How do we distinguish those who claim to be Christians from those who truly know Christ in a saving way? While we can’t ever look in someone’s heart and know what’s going on there, the Bible tells us that there are ways we can tell whether or not someone is walking with the Lord. There is fruit born from those who are born-again.
As we near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discusses false prophets and false disciples: those who claim to serve God and follow Him, but are, in reality, not saved and are not known by Christ. First, we’ll discuss the issue of false prophets. Join me in Matt. 7:15-20.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Think about some of the best pastors (or any other kind of Christian leader) you know. What strikes you about them? Why do you consider them “some of the best pastors you know?” What makes a good Christian leader? Is it their preaching style, their dress, their personality?
Due to the development of technologies such as YouTube and podcasts, we now have access to a great deal of sermons online, from a large number of pastors. I myself enjoy listening to podcasts of my favorite Bible teachers when I can find time. I’ve benefited greatly from hearing the preaching and teaching of men like Tim Keller, John Piper and Matt Chandler.
But I’m afraid that while we can certainly benefit from listening to godly men and women all over the country, we’ve elevated someone’s ability to speak well and speak persuasively above the criteria of a holy, godly character. That is, if someone is able to speak in a way we’ve never heard, make us think about the Bible in ways we’ve never thought about it, and has a rock star personality that nets them over six figures in Twitter followers, we think we’ve found a great preacher.
Let’s clarify: Speaking well is different than speaking the truth. Speaking the truth of God’s Word is necessary for any Christian minister, for any Christian, really, and is certainly a mark of a godly man or woman. But that doesn’t always equate to speaking well. While we should aspire to do all we do with the utmost excellence for the glory of God, I’d rather have a pastor who faithfully teaches God’s Word in a boring way, than to have some false prophet teach false doctrine in an exciting, engaging way.
Jesus describes false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They appear, externally, to be godly: they speak well, they may even have decent doctrine, and they’re persuasive. But on the inside? They’re ungodly and “ravenous,” and are looking to destroy God’s people.
If your pastor can preach well, but fails to love his wife and children, it’s time to find a new pastor. If your pastor can recite sound doctrine, but fails to see the needs of his congregation and meet them, it’s time to find a new pastor. If your pastor is engaging and popular, but fails to model the humility, love and grace of Christ, you got it….it’s time to find a new pastor. No pastor’s perfect. There will certainly be times pastors fail, because they’re sinners banking on the work of Christ, too, but, just like any other believer, there’s repentance and a desire to grow in Christ.
Jesus says that healthy trees bear good fruit, and that diseased trees bear bad fruit. What’s he getting at? He’s striking at the heart of the issue, which is, no pun intended (well…maybe), the heart.
The problem isn’t so much that a false prophet’s actions are wrong. The problem is that they’re not saved, and their hearts are still wrong. Their hearts aren’t submissive to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and they aren’t resting in the love of the Savior. They may have head knowledge, but there’s no heart knowledge of Christ. That’s the problem.
While Jesus is specifically speaking about false prophets in this passage, he uses similar language to warn all who claim to follow Him in Matt. 12:33-35. So this passage may not be about us, but there lies in it warning for all who name the name of Christ: make sure you’re really His. Make sure you’re the right kind of tree.
Let’s keep going and examine verses 21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”
That last statement Jesus makes is terrifying. How terrible it would be to stand before Jesus, expecting a handshake and warm reception, only to hear the King of Kings say to you, “I never knew you. Away from me.”
So how do we know that Jesus isn’t talking about us? How do we make sure we aren’t false disciples?
Again, Jesus makes note of their external appearance. On the outside, they appear to be pretty awesome people. They’re on the A-list when it comes to Christians, right? They’re prophesying in Jesus’ name, casting out demons in His name, and doing other “mighty works” in His name! That sounds great, doesn’t it?
But to them, Jesus says, “Depart from me, because I don’t know you.” Why? Because while they certainly did things in the name of Jesus, they never came to know Jesus themselves. We find an example of this in Acts 19:13-16, where the sons of Sceva go to cast out demons simply because they think themselves great, but the demons kick their butt, because they don’t know Jesus. The demons know Jesus. They know Paul. They listen to them, because they have no choice….but they don’t know these guys. These guys are phony, fake, hypocrites.
The false disciples Jesus lays out are those who typically fall into one of two categories: those who try to make up for their sin by doing religious things, or those who do religious things in hopes that no one sees their sin.
Notice what the men don’t say to Jesus. They fail to thank Him for living a perfect life in their place. They fail to thank Him for dying on the cross for them, so they could be forgiven. They fail to thank Him for leading them as their Lord, restoring the image of God in them and helping them to love God. They fail to worship Him. In some ways, it’s almost like they expect Jesus to worship them, to thank them for their service to Him.
The reason they fail to thank Him is because they don’t know Him. They haven’t done “the will of the Father,” as Jesus describes. The will of the Father, according to John 6:29, is to “believe in him whom he has sent.” They may have done some cool things in the name of Jesus, but they’ve never actually entrusted their salvation and their lives to Jesus. They don’t boast in Christ.
False disciples are made because they have a false savior and a false lord. Instead of resting in what Christ has done, some will do religious activities to try and earn their way into heaven. That’s not Christianity, that’s legalism. We don’t share the gospel because we’re trying to make God love us; we share the gospel because God does love us, and we’ve come to trust that love. We don’t preach Christ because we want to coerce Christ to make us look good before the Father, we preach Christ because He alone gives us the righteousness and the forgiveness we need to stand perfectly accepted before our Father.
There are others who will perform religious duties to try and cover up some secret sin. In order to hide their porn addiction, someone enrolls in seminary and tries to put on a clean exterior while their interior is rotting away. In order to make up for that cuss word, or for that evil, angry thought, someone goes to the homeless shelter to feed the poor and encourage them. That’s not Christianity, that’s hypocrisy. The only answer to your sin is to repent and trust Christ to come be your Lord, and to forgive you of your sins. That’s the only answer, no matter what you’ve done.
So how about you? Are you a true disciple? Is Jesus Lord of all, or are you still holding back a little for yourself? Are you resting in Him for salvation? Or do you still think there’s work left to do? Trust in Christ. And abide in Him. We’re called to bear fruit, but Jesus makes it clear in John 15 that the only way we do that is to abide in Him and walk with Him. He bears fruit through us. We are, as Paul says in Ephesians, “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which he prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Lord, may we truly trust in you. May we find godly leaders to listen and submit to. May we be godly people, not by our strength and efforts, but by your grace. May we submit to you, trust in you, abide in you, rest in you. May we truly be yours.