Matthew vii. 16. Ye shall know them by their fruits.
People are apt to overlook, I think, the real meaning of these words. They do so, because they part them from the words which go just before them, about false prophets.
They consider that 'fruit' means only a man's conduct,--that a man is known by his conduct. That professions are worth nothing, and practice worth everything. That the good man, after all, is the man who does right; and the bad man, the man who does wrong. Excellent doctrine; and always needed. God grant that we may never forget it.
But the text surely does not quite mean that. 'Fruit' here does not mean a man's own conduct, but the conduct of those whom he teaches. For see,--our Lord is talking of prophets; that is preachers, who set up to preach the Word of God, in the name of God. 'Beware,' he says, 'of false prophets. By their fruits ye shall know them. By what you gather from them,' he says. 'For do men gather grapes off thorns, or figs off thistles?'
Now what is a preacher's fruit? Surely the fruit of his preaching; and that is, not what he does himself, but what he makes you do. His fruit is what you gather from him; and what you gather from him is, not merely the notions and doctrines which he puts into your head, but the way of life in which he makes you live. What he makes you do, is the fruit which you get from him. Does he make you a better man, or does he not? that is the question. That is the test whether he is a false prophet, or a true one; whether he is preaching to you the eternal truth of God, or man's inventions and devil's lies.
Does he make you a better man? Not--Does he make you feel better? but--Does he make you behave better? There is too much preaching in the world which makes men feel better--so much better, indeed, that they go about like the Pharisee, thanking God that they are not as other men, before they have any sound reason to believe that they are not as other men; because they live just such lives as other men do, as far as respectability, and the fear of hurting their custom or their character, allow them to do. They have their prophets, their preachers who teach them; and by their fruits in these men, the preachers may be known, by those who have eyes to see, and hearts to understand.
Therefore beware of false prophets. There are too many of them in the world now, as there were in our Lord's time; men who go about with the name of God on their lips, and the Bible in their hands, in sheep's clothing outwardly; but inwardly ravening wolves. In sheep's clothing, truly, smooth and sanctimonious, meek, and sleek. But wolves at heart; wolves in cunning and slyness, as you will find, if you have to deal with them; wolves in fierceness and cruelty, as you will find if you have to differ from them; wolves in greediness and covetousness, and care of their own interest and their own pockets. And wolves, too, in hardness of heart; in the hard, dark, horrible, unjust doctrines, which they preach with a smile upon their lips, not merely in sermons, but in books and tracts innumerable, making out the Heavenly Father, the God whose name is Love and Justice, to be even such a one as themselves. Wolves, too, in their habit of hunting in packs, each keeping up his courage by listening to the howl of his fellows. They may come in the name of God. They may tell you that they preach the Gospel; that no one but they preach the Gospel. But by their fruits ye shall know them.
Will they make you better men? Is it not written, 'The disciple is not above his master?' What will you learn from them, but to be like them? And the more you take in their doctrines, the more like them you will be; for is it not written, 'He that is perfect shall be as his master.' Can they lead you to eternal life? Is it not written, 'If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch?'
But by their fruits ye shall know them. By their fruits in the world at large, if you have eyes to see it. By their fruits in your own lives, if you give yourselves up to listen to their false doctrines, for you will surely find, that, in the first place, they will not make you honest men. They will not teach you to be just and true in all your dealings. They will not teach you common morality. No, my friends, it is most sad to see, how much preaching and tract-writing there is in England now, which talks loud about Protestant doctrine, and Gospel truths, while all the fruit of it seems to be, to teach men to abuse the Pope, and to fancy that every one is going to hell, who does not agree with their opinions; while their own lives, their own conduct, their own morality, seems not improved one whit by all this preaching. And yet men like such preaching, and run to hear it. Of course they do; for it leaves them to behave all the week as if there was no Law of God, if only they will go on Sundays, and listen to what is called, I fear most untruly, the Gospel of God; leaves them, on condition of belonging to some particular party, and listening to some favourite preacher, free to give way to their passions, their spite, their meanness; to grind their servants, cheat their masters, trick their customers, adulterate their goods, and behave in money-matters as if all was fair in business, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ had nothing to do with common honesty; and all the while,
Compound for sins they are inclined to. By damning those they have no mind to.
My friends, these things ought not so to be. There is a Gospel of God, which preaches full forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ, to all who turn from their sins. But there is a Law of God, likewise, which executes sure vengeance against all who do not turn from their sins; be their professions as high, or their doctrines as correct as they may. A law which is in the Gospel itself, and says, by the mouth of the Apostle St. John, 'Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as God is righteous'--he--and not he who expects to be saved by listening to some false preacher who teaches his congregation how to go to heaven without having thought one heavenly thought, or done one heavenly-deed.
Yes. There is an eternal law of God, which people are forgetting, I often fear, more and more, in England just now. I sometimes dread, lest we should be sinking into that hideous state of which the old Hebrew prophet speaks--'The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?' What, indeed; if people are to be taught more and more, that religion is a matter merely of doctrines and fancies and feelings, and has nothing to do with common morality, and common honesty, and common self-control and improvement of character and conduct?
My friends, in these dangerous days, for dangerous they truly are-- like those of the Scribes and Pharisees of old; days in which bigotry and hardness of heart, hypocrisy and lip-profession stalk triumphant; days, in which men, like the Scribes and Pharisees of old, boast of the Bible, worship the Bible, think they have eternal life in the Bible, spend vast sums every year in spreading the Bible; and yet will neither read the Bible honestly, nor obey its plain commands--In such days as these, what prophet shall we fall back upon? What preacher shall we trust?
We can at least trust our Bible. We can read it honestly, if only there be in us the honest and good heart; we can obey its plain commands, if only we hunger and thirst after righteousness, and desire really to become good men. Read your Bibles for yourselves with a single eye, and with a pure heart which longs to know God's will because it longs to do God's will; and you will need no false prophets, under pretence of explaining it to you, to draw you away from the Holy Catholic faith into which you were baptized.
But if you must have a commentary on the Bible; if you must have some book to give you a general notion of what the Bible teaches you, and what it expects of you; go to the prayer-book. Go to the good old Catechism which you learnt at school. There, though not from the popular preachers, you will learn that God is just and true, loving and merciful, and no respecter of persons. There you will learn, that Christ died not for a few elect, but for the sins of the whole world. There you will learn that in baptism, by God's free grace, and not by any experiences or feelings of your own, you were made children of God, members of Christ, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. There you will learn, that the elect whom the Holy Spirit sanctifies, are not merely a favoured few, but you-- every baptized man, woman, and child. That the Holy Spirit is with you, every one of you, to sanctify you, if you will open your hearts to his gracious inspirations. And there you will learn what sanctification really means. Not a few fancies and feelings about which any man can deceive himself, and any man, also, deceive his neighbours. No, that sanctification means being made holy, righteous, virtuous, good. That sanctification means 'To love your neighbour as yourself, and to do to all men as they should do unto you--to love, honour, and succour your father and mother'--Shall I go on? Or do you all know the plain old duty to your neighbours, which stands in the Church Catechism. If you do, thank God that you were taught it in your youth. Read it over and over again. Think over it. Pray to God to give you grace to act upon it, and to shew the fruit of it in your lives. And then, 'By its fruits you shall know it.' By its fruits you shall know the virtue of the Catechism, and of the great and good men, true prophets of God, who wrote that Catechism. Yes. Cling to that Catechism, even if it convinces you of many sins, and makes you sadly ashamed of yourselves again and again; for, believe me, it will prove your best safeguard in doctrine, your best teacher in practice, in these dangerous days-- days in which every man who believes that right is right, and wrong is wrong, has need to pray with all his heart--'From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word and commandments; good Lord, deliver us!'