The Sheep Must Judge the Shepherd
Trinity Eight Sermon 2006| Rev. Rolf D. Preus | August 6, 2006
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” St. Matthew 7:15
On July 23 the chairmen and secretaries of First Evanger Lutheran Church in Fertile, Grace Lutheran Church in Crookston, and First American Lutheran Church in Mayville signed, on behalf of their congregations, a call to me to serve as the pastor of these three congregations that have now formed one parish. On July 28 I wrote a letter of acceptance, which is in today’s bulletin. Today I preach my first sermon as pastor of these three congregations. I usually preach on the Gospel Lesson for the day. Today’s Gospel Lesson begins with the familiar warning of our Lord Jesus, “Beware of false prophets.” What an appropriate text for this day!
The circumstances of my receiving and accepting this call are rather unusual. Normally, a pastor is formally installed before he begins preaching and assuming the duties of the ministry in a particular place. We hope to be able to have a formal installation in the near future. That’s a good custom. But what makes a man a pastor of a congregation or three congregations, as the case may be, is not that he is formally installed by a representative of a synod. What makes a pastor a pastor is the call from God.
The call from God comes through Christ’s church. The public preaching office (what we usually call the office of the holy ministry or the pastoral office) was instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ when He sent out the apostles as His first ministers. He told them to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. This is how the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies His church. This office or ministry belongs to the church. It belongs to First Evanger, to Grace, and to First American Lutheran churches because these congregations are Christian congregations. As Christian congregations they possess the keys of the kingdom that Jesus entrusted to His disciples. The ministry of the word is Christ’s ministry. It is His saving service. Since Christ is the bridegroom who shares all His treasures with His holy bride, this service or ministry belongs to every Christian congregation in the world. This is how we can be confident that the call to me that has come through First Evanger, Grace, and First American is a call from God Himself. Jesus Christ binds Himself to you in love. All that He has, He gives to you. As His minister, I am your minister. I am here to serve you as Christ’s servant, and the only thing I have to give is what Christ gives.
One could make a good argument for calling pastors with winsome personalities instead of men who are habitually sour and unpleasant. It would be nice if the pastor had all sorts of interpersonal, administrative, musical, and oratorical skills. But if you were to search through the Scriptures to find what kind of abilities are required of the minister of the word and sacraments you will find only one listed. He must be apt to teach. That is, he must be able to set before you the teaching of the word of God. In 1 Timothy 3 St. Paul lists the qualifications required of a pastor. As far as the pastor’s aptitude is concerned, there is only this single requirement. He must be able to teach God’s word. He must know it. He must be faithful to its teaching. He must pass on to the people under his care the pure teaching of God’s word so that by means of this divine instruction they will be led on the path to everlasting life.
Jesus cares about the pure teaching. His teaching reveals His grace. His teaching is centered on Himself. Jesus is not a new lawgiver like Moses. He’s not a philosopher like Aristotle. He’s not a social reformer, a political activist, or a revolutionary. He’s the Savior of sinners. His teaching centers on just that. The pure doctrine of God’s word is not a system of rules or religious regulations. It is the voice of the living God. It is the Holy Spirit pointing us to the wounds of Jesus suffering for sinners so that they might be set free from their sins and find rest for their souls. Jesus cares about pure teaching because He died for us and in so doing won a treasure more precious that all the money in the world. This treasure is called the gospel. The gospel delivers us from every evil of body and soul. It is always a life-giving word from God that replaces our doubts with faith by giving us the forgiveness of all our sins. Jesus cares about the pure teaching of His holy word because He loves us. He wants to keep us solidly grounded in the truth so that our faith will rest secure in life and in death.
This is why Jesus warns us of false prophets. He knows what His Christians are prone to forget. False teaching is poison to the soul. We tend to view false doctrine as relatively harmless: a different point of view, another perspective on things. And it’s against the rules of politeness to criticize false teachers when their false teaching has received social respectability. If we were to limit our criticism of false prophets to fanatical Muslims like Osama bin Laden, we wouldn’t ruffle many feathers. But Jesus isn’t warning us about such men. He specifically says that the false prophets come in sheep’s clothing. That’s hardly a description of fanatics who advocate flying passenger jets into buildings filled with people. No, Jesus is warning us about false teachers and preachers who come from within the Church and He tells us to be on our guard against them.
God calls us to faith and keeps us in the faith by speaking the truth to us. False prophets attack our faith by speaking lies. The truth of God’s word is the source of all spiritual life. False doctrine is the source of spiritual death. The truth makes you free. Lies enslave the soul. Our Lord warns us to be on our guard against false teachers because our faith is at stake. True faith requires the truth. Trusting in lies is false faith. It is not faith at all. It is delusion. It is unbelief. It embraces death.
Jesus teaches us not to judge. “Judge not, lest you be judged,” He says in words recorded at the beginning of this chapter of St. Matthew. Yet here, just a few verses later, He tells us to judge. “Beware!” He says. We cannot be on our guard except by judging. So does Jesus contradict Himself? Of course not! He tells us not to judge men’s hearts, motives, or sincerity. He tells us not to attempt to look beneath what we see and hear and play God by judging what only God can judge. He tells us to judge, not by appearances, but by the words that we hear. What has God told us? This is the standard by which we must judge all preachers and teachers who claim to speak to us from God.
In the Formula of Concord we Lutherans confess that the Bible is “the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated.” My job as your pastor is to preach to you the pure word of God and faithfully to defend it, apply it, and bring it to you in your spiritual need. Your job as members of this parish is to judge my doctrine to make sure that it is God’s. I have no right to spout off my own opinions and claim God said it when God never said it.
There is nothing more that God has to say than what He has already said in the Bible. The topic of the Bible from cover to cover is Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners. The central teaching of the Holy Scriptures is that God forgives and saves lost and condemned sinners by His grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone, and that they receive forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ alone. False prophets add to the Scriptures and take away from Christ. Have you ever heard a preacher talk about what the Lord said to him but what the Lord said to him is nowhere taught in the Holy Scriptures? The Bible is the judge. Every minister of the word must submit his teaching to the clear Scriptures and he must never under any circumstances submit to any other authority over his doctrine than the authority of the Holy Scriptures.
But you say you are no Bible scholar. You haven’t gone to the seminary. You have no more theological training beyond what you learned in the Catechism. How can you presume to judge the teaching of your pastor? Do you know Luther’s Small Catechism? This is an excellent standard to use when judging the teaching of your pastor. Since the written Word of God is the only standard by which we are to judge anyone’s teaching we may also use the Catechism to judge doctrine because the Catechism is drawn from the clear Scriptures. It is your duty to judge the teaching of your pastor according to the biblical standard you learned in the Catechism. The beginning of the demise of any church is when the laity stop judging the doctrine of their preachers. They lose their church. When they say that judging doctrine is the task of the pastors alone they consign themselves and future generations to a danger from which their dear Lord want to protect them. “Beware!” Jesus says. To whom does He give this charge? To the preachers alone? By no means! He gives this command to every single Christian. The reason so many mainstream Protestant churches don’t teach much more than a politically correct social gospel and precious little about repentance and faith in the blood and righteousness of Jesus is because the laity thought that the pure teaching was the pastors’ responsibility. That responsibility for the pure teaching of God’s word belongs to the whole church. It belongs to the church, not to a bishop or to a synod or to a theological committee of some kind. The church isn’t out there or down there or over there. The church is here where the people gather to receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation from the words God gives His preachers to preach.
You need forgiveness of your sins because you daily sin much and deserve nothing but God’s punishment. You need the true and eternal life that Christ alone can give. You need the words of Jesus – His heavenly doctrine. You need this for your own life’s sake. The words of Jesus invite you to confess your sins to your gracious Father in heaven, trusting that for the sake of Jesus’ holy obedience all the way to His death on the cross God forgives you all your sins. The pure doctrine of God’s word reveals to you the pure love of your God. It is solid and unchanging, but it makes everything new. This is what you need to hear preached and taught. It’s my job to do that. It’s your job to see that I do.