"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'
It Can't Be Works
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Sometimes in life, things are not what they seem. Wild rice, for example, is not rice. It is a grass. It is a tasty grass, but it is not rice. The tomato is a fruit, closely related to deadly nightshade, also - surprisingly - closely related to eggplants, potatoes, and tobacco. And did you know that the fruit of an eggplant is a berry? You see, things are not always what they seem. There is no place in life where that is more certain than in religion.
Religion will always trip up the unwary. That is so because the devil wants things confusing. He has no desire that you be able to find your way through to the truth. Besides, human nature is the enemy of God, so it is unnatural for you to find and understand the truth easily. Finding the truth requires works, and sticking with the search, and being unwilling to take anything but the truth as an answer, and the help of God, too. Our text this morning illustrates that principle quite well. People almost always seem to misunderstand it. They think it talks about what people do, you know, behaviors, but it really doesn't. It addresses teachings, specifically the teachings of false prophets. Our theme, this morning, is, "It Can't Be Works".
The Gospel begins with a warning about false prophets. Everyone knows that those words speak about false teachers, but when Jesus goes on to talk about their fruits, people tend to separate that part of the text out and use it as though it were not related to the context, and apply it to everyone but false teachers. They read, "So, then, you will know them by their fruits", and they jump immediately to judging people on the basis of their behaviors.
I suppose that is just natural. You can see behaviors, and recognize without much effort which behaviors are reasonable and good and which behaviors are not. This man is mean, his fruit is bad! I like this other fellow, he treats me well. His fruit is good. "So, then, you will know them by their fruits" seems to be a great method of sorting people out. He acts like a Christian, so he must be a Christian. That person over there acts in ways I consider sinful, so he or she cannot be a Christian.
The problem is, it doesn't work. Bad people can do nice things. Good people can do evil things, at times. We are, after all, all of us, sinners! Someone who is truly evil can have friends, and may not always act out their evil. Child abusers can have children of their own and not abuse them. Serial killers can be decent to their friends and families, and well-respected, at least for a time, while they do horrible and unspeakable things to their victims. The fruits you see may not clearly identify the person you are seeing.
Christians also sin. That is the sorry truth. We are all as an unclean thing, the Bible says, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. There is not a righteous man upon the earth that does only good and never sins. So, sometimes you see Christians doing things you would rather they did not, things that are wicked and sinful. We can all certainly recall someone we call a Christian saying or doing things that we just could not understand coming from a fellow believer. But they are! We thank God for our forgiveness when we sin. We should also thank God that others may be forgiven when they do not live up to the best that is in them - or should be in them.
But if bad people can seem decent and good, at times, and good people can seem evil and twisted, or just "not Christian" at times, how can we tell them by their fruits? We can back up to the text, again, and see what Jesus is actually saying.
This portion of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 7 begins with the warning, "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves." The verses just before these words are these: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it." Be sure that you are on the right track, is what Jesus is saying. So then He immediately warns us against those who will lead us to the wrong track, the false prophets!
The question so many people ask is, "With so many people claiming to be speaking the truth, how can you sort them out? How can you tell who is telling the truth and who is not? Jesus talks about that here, in this Gospel lesson, and in a number of other places. But right here, He says, "Beware of the false prophets". That means that you need to be paying attention. The false prophets, come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. In other words, they will look good, and sound good. They we try to appear to you as Christian and sincere and loving. They will dress themselves up in all sorts of holiness, but their real purposes are far from holy. They want to take you away from the truth and lead you into lies. The phrase, ravenous wolves, means to indicate that their desires are for your hurt. Some want your money, and they want to fleece the flock. Some want your worship, or at least your admiration and respect and for you to trust them and listen to them. Some want to lead you away from Christ's truth to their philosophies, and while they know that theirs is not the standard Christian faith, they think, and want you to think, that they are the smartest people in the room and have finally discovered the truth. They may not know why they want to draw you - it usually money or political power of some sort - but they are driven to drag you away from salvation. In this they are ravenous!
So, you cannot go by how they look. You cannot see the truth by how they sound. They have a very convincing air of religiosity and holiness about them. How could such good people be wrong? How could they be wolves? Surely, it is our theology which is too narrow and confining.
Jesus says that we are to tell by their fruits. Since they seem all right and good and holy, it cannot be the outward stuff - it cannot be works! What we need to be alert to is their doctrine. After all, what are the true fruit of teachers? Is it not their teachings? Apple trees produce apples. Corn plants produce corn. Teachers produce doctrine! Teachings!
Not every teaching spoken by a false teacher is false, all by itself. Some of it may sound pretty good! That is why you need to pay attention. You have to know where the teacher gets his stuff and what all he is saying, and not be swept along by a few good sounding phrases and a nice presentation, and a really religious-seeming sort of guy or gal. Everything a teacher teaches must be compared to and tested against the Word of God. Jesus said, in another place, "If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
God's Word, and not the impressive delivery or carriage of the preacher, determines what is truly true. Only by comparing what you hear to the Word of God can you determine whether what you hear is life-giving truth or death-dealing error. That is one of the reasons I always preach on a text, and not just pick topics to wax eloquent and tell you what I think about them. That is why I quote Bible passages so frequently in my sermons and writings. I want you to be able to check it out and put me to the test, and hold me to account. Even more, I want you to be confident, sure of the faith which you hold, and one day stand with me in Christ's eternal kingdom of glory.
Jesus tells us that "Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit." A false teacher cannot hide from those who know, and who test what they hear against the Scriptures. They can sound good for a time, but their errors and deliberate false teachings will come to the fore. They have to. A bad tree cannot produce good fruit. They can hide their evil for a time, but it will show itself, because it is their reason for being. And when you hear their false teachings, you need to run away from them. Even the good sounding things they say are false, falsified by the way they are used to support a lie. Remember: A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. A sound teacher will teach sound doctrine, and not error, and a false teacher will inevitably teach false doctrine, and lead you to destruction.
The fruit of a teacher might also be seen in their practice, since practice is nothing more than doctrine in action. I am not talking about what they do out on the street, of course, or at coffee, but what they do with worship. Some practices are faithful, and some are just plain wrong. If worship is changed so that the Gospel is hidden, and our works and efforts become the central thing, it is false. If the sacraments are missing, or robbed of their power (by the teachings of the pastor), or if they are done wrong - using something other than water in Baptism, or demanding that someone be totally immersed for Baptism to be effective, or requiring adult Baptism or re-baptism, it is false. Using the wrong elements in the Lord's Supper, like milk and cookies, or making how we receive the Lord's Supper determine whether or not it is truly efficacious (for example, that you must cross yourself, or receive the elements without touching then with your hands, or only receiving one kind - the bread or the wine) would make this a false doctrine. Even casting your pearls before swine - open communion - is to make the Sacrament false and cast the teacher into doubt. There are so many ways worship can be twisted and falsified, I can't list them all, but what we do in worship flows out of what we believe, and so even false worship practices can be the fruit and therefore the mark of a false teacher.
Jesus uses the example of natural things, of grapes and figs to make His point about where false teachings come from. You don't look for those fruits on thorns or thistles. You look for good fruit from good fruit plants, not from weeds and noxious plants. So, if you find a teacher that seems pretty okay, except for this or that thing - a significant thing - keep looking, because a false teacher does not produce truth any more than noxious weeds produce wholesome food.
But be sure that the thing that bugs you is bothering you because it is false, and not because you happen to like some other idea, which is not Biblical. And if a man says something which is not faithful, make sure that it wasn't that he simply miss-spoke. Even a faithful teacher can sometimes put his words together in the wrong way, by accident - or err until he is shown his error. But the faithful teacher normally doesn't teach what he doesn't know, and when he confronts his own mistakes or errors, he will straighten them out, confess his error, and teach the truth all the more faithfully.
This is serious. Jesus explains how serious it is by telling us that "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'" These words apply to the false prophets, and, by extension, to those who follow them. Of course, it is the prophet that will prophesy. The prophets are the ones who will cast out demons and perform miracles. This tells us that the appearance of the truthfulness and sound religion of the false teacher can be tremendously powerful, but it is still of no avail. Even miracles worked to deceive you are of no avail for them, and no proof for you. The only proof is whether or not it agrees with God's word.
False doctrine leads to only one end. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. The teachers of the false doctrine, and their followers, will hear what I have called the four most horrible words to be spoken in all of human history, "I never knew you." Error always leads away from Christ. Always. He is the narrow gate. The Gospel is the narrow way, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it."
Your sins are forgiven, and salvation is God's gift to you, by grace. That is the Gospel. That is our faith! Anything that casts doubt on that wonderful truth, or your confidence in it, is devilish - and false. But you are safe, in the Word of God, from false teachers . For, "by their fruits you shall know them". Therefore, "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits." And when Jesus is talking about fruits, it can't be works!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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