Beware of False Prophets
Eighth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| July 13, 2008|
“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.”
Matthew 7, 15-16a
Earlier in this sermon Jesus tells us not to judge. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” he says. God forbids us to judge what is hidden from our sight. We assume evil of our neighbor. We assign to him evil motives. That’s wrong. We have no right to do that. We should assume the best about our neighbor. We should defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything. We should bear with our neighbor’s faults and overlook his weaknesses. All of us sin every day. We sin in thought, word, and deed. Who are we to stand in judgment of our neighbor?
In the same sermon that Jesus forbids us to judge our neighbor he commands us to beware of false prophets. Judging the hearts and motives of others is one thing. Judging doctrine is quite another. Doctrine is another word for teaching. Jesus teaches us the heavenly doctrine that leads us to heaven. The devil is the author of all false doctrine that leads us to hell.
“Beware of false prophets.” So says Jesus. This warning teaches us that Christians have the right to judge the teaching that they hear. It teaches us that Christians can judge the teaching they hear. It teaches us that Christians have the duty to judge the teaching that they hear.
Christians have the right to judge the teaching that they hear. All Christians have this right. Judging between what is true and false doctrine is not just the responsibility of the pastors. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” They have the right to judge the teaching of all preachers, especially their own pastors, to ensure that they are speaking in the same voice as the Good Pastor, Jesus.
It is not possible to beware of false prophets without judging the teaching that we hear. The command of our Lord, “Beware of false prophets,” gives all of Christ’s sheep the right to judge doctrine. Luther writes:
To recognize and judge doctrine behooves each and every Christian . . . For Christ Himself has established this right by various and unassailable statements, such as Matthew 7, 15: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing.” He is certainly speaking this word to the people in opposition to those who teach, and He commands them to avoid false teaching. But how can they avoid them if they do not have the right to judge them? But now He gives them not only the right but also the command to judge, so that this one passage may be considered enough to oppose all the statements of all the popes, all the fathers, all councils, and all schools which have limited the right to judge and to discern to the bishops and ministers and have impiously and sacrilegiously stolen it from the people, that is, the church, the queen. For there stands Christ and says, “Beware of false prophets.” In this all the syllables of the prophets agree. For what else do the prophets do except admonish the people not to believe false prophets? But what is this admonishing except declaring and confirming that the people have the right to judge and recognize doctrine?
No preacher, no synod, no bishop, no pope, nobody in all the world has the right to deny to the Christian the right to judge the doctrine he hears, whether it is true or false.
That judgment must be in agreement with God’s Word. The Holy Scriptures remain the only standard by which to judge the teaching of any preacher. How well do you know the Scriptures? Many Christians assume that, even if they have the right to judge doctrine, they are not capable of doing so. They must first become experts in the Scriptures before they will be competent to judge the teaching of the preachers. So they simply assign to the preachers the responsibility of judging doctrine.
The right of Christians to judge doctrine is of no value if they are not able to do so. Most Christians feel incompetent to the task. But we can judge the teaching we hear. We are not incompetent. Not if we know our Catechism. If you know the six chief parts of Christian doctrine that you have memorized or will someday memorize you are competent to judge doctrine. There’s nothing that the preacher preaches that doesn’t fall under one of these six chief parts.
You know the Ten Commandments. Someone teaches that some of God’s commandments are out of date because we have information today that wasn’t available when the Bible was written. He’s a false prophet. Others teach that the law is the path to eternal life. They are false prophets. Jesus Christ alone is the way to eternal life. When you commit the Catechism to memory you are protected from lies.
If you know the Creed you can judge the teaching you hear. Those who call into question the Virgin Birth of Christ or the historicity of his resurrection from the dead are false prophets. Those who teach that faith is our own work and not the gracious work of the Holy Spirit alone are false prophets. We know this because we know the Creed and Luther’s sound biblical explanation of it.
If you know what the Catechism teaches about prayer you will be able to pray with confidence. You will be able to judge the teaching of those who say that you become a Christian by praying a prayer. Whenever I came across this claim as a young man before I went to the seminary I was reminded of what I learned in the Catechism.
If you know the Catechism you are protected from false prophets. You have within you the source of truth. It doesn’t come from within you. It went inside of you when you memorized it. You know that Holy Baptism works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this. You know this because you committed to memory the Holy Scriptures that teach this. You know the authority of the keys. You are confident that the absolution of your pastor is from Christ himself. You know what you are receiving when you kneel to eat and to drink the bread and wine. This is not merely bread and wine! This is the very body that was given for your redemption. This is the very blood that was shed to take away your sins. This sacrament gives you eternal life even though the false prophets deny it.
You not only have the right to judge doctrine you can do so. You don’t need a fancy degree. You need that summary of Christian teaching set forth in the Catechism. It is not a book just for children. It is a summary of the faith of all Christians of all ages. You can judge doctrine.
And it is your duty to do so. But Christians neglect this duty. They don’t want to be bothered. They think that doctrine is irrelevant to their lives. “We all worship the same God,” they say, as if this makes is acceptable for them to attend churches that teach doctrine contrary to God’s word. They know all they need to know, or so they think. “I know the gospel. I learned all about it when I was a child. I go to church – usually, anyway – or at least sometimes. I don’t need to do the pastor’s job. Let him worry about the doctrine. That’s not my concern.”
Well, it had better be! The gospel is not something you learn as a child and then file away for future reference if you think you might need it someday. It is the food your soul needs to live. The pure teaching of the gospel is the voice of the Holy Spirit himself. To be indifferent to the pure doctrine of God’s Word is to be indifferent about your own spiritual condition. You cannot learn the gospel and be done with it. Our sinful flesh denies it. The world mocks it. The devil seeks to falsify it at every opportunity. And there is no end of false teachers and preachers promoting false gospels that would, if we gave them heed, rip the true faith right out of our hearts and destroy us.
By their fruits you shall know them. Don’t look at the pious veneer. That’s the sheep’s clothing. Don’t look at how religious-sounding they are. Of course they’re religious! What would you expect? Jesus has warned us about their outward covering. Look to their fruits. What do they produce? The fruit of a prophet is his teaching. This is either a life-giving fruit that gives eternal life to those who eat it or it is a poisonous fruit that kills those who eat it.
The true teaching produces the true faith. False teaching produces false faith. The fruit of the false prophets is his soul destroying errors. Some argue that the fruit here is his good life. But Jesus warns us specifically about the sheep’s clothing under which the wolves hide. The fruit is his teaching. It appears brilliant, pious and good. But it is sterile. It gives no life. It encourages sheep not to worry about their sins because God doesn’t care about sin anymore. Or, what the Bible defines as sin he celebrates as goodness, tolerance, and open-mindedness. And if the false prophet cannot get by with this lie he will come up with a way for us to rid ourselves of our own sins.
Where the false prophet enters in and remains unopposed, Christ’s work for our salvation is given lip service, if that. Sinners are no longer taught to repent. If they are they are not directed to the blood Jesus shed for them on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. They aren’t told that their sins are forgiven entirely and freely by God’s grace on account of Christ’s redemption. They are not told that Holy Baptism is a washing of rebirth and renewal that keeps them in union with God. They are not told to rely on the words, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.” They are given all sorts of self-help tips that might disguise the outward symptoms but in no way address the bitter root of sin that infects every human soul.
The false prophets flatter the flesh. They love converts and they revel in their popularity. But the sheep of the Good Shepherd who know his voice and love his words are on their guard. They will settle for nothing less than the pure and wholesome words of Christ. They won’t listen to any other gospel. 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.” The will of the Father is that he be glorified in his Son. The true preachers do just that: they direct Christians to Christ and urge them to rely on him and on him alone. Christ’s holy life and sacrificial death are our greatest treasure. When sin would claim us, when the world would entice us, and when the devil would accuse us we hold fast to Christ our Savior who bore our sins for us and reconciled us to God. We hold on to his pure gospel. He drives away the wolf and keeps us safe. Amen