Beware False Prophets
Trinity Eight Sermon 2005| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| St. Matthew 7:15-23
“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!'”
Jesus warns us of false prophets. They will come and do terrible damage to Christians. The Holy Spirit brings us to faith and keeps us in the faith. False prophets attack this faith. The Holy Spirit creates and nourishes our faith by proclaiming the truth to us. The devil attacks our faith by means of proclaiming false teachings to us. Jesus compares false prophets to hungry wolves who dress up like sheep so that they can invade the flock and devour the unsuspecting sheep. Sheep have neither the strength nor the intelligence to protect themselves from wolves. They need a shepherd to protect them. Jesus is the Shepherd and the Holy Christian Church is His flock.
The greatest threat to Christ’s flock is not persecution from without, but false teaching from within. The Church survived the terrible persecution of Nero and other Caesars who hounded Christians into caves and slaughtered them for sport. The Church survived the assault of Islam and centuries of persecution under their rule. The Church survived Communism with its mass murder of Christians and its incessant propaganda against the Christian faith.
The most effective attack of the wolf against the sheep takes place when the wolf dresses us in sheep’s clothing and disguises himself as one of the sheep. Persecution from without has often strengthened the Church’s resolve. False teaching from within saps the strength of the Church and her resistance to every kind of soul-destroying error.
Several years ago I was teaching a seminary class in Ternopil Ukraine about current issues in theology. My students had all grown up during the time the Soviets ruled over Ukraine. They recounted how in school their Communist teachers made propaganda against Christianity. They would appeal to the evolution of the human being as a fact that disproved the Bible and Christianity. But their teachers had no credibility. They clearly wanted to refute Christianity by whatever means necessary. It was obvious. Their attacks on the Scriptures were self-serving. The Christians were ready for them and did not take their propaganda seriously.
The most effective attacks against the faith of Christians take place within the church. Respected pastors and theologians introduce false teachings in the name of Jesus. For many years now seminarians in most mainline Protestant churches in America have been taught that the Bible contains errors and contradictions. I recently read a letter in the Grand Forks Herald by a pastor who belittled the belief that the Bible is literally the Word of God and without error in everything it says. He said that those who hold to this view are ignorant. They cannot understand the text if they regard it as inerrant. Well, the pastor was only passing on what he had been taught at the seminary. He was taught that no serious student of the Scriptures can believe that the Bible is free from error of any kind. It is understandable that such unchristian notions would be taught at a secular university. But it is also taught by called and ordained ministers within the church. Jesus warns us: “Beware of false prophets.”
When the sheep are lulled into complacency they put their trust in wolves. Just because a man has a pious veneer and is a doctor of theology does not mean that he is a faithful teacher of God’s word. “Beware of false prophets!” So warns Jesus. “You will know them by their fruits.” Now what are the fruits of a false prophet? Don’t confuse the fruits with the sheep’s clothing. Don’t look for the false prophet to engage in an openly immoral life. He’s not out getting drunk, committing adultery, getting into fights, or breaking the law. He’s wearing sheep’s clothing, remember. The fruits of a false prophet are his false teachings. The fruit of the farmer is what he harvests. The fruit of the carpenter is the house or furniture he builds. The fruit of the legislator is the law he produces. The fruit of a schoolteacher is the knowledge he or she imparts to the children. The fruit of a prophet is the teaching that is transmitted to the people. Judge the prophets. Judge the preachers and teachers and pastors and theologians. Judge them by their doctrine.
Yes, judge. When Jesus commands us not to judge He does not mean that we may not judge the teaching that we hear from preachers. The very fact that Jesus warns all Christians about false prophets and commands all Christians to watch out for them and tells all Christians that they can know them by their fruits means that all Christians have the right and the duty to judge doctrine. When the laity give up their right to judge doctrine they set aside their Lord’s command to beware of false prophets. It is your duty to know the Christian doctrine that your pastor is commanded to preach to you. This is one reason why we catechize our children and require them to memorize the six chief parts of Christian doctrine set forth in the Catechism. They learn portions of God’s Word that summarize the Christian faith. This is how God arms them. Armed with the Word of God they can do battle against false doctrine that would lead them away from the truth.
When I was a boy I memorized the Catechism. I was thirteen. When I was in college my faith was repeatedly challenged by people claiming loyalty to the Scriptures. So called Bible believing “Evangelical Christians” attacked the biblical teaching about Holy Baptism, conversion, the Lord’s Supper, and even justification by faith alone. Whenever the pure gospel that I was taught was under attack, my own personal faith was under attack. I recall one evening in downtown Minneapolis after watching a movie with friends from Concordia College in St. Paul we met a street evangelist on Hennepin Avenue who was preaching a sermon attacking the sacraments of Christ. He insisted that baptism had no power to save and that if we did not invite the Lord Jesus into our hearts by our own free will we would be lost in hell forever. At the age of twenty I remembered the words from the Catechism I memorized when I was thirteen:: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel.” I knew that this was the biblical teaching because it had been impressed upon me when I was a boy. I cannot count the number of times that I, as an adult, have been able to go back to the Catechism I learned as a child in order to defend myself from teaching that would lead me away from the truth.
False prophets say God said it when God did not say it. They say God did not say it when God said it. They draw their doctrine from some other source than the Holy Scriptures. They may rely on tradition, experience, common sense, or holy men who know more than anybody else or who have a special measure of the Holy Spirit. But they cannot substantiate their doctrine from the clear Scriptures. Our Lutheran Confessions call the Bible the “pure fountain of Israel.” It is the source – the only source – of all divine, wholesome, life-giving, true doctrine.
By leading you away from the clear teaching of God’s word the false prophets lead you away from Christ. The early church was compelled to confess that the Virgin Mary was the God-bearer or Mother of God because certain heretics denied that Jesus was really and truly God when He was born. So we can also call the Bible the God-bearer. Mary bore Jesus in her womb. The Bible bears Jesus on every page. Mary gave birth to the Word become flesh. The Bible is the Word written down in words. It is the manger in which the Christ Child is laid. It bears witness to Jesus from Genesis through Revelation. It can no more lie or mislead us than God Himself could lie or mislead us and it always leads us to Christ.
When Jesus talked to His disciples after His resurrection of the dead He showed them how the writings of the Old Testament prophets spoke of Him. They spoke of His crucifixion for the sins of the world. They spoke of His substitution. Isaiah was a prophet – a true prophet – and He wrote so beautifully about Christ:
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
The true prophets always glorified Christ for His suffering for sinners. The false prophets teach the sheep to look elsewhere than to the suffering and death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. The fruits of the false prophets are destroyed lives. When the faith of the sinner is led away from the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to take away his sins that sinner is led away from the only source of forgiveness of sins. He is led away from the true God, from eternal life, and from any hope at all. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. Apart from Him we have no true and lasting life. The central truth of the Holy Scriptures is that Jesus Christ is our righteousness, our goodness. Through faith in Christ we become good trees that can and do bear good fruit. Apart from Christ and without Him as our righteousness all we have is sin and uncleanness. If led away from Christ we are led into sin from which we cannot escape because Jesus, the sin-bearer, is the only escape we have of the consequences of our sins.
Nowadays the most effective false prophets are those who denigrate a concern for pure doctrine as if we are being small minded to care about knowing and confessing God’s pure truth. And, of course, folks can point to the apparently incessant squabbling that takes place among Christians who take the truth seriously. But it is our Lord Jesus who urges us to take doctrine seriously. Our lives in this world will always be prone to error and sin. We won’t put off the sinful flesh entirely until we are laid in our grave. But God’s Word must be kept entirely pure and free from error of any kind. We must never insist that God said it when He did not say it clearly in the Holy Scriptures. And when He does say it clearly in the Holy Scriptures we must hold to it for dear live. For all truth that God reveals to us is centered in, revolves around, and serves to promote the truth that we “cannot be justified before God by our own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that we are received into favor, and that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight” as the Bible teaches from cover to cover. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us this faith and by it we confidently call God Father as heirs of the glory of heaven. So we will treasure this gospel truth more than life itself and learn to mark and avoid the wolf, running away from all false doctrine into the protection of our Shepherd, Jesus, who laid down His life for us, took it up again, and promises us eternal life that no one can take from us.