ŌBeware of false prophets, which come to you in sheepÕs clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolvesĶ  Matthew 7:15.

 

From this verse to the twentieth is contained the sixth part of this chapter, and the eleventh part of ChristÕs sermon, concerning the discerning and avoiding of false prophets. And it hath an excellent dependence on the former point of exhortation; for having given commandment to walk in the strait way, now like a careful guide He forewarns us of the principal impediments in this way, which be false prophets and seducers, who are like thieves and pirates to hinder us in this way. Touching them, three things are here set down by Christ: First, a commandment to beware of them; secondly, the danger that comes by them: they come in sheepÕs clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves; and thirdly, the means whereby to judge and discern of them, from the 16th verse to the 20th.

 

I.

For the commandment:

Beware of false prophets; that is, of false teachers. In a false teacher, two things are required: First, he must maintain some error that overturns true faith and religion; for every erroneous opinion which a man holds, will not make him a false prophet, but only a fundamental error. Secondly, besides the holding of some damnable error in his own heart, a false prophet must also be a seducer, such an one as labours to make a faction, withdrawing men from true religion, and from true faith, and persuading them both in private and publicly, to receive his error. And that both these are required to make a false prophet, the Scripture is plain. There shall be false teachers among you (saith St Peter), which privily shall bring in damnable heresies (2 Pet. 2:1). There is the first property; and for the second, that they must be seducers, Christ Himself teacheth us (Matt. 24:24), There shall come false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders, so as, if it were possible, they should deceive the very elect. And of both these properties jointly, St Paul speaketh (Rom. 16:17,18), I beseech you brethren, mark them diligently which cause division and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have received, and avoid them; for they that are such, serve not the Lord, but their own bellies, and with fair speech and flattering deceive the hearts of the simple. So then ChristÕs meaning in this commandment is this: You shall be troubled with many false prophets, which shall bring in damnable doctrines amongst you, and withal labour to seduce you from the truth, and therefore take heed of them.

 

And these two notes must we make in a false teacher, to distinguish him from a schismatic and from an hypocrite; for every false teacher is a schismatic, but every schismatic is not a false teacher. If we would have examples of false teachers, behold the Jesuits and Romish priests, for they come among us and bring false doctrine, with intent to deceive and seduce our people. Such likewise are the Family of Love, and such were the Arians in time past, that denied the Godhead of Christ. As for others that hold private errors, not raising the foundation, nor seeking to seduce others, they may be hypocrites, schismatics and bad Christians, but they are not false prophets. Thus much for the meaning of the commandment.

 

The Uses.

1. By this caveat, Christ would teach us that the devil shews his exceeding great malice against GodÕs church and people in these last times of the world; he suborns false teachers to bring in damnable doctrine, and moves them to seduce men from true religion. This thing Christ did plainly foretell (Matt. 24:24); and St Paul chargeth the elders of Ephesus to take heed unto themselves, and to their flocks; for I know (saith he) that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Moreover, of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30). And St Peter foretells of the like, as we heard before (2 Pet. 2:1).  The truth hereof is verified by experience; for in the first four hundred years after Christ, which were the prime and chiefest times of the church, there arose fourscore and eight several kinds of false prophets, which seduced men from the faith and true religion, and prevailed greatly. And no doubt in the end of the world, Satan will now shew his malice as great against the church as he did then; and therefore Christ bids, Take heed of them. And for this cause, when we see men that profess religion fall away to heresy and be corrupted, seeking also to seduce others, we must not much marvel at it, or be thereby discouraged; but rather watch more carefully, for the devil will stir up false prophets daily to deceive the church of God.

 

2. From this commandment we may also see that we are feeble, full of weakness in the faith, so as a little thing will easily make us forsake our faith and true religion. If this were not so, what should we need this exhortation? Who was more courageous and forward in profession than Peter? And yet the voice of a silly damsel made him deny his master, and to forswear his faith and religion. The Galatians received the gospel so gladly from Paul at the first, that he professeth, They would have plucked out their own eyes to have done him good (Gal. 4:15); and yet when he wrote unto them, he wonders they were so soon fallen to another gospel (Gal. 1:6), receiving the doctrine of justification by works. Yea, this sheweth that we have itching ears, whereby we will readily and willingly receive wholesome doctrine for a time, but soon after desire new doctrine again; like unto the Jews, who for a while delighted in the light of JohnÕs ministry (John 5:35); and to the old Israelites, who liked manna at the first, but after a while were weary of it, and complained that their soul dried away, whereupon they lusted after the fleshpots of Egypt again (Exod. 16:3). So we at the first did willingly receive the gospel of Christ; but now many wax weary with it, and begin to like of popish doctrine, preferring their corrupt writers before those that have been the restorers of true religion unto us.

 

3. We must labour to maintain faith and good conscience, and not suffer ourselves to be drawn therefrom. By GodÕs mercy, we have had the gospel of truth among us a long time, and do still enjoy it; for which we have great cause to praise the name of God, and in this regard we must labour to be constant in holding it, yea, to live and die with it. This is the principal point which Christ here aims at, and therefore we must carefully learn it. And for this purpose, let us remember these particular directions which follow:

 

(1) First, that God having restored unto us true religion, doth require we should love it as the chiefest treasure that ever this kingdom enjoyed. Wicked Ahab could not abide Elias (1 Kin. 21:20) and Michaiah (1 Kin. 22:8) GodÕs prophets, but hated them; for which cause God left him to himself, and suffered him to be seduced by four hundred false prophets of Baal, and thereby brought him to destruction. And the apostle speaking of the kingdom of Antichrist, saith (2 Thess. 2:10,11), God herein gives men up to strong delusions, that they should believe lies, because they have not loved the truth. Now this love we must shew by our obedience in duties of piety to God, and in the exercise of justice and mercy towards our brethren, else God will translate His gospel from us, and give it to a nation that will bring forth the fruits thereof.

 

(2) A second rule to be observed for the maintaining of true religion is this: that ministers especially, and those intending that calling, should highly esteem, and reverently account of those men and their writings, which by GodÕs mercy have been the means to restore unto us pure religion; for though they were men subject to error, and in some things might slip, yet they were the worthy instruments of GodÕs mercy, for the planting of His gospel among us, which since their time hath been sealed with the blood of many martyrs, in England, Germany, and elsewhere; in which regard, though we must only depend on the pure Word of God for certainty of truth, yet we are to give much unto them, and to be followers of them for the substance of religion, wherein they do most soundly consent in one truth. This I note, because they begin to be in disgrace with many, and corrupt popish writers are far better accounted of.

 

(3) Thirdly, if any among us doubt of any point in religion, let him do these two things for his resolution, which are the ordinary means to know the truth: First, let him search the holy Scriptures diligently, not by private study only, but by conference with the godly. Secondly, let him in true humility of heart pray unto God for the illumination of His Spirit, whereby he may in mind rightly conceive of the truth, embrace it by faith in his heart, and honour it by obedience in his life. Thus doing constantly, and in sincerity, he shall be sure to be preserved from error, both final and fundamental, and in due time shall know the truth; for the promise is, Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find (Matt. 6:7). And St James saith (Jam. 1:5), If any man lack wisdom necessary for his salvation, let him ask of God, using with all other lawful means to come thereby, and it shall be given unto him. Hereto may be added this good help for satisfaction in this case of doubting: namely, to have recourse to the general confessions of Reformed churches, which may be had in the notable book, The Harmony of Confessions, for although private men may err, as also particular churches, not only severally, but jointly in some things in this world; yet the general consent of Reformed churches may be a good direction to the knowledge of the truth, and a good persuasion to constancy therein.

 

(4) Fourthly, we must keep a good conscience, if we would preserve the truth and purity of religion; for faith and good conscience go always together. Whereupon St Paul persuading Timothy to this duty, bids him have faith and a good conscience, which some have put away, and as concerning faith have made shipwreck (1 Tim. 1:19), where a good conscience is resembled to a ship, which saileth over the sea of this world, being laden with faith; that is, with true religion, and other spiritual graces needful to salvation. Now, if the ship of our conscience be crazy and unsound, then is our faith and salvation in great danger; and therefore we must endeavour in all things to have a clear concience, both towards God and towards men.

 

4. This commandment of our Saviour Christ, to beware of false prophets, doth bar the church of God, and every member thereof, from conversing with false prophets, after they be convicted to be such. It was EveÕs fault to admit conference with the devil in the serpent, and all of us feel the smart thereof at this day. It was PaulÕs counsel to the Romans, to mark them diligently which caused division and offences among them, contrary to the doctrine which they had learned, and to avoid them (Rom. 16:17). And St John plainly forbids this society with them (2 John 10), Receive not him into thine house, neither bid him God speed, that comes to teach you, and brings not this doctrine. Yea, though we (saith Paul) or an angel form heaven teach you otherwise than that which we have preached unto you, hold him accursed (Gal. 1:8). In the histories of the church it is recorded that St John would not wash himself in the same bath wherein Cerinthus an heretic was washing himself, nor abide under the same roof, but leaped out, and persuaded others so to do. And indeed by EveÕs example we may see the danger of conference with false prophets; for the same evil spirit speaks in them.

 

Now this shews:

 

(1) First, that the practice of many students is dangerous, and against this commandment, who take delight in popish commentaries and postils, ascribing to them more learning and judgment than can be found in those writers that were the restorers of true religion unto us. And hence it is that they labour more in them than in the Scripture itself, or in other sound writers thereupon. But if there be any false prophet at this day, it is the papist, and their writings are dangerous to be read of those that are not well grounded in the truth; for by reading we have a kind of familiarity with them, and indeed many suck out of them at unawares, much venom in weighty points of doctrine and religion. We ought rather to do with them as the believers of Ephesus did with their books of curious arts; namely, to bring them out and burn them (Acts 19:19), than take such delight in them. Albeit, this must be granted, it is both lawful and necessary for the defence of the truth, that men of sound judgment and piety do labour in them.

 

(2) Secondly, hence also it may appear that it cannot be but a great hindrance to true religion that heretical books may be publicly sold to anyone that will buy them, without due consideration whether the party have gifts to discern of truth from falsehood. In the popish church they are more careful, they permit not a man to read an hereticÕs book (as they call us Protestants) without leave, and that under a great penalty, which is severely inflicted upon offenders that way.

 

5. This commandment also sheweth that it is not lawful to grant to any man, or to any people, the liberty of their own conscience in the matters of religion, permitting them to profess what religion they will; for how should false prophets be avoided, when every man may freely profess what he will in religion? All governors therefore must follow the practice of good king Josiah, who assembled all Judah, and caused all his people to hear the Word of the Lord, and to stand to that religion which the book of God made known unto them (2 Chr. 34:32).

 

6. We have from this commandment, an answer to the false charge of the church of Rome, who accuse us of schism and apostasy because we separate from their church. But we must know that the schism and apostasy is there where the cause of departing is; which indeed is not in us, who do no more herein but obey the commandment of Christ. The cause is in them who are become false prophets, whom we must avoid.

 

Here yet, two questions may be demanded:

 

(1) Whether a false prophet may be put to death, seeing Christ bids only to beware of them? Answer: Christ here speaks to His apostles, and to other of His auditors that were private men, whose duty wrought no further; but yet the truth is that a false prophet being judicially convicted, is to be put to death. The Word of God is plain (Lev. 24:14), there is both a commandment and a practice: Every blasphemer must die. This, wicked Jezabel knew well, who under pretence of blasphemy, caused Naboth to be put to death (1 Kin. 21:10,13). And hereupon the Jews sought to put Christ to death. Yea, Nebuchadnezzar, an heathen king, having but a taste of this, that the God of Israel was the true God (Dan. 3:29), made this law, that whosoever blasphemed the God of Israel should die. And it stands with equity; for he that reviles his lawful prince must die, and that justly. How much more then ought he to die that blasphemes the living God, who is King of Kings? Now, every false prophet is a blasphemer; for his opinions are blasphemies against the truth of God; and therefore he ought to die. The express will of God herein is manifest (Deut. 13:1ff.), A prophet comes and works miracles, and shews signs that come to pass, yet if he thereupon entice the people to idolatry, he must be slain. And this is one way whereby the civil magistrate must help the people to avoid a false prophet.

 

(2) Why doth God then suffer such to live in His church as do seduce men? Answer: For two causes: First, that such as hold the truth in sincerity may be known (1 Cor. 11:19). Secondly, for the punishment of the wicked and ungodly, who receive not the love of the truth; to seduce them by strong illusions, and to cause them to believe lies (2 Thess. 2:11,12).

 

 

II.

The second point: The danger of false prophets: they come in sheepÕs clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. In these words, Christ alludeth to the practice of false prophets in former times, who counterfeited the true prophets in their attire; for the ancient prophets were usually clothed in rough and course attire. Elias in regard of his garments, is called an hairy man (2 Kin. 1:8), and John Baptist had a garment of camelÕs hair (Matt. 3:4). And the false prophets did counterfeit the true prophets in their attire for this end: that they might the more easily deceive the people, as is most plain (Zech 13:4), where the Lord saith of false prophets, that they wear a rough garment to deceive; for when they wore such course attire, made either of sheep skins or sheepÕs wool, wherewith the true prophets were usually clothed, they sought hereby to persuade the people that they had the hearts of the true prophets; whenas indeed they were full fraught with damnable errors.

 

Now ChristÕs meaning in this allusion, is to shew that false prophets have plausible pretences for their damnable doctrine, and therefore are the more dangerous. Yet that we may the better perceive the danger of false prophets, I will a little stand to describe their clothing; that is, their pretences of deceit. They may be reduced to seven heads:

 

1. The first is an allegation of Scripture, which they will use as often as the true prophets; and hereby they blind the eyes of many. But the truth is that in alleging Scripture, they deprave and change the sense, and either add to, or detract from the words, following rightly their master Satan (Matt. 4:6), who alleged Scripture to Christ, but left out the principal point whereto the promise was made; namely, walking in thy ways (cf. Psa. 91:11). And thus deal the papists at this day, sometimes they mangle the text and alter the sense, sometimes they leave the Scripture and go to traditions, to Councils and Fathers. This also is the practice of the Family of Love, and of the Anabaptists, who turn the natural sense of Scripture into mythical allegories.

 

2. The second cloak of pretence is the depth of their learning. (Rev. 2:24), The heresy of the Nicolaitans was by themselves called the deepness of Satan. So play the papists at this day, for sundry points of their religion; for they hold that because the church in the apostlesÕ time was weak in knowledge and feeble in faith, therefore the apostles omitted sundry deep points, especially concerning the mass, which yet the church, receiving by tradition, doth now teach plainly and fully. But though they match these doctrines of the church with the Holy Scripture, yet we need not to trouble ourselves therewith; for in the writings of the prophets and apostles all things necessary to salvation are made known, and we must not receive any doctrine that cannot be confirmed thence; and therefore in the parable (Luke 16:31), Abraham prefers Moses and the prophets, before visions and revelations from the dead.

 

3. The third cloak of pretence is to assume to themselves the persons and titles of most worthy men. (2 Cor. 11:13,14), Paul speaks of such deceivers that took to them the name of the apostles of Christ, therein following their master Satan, who can transform himself into an angel of light. See this in the papists, especially in the pope, who will be ChristÕs vicar, PeterÕs successor, and the servant of servants. The doctors call themselves seraphical and angelical doctors, and the church of Rome must be the true church. But all this is counterfeit deceit, for succession in place only, from Peter, and from Christ Himself, is no certain note of truth. The Scribes and Pharisees had their succession from Aaron, appointed by God, and yet Christ bids His disciples take heed of the leaven of their doctrine (Matt. 16:12); and calls them, the blind leaders of the blind (Matt. 15:14). Succession then in true doctrine is the only and sure note of true religion.

 

4. The fourth cloak or pretence is forged and counterfeit humility. This Paul notes in false apostles among the Colossians (Col. 2:18,23): First, they would not worship God directly, but in and by the angels; secondly, they used much bodily exercise, afflicting their own bodies; and thirdly, their worship was will-worship, devised by themselves. If we would have a lively example hereof, behold the Romish priests; they come to God in the mediation of saints; their whole religion stands in bodily exercises, so as many of their orders are famous for their whippings, and such like trumperie; and their worship of God is will-worship, devised by men.

 

5. The fifth pretence is working miracles. Hereby they labour to confirm their doctrine (2 Thess. 2:9). The coming of Antichrist that man of sin is with signs and lying wonders, through SatanÕs working, and of such God forewarns His people (Deut. 13) that they should not be drawn to idolatry for a miracle; for either they be false miracles and lying wonders, or if they be true miracles (as God may suffer such to be wrought by false prophets, for the plague and punishment of the unthankful world), yet their end is to deceive, and to draw men into error from the truth. We have ordinary experience of this pretence among the Romish priests, who by sorcery cast out devils, and cure strange diseases, and so delude the simple. But this must not draw us from the truth. A miraculous work truly done, is not a sufficient warrant of a doctrine in religion; for true and sound doctrine may want this confirmation (John 10:41), and false doctrine may have it (Deut. 13:1ff.).

 

6. The sixth pretence is fair speech and blessings, pretending the good and salvation of those to whom they come. See this (Rom. 16:18), With fair speech and flattering (saith Paul of false apostles) they deceive the hearts of the simple. So dealt Satan with Eve, he made shew that he had some good things to tell her, whereby their state might be bettered, but it turned to theirs and our destruction. So did the four hundred false prophets of Baal, contrary to the true prophet Michaiah, prophecy good success to Ahab (2 Chr. 18) in his war against the Aramites; but his hearkening to them cost him his life. And so dealt Hananiah with the Jews when they were besieged by the king of BabelÕs army, contrary to JeremiahÕs counsel (Jer. 28). He prophesied peace and safety, but it turned both to his own, and to their destruction.

 

7. The seventh pretence is boldness and constancy in suffering for their opinions; for a man in obstinacy may live and die for error, as well as the child of God may do for the truth. Constancy in opinion is no sure note whereby to judge a true prophet; for many heretics have suffered death confidently, for the maintenance of their damnable heresies.

 

Thus we see the pretences of false prophets. Now hereto we must add this second point, to wit, that for all this they be but wolves, because by their damnable doctrine they seek to poison and corrupt the souls of simple men. If it be said, they have no such intent, they themselves think it to be the truth; I answer, that may be true in some, but this cleareth them not from being wolves; for the devil that hath deluded them, who is their lord and master, doth by them dangerously delude and deceive the simple.

 

The Uses.

1. Considering this danger of false prophets, we must practice ChristÕs lesson (Matt. 10:16): Be simple as doves, that is, be innocent and harmless, thinking evil of none, neither intending evil or offence to any, in thought, word or deed, and yet we must be wise as serpents, who have great subtilty in saving and defending their head from harm. So must every one that looks to be saved, labour for so much wisdom whereby he may preserve himself from the hurt of false prophets. Now the beginning of this wisdom is to fear God in His Word, believing His promises, and obeying His commandments. The true fear of God is not without knowledge; and therefore every one must labour to be instructed in the principles of religion; for without knowledge we cannot fear God, and so shall want true wisdom to eschew false prophets.

 

2. In that the false teacher by so many fair shews, seeks to bring in false doctrine, it is every manÕs duty in his place to labour to preserve wholesome doctrine, and the purity of true religion. This duty is necessary; for we must be as forward for the truth, as the enemy is for falsehood, and do as much for God, as they do for the devil. Again, no poison is more deadly to the body than false doctrine is to the soul; therefore seeing God hath long blessed us with His truth, let us esteem it above all outward blessings, and by seeking to preserve the purity thereof, shew ourselves thankful to God for the same.