Homily for Trinity 8 (2004)
Beware is not a word we use all the time. It’s a special word reserved for marking off situations of high and usually hidden risk. It means: “Watch out – danger ahead and it might not be obvious, but you have been warned.”
So when our Lord speaks to you in today’s Gospel and says: “Beware of false prophets” he is warning of a great danger that each of you must be on our guard against.
And you must not sit back and say to yourself: well, that’s the pastor’s job. It is not to the pastors alone that Jesus speaks this word. Just a few verses before He had said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – and we all know that in saying that He was speaking to ALL of His disciples – so just three verses later when He says “beware of false prophets” He is still talking to ALL of His disciples. That means, he is warning you, putting you on the alert, telling you that there will come to you those who will tell you what is false and deadly – and you had better take the care to learn how to recognize them – your salvation depends on it!
Look, you take care to make sure that no one scams you financially, don’t you? You don’t just take anyone’s word when it comes to where to put your money. How can you then be so lackadaisical when it comes to spiritual matters – to eternal life? You would dare to trust your eternity to another person’s judgment? To do so would be fool-hearty, wouldn’t it? Do you really think on the last day saying: “Well, pastor said so” or “Martin Luther said so” or “Billy Graham said so” will carry any weight? I don’t think so. On that day you had better be able to say: “I am standing firmly on what You have promised in Your Word, O Lord.”
And there’s the rub. Sheep’s clothing is what our Lord says these false prophets come in. Dr. Luther, rather perceptively, nailed that one down. For a false prophet to come in sheep’s clothing is for a false prophet to come using the Sacred Scriptures, but using them in such a way that he falsifies their message so that instead of leading people to turn from theirs sins and to believe in Jesus, the false prophet either leaves secure sinners unalarmed in their sins or drives frightened sinners to despair of ever finding forgiveness. Either way, the false prophet, the wolf, accomplishes his purpose: people end up separated from God for eternity, they end up in hell.
So how can we recognize these false prophets? Jesus doesn’t leave us to guess. He tells us: “You will know them by their fruits.” That doesn’t mean, that you can recognize them merely by how they live. After all, how can you know how they live? No. The fruit of a false prophet is his teaching. So Jesus is saying, you can recognize these false prophets by seeing what results when people believe their message, when they take it to heart and build on it.
As I said, this falsification can go in one of two ways. First, the false prophet can tell sinners who are not the least bit alarmed over the sin in their lives: “Peace! Be of good cheer! God loves you! Nothing ever shall harm you. God is a God of love and mercy and tender-kindness.” What happens when that message sounds forth from the pulpits of Christian Churches? I’ll tell you what doesn’t happen: repentance. People instead imagine that they really are believers even though they are living in manifest, unrepented sin. This is the situation God rebuked through Jeremiah. He said: “If these prophets had stood in My counsel and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from the evil of their doings.” (Jer. 23:22)
Let me make it very clear: saving faith cannot and does not exist with the intention to continue in sin contrary to one’s conscience. If you know that something is forbidden by God, if you know that it is contrary to the Ten Commandments, and you choose to continue in it, thinking that God will just have to forgive you, and that you are a true believer, you are deceiving yourself. Listen to Paul’s words: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolator), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” (Eph 5:5,6)
Whenever you hear a preacher or teacher telling you that God’s mercy and grace mean that you are not called to repent of your sins and amend your life, I don’t care what Scriptures they adduce and try to sell you, you have there a false prophet. Jesus did not come for you to remain a slave to your sins but that you might be forgiven and freed from them. Or, as St. John said in his first epistle: “He is faithful and just to forgive our sins AND to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
But if that’s the danger of the false prophet on the one side, there is the danger of the false prophet on the other. The one who would make sinners who feel their sin and are frightened by it, despair of the mercy of God by directing them not to the finished work of Jesus Christ but to their own doings for the completion or assurance of salvation. St. Paul had to battle them in Galatia. He speaks a stern anathema against anyone – even an angel of God – who would dare to say that the Gospel is forgiveness plus something you do – no matter how big or small that something may be. Anyone who tells you that you are saved when you DO anything, has poisoned the Gospel and falsified God’s Word. Not your doing, but God’s work on your behalf, delivered to you in His means of grace, is what saves you. To any of you who are alarmed over your sins and truly wish to amend your sinful lives, the good news of God for you today is that your sins have been forgiven. Christ’s death on the cross has paid for them in full. And that forgiveness your God delivers all the way to you in Baptism, in the Holy Absolution, and also in His Holy Supper. You can’t add to it if you tried! It’s a perfectly finished salvation and God delivers it to you Himself in just the same manner He won it: pure gift!
Beware, then! Beware of false prophets on either side! Either one is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for both seek to lead you away from Him who died and rose again to forgive you your sins and to free you from them, and to Him alone, our blessed and only Savior Jesus, be all the glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.