A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:15-20. A Christian’s relationships: To false prophets c). Tests. (continued).
The sixteenth-century reformers, who were accused by the Church of Rome of being innovators and false teachers, defended themselves by this doctrinal test. They appealed to Scripture and maintained that their teaching was not the introduction of something new but the recovery of something old, namely the original gospel of Christ and his apostles. It was rather the medieval Catholics who had departed from the faith into error. ‘Cling to the pure Word of God,’ cried Luther, for then you will be able to ‘recognize the judge’ who is right. Calvin made the same emphasis: ‘All doctrines must be brought to the Word of God as the standard,’ for ‘in judging the false prophets the rule of faith (i.e. Scripture) holds the chief place’. He also went a step further than this in drawing attention to the motives of false teachers in addition to the substance of their teaching: ‘Under the *fruits* the *manner of teaching* is itself included …, for Christ proves that he was sent by God from this consideration, that “he seeketh not his own glory, but the glory of the Father who sent him” (John 7:18)’. In examining a teacher’s credentials, then, we have to examine both his character and his message. Bishop Ryle summed it up well: ‘Sound doctrine and holy living are the marks of true prophets.’. Then I think there is a third test which we must apply to teachers, and this concerns their influence. We have to ask ourselves what effect their teaching has on their followers. Sometimes the falsity of false teaching is not immediately apparent when we look at a teacher’s behaviour and system, but becomes apparent only in its disastrous results. This is what Paul meant when he wrote of error’s tendency to ‘eat its way like gangrene’. (2 Tim.2:17). Its gangrenous progress is seen when it upsets people’s faith, (2 Tim.2:18), promotes ungodliness (2 Tim.2:16) and causes bitter divisions (e.g. 1 Tim.6:4,5; 2 Tim.2:23; Tit.1:11; 3:9). Sound teaching, by contrast, produces faith, love and godliness. (e.g. 1 Tim.1:4,5; 4:7; 6:3; 2 Tim.3:16,17; Tit. 1:1)
Of course the application of the ‘fruit’ test is not altogether simple or straightforward. For fruit takes time to grow and ripen. We have to wait for it patiently. We also need an opportunity to examine it closely, for it is not always possible to recognize a tree and its fruit from a distance. Indeed, even at close quarters we may at first miss the symptoms of disease in the tree or the presence of a maggot in the fruit. To apply this to a teacher, what is needed is not a superficial estimate of his standing in the church, but a close and critical scrutiny of his character, conduct, message, motives and influence.
This warning of Jesus gives us no encouragement, however, either to become suspicious of everybody or to take up as our hobby the disreputable sport known as ‘heresy-hunting’. Rather it is a solemn reminder that there are fallen teachers in the church and that we are to be on our guard. Truth matters. For it is God’s truth and it builds up God’s church, whereas error is devilish and destructive. If we care for God’s truth and for God’s church, we must take Christ’s warning seriously. He and his apostles place the responsibility for the church’s doctrinal purity partly upon the shoulders of Christian leaders (whether bishops or other chief pastors), but also and especially upon each congregation. The local church has more power than it often realizes or uses in deciding which teachers it will listen to. Jesus Christ’s ‘Beware of false prophets’ is addressed to us all. If the church had heeded his warning and applied his tests, it would not be in the parlous state of theological and moral confusion in which it finds itself today.
With this paragraph Jesus concludes his delineation of a Christian’s relationships. As we now look back and bring them together, we see how rich and varied they are, As a brother the Christian hates hypocrisy, criticizes himself and seeks to give constructive moral support to others. As an evangelist he prizes the gospel pearl so highly that he refuses to expose it to scornful rejection by hardened sinners. As a lover of men, he is resolved to behave towards them as he would like them to behave towards him. As a child he looks humbly and trustfully to his heavenly Father to give him all the good gifts he needs. As a traveller on the hard and narrow way, he enjoys fellowship with his fellow pilgrims and keeps his eye on the goal of life. As a champion of God’s revealed truth, he heeds Christ’s warning to be watchful for false teachers who would pervert it and to ravage Christ’s flock.
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:21-27. A Christian’s commitment: the radical choice.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.