Preachers’ Fruit. Trinity 8, 2015
8th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 7:15-23
July 26, 2015
Whose word belongs in the Church?
Who do you come to Church to hear?
Jesus put this question to the crowds about John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
The answer was that they had not gone out to see a man in soft clothing, nor a reed blown about by the wind, but a prophet.
That is what we go to church to hear. Not the voice of a therapist sitting in an office in soft clothes, nor the voice of a talk-show host, espousing easy worldly wisdom that changes with the seasons. We go to Church to hear God speak. God’s Word is the only Word that belongs in the Church. And the only kind of prophets that there should be in the Church are true prophets, men who faithfully deliver the Word of God.
But Jesus warns His Christians. He says the days are coming when you will go to Church to hear God speak and to escape the lies in the world, and you will not get what you are looking for. You will get a false prophet instead of a true prophet. And the false prophet will bring the lies of the world and the devil into the Church and say, “Thus saith the Lord.”
In the Epistle reading historically appointed for this Sunday, from Acts chapter 20, Paul warns the pastors of Ephesus: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31)
Why for three whole years did Paul exhort the Ephesians with tears stinging his eyes, choking his throat? Because he knew the day was going to come when he would no longer be among them. Then the false prophets would come. They would attack the flock from within, seeking to deceive, scatter, and destroy the Church of God. So Paul wept and pleaded with the Ephesians to be on guard against false prophets.
I want to plead with you today like Paul pleaded, but I have a hard heart and don’t know how to cry. But if I did I would cry today as I plead with you that you be on guard against false prophets and false teaching. There are many things we worry about in the Church. There is never any lack of things to irritate us with one another and cause us to quarrel. But there really is one truly needful thing: that we receive the pure Word of God and remain in it. If you have God’s pure Word you have everlasting life and you are defended against everything the devil would like to do to you. Our chief concern should be not just to have the Word enter our ears, but to have it so rooted in our hearts that it can’t be taken away by false teachers, or tribulation, or the terrors of death. This happens not by any human schemes. It happens by studying the Word, giving attention to it, learning it, and testing the preaching and teaching of God’s Word against the Scriptures.
It is vitally important that we learn to recognize false prophets and have nothing to do with them; that we not listen to their lies nor support them in their preaching false doctrine. That should be what we guard against.
Jesus gives us the key to recognizing false prophets in this Gospel reading.
False prophets are wolves in sheep’s clothing. That means you can’t tell by their actions that they are not Christians. But they are also like trees. They always expose themselves for what they are by the fruit that they bear. Maybe not right away does the fruit appear for what it is. But with a tree eventually you always come to know what you’re dealing with because finally its fruit has to appear. Eventually the crabapple tree will bear crabapples, not cherries. Plum trees bear plums. And inevitably preachers will bear their fruit too.
What is within them will come out. And the fruit is chiefly their doctrine or teaching.
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew a faithful prophet named John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing by the Jordan River. The evangelist tells us that “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to his baptism.” But they were hypocrites. They weren’t there as lost sinners looking for grace. So John cried out to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance! …Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-8, 10)
Now the Pharisees and Sadducees probably didn’t expect to hear such a sermon. They were, after all, religious leaders. But they came to John, and John was a true prophet. That meant that they were going to hear from him not worldly wisdom acceptable to men, but the word of the living God. And the word of God to the Pharisees and Sadducees was the same as to the tax collectors and harlots, for God is no respecter of persons. God said they must repent not only for show but in reality, that they must become poor wretched sinners. Although they may have been religious people in the sight of men they were wicked in the sight of God.
A true prophet preaches repentance first. This is his first fruit. Repentance, true repentance, is not just giving up certain sins. It is becoming an entirely new creature that is dead to sin, alive to God, and fruitful in good works. The preaching of repentance is first of all the preaching of the law of God found in the ten commandments. It is a terrifying and unpleasant sermon because it sentences our sinful flesh with all its works and ways to death. It tells us we can’t go on in our natural state, that we are guilty not only because of our sins that are visible to others, but because of the secret sins that arise secretly in our hearts. Lust, greed, anger, pride. The preaching of repentance commands us to become new creatures in God’s sight, that inwardly we are filled with faith and love that move us to good works. But that is not something we are able to do. It’s like asking a crabapple tree to become a plum tree.
But false prophets don’t preach repentance like this. They tell their hearers that repentance is something they can do on their own. They flatter their hearers, even though they may require a lot of works. False prophets tell people that they are free and that there is some good left in them that is able to choose what is right and earn God’s acceptance. Some churches do this in an obvious way, like the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches its members that they earn God’s favor by cooperating with Him and doing good works. Other false prophets are more subtle in the way they undermine repentance, like those churches that teach that you are born again and saved when you make a free decision of your will to accept Jesus as your Savior. False prophets don’t tell you that you are dead in your sins and can’t get yourself out. And in the rare cases where they do say this, they don’t show you where to go to have your sins removed and a new heart given to you.
The second fruit of a faithful preacher, which is closely connected to the first fruit, is that a faithful preacher preaches Christ. A faithful preacher proclaims that you must become a different kind of tree that produces good fruit, but you are unable to do this. Then He directs your faith to Jesus Christ. Everyone who believes in Him becomes a good, fruit-bearing tree. He is counted righteous by God. His sins are forgiven, because Jesus made satisfaction for them with His blood.
Also the person who believes in Jesus begins to bear good fruit because Jesus gives him the Holy Spirit. John preached this to his hearers who were stricken and humbled by the call to repentance—He preached Jesus to them, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works in us that we believe in Jesus and are counted righteous for His sake. He also works in us that we begin to trust in God from our hearts, that we begin to love Him because He has loved us. He works in us that we begin to gladly do God’s will because we are thankful that He has redeemed us. We begin to bring forth good fruit that pleases God.
This is the chief mark of a faithful prophet. He preaches that you can’t get yourself out of your sins, but that Jesus already has, through His death and resurrection. He preaches the good news of Jesus to those stripped of all hope by the law of God. He preaches the sweet news that Jesus, incarnate God, was cut down and thrown into the fire of God’s wrath for us on the cross, and that we are counted and become fruitful trees through believing that we are justified in Him.
The world does not accept or tolerate this preaching any more than the call to repentance. It is nonsense and unacceptable to the world that a sinner can be righteous before God by the obedience of someone else in his place. But to Christians this fruit of true prophets is sweeter than any fruit the world can offer. This preaching of Christ crucified is the fruit of the tree of life.
But false prophets don’t bear this life-giving fruit. They bring forth the wormy, rotten fruit of the flesh and its righteousness. So they preach that Christ died and rose again, and call Him Savior. But they don’t preach that He is Christ for us, on whom a poor sinner may rely alone without any works and be assured of salvation. And if they do preach that, they undermine that good news by other false doctrines that teach that we find Christ and salvation not in the Word and Sacraments but in our emotions, decisions, and experiences. In this way they undermine a repentant sinner’s confidence that his sins are forgiven. False prophets don’t preach Christ as a true Savior for those who look inside themselves and find nothing good, only unbelief and evil desires contrary to God’s law.
But that is who Jesus is. He is a true Savior for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. He has redeemed us from sin and justified us even while we were dead in sins. He is our righteousness, so that whoever only believes in Him is righteous, but whoever trusts in another righteousness is condemned. Everyone who believes on Him has done the will of the Father, because in the good news about Jesus the righteousness God accepts is revealed.
But false prophets demand something other than faith in Christ. They make our salvation depend not only on faith in Jesus but the fruits that come from faith, such as an experience of salvation, or a decision to follow Jesus, or other works. They confuse justification and sanctification. Our righteousness before God is not our experience of salvation or our decision to follow Jesus. Our righteousness before God is the obedience of Jesus unto death on the cross, received by faith alone. False prophets mix our works, what happens within us, with the work of Jesus that was finished on the cross.
So you see that true prophets and false prophets always give themselves away by their fruit. Like trees, they bring out what is in them. In faithful prophets’ hearts Christ alone reigns as Savior from the sin that lives in their flesh. So that is what faithful preachers proclaim. In false prophets’ hearts is faith in the corrupt righteousness of the flesh. So that is the fruit that their mouths eventually bear. They end up preaching not Christ but human works. This kind of preaching is acceptable to human reason and the sinful flesh, and the flesh loves it. But Jesus says to beware of those who preach it.
True prophets, on the other hand, preach what is unacceptable to reason and the flesh. They preach that we are by nature evil, but that Christ has justified us by His suffering and death. Because what true prophets preach is unacceptable to the flesh, it’s often the case that false prophets have many hearers and true prophets few.
So what should you do? Discern between false prophets and faithful ones. Judge their fruits. False prophets make themselves known by denying Christ in their teaching. They contradict what Jesus has said and they don’t put Him forward as our righteousness before God. When you encounter false prophets, you should reject them. Don’t participate in their falsification of God’s Word by listening to them, giving money to them, attending their churches. Rather you should flee from them as a lamb runs from a wolf.
But what happens when you encounter a faithful preacher? Then you should cling to him as one sent to you by God. You should bear with his faults and support his ministry with your prayers and offerings, because Jesus says of faithful preachers, “The one who hears you hears me.” (Luke 10:16) You should give obedience to whatever faithful preachers preach in accordance with God’s Word, because you are not hearing a mere man, but you are hearing God speak when a faithful prophet speaks.
But you must always test the fruit of your preachers against the Scripture and the catechism as a summary of Scripture. And then when they preach what is true it will be a joy both to you and to them. You will rejoice to find that your preacher is really speaking the words of the living God, the words that give eternal life. And the preacher will rejoice that you are learning to cling not to the testimony of men but to God’s testimony. This means you are becoming mature in Christ, and that is what all faithful pastors wish for their hearers. They wish them to mature to the full stature of Christ so that they bear much fruit unto eternal life.
Soli Deo Gloria