“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
We can’t say he didn’t warn us.
I was struck by that thought as I was watching the opening of the classic, 1955 Southern Gothic film The Night of the Hunter the other night. The film opens with a saintly, older Sunday School teacher Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish), reading these verses to her children, then leads into the story of Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a melodramatic huckster, traveling preacher who makes a habit of ingratiating himself with widows, killing them, and using the money to further his ministry to the Lord. I won’t go into the film, at length, but I’ll simply say that it’s one of the most brilliant explorations of true and false religion in modern times.
Back to Jesus, though, I find it fascinating that he goes out of his way to tell us that false teachers are coming. And it’s not like he was the only one, either. In many ways, he was just following the warning of the Old Testament Law and Prophets that warned against false, abusive religion. What’s more, he was echoed this warning by most of the apostles in the New Testament letters–correcting false teachers was about half of what they seemed to spend their time doing. So the Bible is thick with warnings about the distortion and corruption of religion truth for power and gain.
And yet despite all that material and some 2,000 years of Christian history to confirm it, we’re still surprised when it happens. We’re shocked at false religion. We’re astonished to hear about the abuses of power that happens in the church up the street. We turn on the TV and we’re outraged at the way so many of these televangelists are out there fleecing people for all their worth, leading them astray with all sorts of blatantly absurd heresies and false teachings. We still have trouble heeding Christ’s warning.
Commenting on Jesus’ warning here, Calvin gives us two helpful insights on what it means to “beware of false prophets.”
These words were intended to teach, that the Church would be exposed to various impositions, and that consequently many would be in danger of falling from the faith, if they were not carefully on their guard. We know what a strong propensity men have to falsehood, so that they not only have a natural desire to be deceived, but each individual appears to be ingenious in deceiving himself. Satan, who is a wonderful contriver of delusions, is constantly laying snares to entrap ignorant and heedless persons.
Essentially, where there’s a demand, there’s usually a supply. There are false teachers–and an abundance of them–because there are false hearers. Something in us loves to be lied to. As Calvin says there is a “strong propensity” in humanity to accept what false–we have a “natural desire to deceived.”
This isn’t very groundbreaking, but the point is that some part of us actually wants to believe in the prosperity gospel. It’s attractive to me. And so, for that reason I ought to be on guard against temptations in my own heart that render me prone to believe false teachers. I am not above being deceived and, in many ways, am prone to complicity with deceivers. I am not above this.
Second, to the discouraged, Calvin offers a surprising word of comfort:
Hence too we infer, that there is no reason why believers should be discouraged or alarmed, when wolves creep into the fold of Christ, when false prophets endeavor to corrupt the purity of the faith by false doctrines. They ought rather to be aroused to keep watch: for it is not without reason that Christ enjoins them to be on their guard. Provided that we are not led astray through our own sluggishness, we shall be able to avoid every kind of snares; and, indeed, without this confidence, we would not have the courage necessary for being on our guard.
The presence of false teachers in the church doesn’t threaten to disconfirm the truth. Nor should we be worried that the church will be overcome because of it. As Calvin notes elsewhere in the passage, Christ has promised to preserve his church and his sheep will recognize the voice of their master (John 10:3-5). No, instead of discouraging us, this ought to put us on our guard. Indeed, Christ himself puts us on guard against those who would pervert his work. This warning is actually part of how he cares for us and confirms his lordship to us.
Actually, this is one of those important apologetic points to preachers ought to regularly remind their people of: many of us are often tempted to chuck the whole thing because of the repeated failures we see among religious leaders and within the Church as a whole. We see it as proof that the whole thing’s a sham, a joke, a set-up. And yet here we see that Christ himself says that Christianity will be twisted. So how is that evidence against it, when the founding documents of the New Testament say its going to happen?
In any case, to wrap up, when we run across false teaching and are threatened with discouragement and despair, we should take heart. Jesus warned us this was coming, so we can trust him to bring us through it.
Soli Deo Gloria