Matthew 7:15-23; Romans 8:12-17; Jeremiah 23:16-29
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Defining the term “religion” can be quite a challenge today. People regularly interchange the terms religion, faith, and spirituality, and they use these terms inconsistently. So, you will commonly hear someone say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” and you are left wondering, “What do they mean?” Nevertheless, we charitably assume that they mean something. It’s clear that they are making a distinction between religion and spirituality and that, in weighing the two, they have decided in favor of spirituality. But, why the negative view toward religion?
Arguably, a religion is an organized system of beliefs and doctrines and explanations for why everything is and for the way things are, a worldview, if you will. But, a religion does not necessarily have to include God, or gods, or any sense of divinity, thus, even atheism and agnosticism can be religions, environmentalism can be a religion. By definition, however, a system of beliefs and doctrines holds its adherents to certain expectations, rules, and laws. Adherents to the religious system, themselves, are, at once, bound, even as they bind others, with the expectations, rules, and laws of the system. Understanding this, perhaps we begin to see more clearly why someone would claim to be spiritual and not religious; perhaps they object to the expectations, rules, and laws of the religious system.
We should not, however, be too quick to cast off objections to religious systems as mere rebelliousness or immaturity, for religious systems are constructed by sinful men and, therefore, they are the fruit of man’s sin-tainted reason, wisdom, and will. Some religious systems need to be rejected. But, how do we judge? How do we know if a religious system and its prophets is good or bad? “You will recognize them by their fruits,” says our Lord Jesus. “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.” So, what do the adherents of the religious system believe, teach, and confess? What do they say and do? These are particularly important questions to ask when evaluating religious systems and their prophets claiming to speak for God. How do we judge? What criteria do we use? Again, what are the fruits of the religious system and its prophets? Do they honor and obey God’s Word, Will, and Commandments or do they defy and deny God’s Word, Will, and Commandments?
It is helpful, perhaps, for us to take a moment and reflect upon the nature of trees and their fruit. A healthy apple tree, for instance, produces good fruit, apples. The apples, in fact, are the criteria for judging the tree healthy. Any apple tree that fails to produce apples is judged unhealthy, diseased, or dead; it’s cut down and thrown into the fire. Further, an apple tree only produces apples, never grapes, or pears, or figs; you know it is an apple tree by its fruit – apples. But which came first, the apple tree or the apple? Well, according to the Word of God in Genesis which we believe, teach, and confess, the apple tree came before the apple, just as mothers and fathers come before sons and daughters, dogs come before puppies, and, yes, even chickens come before eggs. [There, solved that one for you!] And, as the fruit is indicative of the kind of tree we are observing, so is the health of the fruit indicative of the health of the tree – “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
But, Jesus isn’t really talking about trees in the Gospel lesson today, is He? No, He’s talking about false prophets, those trying, by deception, to sell you a false religious system. How do you recognize a false prophet of a false religious system? The same way you recognize good and healthy trees and diseased and dying trees – by their fruits. Jesus says that false prophets come to you disguised as sheep, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. That’s kind of like an orange famer painting the fruit of his trees red so as to deceive you into thinking that the orange trees are apple trees. Just because, to the eye, the red-painted oranges might look like apples, does not make them to be apples or the trees that bore them to be apple trees. “Beware.”
There are a lot of false religious systems and false prophets in the world today. Some of them are quite easy to identify, but many others look appealing to the senses and even human reason and wisdom. Still, that does not make them good, healthy, or true. Hear again the Word of the Lord from the mouth of His prophet Jeremiah: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”
There are false prophets of false religious systems today who tell their followers to kill the infidel. Even though the Word of the Lord clearly condemns murder, these prophets say to their followers that it will be well with them, even pleasing to God, that God will reward them. Other false prophets of false religious systems tell their followers that it is okay, even good, for a man to lie down with a man and for a woman to do unnatural things with a woman. Even though the Word of the Lord clearly condemns homosexuality, these prophets tell their followers that it will be well with them, even pleasing to God, to bless and to legitimize such behavior and unions. Such false prophets as these are fairly easy to recognize – their fruit is radically different than the Word, Will, and Commandments of the Lord.
But, Jesus warns us, however, that the most deceptive false prophets will be much more sly and cunning and that they will arise from within the ranks of the Christian Church. They will call Jesus Lord and they will claim to preach in His Name, but still, they will be known by their fruits. Generally these false preachers fall into one of two camps: Legalists or Antinomians.
The legalist preaches heavy on the Law, often adding to it the law of men, and he preaches righteousness by works according to the law. He preaches peace to his followers apart from repentance in their hearts so long as they perform the works of the law. Such preaching causes hearers either to fall into hopelessness and despair, because they cannot do what the law commands, or it causes them to become proud and self-righteous, believing that they observe the law quite well enough. In both cases, however, the hearers are lead away from trust in Christ alone for righteousness, either to trust in one’s self or to despair of righteousness at all. “Beware.”
The antinomian preacher, on the other hand, minimizes the Law of God by teaching that, since Christ has fulfilled the Law for us, no longer must we observe and obey it. For many antinomians today, they understand Christ’s teaching, that “Love is the fulfilling of the Law,” to mean that all the things previously forbidden are now permissible according to the law of love. They seemingly disregard or interpret away, however, Jesus’ clear teaching that, although the Law is fulfilled, the Law does not pass away.
As the Law does not pass away, is it truly loving, then, to permit a brother or sister to engage in acts condemned by the Law? Is it truly loving to permit a brother or sister to commit adultery by having sexual relations outside of marriage, to murder an unborn child, to steal what is not theirs through fraud and deception, to slander and gossip about another? Is it truly loving to permit brothers and sisters who are under the influence of false prophets, adhering to false religions that permit and condone acts and beliefs in opposition to the Word, Will, and Commandments of the Lord, to remain in sin: homosexual relations and marriages, women pastors, abortion, indulgences, meritorious works and penance, believer’s baptisms, the non-presence of Christ’s body and blood in His Supper, an unbiblical working of the Holy Spirit apart from the appointed means of Word and Sacrament, the belief that salvation can be attained apart from faith in Christ if only one believes whatever they believe fervently, that worship is about what we bring to God rather than what God graciously and mercifully gives to us, that God helps those who help themselves, etc.?
No, it is not loving to allow a brother or sister to remain in sin. The fruits they are eating are bad and they are diseased; and the trees, the prophets and religious systems they come from, are bad and are diseased. They may look and sound good on the outside, calling out “Lord, Lord,” but they are workers of lawlessness; they do not do the will of the Lord and they teach others to not do the will of the Lord. On the Last Day Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” How can we judge? How can we know? “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Now, I know this is a hard lesson teaching to hear, especially in our day and culture where the chief religious system is tolerance. Yes, tolerance is a religious system and it has its prophets and its followers, its expectations, rules, and laws. And, it’s fundamental, overarching law is that “All things are tolerable except intolerance.” And guess who and what is perceived to be intolerant: You, and the Word, Will, and Commandments of God that you love and strive to obey in love.
To be sure, tolerance is fine and good, that is, when tolerance is understood as being different than acceptance. Perhaps a better definition of tolerance, at least in terms of the Christian faith, is endurance. Christians, in love for God and for neighbor, are the most tolerant and enduring people on the planet. However, part of what it means to love God and neighbor is to not accept that which is in discord with God’s Law and will. Christians cannot and must not tolerate false teaching, it must be exposed and brought to light, that is the only faithful and loving thing to do. But we do, however, endure as false prophets and religious systems surround us and infiltrate us, knowing that such has been from the Fall in Eden and will be until the return of our Lord in glory.
Until then, we cling to and we cherish the good fruit of the True Tree Jesus Christ - His Word, His Body, His Blood - for forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. In Him alone is righteousness; in Him alone is fruitfulness. He is the Vine and we are His branches, and, remaining in Him, we bear good and much fruit. Only the fruit that comes from Him through us, His branches, will He recognize. Beware of the false prophets who tell you to be satisfied with other fruit, or with no fruit, or to trust in your own fruit and your works. For, the Law of God does not pass away, but it is fulfilled for you in Jesus that you may do it in love for the Lord and for your neighbor to the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.