by Arthur W. Pink
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheeps clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." Matthew 7:15
If there be any verse in Holy Writ where it is deeply important to observe (and heed!) its connection it is surely the one at which we have now arrived. It may appear to the casual reader that our Lord here began an entirely new subject, having little or no relation to what immediately precedes. It is true our present verse introduces a distinct section of His Sermon, yet it also bears directly on what He had just said. Having described most solemnly and searchingly the way of life, like a faithful Guide Christ went on to warn us against one of the chief impediments to walking in that way, namely false guides; those who under the pretence of offering us Divine directions therein will fatally deceive us if we give heed thereto. In every age, but never more so than in our own, multitudes of gullible souls have been allured into the broad road which leads to destruction by men professing to be teachers of the Truth and ministers of Christ, yet who had not His Spirit and who were none of His: blind leaders of the blind, who with their dupes fall into the ditch.
"Beware of false prophets." The force of this exhortation will be the better perceived if we take to heart what is found in the Old Testament thereon, bearing in mind that history has ever repeated itself since human nature is the same in all ages. "A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means" (Jer. 5:30, 31). "Then the Lord said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in My name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake I unto them; they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought and the deceit of their heart" (Jer. 14:14) "I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies; they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness; they are all of them unto Me as Sodom. . . . Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you, they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord" (Jer. 23:14,16). "There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls, they have taken the treasure and precious things, they have made her many widows" (Ezek. 22:25). False prophets were one of the chief factors in the apostasy and destruction of Israel, and these passages are recorded for our admonition and warning.
It must not be supposed that such deceivers passed away with the ending of the Mosaic economy. The Lord Jesus and His apostles announced that there should be false teachers in this Christian dispensation. Christ declared that "many false prophets shall rise and shall deceive many," yea, they would present such imposing credentials that "if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect" (Matthew 24:11, 24). Paul, announced, "I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch" (Acts 20:29-31). And again he said, "Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple" (Rom. 16:17, 18). Peter foretold, "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways" (2 Pet. 2:1, 2). John gave warning, "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).
Immediately after the parable of the Sower Christ declared, "His enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat" (Matthew 13:25), the one so closely resembling the other that He commanded, "Let both grow together until, the harvest," when it will be seen there is no corn in the ears of the deceitful tares. By placing those parables in juxtaposition the Lord Jesus exposed the method and order of His adversary. "As Jannes and Jambres [the magicians of Pharaoh] withstood Moses" (2 Tim. 3:8) by their imitating his miracles, so when God sends forth His servants to preach the Gospel the Devil soon after prompts his emissaries to proclaim "another gospel": when God speaks the Devil gives a mocking echo. Satan has found that he can work far more effectively by counterfeiting the Truth than by openly denying it, hence in every age "false prophets" have abounded, and therefore we should be neither surprised nor stumbled by their number or success in our own day. We fully agree with Andrew Fuller when he said, "As this word 'beware of false prophets' was designed for Christians of every age, the term rendered 'prophets' must here, as it often is elsewhere, be used of ordinary teachers."
"Beware of false prophets" signifies in this dispensation, Be on your guard against false teachers, heretical preachers. There are no longer any "prophets" in the strict and technical sense of the term, though there are a few of God's servants who in their gifts and special work approximate closely thereto. Those against whom we are here warned are men who have a false commission, never having been called of God to the service they engage in; they preach error, which is subversive of "the doctrine which is according to godliness" (1 Tim. 6:3); and the fruit they bear is a base imitation of the fruit of the Spirit. The chief identifying mark of the false prophets has ever been their saying, "Peace, peace," when there is none (Jer. 23:17; Micah 3:5; 1 Thess. 5:3). They heal the wounds of sinners slightly (Jer.
8:11) and daub "with untempered morter" (Ezek. 8:14; 22:28). They prophesy "smooth things" (Isa. 30:10), inventing easy ways to heaven, pandering to corrupt nature. There is nothing in their preaching which searches the conscience and renders the empty professor uneasy, nothing which humbles and causes their hearers to mourn before God; but rather that which puffs up, makes them pleased with themselves and to rest content in a false assurance.
The general characteristic of "false prophets" is that they make vital godliness to he a less strict and easier thing than it actually is, more agreeable to fallen human nature, and thus they encourage the unregenerate to be satisfied with something which comes short of true grace. So the Pharisees did, notwithstanding all their strictness (Matthew 23:25). So the papists do, notwithstanding all their boasted austerities. So Arminians do, notwithstanding all their seeming zeal for good works. So the Antinomians do, notwithstanding their pretended superior light and joy, zeal and confidence. This is the common mark of all false teachers: rejecting the Divine way, they manufacture one to suit themselves, and however they may differ among themselves, they all agree to make the practice of piety and the Christian walk an easier thing than the Scriptures do, to offer salvation on cheaper terms, to make the gate wider and the way to heaven broader than did Christ and His apostles. It is this which explains the secret of their popularity: "They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them" (1 John 4:5). But of such Christ warns his people to "beware," for they feed souls with poison and not with the pure milk of the Word.
"Which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." In those words Christ emphasized the danger of these false prophets: the character they assumed is well calculated to deceive the unwary. The Lord here alluded to a device employed by false prophets in former times who counterfeited the true servants of God by wearing their distinctive attire. Elijah, in regard to his garments, was called "a hairy man" (2 Kings 1:8), and therefore when John the Baptist came "in the spirit and the power of Elias" (Luke 1:17) we are told that he "had his raiment of camel's hair" (Matthew 3:4). When then the agents of Satan posed as the true prophets they counterfeited their attire that they might more easily seduce the people, as is clear from Zechariah 13: 4, where Jehovah declared that a day would come when the prophet should be ashamed of the vision he had prophesied and should no more wear "a garment of hair to deceive." Thus by this evident reference Christ intimated the plausible pretences of the heretical teachers, the subterfuges which they would employ to conceal their real character and design, thereby stressing what dangerous persons they are and how urgent is the need for His people to be constantly on their guard against those who seek their destruction.
"Which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." They pose as being the very opposite of what they really are. They are agents of the evil one, yet claim to be the servants of the Holy One. Their place is on the outside, in the forests and mountains, yet. they intrude themselves within the fold. This intimates their great craftiness and seeming piety. People think they are teaching them the way to heaven, when in fact they are conducting them to hell. Often they are difficult to discover, for they "creep into houses and lead captive silly women" (2 Tim. 3:6), yea, even in apostolic times some of them successfully "crept in unawares" (Jude 4) into the assemblies of the saints. It was of such Paul wrote when he said, "For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel: for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness" (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Though their clothing be "sheep's," yet they have the fierceness and cruelty of wolves.
In addition to their subtlety and plausibility, frequently accompanied by a most winsome personality and an apparently saintly walk, there is a real danger of our being deceived by these false prophets and receiving their erroneous teaching by virtue of the fact that there is that within the Christian himself which responds to and approves of their lies. How immeasurably this intensifies our peril! That which flatters is pleasing to the flesh; that which abases is distasteful. Paul complains of this very thing to the Corinthians. Some had evidently resented his plain speaking in the first epistle, wherein he had rebuked their sins, for in his second he wrote, "would to God ye could bear with me a little" (11:1). The Galatians first received the Gospel so gladly from him that they would have plucked out their eyes had that advantaged him (4:15), yet soon after they imbibed deadly error from the Judaizers, and when the apostle took them to task for this he had to ask them, "Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" (v. 16). Thus it was with the multitudes in connection with our Saviour: acclaiming Him with their hosannas and less than a week later crying, "Away with Him, crucify Him," so fickle and treacherous is the human heart.
What point does this give to our Lord's command, "take heed what ye hear" (Mark 4:24). Corrupt nature is thoroughly in love with error and will more readily and eagerly receive false than true doctrine. Should any dispute our statement, we would refer them to "the prophets prophesy falsely and the priests bear rule by their means; and My people love to have it so"(Jer. 5:31). Said Christ unto the Jews, "because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not" (John 8:45): what a commentary on fallen human nature—had He preached lies they had promptly received Him. Alas, what is man: he will run greedily after something new and sensational, but is soon bored by the old story of the Gospel. How feeble is the Christian, how weak his faith, how fickle and unstable the moment he is left to himself. Peter, the most courageous and forward of the apostles in his profession, denied his Master when challenged by a maid. Even when given a heart to love the Truth, we still have "itching ears" for novelties and errors, as the Israelites welcomed the manna at first, but soon grew weary of it and lusted after the fleshpots of Egypt.
Real and urgent then is our need to heed this command, "Beware of false prophets."
It is time that we should now proceed to amplify the thought expressed in our opening paragraph. In the previous section of His Sermon Christ had contrasted the broad road and the many who tread it and the narrow way and the few who find it, adding immediately, "Beware of false prophets." Now the narrow way, which leads unto life, is the way of salvation, and therefore the warning given us must have respect to those who teach or present an erroneous way of salvation, thereby placing the souls of their listeners in imminent peril, for to accept their false teachings is fatal. Thus the tremendous importance of our present passage is at once apparent. As the verse quoted from 2 Peter tells us, it is nothing short of "damnable heresies" which these false prophets promulgate. It is about salvation matters they treat, but damnation is the end of those who receive their lies, unless God intervenes with a miracle of grace and disillusions their dupes, which very rarely happens. It therefore behooves each of us seriously to ask, Have I been deceived by these false prophets? Am I treading a way which "seemeth right" unto me but which God declares is the way o( "death" (Prov. 14:12)? Yea, it behooves us sincerely amid earnestly to beseech God to make it unmistakably clear to us which "way" we are really treading.
Now it is the duty of God's servants to provide help to exercised souls on this supremely important matter, to expose the lies of these "false prophets," to make plain the way of salvation. This may best be done by defining and showing the relation of good works unto salvation, for it is at this point more than any other that the emissaries of Satan have fatally deceived souls. The principal errors which have been advanced thereon may be summed up under these two heads: salvation by works, and salvation without works. Romanists have been the chief promulgators of the former, insisting that the good works of the Christian have a meritorious value which entitles him to heaven. Thereby they rob Christ of much of His glory, bringing in something of ours in addition to His blood and righteousness to obtain acceptance with God. Romanists do not repudiate in toto either the grace of God or the redemption of Christ, but they nullify both by attributing saving efficacy unto the rites of their church, and the performances of the creature. Such an error is expressly repudiated by such scriptures as Romans 11:6; Ephesians
2:8 and 9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5.
Some of the propagators of the salvation-without-works error during the last century have assumed the garb of the orthodox and thereby obtained a hearing from many who had never listened to them had their real characters been suspected. They have gone to the opposite extreme and preached a "gospel" as far removed from the Truth as the Romish lie of salvation by works. They teach that while good works from Christians are certainly desirable yet they are not imperative, the absence of them involving merely the loss of certain "millennial" honours and not the missing of heaven itself. They have interpreted those words of Christ's "It is finished" in such a way as to lull multitudes of souls into a false peace, as though He wrought something at the Cross which renders it needless for sinners to repent, forsake their idols, renounce the world before they can be saved; that "nothing is required from them but their simple acceptance of Christ by faith;" that once they have "rested on His finished work"—no matter what their subsequent lives—they are "eternally secure." So widely has this fatal doctrine been received, so thoroughly have these "ravenous wolves" deceived the religious world by their "sheep's clothing," that with rare exceptions anyone who now denounces this deadly evil is to call down upon himself the charge of being a "Legalist" or "Judaizer."
Before we endeavour to show the place which good works have in connection with salvation, let us quote a few sentences from a brief article we wrote in this magazine some years ago. "It is finished: do those blessed words signify that Christ so satisfied the requirements of God's holiness that that holiness no longer has any real and pressing claims upon us? Did Christ 'magnify the Law and make it honourable' (Isa. 42:21) that we might be lawless? Did He fulfil all righteousness to purchase for us an immunity from loving God with all our hearts and serving Him with all our faculties? Did Christ die in order to secure a Divine indulgence that we might live to please self? . . . Christ died not to make my sorrow for and hatred of sin useless. Christ died not to absolve me from the full discharge of my responsibilities unto God. Christ died not so that I might go on retaining the friendship and fellowship of the world. . . . The 'finished work' of Christ avails me nothing if my heart has not been broken by an agonizing consciousness of my sinfulness. It avails me nothing if I still love the world (1 John 2:15). It avails me nothing unless I am a new creature in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17)."
Since then salvation by works and salvation without works are equally opposed to God's way of salvation, what is the place or relation which "good works" hold to the saving of a soul? Let us first define our terms. By "good works" we mean those operations of our hearts and hands which are performed in obedience to God's will, which proceed from evangelical principles and which have in view the Divine glory. By "salvation" we include not only regeneration (which is simply the beginning of it in our experience) but sanctification and an actual entrance into heaven itself. Thus "godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation" (2 Cor. 7:10), unreserved surrender to the Lordship of Christ (Matthew 11:29; Luke 14:33), the obedience of faith (Rom. 16:26; Heb. 5:9), enduring to the end in sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16), love to God (Matthew 24:12, 13), and the way of holiness (Heb. 3:15) are all "good works" and are indispensably necessary if we are to escape the everlasting burnings. The good Shepherd "goeth before" His sheep (John 10:4) and if they are to join Him on high they must "follow Him"—"leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps" (1 Pet. 2:21). There is no reaching heaven except by treading the only path that leads there— the highway of holiness.
The subject we are now dealing with is far too important to be condensed into a few brief and general statements, therefore, as our present space is almost exhausted, we shall conclude with this paragraph and enter into more detail in our next chapter. That good works are neither the chief nor the procuring cause of salvation is readily admitted, but that they are no cause whatever, that they are simply "fruits" of salvation and not a means thereto, we as definitely deny. On the one hand good works must be kept strictly subordinate to the grace of God and the merits of Christ: on the other hand they must not be entirely excluded. It is the corn he sows which produces the crop, equally true that the fertility of the ground and the showers and sunshine from heaven are indispensable for a harvest; but given the finest seed, the richest soil, the most favorable season, would the farmer have anything to reap if he failed to plough his ground and sow his seed? But does that furnish room for the farmer to boast? Certainly not; who provided him with the seed and ground, who furnished him with health and strength, who granted the increase in his labours? Nevertheless, had he remained inactive there would be no crop.
First a brief review of our last chapter. This warning against false prophets or preachers of error forms an appendage to our Lord’s teaching on the 'strait gate' and 'narrow way' in verses 13 and 14. The danger from these false prophets appears in the character they assume—their 'sheep’s clothing' being thoroughly calculated to deceive the unwary. They are to be found in the circles of 'the most orthodox' and pretend to have a fervent love for souls, yet they fatally delude multitudes concerning the way of salvation. It is because there has been so little instruction upon the relation of good works to salvation that people fall such easy victims to these emissaries of Satan. At one extreme there are those (like the papists) who insist that salvation is procured by works, at the other extreme are those (boasting most loudly of their 'soundness in the Faith') who affirm salvation may be secured without works, and rare indeed is it to find anyone today who occupies the middle and true position. That middle position shows that Divine grace does not set aside human responsibility, that the Gospel is no opposer of the Law, and that the 'finished work' of Christ has not rendered unnecessary or non-imperative good works on the part of those who are to reach heaven.
Are good works necessary in order to the obtaining of salvation? We answer—and are satisfied the Scriptures warrant our so doing— no and yes. In order to solve that paradox or remove the seeming contradiction we must first define the 'good works,' then explain carefully what is meant by 'necessary' and, last but not least, show what is connoted and included in 'salvation.' To some of our readers it may appear that entering into such details as these is really a waste of time, as well as rendering complex and difficult that which is really simple and easy. Such people would answer our opening inquiry with a plain and emphatic No, concluding nothing more was required. They would cite 'By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast' (Eph. 2:8, 9), and say that ended the matter. Yet it is one thing to quote a passage and another thing to have a right understanding of its terms. Nevertheless, the language of Ephesians 2:8, 9, appears to be so unambiguous and decisive that there seems to be no need to enter upon a laborious study of the subject of which it treats. Why then do we insist upon pressing the inquiry any further?
Why? Because many of the saints are confused thereon and need to have expounded unto them 'the way of God more perfectly.' Why? Because there is a balance of Truth to be observed here as every-where, and if one half of it be ignored then the Truth is perverted and souls are deceived. Why? Because it is at this very point that the 'false prophets' get in most of their pernicious and destructive work, and unless we are forewarned we are not forearmed. Why? Because it is required of the Christian minister that he should declare 'all the counsel of God' and not only favorite portions thereof. Why? Because if on the one hand the exaltation of good works to an unwarrantable place is to repudiate the grace of God, on the other hand the excluding of good works from the place Scripture assigns them is to turn the grace of God into lasciviousness. Why? Because what the Word of God designates 'good works' have well-nigh disappeared from Christendom and therefore there is an urgent need for pressing the same. Why? Because vast numbers of professing Christians are fatally deceived thereon, going down to hell with a 'lie in their right hand.'
The first answer we returned to the question, Are good works necessary in order to the obtaining of salvation? was No. Let us now proceed to explain and amplify. Most emphatically we affirm that no descendant of Adam can possibly perform any works which entitle him to God’s favorable regard. He can no more merit heaven by his own performances than he could create a world. Sooner might the sinner build a ladder which would obtain for him access to the dwelling place of the Most High than he could do any deeds of charity which earned for him an eternity of bliss. He enters this world a fallen and depraved creature and from earliest infancy he has defiled and befouled the garments of his soul: more readily then could he make white the skin of an Ethiopian than cleanse his garments from their stains without having recourse to the blood of Christ. Turning over a new leaf will not erase the blots on the previous pages: if I could live sinlessly today that would not cancel the guilt of yesterday. I am a ten-thousand-talents debtor to God and have not a penny with which to discharge it, and therefore unless His sovereign grace takes pity upon me and gives me everything for nothing there is no hope whatever for me.
No doubt all of our readers would subscribe heartily unto the last paragraph, saying, That is just what I believe; and possibly a few would add: I trust you will not bring in something further that jars against it. Ah, suppose we were writing upon the righteousness of God, and dwelt on His equity and justice. How glorious the contrast between the Lord and most of earth’s potentates and authorities: they can be bribed or influenced unto dishonesty, but God is no respecter of persons, giving to each his due, ever doing that which is right. But then I must point out that pertains to His office as Judge and His administration of the Law; but He is also sovereign anti distributes His favors as He pleases, bestowing a single talent upon one, two on another, and yet five on another. At once the Arminian protests and says I have contradicted myself. Or, suppose I wrote upon the wondrous mercy and love of God, as displayed in creation, in providence and in grace: that His goodness and loving kindness are manifested on every side. But I must also point out that God is holy and hates sin, and will yet consign to the everlasting burnings all who continue defying Him; and at once the Universalist says, Now you have spoilt the whole thing. Probably some will bring the same charge against the remainder of this chapter.
Above we have said that the language of Ephesians 2:8, 9, appears to be so unambiguous and decisive that there seems to be no need to enter upon a critical examination of its terms—the same may be said of John 3:16, with like disastrous consequences. Every verse of Scripture requires prayerful and careful consideration, without which no man may expect rightly to apprehend it. 'By grace are ye saved' does not stand alone as an absolute statement, but is immediately qualified by the clause 'through faith,' and thus the salvation there referred to is no more extensive than what is received through faith. This at once shows that 'saved' is not used in this verse in its widest latitude. Faith itself is a part of God’s 'so-great salvation,' yet faith is not received 'through faith.' Regeneration is also an essential part of salvation, yet so far from its coming to us through faith, faith is impossible till the soul is born again, Divinely quickened. Again, observe the restriction 'by grace are ye saved,' not 'by grace are ye and shall ye be saved through faith.' The tense of the verb necessarily limits the salvation here contemplated to that which the believer is in present enjoyment of—it does not include his future glorification and entrance into heaven itself.
What has just been pointed out evidences the importance of showing what is connoted and included by the word 'saved' or 'salvation.' First it should be pointed out that it is not used with one uniform sense and scope throughout the New Testament; sometimes it is employed with a wider signification, at others with a narrower. For instance, when we read, 'God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the Truth' (2 Thess. 2:13), the term 'salvation' is to be understood in its widest latitude as comprehending all the benefits which pertain to redemption, all the gracious works of God toward and within us. But when we read, 'Who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began' (2 Tim. 1:9), the word 'saved' must be regarded in a more restricted sense, for it is distinguished from our effectual call. 'Salvation' is both relative and personal, legal and experimental, what God has done for His people and what He works in them: the former takes in election, adoption, justification, acceptance in the Beloved; the latter embraces their regeneration. sanctification, preservation, and glorification.
As we must not confound what God has done for His people and what He is now doing in them, so we must distinguish between the Christian’s having a right or title to salvation and his actual possession of salvation. Faith in Christ secures an interest in all the benefits of salvation, whether in this world or in the world to come, but it does not convey a present participation in all of them. There is a salvation 'in hope' (Rom. 8:24), which is a legal right to that which is yet future in realization: and there is a salvation which is 'obtained' now (2 Tim. 2:10). There are certain benefits which the believer has not only a title to, but which he as fully possesses now as he will in the future; such is his justification: he is as righteous now in the sight of the Divine Judge as he will be in heaven, only then there will be a fuller enjoyment of it. Even now we are 'the sons of God,' but it is not yet made manifest all that favour carries with it (1 John 3:2). Perfect sanctification is prepared by grace in election from all eternity, yet none of the elect now on earth are fully sanctified in their experience. Thus we must distinguish between what is the believer’s by title and that which is accomplished by degrees and made good to him in time.
Once more, we must learn to distinguish sharply between the various causes and means of salvation. The original cause is the sovereign will of God, for nothing can come into being save that which He decreed before the foundation of the world. The meritorious cause is the mediatorial work of Christ, who 'obtained eternal redemption' (Heb. 9:22) for His people, purchasing for them all the blessings of it by His perfect obedience to the Law and His sacrificial death. The efficient cause is the varied operations of the Holy Spirit, who applies to the elect the benefits purchased by Christ, capacitating them to enjoy the same and making them meet for the inheritance of the saints in light. The ministerial cause and means is the preaching of the Word (Jas. 1:21), because it discovers to us where salvation is to be obtained. The instrumental cause is faith, by which the soul receives or comes into possession of and obtains an interest in Christ and His redemption. Such distinctions as these are not merely technicalities for theologians, but are part of the faith once delivered unto the saints, and unless they apprehend the same they are liable to be deceived by any Scripture-quoting false prophet who accosts them.
The Christian’s title to salvation, that is to salvation as a whole and complete as it lay in the womb of God’s decree, is entirely by grace, for he has done and can do nothing whatever to earn the same. We are not saved for our faith, for since it also is the gift of God, wrought in us by the Spirit, it possesses no meritorious worth. We are saved by grace through faith because faith let in salvation, being the hand which receives it. Yet there is no salvation without faith: no one is saved until he believes. It is by grace through faith that we obtain deliverance from the curse of the Law and receive title to everlasting life and righteousness. As Thomas Goodwin pointed out in his masterly exposition of Ephesians 2:8: 'We are saved through faith as that which gives us the present right, or that which God doth give us as a Judge, when we believe, before faith hath done a whit of works; but we are led through sanctification and good works to the possession of salvation.' It must not be lost sight of that Ephesians 2:8, 9, is at once followed by, 'For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.' It is sometimes said, because God has ordained it we shall walk in good works. That is true, but it is equally true that we must do so if heaven is to be reached.
Are good works necessary in order to the obtaining of salvation? Our answer was no and yes. Perhaps the reader is now better prepared to follow us in such a seemingly paradoxical answer. Certainly no works are required from us in order to induce God to show us favour. Nor are they necessary in order to our justification, for they constitute no part of that righteousness which we have before God. Nor do they procure for us a title to heaven. But it is a great mistake to suppose that because good works are not necessary for one particular end they are not indispensable for any: that because they are not meritorious therefore they are useless. Not so. Good works are necessary. They are necessary in order to preserve us from that course and practice which conducts to hell. They are necessary in order to the glorifying of God and the magnifying of His grace. They are necessary in order to keep us in the only way that leads to heaven. They are necessary in order to communion with the thrice holy God. They are necessary in order to prove the quality of our faith and the genuineness of our profession. They are necessary in order to the making of our calling and election sure. They are necessary in order to silence the detractors of the Gospel.
As there is no pardon until we forsake our wicked ways (Isa. 55:7), no blotting out of our sins until we repent and turn unto God (Acts 3:19), so there is no entering into life except by treading the only way that leads thereto, and that is the path of obedience. So long as the Christian remains in this world he is in the place of danger: deliverance from hell is only the beginning of salvation, nor is it completed until heaven is reached. Between justification and glorification there is a fight to be fought, enemies to be conquered, a victory to be won, and the prize is only for the victor. 'Conversion is a turning into the right road; the next thing is to walk in it. The daily going on in that road is as essential as the first starting if you would reach the desired end. To strike the first blow is not all the battle: to him that overcometh the crown is promised. To start in the race is nothing, many have done that who have failed; but to hold out till you reach the winning post is the great point of the matter. Perseverance is as necessary to a man’s salvation as conversion' (C. H. Spurgeon).
In what sense are good works 'necessary' unto salvation—necessary in order to final and complete salvation? First, they are requisite as the way in which that final salvation is attained. As a destination cannot be reached without journeying thither, neither can life be entered except through the strait gate and treading the narrow way: it is via the path of holiness that heaven is reached. Second, they are requisite as part of the means which God has appointed: they are the means of spiritual preservation. The only alternative to good works is evil ones, and evil works slay their perpetrator—sin is destructive: 'if ye live after the flesh ye shall die' (Rom. 8:13; and cf. Gal. 6:8). Third, they are requisite as a condition of the possession of full salvation. Not a condition like a stipulation in a bargain, but as a connection between two things. As food must be eaten for the body to be nourished, as seed must be sown in order to a harvest, so obedience, equally as repentance and faith, precede the crowning. Fourth, as an evidence of the genuineness of faith: the fruit must manifest the tree.
Those who deny that good works are in any sense necessary to salvation appeal to the instance of the thief on the cross, arguing that in his case there was nothing more than a simple and single look of faith unto the Saviour. We might dispose of such an appeal by pointing out that his case is quite exceptional—for it is very rarely that God at once removes to heaven him who believes—and that it is not permissible to frame a rule from an exception. Instead, we meet the objector on his own ground and show that his assertion is erroneous. There was far more than a bare looking to the Saviour in his case. (1) He rebuked his companion: 'Dost not thou fear God?' (Luke 23:40). (2) He repented of his sins: 'we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds' (v. 41)—he condemned himself, owning that death was his due. (3) He bore public witness to Christ’s sinlessness: 'this man hath done nothing amiss.' (4) In the face of a hostile mob, he testified to Christ’s Lordship and Kingship: 'Lord, remember me, when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.'
In his sermon on Ephesians 2:10, Manton says: 'Our well-doing is the effect of salvation if you take it for our first recovery to God, but if you take it for full salvation or our final deliverance from all evil, good works go before it indeed, but in a way of order, not of meritorious influence. To think them altogether unnecessary would too much deprecate and lessen their presence or concurrence; to think they deserve it would too much exalt and advance them beyond the line of their due worth and value. The apostle steered a middle course between both extremes. They are necessary but not meritorious. They go before eternal life not as a cause but as a way. Let us now summarize it thus: God has made promise of salvation unto His people: Christ has purchased it for them: faith obtains title thereto: good works secure actual admission into the full and final benefits of redemption, and in order to empower the Spirit renews the believer day by day.'
It may appear to some of our readers that the preceding chapter of this series had no connection at all with Matthew 7:15, that instead of giving an exposition of the verse we wandered off to an entirely different subject and entered into a lot of technicalities which few are capable of understanding. Then let us remind such that we gave an exposition of Matthew 7:15, in the previous chapter, at the close of which we asserted that it is particularly in the matter of the relation of good works unto salvation that the false prophets fatally deceive souls: one school or class of them teaching that salvation is by works, another insisting that it is entirely without works. The issue thus raised is such an important and vital one that it would be wrong to dismiss it with a few peremptory statements. Moreover, there is now such confusion of tongues in the religious realm, and the method followed by even the orthodox pulpit is so dreadfully superficial—'preaching' having quite supplanted teaching—that the Lord’s own people are in real need of instruction thereon, and such instruction demands diligence and study on the part of the one imparting, and concentration and patience from those who would receive. Truth has to be ' bought' (Prov. 23:23).
In the preceding chapter we sought to define and explain the relation of good works to salvation. First, we pointed out that they possess no meritorious value: by which we mean, they deserve nothing at the hands of God, that in no sense do they earn aught or contribute one mite to our redemption. Second, we insisted that they are necessary, yea, that without them salvation cannot be obtained. Not that any well-doing on our part is required in order to obtain acceptance with God, nor that they can atone for the failures and sins of the past. But rather that the path of obedience must be trod if the realm of unclouded bliss is to be reached. The doing of good works is indispensable in order to the securing of full and final salvation, that is in order to an actual entrance into heaven itself. We are well aware that such language will have a strange sound to some of our friends, that it will savor of 'legality,' yet if Scripture itself expressly declares that Christ is 'the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him' (Heb. 5:9), need we hesitate to employ the same plain language and press the force thereof?
That which we are here advancing is no departure from genuine orthodoxy, but the doctrine propounded by the soundest of God’s servants in days gone by. In the last article we quoted from Goodwin and Manton. Hear now the testimonies of other of the Puritans. 'If we consider every gracious work of patience, love, meekness, we shall see blessedness is promised to them. Not that they justify, only the justified person cannot be without them. They are the ordained means in the use whereof we arrive at eternal life. It is faith only that receives Christ in His righteousness, yet this faith cannot be separated from an holy walk' (A. Burgess, 1656). 'Freedom from condemnation, from sin, for all the elect, which God Himself so plainly asserts (Rom. 8:32, 33) doth not in the least set thee free from the necessity of obedience, nor free thee from contracting the guilt of sin upon the least irregularity or disobedience' (John Owen, 1670). 'Christ will save none but those who are brought to resign themselves sincerely to the obedience of His royal authority and laws' (Walter Marshall, 1692). Alas, that there has been so widespread a departure from the teaching of such worthies.
It is just because there has been such a grievous turning away from the Truth as it was formerly so faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed, by men not worthy to blacken their shoes, that so many today are ignorant of the very first principles of Christianity. It is because the pulpit, platform, and pamphlet hucksters of the nineteenth century so wantonly lowered the standard of Divine holiness, and so adulterated the Gospel in order to make it palatable to the carnal mind, that it has become necessary to labour what is really self-evident. Oh, the tragedy of it that at this late day we should have to write chapter after chapter in the endeavour to purge some of God’s people of the antinomian poison they have imbibed. As well may writer and reader hope to reach heaven without Christ as without good works: 'Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple' (Luke 14:27). Did the Lord Jesus work so arduously that His followers might be carried to glory on flowery beds of ease? Was the Saviour so active that His disciples might be idle? Did he become obedient unto death in order to exempt us from obedience?
Though it will retard our pace, yet because it is necessary to remove stumbling stones out of the way of those anxious to be helped, we must seek to resolve two or three difficulties which may arise in the minds of the Lord’s people. (1) It is likely to be objected that by such teachings we are making man in part at least his own savior. But need we be afraid to go as far as the language of Holy Writ goes? Was the apostle legalistic when he cried, 'save yourselves from this untoward generation' (Acts 2:40)? Was the chief of the apostles derogating from the glory of Christ and the grace of God when he bade Timothy, 'Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee' (1 Tim. 4:16)? But was not Timothy already a saved man when thus exhorted? Regenerated and justified, yes: fully sanctified and glorified, no. Because we press the perseverance of the Christian (as well as his Divine preservation) do we make him his own keeper? Suppose we do, are we going beyond Scripture? Did not David say, 'By the word of Thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer' (Ps. 17:4)? Did not Paul say, 'I keep under my body' (1 Cor. 9:27)? Does not Jude exhort us, 'keep yourselves in the love of God' (v. 21)?
It is against a dishonest one-sidedness that we so often protest in these pages. The singling out of certain passages and then closing the eyes against others has wrought untold damage. 'Is there any doctrine which you almost think is a truth, but your friends do not believe it, and they might perhaps think you heretical if you were to accept it, and therefore you dare not investigate any farther? Oh, dear friends, let us be rid of all such dishonesty. So much of it has got into the church that many will not see things that are as plain as a pikestaff. They will not see, for truth might cost them too dear. They cover up and hide away some parts of Scripture which it might be awkward for them to understand, because of their connection with a church or their standing in a certain circle.' If C. H. Spurgeon found it necessary to raise his voice against this reprehensible method of picking and choosing from the Word of God, how much more so is such a condemnation called for in this generation of dishonesty and hypocrisy.
(2) If good works be necessary in order to salvation, is not this putting us back again under the covenant of works, the terms of which were: 'Do this and thou shalt live'? No indeed, nevertheless the fact must not be lost sight of that it has pleased God in all ages to deal with His people by way of covenant, and in the same way He will deal with them to the end of the world. It is very largely because covenant teaching has been given no place in modern 'evangelism' that so much ignorance now obtains. How few preachers today could explain the meaning of 'these are the two covenants' (Gal. 4:24). What percentage of Christians now living understand the 'better covenant,' of which Christ is 'the Mediator' (Heb. 8:6) and wherein lies the difference between the 'new covenant' (Heb. 12:24) and the old one? How few apprehend the blessedness of those words, 'The blood of the everlasting covenant' (Heb. 13:20). But let it not be overlooked that there are covenant duties as well as covenant blessings: there is a covenant for us to 'make' with God (Ps. 1:5)and a covenant to 'keep' (Ps. 25:10; 103:18).
The new covenant or covenant of grace was in its original constitution transacted between God and Christ as the Head of His people. That covenant is published in the Gospel, and the application of its benefits is made when we submit to its terms and fulfil its duties. It is worthy of note that the self-same thing which the apostle calls the 'gospel' in Galatians 3:8, he terms the 'covenant' in verse 17. Now a covenant is a compact or contract entered into by two or more parties, the one engaging himself to do or give something upon the fulfillment of a stipulation agreed upon by the other. Thus in the Gospel Christ makes known His readiness to save those who are willing to submit to His Lordship. Hence conversion is termed 'the love of thine espousals' (Jer. 2:2), when the soul as it were signed the marriage contract, vowing to love none other than the Lord and to be faithful to Him unto death. This giving of ourselves to Christ to serve and love Him is designated a 'taking hold of the covenant' (Isa. 56:6). And that covenant must be kept if we are to receive its benefits.
When defining the essence of the controversy between himself and his opponents, John Flavel stated it thus: 'The only question between us is, Whether in the new covenant some acts of ours (though they have no merit in them, nor can be done in our own strength) be not required to be performed by us antecedently to (before) a blessing or privilege, consequent by virtue of a promise; and whether such act or duty, being of a suspending nature to the blessing promised, it have not the true and proper nature of a Gospel condition.'Mr. Flavel affirmed, his opponent (Mr. Carey) denied. In proof of the conditionality of certain of the new covenant blessings Mr. Flavel said, 'We know not how to express those sacred particles, 'if not,' 'if,' 'except,' 'only,' and such like (Rom. 10:9; Matthew 18:8; Mark 11:26; Rom. 11:22; Col. 1:22, 23; Heb. 3:6, 14), which are frequently used to limit and restrain the benefits and privileges of the new covenant, by any other word so fit and so full as the word conditional.'
In considering the new and better covenant, we must distinguish sharply between the first sanction of it in Christ and the application of its benefits to His people. Few men more magnified the grace of God in his preaching and writings than did the Puritan, Thomas Boston, yet we find him saying (in his View of the Covenant of Grace):'He gives the rewards of the covenant in the course of their obedience. He puts His people to work and labour: but not to work in the fire for vanity as the slaves of sin do. They are to labour like the ox treading out the corn, which was not to be muzzled, but to have access at once to work and to eat. The service now done to Zion’s King hath a reward in this life as well as a reward in the life to come. By the order of the covenant there is privilege established to follow duty as the reward thereof, the which order is observed by the King in His administration. Accordingly He proposeth the privilege of comfort to excite to the duty of mourning (Matthew 5:4), the special tokens of heaven’s favour to excite unto a holy tender walk (John 14:21); in like manner to excite to the same holy obedience He proposeth the full reward in the life to come (1 Cor. 9:24; Rev. 3:21).'
The new covenant requires obedience as really and truly as did the old, and therefore does God write the laws of the covenant on the hearts of those with whom He makes the new covenant (Heb. 10:16). Those who enter into this covenant with God do approve of the whole Divine Law so far as they know it, declaring, 'I esteem all Thy precepts' (Ps. 119:128). They have an inclination of heart towards the whole of God’s Law so far as they know it, saying: 'I love Thy commandments above gold' (119:127). They heartily engage to conform to the whole of God’s Law so far as they know it, exclaiming, 'O that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes!' (119:5). Where the Law is written on a person’s heart he will write it out again in his conversation. Their souls lie open to what of God’s Law they as yet know not, praying 'Make me to understand the way of Thy precepts' (Ps. 119:27).
But now if many (we say not all) of the blessings and benefits of the new covenant are made conditional upon our obedience and fidelity, wherein does it differ from the old, or Adamic covenant, the covenant of works? Why, in these respects. First, under the old covenant, works were meritorious, entitling to the inheritance: had Adam kept the Law, he and all he represented would have entered life by legal right, whereas under the new covenant Christ purchased the inheritance for His people before a single thing was asked of them. Second, under the old covenant man had to work in his own strength alone; but under the new all-sufficient grace and enablement are available to those who duly seek it. Third, under the covenant of works no provision was made for failure: the obedience required must be perfect and perpetual (Gal. 3:10): whereas under the covenant of grace God accepts imperfect obedience, if it be sincere, because the blood of Christ hath made atonement for its defects and disobedience is pardoned when we truly repent of and forsake the same.
(3) If good works be necessary in order to final salvation, how is a poor soul to ascertain when he has done sufficient of them? Such a question is not likely to issue from a renewed heart, rather does he bemoan his unfruitfulness and unprofitableness. He feels he can never do enough to express his gratitude unto God for the unspeakable gift of His Son. Instead of begrudging any sacrifice he is called upon to make, or any hardship to encounter, by virtue of his being a Christian. he deems it the highest honour conceivable to serve such a Master and endure for His sake. But to the carping objector, we would say, Scripture declares: 'For we are made par-takers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end'(Heb. 3:14). The soldiers of Christ are not granted any furloughs or 'leave' in this life: they cannot take off their armor until the battle is over. They know not at what hour their Lord may come, and therefore are they required to have their loins girded and their lamps trimmed without intermission.
But it should be pointed out that it is not quantity but quality which God requires. A cup of cold water given to one of His little ones in the name of Christ is infinitely more acceptable to the Father than a million pounds donated by a godless magnate to social institutions. On the one hand it is written, 'that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God' (Luke 16:15), on the other, 'man looketh on the outward appearance but the Lord looketh on the heart' (1 Sam. 16:7). That which issues from love to God, which expresses gratitude for His goodness, is what is well pleasing in His sight. Quality, not quantity. Is not this the point in that saying of Christ’s, 'if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove' (Matthew 17:20)? What is smaller than a mustard seed and what larger than a mountain? the one seemingly feeble and paltry, the other ponderous and mighty. Ah, but the former is a living thing, the latter but a mass of inert matter; the former is energetic and growing, the latter stationary. It is quality versus quantity.
(4) If good works be necessary in order to final salvation, is there not ground thereon for boasting? Yes, if they be perfect and flawless, performed in our own strength, and we bring God into our debt thereby. Before giving the negative answer, consider the case of the holy angels in this connection. When Satan fell he dragged down with him one third of the celestial hierarchy, the remainder remained steadfast in their loyalty to God: did such fidelity puff them up? Throughout their entire history it could ever be said of them that they 'do His commandments, hearkening unto the voice of His word' (Ps. 103:20), yet nowhere in Holy Writ is there so much as a hint that they are proud of their obedience. On the contrary we find them veiling their faces in the Divine presence and crying one unto another, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts' (Isa. 6:3), and falling before the throne on their faces and worshipping God (Rev. 7:11). How much less then may hell-deserving sinners, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, find anything in their own performances to afford self-gratulation.
Is there any danger that the doing of good works in order to final salvation will lead to boasting? No, none whatever, if we bear in mind that our best performances are but filthy rags in the sight of Him with whom the very heavens are not clean. No, not if we bear in mind that we are not sufficient of ourselves to think a godly thought (2 Cor. 3:5), still less carry it out into execution; apart from Christ we can 'do nothing.' No, not if we squarely face and honestly answer the question, 'What hast thou that thou didst not receive?' (1 Cor. 4:7). No, not if we heed that word of Christ’s, 'So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you [which none of us ever did], say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do' (Luke 17:10). Yes, 'unprofitable servants' so far as making God our Debtor is concerned. The very man who wrought more miracles than any for his Master declared. 'yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me' (1 Cor. 15:10).
Again, the reader may be inclined to ask, But what bearing has all of this on Matthew 7:15? We answer, Much every way, as we shall (D. V.) seek to show in our next. Suffice it now to say that what we have been stressing in this and the preceding chapter is expressly repudiated by the 'false prophets' of our day. They blankly deny that good works have any part or place whatever in our salvation, that believing the Gospel is all that is needed to ensure heaven for any sinner.
Our last two chapters of this series were devoted principally to showing the relation of good works unto final salvation, this being both pertinent and needful, forasmuch as many of the 'false prophets' of our day expressly repudiate all that we therein insisted upon. They dogmatically affirm that 'believing the Gospel is all that is needed to ensure heaven for any sinner.' And is it not so? Certainly not. First, it requires to be pointed out that there is an order in presenting the Gospel, and it is the business of those who preach to observe that order: unless they do so nothing but disorder will ensue and spurious converts will be the issue of their labors. If due attention be paid to the Word of God, it will not be difficult to discover what that order is: the proclamation and enforcing of the Divine Law precedes the publication of the Divine Gospel. Broadly speaking, the Old Testament is an exposition of the Law, while the New Testament sets forth the substance and benefits of the Gospel.
The Gospel is a message of 'good news.' To whom? To sinners. But to what sort of sinners? To the giddy and unconcerned, to those who give no thought to the claims of God and where they shall spend eternity? Certainly not. The Gospel announces no good tidings to them:it has no music in it to their ears. They are quite deaf to its charms, for they have no sense of their need of the Saviour. It is those who have their eyes opened to see something of the ineffable holiness of God and their vileness in His sight, who have learned something of His righteous requirements from them and of their criminal neglect to meet those requirements, who are deeply convicted of their depravity, their moral inability to recover themselves, whose consciences are burdened with an intolerable load of guilt and who are terrified by their imminent danger of the wrath to come, who know that unless an almighty redeemer saves them they are doomed, that are qualified to appreciate and welcome the Gospel. 'They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.'
Now the natural man has no realization of the desperate sickness of his soul. He is quite unconscious of what spiritual health consists of, namely personal holiness. Never having sincerely measured himself by the Divine standard, he knows not how far, far short he comes of it at every point. God has no real place in his thoughts and therefore he fails to comprehend how obnoxious he is in His sight. Instead of seeking to glorify the One who made and sustains him, he lives only to please self. And what is the means for enlightening him? What is the sure 'line and plummet' (Isa. 28:17) for exposing the crookedness of his character? The preaching of God’s Law, for that is the unchanging rule of conduct and standard of righteousness. 'By the law is the knowledge of sin' (Rom. 3:20)— its nature, as rebellion against God; its exceeding sinfulness as contrary to Divine holiness; its infinite evil, as deserving of eternal punishment.
'I had not known sin but by the law'(Rom. 7:7) declares one who formerly had prided himself on his integrity and righteousness. God’s Law requires inward conformity as well as outward: it addresses itself to the motions of the heart as well as prescribes our actions, so that we are sinless or sinful just in proportion as we conform or fail to conform to the Law both internally and externally. Just so far as we have false ideas of God’s Law do we entertain false estimates of our character. Just so far as we fail to perceive that the Law demands perfect and perpetual obedience shall we be blind to the fearful extent of our disobedience. Just so far as we realize not the spirituality and strictness of the Law, that it pronounces a lascivious imagination to be adultery and causeless anger against a fellow creature to be murder, shall we be unaware of our fearful criminality. Just so far as we hear nothing of the awful thunders of the Law’s curse shall we be insensible to our frightful danger.
It has been rightly said: 'The Gospel has such respect to the Law of God, and the latter is so much the reason and ground of the former, and so essential to the wisdom and glory of it, that it cannot be understood by him who is ignorant of the Law: consequently, our idea and apprehension of the Gospel will be erroneous and wrong just so far as we have wrong notions of God’s Law' (S. Hopkins). The excellency of the Mediator cannot be recognized until we see that the Law demands flawless and undeviating obedience on pain of eternal damnation, and that such a demand is right and glorious, and consequently that sin is infinitely criminal and heinous. The essential work of the Mediator was to honor and magnify that Law and make atonement for the wrongs done to it by His people. And they who repudiate this Law, or who view it not in its true light, are and must be totally blind to the wisdom and glory of the Gospel, for while they never see sin in its real odiousness and true ill-desert they are incapable of realizing or perceiving their deep need of the Divine remedy.
That salvation which Christ came here to purchase for His people consists first in the gift of His Spirit to overcome their enmity against God’s Law (Rom. 8:7) and produce in them a love for it (Rom. 7:22), and it is by this we may discover whether or not we have been regenerated. Second, to bring them to a cordial consent to the Law, so that each genuine Christian can say 'So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God' (Rom. 7:25). Third, to deliver them from the curse of the Law by dying for their sins of disobedience against it, Himself bearing its penalty in their stead (Gal. 3:13). Consequently, they who are experientially ignorant of God’s Law, who have never heartily assented to it as 'holy, just and good,' have never been sensible of sin in its true hideousness and demerits, have never been subject to a supernatural work of grace within them, are yet in nature’s darkness, strangers to Christ, still in their sins, having felt neither the strength of sin nor the power of the Gospel.
Again: the order which is to be observed in the presentation of the Gospel is exemplified in the appointment of John the Baptist. He was the forerunner of Christ, going before to 'prepare His way' (Isa. 40:3). John came 'in the way of righteousness' (Matthew 21:32), crying 'Repent ye' (Matthew 3:2). A saving faith in Christ must be preceded by and accompanied with a heart-felt sense of the true odiousness and ill-desert of sin. An impenitent heart is no more able to receive Christ than a shuttered window is able to let in the rays of the sun. None but the humbled, contrite, broken-hearted penitent is ever comforted by the Lord Jesus, as none but such will ever desire Him or seek after Him. This is the unchanging order laid down by Christ Himself: 'repent ye and [then] believe the gospel' (Mark 1:15): ye 'repented not afterward that ye might believe' (Matthew 21:32) was His solemn affirmation. First 'repentance toward God, and [then] faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 20:21) was what the apostle testified to Jews and Gentiles alike.
It has often been said that nothing more is required of the sinner than to come to Christ as an empty-handed beggar and receive Him as an all-sufficient Saviour. But that assertion needs clarifying and amplifying at two points lest souls be fatally misled thereby. To come to Christ empty-handed signifies not only that I renounce any fancied righteousness of mine, but also that I relinquish my beloved idols. Just so long as the sinner holds fast to the world or clings to any fond sin he cannot thrust forth an empty hand. The things which produce death must be dropped before he can 'lay hold on eternal life.' Furthermore, Christ cannot be received in part but only in the entirety of His person and office: He must be received as 'Lord and Saviour' or He cannot be savingly received at all. There must be a submitting to His authority, a surrendering to His sceptre, a taking of His yoke upon us, as well as a trusting in His blood, or we shall never find 'rest unto our souls.'
'But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God' (John 1:12). This verse is often quoted by the self-appointed 'evangelists' of our day but it is rarely expounded. Instead of throwing all the emphasis on 'received,' attention rather needs to be directed unto 'received Him.'It is not 'received it'—a mental proposition or doctrine—nor even received 'His'—some gift or benefit—but 'Him,' in the entirety of His person as clothed with His offices, as He is proposed in the Gospel. Such a 'receiving' as is here spoken of implies an enlightened understanding, a convicted conscience, renewed affections—the exercise of love, an act of the will—choice of a new Master, the acceptance of His terms (Luke 14:26, 27, 33). It is at this last point that so many balk: 'why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?' (Luke 6:46), and therefore is the inquirer bidden to 'sit down first and count the cost' (Luke 14:28). The order is first the person of Christ and then His gifts (Rom. 8:32): thus God bestows and thus we receive.
Those, then, who declare that a bare believing of the Gospel is all that is needed to ensure heaven for any sinner are 'false prophets,' liars and deceivers of souls. It also requires to be pointed out that saving faith is not an isolated act but a continuous thing. When the apostle contrasted genuine saints with apostates, he described them as 'them that believe to the saving of the soul' (Heb. 10:39): note well the tense of the verb—not 'them that believed' one day in the past, but 'them that believe' with a faith which is operative in the present. In this he was holding fast 'the form of sound words' (2 Tim. 1:13) employed by his Master, for He too taught 'as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life' (John 3:15, and cf. 3:18, 36; 5:24). In like manner another apostle says, 'If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious, to whom [not, ye 'came,' but] coming, as unto a living stone' (1 Pet. 2:4)—coming daily, as needy as ever.
Saving faith is not an isolated act which suffices for the remainder of a person’s life, rather is it a living principle which continues in activity, ever seeking the only Object which can satisfy it. Nor is it a thing apart, but a productive principle which issues in good works and spiritual fruits. 'Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone' (Jas. 2:17). A faith which does not bring forth obedience to the Divine precepts is not the faith of God’s elect. Saving faith is something radically different from a mere mental assent to the Gospel, believing that God loves me and that Christ died for me. The demons assent to the whole compass of Divine revelation, but what does it advantage them? Nor is the 'faith' advocated by the false prophets of any more value or efficacy. Saving faith, my reader, is one which 'purifieth the heart' (Acts 15:9). which 'worketh by love' (Gal. 5:6), which 'overcometh the world' (1 John 5:4). And such faith man can neither originate nor regulate. Has such a faith been Divinely communicated to you?
Now it is in their opposition to those aspects of the Truth we have been concerned with above that the false prophets may be identified. Not that their preaching is all cast in the same mould: far from it. As the servants of God are variously gifted—one to evangelize, another to indoctrinate, another to exhort and admonish—so Satan accommodates his emissaries to the different types of people they meet with. On the one hand, Romanists and other legalists teach that salvation is by obedience to the Law, that repentance and good works are meritorious; on the other hand, there are those who insist that the Law is entirely Jewish, that the Gentiles were never under it and have nothing to do with it. But just as the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians differed widely the one from the other yet made common cause in antagonizing Christ, so the false prophets, though far from being uniform in their heterodoxy, nevertheless are one in opposing the Truth. Conversely, whatever be their distinctive gifts and spheres of service, the true ministers of God are always identifiable by their fidelity to the faith once for all, delivered to the saints.
It is particularly the more subtle and less suspected kind of false prophets we are here seeking to expose and warn against. For the last two or three generations 'wolves in sheep’s clothing' have appeared in circles from which it might be expected that they had been excluded. They have deceived multitudes by their very seeming soundness in the faith. They have denounced 'Higher Criticism,' and Evolutionism, Christian Science and Russellism. They have affirmed the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures and have made much of the mercy of God and the atoning blood of Christ. But they have falsified God’s way of salvation. Christ bade His hearers 'strive [agonize] to enter in at the strait gate' (Luke 13:24): these men declare such striving to be altogether unnecessary. He affirmed, 'except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish': they say that sinners may be saved without repentance. Scripture asks, 'If the righteous scarcely be saved' (1 Pet. 4:18): these men aver that salvation is easy for anyone. Scripture uniformly teaches that unless the believer perseveres in holiness he will lose heaven: these men insist that he will merely forfeit some 'millennial crown.'
As one of the Puritans quaintly yet truly expressed it, 'The face of error is highly painted and powdered so as to render it attractive to the unwary.' The false prophets, whether of the papist or the Protestant order, make a great show of devotion and piety on the one hand, and of zeal and fervour on the other, as did the Pharisees of old with their fasting and praying and who 'compassed sea and land to make one proselyte' (Matthew 23:15). They are diligent in seeking to discredit those truths they design to overthrow by branding them 'legal doctrines' and denouncing as 'Judaizers' those who are set for the defence of them. 'With good words and fair speeches they deceive the heart of the simple' (Rom. 16:18). They speak much about 'grace,' yet it is not that Divine grace which 'reigns through righteousness' (Rom. 5:21), nor does it effectually teach men to deny 'ungodliness and worldly lusts' (Titus 2:11, 12). With 'cunning craftiness' they 'lie in wait to deceive' (Eph. 4:14) souls who have never been established in the Truth and beguile with 'enticing words' (Col. 2:4), making a great show of quoting Scripture and addressing their converts as 'beloved brethren.'
Many of the false prophets of Protestantism have popularized themselves by granting their deluded followers the liberty of preaching. As any reader of ecclesiastical history knows, it has been a favorite device of false prophets in all ages to spread their errors through the efforts of their converts, flattering their conceits by speaking of their 'gifts' and 'talents': by multiplying lay preachers they draw after them a host of disciples. Such incompetent novices are themselves ignorant of the very A B C of the Truth, yet in their egotism and presumption deem themselves qualified to explain the deepest mysteries of the Faith. A great deal safer, and more excusable, would it be to put an illiterate rustic into a dispensary to compound medicines Out of drugs and spirits he understands not and then administer the same unto his fellows, than for young upstarts with no better endowment than self-confidence to intrude themselves into the sacred office of the ministry: the one would poison men’s bodies, but the other their souls.
'But such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel, of light' (2 Cor. 11:13, 14). In all opposition to the Truth there is an agent at work which it belongs to the office of the Spirit of Truth to discover and unmask. If 'another gospel' (Gal. 1:6) be preached rather than the Gospel of Christ, it is the fruit of satanic energy, the minds and wills of its promulgators being led captive by the Devil. Satan is the arch-dissembler, being the prince of duplicity as well as of wickedness. When he had the awful effrontery to tempt the Lord Jesus he came with the Word of God on his lips saying, 'It is written' (Matthew 4:6)! Though Satan’s kingdom be that of darkness, yet his craft is the mimicry of light, and thus it is that his agents work by deception. They claim to be the 'apostles [or 'missionaries'] of Christ,' but they have received no call or commission from Him. Nor should we marvel at their pretence when we remember the hold which the father of lies has over men.
'Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works' (2 Cor. 11:15). They are 'deceitful workers,' for they pose as champions of the Truth and as being actuated by a deep love for souls. As sin does not present itself to us as sin nor as paying death for its wages, but rather as something pleasant and desirable, and as Satan never shows himself openly in his true colors, so his 'ministers' put on the cloak of sanctity, pretending to be dead to the world and very self-sacrificing. They are crafty, specious, tricky, hypocritical. What urgent need, then, is there to be on our guard, that we be not imposed upon by every mealy-mouthed and 'gracious' impostor who comes to us Bible in hand. How we should heed that injunction, 'Prove all things' (1 Thess. 5: 21). Certain it is, my reader, that any preacher who rejects Gods Law, who denies repentance to be a condition of salvation, who assures the giddy and godless that they are loved by God, who declares that saving faith is nothing more than an act of the will which every person has the power to perform, is a false prophet, and should be shunned as a deadly plague.
'Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.'
'Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves' (v. 15). No idle or needless warning was this, but one which should be seriously taken to heart by all who have any concern for the glory of God or value their eternal interests. Our danger is real and pressing, for 'false prophets' are not few in number but 'many' (1 John 4:1), and instead of being found only in the notoriously heretical sects, have 'crept in' among saints until they now dominate nearly all the centers of orthodoxy. If we are deceived by them and imbibe their lies the result is almost certain to be fatal, for error acts upon the soul as deadly poison does on the body. The very fact that these impostors assume 'sheep’s clothing' and pose as the servants of Christ greatly increases the peril of the unwary and unsuspicious. For these reasons it is imperative that we should be on our guard. But to be properly on our guard requires that we should be informed, that we should know how to recognize these deceivers. Nor has our Lord left us unfurnished at this vital point, as the succeeding verses show.
'Ye shall know them by their fruits.' Three questions are suggested by this statement, to which it is necessary for us to obtain correct answers if this rule here laid down by Christ is to be used by us to good advantage. First, what sort of knowledge is it that is mentioned? Is it relative or absolute? Is it the forming of a credible and reliable judgment of the teachers we sit under and whose writings we peruse, or is it an unerring discernment which precludes us from making any mistake? Second, how is this knowledge obtained? Is it a Divine endowment or a human acquirement? Is it one of the spiritual gifts which accompanies regeneration, a sense of spiritual perception bestowed upon the Christian, or is it something after which we must labour, which can be procured only by our own diligence and industry? Third, what are the 'fruits' brought forth by the false prophets? Are they their character and conduct, or is something else intended? Really, it is this third question which is the principal one to be pondered, but we will say a little upon the first two before taking it up.
The answer to the first question should be fairly obvious, for even in this day of human deification we have heard of none laying claim to infallibility except the arch-humbug at Rome. But though the knowledge here predicated be not an inerrant one, yet it is something much superior to a vague and uncertain one. In those words our Lord lays down a rule, and like all general rules we may make mistakes—both favorable and unfavorable—in the application of it. The knowledge which Christ here attributes to His people is such a persuasion as to inform them how they should act toward those who appear before them as preachers and teachers, enabling them to test their claims and weigh their messages. Though it does not always enable its possessor to penetrate the disguise worn by impostors, yet it is sufficient to arouse his suspicion and, if acted on, to preserve him from falling a prey to deceivers. It is a knowledge which fortifies the Christian from being beguiled by religious seducers.
And how is this knowledge procured? It is both obtained and attained: obtained from God, attained by practice. Spiritual discernment is one of the accompaniments of the new birth: necessarily so, for regeneration is a being brought out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. In that light the Christian is able to perceive things which previously were hidden from him, yet he must perforce walk with Him who is light if he is not to recede into the shadows. There are degrees of light, and the measure of our spiritual illumination decreases as distance increases between us and 'the Sun of righteousness.' Moreover, sight is as essential as light for clear vision. The faculty of spiritual perception belongs to each soul renewed by the Spirit, yet faculties unemployed soon become useless to their possessors. When the apostle was contrasting unhealthy saints with the healthy (Heb. 5:11-14) he described the latter as 'those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.' The more we walk in the light and the more we exercise our spiritual faculties, the more readily shall we perceive the snares and stumbling stones in our path.
'Ye shall know them by their fruits.' False prophets are to he identified by what they produce. By their 'fruits' we understand, principally, their creed, their character, and their converts. Is it not by these three things that we recognize the true prophets? The genuine servants of God give evidence of their Divine commission by the doctrine they proclaim: their preaching is in full accord with the Word of Truth. The general tenor of their lives is in harmony therewith, so that their daily walk is an example of practical godliness. Those whom the Spirit quickens and edifies under their preaching bear the features of their ministerial fathers and follow the lead of their shepherds. Conversely, the ministers of Satan, though feigning to be the champions of the Truth, oppose and corrupt it: some by denying its Divine authority, some by mingling human tradition with it, others by wresting it or by withholding vital, portions thereof. Though their outward conduct is often beyond reproach, yet their inward character, the spirit which actuates them, is that of the wolf—sly, cruel, fierce. And their converts or disciples are like unto them.
The true prophet accords God His rightful place. He is owned as the King of kings and Lord of lords, as the One who 'worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.' He is acknowledged to be the sovereign Ruler of heaven and earth, at whose disposal are all creatures and all events, for whose pleasure they are created (Rev. 4:11), whose will is invincible and whose power is irresistible. He is declared to be God in fact as well as in name: One whose claims upon us are paramount and incontestable, One who is to be held in the utmost reverence and awe, One who is to be served with fear and rejoiced in with trembling (Ps. 2:11). Such a God the false prophets neither believe in nor preach. On the contrary, they prate about a God who wants to do this and who would like to do that, but cannot because His creatures will not permit it. Having endowed man with a free will, he must neither be compelled nor coerced, and while Deity is filled with amiable intentions He is unable to carry them out. Man is the architect of his fortunes and the decider of his own destiny, and God a mere Spectator.
The true prophet gives Christ His rightful place, which is very much more than to be sound concerning His person. Romanists are more orthodox about the deity and humanity of Christ than are multitudes of Protestants, yet the former as much as the latter are grossly heterodox upon His official status. The true prophet proclaims the Lord Jesus as the covenant Head of His people, who was set up before the foundation of the world to fulfil all the terms of the covenant of grace on their behalf and to secure for them all its blessings. He sets forth Christ as the 'Surety' and 'Mediator' of the covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6), as the One who came here to fulfil His covenant engagements: 'Lo, I come, to do Thy will, O God'—it was a voluntary act, yet in discharge of a sacred agreement. All that Christ did here upon earth and that which He is now doing in heaven was and is the working out of an eternal compact. Every. thing relating to the Church’s salvation was planned and settled by covenant stipulation between the Eternal Three. Nothing was left to chance, nothing remained uncertain, nothing was rendered contingent upon anything the creature must do. About this glorious and fundamental truth the false prophets are completely silent.
It was to fit Him for His covenant engagements that the Surety became incarnate. It was to redeem His people from the curse of the Law that Christ was made under it, fulfilled its terms, endured its penalty in the room and stead of His covenant people. It was for them, and no others, that He shed His precious blood. Because He faithfully and perfectly discharged His covenant obligations, the Father has sworn with an oath that all for whom He acted shall be eternally saved, that not one of these shall perish, solemnly declaring that 'He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied' (Isa. 53:11). God has made with Christ, and His people in Hint, 'an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure'(2 Sam. 23:5). But the false prophets reverse all this. They misrepresent the redemptive work of Christ as being a vague, indefinite, general, promiscuous thing, rendering nothing sure. They believe Christ shed His blood for Judas equally with Peter, and for Pilate as truly as Paul. They preach a salvation which is uncertain and contingent, as though it were for anybody or nobody as the caprice of men shall decide: Christ provided it and if we accept of it well and good; if not, He will be disappointed.
The true prophet puts man in his proper place. He declares that man is a depraved, ruined and lost creature, dead in trespasses and sins. He points out that man is alienated from God, that his mind is enmity against Him, that he is an inveterate rebel against Him. He shows this to be true not only of those in heathendom, but equally so of those born in Christendom: that 'There is none righteous, no not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God' (Rom. 3:10, 11). He makes it clear that man is a total wreck, that no part of his being has escaped the fearful consequences of his original revolt from his Maker: that his understanding is darkened, his affections corrupted, his will enslaved. Because of what transpired in Eden man has become the slave of sin and the captive of the Devil. He has no love for the true and living God, but instead a heart that is filled with hatred against Him; so far from desiring or seeking after Him, he endeavors by every imaginable means to banish Him from his thoughts. He is blind to His excellency, deaf to His voice, defiant of His authority and unconcerned for His glory.
The true prophet goes still farther. He not only portrays the sinner as he actually is, but he announces that man is utterly unable to change himself or better his condition one iota. He solemnly announces man to be 'without strength,' that he cannot bring himself into subjection to the Divine Law or perform a single action pleasing to God (Rom. 8:7, 8). He insists that the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots more readily than they who are accustomed to do evil can perform that which is good (Jer. 13:1, 23). In short, he declares that man is hopelessly and irremediably lost unless a sovereign God is pleased to perform a miracle of grace upon him. But it is the very opposite with the false prophets. They speak 'smooth things' and flatter their hearers, persuading them that their case is very far from being as desperate as it really is. If they do not expressly repudiate the Fall, or term it (as the Evolutionists) a 'fall upward,' they greatly minimize it, making it appear to be only a slight accident which may be repaired by our own exertions, that man is little affected by it, that he still has 'the power to accept Christ.'
According as the fall of man be viewed and preached so will be the conceptions of men concerning the need and nature of redemption. Almost every Gospel truth will necessarily be colored by the light in which we view the extent of the fall. Take the truth of election: which is the deciding factor—God’s will or mine? Why, if I be in possession of freedom of will and am now on probation, everything must turn on the use I make of this all-important endowment. But can this be made to square with the Scriptures? Yes, by a little wresting of them. It is true that false prophets hate the very word 'election,' but if they are pressed into a corner they will try and wriggle out of it by saying that those whom God elected unto salvation are the ones whom He foreknew would be willing to accept Christ, and that explanation satisfies ninety-nine per cent of their hearers. The truth is God foreknew that if He left men to their pleasure none would ever accept Christ (Rom. 9:29), and therefore He made sovereign and unconditional selection from among them. Had not God eternally chosen me, I certainly had never chosen Him.
The same holds true of regeneration. If the sinner be spiritually impotent and his case hopeless so far as all self-effort and help are concerned, then he can no more quicken himself than can a rotten corpse in the tomb. A dead man is powerless, and that is precisely the natural condition of every member of the human race, religious and irreligious alike: 'dead in trespasses and sins.' The individual concerned in it contributes no more to his new birth than he did to his first. This was expressly insisted upon by Christ when He declared: 'which were born not of blood [by descent from godly parents], nor of the will of the flesh [by their own volition], nor of the will of man [by a persuasive preacher], but of God' (John 1:13). There must be an act of Divine creation before anyone is made a new creature in Christ. But the false prophets represent man to be merely 'bruised' or at most crippled by the fall, and insist that he may be born again simply by accepting Christ as his personal Saviour—a thing which none can do until he is brought from death unto life.
The genuine prophet trumpets forth with no uncertain sound the grand truth of justification. Rightly did Luther declare that 'Justification by faith is the doctrine of a standing or falling church,' for those who pervert it corrupt the Gospel at its very heart. In view of man’s fallen and depraved condition, in view of his being a transgressor of the Divine Law, lying beneath its awful condemnation, the question was asked of old, 'How then can man be justified with God?' (Job 25:4). To be 'justified' is very much more than being pardoned: it is the declaration by the Divine Judge that the believer is righteous, and therefore entitled to the reward of the Law, but how is this possible when man has no righteousness of his own and is totally unable to produce any? The answer is that Christ not only bore in His own body the sins of God’s elect, but He rendered to the Law a perfect obedience in their stead, and the moment they believe in Him His obedience is reckoned to their account, so that each can say, 'in the Lord have I righteousness and strength' (Isa. 45:24). But the false prophets deny and ridicule this basic truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ.
The true prophet gives the Holy Spirit His rightful place, not only in the Godhead, as co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and the Son, but in connection with salvation. Salvation is the gift of the Triune God: the Father planned it, the Son purchased it, the Spirit communicates it. The genuine servant of God is very explicit in declaring that the work of the Holy Spirit is as indispensable as the work of Christ: the One serving for His people, the Other acting in them. It is the distinctive office of the Spirit to illumine the understanding of God’s elect, to search their conscience and convict of their ruined and guilty condition. It is His office to work repentance in them, to communicate faith unto them, to draw out their hearts unto Christ. The soundest and most faithful preaching in the world will avail nothing else unless the Holy Spirit applies iii in quickening power; the most winsome offers and persuasive appeals will be useless until the Spirit bestows the hearing ear. The true prophet knows this, and therefore has he no confidence in his own abilities, but humbly seeks and earnestly prays for the power of the Spirit to rest upon him. But how different is it with deceivers of souls!
The genuine servant of God not only realizes the truth of that word, 'Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts' (Zech. 4:6) in connection with the fruitage of his labours, but he is also deeply conscious of his own need of being personally taught by the Spirit. He has been made to feel his utter insufficiency to handle sacred things, and to realize that if he is to enter into the spiritual meaning of the Word he must be Divinely taught in his own soul. A mere intellectual study of the letter of Scripture cannot satisfy one who longs for a deeper experimental knowledge of the Truth, nor will he be contented with simply informing the minds of his hearers. As it is a tender conscience and a fuller heart-acquaintance with God and His Christ that he covets for himself, so it is to the conscience and heart of his hearers that he addresses himself. It is the opposite with the false prophets: they are occupied solely with the letter of Scripture, with outward profession: there is no deep probing, nothing searching in their messages, nothing to disturb the religious worldling.
Another mark by which many of the false prophets may be recognized is the disproportionate place they give to prophecy in their preaching and teaching. This has ever been a favorite device of religious charlatans, as those versed in ecclesiastical history are well aware. Nor should any observer of human nature be surprised at this. God has placed an impenetrable veil upon the future, so that none can know 'what a day may bring forth' (Prov. 27:1). But man is intensely curious about coming events and gives a ready ear to any who pretend to be able to enlighten him. If on the one hand the irreligious will flock to palmists, astrologers and other fortune-tellers, the religious will crowd around anyone who claims to be able to explain the mysterious contents of the Apocalypse. In times of war and national calamity the curious are easily beguiled by men with charts on the book of Daniel. The express prohibition of our Lord, 'It is not for you to know the times or the seasons' (Acts 1:7), should deter His people from giving ear to those who claim to have 'light' thereon.
In this chapter we have not dealt with false prophets generally, but have confined ourselves to those who wear 'sheep’s clothing,' whose attacks are made upon the flock of Christ. These are men who boast of their soundness in the Faith, and obtain a hearing among those who regard themselves as the cream of orthodoxy. Thus far we have dwelt upon their creed, on what they believe and teach: in our next we shall describe some of the distinguishing traits of their characters, and then point out that the type of converts they make also serves to identify them by the 'fruit' they produce. Our design in entering into such detail is that young Christians may be furnished with a full-length photo of these deceivers, and to make it clear that we are not condemning such because they differ from us on one or two minor matters, but because they are thoroughly corrupt in doctrine. Furthermore, in all that has been before us it should be clear that we should labour diligently to become thoroughly acquainted with God’s Word for ourselves—or how shall we be fitted to detect these seducers of souls? Ponder Acts 17:11.
During the days of His earthly ministry the Lord Jesus furnished full proof that He was the perfect Preacher as well as the model Man. That fact has not received the attention which it deserves, especially among those responsible for training the future occupants of our pulpits. We have perused numerous works on homiletics, but never came across one which attempted to analyze and summarize the methods followed by Christ in His public and private discourses. If the believer finds it necessary and beneficial to ponder the prayers of the Saviour in order that his devotional life may be directed and enriched thereby, surely the minister of the Gospel should feel it both essential and helpful to make a close study of how He approached and addressed both sinners and saints. If he does so he will discover the use Christ made of the Scriptures, the wealth of illustration He drew from the simplest objects of nature, the particular aspects of Truth on which He threw the most emphasis, the variety of motives to which He appealed, the different parts of man’s complex constitution to which He addressed Himself, the repetitions He deemed needful, the searching questions He so often asked, the homely comparisons He made, and the sharp contrasts He drew.
Even if the student confines his attention to the Sermon on the Mount he will perceive how wide was the range of this single Address, how numerous were the themes covered, how diverse the characters dealt with, and thus how many-sided is the work of the ministry. First the Lord depicted those upon whom the benediction of God rests, describing them according to their character and conduct. Next He defined the function and purpose of His servants:
they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Then He declared His attitude unto the Law and the prophets and inculcated the basic law of His kingdom (5:20). Next He expounded the spirituality of the Law and showed it demands conformity of heart as well as of action, displaying the high and holy standard which God will in no wise lower. This was followed by a warning against hypocrisy, especially in connection with prayer and fasting. Treasures in heaven were contrasted with those on earth, and the futility of seeking to serve two masters shown. Expostulation was made against covetousness and carking care. The subject of judging others was opened up, spiritual ambition encouraged, and the golden rule enunciated. The ways of death and of life were faithfully drawn.
This brief summary brings us to our present passage, which opens with a solemn warning. It is not sufficient to enforce the Law and expound the Gospel. Nor has the pulpit completed its task by setting before believers their various duties and calling to the discharge thereof. There are enemies to be warned against. Doubtless it is a far more delightful task to expatiate upon the riches of Divine grace and the excellencies and glories of the Redeemer; but there are also other matters which need attention. If the example of Christ and His apostles is to be followed the saints are to be put on their guard against those who would seduce them, who with 'cunning craftiness. . . lie in wait to deceive' (Eph. 4:14). Salvation is obtained by coming to the knowledge of the Truth (1 Tim. 2:4), and they who are deluded into believing a lie shall be damned (2 Thess. 2:11, 12). The very fact that eternal destiny is involved by what we believe is sufficient to show the deep seriousness of the issue here raised. He who has the care of souls must spare no pains in sounding the alarm.
'Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves' (v. 15). Herein we behold their 'cunning craftiness.' They do not appear in their true colors but are cleverly disguised. They pose as true friends of the Lord’s people when in reality they are their deadliest foes. They proclaim themselves to be genuine Christians, whereas in reality they are the emissaries of Satan. They feign themselves to be the teachers of the Truth, but their aim is to instill falsehoods. They work not outside in the profane world, but among the assemblies of the saints, pretending to he deeply taught of God, the champions of orthodoxy, men filled with love, earnestly seeking the good of souls. Beware of them, says the great Shepherd of the sheep, for inwardly they are ravening wolves—fierce, merciless, seeking the destruction of the flock. Let that fact alarm you, arouse you to your danger and make you vigilant in guarding against it. Suffer not yourselves to be imposed upon.
And what is the best course to take in order to heed this solemn warning? What is the wisest policy to follow so as to be safeguarded from these murderers of souls? How shall we obtain the needed wisdom that we may be enabled to detect and identify these subtle dissemblers? Vitally important is it that we should obtain right answers to these questions. First, let us duly note the place where this warning occurs in our Lord’s sermon. It is found not at the beginning but near its close. Is there not both instruction and comfort in that? Does it not intimate that if we have really taken to heart Christ’s teaching in the former sections we shall be fortified against the danger He here warns against? That if we earnestly heed His preceding exhortations, that if we diligently seek to cultivate inward holiness and endeavour to walk according to the rules given by our Master, that if we ourselves have a personal and experimental knowledge of what it is to be a real disciple of His, then we shall have little difficulty in recognizing the false ones?
'The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light' (6:22). That clearly states the principle to which we have alluded above. Our Lord’s language here is parabolic but its meaning is quite clear and simple. The activities of the body are directed according to the light received through the eye, and when that organ is sound and functioning properly, perceiving objects as they really are, the whole body is illuminated and enabled to discharge its duties, for we can then move with safety and circumspection. In like manner the faculties of the soul are principally directed by the dictates of the understanding, and where that is enlightened by the Holy Spirit and dominated by the Truth we shall be preserved from the snares of Satan and the stumbling-stones of the world. A 'single eye' has but one object—God, the pleasing and glorifying of Him. 'But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.' Thus the 'single' eye is a holy one, being contrasted with that which is evil or carnal.
When the 'eye' is occupied with Him who is Light, its possessor is able to distinguish between the things which differ and form a sound and right judgment both of persons and things. Our estimation of values is determined by whether our minds be Divinely illuminated or still in nature’s darkness. Where the soul is regulated by the Truth it will be endowed with a wisdom which enables its possessor to distinguish between good and evil; the understanding then becomes a faculty which discerns between the genuine and the spurious. 'Thou through Thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies' (Ps. 119:98). Habitual submission to the Divine authority brings its own reward in this life—part of which is a spiritual discretion which preserves from impostures. When the understanding is dominated by the Word the whole soul is 'full of light,' so that all its faculties are under its beneficent influence: the conscience being informed, the affections turned to their legitimate object, the will moved in the right direction. In God’s light we 'see light' (Ps. 36:9), perceiving the difference between good and evil, the things to be sought and those to be avoided.
'If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God' (John 7:17). The fundamental condition for obtaining spiritual knowledge, discernment and assurance is a genuine determination to carry out the revealed will of God in our daily lives. 'A good understanding have all they that do His commandments' (Ps. 111:10). Capacity to distinguish Truth from error consists not in vigor of intellect nor in natural learning, but in a sincere willingness and earnest desire to yield ourselves unto the Divine will. Where there is a genuine subjection to the Divine authority and a deep longing to please the Lord, even though it appears to be directly against our temporal interests and worldly prospects, and even though it involves fierce opposition from enemies and ostracism by our professed friends, there will be both spiritual discernment and assurance. Where the heart puts the glory of God before everything else it will be raised above and delivered from the prejudices of pride, self-love, carnal fears, and fleshly aspirations which cloud and bias the understanding of the unregenerate. 'Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord' (Hosea 6:3) is the sure promise.
Bagster’s Interlinear gives a more literal translation of John vii, 17: 'If any one desire His will to practice he shall know concerning the teaching, whether from God it is.' The Greek word rendered 'desire' signifies no fleeting impression or impulse but a deep-rooted determination. Certainty may be arrived at in connection with the things of God, but in order thereto the heart must first be right toward Him, that is surrendered to Him. Where there is a resolution to perform God’s will at all costs, there will be a capacity and an enablement to discern and embrace the Truth and to detect and refuse error. It is the state of our souls which makes us receptive to or repellent against the temptations and lies of the enemy: when the heart is yielded to God and conformed to His will, we have no difficulty in seeing through the deceits of Satan. It is those who are governed by self-will and devoted to self-pleasing who fall such easy victims to 'seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils' (1 Tim. 4:1). The Truth frees from deception, but only as the Truth is appropriated and assimilated.
'Ye shall know them by their fruits' (v. 16). Ah, but note well to whom this is said. The Lord does not predicate this of all who make a bare profession of faith: it is very far from being a knowledge common to all in Christendom. The 'ye' is definitely restricted to God’s own people, to those who have entered the strait gate and are walking in the narrow way of the immediate context, True, even they need to be on their guard, but if they give heed to this warning of Christ, as assuredly they will, they shall at once recognize these impostors. Ye shall know them: but none other will. It is because the sheep 'follow' the good Shepherd that 'they know His voice,' and because they know His voice 'a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him, for they know not the voice of strangers' (John 10:14, 15). It is the obedient ear, and that only, which distinguishes between the voice of the true and the false shepherds. II the ear be attuned to the precepts of Scripture it will reject the sophistries of religious charlatans.
'Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them' (vv. 16-20). In these words our Lord intimates that His people should have no difficulty in recognizing the false prophets: if they do but exercise ordinary precaution they will detect the imposture which is sought to be played upon them. The masqueraders are to be identified by their 'fruits.' At a distance trees look very much the same, but a closer inspection of them enables us to distinguish the fruitful from the fruitless ones, and whether the fruit be wholesome or injurious. In like manner there needs to be a careful examination of those who appear before us as the servants of God, that the true ones may be distinguished from the counterfeit.
In the preceding chapter we suggested that there is a threefold reference in the 'fruits' produced by the false prophets, namely their creed, their character, and their converts. Having dwelt therein at some length on the first, a few words now upon the second and third. The character of these men is clearly indicated by Christ’s descriptive words: 'inwardly they are ravening wolves.' It was none other than the Lord of love who employed what this supercilious generation would term 'harsh language.' Love is faithful as well as gentle, and it was love to His own which moved Christ to tear off their disguise and reveal these enemies of His flock in their real character. He who denounced the scribes and Pharisees as 'hypocrites' and 'blind guides,' and termed Herod 'that fox' (Luke 13:32), hesitated not to brand these subtle deceivers as 'ravening wolves.' When a bottle of deadly poison is placed among others containing healing lotions it needs to be plainly labeled.
That Christ here left an example for His servants to follow appears clearly from the instance of the apostle Paul. When taking leave of the elders of the Ephesian church, he warned them that 'after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them'(Acts 20:29, 30). In that last clause we have another mark of the false prophets. They are inveterate proselytizers. They continually obtrude themselves upon people’s attention. They are ever creeping into houses, 'leading captive silly women led away with divers lusts.' They are continually coaxing and wheedling folk to come to their meetings. But the true prophet never attempts guile or presses anyone to attend his services. No, he is content to follow his Master’s practice: 'he that hath ears to hear let him hear,' and there he leaves it. When a place receives them not they 'go their way' (Luke 10:10) instead of pleading and arguing and seeking to draw disciples 'after them.'
'But inwardly they are ravening wolves.' What a solemn but suggestive and revealing word is that. The wolf, like the fox, is tricky and treacherous, subtle and sly, hence the words 'cunning craftiness' in connection with the purveyors of error who 'lie in wait to deceive' of Ephesians 4:14. They scruple not to employ the most dishonorable tactics and resort to tricks which honest men of the world would scorn to use. The wolf is cruel and merciless: so are these deceivers of souls. They prate about love, but they are full of hatred toward those who expose them. They are greedy, having voracious appetites, and false prophets are men of insatiable ambition, hungry for applause, avaricious. Jeremiah 23:32, speaks of their 'lightness' or irreverence, and Zephaniah 3:4, also says, 'their prophets are light and treacherous.' So far from being sober and solemn they are frivolous and frothy: it cannot be otherwise, for the fear of God is not upon them.
'By their fruits ye shall know them.' Not by their profession, nor their sanctimoniousness, nor their zeal, but their 'fruits' we understand; third, the converts they make. Like produces like. The parent is more or less reproduced in his children. In Jeremiah 23:16, it is said of those who give ear to the false prophets, 'they make you vain.' Egotistical themselves, their disciples are also conceited: proud of their letter-knowledge of the Scriptures, boastful of their orthodoxy, claiming to have light which those in the 'man-made systems' are without. But their walk betrays them: no traces of humility, no mourning over sin, no experimental acquaintance with the plague of their hearts. They loudly boast of their assurance, but produce not the evidences on which scriptural assurance is based. They prate about eternal security but refuse to examine their hearts and see whether they be in the faith. They have much to say about their peace and joy, but are strangers to the groanings of Romans 7. They boast that they are 'not under the law' and give proof thereof in their characters and conduct.
In conclusion let us anticipate a question: why does God permit these false prophets which work such havoc in Christendom? This is a very solemn question, and we must restrict ourselves to what the Scriptures say by way of reply. 'Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of the prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul' (Deut. 13:3). From those words it is clear that God suffers teachers of error for the same reason as He does persecutors of His people: to test their love, to try their fidelity, to show that their loyalty to him is such that they will not give ear unto His enemies. Error has always been more popular than the Truth, for it lets down the bars and fosters fleshly indulgence, but for that very reason it is obnoxious to the godly. The one who by grace can say 'I have chosen the way of Truth' will be able to add 'I have stuck unto Thy testimonies' (Ps. 119:30, 31), none being able to move him therefrom.
'For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you' (1 Cor. 11:19). Error serves as a flail, separating the chaff from the wheat. Let some plausible and popular preacher come forward with an old error decked out in new clothes and empty professors will at once flock to his standard; but not so with those who are established in the Faith. Thus, by means of the false prophets, God makes it appear who are the ones who hold the Truth in sincerity: they are faithful to Him despite all temptations to turn away unto a 'broader-minded' way. The genuine gold endures every test to which it is subjected. Thus too are the unregenerate 'converts' revealed: the counterfeit gold will not withstand the fire. Those who are attracted by a novelty do not wear but are soon carried away by some newer innovation. 'They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us' (1 John 2:19). Thus, they who turn away from orthodoxy to heterodoxy must not be regarded as real Christians.
The false prophets are also ordained of God for the punishment of those who receive not the love of the Truth. 'For this cause God shall send them strong delusion that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned, who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness' (2 Thess. 2:10-12). Ahab could not endure Elijah and Micaiah, the servants of God, therefore he was suffered to follow the priests of Baal unto his destruction.
It is very clear from Matthew 24:5, 11, etc., that Israel’s rejection of Christ was followed by the appearing of many false christs in their midst who fatally deceived large numbers of the Jews. It was not until primitive and genuine Christianity had been jettisoned that the religious world was plagued by the monster of Romanism. A very large proportion of those found in the false cults of our day were once members of or regular attenders at churches which were more or less sound in the Faith. Beware, my reader, if you despise God’s Truth you will fall into love with Satan’s lies.
From An Exposition on the Sermon on the Mount by A. W. Pink