctrine is a mere interpretation rather than witchcraft or the satanic arts grows out of a concern to avoid offending people at all costs, even if it means offending God.

To make false doctrine sound godly is the highest of the Satanic arts.  Satan will be satisfied where a crass presentation of his doctrine does the trick, but where this proves ineffective, he will not give up.  He is a master of the half-truth, and even of the mostly-true.  He will preserve as much of the truth as necessary so as to make his teaching sound attractive, even godly. But even a slight impurity is enough to render a doctrine lethal.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6).  If we are to guard against the satanic art of doctrinal impurity, we must diligently apply ourselves to the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, the highest art for the Christian.  Becoming skilled in this art is the best way to guard against the satanic arts and to hallow God’s name.  For God’s name is hallowed “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it.”[5]  May our dear Father in heaven help us to do this.

[1] cf. the American Edition of Luther’s Lectures on Galatians (1535), p. 191.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 847, citing Pope Paul VI’s Lumen Gentium.

[5] Luther, Small Catechism, explanation of the first petition.


False Doctrine, the Highest of the Satanic Arts — 19 Comments

  1. In Luther’s German original, the Small Catechism does not actually speak of “satanic arts.” It says that we may not “conjure” (zaubern) in the Lord’s name. I have always thought that “use Satanic arts” was a poor translation of this. Religious practices that involve a conscious serving of Satan are already forbidden in the First Commandment.

    Luther’s point was actually a fairly narrow one. What Luther was getting at here, in his explanation of the Second Commandment, was the way in which professing Christians would superstitiously use various forms of folk magic in the name of the Trinity or Jesus, to cast spells, or to gain advantages of one kind or another. The best modern application would be the “health and wealth” gospel, or the “name it and claim it” teaching, of the Word of Faith variety of Pentecostalism. There are also a lot of psychics, fortune-tellers, and mediums who will say that they do what they do by the power of the Triune God, or Jesus.

    Luther does explicitly talk about the deceptions and machinations of Satan in a lot of places. But his Explanation of the Second Commandment is not one of them.

  2. @David Jay Webber #1
    Indeed, I am aware of the controversy that particular translation. My purpose was not so much to give an exposition of Luther’s explanation of the 2nd commandment, but to use that (admittedly poor translation) as a familiar jumping-off point for a discussion of false doctrine as a satanic art/witchcraft (which he discusses at length in his 1535 Galatians commentary). I think your explanation of the Second Commandment is good and faithful to Luther’s intention.

  3. I think the disinclination of the Christian to resort to what are more typically called Satanic arts is mostly the result of modernism and the widespread belief that such arts are ineffective. As modernism is moving aside, though, we’re seeing a lot of Christians getting more involved with various forms of the occult. We can no longer presume that it should be obvious.

    That said, though, it is all about deception and false doctrine. The greatest danger of the occult is the ease with which Satan convinces us to let his words fog over God’s and idols supplant Him in our hearts.

  4. How about this for “deceiving by his name”?

    #1 on Amazon in the Christian devotional category


    Author claims Jesus is speaking directly to her and she quotes directly using the first person for the words she claims Jesus said.

    Available at Mardel’s and Lifeway and Family Christian stores and Christianbook.com.

    There is so much deception out there. So sad for those gullible folks going to those “Christian” bookstores.

  5. @Mrs. Hume #4
    Because my granddaughter shares the author’s name, someone thought it would be a good idea to give her a copy of a book written “by her.” The giver was someone who SHOULD have known better, but she failed to receive sufficiency in the Word of God, as J. Dean said.

  6. @Gisela #6

    @J. Dean #5

    @Mrs. Hume #4

    I had never heard of that book before. The frightening thing isn’t necessarily that it is written (Jesus warns us about false prophets and false christs), but that it has received 2,877 5-star reviews to 34 1-star reviews!

    Even as some claim that the Scriptures are inerrant, others gain ground who say that the Scriptures aren’t sufficient.

  7. I am sorry but I have to agree with David Webber. This feels like a misuse (possibly an innocent one) of language. Why in the world didn’t you use “deceive by his name” as your jumping off point? There is a big difference between heterodoxy and satanic arts. Do my baptist friends preach some heterodoxy? Yes. Do I believe that they are tools of satan that are dragging the world down to Sheol? No. I will see some of my baptist friends at the Resurrection.

  8. @Mrs. Hume #4

    Back on July 15th, Fighting for the Faith’s Chris Rosebrough did a sermon review of Mark Virkler who is an avid proponent of “stilling the mind” to (supposedly) hear God’s voice as well as “two-way journaling” (the same process Sarah Young uses in her book, “Jesus Calling”).

    Chris Rosebrough is excellent at exposing false teachers and false doctrine. Be sure to listen to this podcast:


  9. @Reaper #8
    I believe Pastor Andersen has already accounted, from a Biblical and Lutheran perspective, for the connection between the evil one and teachings that lead people to seek salvation in something other than the grace of God in Christ …

  10. During a drawing class, the pupils were asked to draw a whale. Lucy drew a huge whale taking up most of her page, with a man in it’s belly.

    “Why have you drawn a man inside the whale?” asked the teacher.

    “That’s Jonah,” Lucy replied.

    “It’s completely impossible for a whale to swallow a man,” continued the teacher. “I can assure you whales have very narrow throats, making that impossible.”

    “No it isn’t, we learnt it in Sunday school. It’s in the Bible, so it is true.”

    “Well, that proves it’s impossible. Nothing in the Bible actually happened, it’s all just stories.”

    “That’s not true,” Lucy said, “The Bible is the Word of God.”

    “It’s all made up, total rubbish.” The teacher was getting cross.

    “Ok, but when I get to heaven, I’ll ask Jonah what it was like in there.”

    “Really Lucy, & what if Jonah went to hell?”

    “Well in that case, you can ask him,” ended Lucy.

    [I know, I know! The Bible says great fish, not whale.]

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