The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
July 26, 2015
“Beware of False Prophets”
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'” Matthew 7:15-23
Contending for the pure and wholesome teaching of God’s word is not a popular thing to do. Doctrinal indifference is widespread. Many people are very concerned about spiritual matters but they are disinterested in Christian doctrine. What our Lord would have us know is that if you are indifferent to what you are taught it is your own spiritual health that will suffer. God brings about true spirituality by means of his saving truth. There is nothing more dangerous to God’s people than false teaching. Persecution hurts, but it may actually strengthen a Christian’s resolve. False teaching is the devil’s most deadly weapon against the faith of the faithful. He said to Eve, “Did God really say?” It worked the first time and it still works.
The devil is a liar. Jesus said of him:
He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. John 8:44
The devil is the author of all false doctrine. False doctrine is poison to the soul. Jesus warns his disciples to beware of false prophets as they would beware of hungry wolves. He who is the Word made flesh knows the power of the written and spoken word of God. And he knows the danger of false teaching.
When Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves,” he is talking to all of his Christians. A Christian is a disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple is one who is taught. Christ’s Christians have the right to judge the teaching of those who are sent to teach them.
Pure doctrine is not the concern only of the preachers. Just because you cannot preach doesn’t mean you cannot judge the teaching of preachers. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.” They know it. They recognize it. They don’t recognize the voice of the stranger. Every sheep of the Good Shepherd has the right to judge doctrine.
This means that they have the duty to know doctrine. Many Christians learn the catechism as children and when they grow up they leave their catechism behind as something belonging to their childhood. But the reason we learn the Catechism when we are children is so that it will remain with us when we are old. Nothing is more important than what we learn in the Catechism.
God’s people have the duty to judge doctrine. You can’t judge doctrine by looking at the teacher and judging him by his appearance. Jesus warns us that the false prophets are wolves in sheep’s clothing. The sheep’s clothing is the sincerity they exude, the learning they demonstrate, the piety they display, and all the other things that convince the naïve and gullible that their teaching must be true because they appear to be such sincere Christians.
Of course, they do! If the used car salesman wore a sign around his neck that said he was a thief you would not buy a car from him. Some years ago there was a poll of Americans about which profession they trusted the most and which profession they trusted the least. They trusted pastors the most and they trusted used car salesmen the least. Does this mean that used car salesmen are less trustworthy than preachers? Or does it mean that people are tougher on those who sell them a rotten car than they are on those who sell them a rotten religion? When it comes to religious con artists, there’s a sucker born every minute. When the laity leave the judgment of doctrine up to the pastors they gamble with their souls.
Faith lives on the word of God. God’s word is truth. False doctrine cannot nurture anyone in the faith. It can only poison faith, destroying genuine spiritual life. When false teaching is tolerated it covers up the truth. It replaces the truth with lies in the affections of the people. This is how souls are poisoned and faith is destroyed.
Many soul-destroying errors come from preachers who question the truthfulness of the Bible. They operate with the assumption that the Bible contains errors. The consensus of so called experts in the sciences and social sciences replaces the Bible as the standard for their teaching. So you find preachers, in the name of Christ and his church, teaching that we evolved from the animals over many millions of years, that men and women are interchangeable, and that what was a sin fifty years ago is no longer a sin today. False teachers will not be bound to a Bible they think contains errors. But we know that the Bible is inerrant. Jesus said so. He told the Sadducees that they erred because they did not know the Scriptures or the power of God. The Bible does not err and it cannot err because God wrote it and God is incapable of error.
The most serious kind of false teaching, however, comes from preachers who pay high tribute to the truthfulness of the Bible while rejecting what the Bible teaches. Jesus said we would know the false prophet by his fruits. He said:
You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
The teacher of the truth bears good fruit. The teacher of lies bears evil fruit. The false prophets preach in the name of Jesus. They praise his name. They appeal to his authority. But they keep themselves and those who follow their teaching out of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says,
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
What is the will of his Father in heaven? Jesus says:
And this is the will of him who sent me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40)
The fruit of the true prophet is the truth faith. The fruit of the false prophet is a false faith. The true faith is the faith that looks to him who is the way, the truth, and the life and through faith in him receives everlasting life. The true faith rests secure in the wounds of Jesus, knowing that his suffering for our sins sets us free.
The true preaching that leads to the true faith was summarized by our Lord in the last chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel where we read:
And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
The true preacher preaches Jesus. He preaches repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. It was necessary that Jesus die and rise. That’s the only way sin could be forgiven. Sin is the bitter reality in which we are conceived and born. It is the stench in the souls of the holiest and noblest of men. It describes the most virtuous woman. It is the condition of the newborn infant. It is selfishness, self-exaltation, pride, and every fruit these vices produce. The false prophets preach a version of the law that the people can perform. They want disciples to follow them, so they avoid offending the people by confronting them with their sin. They are careful to make the law doable. God’s law becomes the means by which you elevate yourself, as your obedience provides you with success, health, prosperity, and every other good. It doesn’t condemn you, accuse you, or make you feel bad about yourself. It elevates you above others.
That’s a lie. The true law – God’s law – the law that tells us what love demands of us, accuses us. It doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves. It crushes us. It leaves us helpless. It shows us the sin that clings to us and that pollutes even our holiest desires. As we claim we have loved purely, it cuts through to the hatred we’ve buried in our heart. It indicts our conscience and lays us bare before God with no excuses.
Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!
God has mercy for Christ’s sake. The false prophet dangles the gospel just out of your reach, teaching you what you must do to get it. Christ does no such thing. He sees you helpless, lying on your mat, and he says, “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven.” He sees you surrounded by judgmental accusers and he says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” He who bore our sins in his body on the cross speaks the absolution that sets us free.
Beware of false prophets who turn the gospel into a new law as if God is willing to forgive you and be gracious to you, but first you must do your part. Don’t listen to them. The gospel does not require anything from you. It is God telling you that for the sake of the obedience and suffering of Jesus all your sins are forgiven. The gospel calls for faith. We trust in Jesus and what he has done and what he promises.
This faith is more precious than all our worldly wealth. It is worth defending. So we judge. We judge false prophets who come to us mouthing pious sounding platitudes, while they would replace Jesus with manmade laws that burden our hearts and rob us of God’s peace. Only when we know that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake and that they cannot claim us or define us are we free to love God and our neighbor. The gospel that gives us eternal life is also our defense against the false prophets who would take it away.
Pastor Rolf Preus