I’m told that the way you learn to recognize counterfeit currency is by handling the a lot of the real deal. Genuine money. You learn to identify the fake by handling the real thing. Now that may seem a bit counter-intuitive. We tend to think that the way to get good at spotting counterfeits is to study lots and lots of counterfeits so you get to the point where you can recognize a counterfeit when you see it. But in reality that’s not how it works. There are so many varieties of counterfeits one can’t learn every one of them, and if you rely simply on your knowledge of counterfeits, you will miss one. But if you know what real money looks like, you can spot a fake. And so handling the genuine article is the best way to train someone to spot the counterfeit.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples about counterfeit religion – false prophets with false teaching, false confessions and professions with mighty works and wonders. Like counterfeit coin, false religions and false teachers are recognized by exposure to the truth of God’s Word. In hearing the Lord’s words, you are being taught to recognize the counterfeits of religion, of which there are many, more than you can study and learn in a lifetime of “comparative religion.”
Make no mistake about it. Our old Adam, our sinful nature, is very “religious,” in all the worst senses of that word. We are fascinated by the religious, the “spiritual,” so long as it doesn’t lay any hard claim on us. Look at all the books written today on the topic “spirituality,” books claiming to unlock the secret of a happy, contented life. There are people who claim that by your positive thoughts and actions you can tap into the powers of the universe and alter the course of your life and others. We’re fascinated by the Buddhist monks in their saffron robes, or the zeal of Isalm, or the disciplines of Judaism, or the family values of Mormonism. We’ll gladly make offerings and sacrifices to whatever high priests are offering health and happiness and safety and contentment. And we quickly buy into the notion that religion is about transaction, deal cutting, working the angles with God in the hopes of getting a good return on our religious investment.
“Beware the false prophets,” Jesus warns. They come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They look pious, holy, religious. Probably more pious, holy, and religious than the genuine article. Look at the prophets God sent – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and the rest. These were basically ordinary, earthy, regular guys. Some of them weird, some of them quite everyday, like the farmer Amos. None of these guys would have held a candle to the high priests and prophets of the surrounding religions.
Consider Jesus Himself. The son of a carpenter from no-name Nazareth in the hill country of Galilee. The One who is Prophet, Priest, and King supreme comes as a nobody from a non-place. Yet this is God’s Son; this is the Messiah of Israel; this is the Savior of the world. So ordinary, so everyday, so plain, the world missed it. Israel missed it. And were it not for Jesus’ death and resurrection, everyone would have missed it.
The false prophet comes disguised as a sheep. The devil masquerades as an angel of light. He is a religious devil and his prophets appear to be very religious. Impressively so. But watch out! Inwardly, where you can’t see, they are hungry wolves, just as the devil is a roaring ravenous lion. Looking for someone to devour. Looking to devour you.
So how do you recognize them? You look for their fruits. A tree identifies itself by its fruits. When there’s no fruit on the tree, it’s hard to distinguish one tree from the next. But when you see its fruit, you know what kind of tree it is. You tell the prophets by their fruits. Prophets are in the word business; they speak words from God. Just as a healthy tree bears good fruit, so a true prophet speaks the truth. And just as a diseased tree bears rotten fruit, so a false prophet spews lies.
Those lies may be “inspirational,” motivational, filled with all sorts of promise and purpose, but if they don’t deliver Jesus and Him crucified for your sins, they are rotten to the core, no matter how religious they may sound. Bad doctrine is like a rotten apple. It looks perfectly good on the outside – all shiny, red, and delicious. Until you take a big bite of it and realize that it is rotten at its very core.
Christ is the center and heart of all that is to be believed. He’s the One who died and rose from the dead. He’s the only One. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only way to the Father. Whatever doesn’t begin with Christ at the center is diseased and rotten and fit only for the fire. Listen to what people are saying about God. Use discernment when you read those “spiritual” books. Do they begin with the Son of God in the flesh crucified for your sin? Do the bring you to the blood by which you are justified before God? Do they start with the ungodly be justified before God by grace, through faith, solely for Christ’s sake? If they don’t, they are a diseased trees that will inevitably produce rotten fruit no matter how good it may look. Hungry wolves disguised as the Good Shepherd’s sheep. Beware.
Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” is going to enter the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is those who “do the will of the Father.” And the will of the Father is this: That you believe, that is trust, in the Son He sent to save you. Apart from the Son, you can do nothing.
Works don’t count. So don’t start bragging about all you did for Jesus, because that argument won’t fly. People we say, “We prophesied in your name, we cast out demons in your name, we did mighty works in your name,” and Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me you workers of lawlessness.” All those wonderful works wasted in unbelief, in the unwillingness to trust that God justifies the sinner solely on account of Jesus and His righteousness.
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That passage from Romans is the genuine currency against which all religious claims are tested and counterfeits are exposed. The righteousness of the law everyone knows. Every religion has some notion that we are going to pay for our sins and be rewarded for our good works. That is the transaction involved in every religion of the world, save one. Only Christianity, only faith in Jesus Christ, knows of a righteousness of God apart from commandment keeping. This is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world – whether Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, you name it.
In fact, there are only two religions in the world – the religion of the Law, commandment keeping, transaction, works; and the religion of the Gospel, promise, grace, gift, faith in Jesus. There is no distinction, Paul says. All have sinned. You have sinned – in your thoughts, in your words, in your actions. You along with every other person in the world. And that sin condemns you for God. All have sinned. All fall short of the glory of God. No one stands before God on the basis of his or her merits. All fall short of the standards set by God’s law. In fact, the whole purpose of the law was not so that we might bargain with God by showing Him how good we are, but that every mouth would be silenced before God, every person held accountable before God, every sin amplified to the point of utter sinfulness.
God wants you to despair of anything in you. You are not good before God in yourself. You stand condemned before God, and there is no justifying yourself. You have no case. You and the whole world with you. All have sinned. All fall short of God’s glory.
But listen. Here is what sets Christianity apart. Here is the genuine coin, the 24 karat gold, the 200-proof good news. A righteousness of God apart from the law, apart from the commandments has been revealed, a righteousness that justifies the sinner by God’s grace (gift) through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, a redemption that was worked in the shedding of His blood on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world, a redemption that is received through faith, trust in the Word of God that declares you righteous for Jesus’ sake.
That, my friends in the sold rock upon which one builds a spiritual house. No the shifting, sinking sand of religion, of works, of commandment keeping. The Rock is Jesus, and faith built on Jesus will not all even when the storms come. And they will come.
The funny thing about foundations is that you can’t see them. As long as everything is going well, the sun is shining and the earth isn’t shaking, one house looks pretty much the same as the next. In fact, the house on a poor foundation might actually look nicer – a nice paint job, pretty flowers, nice furniture. Until the storm comes, and the flood waters rise, and the foundation is tested. And then you find out which house rests on solid rock and which one sits on sinking sand.
Faith in Jesus is unshakable, as it is faith in Christ. He is the One who conquered sin and death for you. He is the One to whom all authority has been given in heaven and on earth. He is the One whose words are Spirit and life, the very words of eternal life. Hear the words of your Lord and take them to heart. Do them, that is, trust them. They are the words that come from the good tree of the cross, that bear the good fruit of faith. Hear Him and believe Him.
On Christ, the solid Rock, you stand. All other ground is sinking sand.
In the name of Jesus,