“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 thorn bushes, 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. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
When I was younger I loved debating doctrine, and sometimes prayed that some hapless Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon would knock on my door. I knew the Bible better than most of them, and could argue with the best of them.
But I had become proud of my ability to argue, and that was a spiritual snare. I also realized that the people who came to my door were people, too. They were not deceivers, but deceived. They were trying to do me a favor, even though they were wrong. They didn’t deserve to be demonized.
Mostly, though I came to realize that these weren’t the false prophets Jesus warns us about. The false prophets that need to concern us aren’t strangers that come knocking, but people who come from within the church. They are not so much cultists as sincere believers who cause trouble in all sincerity, not because they are deliberately deceiving. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, but they wear sheep’s clothing, because they are convinced they really are sheep. They are self-deceiving, not just outwardly deceiving. Writer Marshall Shelley calls them “well-intentioned dragons.” They may be disrupted, but they don’t mean to be. They don’t know they are dragons. They still think they are sheep.
There are three kinds of false prophecy that we need to watch carefully.
1. False prophets from outside the church. There are people who preach false doctrines who infiltrate Christian churches, for the purpose of sewing dissention. We—especially elders and pastors—must guard against them.
2. False prophets from inside the church. There are people in the church who are genuinely ignorant or deceived. Solid teaching of the Word of God is the only answer. If they are sincere, they will receive the truth. Pray for them, that they become genuinely converted.
3. The falseness of our own souls. All of us can be deceived. We all have unsurrendered areas in our own nature. The process of Spiritual transformation is the process of slaying the false parts of our own selves. This is what Paul writes about in Romans 7:21-25
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
So, how do we spot false prophecy?
Jesus gives us a test to spot falseness in ourselves and others. It is the “roots and fruit” test. A person’s behavior reveals what is hiding inside. If a person teaches or upholds one kind of behavior, and practices something else, then we should not listen to them. If our behavior is inconsistent with what we say, then we should also be silent. We are not talking one incident, but a life pattern.
This principle goes far beyond discerning false prophets in the church. It also reveals to us in the falseness in ourselves. The main use for the “roots and fruits” test is in the examination of our own motives in the light of Christ’s example.
Have you ever had weeds in your lawn? If you have, you know how hard it can be to get rid of them. As soon as you cut the weeds down, they start growing back. The only way you can get rid of them is to pull them out by the roots. But when you have weed seeds in your lawn, you can’t see them. It is only when they grow up to a certain height that you can recognize they really are there.
The same is true in our lives. The roots of sin are still in us, but we can’t see them. If we tried to get rid of all the sin in our lives at first, we would have to get rid of everything. But as the sin presents itself, it is not enough just to cut it out. We have to find the root of the sin, and pull that out, too.
The writer of Hebrews writes about this in Hebrews 12: 15-16
“ See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.”
You may think you have your life in order. Then suddenly, without warning, your find yourself getting short-tempered, crabby, or resentful. Our sinful nature suddenly pops up like a weed. Something inside of us that we did not want to acknowledge has just born fruit in our lives.
When this happens, it is not enough to just cut it down. We have to pull it out by the roots.
Jesus compares it to a fruit tree. If you have an apple tree where you wanted a fig tree, you can pull off all the roots, but it is still an apple tree. Good trees produce good fruit; bad trees produce bad fruit. It’s roots, not the fruit that brings ultimate change.
Bringing change in our lives, therefore is a two-step process.
First, examine your fruits to determine your roots.
My two least favorite things in my house are my mirror and my bathroom scale. That is because they force me to look at things I don’t want to see. I like to think of myself as I was forty years ago—a young, black-headed, handsome guy. I can fool myself into thinking that I haven’t put on weight and that I don’t have wrinkles on my body. But it is obvious that some things I am doing to keep young and handsome haven’t worked very well.
This is even truer in my spiritual life. We live in denial of the truth. What we think of ourselves is easily deceived.
For that reason, the church has always encouraged Christians to practice self-examination. The ritual of confession in the Catholic Church was not originally about the forgiveness of sins, but the discovery of sins. John Wesley, when he started the Methodist movement, came up with a list of twenty-two questions to practice self-examination daily. The Puritans, who are our spiritual ancestors in the Presbyterian Church, had many similar lists of questions. The reason that we have communion less frequently than other Christians is because we are supposed to spend weeks in examination of our hearts and behaviors beforehand. God invites us to look inside ourselves, and see what kind of weeds are growing there.
One method of doing that is called the examen. Take a few minutes each day to review your last twenty-four hours, one hour at a time. Ask yourself where in the last day you felt closest to God and when you felt the farthest away. Ask yourself where you have hurt others, when you were irritated, and when you felt fear. Then give those moments in your heart to God, seeking forgiveness and repentance. It is a Spiritual discipline that will work wonders in growing close to God.
But there is a problem with this. Most of us aren’t very good at seeing our own faults. That is why we must have trusted friends and loved-ones who can help us see our shortcomings. Seek the advice and criticism of others in looking for where we are false. Start with our spouses and our children. Seek out one or two trusted, Spiritually-minded friends who can keep their eyes on you. Keep accountability partners. It often takes an extra pair of eyes to see the weeds in our personal gardens, and point them out to us.
When we find these faults in our lives, don’t despair. 1 John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” God doesn’t discard us, because of the bad fruit growing in our garden. Instead, he forgives and cleanses.
Which brings us to the second part of the process. Change your roots to change your fruits.
When we discover ourselves in a fault, what should we do? Change our behavior, of course. But don’t stop there. Seek out the roots of that behavior. Why did you do it? What was the thoughts and feelings behind it?
Some people are too inwardly obsessed. Martin Luther was one of those before his conversion. When he was a monk he spent so long in the confession that his abbot finally told him to go away until he had some real sin to confess. But such people are exceptions. Most of us don’t want to examine ourselves too closely.
Why did we become crabby and short? Are we impatient or prideful? Then pray for patience and humility. What caused us to lust? Are we lonely, or do we think we are entitled to sexual satisfaction all the time? Do we think sex and love are the same thing? Why did we overeat? Do we equate food with comfort? We can deal with the fruits, but we have to deal with the roots.
Ultimately, all or our sins come down to one thing—we do not see God as the root of our lives and comfort. We look to satisfy ourselves to satisfy our needs and desires, rather than trusting God.
What makes a person false is not the things they do or say. It is the motivations that we have beneath it. It is the denial of the truth in us. In order to be true, we must first be honest with ourselves. Look at our own hearts, to determine what is going on within.
When we do this, then the falseness of others is the least of our concerns. We are too busy with self-examination to criticize anyone else.
An athlete, training for a race, cannot be concerned about the performance of his opponents. He must first be concerned about his own performance. He does not ask, “How can I slow down the other runners,” but “How can I find it in myself to do what I am doing better.”
Being a Christian is not about being better, smarter, or godlier than others. It is about how we can be more like Jesus in every way. We should not concern ourselves with the fruit of others, but to find in ourselves the roots of our own salvation. We do not have to produce more fruit than the other trees, but we must make sure that we produce good fruit, that what we do reflects the beauty of Christ.
Being a Christian is not being perfect in our behavior, but it is all about being rooted and grounded in Christ. When we look to Him as the source of all our love and strength, as we grow in Him, we produce the fruit that leads to eternal life, and that lasts forever.