With the recent Secret Church 18 presentation on cults and counterfeit gospels, I remembered this clever little trick for identifying a cult. I heard it in a sermon presented by Danny Akin, who is an author and who serves as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I know I will not have his illustration word-for-word, but the main point will still come through.
You can always tell a cult, because a cult always does math. They will always either add, subtract, multiply, or divide.
Cults will add an extra-biblical source of authority. This source might be a book, prophet, or something else, but they will have something that is authoritative along with the scriptures.
Cults will subtract from the person and the works of Jesus Christ. Generally, this will be to deny the deity of Jesus, but could also include denying the sufficiency of the atonement or other Christological issues.
Cults will multiply the requirements for salvation. No cult keeps the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. They will all add something else (works based) that is required to get into heaven.
Cults will divide your loyalty. They will tend to present a human leader to whom they call you to be loyal along with Jesus. This new leader is often presented as a new mediator or prophet between God and the group.
I do not know why, but ever since I heard this little pithy explanation, it has stuck with me. If you find a group adding an extra-biblical source of authority or subtracting from a biblical understanding of Christ, watch out. If you come across a group that multiplies for you a set of good works to do to get into heaven or divides your loyalty from Christ and his word to share that loyalty with a modern prophet or leader, get away. This is how knowing that cults do math can help you evaluate a religion’s claim to be either true or false.