On January 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress on the state of the war in Europe. Much of what he said that day has been forgotten. But at the close of his address, he said that he looked forward “to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” He named them: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These words are still remembered, even though their ideals have not yet been realized everywhere in the world.
In this new year, not only have these ideals not been realized in the world, they are in serious peril at home, in America. The precarious nature of these “American assumptions” are in the news every day. We anticipate this July being similar to any other. America will celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and we will once again remind ourselves of what that freedom means. But what does it mean to be American? What was once quite clear has become increasingly obscured.
Much of the lack of clarity comes from an ever-increasing secularization of the American people. This war has been met with apathy. Romans 8 is the Christian’s “Declaration of Freedom,” for in it Paul declares the spiritual freedoms we enjoy because of our union with Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
In Matthew 7.15–20, Jesus warns about false teachers, for apathy is not the only enemy would-be Christians must face if they are to be good citizens of heaven. They will also encounter people who teach destructive doctrines. Jesus calls these false prophets “wolves” in “sheep’s clothing” because they will pretend to be harmless members of Christ’s flock even though their intent is to plunder and destroy it. But they will not be just members of the flock, mere sheep among others! They will be teachers too -even ministers of the Gospel. We remember how Paul predicted that after his departure from Ephesus “savage wolves” of precisely this kind would emerge to harm the flock there.
Do we have false prophets today? We certainly do. Moreover, they are not only in pews and pulpits. They are in denominational structures, in seminaries, and in Church-related colleges. And they hold prominent and influential positions, like many who are heading up the counterfeit revivals of our day or who have large followings because of their television programs. I find it amusing, in light of our text, that we sometimes call an academic diploma a sheepskin. Some professors and ministers cover their intentions with the sheepskins of higher learning while using their knowledge of the Bible and Church history to damage the budding faith of those who hear them. We must be warned against such teachers.
How are we to detect false teachers, especially if they know more than we do and their credentials surpass our own? The answer Jesus gives is good works. He says it twice, once at the start of this section (“You will recognize them by their fruits,”) and again at the end (“Thus, You will recognize them by their fruits,”). In between, Jesus compares teachers in the Church to trees. Good ones produce only good fruit; bad ones produce bad.
This can be applied in two ways. First, a genuine Christian life will show evidence of good works. Salvation is not by works. Anyone who trusts in his or her works for salvation is not saved, because that person is not trusting in the work of Jesus Christ alone (Ep.2.8–9). But, on the other hand, it is also an error to suppose that a person can be a genuine Christian without doing good works since a Christian has the life of Christ within, and Christ’s life will always express itself in doing good. This is especially true of teachers. Progress in the Christian life is often slow, and new believers may be far from producing much that is unmistakably good fruit. But teachers must! If teachers are not living a high level of Christianity and are not producing good fruit, they are false teachers and wolves.
The second way in which we can understand Jesus’ demand for good fruit in teachers is to say that their teaching must be spiritually satisfying, for that is what the fruit of good trees is meant to be. There were bushes in Israel that had little berries that resembled grapes and certain thistles whose flowers resembled figs. But the berries were bitter, unfit to eat, and the flowers were deceptions. So also with the teaching of false prophets. William Barclay says, “There may be a superficial resemblance between the true and the false prophet. The false prophet may wear the right clothes and use the right language; but you cannot sustain life with the berries of a buckthorn or the flowers of a thistle; and the life of the soul can never be sustained with the food which a false prophet offers. The real test of any teaching is: Does it strengthen a man to bear the burdens of life, and to walk in the way wherein he ought to go?”
The ”essential human freedoms” come from the right understanding and application of God’s Word.
Let me put it this way. Does the teaching you are receiving satisfy your soul? Does it bring you closer to God? Does it equip you to live for Jesus Christ at home and in your place of work? Does it make you less selfish? Does it prompt you to help and serve other people when you have an opportunity to do so? If it does not, find teaching that does. Find a place where the teaching takes root and flourishes in growth and spiritual satisfaction. The only instruction that will ever satisfy you in this way is accurate Bible teaching.