|The Eighth Sunday after Trinity| August 10, 2014| 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!'” St. Matthew 7:15-23
The Christian faith is produced in Christians but it is not produced by Christians. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. He is the Author of faith. Apart from his gracious work we remain blind in delusion and are spiritually dead, at enmity against God, and helpless to find our way back to him.
The Holy Spirit converts us and keeps us in the true faith through the gospel of Christ. This gospel or good news is the biblical message about Jesus the Savior of sinners, true God and true man, who has borne all our sins and by whose blood we are forgiven of all our sins and rescued from death and hell. This gospel is biblical. Everything the Bible teaches us it teaches us for the sake of this central truth. Any attack on anything the Bible says is an attack on the gospel, for the gospel is not just one topic among many. The gospel of the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of the obedience and suffering of Jesus is woven throughout the entire Scriptures as the sum and substance of its teaching from cover to cover. We need the gospel to have the Holy Spirit. Since we need the gospel we need the ministry of the gospel. We need preachers and teachers who will proclaim the gospel to us faithfully.
God converts us and keeps us in the true faith by the pure teaching of the gospel. The devil seeks to overthrow our faith and enslave us to his lies by his false doctrine. False doctrine is poison to the soul. It is promoted by false prophets who come to us in sheep’s clothing but in fact they are hungry wolves. They will provide us no spiritual benefit, but only spiritual harm. This is why we must be on guard against false prophets – teachers who say that God said it when God didn’t say it.
In warning his Christians to beware of false prophets, Jesus gives them the right to judge the teaching of their teachers. But they cannot judge rightly unless they know the true doctrine by which to judge. And they cannot judge rightly if they are deceived by false appearances. And they cannot judge rightly if they do not recognize the fruit of a faithful teacher.
Jesus gives all of his Christians the right to judge the teaching of their teachers when he tells them to beware of false prophets. It is not possible to beware of false prophets without judging what they teach. Prophets speak for God. Jesus uses the word “prophets” to refer to all those who speak as if for God, whether we call them pastors, teachers, or whatever. In the Bible the words preacher and teacher are interchangeable. When Jesus tells his sheep to beware of false prophets he is giving to them the right to judge doctrine. How can they beware of false prophets if they don’t have the right to judge what they are taught? There is truth and there is error. The sheep have the duty to judge the teaching of their teachers because, as Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” This gives them the duty to differentiate between the voice of Jesus and the false teaching of the false teachers.
During doctrinal controversy in the church it is common for the laity to leave the judging of doctrine up to the clergy, as if they alone are qualified to do so. Some years ago, when the Evangelical Lutheran Synod adopted a doctrinal statement on the ministry that promoted human opinions as if they were God’s word, I talked with many laymen who told me that it was up to us pastors to settle these things among ourselves. They didn’t think it was their responsibility. They were wrong.
The laity have the duty to learn the doctrine by which they must judge their teachers. How else can you judge the teaching of your pastor except on the basis of God’s holy word? You don’t have the right to judge your pastor by human standards. And you cannot assume that because he went to the seminary, is ordained, and claims to be faithful to God’s word this must mean that he is faithful to God’s word. The only way you can know if your pastor is faithful to God’s word is if you yourself learn what God’s word teaches. This is one reason we learn the Catechism and teach it to our children. It is a summary of the Christian doctrine by which we can and should judge what our preachers preach to us.
Don’t be deceived by false appearances. Jesus says that the false prophets come to you in sheep’s clothing. False prophets don’t wear badges that identify them as false prophets. They present themselves as pious Christians. They will appeal to the Holy Scriptures. They know how. Jehovah’s Witnesses memorize dozens of Bible passages and are trained how to quote the Bible to contradict the Bible. That’s what the devil did when he tempted Jesus. Jesus said to Satan, “It is written” and Satan replied, “It is written.” Being able to quote the Bible and present a pious looking front is the sheep’s clothing under which the false prophet hides.
No, you cannot judge a false prophet by what you see in him. You must judge him by his fruit. Jesus says:
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.
Here we need to make a very clear distinction between the sheep’s clothing and the fruit, for if we confuse the two we will be misled and deceived. The sheep’s clothing that covers up the false teaching of the false prophet is his pious looking appearance and his claims to faithfulness to God’s word. That’s the covering. The fruit of the teacher is his teaching. Does it convict you of your sins and call on you to repent and believe the gospel? Or does it confirm you in your sin so that you don’t need to repent? Is the gospel the message of the full and free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake that is yours through faith alone? Or is the gospel a new law that you must obey? Does the teaching glorify the merits of Christ your Savior and present him to you as your greatest treasure? Or does it glorify the works of men and teach you to glory in human accomplishments? Is it the fruit of true faith or is it the fruit of hypocrisy, delusion, and despair? By their fruits you shall know them!
The religious climate in our communities is not conducive to taking these words of our Lord Jesus to heart. The Red River Valley of the North is a Christianized part of the world. Most people have a connection with some kind of a church, and I would suspect that most people think they know the basics of the Christian faith. One thing they know for sure is that we must not judge. We must not stand in judgment of the sincerely held religious beliefs of others. We may not agree with them, but we may not judge them as being wrong.
Jesus disagrees. Jesus rejects the popular brand of Christianity that is promoted in his name. He rejects it clearly and emphatically in the words he speaks to us today: “Beware of false prophets.” He issues the warning:
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!’”
He calls himself the way, the truth, and the life. He promised to send the Spirit of truth who would lead his disciples into all truth. He said to those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” He cares about the truth. He wants the truth preached, believed, and confessed. False doctrine is poison to the soul and Jesus loves the souls for whom he shed his blood.
The spirit of doctrinal indifference is a demonic, unchristian spirit. To say that the pure doctrine doesn’t matter is to say that Jesus Christ and his saving work do not matter. Those who argue deeds against creeds in fact argue that our works are more precious than Christ’s works. This is the common theme of all the false prophets. They denigrate the saving work of Jesus. They may deny that Jesus really is true God. Then he clearly cannot be our Savior. They may argue that our good deeds help to save us. Then clearly Jesus didn’t do enough. They may argue that the gospel and the sacraments don’t actually bestow salvation. Then we must find salvation in our own struggles and prayers. Whatever form the false teaching takes, its fruit is to take away from us our confidence in Christ alone as our Savior from sin, death, and hell.
So we stand on our guard against all false prophets, insisting that our pastors teach us the pure and wholesome gospel taught in the Bible that we have learned to confess in the Catechism as most certainly true.