How to Recognize False Religious Leaders

As Jesus continued His concluding remarks, He next warned His audience about false prophets who lead the undiscerning down the broad road to destruction. They are those who are not truly of God, yet disguised as so. All false teachers and leaders fall under this category. How can they be identified?

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:15-23).

Clearly, Jesus indicated that false teachers are very deceptive. They have some exterior indications of being genuine. They may call Jesus their Lord, prophesy, cast out demons and perform miracles. But the “sheep’s clothing” only hides the “ravenous wolf.” They aren’t of the true sheep. How can it be known if they are true or false? Their true character can be identified by examining their “fruits.”

What are the fruits of which Jesus was speaking? Obviously, they are not fruits of miracles. Rather, they are the fruits of obedience to all Jesus taught. Those who are true do the will of the Father. Those who are false “practice lawlessness” (7:23). Our responsibility, then, is to compare their lives with what Jesus taught and commanded.

False teachers abound today in the church, and we should not be surprised, because both Jesus and Paul forewarned us that, as the end approaches, we should expect nothing less (see Matt. 24:11; 2 Tim. 4:3-4). The most prevalent false prophets of our day are those who teach that heaven awaits the unholy. They are responsible for the eternal damnation of millions of people. Of them, John Wesley wrote,

How terrible is this!—when the ambassadors of God turn agents for the devil!—when they who are commissioned to teach men the way to heaven do in fact teach them the way to hell….If it be asked, “Why, who ever did…this?”…I answer, Ten thousand wise and honourable men; even all those, of whatever denomination, who encourage the proud, the trifler, the passionate, the lover of the world, the man of pleasure, the unjust or unkind, the easy, careless, harmless, useless creatures, the man who suffers no reproach for righteousness’ sake, to imagine he is in the way to heaven. These are false prophets in the highest sense of the word. These are traitors both to God and man….They are continually peopling the realms of the night; and whenever they follow the poor souls they have destroyed, “hell shall be moved from beneath to meet them at their coming!”[1]

Interestingly, Wesley was specifically commenting about the false teachers whom Jesus warned against in Matthew 7:15-23.

Notice that Jesus again plainly said, contrary to what so many false teachers tell us today, that those who don’t bear good fruit will be cast into hell (see 7:19). Moreover, this applies not just to teachers and prophets, but to everyone. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). What is true for prophets is true for all. This is Jesus’ main theme—Only the holy will inherit God’s kingdom. People who aren’t obeying Jesus are destined for hell.

Also notice the connection Jesus made between what a person is inwardly and what he is outwardly. “Good” trees produce good fruit. “Bad” trees can’t produce good fruit. The source of the good fruit that shows up on the outside is the nature of the person. By His grace, God has changed the nature of those who have truly believed in Jesus.[2]

[1]The Works of John Wesley (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1996), by John Wesley, reprinted from the 1872 edition issued by the Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, London, pp. 441, 416.

[2] I can’t resist taking the opportunity to also comment here about a common expression people use when trying to excuse sins in others: “We don’t know what is in their hearts.” In contradiction to this, Jesus said here that the outside reveals the inside. In another place, He told us,”The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt. 12:34). When a person speaks words of hate, it indicates hatred fills his heart. Jesus also told us that “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). When a person commits adultery, we do know what is in his heart: adultery.