The Need to Discern
False Teachers, Truth, Matthew, Sermon on the Mount
This morning we continue our look at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. We will examine Matthew 7:15-20. These are verses that warn us to be on guard. It is a reminder that even though we want to walk the narrow road; even though we want to follow Christ with great faithfulness and determination; there are many (at the direction of Satan) who will try to undermine and discourage us. This is the warning we get from Jesus.
Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
There are many false prophets in the world. Most of them we can recognize very quickly. They start speaking and immediately alarms go off in our heads. We need to beware and alert for such people. Just a couple of weeks ago we received an email from someone who was browsing our website. Here is what they wrote,
Your site writes that God did not make Animals in His image….then how did he make them? Does God differ with his Love? I Love Animals and believe God made them just like us for love holds no boundaries and my God is Love….not the one who Butchers animals for Sacrifice…that is Lucifer…for he loved the smell of burning flesh….and is a Jealous God….well my God is not (jealous) and Loves all his Creation…think of Love when you read the Bible and you will soon notice that my God of Love did not write it. (Note from the UK)
This person mixes a dash of truth with a whole bunch of . . . untruth. It is the idea of a Buffet religion at its worst. And I hope every one of you listens to that note and says, “This guy is not a Christian. He does not understand the Christian faith at all. The God he worships is a God that does not exist.
However, the kind of false teacher Jesus describes is one that is much more insidious. These teachers come disguised as harmless sheep! In other words they call themselves Christians and are within the ranks of the church!
Some of these people sit in the pews. They attended a class, watched some programs on television or even have developed some principles for life and now they speak these things as if they are the Word of God. Such people are dangerous.
Even more dangerous are those who stand in the pulpit or in seminary classrooms and are false teachers. They are called Reverend or Doctor and they feel that others want them to dispense wisdom. They teach a false religion and as a result are training future disciples the wrong information!
It is right to say “How do we know it is wrong?” The answer is simple: If it does not measure up to the Word of God it is wrong because the Bible is the standard by which we measure what is true and what is not.
Jesus said the wheat would be mixed with the tares. There will be good teachers mixed with bad teachers. The church will contain both. The question we need to address today is this: If these false teachers are disguised as good teachers, Pastors, Professors and leaders, how are we supposed to recognize them? What are some principles to look for when we so we can be discerning toward teachers on television, authors, Pastors and Bible Study leaders and even some of our fellow believers?
James Montgomery Boice writes,
Someone once said, “If you are going to place poison on a shelf where you have healing medicines, you had better label it clearly.” He was discussing the presence of false teaching and false teachers in the church; and he was recognizing the fact that if false teachers are going to be present in the church (as the Bible teaches they will be), then they must be clearly identified before they do harm. (Boice, The Sermon on the Mount)
The general statement is this: false teachers will not point people to the narrow way. Jesus has just told us that salvation is found by way of the narrow road and a straight gate. False teachers will steer people toward the wide road and the broad gate. Let’s look at some other characteristics of a false teacher.
They will diminish the significance of Christ.
The Bible tells us that there is only ONE mediator between God and man and that is Christ Jesus.
2 Peter 2:1 says,
But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves.
False teachers inevitably make Jesus less than what He really is. They call Him a great teacher (which He was), they say He loves us (which He does) and then they will add that He was not God, or He will not judge the wicked, or He did not rise from the dead! You sometimes have to listen very carefully but if you do, you will be able to pick up the false teaching.
Many of you have heard my story of an ordination I attended. There were a dozen or so Pastors present and the point of our attendance was to evaluate whether this was someone rightly qualified to be a Pastor.
He gave us his “testimony” but in the testimony made no reference to Jesus. When he opened it up for questions my question was: “Where does Jesus fit into all of this?” His answer was, “I’m getting to that”.
In part two of the presentation he rambled on and on about religion and how it is good for people to be religious. He talked a lot about how smart he was (here’s another tip . . . if people have to TELL you how smart they are . . . they aren’t as smart as they think they are), but we all know that there are a lot of smart people who have denied Christ and are headed for Hell!
When it came time for questions I raised my hand again and said, “I’m sorry, I am still confused. If someone came into your office and said, “How do I become a Christian?” What would you say?” He quoted Acts 16:31 “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That is a good answer but I wasn’t sure he and I understood that verse the same way. So I asked him to explain that in his own words.
He then backed up a dump truck and tried to bury me with words. He talked and talked to wear me out but he still said nothing! He then said, “Have I answered your question?” I said, “I’m sorry I’m still a little confused. Let me make this simple: you talked about Jesus on the road to Emmaus (after the Resurrection) walking with two men. When they were walking with Jesus, was that a literal, human Jesus who was back from the dead, or were they walking with the memory and just the inspiration of Jesus?” He was backed into a corner and he did not believe it was a literal and risen Jesus.
It is bad enough that this man had no concept of the Christian faith (and no business in Christian ministry) but it may have been more troubling that the other Pastors were upset with ME! They thought I was being rude and ungracious. (Even though we were present to evaluate this man’s readiness for Christian ministry!) They voted to ordain him and to the best of my knowledge he is still leading people astray! Needless to say, I did NOT participate in his ordination!
We must listen very carefully when people talk about Jesus. When people say, “They believe in Jesus” we must resist the urge to conclude the person is a Christian. We must always ask, “Tell me about the Jesus you believe in.” or “What is it that you believe about Jesus”. Then we weigh what they say by what the Bible says,
- He was God become man
- He was born supernaturally
- He lived a sinless life
- He gave His life willingly as a substitute payment for our sin
- He did miracles
- He rose literally and bodily from the dead
- He ascended into Heaven
- He sent the Holy Spirit to live inside of us
- He is coming again to reign as King of King and Lord of Lords.
- He is the only and True Savior
That is the Biblical Jesus. Anything less than that and you are facing someone who is either terribly confused or is a false prophet deliberately seeking to harm.
They will soften the definition of sin.
The Bible is clear about what is right and wrong. It says clearly that ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory (or standard) of God. (Romans 3:23). It tells us that all sin is an offense to God and disqualifies us from Heaven (which is why Jesus had to pay our penalty!)
A false teacher will water down the teaching on sin. They are more concerned about getting followers than they are about proclaiming the truth. They want to be liked and they feel the best way to be liked is to tell everyone that they are OK. The best way to do this is to engage in “happy talk” (think about Joel Osteen here).
A false teacher will make it seem like God shrugs at sin and says, “Well, everyone makes mistakes.” Or worse, they will say, “What is right for you may not be right for me.” That may be true about what kind of car you like to drive or how you like your steak cooked, but what is right and what is wrong morally and spiritually is clearly defined, not by us . . . but by the Word of God.
I attended another ordination. The Pastor gave her speech. When she was done I asked, “Where does sin play into all of this?” And she said this: “I think people already know they have sin and I don’t need to tell them about it!”
I would agree that deep down everyone knows they are sinful but . . . they spend their lives denying and justifying it. People are like the addict who refuses to admit they have a problem!
It is not for us to condemn people. But we are ALL sinners. We have to be honest about our sin! Jesus died to save us. If we don’t admit our sin addiction we will not take the grace and the transformation God offers us in Christ.
Though we are to love all people we must never say abortion, adultery, lying, same sex marriage, greed, idolatry, or anything else the Bible forbids is anything other than what it is: SIN.
They appeal to human ability rather than God’s Grace.
After listening to a false teacher you will always feel that if you would work a little harder, God will like you more. In other words: if you do better, you can save yourself!
This is not the Gospel message! The gospel message states that we are lost and helpless and we need God to do something for us that we cannot do ourselves. We are dependent on mercy and grace.
Yes, we should be diligent in serving the Lord. Yes. . . we should keep striving. However, any salvation that does not involve an admission of our own helplessness and need of God’s intervention is a false gospel. We cannot by any amount of hard work . . . save ourselves. Apart from Jesus no one can be saved.
They Are Revealed By Their Fruit
Jesus said the easiest way to spot a false teacher is to look at the impact of their teaching in the lives of the teacher and those who embrace the teachings of the teacher. In other words we should be looking to see if a Christlikeness is evident in both the teacher and the students.
Galatians gives us some guidance with two lists,
19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! 
If the teacher is characterized by the first list they are a false teacher, if they have the qualities of the second list they show the Spirit of God is in them.
William Barclay is helpful here. He says a false teacher is motivated by Self-Interest. They are looking for financial gain, prestige or to transmit their own warped ideas under the guise of the gospel.
Barclay also gives us a list of some of the results (or fruit) of false teaching.
- There is a focus on externals while the focus of the gospel is on the heart.
- It is filled with prohibitions and rules that must be obeyed rather than an increasing reliance on the Holy Spirit.
- It is an “easy religion” (in other words, there is no sacrifice, no discipline, no repentance and no diligence required).
- It divorces faith from everyday life. In other words, these people often talk a good game but never get around to applying their faith to their daily encounters. They are no different from anyone else (sometimes they are actually worse) in their business practices, their qualities as a friend, the way they treat other people, and their judgmental or prejudicial attitudes. They do not practice what they preach.
- They tend to be arrogant and separatist. In other words they believe they are right and everyone else is wrong. Any sense of dialog or discussion of their practices results in charges of persecution.
When you see these characteristics Jesus would tell you to beware.
What I hope you have seen today is that the talk about false teachers is not some academic discussion. It is very relevant in our own day and in our daily life. The press of the secular and Humanist (man is the center of everything) society in which we live has impacted many in deep and troubling ways.
The two illustrations I gave you are of Pastors! These are people teaching their distortions to others! I am sure that there is false teaching broadcast on Christian television. There is false teaching sold in Christian Bookstores. There are Pastors and teachers who are false teachers! This is a very real warning about a very real concern.
How do we guard against these false teachers?
- Know the truth yourself. The only way to do this is to be a student of the Word of God. Pay attention to what you believe and why. Every teaching should be submitted to the “Scripture Test”. In other words, does that teach square with what the Bible teaches?
- Ask God to give you wisdom and a spirit of discernment to detect truth from error.
- Beware of fads and new teaching. When someone tells you that the church has always believed something but NOW they know the truth . . . run for the hills!
- Beware of being seduced by style over substance. A church may have a beautiful building, fantastic music, and even a big crowd and still be teaching falsehood.
- When you find a solid and good teacher ask them to recommend other teachers.
- Remind yourself that “popular” is not the same thing as true (just as popular does not mean “false”). Repeating something over and over with enthusiasm does not make something true. It may just as easily be an enthusiastic lie. You must check out what you are being taught.
What we believe determines what we do. It determines how we cope with the trials of life. Our beliefs have consequences and impact how we relate to God and each other. It is important that we learn to listen carefully and proceed cautiously. There is too much at stake to be lazy here.
 Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013), Ga 5:19–23.