“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).
Jesus blends two metaphors—the wolf in sheep’s clothing and the tree identified by its fruit. Both metaphors warn us of false prophets. Certainly we must judge other people! We must use good judgment to determine who is telling us the truth about God and salvation and who is misrepresenting the truth. (Some Christians would substitute the word “discernment” for judgment in this context.) When we judge, we do not consider only outward appearances, which can deceive us. When we judge, we look at the results of a life—its fruit. Thus we see whether the person we are judging—the person who claims to be leading us on the paths of Jesus Christ—is faithful to Christ.
Many false religious leaders have fallen victim to temptation. Their sins are known, and we can avoid their false teachings. What should happen, though, if a teacher contradicts God’s Word and yet appears to be moral and upright? Must we accept them as genuine even if their message differs from the Bible? In Deuteronomy, two kinds of false prophets are rejected (and executed): those whose words do not come to pass, and those who preach in the name of false gods—even if their words do come to pass. Jesus teaches nothing different. False teachers may be able to exhibit the outward appearance of virtue, but if their words do not match the words of Jesus, their fruit will be bad. We do not need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we judge it; we already know that the fruit will be bad when we see that the tree is bad.
We judge teachers by their fruits to know which teachers to follow, but we do not judge ourselves this way. We know our hidden sins too well to be convinced by our fruits that we are holy enough for God. When we try to measure our faith and our salvation by our good deeds, we always see ourselves falling short. Instead of measuring ourselves by what we do, we trust what God says about us: we are forgiven, our sins are washed away, and we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The promise of Baptism says that we have been washed clean and adopted into God’s family. From this forgiveness and adoption, good fruit follows. Others may see our saintly fruit and know that we belong to God’s kingdom, but we continually place our confidence in the promises of God and not in our own fruits.
But anyone who teaches a religion of Law, a message consisting only of ethics and morals and doing the right thing, is teaching an incomplete religion, a false religion. Anyone who omits the Gospel promise of forgiveness through Jesus is a bad tree, a wolf in disguise. We judge them by their own teachings, for we already know that no one but Jesus can fulfill the Law perfectly. Those who affirm God’s Law and also share the promise of forgiveness through Jesus are presenting the true message of the Gospel. They are good trees, and they will bear good fruit. We will recognize them by that fruit. J.