The Eighth Sunday after Trinity| August 2, 2009| St. Matthew 7:15
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”
“Holy Father, sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth.”
So Jesus prayed in his high priestly prayer shortly before he went to the cross to suffer and die. So the pastor prays before preaching on behalf of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. The truth sanctifies us. It makes us holy. Lies make no one holy. The truth is from God and lies are from the devil.
Lies hurt. People hear things about you that aren’t exactly so. In fact, they are distorted. The facts are wrong. They’re not true. The truth is twisted and the twisted truth becomes truth in the minds of many. You don’t even know who they are. But they believe things about you that are harmful to your reputation. They believe things about you that are not true.
Do you care? “Oh, I don’t care what people think of me.” Sure you do. You care. No one wants others to believe lies about him. People will treat you differently, perhaps even avoid you altogether, if they believe harmful falsehoods they have heard about you.
Lies hurt and the truth matters. This is so with us. It is even more so with God. Lying about God does real harm. It doesn’t hurt God. It hurts those whom God loves and wants to help.
God is the source of every good gift. When we run away from the giver of good gifts we run away from the gifts. When we attribute to God teaching that he does not teach we paint a false portrait of him and drive people away from his gifts.
This is why our Lord Jesus warns us about false prophets. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” A Christian is a sheep of the Good Shepherd. A fellow sheep is no threat. A wolf is. The false prophet teaches falsely. But he covers up his false teaching by presenting himself as a pious Christian. He’s a wolf, but he appears as a sheep.
If he appears as a sheep, how do you recognize him? Obviously, not by his outward appearance. Just because a preacher appears to be a pious Christian does not mean that what he’s teaching can be trusted. Jesus tells us that we will know the false prophet by his fruits. What does he produce? What comes from his teaching?
God’s name is hallowed by the true teaching. God’s name is profaned by false teaching. We pray, “Hallowed be thy name.” We ask, “What does this mean?” Answer: “God’s name is indeed holy in itself; but we pray in this petition that it may be holy among us also.” Then we ask, “How is this done?” Answer: “When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead a holy life according to it. This grant us, dear Father in heaven. But he that teaches and lives otherwise than God’s Word teaches, profanes the name of God among us. From this preserve us, Heavenly Father.”
God’s name is hallowed when the truth about God is proclaimed. False teaching profanes God’s name. It takes what is holy and treats it as if it is common. It bears false witness against God by saying that God said it when God did not say it or by saying that God did not say it when God said it. The petition that God hallow his name among us is the first petition we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. It is to be taken with the utmost seriousness by us Christians. This is why Jesus teaches us to beware of false prophets.
Specifically what is the falsehood that the false prophets attribute to God? There are too many to mention, even briefly, in one sermon, but there are some that reappear again and again. We should be on our guard against them.
First, there is the falsehood concerning who God is. False teachers who deny that God is triune – three distinct persons and yet one undivided essence – do not belong to the Christian Church. They are heretics who seek to overthrow the Christian faith, for there is no salvation apart from faith in the Triune God.
Likewise, there is the falsehood concerning who Jesus is. We know from God’s word and we confess in the creeds that Jesus is true God and true man. To deny that Jesus is really God is to seek to overthrow the Christian faith. Those that deny that Jesus is God are not Christians. Jesus himself said so. He said, “If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.”
Therefore, we must be very clear in saying that the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christian Scientists, the Unitarian Universalists, and any other religious group that claims to be Christian but denies the Holy Trinity and the true deity of Christ are not Christian at all. Their teachers are false prophets.
Where matters become a bit more complicated for us and often extremely uncomfortable is when it comes to false prophets within the Holy Christian Church. We distinguish between false churches and erring churches. A false church is a church like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons. We call this a false church because it is not a church at all. They do not worship the true God. No Christians belong.
On the other hand, an erring church is a church in which soul destroying error is taught but within which there are Christians. The truth is not so utterly rejected that no Christians can be led to the faith and kept in the faith. These erring churches teach that God is indeed triune and that Jesus is indeed true God and man. They retain enough of the truth to be considered churches. But they also teach error that is potentially soul destroying.
There are three popular falsehoods that false prophets within erring churches promote in our day.
The first popular falsehood is that the Bible is not entirely true. Now rarely do the false prophets come right on out and say this. They wear sheep’s clothing, after all. They cover up their lies.
They attack the Scriptures subtly. For example, they will speak of not taking the Bible too literally. Well, if that means that we should read poetry as poetry and learn what a metaphor is, that would be one thing. But if the Bible reports an event as having taken place we are to take God at his word that the event took place. We may not question the historicity of historical accounts recorded in the Bible without calling into question God’s truthfulness.
False prophets call into question the historicity of Adam and Eve, the crossing of the Red Sea, the account of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish, some of the miracles of Jesus recorded by the Evangelists, and the list goes on. Then they will assure the gullible Christian that it doesn’t matter if these events really happened.
But it matters. Our faith is grounded in history. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is that historical event upon which our eternal salvation depends. Those who call into question the historical reliability of the Bible on any point call into question the truthfulness of God himself.
Not only do these false prophets deny the historicity of historical accounts in the Bible, they likewise deny what the Bible teaches about men and women in the church. They ordain women to be pastors in direct conflict with St. Paul’s clear prohibition of it. They even suggest that openly unrepentant homosexuals may serve as pastors in Christ’s Church. These men are false prophets from whom the sheep of the Good Shepherd should flee.
The second popular falsehood is that the gospel and the sacraments of Christ do not give us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Various so called Bible believing churches reject what the Bible says here. False prophets have wormed their way into Christ’s Church to deprive Christ’s people of the comfort and the strength God gives us in his holy sacraments.
These false prophets have been around for quite a while. They say that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are just signs of what God does elsewhere. They don’t actually give you the forgiveness of sins; they only remind you of that forgiveness. If you were to ask them where God gives you the forgiveness of sins they won’t be able to answer. They will say that you should pray for it and believe that God gives it to you. But where is it? Ultimately, it is nowhere to be found.
They teach you that when you invite the Lord Jesus into your heart to become your Lord and Savior you are saved. They teach that once you are saved you can’t be lost. But they cannot point you to where God actually comes to you and pronounces you to be forgiven of your sins. If you say that Jesus forgives us through the words of the minister in the absolution, they will say that no man can forgive sins. Only God can. But where? In my prayers? In my feelings?
You need to hear God’s gospel. You need a baptism that washes your sins away not just when you are baptized, but throughout your life. You need to hear the absolution spoken by Christ’s authority sealing to you the forgiveness of your sins. You need the words of Jesus, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins,” and you need to know that those who believe these words have exactly what they say: the forgiveness of sins.
The third of the popular falsehoods promoted by false prophets within the church today is by far the most dangerous. It is the falsehood that our good works help get us to heaven. Faith is not enough, they say. You need more. You need love in addition to faith.
Oh, what apparent truth! What plausibility! Who can deny that we need love? Surely the doctrine that we are justified and saved through faith alone when we believe that God forgives us our sins on account of Jesus’ suffering and death for us is deficient. Surely we need love in addition to faith.
Of course, we need love. What kind of a life are we living if don’t love? What kind of a Christian has no love? But we don’t love in order to be justified by God and forgiven of our sins. We love because we are justified by God and forgiven of our sins. The difference here is the difference between life and death. The false prophets who deny justification through faith alone are selling death, no matter how nicely they package it in the language of love.
Lies hurt, especially lies about God. This is why every Christian should take the words of his Lord Jesus to heart when he says, “Beware of false prophets.” Jesus loves us. He died for us. He is the Good Shepherd who protects his sheep from the wolf. When we mark and avoid false prophets who would lure us away from the truth we are being guided by the Spirit of truth that Jesus has sent. He keeps us safe and secure in the truth. Amen