In the passage below, Jesus warns us about “false prophets” (false teachers). They’re either deceivers or are totally deceived themselves. This also applies to false believers, those who believe and practice what false prophets teach (Lu 6:43-45). He tells us to “watch out.” Jesus gives us this warning and instruction because it’s important that we’re not deceived by those who present themselves as Bible teachers or claim to be Christians, but who don’t actually belong to Jesus. He’s not talking about Christians who interpret the Bible incorrectly, who are still growing in their understanding. There’s a vast difference between the two. False prophets are not true believers, and are known by what they teach in regard to the major doctrines of the Christian faith—that which is according to orthodox, historical Christianity.
Note: There are true Christians today who claim to be prophets, who claim to reveal the future about things or about people. This article does not deal with that aspect. That’s a whole different discussion. This article only deals with those who teach false doctrine, because false prophets are primarily false teachers (2 Pet 2:1-3; Acts 20:28-30; 1 Tim 4:1-2; 2 Tim 4:1-4). A true prophet represents God and speaks and His Word to others.
15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ (NET)
What Jesus describes in this passage is the fruit of salvation, or the lack thereof—regarding both who teach and those who believe what false prophets teach. The fruit of salvation refers primarily to doctrine, not necessarily to the way a person lives. For example, Mormons live very moral lives, but what they believe and teach is false. A person may claim to be a Christian, and they may seem to be living the Christian life, but be way off in what they believe. We can be fooled by the appearance of a Christian life (Matt 13:24-30), but not by what a person believes or teaches (once it’s been clearly explained).
What Jesus says in this passage is frightening. He reveals how close a person may resemble a true Christian or a true teacher of the Christian faith (Matt 13:24-30). They have the “appearance of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Tim 3:5). In other words, they have an outward form of godliness, but the power of a true godly life is missing, which is the power of the Holy Spirit. They deny its power by both their manner of life and by what they believe and teach. We must be discerning. Their lives and belief system may have the appearance of someone who identifies with the Christian faith, but a closer look will always reveal that it’s out of harmony with true Christianity. Jesus alerts us and shows us how to tell the difference between the two. Again, this requires us to go below the surface and dig deeper for what people believe and what they teach. That’s the real tell. If it’s someone we know, and something seems a little off or odd about them, it requires us to ask very detailed questions about what they believe. The truth about what they believe may be very surprising, if not shocking.
As Jesus reveals in this passage, false prophets and false believers may even perform miracles, thereby deceiving those who witness them. That does not inform us about the true nature of who they are, because miracles do not necessarily prove to be of the Lord, but could be of satanic origin. Just because someone speaks in the name of Jesus or does something in the name of Jesus, does not make them a true born-again believer in Jesus. As He informs us in this passage, we can discern who belongs to Him and who does not. The appearance of a life devoted to Christ must be in harmony with doctrinal truth. Again, if we have doubts about someone, as well as the opportunity, it’s important that we ask them to clarify what they believe. We must pin them down and require them to explain in detail what their doctrinal beliefs are—what they believe and what they’re basing it on.
I think it’s likely that there are many false prophets today who pastor churches that fall under the banner of Christianity, particularly those who start new churches. What they teach may resemble or sound Christian ‒ because of the shallowness of their teaching ‒ but they deceive the unlearned and undiscerning. We must be very careful about who we listen to and who we learn from. We’re blessed with modern technology. We can do an online search and find out about anyone who is in the public eye. Use it! Never assume anything about anyone; check them out first. Particularly beware of anyone associated with Progressive Christianity or the Emerging Church movement.
False prophets and false believers who are associated with cults ‒ such as Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses ‒ they sound like Christians, they use the same terminology as Christians, but how they define what they believe is quite different—particularly as it pertains to what they believe about God (each Person of the Trinity) and about salvation (soteriology). When one rejects the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith, it leads to very flawed and confused, and sometimes very far-out belief systems. One false belief leads to another. They’re “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:5-7), even though they may be sincerely seeking God, sincerely seeking the truth. I don’t think you’ll ever convince a Mormon that they’re not sincere in what they believe to be true.
2 Timothy 3:7 that I referenced above ‒ along with 2 Pet 2:1-3; Acts 20:28-30; 1 Tim 4:1-2; 2 Tim 4:1-4 ‒ are all in the context of Christianity. These passages reveal a sobering reality—that false teachers may arise from Christian assemblies, that people can actually read the same Bible and hear the same Scriptures, and still never come to the same understanding as others, who do come to the knowledge of the truth, and are thus saved. It also reveals that true Christians can be deceived (to a limited degree) if they’re not diligently studying and learning their Bibles and learning from people who teach the Bible as representatives of true Christianity, as true disciples of Christ.
This brings us to an obvious question. How do we explain this reality that people can hear the same Scriptures and the same gospel message, and still never understand unto salvation, while others do? And how do we explain the reality that people can be reared in a Christian home and in Christian churches, hearing the truth all their lives while growing up, perhaps embracing Christianity on a surface level, just to eventually turn away from it for a different belief system—either for a different version of “Christianity,” such as Mormonism, or for a completely different religion? Perhaps becoming false prophets, or even atheists? How do we explain it, while others grow up hearing and believing the same truths of Christianity, and clinging to it throughout their lives? What makes the difference?
In answer to those questions, I believe the Bible teaches Sovereign unconditional election and particular redemption. Not only do the Scriptures provide strong support for those positions, but there is no other reasonable explanation for the reality that I discussed in the above paragraph, because sinners are all equally spiritually dead and equally spiritually blind. In regard to the human heart, many evil people come to faith in Christ, while many good and kind people reject Christ—both groups of people hearing the same gospel message. What’s the common denominator? It’s insufficient to say that one person’s heart is more susceptible and willing to accept the truth than others, because everyone coming into the world has a heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). Jesus Himself said that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:19 – ESV).
Arminian theology teaches that everyone has the ability to receive the truth and to receive Christ, once the truth has been made known by the Holy Spirit and the will has been set free—free to choose, free to reject. But if that’s true, that means that a person is given a heart that is more susceptible and willing to accept the truth than others. But if we all have the same spiritual condition and the same heart condition, would that not be a form of Sovereign Election (which Arminians reject)? Because the human will is directly connected to our spiritual condition and to our heart condition. Therefore, even if the Holy Spirit frees a person’s will to receive Christ, it would still require God to have given (at time of birth) a person a heart that is more amenable to the gospel than others. Or, it would require God to change the condition of the person’s heart, which is the Calvinist position. Because our heart and our will to receive Christ or to reject Him, are both directly connected to our spiritual condition. These cannot be separated from each other, and therefore, we are all in the same spiritual boat.
Everyone coming into the world has the same spiritual condition. We all have the same heart condition. What we believe in our hearts is a totally spiritual matter. It’s true that our heart can be influenced by people, our environment, and by our circumstances, which can shape the course of our lives. But when it comes to understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ, those things have no bearing on whether we receive it or reject it. This is totally a spiritual matter. Therefore, it requires the Holy Spirit to intervene in our spiritual deadness and blindness and sickness, to lead us to faith in Christ, making us spiritually alive (regeneration) with a new heart to receive the truth. We hear the voice of the Shepherd, and follow Him. It’s as natural as a sheep who knows the voice of their shepherd and follows when he calls. People can be sincere in their seeking of God, but sincerely wrong. It’s a misguided sincerity that proceeds from darkness.
The Calvinist position provides the only reasonable explanation for why one person receives Christ and why another doesn’t, whether it’s a person whom we would regard as morally good or someone known to be evil. It answers all the questions in this article that prompted this discussion. Sovereign election and particular redemption are the common denominators. The Arminian position is in conflict, and is inadequate for explaining these matters.
God knows who His elect are, but we don’t. Thus we must be praying for the salvation of those whom we know to be misguided and lost (unsaved).