False Prophets and Ourselves

By J.P. Thackway

Beware of false prophets … A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Matthew 7:15,18.

In closing His sermon on the mount, our Lord warns us against three dangers.

a] False prophets, Matthew 7:15-20.

The devil always tries to pervert the gospel to prevent it being believed (2 Corinthians 4:4). In addition, to “wrest the scriptures” that God’s people might be led astray. This is why we must be discerning. Especially if these false teachers seem “nice” men. Many Christians appear to see no further than an impressive personality, and are taken in by a man’s charm and reassuring air!

b] False profession, verses 21-23.

The devil tries to get people to rest in a carnal security. To say, “Lord, Lord,”without the accompanying obedience, means nothing (verses 21,22). The Master declares that those who “continue in my word … are my disciples indeed,”(John 8:31). Not even miracle-workers are exempted from this, being rejected at the last Day as “ye that work iniquity” (verses 23). There are “signs and lying wonders” that proceed from the Devil (2 Thessalonians 2:9). Given this warning, it is astonishing how charismatic charlatans have deceived and grieved so many people in modern times.  

c] False foundation, verses 24-27.

The devil can hide from gospel-hearers the consequences of their response. The wise man and the foolish man show that, too late for the rejecters, they find in the storms of life their hopes melting away like the sand on which they were built. In addition, the overwhelming river of death brings everything down, “great was the fall of it.” Christ Himself must be the rock on which we build for time and eternity (1 Corinthians 3:11).

This solemn passage reminds us that there is such a thing as a warning ministry. Our Lord engaged in this here, and often at other times. It was so with the apostle Paul: “Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:28). And the beloved John (1 John 4:1-3). Today it is said, “We must be positive and charitable.” So we must, but not in every case. It is also necessary to sound the alarm because immortal souls are in danger, and the glory of the Lord is at stake.

In the light of this, it is difficult, for instance, to understand the words of Theodore L. Cuyler (1822-1909), minister of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York. He conceded in his autobiography,

In one respect I have not followed the practice of many of my brethren, for I never have wasted a single moment in defending God’s Word in my pulpit. I have always held that the Bible is a self-evidencing book; God will take care of His Word if we ministers only take care to preach it. We are no more called upon to defend the Bible than we are to defend the law of gravitation. My beloved friend, Dr. Maclaren, of Manchester, has well said that if ministers, “instead of trying to prop the Cross of Christ, would simply point men to that Cross, more souls would be saved.”[1]

If such men as Spurgeon and others had followed this naïve policy, we fear the liberal unbelief of the day would have gone further still. Sadly, Cuyler was not the only leader who failed to warn and sound an alarm at a time when error was advancing on every side, including his “beloved friend” Alexander Maclaren who did not stand with Spurgeon in the Downgrade Controversy. Many of our Victorian forebears have let future generations down, and without a warning note, like them, we are in danger of doing the same today.

False prophets

In the false prophets of this passage, we notice the change in verses 15 and 16: from “sheep’s clothing … ravening wolves” to “fruits.” The extra metaphor of the fruits may be to ensure we see through these dangerous teachers. Wolves disguised as sheep may hoodwink, but the consequences of their lives and teachings can hardly be missed, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (verse 20).

The corrupt produce our Lord mentions applies in two ways. Firstly, to the lives of the false prophets. It is only God’s truth that is “according to godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3). In Titus 2:7 Paul shows the connection between sound doctrine and sound living: “In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity” (2:7). When men preach error, they end up living it. How can men unfaithful to the Bible’s message be faithful to the Bible’s precepts? Grapes do not come from thorns, nor figs from thistles (Matthew 7:16). The end of such men is dreadful: “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire” (verse 19).   

Secondly, the legacy of false prophets can easily be seen. It hardly needs mentioning because it is around us all today. Theological liberals have emptied churches and chapels, made the Bible seem an antique, turned religion into ecclesiastical worldliness, and accelerated the secularism of this age. Charismatic celebrities have spread religion into shallowness, imported our degenerate culture into worship, encouraged hopes that are cruelly disappointed, and hindered the real work of the Lord in sound churches. Much more could be said about New Evangelicalism, New Calvinism, etc. which we have addressed at other times in the Quarterly.[2]

Of course, we must make allowance for sincere men who are honestly mistaken. Apollos’ ministry left disciples short of the full knowledge of the gospel (Acts 19:1-4). However, he was teachable and humbly listened to Aquila and Priscilla, who “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:2-28). Not all men who say inadequate or even unhelpful things are false prophets. If the heart is right, the head will be put right through the Lord’s gracious dealings. Such are still a good tree, and the good fruit will come. False prophets are another breed. The Lord has not sent them (Jeremiah 23:21,22), they speak their own words (23:26) and they seek worldly popularity (Luke 6:26; 1 John 4:5). 

It is also necessary to make a distinction between false teachers and their followers. Jude in his epistle has searing words about guilty men who lead in error, but he also says, “And of some have compassion, making a difference” (verse 22). Those who have been deceived can be less guilty than the deceivers, and may be recovered to the truth and the right ways of the Lord. For instance, Christmas Evans (1776-1838) fell into the error of Sandemanianism – the teaching that saving faith can be assent to gospel truth, without accompanying conviction of sin and a broken heart. The Lord mercifully restored him to biblical orthodoxy through reading Andrew Fuller’s critique and by hearing Thomas Jones’ preaching against the heresy. May many who have been similarly beguiled be brought back in our day!

Impossibility

Let us particularly consider Matthew 7:18 “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” Our Lord expresses this impossibility by one way and then the other. A good prophet is a good tree producing only good fruit, like Paul, “For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth” (2 Cor.13:8). A false teacher cannot produce good fruit, like Balaam, who was covetous, would have cursed Israel, and when he failed, encouraged others to entice them to idolatry and wickedness (cf Numbers 31:16). Although wonderful truth came from his mouth, it was not the fruit of his own heart or aim, nor was His life sound. However, it reminds us that the Lord can even use false prophets to fulfil His gracious purposes.

Different

However, this principle can apply to us all in a different way. Our Lord enunciates here a principle that applies to us all, whether preachers or not. The universal truth here is that we are as our nature is: a healthy tree will not produce diseased fruit; a diseased tree cannot produce healthy fruit. Out of our heart come the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23). As we think of ourselves, it suggests two important points. We will take them in reverse order.

1. HUMAN INABILITY

“Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” The diseased tree produces, not healthy, but only corrupt fruit.

1] This illustrates the corruption of our nature.

From Adam we inherit this. While formed in the womb (Psalm 51:5), emerging into life (Psalm 58:3) and, apart from grace, living out our days in “wickedness [and] every imagination of the thoughts of [the] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5; cf Jeremiah 17:9).

This teaches our absolute ability to bring forth anything pleasing to God. Not only that we do not – it goes deeper – we cannot, any more than a leopard can change his spots or an Ethiopian his skin (Jeremiah 13:23). The devastating verdict of the apostle is, “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). As J.C. Philpot wrote,

As no heart can sufficiently conceive, so no tongue can adequately

express, the state of wretchedness and ruin into which sin has cast guilty, miserable man. In separating him from God, it severed him from the only source of all happiness and holiness. It has ruined him body and soul: the one it has filled with sickness and disease; in the other it has defaced and destroyed the image of God in which it was created. It has made him love sin and hate God.

This is our Total Depravity – in the sense of universal, affecting every faculty and fibre of our being. By nature, we are everything diametrically opposed to God and holiness.

2] It also shows the need of the new birth.

Nothing could change us but a new nature, and this the Lord promises to give (Ezekiel 36:26). The new heart when we are born again means that a new principle governs us – grace and the Spirit. It effects a radical and permanent break with sin and our past. This is real religion and is supernatural, “the operation of God” (Colossians 2:12). Only then can we produce different fruit: if the tree is good, the fruit will be good, but not otherwise.

3] This is why a false profession will not last.

As with those in verses 21-23. There was no fundamental change. Some look-alike fruit may come, but it is not genuine or permanent. As the Puritan George Swinnock put it,

There may be several things which may help to make the life fair in the eyes of men; but nothing will make it amiable in the eyes of God, unless the heart be changed and renewed. All the medicines which can be applied, without the sanctifying work of the Spirit, though they may cover, they can never cure the corruption and diseases of the soul.

Our state by nature is terrible indeed. However, when we are converted we find,

2. GRACIOUS INABILITY

“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.”  Here this truth is the other way. A healthy tree cannot produce rotten fruit, but only healthy fruit (Romans 7:4; Galatians 5:22f).

1] Our new nature is the good tree.

So good because by regeneration we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This does not mean, of course, that we become divine, but that the nature we have is like that of God and is heavenly, holy and only produces that which is good. In 1 Jn.3:9 we read “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” Said Spurgeon,

So is it with us when we are born again: a heavenly nature is entailed upon us. We cannot but be holy; the new nature cannot but serve God, it must, it will pant to be nearer to Christ, and more like him. It hath aspirations which time cannot satisfy, desires which earth cannot surfeit, longings which heaven itself alone can gratify. There is a life entailed upon us in the moment when we pass from death unto life in the solemn mystery of regeneration.[3]

Our new nature has no more capability to sin than corrupt nature has to produce holiness. Even if not quickly or evenly, gracious Christian character and ways come forth to the praise of His glory. 

2] It is true that regenerate believers do sin.

But it is not them, so much as the carnal remains that are the old them, like pests in an otherwise healthy tree. Our imperfections are not because the new nature is imperfect, but because we are still imperfect. Sin is never seen as natural to the regenerate. It is strange, out of character, regretted, repented of, confessed, forgiven – and the soul restored (Psalm 23:3; 1 John 1:9). As the Puritan George Swinnock put it,

Sheep may fall into the mire, but swine love day and night to wallow in it. A Christian may stumble, nay, he may fall, but he gets up and walks on in the way of God’s commandments; the bent of his heart is right, and the scope of his life is straight, and thence he is deemed sincere.

Our nature, desire, element and joy are all for holiness and that which pleases the Lord (1 John 5:18). Paul makes this distinction in Romans 7l:25 “So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” – what he really is now is all for honouring God’s law which he loves. This is the great mark of grace that means we are the Lord’s, for otherwise we would not be like this.

3] The inevitability of grace.

“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit” – it must rather produce what its Author intends: good fruit. The Lord’s work in us will ensure it, for when Paul says the Lord has “begun a good work in us [and] will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ,” he also says, “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:6,11). Growth in grace and holiness go on under the work of the Spirit until completed in heaven, for the Lord “giveth grace and glory” (Psalm 84:22).

May we be kept from false prophets, and know only real religion in these days. And prove to be good trees, walking in the good fruit of grace. As was said of the Christians at Colossae,

… the word of the truth of the gospel; Which is come unto you, … and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth (1:5,6).


[1] Recollections of a Long Life: An Autobiography by Theodore Ledyard Cuyler, 1902, pages 69,70
[2] See the Bible League web site: www.bibleleaguetrust.org under Articles, then Addressing Error and Worship.
[3] Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1861, volume 7, page 734.

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