The Sermon On The Mount
"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."
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves" (v. 15). No idle or needless warning was this, but one which should be seriously taken to heart by all who have any concern for the glory of God or value their eternal interests. Our danger is real and pressing, for "false prophets" are not few in number but "many" (1 John 4:1), and instead of being found only in the notoriously heretical sects, have "crept in" among saints until they now dominate nearly all the centers of orthodoxy. If we are deceived by them and imbibe their lies the result is almost certain to be fatal, for error acts upon the soul as deadly poison does on the body. The very fact that these impostors assume "sheep's clothing" and pose as the servants of Christ greatly increases the peril of the unwary and unsuspicious. For these reasons it is imperative that we should be on our guard. But to be properly on our guard requires that we should be informed, that we should know how to recognize these deceivers. Nor has our Lord left us unfurnished at this vital point, as the succeeding verses show.
"Ye shall know them by their fruits." Three questions are suggested by this statement, to which it is necessary for us to obtain correct answers if this rule here laid down by Christ is to be used by us to good advantage. First, what sort of knowledge is it that is mentioned? Is it relative or absolute? Is it the forming of a credible and reliable judgment of the teachers we sit under and whose writings we peruse, or is it an unerring discernment which precludes us from making any mistake? Second, how is this knowledge obtained? Is it a Divine endowment or a human acquirement? Is it one of the spiritual gifts which accompanies regeneration, a sense of spiritual perception bestowed upon the Christian, or is it something after which we must labour, which can be procured only by our own diligence and industry? Third, what are the "fruits" brought forth by the false prophets? Are they their character and conduct, or is something else intended? Really, it is this third question which is the principal one to be pondered, but we will say a little upon the first two before taking it up.
The answer to the first question should be fairly obvious, for even in this day of human deification we have heard of none laying claim to infallibility except the arch-humbug at Rome. But though the knowledge here predicated be not an inerrant one, yet it is something much superior to a vague and uncertain one. In those words our Lord lays down a rule, and like all general rules we may make mistakes-both favorable and unfavorable-in the application of it. The knowledge which Christ here attributes to His people is such a persuasion as to inform them how they should act toward those who appear before them as preachers and teachers, enabling them to test their claims and weigh their messages. Though it does not always enable its possessor to penetrate the disguise worn by impostors, yet it is sufficient to arouse his suspicion and, if acted on, to preserve him from falling a prey to deceivers. It is a knowledge which fortifies the Christian from being beguiled by religious seducers.
And how is this knowledge procured? It is both obtained and attained: obtained from God, attained by practice. Spiritual discernment is one of the accompaniments of the new birth: necessarily so, for regeneration is a being brought out of darkness into God's marvelous light. In that light the Christian is able to perceive things which previously were hidden from him, yet he must perforce walk with Him who is light if he is not to recede into the shadows. There are degrees of light, and the measure of our spiritual illumination decreases as distance increases between us and "the Sun of righteousness." Moreover, sight is as essential as light for clear vision. The faculty of spiritual perception belongs to each soul renewed by the Spirit, yet faculties unemployed soon become useless to their possessors. When the apostle was contrasting unhealthy saints with the healthy (Heb. 5:11-14) he described the latter as "those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." The more we walk in the light and the more we exercise our spiritual faculties, the more readily shall we perceive the snares and stumbling stones in our path.
"Ye shall know them by their fruits." False prophets are to he identified by what they produce. By their "fruits" we understand, principally, their creed, their character, and their converts. Is it not by these three things that we recognize the true prophets? The genuine servants of God give evidence of their Divine commission by the doctrine they proclaim: their preaching is in full accord with the Word of Truth. The general tenor of their lives is in harmony therewith, so that their daily walk is an example of practical godliness. Those whom the Spirit quickens and edifies under their preaching bear the features of their ministerial fathers and follow the lead of their shepherds. Conversely, the ministers of Satan, though feigning to be the champions of the Truth, oppose and corrupt it: some by denying its Divine authority, some by mingling human tradition with it, others by wresting it or by withholding vital, portions thereof. Though their outward conduct is often beyond reproach, yet their inward character, the spirit which actuates them, is that of the wolf-sly, cruel, fierce. And their converts or disciples are like unto them.
The true prophet accords God His rightful place. He is owned as the King of kings and Lord of lords, as the One who "worketh all things after the counsel of His own will." He is acknowledged to be the sovereign Ruler of heaven and earth, at whose disposal are all creatures and all events, for whose pleasure they are created (Rev. 4:11), whose will is invincible and whose power is irresistible. He is declared to be God in fact as well as in name: One whose claims upon us are paramount and incontestable, One who is to be held in the utmost reverence and awe, One who is to be served with fear and rejoiced in with trembling (Ps. 2:11). Such a God the false prophets neither believe in nor preach. On the contrary, they prate about a God who wants to do this and who would like to do that, but cannot because His creatures will not permit it. Having endowed man with a free will, he must neither be compelled nor coerced, and while Deity is filled with amiable intentions He is unable to carry them out. Man is the architect of his fortunes and the decider of his own destiny, and God a mere Spectator.
The true prophet gives Christ His rightful place, which is very much more than to be sound concerning His person. Romanists are more orthodox about the deity and humanity of Christ than are multitudes of Protestants, yet the former as much as the latter are grossly heterodox upon His official status. The true prophet proclaims the Lord Jesus as the covenant Head of His people, who was set up before the foundation of the world to fulfil all the terms of the covenant of grace on their behalf and to secure for them all its blessings. He sets forth Christ as the "Surety" and "Mediator" of the covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6), as the One who came here to fulfil His covenant engagements: "Lo, I come, to do Thy will, O God"-it was a voluntary act, yet in discharge of a sacred agreement. All that Christ did here upon earth and that which He is now doing in heaven was and is the working out of an eternal compact. Every. thing relating to the Church's salvation was planned and settled by covenant stipulation between the Eternal Three. Nothing was left to chance, nothing remained uncertain, nothing was rendered contingent upon anything the creature must do. About this glorious and fundamental truth the false prophets are completely silent.
It was to fit Him for His covenant engagements that the Surety became incarnate. It was to redeem His people from the curse of the Law that Christ was made under it, fulfilled its terms, endured its penalty in the room and stead of His covenant people. It was for them, and no others, that He shed His precious blood. Because He faithfully and perfectly discharged His covenant obligations, the Father has sworn with an oath that all for whom He acted shall be eternally saved, that not one of these shall perish, solemnly declaring that "He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied" (Isa. 53:11). God has made with Christ, and His people in Hint, "an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure" (2 Sam. 23:5). But the false prophets reverse all this. They misrepresent the redemptive work of Christ as being a vague, indefinite, general, promiscuous thing, rendering nothing sure. They believe Christ shed His blood for Judas equally with Peter, and for Pilate as truly as Paul. They preach a salvation which is uncertain and contingent, as though it were for anybody or nobody as the caprice of men shall decide: Christ provided it and if we accept of it well and good; if not, He will be disappointed.
The true prophet puts man in his proper place. He declares that man is a depraved, ruined and lost creature, dead in trespasses and sins. He points out that man is alienated from God, that his mind is enmity against Him, that he is an inveterate rebel against Him. He shows this to be true not only of those in heathendom, but equally so of those born in Christendom: that "There is none righteous, no not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:10, 11). He makes it clear that man is a total wreck, that no part of his being has escaped the fearful consequences of his original revolt from his Maker: that his understanding is darkened, his affections corrupted, his will enslaved. Because of what transpired in Eden man has become the slave of sin and the captive of the Devil. He has no love for the true and living God, but instead a heart that is filled with hatred against Him; so far from desiring or seeking after Him, he endeavors by every imaginable means to banish Him from his thoughts. He is blind to His excellency, deaf to His voice, defiant of His authority and unconcerned for His glory.
The true prophet goes still farther. He not only portrays the sinner as he actually is, but he announces that man is utterly unable to change himself or better his condition one iota. He solemnly announces man to be "without strength," that he cannot bring himself into subjection to the Divine Law or perform a single action pleasing to God (Rom. 8:7, 8). He insists that the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots more readily than they who are accustomed to do evil can perform that which is good (Jer. 13:1, 23). In short, he declares that man is hopelessly and irremediably lost unless a sovereign God is pleased to perform a miracle of grace upon him. But it is the very opposite with the false prophets. They speak "smooth things" and flatter their hearers, persuading them that their case is very far from being as desperate as it really is. If they do not expressly repudiate the Fall, or term it (as the Evolutionists) a "fall upward," they greatly minimize it, making it appear to be only a slight accident which may be repaired by our own exertions, that man is little affected by it, that he still has "the power to accept Christ."
According as the fall of man be viewed and preached so will be the conceptions of men concerning the need and nature of redemption. Almost every Gospel truth will necessarily be colored by the light in which we view the extent of the fall. Take the truth of election: which is the deciding factor-God's will or mine? Why, if I be in possession of freedom of will and am now on probation, everything must turn on the use I make of this all-important endowment. But can this be made to square with the Scriptures? Yes, by a little wresting of them. It is true that false prophets hate the very word "election," but if they are pressed into a corner they will try and wriggle out of it by saying that those whom God elected unto salvation are the ones whom He foreknew would be willing to accept Christ, and that explanation satisfies ninety-nine per cent of their hearers. The truth is God foreknew that if He left men to their pleasure none would ever accept Christ (Rom. 9:29), and therefore He made sovereign and unconditional selection from among them. Had not God eternally chosen me, I certainly had never chosen Him.
The same holds true of regeneration. If the sinner be spiritually impotent and his case hopeless so far as all self-effort and help are concerned, then he can no more quicken himself than can a rotten corpse in the tomb. A dead man is powerless, and that is precisely the natural condition of every member of the human race, religious and irreligious alike: "dead in trespasses and sins." The individual concerned in it contributes no more to his new birth than he did to his first. This was expressly insisted upon by Christ when He declared: "which were born not of blood [by descent from godly parents], nor of the will of the flesh [by their own volition], nor of the will of man [by a persuasive preacher], but of God" (John 1:13). There must be an act of Divine creation before anyone is made a new creature in Christ. But the false prophets represent man to be merely "bruised" or at most crippled by the fall, and insist that he may be born again simply by accepting Christ as his personal Saviour-a thing which none can do until he is brought from death unto life.
The genuine prophet trumpets forth with no uncertain sound the grand truth of justification. Rightly did Luther declare that "Justification by faith is the doctrine of a standing or falling church," for those who pervert it corrupt the Gospel at its very heart. In view of man's fallen and depraved condition, in view of his being a transgressor of the Divine Law, lying beneath its awful condemnation, the question was asked of old, "How then can man be justified with God?" (Job 25:4). To be "justified" is very much more than being pardoned: it is the declaration by the Divine Judge that the believer is righteous, and therefore entitled to the reward of the Law, but how is this possible when man has no righteousness of his own and is totally unable to produce any? The answer is that Christ not only bore in His own body the sins of God's elect, but He rendered to the Law a perfect obedience in their stead, and the moment they believe in Him His obedience is reckoned to their account, so that each can say, "in the Lord have I righteousness and strength" (Isa. 45:24). But the false prophets deny and ridicule this basic truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ.
The true prophet gives the Holy Spirit His rightful place, not only in the Godhead, as co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and the Son, but in connection with salvation. Salvation is the gift of the Triune God: the Father planned it, the Son purchased it, the Spirit communicates it. The genuine servant of God is very explicit in declaring that the work of the Holy Spirit is as indispensable as the work of Christ: the One serving for His people, the Other acting in them. It is the distinctive office of the Spirit to illumine the understanding of God's elect, to search their conscience and convict of their ruined and guilty condition. It is His office to work repentance in them, to communicate faith unto them, to draw out their hearts unto Christ. The soundest and most faithful preaching in the world will avail nothing else unless the Holy Spirit applies iii in quickening power; the most winsome offers and persuasive appeals will be useless until the Spirit bestows the hearing ear. The true prophet knows this, and therefore has he no confidence in his own abilities, but humbly seeks and earnestly prays for the power of the Spirit to rest upon him. But how different is it with deceivers of souls!
The genuine servant of God not only realizes the truth of that word, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts" (Zech. 4:6) in connection with the fruitage of his labours, but he is also deeply conscious of his own need of being personally taught by the Spirit. He has been made to feel his utter insufficiency to handle sacred things, and to realize that if he is to enter into the spiritual meaning of the Word he must be Divinely taught in his own soul. A mere intellectual study of the letter of Scripture cannot satisfy one who longs for a deeper experimental knowledge of the Truth, nor will he be contented with simply informing the minds of his hearers. As it is a tender conscience and a fuller heart-acquaintance with God and His Christ that he covets for himself, so it is to the conscience and heart of his hearers that he addresses himself. It is the opposite with the false prophets: they are occupied solely with the letter of Scripture, with outward profession: there is no deep probing, nothing searching in their messages, nothing to disturb the religious worldling.
Another mark by which many of the false prophets may be recognized is the disproportionate place they give to prophecy in their preaching and teaching. This has ever been a favorite device of religious charlatans, as those versed in ecclesiastical history are well aware. Nor should any observer of human nature be surprised at this. God has placed an impenetrable veil upon the future, so that none can know "what a day may bring forth" (Prov. 27:1). But man is intensely curious about coming events and gives a ready ear to any who pretend to be able to enlighten him. If on the one hand the irreligious will flock to palmists, astrologers and other fortune-tellers, the religious will crowd around anyone who claims to be able to explain the mysterious contents of the Apocalypse. In times of war and national calamity the curious are easily beguiled by men with charts on the book of Daniel. The express prohibition of our Lord, "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons" (Acts 1:7), should deter His people from giving ear to those who claim to have "light" thereon.
In this chapter we have not dealt with false prophets generally, but have confined ourselves to those who wear "sheep's clothing," whose attacks are made upon the flock of Christ. These are men who boast of their soundness in the Faith, and obtain a hearing among those who regard themselves as the cream of orthodoxy. Thus far we have dwelt upon their creed, on what they believe and teach: in our next we shall describe some of the distinguishing traits of their characters, and then point out that the type of converts they make also serves to identify them by the "fruit" they produce. Our design in entering into such detail is that young Christians may be furnished with a full-length photo of these deceivers, and to make it clear that we are not condemning such because they differ from us on one or two minor matters, but because they are thoroughly corrupt in doctrine. Furthermore, in all that has been before us it should be clear that we should labour diligently to become thoroughly acquainted with God's Word for ourselves-or how shall we be fitted to detect these seducers of souls? Ponder Acts 17:11.