By their fruit you will know them

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Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 8:12-17  +  Matthew 7:15-23

Beware of false prophets. That is Jesus’ instruction to His disciples. Let’s begin this morning by giving thanks to God for that instruction, because without it, we might get the idea that the Christian Church on earth would be this glorious, easily identifiable, united entity, filling the whole world with a unanimous confession of Christ, with all its pastors and preachers in communion with one another.

But that isn’t what we see, is it? We see dozens and dozens of different doctrines, different confessions, church bodies that divide and then sub-divide and then split again and again into smaller and smaller groups. The world laughs at how divided the Christian Church is, and Christians wring their hands over it. They either try to fix it by brushing aside doctrinal differences and coming together on the basis of something other than doctrine—“deeds, not creed,” they say, are what matters. Or, they despair and say, “How can I ever know who’s telling me the truth? Why bother trying to figure it out?”

But the divine Author of our faith is the One who told us ahead of time to expect exactly what we now witness on this earth: false prophets, and many who follow them. In fact, if the visible Church were not plagued by false prophets, then Jesus would be a liar, and then where would we be?

And here we’re not talking especially about non-Christian false prophets, although there are plenty of them, too. Here in this Gospel Jesus is warning us about those who call Him, “Lord, Lord,” who bear the name “Christian,” who look and sound harmless, mild, gentle, innocent, intelligent, and sincere, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.

And so we have the command—not the suggestion, but the command—from Jesus to beware of false prophets. It won’t do for Christians to say, “Meh, doctrine doesn’t matter.” It won’t do for Christians to say, “Why bother trying to figure it out?” It won’t do for Christians to tell Jesus on the Last Day, “You, know, Lord, I was pretty busy and never got around to actually checking to see if that preacher was telling me the truth or not. I was just a layman, after all. It’s not my fault I believed that guy (or that gal, as the case may be, and if it’s a woman pretending to preach in the name of Christ, you should know right away that she’s a false prophet). Anyway, Jesus, it’s not my fault. Blame the false prophet, Lord, not me for believing him!”

Don’t worry. Jesus will blame the false prophet. But He will also blame the one who heard His warning to beware of false prophets and refused to take heed. He will blame the disciple who had His Word and who cared more for earthly benefits than for the Word of Christ and who trusted more in the word of man than in the Word of Christ.

You must have God’s Word for yourself. Each one. Not the word of this or that pastor or synodical statement, or of this church or of that church father or of this diocese. You must have God’s Word. Your parents can’t have it for you. Your husband or wife can’t have it for you. Your church, your synod, your diocese, your pastor can’t have it for you. You must have it and be able to stand on it before God. And when you have it, then you are never to let go of it or let it be compromised or twisted or perverted or diminished. Then you are not to sit at the feet of one who teaches it even a little bit falsely, no matter what great earthly benefits you might reap from staying with such a preacher or with such a church, no matter what hardships or afflictions you may have to endure for holding onto God’s Word.

So how do you know? How do you judge? The Apostle John writes in his First Epistle, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. The test that St. John then sets before his readers is a doctrinal test, comparing the teachings of the preacher with the teachings that have been passed down from the holy prophets and apostles.

So when Jesus says in today’s Gospel that you will know them by their fruits, He’s talking about the teachings that they produce. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes 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.

Now, there is something to be said about examining the “fruit” of a preacher’s life and works. Ultimately the faithful preacher sent from God will show his faith in various ways, producing the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—while the false prophet may have good-looking works for a while, but his lack of concern for the sheep usually becomes evident, and fear instead of faith will tend to show itself. Fear that outweighs faith, fear that manifests itself in many ways, but especially fear to stand up for the Gospel if it means losing some earthly benefit; and unbelief when it comes to trusting the Gospel to do what God wants it to do, always trying new ways to bring people into the Church that have nothing to do with the Gospel.

But true prophets of God have a sinful flesh, too, and won’t always do the good they want to do. So judging a man by his life and good works should always be secondary. The main fruit of a preacher is the teaching he produces. The leaves and flowers on thornbushes can often appear just as beautiful as the leaves and flowers on grape vines and fig trees. You have to look past appearances, look past official titles, look past the preacher’s strengths and weaknesses, his personality traits, his niceness, his charm, look past how he makes you feel. Look to the teaching he produces, to see whether it is good or bad. Then and then alone will you know if the preacher is good or bad.

So what is the fruit Christians are to look for in a preacher? You look for teaching that either agrees or disagrees with what you know to be true from God’s Word. And since you are Lutherans who have already compared the teaching of God’s Word with the Small Catechism (and all the Lutheran Confessions) and determined that our Confessions teach the Word of God purely and without error, you look for teaching that either agrees or disagrees with your Catechism.

Let’s summarize those teachings briefly. The Ten Commandments teach what is good and right in God’s sight, how to love Him above all things and how to love your neighbor as yourself. But they also show how you haven’t done that, and so deserve only God’s wrath and punishment.

The Apostles’ Creed confesses who the true God is—one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who has made all things, who has had mercy on His fallen creatures by sending His Son into human flesh and giving Him into death for our sins and for our redemption, who sends His Holy Spirit into the world in the preaching of the Gospel to gather a holy Church by calling sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.

The Lord’s Prayer teaches you how to pray as Christians, what to ask for and what to expect from our gracious Father.

Holy Baptism teaches you how and where God first forgave you your sins, adopted you as His child and made you an heir of eternal life, by applying the merits of Christ to you and clothing you by faith with the righteousness of Christ. There the Holy Spirit gave you rebirth and began the lifelong process of sanctifying you and renewing you in the image of Christ.

Confession teaches you that baptized Christians are continually to confess your sins and trust that God Himself is the One declaring forgiveness to you through the mouth of His called and ordained pastor, who speaks to you in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus.

And the Sacrament of the Altar proclaims the simple truth that the risen Lord Christ now regularly feeds the members of His Church with His own body and blood, which are really present with the bread and the wine, to offer and seal to you the forgiveness of sins, purchased with the death of our Lord.

Now that’s a summary of a summary, and a necessary starting point. But God has put His whole Word at your fingertips to study and to learn, and the whole Book of Concord is a faithful guide, so that you can use it to see through all the lies and deceptions and falsehood that pass for “Christian teaching” these days.

Where you find the Gospel purely taught and the Sacraments rightly administered, there you know the preacher is a good tree who is bringing you good fruit. Where you find teachings that differ from this or practices that are contrary to this, there you should not look for good fruit at all, even if many things the preacher says are right.

And where you find good fruit, there you should remain. Where you find bad fruit—from there you should flee. Don’t settle for the “closest thing” or the “next best thing.” Remain with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even in this church and in this diocese, I urge you in the name of Christ to continue to test the doctrine that is proclaimed from this pulpit, because there is no guarantee than a good teacher will ever and always remain a good teacher. Many good trees have gone bad over the ages, and many Christians have fallen away from the truth by continuing to cling to a good teacher gone bad.

Does this sound difficult? Does this sound like hard work? Who ever told you it would be easy? Salvation is free, already earned for you by Jesus! But the Christian life is not easy. It involves denying yourself and taking up your cross daily as you follow Jesus. And it’s serious business. 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. The will of God is that you should abide in His Word and cling to it for dear life, for there He reveals Christ to you, and you are saved and justified by faith alone in Christ. There in His Word He speaks to you, and He’s always sincere. There He draws you to Christ and gives you eternal life and preserves you in Christ Jesus, who has made you this promise: If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. God is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.

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