How To Spot A False Teacher

Text:  Matthew 7:15-23

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

The devil likes to masquerade as an angel of light.  His false prophets like to do the same as well.  Indeed, the devil and his false prophets – that is to say false teachers – typically do not go around attacking the Christian church in red outfits, horns, and a devil’s pitchfork.  But rather, the devil’s false prophets come to churches uninvited in the form of gentle and harmless sheep.  For all practical purposes, these dangerous false teachers appear to be Christians.  They appear to teach God’s Word with great certainty.  They even sound very convincing and spiritual. 

To make matters worse, we humans have a strange appetite to automatically trust the lies, deceptions, and untrue teachings of these false teachers.  Like a fly hypnotized and drawn into one of those blue zapping lights, we are drawn closer and closer to false teaching, not realizing that it will ultimately zap us and kill our souls.  Yes, instead of embracing the truth, our ears begin to itch and we accumulate for ourselves these false teachers to tell us what we ‘want’ to hear, not what we ‘need’ to hear… and in the end we are zapped and left dead in the devil’s heretical lies.

This is nothing new though.  During the Old Testament times, God’s people in Judah listened to and embraced false prophets.  These false prophets spoke visions of their own mind and did not speak the Word of the Lord.  This did not matter though to the people in Judah, for they continually despised God’s inconvenient truth and embraced the vain and hopeless teachings of the false prophets.  They embraced the false prophets and the false prophet’s damning teaching unto their own destruction because it tickled their ears.        

The same thing happens today.  It continues in churches across America.  You see, both Jesus and the Apostles mentioned these false prophets, these servants of evil.  They spoke of them as something that we need to be aware of in the Christian church today.  In other words, we need to acknowledge that the average churchgoer in Christ’s church can easily sop up the false teachings of the devil’s servants and not even know it.  Going the way of gullibility, sheep in Christ’s church will follow false teachers if the rhetoric makes them feel special and good and warm and fuzzy.  Furthermore, if there are a lot of other people that are following the false teacher, well… these gullible sheep believe that it must be true and they then buy into the false prophet’s message – hook, line, and sinker.

This is why Jesus calls us in today’s Gospel reading to beware of false prophets, or we could say, false teachers.  We are to take heed because these servants of the devil are sometimes hard to pick out, since they come in sheep’s clothing.  Dear friends, make no mistake, these false teachers come into the church in a way that they can hardly be recognized – masked in pious talk, veiled with religious gestures, and covered with reverent looking clothing.  They are really wolves that devour sheep, but their true identity is concealed from the visible eye. 

Even though they look like harmless sheep on the outside, often speaking pious sentiments and gushy religious words, they do nothing but devastate Christ’s sheep without pity.  They are poisonous to the church, for their false doctrine actually slaughters the faith of Christ’s sheep.  Their false theology and ideas about God and life kill the faith of faithful Christians; they murder souls with their false teaching, just like a wolf who has sunk its teeth into the neck of a defenseless sheep. 

Considering all of this, if we cannot identify these false prophets of the devil by their outside appearance, is there any hope for the sheep to recognize them?  Make no mistake about it, this is a very important question to ask, for these false prophets are everywhere God’s people are.  Where God’s people gather around the Word and Sacraments with a faithful pastor, the devil seems to send at least two false prophets to that same vicinity to spew forth his lies.    

With that said though, Jesus does state that we can know and identify these false prophets.  He states that we will know false prophets by their fruits.  In other words, even though a false prophet looks like a gentle and harmless sheep and even though they may well claim the Gospel, when it comes down to it, they cannot conceal their real identity, for it will be evident in their fruit.  It will be evident in what they teach and what they preach and what they do not preach and teach.  The fruit of false teachers is in their sermons and bible lessons and lectures. 

You may be surprised to know that you have most likely heard the bad fruit of these false prophets while either flipping through the channels on TV or on the internet or in devotional booklets or possibly in person while attending one of their churches.  What does it sound like?  Generally speaking the preaching and teaching of these false prophets – their bad fruit – has three characteristics.   

First, they diminish mankind’s sin: “You are not a poor miserable sinner for God loves you just the way you are.  God would never send anyone to hell.  You are fine choosing your own religious path, for all roads lead to the same God.  Don’t be so hard on yourself, you have greatness within.”  In this kind of preaching, mankind’s sin is either denied or diminished – or sin is not even talked about.   

Secondly, this kind of toxic preaching lifts up what the preacher does, and what you should do:  “If only you would do a little more for Jesus, he would bless you like he blesses me, for I do all things well – or at least better than other folks.” “If only you would have more faith and give a little more and work a little harder, then you would see what God promises.” In this kind of preaching the so-called “Gospel,” is always focused not on Jesus, but is conditioned on something the preacher wants to get out of you.[1]  It is not about what Jesus has done for you as a poor miserable sinner, but what you must do and accomplish by your own spiritual powers.    

Thirdly, these false teachers will not focus on Jesus but their sermons will consistently be on money, or morality, or tolerance, or social justice, or environmentalism. Pick your project, but the message is the same; it is not Christ-crucified for the forgiveness of sins, but rather some project or contemporary social event. 

Indeed, these false prophets will diminish sin, take the focus off of Jesus, and put it on you, and then stick you on some sort of project or social event.  This is anti-Christian, because it eliminates Christ.  If we are not sinners, we do not need Jesus, for Jesus came only for sinners.  If we are focusing on the Christian and not the Christ, it also eliminates Jesus.  May God protect us from this wretched theology that strips away the central message of Jesus Christ dying for sinners – such as us.   

So what makes good preaching then?  What does good fruit from true pastors and teachers look like?  Well, it is not zeal or eloquence or imagination, or attracting a huge audience for the sake of numbers. It is not a warm fuzzy sermon with stories of sadness and joy.  It is not standup comedy from the pulpit.  It is not inspirational meaningless stories that are intended to exalt the pastor and lead the hearer to believe that they have hidden potential within to make their wildest dreams come true.  It is not the recent new social cause or the most recent social injustice. But rather, the good fruit is the unchanging Word of God.  It is the Word of God that is like fire and a hammer that invades our world breaking us poor miserable sinners into a thousand pieces and rendering us as helpless sinners.  It is the mighty and forceful absolving news that all of our sins are forgiven for Christ sake – all of them.  It is the bold declaration that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is your Lord, who has redeemed you, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won you from all your sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that you may be wholly His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.

Let, then, the one who has the Lord’s word speak it faithfully, and let those who hear hold him to it.  May God preserve me as your pastor to be faithful to His Word; may God grant you zeal for the truth, discernment to identify falsehoods, and the integrity to hold me to the faithful confession of the Word. 

Finally, let Paul’s blessing then also be upon us together: “And now I commend you to God and the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all that are sanctified.” Grant this, Lord, unto us all.

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

[1] Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Holy Trinity
The Rev. Dr. John W. Sias, Pastor, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, Colstrip, Montana

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