In our last post we briefly looked at the nature of so-called spiritual warfare. In our day, this term has come to have many meanings from the well-known charismatic meaning of war with the devil or demons, to recent political use applied to case of right vs. left. However, in our study after establishing that God is sovereign over even Satan, we saw that he does not have free reign against God’s people, rather he is on a chain, allowed to engage the children of God only with permission. With this in mind, we briefly touched on how this encounter most frequently happens through Satan’s chief weapon of utilizing temptation. Temptation, as we observed from John Owen, can be positive, if we endure, or negative, if we sin. The tipping point for temptation is our own internal, sinful desires. Therefore, spiritual war begins within, as we subdue our own sinful desires and give no foothold to the devil through his use of temptation. We come now to discuss to discuss the second attack that Satan utilizes, namely deception.
As we have seen, temptation typically occurs on an individual level. Yes, temptation can occur among any number, but generally it boils down to an individual’s response to that temptation through the subjugation or surrender of their desires as we have seen. Deception on the other hand can occur individually as well as within a group. The most common individual deception concerns the soundness or validity of a person’s profession of faith while the most common group deception typically involves the influence of false believers (or teachers), either through praxis or through doctrine, who come into a body of believers. Because of this, we will again consider the danger from within. Let’s briefly observe what Scripture has to say on this matter.
In concluding His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides the foundation for understanding not only the danger from without that comes within the group, but also that for individual deception. In doing so, He even makes a connection between the two. Notice the passage below:
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 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. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’Matthew 7:15-23
It is noteworthy that the chapter begins with an emphasis on judging one another (Matt. 7:1). The familiar and oft-misunderstood judge not, lest you be judged, is the first of several statements on the relationship between believers and unbelievers. Judge not must be held together and indeed reconciled with the equally important, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16), which obviously involves a measure of judgment. Before mentioning the shocking statements on the influx of false prophets and those who hollowly claim the name of Christ, our Lord lays the foundational framework by stating there is a narrow, difficult, less traveled gate through which true believers must enter which is contrasted with a wide, easy, well-traveled gate that leads to destruction. This creates the expectation that there will be many more unbelievers than believers, both having access through their respective gates. Both having entered through a gate, but only one leading to salvation.
From the Matthew 7 passage cited above we find an opening statement with our Lord giving the warning to beware of false prophets who come to you as wolves disguised as sheep. Of note is that the wolves come to you and that they are disguised as sheep. In other words, there is an external danger that disguises itself for the purpose of coming within the flock. Jesus then provides the test for distinguishing true sheep from wolf sheep, namely by observing their fruits. Fruit has a common agricultural meaning that simply refers to that which a healthy tree, bush, or plant produces. The evidence of a tree’s health and vitality is the production of fruit. Using this analogy, our Lord makes the comparison between a tree that produces fruit i.e., the works, or evidence, from genuine righteousness. False prophets lack this fruit, and it is noticeable. Commenting on this verse, Hendriksen writes, “[A false prophet] is the kind of prophet who, when defeat is actually imminent, will say, ‘Go up and triumph’ (2 Chron. 18:11). He will shout, Peace, Peace!” When there is no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11; Ezekiel. 13:10) His words are “softer than oil” (Ps. 55:21; cf. John 10:1,8). In order to avoid falling for a ear-tickling message, we are exhorted to observe their fruit. This not only includes their character, but their deeds, and their doctrine. All must conform to the authority of Scripture.
Returning to the words of our Lord, we note an interesting connection between the false prophets who infiltrate a body of believers and the presumption of salvation under which they, and by extension other false believers, operate as they stand before the judgment seat of the Lord. First is their association with Christ in name only. Through the use of Lord, Lord, Jesus is indicating their personal claim to Him, though it is just mere, hollow words. Their talk is not backed up by their walk. Contrasting their empty claims, Jesus states that they will not enter heaven, rather it is the ones who do the Father’s will. The meaning here is clear, a claim to Christ doesn’t carry any weight with him, rather it is those who obey. As seen in John 15:1-17 and as contrasted with the moralism of the Pharisees, Jesus isn’t interested in hollow deeds either. This is precisely the next direction that the warning takes. Again, He begins with Lord, Lord, and follows, “did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” Our Lord has now moved from hollow profession to hollow deeds, those which are claimed to be done in the name of Christ but are instead self-serving. This of course brings us to the conclusion of the passage and the frightening statement that Jesus will declare that He never knew them, cast them out, and calls them workers of lawlessness, again implicating their disobedience from an unregenerate heart.
This foundational passage from the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, wherein He outlines kingdom entrance, kingdom ethics, and kingdom exit, serves as a warning for us in our own day to be on guard against those who would come to us in the name of Christ with contrary teaching, contrary living, and seeking to validate it through counterfeit spiritual gifts. In the next post on this subject, we will expand our study to see what additional examples and warnings Scripture provides for the dangers of deception from false teachers and false assurance of faith.
Soli Deo Gloria