Last time we noted that the final section of the Sermon on the Mount begins at v.13 with a general warning against spurious or imitation discipleship, against thinking yourself a follower of Christ while unwilling to make those commitments that are the mark of a true Christian. Now follow three separate and specific warnings. The first, our text this morning, concerns false teachers. That is understandable. Much false discipleship and much false assurance of salvation comes from believing teaching that is untrue. False teachers are not a theoretical problem. They deceive real people, people in the church, and in nothing so important as in regard to their own salvation. They encourage people to think they are Christians while they persuade them to believe doctrines hostile to the Christian faith as it is taught in Holy Scripture and to live lives of open disobedience to God. It is because of this practical effect of false teaching that the Lord’s warning appears here, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.
v.15 This statement of the Lord is, of course, the origin of the metaphor, now so common, of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In this original instance, sheep clearly refers to the Lord’s people who are often referred to as sheep in the Bible. So these teachers appear to members of the church. Despite their appearance and their profession, however, they are mortal enemies of the flock. [Hagner, i, 183] The wolf was the natural enemy of sheep in that part of the world. It was what we would call today a predator.
v.16 The “their” in this verse and v.20 indicate that the whole section from 15-20 is about false prophets. Here the Lord’s point seems to be that the actions of the false prophets will give them away. Fruit is a common way of speaking about deeds. And his illustration is simple: do you get useful fruit from plants that are known only for their thorns?
v.18 It is a fixed law that false principles must produce false living, just as it is a fixed law that the new heart of a Christian must produce a changed life. The same principle is applied to the Pharisees in Matt. 12:33. The Lord is not being simplistic here. He doesn’t mean that a bad heart will always produce publicly disgraceful behavior. The Pharisees were upstanding, highly moral and religious people. They were well respected for their concern to live upright lives. But their righteousness was superficial and artificial. Very adept at outward conformity, they neglected the weightier matters of the law: faith, justice, mercy, humility and so on. Every unbeliever is not a criminal, a boor, a lout, a shrew. Someone who does not follow Christ is not, for that reason, always a hateful person. But he does not live as God requires and, what is more, he does not even aspire to live as God requires. That there are relative degrees of badness and goodness the Bible never denies and often emphasizes, but the fundamental principle remains fixed and unalterable. A truly righteous life is as absolutely necessary for a follower of Christ as it is impossible for the unbeliever. That is not something unbelievers appreciate hearing, of course, which is understandable. Jesus is saying that they cannot be truly good unless he changes their hearts. He is pronouncing a radically negative judgment on what they are in themselves. He is saying that, without him, what they are now will never be good enough. They imagine that they can turn over a new leaf, but a mere alteration in some outward behavior is not what is necessary. A man does not need new clothes, he needs a new heart, and from that heart, new loves, new hatreds, new convictions, new aspirations, new powers, new principles. Christ has to make a person a good tree before he or she can bear good fruit. But, the implied promise here, of course, is that a man or a woman can become good by following Christ. If you want to live as human beings were intended to live, there is a way! And that way is faith in Christ and following him.
v.19 Jesus repeats verbatim the warning of John the Baptist that we already read in 3:10. Only the person whose profession of faith in Christ is confirmed by authentic Christian living will stand in God’s judgment. People who have orchards do not put up with rotten trees that can’t bear good fruit. They take up space and can spread their corruption to healthy trees nearby. Well, the church should take a page from God’s judgment and learn to refuse to tolerate false teachers.
v.20 The “Thus” indicates that his argument is complete. The rest of the verse repeats the first part of v. 16 and so forms with it an inclusio, marking off the sermon.
As the Sermon on the Mount draws to its close the Lord adds these final warnings against hypocrisy. Some people appear to be what they are not, both private Christians and Christian teachers. The ultimate test of what a person is will be found not in what he says or claims for himself but in what he does and how he lives. The Lord begins with a warning against false prophets. We encounter false prophets many times in the Old Testament. The writing prophets of the Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi, are often countering the teaching and the influence of false prophets and false priests, who were also teachers of the Word of God. Jesus obviously regards the Pharisees and Sadducees in the same way, as false teachers who are leading the people astray. He refers to them in one place as the “blind leading the blind.” Indeed, in his great prophecy of the future later in the Gospel, the Lord said that period before his second coming would be characterized not only by the worldwide spread of the gospel, but by the rise of false teachers who would lead many astray (24:11-14).
And, in fulfillment and anticipation of his prophecy, false teachers make their appearance and cause serious problems in the New Testament church as well. There will be a number of warnings against false prophets and teachers in the rest of the New Testament as well as specific instances of their influence already being felt in the apostolic church. We hear of them in almost every NT letter. They are called pseudo-prophets if they claimed divine authority; pseudo-apostles if they claimed apostolic authority; pseudo-teachers or even pseudo-Christs if they denied that Jesus was God the Son come in the flesh or if they had messianic pretensions of their own. But they were all pseudo and pseudo is the Greek word for a lie or a falsehood. [Stott, 197] It was and is a perennial danger that the church will listen to men who purport to be teachers of the truth but who, in fact, lead the church into killing error. In the earliest written materials that have survived from patristic Christianity, the body of writings knows as The Apostolic Fathers, written at the end of the first century and in the first third of the second century, there is already great concern about teachers who were leading the church astray. And the 2000 years of church history that follow are not only a history of the truth making its way to the four corners of the world, but heresy alongside accompanying the truth everywhere it went. Men purporting to teach the truth of God brought false teaching about God, about Christ, about salvation, about the Christian life, about the return of Christ and the Last Judgment. “The history of the Christian church has been a long, dreary history of controversy with false teachers.” [Stott, 197] They have caused incalculable damage. And, very often, their appeal was that they offered an easier way than the narrow way of Christian discipleship. [Hagner, i, 184; Morris, 147] We knew them then, we know them now by their fruit; by their deeds and the way of life they taught.
As one scholar has put it, “The history of Christian theology is in large part a history of heresies because Jesus and the claims he made, as well as the claims his disciples made about him, seemed to be incredible.” [H.O.J. Brown, Heresies, xxiii] That is, the heretics, the false teachers, went about making the gospel and the Christian faith easier to believe: more reasonable, more like the thinking of the world. The Christian faith, as revealed in Holy Scripture, is not what sinful human beings find easy or congenial to believe. We know that. We accept that. The Christian life is something they find in a number of ways unattractive and unappealing. We know that too. But Christ himself is such a titanic figure, and such an attractive figure, they do not wish to abandon him or Christianity altogether. Nor does the Devil want them to do so. He would rather have a misshapen Christianity than none at all, for a worldly Christianity appeals to more people, deceives more people, and puts more people to sleep. So false teachers, doing their master’s bidding, reshape the message to make it more congenial to their tastes, to make it more acceptable to the prejudices of sinful man, and to make it more believable to unbelieving men whose world is confined by sight and sense. And so there have always been false teachers and heresies, just as their have always been teachers of the truth.
The facts that such false teachers claim to be Christians and, in most cases, are known as Christians, make their teaching – already designed to be congenial to human tastes – all the more plausible. So the church needs a test that will distinguish between true and false teaching. Here the Lord sets out an ethical test, although it is possible that by a prophet’s fruit he may also have meant his teaching. However here the accent seems to fall on his way of life. In other places, as you know, the test is doctrinal. If a teacher departs from the doctrine found in Holy Scripture he is a false teacher. Jeremiah contrasted false prophets and true prophets in those terms. False prophets “speak visions from their own minds” but the Lord’s prophets “stand in the council of the Lord,” “hear his Word,” and “speak from the mouth of the Lord” (23:16, 18, 22). “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream; but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat?” (23:28) But here the Lord Jesus adds that the fruit of a teacher’s teaching, its ethical outcome, can also serve as a test of its genuineness. The profession, the claim of a teacher, just as the profession of an individual Christian, can be tested by the way in which he lives and the way he counsels others to live.
People of 21st century America take note: Jesus was no syncretist. He did not teach that contradictory opinions were in reality complementary insights into the same truth or that everyone’s “truth” was a valid as anyone else’s. He taught the antithesis between truth and error, between orthodoxy and heresy, between the word of God and the words of men. And he taught that the distinction between truth and error was critical to the welfare of mankind. He taught that false teaching put people in peril. A wolf destroyed sheep, killed and ate them, and he likens false teachers to wolves.
Now, I don’t say that false teaching is the only thing that causes Christians to wither and faith to die. The sad fact is that the church can and often has sunk into sickness and death under orthodoxy. The truth is maintained and taught from the pulpit, but it is taught in a manner so dispiriting, so unappealing, so soporific, so irrelevant to the concerns of people’s daily lives that even Christians grow cold and their children leave the church and, alas too often the faith itself, because they can’t believe anything that dull, that uninteresting, that lifeless could be of any great importance to them. I think of the case of the famous Scottish pastor James Fraser of Alness in the 18th century. Fraser was the author of one of the greatest works on sanctification or the Christian life ever produced in the Reformed tradition. But he drove his people down and then away with his incessant harping on the law and their sin. He demoralized his own congregation with his preaching. His congregation began turning up in such large numbers in the services of the next nearest parish that the session of that church asked its own pastor to try to reason with Mr. Fraser. There wasn’t room for their own people and the people of another parish besides. Fraser preached only the law and his people became weary and discouraged by it. [John Kennedy, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, 41-43] And, believe me, I see enough of the church to know that today as well there are many congregations – of our own and many other denominations – that are dispirited and are losing ground because of the inept preaching they hear, or because of the unspiritual leadership they have, or because of the almost total lack of any demonstration of the gospel’s power and glory in the life of the church. Spurgeon’s advice to a young preacher who wanted to know how to keep his church full was to “preach the gospel” and “preach it earnestly, interestingly, and fully.” [In Moule, Simeon, 67] Another old way of stating the preacher’s task was that he was to speak non nova sed nove, that is he was not to preach new things, but he was to preach the old things in a new and living way. But in many churches the Word of God is not preached that way and it is not lived that way. Such churches do not keep their children and the kingdom of God slips back in such places. And it is not because of false teaching! It is because the truth is not adorned in word and deed.
But, far more deadly still, is the peril of false teaching. Where spiritual dullness and ministerial ineptitude among the saints have slain their thousands, false teaching has slain its hundreds of thousands and millions upon millions. And it is almost always the same. The killing error, the doubting of the sure Word of God, the beginnings of a willingness to subject God’s Word to the tastes and prejudices of one’s time, place, and culture always are insinuated subtly and silently. The wolf comes not clothed as a wolf, but as a sheep and sometimes a lamb.
False prophets in the nature of the case appear to be something that they are not. They deceive. It is sometimes a puzzle to us. How, we ask, could congregations so well instructed in the faith, so long used to powerful and persuasive expositions of the truth from their pulpit, acquiesce to error so quickly? There is a church in Kiltearn, in Scotland, with a stone near the entrance that reads: “This stone shall bear witness against the parishioners of Kiltearn if they bring an ungodly minister in here.” But however sturdily one generation may have committed itself to the faith once delivered to the saints, succeeding generations have often handed it over with barely a whimper. Why did they not realize that their faith was under attack? Why did they not throw the minister out before the leaven had opportunity to infect the entire lump? And the Lord gives us the answer to that question in his likening of false prophets to wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In the first place, the prophet doesn’t identify himself for what he is. He doesn’t come announcing with trumpets his intention to overthrow the truth as revealed in Holy Scripture. Often he doesn’t even understand himself that this is in fact what he is doing. He is doing the Devil’s work and thinks he is doing God’s. And even when it becomes clear to him that he really does want to overthrow the faith that dwells in the heart of his people, he really does want to change their minds about what they believe, he knows he must proceed quietly and carefully to be successful. “Nothing can deceive unless it bears a plausible resemblance to reality,” [C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 56] and so false teachers carefully frame their message to appear to be faithful to the Bible’s teaching.
In the second place, the people of God are sheep. You may not like that characterization but history has proved it true a thousand times over. People will go where they are led, they will come to believe what they are taught, they will even reverse directions if a shepherd they have come to like and trust tells them that this new way is the way they ought to go. How many times has it happened in Christian history that congregations of God’s people who should have known better have rallied to defend their ministers when those ministers are in the process of cutting the very heart out of their faith and Christian life. God has made us that way and he has made his people that way. The church’s spiritual health waxes and wanes with the faithfulness of its ministry. It always has, it always will. That is what makes the reality of false teaching so important and the presence of it so dangerous. Even God’s people are never safe from the beguiling effects of attractive falsehood, of falsehood that makes Christian belief and Christian living easier and less controversial and the cause of less conflict with the world round about.
In a few weeks a number of our high schoolers and some of our adults will be in Great Britain for the Covenant High School “Historical Tour.” They will enter one church after another where once gospel preaching flourished, where God’s people worshiped their Savior with full hearts on the Lord’s Day, where faithful Christian living was nourished on Word and Sacrament, even where Christians stood up to be counted and to suffer for the faith once delivered to the saints. But now these largely empty sanctuaries hear nothing but mindless pabulum and politically correct platitudes of a Sunday morning.
It makes you weep to see those great churches and imagine what they once were and remember what they once accomplished when the Lord Christ and his good news was still a living power within them. I think of St. George’s in Edinburgh, a congregation that left the Church of Scotland with so many other congregations at the disruption of 1843 to found the Free Church. It left behind its buildings and its tradition to stand for the truth of God’s Word against a church that had given up that truth by and large. It’s first pastor, who died before the Disruption, was Andrew Thomson, a leader of the evangelical party of the Church of Scotland, a great preacher of the gospel, and a fine musician, whose tune, “St. George’s Edinburgh,” we still use here to sing the 24th Psalm: “Ye Gates, lift up your heads, ye doors…” Thomson was followed by Robert Candlish, the Free Church theologian and principle of the New College, where the brightest lights of Scottish Presbyterianism taught in those years, where the Bonars and McCheyne were students, where Rabbi Duncan began his Hebrew classes with his long and passionate prayers. Candlish was a gospel preacher of singular power. Candlish was followed by Alexander Whyte, whose nearly 50 year long ministry brought the church into the 20th century. Through all those years that great church was packed to the rafters with believers and unbelievers hanging on every word that fell from that mighty pulpit. But it was during Whyte’s day that killing error began to make its way into the Free Church. German biblical scholarship was all the rage and young scholars were bringing it back into Scottish seminaries. Whyte, a strongly orthodox man himself and champion of the historic message of the Christian faith, thought there was little danger and fought for the right of free inquiry. He selected a man for his successor who, though still an evangelical Christian, had made significant concessions to the new thinking. Within a generation, evangelical faith had disappeared from St. George’s. I have stood in that large and impressive sanctuary and looked up at the high pulpit and imagined the church full of earnest Christians straining to hear every word of the thrilling sermons of Candlish and Whyte, that sanctuary that now, of a Sunday, finds but a few scattered folks, mostly elderly women, present to hear sermons that won’t change anyone’s life nor point them to heaven and haven’t for years and years.
Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church in Cochranville, PA, organized in 1730, experienced the Great Awakening under its then pastor, Samuel Blair. It is now a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. It has an unbroken history of evangelical life stretching now over nearly 300 years. But for every Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church there are a thousand churches that once were centers of evangelical life and witness that either no longer exist or welcome into their pulpits out and out enemies of the gospel of Jesus Christ and have themselves been devoid of gospel life for generations. In Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, from whose pulpit Charles Simeon changed the world during his 50 year ministry at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, sending out so many young men to the four corners of the world with the good news of salvation in Christ, one will now here, at best, the banal platitudes of the contemporary Church of England, a church that stands for nothing in particular, certainly not for the gospel as the power of God unto salvation. In St. Giles Church in Scotland, where Jenny Geddes hurled her stool at the agent of Archbishop William Laud to protest the effort to impose an Episcopal settlement on Presbyterian Scotland, you will hear nothing but the dull drone of the irrelevant as another Scottish minister with nothing to say from God preaches his sermonette to the pitifully small collection of diehards and tourists who, apparently, have nothing better to do with their time on a Sunday morning. In St. Peter’s in Geneva, where Calvin preached the sermons that were to change the face of Europe and then the world, one is likely nowadays to hear a lesbian minister wax eloquent against the old intolerance of the ancient faith of Christianity. The Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, once the headquarters of the Reformation in Holland, is scarcely a church at all, surrounded as it is by the city’s red light district and visited by many more people for concerts than for worship. And so in our own land. In Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran churches by the hundreds and thousands Sunday after Sunday passes without a straight-forward appeal to believe the promises of God, to embrace the Gospel of Christ, to live by God’s law for love’s sake. And every year hundreds, indeed thousands, of churches like that close their doors forever, unable any longer to convince anyone that they have anything useful to say. And the only one to shed a tear will be that last little old lady who remembers when the church was full and hasn’t a clue what happened. And what killed those churches? In almost every case, false teaching killed them or is killing them.
In fact, it is as unlikely that one is to hear in these once faithful churches the message of Christ and salvation as it is likely that one will hear something like the message preached in the Washington National Cathedral this past Christmas. Speaking about the miracles of the Bible and especially the miracle of Christmas, the Dean of the Cathedral, short as the sermon was, rather quickly reached his peroration:
And what was God thinking… when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the Law to Moses?
And what was God thinking… when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the sacred Quran to the prophet Muhammad?
And what was God thinking… when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Were these just random acts of association and coincidence or was the Angel Gabriel who appears as the named messenger of God in the Jewish Old Testament, the Christian New Testament Gospels, and the Quran of Islam, really the same miraculous messenger of God who proclaimed to a then emerging religious, global community and to us this morning that we are ALL children of the living God? And as such we are called to acknowledge that as Christians, Jews and Muslims we share a common God and the same divine messenger. And that as children of the same God, we are now called to cooperatively work together to make the world a haven for harmony, peace, equality and justice for the greatest and least among us.
“The vague, cloudy men are always talking against intolerance. Why, our very calling is to be intolerant; intolerant of proved error and known sin.” [Duncan, Just a Talker, 99] And we will sniff its presence when we realize that the teaching of the Bible is being trimmed to fit modern sensibilities, as this Episcopalian minister was doing, and when the Christian life is being made easier – fewer things are counted sins, and fewer sacrifices are required for Christ and heaven. By their fruit you will know them!
It is ours always to remember that error always takes its revenge. [Duncan, 169] “Trimming now, and debasing doctrine now, will affect children yet unborn, generation after generation.” [Pike, Spurgeon, ii, 327]
It is ours then to remember the Lord’s warning and take it to heart. It is part of what it means to commit ourselves to that righteous living he requires of his disciples. They spoke against him and his teaching when he was in the world and have been ever since. That so many want to bear his name but want to change his teaching is a great demonstration that he is indeed the way, the truth, and the life.