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By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them.

by Isaac Williams

from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days

throughout the Year, Vol. II. Trinity Sunday to All Saints' Day 

Rivingtons, London, 1875, pp. 110-119.

Second part of Sermon LV. for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.
For as many as are led by the SPIRIT of GOD, they are the sons of GOD.
—ROM. viii. 14.
(for the first part, on the Epistle.
The Gospel for to-day is taken from our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount; and it so far falls in with the subject of the Epistle, that the Sermon on the Mount consists entirely of the duties and privileges which arise from this new relation, into which, as Christians, we are brought unto God as sons; it all refers throughout to this spirit of adoption, and this new law, the law of love, which supersedes while it fulfils the old law. Hence through this Sermon on the Mount our Lord speaks of God as our Father.  The prayer which He therein gives us is to “our Father Which” is “in Heaven.”  Ye are to do all things “to glorify your Father in Heaven;” “your Father in Heaven seeth in secret; “your reward is with your Father in Heaven;” “your Father in Heaven” feedeth the birds, and careth for you; ye must “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”   And hence all Christians throughout the same are spoken of as brethren. 

But the particular advice taken from the Sermon on the Mount, given in to-day’s Gospel, is the warning against false prophets.  Our Lord has often cautioned us on this subject; of “blind guides” that lead to destruction; of “false prophets and false Christs” full of deceivableness, which will form the chief danger of the latter days.  And the Apostles have carried on the same note of warning, speaking of Antichrists and seducers that had already appeared in their own day; of heresies, which must needs be for the probation of the elect; and of these greatly increasing as time advances to the end, many “deceiving and being deceived.”  And the Book of the Revelation not only describes the seven Churches in those days as severely tried by the counterpart of Balaam, and of Jezebel, and the synagogue of Satan; but intimates, that from thence to the end of the world, false religions, and delusive forms of corruption, will extend and be multiplied till they are developed in one great apostasy or falling away from Christ. 

If, again, from these prophetic intimations of Scripture we turn to see what fulfilment of them is now taking place in the world around us, the first point that arrests our attention is the great and numerous divisions among those who are called Christians, and have the Bible in their hands. The Christian world is full of parties and sects, one may say of different religions; yet it is clear that one religion only can be true,—God is the Author of union, not of division. Truth is one, error is manifold. One faith only hath Christ once for all delivered unto the saints. But there are many in the world. And now, though every one supposes himself to be right, and his own form of religion the best, yet it is evident from this very diversity that there must be many erroneous opinions,—ways by which men are deluded, and delude themselves, respecting the way of salvation. The warnings, therefore, which the Gospel for this day conveys, cannot but be most seasonable for us, and the more so the less we are aware of the necessity of them. 

Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. The word “beware” implies a subtle danger which requires watchfulness, as does also the false semblance of "sheep's clothing.” The false prophets of old wore “the rough garment to deceive,” [Zech. xiii. 4.] but these put on the very likeness of Christ Himself, Who, “as a sheep before his shearers was dumb;” or they have “two horns, like a lamb with the dragon’s speech,” [Rev. xiii. 11.] “seducing spirits,” it is said; it is the “strong delusion that believes a lie,” and with “all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish.” 

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit; neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  Now here there are some difficulties occur to one in the application of this rule. Is it intended that persons are to leave their own pastor, who is set over them by the Church, because he leads not a good life? This cannot be the intention; for in our Lord’s own time these “blind leaders of the blind,” full of hypocrisy, were the Scribes and Pharisees; yet He says of them, “the Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; all, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.” In like manner, your appointed minister may be a bad man, even as Balaam or as Judas Iscariot; yet that does not make it the less true that he may have received his appointment and commission from Christ, which would be a matter of fact. The most godly life cannot of course ever give a man a commission from Christ who has it not; nor can a wicked life take away that authority, or destroy the power of it, unless it be taken away by those who gave it and had the power to do so. Our Lord’s warning, therefore, does not apply to this, but to doctrine and teaching. Thus of these very persons who were to be obeyed as being in Moses’ seat He says, “Beware of the leaven,” i. e. of the hypocrisy, and false doctrine, “of the Scribes and Pharisees.” 

Again; in some sense we ought not, and indeed cannot judge men, nor pretend to say what they are in God’s sight; i. e. we must not judge them censoriously or enviously; and, moreover, there is great difficulty in judging correctly of men. Good men are hated by the world, and evil spoken of, as was the case with our Lord Himself; whereas bad men may be like whited sepulchres, beautiful without, but within full of uncleanness; or in sheep's clothing pretending to all Christian holiness, but wolves within. Besides which, good men labour to hide their good works from the world,—how, therefore, are we to know men from their fruits? 

The fact is, that notwithstanding all such objections, there will ever shine forth from a sincere, good man, a clear and consistent light which cannot be hid. If any one takes diligent care of his own heart, this cannot butt be seen in his words and actions, for from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. His life is of itself an unmistakeable living language: deeds are the very tongue of the heart. All this is what our Lord here adds in this passage, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” which we may thus further venture to apply,— shall we look for the sweet fruits of charity from the mere briers and thistles of party spirit and controversy? 

If, on the contrary, we know that any man denies himself daily,—that he is meek and gentle under trying provocation,—that he is indifferent to the things of the world, and sacrifices his worldly interest without scruple to preserve his Christian principle,—then with him we may expect to find the truth; but more particularly if he denies himself in that which would naturally be his ruling passion or desire, for this we know cannot be done without the especial grace of God. 

They who live a life of active self-denial, charity, and purity, will be ever brought to the knowledge of God,— to them He will reveal His mysteries; for they cannot live such a life without the good Spirit of God; and the Spirit of God, being truth and light, will enlighten their minds and lead them unto all truth. And thus it is, as our Lord says, that they who do the will of God shall know of the doctrine,--shall know whether He that speaks be of God. Since, therefore, God imparts the knowledge of truth to those that obey Him, our Lord teaches us to look to the lives of men, to know whether it be the good Spirit of God that leads them, or their own private spirit, actuated by prejudice, pride, or self-interest, and swayed by the passing gales of the world. 

Every tree, our Lord here adds on this subject, every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. The evil tree with its evil fruit shall soon come to naught,—or rather, with its lack of good fruit, as with an allusion to the parable of the unprofitable fig-tree. The end of the tares is that they shall be burned; and of “the idol shepherd” in Zechariah, who hath made the flock his prey, the judgment is that he shall lose all power of good, and all spiritual wisdom: “his arm shall be clean dried up, and his right eye shall be utterly darkened.” [Zech. xi. 17.]  Wait awhile, and whatever is not of God will come to naught. “Let them alone,” said our Lord, with reference to false doctrine; “every plant which My heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up;" and of the blind Pharisees leading the blind, that “both shall fall into the ditch.” And we may observe of heretical doctrines, that they prevail for a time and then come to an end. "I went by, and lo, he was gone:" “I sought him, but his place could nowhere be found.” 

And then, as if in allusion to the hypocrisy of these false guides, putting on the appearance of religion, and the danger of such false pretensions to holiness, building on the sand, and not on the hidden rock of obedience, our Lord makes that memorable, all-comprehensive declaration, Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father Which is in Heaven. The same may be otherwise stated in the words of the Epistle, “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” For these false prophets which will lead astray are connected with disobedience, lawlessness, and self-deceiving flatteries; in some way “strengthening the hands of the wicked by promising him life;" "with their mouth showing much love,” while “their heart goeth after their covetousness.” 

In other words, St. John says, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.” The confession of Christ is therefore the test of truth, but that confession must reach the heart and life. To this, then, we must further add this our Lord’s last caution: “Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord . . . but he that doeth the will of My Father.” 

It is then, in short, this, that the Spirit of God, the free spirit of adoption, and confession of “Christ come in the flesh,” is to us the way of salvation; but further, that we may not be deceived, we are warned that it must be the Spirit of God influencing our lives, and filling them with filial love, that is to bear witness with our spirit; and that this confession of Christ is to be accompanied with obedience, in order that it may be genuine. It is this faith held in filial obedience which is to keep us in the path of safety. It is by loving filial obedience that we hold as it were the hand of God in the dark night of this world, being assured, that as long as we do so He will guide us in the truth. It is from losing His protection that men fall into the wiles of seducers; God will “send on them a strong delusion,” because they have “pleasure in unrighteousness :“ it was a “lying spirit” from God filled the mouths of the false prophets which flattered Ahab to his destruction. [1 Kings xxii. 22.]  It is to Him, therefore, that we look; to Him “Whose never-failing providence ordereth all things in Heaven and earth,” we pray in the Collect for this week, that He will “put away from us all hurtful things, and give us those things which be profitable for us.” 

To apply the whole subject more closely to ourselves, in these days when various religions abound, each claiming to itself the only true worship of God ;—the first thing needed is more entire obedience to the plain duties of the Gospel. It is very much as it was in the falling away of Judah, when God says to them by His Prophet, “Amend your ways and your doings”…“trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord are these.” [Jer. vii. 3,4.]  And in our Lord’s own time the Jews would compass sea and land to make one proselyte, although it were only to make him a child of hell. We cannot, therefore, be too much on our guard against mere profession in religion, and party spirit, that great enemy to love and truth; and instead of these, to cultivate in ourselves active charities, humility, and obedience, and to seek for them in others. This is laying the foundation, and will lead us to know what is of God from counterfeits and delusive forms of false doctrine. 

It was in speaking of the broad way which many travel, and of the narrow way that leadeth unto life, which few find, that our Lord added this emphatic advice, "Beware of false prophets,"—"by their fruits ye shall know them;" as if it were implied, You will have many to prophesy smooth things, and to flatter you, when large companies are going the way that leadeth to destruction, but take ye heed and be on your guard; there is a way of safety by which ye may escape from flattering prophecies which say, "Peace, peace, when there is no peace;" it is by looking for such consistent fruits of holiness as show the heart to be right with God. The Christian law is a law written on the heart by the Spirit of Truth. “An highway shall be there. . . it shall be called the way of holiness.. . the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.” [Isa. xxxv. 8.]  Cleverness is not what we need, nor scholarship, but the simplicity of a wayfaring man,—of one that travels right onward in the way of Christ. 

It is "to the meek" and obedient that "mysteries are revealed.” [Ecclus. iii. 19.]  A good man, under God’s teaching, naturally looks to good men; and where he sees great obedience and reverence, he values the words and sayings of such a man; his foot “wears the steps of his door.” [Ecclus. vi. 36.]  It was thus that good men came to Christ Himself; they looked to His works, and so came to know Him.  And Christ frequently invited them to look to them, saying, “The works that I do in My Father’s Name they testify of Me.”  “If I do not the works of My Father believe Me not.” They were constrained to confess that such holiness and goodness could only come from God. And when they were thus brought to Him by witnessing His works, they believed His words also; they said, “Thou hast the words of eternal life ;“ and then they came to see in Him the Son of God, God over all blessed for evermore. 

And now this is the strength of a good man, by which he is made wiser and better,—that he is able to discern and distinguish false prophets from true, which the world cannot. “The spiritual man judgeth all things, but he himself is judged of none.” And when he comes to read of good men of old who spent their lives in voluntary poverty and devotion, in frequent watchings and fastings, then he feels that the words of such men cannot but be of great weight and authority; and when he finds that they all from the beginning speak with one and the same voice respecting the great doctrines of our faith, and that sacred discipline with our Church would require, then he feels among them as in a tower of strength. The spirit of their holy lives stifi lives in their works, and the more any good man knows of them, the more will he find his heart knit to them. Such fruits could not be borne by a corrupt tree, and such cannot in the main be false prophets. 

This, by the great mercy of God, is one of the chief protections of good Christians in dark and evil days,— that there are holy men in the Church from the beginning down to the present times. He knows from their lives that they could not all have materially failed of the truth; and he knows that in many points they all, as by the same spirit, condemn those free opinions which now prevail in religion and politics, and agree with one consent in maintaining those essential doctrines of the faith which have been handed down to us. There is a ray about the path of the just; and where they all speak the same thing, then they form together one consistent light to guide those that sit in darkness, and with the dark fore-castings of the coming night overtaking them. 

To expect, indeed, truth to reside in the Church at large when it hath become corrupt in practice, were to do dishonour to the holiness of God.  But in the early morning of the Church, before it had lost its first love, when it was said, “Behold how these Christians love one another,” we may expect God of a truth to be among them; and while we hold the things which they then held in humility and holiness of life, we cannot be far from the way of life.  As the shadows of evening fall on our path, we cannot be altogether in darkness, while we still see the beams of the sun are bright on the eastern hills where first He arose.