By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them
Preached on Sunday, August 14, 2011 by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.(Matt. 7:15-20)
When our Lord warns us to beware of false prophets, he is speaking to us about a group of the most dangerous of all kinds of people. Whereas a murderer might take away the physical life of a person, a false prophet destroys the eternal souls of people. A false prophet is a false teacher. Don’t let the word “prophet” confuse you. We normally think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, but in the Bible the prophet might predict the future, but the basic duty of the prophet was to speak the word of God. Anyone who speaks on behalf of God, teaching others the word of God, is, in that sense, acting as a prophet. A prophet is someone who simply claims to be preaching God’s truth. Our Lord alerts us to beware, to be on our guard, because these false prophets, these false teachers, may not be easy to detect.
The false prophet does not come to us as a wolf who is seeking to destroy us. The false prophet appears as one of the sheep. As you know, one of the metaphors that our Lord frequently uses to describe his own followers is that of sheep. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). ” When a false prophet comes into our midst, he comes as one of the sheep, and, on the surface, he looks and behaves like one of the sheep. When our Lord warns us to beware of false prophets, he is not warning us to beware of atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. They do not claim to be teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The false prophet, on the other hand, claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ and claims to be a true, reliable teacher of the word of God. The Apostle Paul warned the Ephesians about the presence of false teachers in their midst, using this comparison to wolves. In Acts 20:28-30, Paul warns the pastors of the church, “ Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). The wolves may infiltrate the church from the outside, or they may spring up from within the local church itself. They will be friends, neighbors, people considered brothers and sisters in Christ, but they will be wolves who will destroy the sheep.
The false prophet will seem as though he is theologically sound. The false prophet will use the Bible. It always amazes me when people defend false teachers in our day by saying, “I know that this man is truly of God because he just preaches from the Bible.” All of the major heretics in the history of the Church used the Bible to support their teaching, and they still do. The false prophet doesn’t come to us saying, “Throw away your Bible, and instead, listen to what I have to say.” No, he will say, “Turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel according to Matthew….” The false teacher may have the reputation of being a great Bible scholar, with many theological degrees attached to the end of his name. The false prophet will use all of the same words that those who are sound in theology will use. The false teacher will talk a great deal about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, grace, faith, living the Spirit-filled life, and living in communion with God. But if you listen closely to the false prophet you will find that when he uses those words he means something entirely different than what we mean when we use those words. False teachers have redefined those words and concepts. Theological liberalism has incredible capacity to use all these words that we use and recast them in totally different forms than their traditional meanings. We often wonder how theological liberals could stand in church each Sunday and confess that they believe what is taught in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. I used to believe that they said those words with their fingers crossed behind their backs, but they don’t have to do that. All they have to do is redefine the words and the concepts. Many theological liberals can say that they believe what is taught in the creeds, but only in a metaphorical, rather than a literal sense. They can continue to parade themselves as Christian ministers, professing to believe what the Bible says, while at the same time denying what the Church has always taught about our fundamental beliefs. Don’t be deceived by their language. The false prophet will probably be using the same language that you and I use.
Furthermore, don’t be deceived by the large number of followers that the false prophet may have. Especially in these days when people are so Biblically and theologically illiterate, the false prophet will probably have the largest following, because Christians of our generation have no knowledge to be able to discern between false doctrine and true doctrine. It is interesting that our Lord gives us this warning just after he has said that strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it. On the other hand, wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and many go through that wide gate and walk that broad way. It seems rather obvious that the false prophet is a preacher of the broad way, and he will have many followers. The false prophet will be the teacher of the easy way to heaven. The false teacher will tell you that the way to heaven is simple—just make a decision and say this sinner’s prayer. There will be no talk about repentance and turning from sin with hatred and loathing. There will be no talk about taking up the cross, denying yourself, and persevering in a way of obedience to all the commands of holy Scripture. No, the false prophet will promise the easy way to heaven, a way without commitment and holiness of life. No wonder they have many followers. The true man of God will probably have few followers because he does not take the rough edges off the gospel message. It is so sad in our day to see how people will follow those men who have the charming, charismatic personality. They have the gift of gab, they are excellent public speakers, they have the large facilities, the lights, and loud bands. Then, there is a man who doesn’t have those gifts, but he is a man who spends his days and nights in prayer, pouring over the pages of holy Scripture, “toiling upwards through the night” so that he might give his people deep, theological edification, but no one bothers to hear him. The false prophet will appear to be very successful, making it more difficult for people to detect, especially the ignorant people of our generation who think that the only evidence needed to verify that teaching is true is the number of people who follow it.
The false prophet is a murderer, a deceiver, a destroyer of souls, a devil incarnate, but he will not appear that way. Remember that St. Paul said about these false teachers: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (II Cor. 11:13-15). If the devil himself can turn himself into an angel of light, we shouldn’t be surprised that false teachers also have this incredible capacity to convince people that they are imparting to them the light of God’s word.
Since they are so clever in disguising who and what they really are, we might be tempted to give up and think that it would be impossible to detect them. But you will notice that twice in this passage our Lord Jesus says, “you shall know them.” In verse 16 he says, “ye shall know them.” In verse 20 he says, “ye shall know them.” The false prophet is very clever in his disguise to appear as one of the sheep, but those who have discernment will be able to know them. Jesus said, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
Down through the centuries, there has been some debate among Christians about what these fruits really are. There have been those who have said that the fruit is their teaching. In other words, “you will know they are false prophets because of their false teaching.” Others have said that the fruit is if the life that they lead and the lives that they encourage their followers to lead. In other words, you will know them by their ungodly lifestyle and the ungodly lifestyle adopted by their followers. What is the fruit that our Lord speaks of here? Is it the teaching, or the life? The answer to that question is, “Yes.” It is both the teaching and the life, because false teaching and an ungodly life go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, we can say that one of the motivations behind false teaching is to give permission for people to live an ungodly life, to walk on the broad way. A. W. Pink said that the fruits spoken of here are their creed, their character, and their converts.
It should be rather obvious that if a teacher denies the fundamentals of our faith, he should be considered a false prophet. Anyone who denies that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God is a false prophet. Anyone who denies the eternal deity of our Lord Jesus Christ is a false prophet. Anyone who denies that there is salvation in any other way than by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is a false prophet. But as I said earlier, you will probably never hear these false prophets come out and say that they don’t believe these things, although some are that bold. Rather, as I said, they simply redefine these doctrines. We must say that a false prophet is someone who denies these truths as they have been traditionally understood by the historic Church. When people say, “Oh, I believe in the deity of Christ, but I believe that this means that in some sense God was at work in Jesus Christ in a unique way,” that explanation is not what the Church has historically taught about the deity of Christ. What the Church has historically taught about the deity of Christ is that he existed as a person from all eternity past and became incarnate. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Any kind of wavering on that doctrine is the mark of a false prophet. There is a body of teaching that the historic Church has believed in all places and at all times, and when anyone departs from that historic teaching of the Church on these fundamentals of our faith, they are false prophets no matter how much they may use the same terminology we use. It is so important to be a member of a church that is part of the historic Christian faith, holding to the truths that have been handed down to us since the time of the apostles. One of the great helps against being deceived by false prophets is being in a church where men are thoroughly examined to make sure that they are not wolves, coming in their own independent authority, infiltrating the flock of Christ to tear the sheep apart.
But the fruit that is spoken of here is also the fruit of a holy life. Throughout Scripture, when fruit is spoken of, it often means the fruit of godly living or good works. In Phil. 1:11, St. Paul writes, “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.” Again, in Col. 1:10, he says that he prays that these Colossian Christians, “might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God.” By fruit, then, we can understand obedience to God’s righteous standard of behavior and works of love, justice, and mercy. These words of our Lord Jesus are spoken in the context of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. A few weeks ago we looked at that passage from this sermon where our Lord said, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Whereas the Scribes and Pharisees were interested only in outward moral behavior, the Christian is to exceed their righteousness by also being righteous inwardly, being free from anger, hatred, and lust. Right after these words about false prophets, our Lord says, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21-3). Jesus is teaching us that it is not enough to merely call him Lord. It is not enough to recognize that Jesus is the divine son of God. It is not even enough to do some good works in his name. Jesus says that he will command people to depart from his presence who work iniquity. That word that is translated “iniquity” is the word “lawlessness.” If Jesus is truly your Lord, you are not going to live a “lawless” life. You are going to conform your life according to the teaching of Scripture. The false prophet encourages his followers to live lawless lives. The false prophet will say things like, “As long as you believe in Jesus Christ, you can live any way you please.”These people leave out the truth that putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ is to believe in him as your prophet, priest, and king. He is not only a priest to forgive you and save you from your sins, but he is also your prophet to command you and your king to rule over you. You shall know them by their fruits.
Look at the false prophet and his followers. Are they demonstrating the fruit of the spirit? Are there lives marked by love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance? Or, are their lives characterized by adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings. By their fruits you shall know them. The Rev. James Slade, a 19th century British vicar put it this way:
…look at their characters and lives, see whether these correspond with the holy law of God, of which they have set themselves up as the expounders; if not, let them be at once rejected, as persons who have some worldly purpose to serve, promoting their own honour or emolument at the expense of their deluded followers; “ravening wolves,” who will destroy the flock, instead of feeding and saving it…a man’s life is the only sure evidence of his heart and principle: no trust is to be placed in promises or professions; experience daily teaches us this, daily proves, that where there is the loudest and loftiest pretension to religion, there is often least of the reality. It is God alone, who is able to search the heart; man can know nothing of it, but by a watchful observance of the character and conduct. It is not by the language we hear from the avowed believer, it is not from a few outward acts, that a correct judgment can be formed; it is from the consistency of behaviour, and the prevailing course of practical life.
I know that sometimes even a false prophet appears to be righteous, but eventually, the true character of the person will emerge. Jesus said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). Sooner of later, the true character of the person will manifest itself. Now, this doesn’t mean that if a minister of the gospel sins in some way, even in a horrible way, that he is necessarily a false prophet. Even David sinned in terrible ways, yet spoke the truth of God. But overall, it will be seen that the false teacher consistently led a life that was not in conformity with Scripture.
Then, we can say that the fruit of the false teacher can be seen in his converts, his followers. What kind of lives do his followers lead? I’ll lay a little bit of a guilt trip on you today. Whether or not I am judged as a false teacher depends on how you live. How is that for putting a little pressure on you? The way you live reflects on me. If you are mean-spirited, cruel, critical, hot-tempered, lustful arrogant, worldly, covetous, that reflects on me, as your spiritual father. It is true that a real man of God may have some converts who turn out to live ungodly lives, even turn from the faith. Even the apostles had converts who eventually turned from the truth. But the questions must be asked, “Did they turn away because of the teaching of the man of God? Was there something in the teaching of the pastor that led them to live an ungodly life?” This is the question to ask, “Does the pastor’s teaching have a tendency to lead people to strict holiness of life or to an ungodly, immoral manner of life? Hopefully, it can be said in this church that if people live in an ungodly manner, it wasn’t because my teaching led them to do so. If they do depart from righteousness it would be in spite of the teaching here, not because of it.
In these days, when there are so many false prophets, false teachers in our world, we need to heed this warning of our Lord Jesus more than ever. Stay close to Christ in prayer. Read and study the Scriptures diligently. Be faithful in your attendance to hear the teaching and preaching of God’s word so that you might be able to distinguish the true from the false. I’ll close with the words of Bishop J. C. Ryle, “The world, the devil, and the flesh are not the only dangers in the way of the Christian; there is still another one, and that is the ‘false prophet’—the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Happy is he who prays over his Bible and knows the difference between truth and error in religion! There is a difference, and we are meant to know it, and to use our knowledge.” Amen.