The Sermon On The Mount
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheeps clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."
If there be any verse in Holy Writ where it is deeply important to observe (and heed!) its connection it is surely the one at which we have now arrived. It may appear to the casual reader that our Lord here began an entirely new subject, having little or no relation to what immediately precedes. It is true our present verse introduces a distinct section of His Sermon, yet it also bears directly on what He had just said. Having described most solemnly and searchingly the way of life, like a faithful Guide Christ went on to warn us against one of the chief impediments to walking in that way, namely false guides; those who under the pretence of offering us Divine directions therein will fatally deceive us if we give heed thereto. In every age, but never more so than in our own, multitudes of gullible souls have been allured into the broad road which leads to destruction by men professing to be teachers of the Truth and ministers of Christ, yet who had not His Spirit and who were none of His: blind leaders of the blind, who with their dupes fall into the ditch.
"Beware of false prophets." The force of this exhortation will be the better perceived if we take to heart what is found in the Old Testament thereon, bearing in mind that history has ever repeated itself since human nature is the same in all ages. "A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means" (Jer. 5:30, 31). "Then the Lord said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in My name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake I unto them; they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought and the deceit of their heart" (Jer. 14:14) "I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies; they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness; they are all of them unto Me as Sodom. . . . Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you, they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord" (Jer. 23:14,16). "There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls, they have taken the treasure and precious things, they have made her many widows" (Ezek. 22:25). False prophets were one of the chief factors in the apostasy and destruction of Israel, and these passages are recorded for our admonition and warning.
It must not be supposed that such deceivers passed away with the ending of the Mosaic economy. The Lord Jesus and His apostles announced that there should be false teachers in this Christian dispensation. Christ declared that "many false prophets shall rise and shall deceive many," yea, they would present such imposing credentials that "if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect" (Matthew 24:11, 24). Paul, announced, "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. Therefore watch" (Acts 20:29-31). And again he said, "Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple" (Rom. 16:17, 18). Peter foretold, "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways" (2 Pet. 2:1, 2). John gave warning, "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).
Immediately after the parable of the Sower Christ declared, "His enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat" (Matthew 13:25), the one so closely resembling the other that He commanded, "Let both grow together until, the harvest," when it will be seen there is no corn in the ears of the deceitful tares. By placing those parables in juxtaposition the Lord Jesus exposed the method and order of His adversary. "As Jannes and Jambres [the magicians of Pharaoh] withstood Moses" (2 Tim. 3:8) by their imitating his miracles, so when God sends forth His servants to preach the Gospel the Devil soon after prompts his emissaries to proclaim "another gospel": when God speaks the Devil gives a mocking echo. Satan has found that he can work far more effectively by counterfeiting the Truth than by openly denying it, hence in every age "false prophets" have abounded, and therefore we should be neither surprised nor stumbled by their number or success in our own day. We fully agree with Andrew Fuller when he said, "As this word 'beware of false prophets' was designed for Christians of every age, the term rendered 'prophets' must here, as it often is elsewhere, be used of ordinary teachers."
"Beware of false prophets" signifies in this dispensation, Be on your guard against false teachers, heretical preachers. There are no longer any "prophets" in the strict and technical sense of the term, though there are a few of God's servants who in their gifts and special work approximate closely thereto. Those against whom we are here warned are men who have a false commission, never having been called of God to the service they engage in; they preach error, which is subversive of "the doctrine which is according to godliness" (1 Tim. 6:3); and the fruit they bear is a base imitation of the fruit of the Spirit. The chief identifying mark of the false prophets has ever been their saying, "Peace, peace," when there is none (Jer. 23:17; Micah 3:5; 1 Thess. 5:3). They heal the wounds of sinners slightly (Jer. 8:11) and daub "with untempered morter" (Ezek. 8:14; 22:28). They prophesy "smooth things" (Isa. 30:10), inventing easy ways to heaven, pandering to corrupt nature. There is nothing in their preaching which searches the conscience and renders the empty professor uneasy, nothing which humbles and causes their hearers to mourn before God; but rather that which puffs up, makes them pleased with themselves and to rest content in a false assurance.
The general characteristic of "false prophets" is that they make vital godliness to he a less strict and easier thing than it actually is, more agreeable to fallen human nature, and thus they encourage the unregenerate to be satisfied with something which comes short of true grace. So the Pharisees did, notwithstanding all their strictness (Matthew 23:25). So the papists do, notwithstanding all their boasted austerities. So Arminians do, notwithstanding all their seeming zeal for good works. So the Antinomians do, notwithstanding their pretended superior light and joy, zeal and confidence. This is the common mark of all false teachers: rejecting the Divine way, they manufacture one to suit themselves, and however they may differ among themselves, they all agree to make the practice of piety and the Christian walk an easier thing than the Scriptures do, to offer salvation on cheaper terms, to make the gate wider and the way to heaven broader than did Christ and His apostles. It is this which explains the secret of their popularity: "They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them" (1 John 4:5). But of such Christ warns his people to "beware," for they feed souls with poison and not with the pure milk of the Word.
"Which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." In those words Christ emphasized the danger of these false prophets: the character they assumed is well calculated to deceive the unwary. The Lord here alluded to a device employed by false prophets in former times who counterfeited the true servants of God by wearing their distinctive attire. Elijah, in regard to his garments, was called "a hairy man" (2 Kings 1:8), and therefore when John the Baptist came "in the spirit and the power of Elias" (Luke 1:17) we are told that he "had his raiment of camel's hair" (Matthew 3:4). When then the agents of Satan posed as the true prophets they counterfeited their attire that they might more easily seduce the people, as is clear from Zechariah 13: 4, where Jehovah declared that a day would come when the prophet should be ashamed of the vision he had prophesied and should no more wear "a garment of hair to deceive." Thus by this evident reference Christ intimated the plausible pretences of the heretical teachers, the subterfuges which they would employ to conceal their real character and design, thereby stressing what dangerous persons they are and how urgent is the need for His people to be constantly on their guard against those who seek their destruction.
"Which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." They pose as being the very opposite of what they really are. They are agents of the evil one, yet claim to be the servants of the Holy One. Their place is on the outside, in the forests and mountains, yet. they intrude themselves within the fold. This intimates their great craftiness and seeming piety. People think they are teaching them the way to heaven, when in fact they are conducting them to hell. Often they are difficult to discover, for they "creep into houses and lead captive silly women" (2 Tim. 3:6), yea, even in apostolic times some of them successfully "crept in unawares" (Jude 4) into the assemblies of the saints. It was of such Paul wrote when he said, "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" (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Though their clothing be "sheep's," yet they have the fierceness and cruelty of wolves.
In addition to their subtlety and plausibility, frequently accompanied by a most winsome personality and an apparently saintly walk, there is a real danger of our being deceived by these false prophets and receiving their erroneous teaching by virtue of the fact that there is that within the Christian himself which responds to and approves of their lies. How immeasurably this intensifies our peril! That which flatters is pleasing to the flesh; that which abases is distasteful. Paul complains of this very thing to the Corinthians. Some had evidently resented his plain speaking in the first epistle, wherein he had rebuked their sins, for in his second he wrote, "would to God ye could bear with me a little" (11:1). The Galatians first received the Gospel so gladly from him that they would have plucked out their eyes had that advantaged him (4:15), yet soon after they imbibed deadly error from the Judaizers, and when the apostle took them to task for this he had to ask them, "Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" (v. 16). Thus it was with the multitudes in connection with our Saviour: acclaiming Him with their hosannas and less than a week later crying, "Away with Him, crucify Him," so fickle and treacherous is the human heart.
What point does this give to our Lord's command, "take heed what ye hear" (Mark 4:24). Corrupt nature is thoroughly in love with error and will more readily and eagerly receive false than true doctrine. Should any dispute our statement, we would refer them to "the prophets prophesy falsely and the priests bear rule by their means; and My people love to have it so" (Jer. 5:31). Said Christ unto the Jews, "because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not" (John 8:45): what a commentary on fallen human nature-had He preached lies they had promptly received Him. Alas, what is man: he will run greedily after something new and sensational, but is soon bored by the old story of the Gospel. How feeble is the Christian, how weak his faith, how fickle and unstable the moment he is left to himself. Peter, the most courageous and forward of the apostles in his profession, denied his Master when challenged by a maid. Even when given a heart to love the Truth, we still have "itching ears" for novelties and errors, as the Israelites welcomed the manna at first, but soon grew weary of it and lusted after the fleshpots of Egypt. Real and urgent then is our need to heed this command, "Beware of false prophets."
It is time that we should now proceed to amplify the thought expressed in our opening paragraph. In the previous section of His Sermon Christ had contrasted the broad road and the many who tread it and the narrow way and the few who find it, adding immediately, "Beware of false prophets." Now the narrow way, which leads unto life, is the way of salvation, and therefore the warning given us must have respect to those who teach or present an erroneous way of salvation, thereby placing the souls of their listeners in imminent peril, for to accept their false teachings is fatal. Thus the tremendous importance of our present passage is at once apparent. As the verse quoted from 2 Peter tells us, it is nothing short of "damnable heresies" which these false prophets promulgate. It is about salvation matters they treat, but damnation is the end of those who receive their lies, unless God intervenes with a miracle of grace and disillusions their dupes, which very rarely happens. It therefore behooves each of us seriously to ask, Have I been deceived by these false prophets? Am I treading a way which "seemeth right" unto me but which God declares is the way o( "death" (Prov. 14:12)? Yea, it behooves us sincerely amid earnestly to beseech God to make it unmistakably clear to us which "way" we are really treading.
Now it is the duty of God's servants to provide help to exercised souls on this supremely important matter, to expose the lies of these "false prophets," to make plain the way of salvation. This may best be done by defining and showing the relation of good works unto salvation, for it is at this point more than any other that the emissaries of Satan have fatally deceived souls. The principal errors which have been advanced thereon may be summed up under these two heads: salvation by works, and salvation without works. Romanists have been the chief promulgators of the former, insisting that the good works of the Christian have a meritorious value which entitles him to heaven. Thereby they rob Christ of much of His glory, bringing in something of ours in addition to His blood and righteousness to obtain acceptance with God. Romanists do not repudiate in toto either the grace of God or the redemption of Christ, but they nullify both by attributing saving efficacy unto the rites of their church, and the performances of the creature. Such an error is expressly repudiated by such scriptures as Romans 11:6; Ephesians 2:8 and 9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5.
Some of the propagators of the salvation-without-works error during the last century have assumed the garb of the orthodox and thereby obtained a hearing from many who had never listened to them had their real characters been suspected. They have gone to the opposite extreme and preached a "gospel" as far removed from the Truth as the Romish lie of salvation by works. They teach that while good works from Christians are certainly desirable yet they are not imperative, the absence of them involving merely the loss of certain "millennial" honours and not the missing of heaven itself. They have interpreted those words of Christ's "It is finished" in such a way as to lull multitudes of souls into a false peace, as though He wrought something at the Cross which renders it needless for sinners to repent, forsake their idols, renounce the world before they can be saved; that "nothing is required from them but their simple acceptance of Christ by faith;" that once they have "rested on His finished work"-no matter what their subsequent lives-they are "eternally secure." So widely has this fatal doctrine been received, so thoroughly have these "ravenous wolves" deceived the religious world by their "sheep's clothing," that with rare exceptions anyone who now denounces this deadly evil is to call down upon himself the charge of being a "Legalist" or "Judaizer."
Before we endeavour to show the place which good works have in connection with salvation, let us quote a few sentences from a brief article we wrote in this magazine some years ago. "It is finished: do those blessed words signify that Christ so satisfied the requirements of God's holiness that that holiness no longer has any real and pressing claims upon us? Did Christ 'magnify the Law and make it honourable' (Isa. 42:21) that we might be lawless? Did He fulfil all righteousness to purchase for us an immunity from loving God with all our hearts and serving Him with all our faculties? Did Christ die in order to secure a Divine indulgence that we might live to please self? . . . Christ died not to make my sorrow for and hatred of sin useless. Christ died not to absolve me from the full discharge of my responsibilities unto God. Christ died not so that I might go on retaining the friendship and fellowship of the world. . . . The 'finished work' of Christ avails me nothing if my heart has not been broken by an agonizing consciousness of my sinfulness. It avails me nothing if I still love the world (1 John 2:15). It avails me nothing unless I am a new creature in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17)."
Since then salvation by works and salvation without works are equally opposed to God's way of salvation, what is the place or relation which "good works" hold to the saving of a soul? Let us first define our terms. By "good works" we mean those operations of our hearts and hands which are performed in obedience to God's will, which proceed from evangelical principles and which have in view the Divine glory. By "salvation" we include not only regeneration (which is simply the beginning of it in our experience) but sanctification and an actual entrance into heaven itself. Thus "godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation" (2 Cor. 7:10), unreserved surrender to the Lordship of Christ (Matthew 11:29; Luke 14:33), the obedience of faith (Rom. 16:26; Heb. 5:9), enduring to the end in sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16), love to God (Matthew 24:12, 13), and the way of holiness (Heb. 3:15) are all "good works" and are indispensably necessary if we are to escape the everlasting burnings. The good Shepherd "goeth before" His sheep (John 10:4) and if they are to join Him on high they must "follow Him"-"leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps" (1 Pet. 2:21). There is no reaching heaven except by treading the only path that leads there-the highway of holiness.
The subject we are now dealing with is far too important to be condensed into a few brief and general statements, therefore, as our present space is almost exhausted, we shall conclude with this paragraph and enter into more detail in our next chapter. That good works are neither the chief nor the procuring cause of salvation is readily admitted, but that they are no cause whatever, that they are simply "fruits" of salvation and not a means thereto, we as definitely deny. On the one hand good works must be kept strictly subordinate to the grace of God and the merits of Christ: on the other hand they must not be entirely excluded. It is the corn he sows which produces the crop, equally true that the fertility of the ground and the showers and sunshine from heaven are indispensable for a harvest; but given the finest seed, the richest soil, the most favorable season, would the farmer have anything to reap if he failed to plough his ground and sow his seed? But does that furnish room for the farmer to boast? Certainly not; who provided him with the seed and ground, who furnished him with health and strength, who granted the increase in his labours? Nevertheless, had he remained inactive there would be no crop.