A while ago I wrote an article explaining how the idea of millions of years entered the church, and I closed with a call for repentance.1 At a recent seminar, a man asked me publicly to explain my strong words. After all, aren’t all of us, even the godliest believers, subject to error? Must we confess every error before God?
This man was specifically concerned about the implications for two old-earth creationists he highly respected. As he explained in a later email, they were dear brothers in Christ who had dedicated their lives to the gospel. They may be wrong, he said, but there is “a difference between being wrong and sinful deception.”
That’s a good question that has broad implications for every believer’s walk with God. It is hard to imagine how any of us could avoid errors in our thinking. So is it possible to walk in fellowship with God even though we are wrong about some biblical issues? Or are we living in sin until we correct those wrong views?
First, let’s consider whether error must be intentional to be sin. Deceiving others is clearly sinful because it is deliberate and premeditated. But what about the times we are unintentionally wrong due to our finite knowledge, human weakness, and sin nature? Few, if any, Christians are intentionally deceiving others about the age of the earth. In fact, few have studied the topic or even seem to care.
Yet doing wrong or teaching what is false, whether done intentionally or unintentionally, is sin. God required sacrifice for unintentional sins as He did for the other sins (Leviticus 4:2–3, 13–14, 22–23, 27–28). The Old Testament also teaches us that the more serious the sin is, the more severe the judgment, and different kinds of sins required different sacrifices.
New Testament believers are not under the Old Testament sacrificial system, but instead they look to God for mercy each day, and confess their failures as they come to understand them. God in His grace, through the merits of Christ, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
Second, are errors more serious for some people than for others? James 3:1 says that teachers in the church will incur stricter judgment. Also, the greater the sin (in terms of its blatant violation of God’s Word or its impact on others), the deeper the expression of repentance should be. Jeremiah condemned the prophet Hananiah for making the Jewish people “trust in a lie” and counseling “rebellion against the Lord” (Jeremiah 28:15–16). Should Hananiah not have repented of those things? He died three months later.
The apostle Peter wept bitterly for lying and denying that he was a follower of Jesus (Matthew 26:69–75). Did not Peter later need to repent of hypocrisy, caving into the fear of man (peer pressure) and influencing others to do the same (Galatians 2:11–14)? I think Peter accepted Paul’s rebuke because he later commended Paul and condemned those who twisted Paul’s words (2 Peter 3:15–16).
Paul predicted that some of the church elders in Ephesus would later lead other Christians astray from the Word (Acts 20:28–32). So the danger of wrong teaching continues, even among respected teachers who are well trained in the Scriptures.
That is a danger that all of us should weigh seriously. If biblical arguments convinced me that the young-earth creationist view is wrong, even after I have taught and defended it for over thirty years, I believe I would need to repent with weeping for leading so many Christians astray, wrongly criticizing old-earth Christians, and creating barriers to faith in Christ. It wouldn’t matter that I had been sincere and a fine Christian husband, father, church member, and missionary.
Does teaching the wrong view on the earth’s age fall into this category?
Most confession and restoration is a private matter between the individual and God. But sometimes the error requires even more, such as public correction (Psalm 51:4; Matthew 18:15–17). But does teaching the wrong view on the earth’s age fall into this category?
That was the point of my article “Where Did the Idea of “Millions of Years” Come From?” If young-earth creationists are right, then my old-earth and theistic evolutionist Christian brethren are wrong and have led much of the church astray. By accepting millions of years or even evolution, they have contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture.2 They have severely damaged the Bible’s teaching about death and unknowingly assaulted the character of God,3 thereby undermining the authority and reliability of the Word of God and subverting the gospel, despite sincere intentions to the contrary.
Despite good intentions, if any of us has been teaching others such serious error, should we not repent before God and publicly correct our error, as God gives us grace to set things right?