Sermon for Trinity 8
Jeremiah 15:19-21 + Romans 8:12-17 + Matthew 7:15-23
Toward the beginning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, He warned His Christians not to judge. But as we learned several weeks ago, that wasn’t a blanket statement prohibiting every form of judgment. Today, toward the end of the same Sermon on the Mount, Christ specifically calls upon His Christians to make a judgment. Not a judgment condemning people to hell or raising them up to heaven. But a judgment about whether a prophet—a pastor, preacher, or teacher—is a true prophet speaking God’s words, or a false prophet speaking falsehood in God’s name. It’s a very simple warning, actually, but it’s very distasteful to many people—especially to the false prophets themselves, but also to those who like to listen to them. And even you who love the doctrine of Christ may find it hard to put into practice because of your sinful flesh.
There are several reasons why Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are hard to hear in our time and place in history. (1) If you’re not sure you have the truth, you can’t be sure that someone else is speaking something false, can you? And (2) combined with that is our modern world’s insistence that there is no such thing as absolute truth, just different perspectives that are all valid, just different interpretations that might all be right in the end, so, how arrogant do you have to be to label someone as a false prophet? (3) Some Christians are genuinely cautious about falling into sinful pride or speaking the truth without love, but then they buy into the world’s definition of love, which means accepting everyone and never saying anything negative about anyone. (4) You may have friends and family who adhere to some false doctrine, and you don’t want to even think about those areas that could cause conflicts with them. (5) You may have fallen into the trap of listening to false prophets in the past, so you may have a favorite false prophet out there somewhere whom you respect or to whom you like to listen, and you don’t want anything negative said about someone whom you admire or appreciate. (6) There are so many people in the world who are openly opposed to Christ, so many non-Christian enemies of the Church. Why waste time squabbling with other Christians? And related to that is, (7) some people fall into the Fundamentalist error that there are only a handful of “fundamental” doctrines that “really matter,” and that we should just agree to disagree on the rest.
But here’s the thing, the answer to all of those objections: We have a command from Jesus to “watch out for, to beware of false prophets.” There’s no getting around it. Every bit as much as God commands you to honor your father and mother and not to murder, so He also commands you to watch out, to beware. That doesn’t mean that every day, every week, all the time we spend our time pointing out falsehood. We do not. We point it out as it arises, as we are confronted with it. There’s no need to go out into the far reaches of the world, though, in order to find it. There are false prophets in every city of America, in the majority of “Christian” pulpits in every city, whose books line every bookstore in America, and who broadcast their false doctrine on websites and TV channels and radio stations that have the capacity to enter every single home and every single web-enabled device of every single Christian in our country. And if, somehow, you are not encountering these false teachers in your day-to-day life, your neighbor or your fellow member may be encountering them, and you will all encounter them at some point. So we obey Jesus to beware.
What’s more, look at what happens to false prophets in the end! Listen to Jesus’ 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! It doesn’t get more serious than that. As you see printed on the last line of your service folder on the back, that line from one of our confessional statements talking about false prophets: So they hide Christ’s glory and rob consciences of firm consolation. So as a warning to those false prophets, we stand on the true doctrine and we make our stance known both in our written confessions and in the confession of our actions—what we believe and also what we condemn.
Now, if false prophets run the risk of being shut out of Christ’s eternal kingdom, what will their hearers do who followed them and believed their falsehoods? Remember, false prophets hide Christ’s glory and rob consciences of firm consolation. So we watch out for false prophets, not out of pride, but out of love for all men, that they may not be deceived by lies, but may come to know the truth of Christ and be preserved in the truth of Christ.
Beware of false prophets. Notice that we’re talking about “Christian” false prophets, those who say to Jesus, “Lord! Lord!”, who preach and teach and even claim to do miracles “in the name of Christ.” We’re not bothering here with the so-called prophet Muhammed, or the Dalai Lama, or Jewish Rabbis, or atheist spokesmen. We’re not told to watch out for them, because Jesus is talking to Christians, and Christians all know better than to listen to the teaching of someone who openly denies Christ. Right?
And we’re talking, not about the average person on the street, but about false teachers, those who claim to speak for God, those who pretend to teach people what Christ teaches and who do it wrongly, who teach things that aren’t true about Jesus and about His word.
Jesus warns us that it won’t be easy, on the surface, to identify a false prophet. Why? Because they dress themselves up like sheep. Innocent. Harmless. Friendly. Engaging. Don’t be deceived, Jesus warns us. Don’t be fooled by appearances or charisma or sincerity. False prophets say lots of good things, lots of true things. It’s part of the masquerade they’re trying to pull off. But inwardly they are ravenous wolves. They want to tear you away from Christ and His word, and they will do you harm, if you listen to them.
By their fruits you will know them. Notice, though, how Jesus talks about a person’s fruit. Not as if there’s some good and some bad, so watch out for the bad and hold onto the good. It’s all or nothing. He’s either a grapevine or a thornbush, a fig tree or a thistle. A good tree produces good fruit. Period. A bad tree produces bad fruit. Period. You see, Christ views His doctrine, His Gospel, as a unit, as a single piece of fruit. If a prophet’s teaching, as a whole, is good, then you know the prophet is good. If the teaching, as a whole, contains falsehood, then you know he’s a false prophet.
That’s why the pope or the Baptist preacher or the nominally Lutheran pastor can teach many things that are true and say many things that are right, and yet still be a false prophet of whom you are to beware, because the falsehood that is part of his confession of faith makes his entire teaching corrupt. So in the end you aren’t judging the man (or the woman). You’re judging his fruit, his teaching, his doctrine, as Jesus tells you to do.
But how do you judge the fruit? How do you evaluate a person’s teaching? You test it like crazy. You test it against God’s inspired and inerrant Word, which means you have to study God’s Word, too. And since we here have concluded together that the Lutheran Confessions properly and accurately represent the doctrine of Christ drawn from His Word, you would do well to study and learn them, too, so that you can always test Christian teachers by them, not only the ones you encounter outside of these walls, but also the one who is preaching to you now.
Now, there are as many false doctrines out there as there are different communions that call themselves Christian. We do not have time in a sermon to consider even a fraction of them. But I want you to consider three of the most basic false teachings that surround us today so that you can constantly be on guard against them.
First, there are the direct attacks on God’s Word itself. It is preached from thousands of pulpits in our country that the Bible is not reliable, that it isn’t historically accurate, and that its meaning must change to fit with scientific discoveries and with societal “progress.” It’s this core false doctrine that gives us the teaching of evolution in the Church, women pastors, gay marriage, support for abortion, open Communion, and any number of other abominations, because once you remove God’s Word from its place of authority, then man can do whatever is right in his own sinful eyes. To mess with God’s Word is to hide the glory of Christ and rob consciences of firm consolation. Beware!
Then there are the false doctrines that attack some aspect of the Gospel itself, that all are sinners, and that sinners are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Christ alone. Some deny that all people, by nature, are dead in sins and trespasses. Others add human works to grace, so that we have to earn God’s favor by doing good works. Others teach a justification that is not by faith. And still others turn faith into a human work that you have to choose for yourself or produce in yourself. To mess with the Gospel is to hide the glory of Christ and rob consciences of firm consolation. Beware!
Third—and last for today—, there are the very common attacks on how God deals with us and how God’s grace comes to us and is applied to us: through the means of grace. They are false teachers who say the bread of Holy Communion is not the body of Christ that we eat, and that the wine is not the blood of Christ that we all drink. They are false teachers who deny that God’s Holy Spirit gives forgiveness of sins, life and salvation through the rebirth of Holy Baptism. And they are false teachers who teach that God deals with us and forgives our sins in some other way than through the external means of Word and Sacrament. To mess with the means of grace is to hide the glory of Christ and rob consciences of firm consolation. Beware!
These bad fruits are all around us, and consuming them is as deadly as consuming thorns and thistles. That’s why Jesus warns us to beware. But Christ has not left us alone. He has given us His dependable Word, and with it, His all-powerful Spirit to lead us and help us. The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. Amen.