Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
August 7, 2022
Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets, who come to us in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. A false prophet is a false teacher, someone who teaches errors and falsehoods about God and his Gospel. Now most people these days don’t think we should be worried about false doctrine and errors in the church, just so long as everyone loves Jesus, that’s all that matters. This is called Gospel-reductionism. Yet, Jesus warns us that many will call upon him claiming to have done many great things in his name, but he will deny ever knowing them. And Jesus describes false teachers as ravenous wolves. You know what happens when a ravenous wolf gets into a sheep pen, right?
So, we must not assume that false doctrine is nothing to worry about. False doctrine scatters the sheep. That’s why we have so many different denominations and sects teaching contrary messages, while all claiming to be Christian. Satan has scattered the sheep with his false teaching. And false doctrine kills. Many have lost their faith in Christ, because they were taught to rely on their own works instead of the merits of Christ, or they were taught that they did not need to repent of their sins. Denying that Baptism forgives sins and grants new birth, even to infants, robs Christians of the comfort of their Baptism and drives them to search in themselves for rebirth instead of trusting in the words of Jesus. Denying that the Lord’s Supper is Jesus’ true body and blood robs Christians of the certainty of the forgiveness of sins given in the Sacrament and places doubt that Jesus our Redeemer can be with us at all in this world. The denial that the Bible is the true Word of God takes away any confidence in Jesus’ words, that they are Jesus’ words at all. There are many different false teachings, but they all separate us from Christ and the salvation he has won for us.
Jesus tells us that false prophets come to us in sheep’s clothing, meaning that we will not recognize them by their outward appearance. They will look like good guys. But remember what God told Samuel when he anointed David to be king, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) So then, how can we recognize these false prophets? Jesus tells us, “You will recognize them by their fruits.” The fruits of false prophets are their teachings. If they teach contrary to the words of Jesus, then they are false prophets and you should mark and avoid them.
But how can you recognize good fruit from bad fruit? There are so many different teachers saying so many different things, isn’t it like drawing a straw and hoping you picked the right one? Besides, God says that the LORD does not see as man sees. How can we possibly see correctly?
The answer is that you must be born again. That means that God must create faith in your heart, so that you believe in Christ Jesus as your Savior in order for you to recognize good fruit from bad fruit, pure doctrine from false teaching. St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:13) How did the Thessalonians recognize that Paul’s words were the word of God? Because they were believers. God had created faith in their hearts through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so they recognized that the words of St. Paul were none other that the words of Jesus, God’s Word.
This is why Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27) Jesus’ sheep recognize Jesus’ voice, because they have been born again by the Spirit of God and have faith in the Gospel. It is the word of Jesus which caused them to be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the word of Jesus which revealed to them the salvation Jesus won for them on the cross. And so, they recognize the true teaching of Jesus like a sheep recognizes its shepherd’s voice and a child its mother’s voice.
It is impossible for an unbeliever to distinguish between false teaching and true teaching. This is why Christians should never look to the unbelieving world for guidance in determining what is pure doctrine and what is false doctrine. The unbelieving world can mock us and ridicule us and it does not matter at all. They cannot recognize the truth until they have been born again by the Spirit of Christ. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (vss. 14-16) So, only Christians can pass judgment on the teaching and preaching of a pastor. Only those who have been given the mind of Christ can judge between true and false doctrine.
Now, this does not mean that if you are a Christian, then you can simply follow your heart and you’ll always know what is true. Quite the opposite. As a Christian, you don’t follow your heart, you follow Jesus. Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) And Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount, which is where our Gospel Lesson is taken from, by saying, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) Christians can recognize false teaching, because they listen to and believe Jesus’ true teaching. This is what King David teaches us in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither…”
This is why it is important for Christians to regularly go to church, listen to and learn from the sermon, attend Bible study, and do devotions at home with their Bible and Catechism. If you are familiar with the teachings of Jesus, you will mark and avoid those teachers, who would lead you into sin, self-righteousness, denying the benefits of your Baptism, and other horrible things.
Jesus declares, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” Now, when speaking of false prophets and true ministers of the word, fruit refers to their teaching. Yet, fruit has a broader meaning as well, referring to the works of unbelievers and the works of believers. Scripture says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” While the works of the flesh, which are bad fruit, are “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” (Galatians 5:22-23 and 19-21) A Christian is made a good tree through faith in Christ and then produces good fruit. An unbeliever is by nature a bad tree and produces evil fruit. Jesus warns, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” That is a warning of hell for all who continue in unbelief producing bad fruit.
A good tree cannot bear bad fruit. But don’t I bear bad fruit? Doesn’t that mean that I am not a good tree? Also, Scripture says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9) But don’t I sin? Does this mean that I am not born of God?
Now false teachers will answer this in one of two ways. Either they will say that the evil you think you do is not a sin and God is not bothered by it, as they have done with fornication and homosexuality, which have burdened the consciences of sinners for millennia. This is clearly wrong, because Scripture tells us what are the works of the flesh, which if a person does them, he will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:10). Or, they will say that you are not a Christian until you have removed every sin from your life and that Christians no longer sin. This also is clearly wrong. Scripture says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) The teaching that Christians no longer sin leads people either into self-righteousness and legalism or into despair and always away from faith in Christ’s atoning death.
The correct answer is that the new man born after the image of Christ does not sin. You have been made a good tree. Good trees cannot produce bad fruit. They can only produce good fruit. That means that God is pleased with the works of his Christians, whether it is as simple as going to church, saying prayers, going to school or work, or going to sleep at night. But Christians still sin! God certainly is not pleased with my sin, is he? Certainly not! Yet, God passes over our sins for Christ’s sake, forgiving our trespasses. And, Christians do not continue in sin without repenting.
St. Paul says on the one hand, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”, (Galatians 2:19) and on the other hand he says, “Now if I do what I do not want it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:20) In other words, we serve Christ in our reborn state, and we fight against the sin of our old Adam. This is why St. Paul writes in our Epistle lesson, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13) According to your Baptism into Christ, you are a good tree, born of good seed. Yet, your old Adam still hangs around until you shed this mortal body. And so, you still sin. But that sin is not you. It must not be you. And to keep it from becoming you, you must kill it frequently. You must repent of your sins daily. So that God does not cut you down, because of your rotten fruit, you must cut down your old Adam every time you sin. To live the Christian life means to prune yourself of evil branches frequently by repenting of your sins.
You are not a good tree because you produce good fruit. You produce good fruit, because you are a good tree. And you become a good tree in no other way than through faith in Christ Jesus. It is Christ who died for your sins. It is Christ who forgives you and has given you his Holy Spirit, so that you are born again into a new person. And as a new person, you put to death the deeds of the old sinful flesh. When sexual immorality, greed, anger, pride, arrogance, hatred, and every other rotten fruit of the flesh rises up from you, that is simply a branch of the old Adam that needs to be lopped off. Repent. Ask God for forgiveness for the sake of Christ’s shed blood. And continue to live as a child of God. And living under that promise of Christ’s forgiveness and salvation, you can be confident that God will never cast you away. Amen.