What does it mean to discriminate? We all know the negative meaning—to treat someone differently, not because of merit, but because of some trait like skin color, gender, age, or the like. And we know that kind of discrimination is wrong. But there is good discrimination. The real meaning of discrimination is to distinguish the differences between two things. A chef has a discriminating palate, distinguishing between high quality and cheap ingredients. A musician has a discriminating ear, distinguishing between well-practiced performances and someone who hasn’t put in the effort. Today Jesus tells us to be discriminating hearers of the Word because not everyone who preaches or teaches speaks the truth.
This is not a phenomenon from Biblical times. It’s not something that has gone away in the 21st century. Rather, the words of condemnation we heard from Jeremiah are still apt today. “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the Word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you;’ and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ … I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.” And if Jeremiah still applies today, so does John: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. … They are of the world.”
Wolves in sheep’s clothing go out to destroy the flock. They want to come after you. They want to lead you away from the truths you have been taught. But that’s not just the scary reality of “those other denominations” or “those non-denominational churches.” Even Lutheran pulpits can contain deceptive men. Thanks be to God He preserves His Church and guards His saints even when wolves put on sheep’s clothing. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His flock.
But what are we to do? How can we see behind the vestments to know what heart lies in the chest of the preacher to know if he is one we should listen to? How do we heed St. John and “test the spirits?” How do we discriminate between wholesome, pure preaching and dangerous, evil teaching? Jesus tells us to look at the fruits. Does that preacher and his congregation bear fruits worthy of repentance, or, as Jeremiah said, are people confirmed in their sin, told that God finds everything they do to be wonderful? What kind of life is encouraged? A “sin boldly” because the Law doesn’t save you so do whatever you want and ask for forgiveness later kind of life, or the one St. Paul told us about: “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die.”
Sadly there are churches in abundance, near and far, that preach “you do whatever makes you happy.” And we’re attracted to that! No one wants to mortify the flesh. Just like no one wants a big green salad at Thanksgiving, no one really wants to put aside those things that make them feel good. It’s not fun to turn from sin. It’s not fun to say “this is not befitting a child of God.” It’s not fun to live in your Baptism and pray for help to walk away from temptation. So many people won’t even preach it. So instead we get the theology of “YOLO”—you only live once. You do you, and God will work it out in the end. This is not helpful talk. This is not edifying talk, encouragement that spurs on Christian living. This is the message of the violent who take the Kingdom of Heaven by force.
But why is that kind of preaching so dangerous to our Christian life? Because it makes deadly poison seem like no big deal. It’s not okay to put a little bit of rat poison in your morning cereal and say “I’ll just go to the doctor later.” It’s not okay, in fact, it’s quite lethal, to play with sin, to treat it as if it’s no big deal. Satan is deceptive. He will do what he needs to do to get you to fall away, to willingly walk away from eternal life.
It’s also dangerous because it does damage to the Body of Christ. Sin is not an individual problem. When you sin, you aren’t the only one affected by it, whether you realize it or not. Your sin affects others. We are all members of the Body of Christ. When one member suffers, all suffer with it. An infection in the little toe can spread throughout the whole body. This attitude of “just do whatever makes you happy” can cause others to stumble and fall. It can cause others to think sinful living is no big deal. As much as our society would have us believe that each of us are islands that do not affect one another, it’s a lie. We are all connected, and especially in the Christian congregation.
So what does all of this have to do with wolves in sheep’s clothing? What does that have to do with being a discriminating hearer of the Word? It means preaching mustn’t satisfy your itching ears. Good preaching, the preaching God wants you to hear, should make you at least a little uncomfortable. Not because it contains heresy, but because it’s making you examine your life and consider your actions and their outcome. Good preaching preaches repentance. That was Jesus’ first sermon: “Repent and believe the Gospel.”
But good preaching doesn’t end there. Good preaching, the preaching God wants you to hear, should also give you great comfort because it doesn’t leave you staring in the mirror at your sin. Because that’s not repentance. Remember that repentance has two parts: first that we confess our sin, and second that we receive forgiveness for our sin. Good preaching tells you that God has heard your cries, He knows your affliction, and has sent His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sin. God doesn’t want you to be left in despair, so He sent Jesus Christ to bear your sin and be your Savior.
The Good News Jesus has for you is what St. Paul proclaimed: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” You are a child of God. In Him you have forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. He gives you the Spirit to discriminate between that which leads to death and that which leads to eternal life and He gives you that ability to turn from sin and live in and do those things that are right and good. That same Spirit defends you against all those things that would harm you in this life and the next. Because you are in Christ, you have no reason to fear. The wolves will not hurt you because you are a sheep of the Good Shepherd, a child of God, and an heir with Christ.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.