As we begin our study on how to identify false prophets, it’s important to revisit what Jesus said:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
Many times, our impression of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is something like the picture on the right. We expect to be able to identify the wolf by something that “just doesn’t quite line up” or “just doesn’t look right”. But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus said, “Inwardly they are ravening wolves”. In other words, the false prophet is a wolf on the inside, not the outside.
So what should we look for?
Jesus told us how to identify false teachers in the very next verses:
By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree produces good fruit; but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit. A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
Jesus tells us to look, not at the tree, but what it produces. In other words, look at the results of the teacher’s teaching, and look at their own life. Are they Godly people who are truly following Jesus, or are they ministers of Satan who are pretending to be ministers of righteousness?
Jesus is using two analogies in this passage: wolves in sheep’s clothing, and fruit trees. It’s important to remember that we need to find the point that He is making and not merely make extrapolations from the analogies. Those extrapolations may or may not be accurate.
So here’s Jesus’ points:
- Beware of false prophets.
- False prophets conceal their true nature. They appear to be true Christians, but on the inside, they are the Devil’s agents.
- We need to look at their fruits. Are they acting in the way that God has said that His children will behave?
- A false prophet cannot follow God and fully obey Him. He will not bring forth truly good fruit in his life.
- A Godly person will not live in sin.
- Therefore, when we find a teacher who appears to be Godly, yet is disobedient to God and/or exhibits signs of hypocrisy, we need to beware. They could simply be deceived and ignorant of the truth, but there is a good possibility that they are false prophets.
A false prophet is rotten to the core.
Here is an extremely important point to remember: a false prophet’s problems are internal, not external. As Jesus said:
“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt; for the tree is known by its fruit. You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings out good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings out evil things.”
The bad fruit of a false prophet only reveals that he is a false prophet; it does not make him a false prophet. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it makes all the difference in the world when we go to correct the problem. It’s not a matter of getting the false prophet to “clean up his act” and do the right thing. He needs to be changed on the inside so that he brings forth good fruit.
If we try to help the false prophet “do better” and stop sinning without correcting the internal problem, we are actually helping him to be a better “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The real problem is not his sin. The sin is only revealing that this person is not a Godly person. The real problem is that he is following Satan instead of God. The real problem is that he needs to be changed on the inside.
So what do we look for?
The following is not an exhaustive list. It contains some things that God has taught me about signs of a false teacher. If you have more to contribute, please share them with me!
1. Godly-sounding teachings that make the teacher look good.
For example, saying things like:
- “If you think about something other than God, more than you think about God, that thing has become your idol.”
- “Never miss an opportunity to witness.”
- “When the world sees you, it should immediately know that you are a Christian.”
Many of these things sound very spiritual, but they’re not taught by God. They can simply be guilt trips. You may have no way of knowing whether the teacher actually implements them in his or her own life, but it sure makes the teacher look spiritual.
2. Emphasizing “spiritual disciplines” that are actually not spiritual.
This can go along with the previous point. Some examples:
- Teaching that you need to spend a lot of time alone in prayer with God. This might include recommendations for spending an hour per day in prayer, for example. (Prayer is vital for the Christian, but anyone can pray a lot, regardless of their relationship with God.)
- Fasting. (Again, there’s nothing wrong with fasting, but you can starve yourself without the power of the Holy Spirit–it’s called a hunger strike.)
- Bible reading.
- Scripture memorization.
- Bible study.
The thing that all of these have in common is that they sound really spiritual and look like ways to get closer to God. And, in fact, they can draw you closer to God. However, because they do not require the Holy Spirit’s power to do them, anyone can do them. There are some atheists who know the Bible better than some Christians.
3. Telling you about their spiritual discipline.
Jesus tells us:
“Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them, or else you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…
“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men…
“In praying, don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking…
“Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
One of the early warning signs about Bill Gothard was that he behaved as a hypocrite. Every January, he would spend a month at his retreat at “Northwoods” in Minnesota, fasting and praying. We all knew about this because he told us. He also told us about how he got up at 4:00 AM and “spent time with God”. (We now know that he also was spending time with teenage girls in the very early morning, but that’s another matter.) Unfortunately, we took this as a sign of his spirituality, instead of a warning sign that he was a hypocrite.
Another example: in their November 2015 “Mom’s Corner”, Steve and Teri Maxwell shared the following:
November 9th we will have another ladies’ prayer and fasting day. Teri is committing that day to fast and pray with others who have burdens on their hearts…
When you join the fast, you will briefly share your prayer focus so that Teri can pray alongside you…
For men who are interested in prayer and fasting with Steve, they have the option of one or more days starting Saturday, November 7th, and ending Monday morning, November 16th. Choose a day(s) that works for you. Steve is fasting and praying that whole time.
Hmm, is it really necessary to advertise that “Steve is fasting and praying that whole time”?
And how many times have you heard somebody talk about how “we had so many people praying, and God acted” as though God had heard them for their much speaking?
4. Teaching rules and standards that sound “spiritual” but are really just self-improvement.
This can also go along with the last two points, but I want to bring out a specific aspect. False teachers will make up rules of men that sound very spiritual, but are not commanded by God. As God says:
If you died with Christ from the elements of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to ordinances, “Don’t handle, nor taste, nor touch” (all of which perish with use), according to the precepts and doctrines of men? Which things indeed appear like wisdom in self-imposed worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but aren’t of any value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Note that last verse. These rules and standards appear to be wise, humble, and denying oneself, but they don’t actually help us to be more Godly.
For example, having a “hands-off” courtship, supervised by the parents, sounds like a great way to prevent premarital sex. Unfortunately, it also prevents a couple from having the sort of conversations that they need to have in order to really get to know one another. I have read stories of women who ended up marrying abusive husbands because they felt pressure to do so and/or they didn’t know their boyfriend’s true nature until after they married.
And guess who came up with modern courtship? Bill Gothard–a false prophet.
5. Requiring obedience to the Law.
The Law of Moses is, on one hand, a spiritual law.
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin. (Romans 7:14)
However, God tells us that when we try to keep it after we become Christians, we are attempting to gain perfection through the flesh.
I just want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now completed in the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3)
A false prophet is not walking in the Spirit. If he was, he wouldn’t be a false prophet, but a follower of Christ. Therefore, he will cherry-pick commands from the Old Testament and tell you that you should follow them. This is very wrong.
For more on the Law of Moses, watch the video below.
6. Living in sin.
When we see bad fruit, it means that the tree is bad. When we see a supposedly Godly person who is living in outright sin, it means that they are not Godly. Period. God tells us:
Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed: that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother. (1 John 3:7-10)
Both the Greek and the context would indicate that what God is saying here is that those who are born again do not live in sin (as opposed to believing that one small sin means that the person is not born again). Jesus came to set us free from sin. Those who are truly born again will have a hatred toward sin and no desire to live in it. Those who live in sin do not have the Holy Spirit living within them.
Unfortunately, many people want you to believe that you can lie, commit adultery, commit murder, be a drunkard, etc., and still go to Heaven. Sorry. Whether you want to say that the person became a Christian and backslid, or whether you want to say that they never truly became a Christian at all, the bottom line is this: when someone is living in sin, and knows they are living in sin, they are not children of God. They are children of the Devil.
This is a key to detecting wolves. Do not give people a pass because you can’t bear to call them unbelievers. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing “many wonderful works in Jesus’ name” (Matthew 7:22). If they are living in sin, they are not the children of God and will not go to Heaven unless they repent.
7. Bad results from their teachings.
When you see that the fruit of a teacher’s teaching is not good, you know that they are a false teacher. If they try to “disciple” people, and those “disciples” end up living for the Devil, they did not make true disciples of Christ. Something is wrong with their teaching.
It’s important to evaluate the overall picture. Don’t pick out one or two good results and use them to ignore a whole bunch of bad results. At the same time, don’t use one or two cases of bad results to disqualify a whole bunch of good results.
To use a specific example, if one teacher’s teaching on parenting results in a bunch of wayward young people, don’t pick out a few examples of Godly young people whose parents followed that teaching and say that everyone else is an exception. Conversely, if most of the young people are turning out to be Godly, zealous adults, but a few families end up with wayward children, it may be a problem with those specific parents or children, and not the teacher’s fault.
Also, not all that looks good is good. I speak from personal experience. I looked, to some people, like a very Godly, wise, committed Christian at age 20. I know because they told me so. Under the surface, though, I was not as good as they thought I was. I had a lot of problems, and I wasn’t nearly as wise as they thought. Had it not been for the grace of God, I don’t know where I might be today.
Don’t Be Afraid to Look for Wolves
Jesus has told us to beware of false prophets. Don’t listen to the people that tell you that you should give others the benefit of the doubt, when there are clear indications that things are not right.
Because the consequences of ignoring a wolf can be deadly.
UPDATE: For more on this subject, please check out my free ebook, Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: How to Recognize and Avoid False Teachers.