Matthew 7:15. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
So far the Lord has been serving up both doctrine and life correctly, and warning against whatever opposes it or harms it or hinders it. To this He now appends a warning. Even when everything is going all right in doctrine and in life we should be on the lookout for teachers who secretly arise in our midst with the title of genuine preachers and under the pretext of the Gospel but who introduce another Gospel and thus distort and destroy both doctrine and life. It is inevitable that the devil will use every device, both outward and inward, to attack the true and pure teaching of the Gospel on every side. Since the beginning of this sermon Christ has been saying that whoever intends to be a Christian has to consider this. In the first place, he will have to bear the brunt of enemies outside Christendom. They will oppose him, hate him, and harm him. They will strike and strangle him. At least, they will slander, curse, and condemn him. It has been decided that anyone who has no haters, slanderers, and persecutors is not yet a Christian, or at least that he has not yet proved his Christianity with an outward act and confession. As soon as he wants to confess his faith, the world becomes hostile to him; and if it can, it will certainly kill him for it.
Now these are overt enemies, those outside Christendom, whom everyone can see and feel right away. “But over and above these,” Christ intends to say here, “you will have enemies of another kind. They are not the ones who are on the outside and who deny the doctrine. They are the ones who grow up in your own midst, who bear your name and boast of it. They are the ones who do the greatest harm.” Though the others may stir up quite a tumult, all they can do is to take away my body and my goods; but with all their violence they cannot take away from me my heart and my faith. The enemies on the inside do not disturb my body and my goods but let me keep what I have. Craftily they reach out for the doctrine, to remove the treasure itself from my heart, the dear Word, for whose sake we endure persecution from those other enemies. This is really a miserable business! Those who are called our brethren and who lay claim to Christian teaching rise up against us. Under the cover of the same name, they abolish the true teaching and introduce a different one, as St. Paul predicts in his warning to his Ephesians (Acts 20:30): “From among your own selves will arise men teaching and preaching perverse things.” It is, I say, particularly deplorable that those who do it should be from and in our own group, people whom we consider to be upright and against whom we cannot defend ourselves until they have started to do their damage.
This is the persecution within Christendom which was foretold to us throughout Scripture and which has been going on since the beginning of the world. Moses experienced it with his people. Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham experienced it with their families. And though Adam had only two sons, one of them had to start a sect. It seems to me that we have experienced enough of this ourselves. There were so many who originally supported us and joined the cause of the Gospel against the pope that it might have seemed for a while that we were going to have the whole world on our side. Just when everything seemed to be in full swing, our own people went ahead to cause us more anguish than all the princes, kings, and emperors could have done. What shall we do about it? They do great harm to us. In addition they strengthen the case of our enemies, who can now cry out against us:21 “There you can see what their teaching is, because they are not even unified among themselves. The Holy Spirit cannot be with them, because they themselves persecute, attack, and slander one another.” We have to put up with seeing the case of our enemy strengthened by this offense, and our own case weakened and slandered. Thus we are opposed both by our enemies and by our brethren. This is actually the greatest outward tribulation in Christendom that our teaching has to endure.
We must expect this sort of thing all the time, and we cannot escape it. With this sermon, therefore, Christ gives us a comfort and a warning against it. The comfort is that we should not be frightened or worry ourselves to death over this miserable offense, when we see and feel that we who lay claim to the Word of God are not unified among ourselves. As we have been instructed by His Word, we should reply this way: “I knew beforehand, when I made up my mind to be a Christian, that it would be the way that Christ, my Lord, predicted. I would have two kinds of enemies—those from the outside and those from the inside, from my own dearest friends and brethren. This will not scare me off, however, nor persuade me to apostatize from my teaching, as if the fact that my former brethren oppose me made the teaching wrong. Christ Himself had His betrayer Judas with Him. The fact that His precious disciple forsook Him and caused this trouble does not make what He taught false and what He did wrong. Therefore we must not mind our Judases either.”
The warning is that we should expect this with certainty and that we should carefully watch and protect ourselves so that these sects do not deceive us. We have to arm ourselves against them and learn to know them. When He says, “Beware,” He wants to teach us not to be patient22 with such people, but to be open-eyed, watchful, careful, and wise. All we need in opposition to those outward enemies is patience, to endure what they lay upon us and to stand firm. But here suffering or yielding to them is not in order. I must be watchful and careful. I must not even confide a word to my brother privately but only look at the Word with sharp and alert eyes, trusting no man who is on my side now; for today he can preach with me, but perhaps tomorrow against me. No one should think that he is secure and not in need of this admonition. This temptation is so dangerous and sly that even the most spiritual have their hands full to avoid being deceived by it. The rest of the crowd, who are smug and careless, just cannot keep from being seduced. It is, therefore, not in vain that He says, “Beware.” The outward appearance and the name are so beautiful that no one can recognize it, as we shall hear, unless he has the correct understanding of the Word of God, then gives it his diligent attention, and makes it his highest concern to keep it pure and unadulterated.
Look how He describes the outward appearance and impression of the false teachers. In the first place, He gives them the name “prophets”; that is what they are called, and that is what they are, teachers and preachers. They boast of the fact that they have no other title or reputation than this, that they have the very same office of the ministry, the same Scriptures, and the same God as the others. Nevertheless they are false prophets. Here He is discussing those who have the commission to preach. The others, who go ahead without any office or commission, do not deserve to be called “false prophets” but tramps and rascals; and they should be given over to the police.23 Even if they taught correctly, they would be intolerable. They try to meddle into other people’s office and commission, in defiance of the ordinances of the government. Like thieves, they sneak secretly into corners, where no unauthorized person has a right to set up a preaching-meeting of his own or to obtrude himself, though he may hear and know that there is false preaching going on in public; for he does not have the commission or the responsibility to do so. God has instituted this office, as He has others; therefore we should not act in opposition to it. Whoever administers it wrongly, will be responsible for himself and will certainly find his Judge.
In the second place, He says that they come in sheep’s clothing, that they are irreproachable and outwardly indistinguishable from genuine preachers. These are the two things that do the damage: They have the valid office, and in addition they give such a beautiful impression and appearance that no one can say anything except that they are true, pious preachers, interested in everyone’s salvation. Such is their own precious claim, to which they can even swear, that they use nothing but the name and the Word of God. This makes such a powerful impression that the people are swept away like a flood, and no one can stop it. Who is there among the common people that can oppose these men or dare to denounce them? Who even knows how to protect himself against them, since they claim to come with the name and the Word of God?
Here Christ is warning us about both characteristics of these false prophets. We should not be swayed by the fact that they occupy the office of the ministry, though this is necessary and proper for a preacher. But this does not give anyone a guarantee that people have to believe him, as though he could not be a scoundrel in the ministry. It is not unusual in the world for villains and rascals to occupy every office and station in society and to abuse it. “I concede that they may be called prophets,” Christ says, “but beware and be sure that they are not false prophets.” Similarly, do not look only at sheep’s clothing and the precious name and appearance under which they come, for here you are told that hidden underneath there might be a ravenous wolf. So beware that the sheep’s clothing does not deceive you, for if they are to deceive the people, they all have to put on this lovely camouflage and appearance. Precisely that is the difference between these secret enemies and those other overt enemies, who invade us openly and whom everyone recognizes. But these enemies walk around in our midst with the same office that we have, and they make an impression by using the same Scriptures and words. Nevertheless they are coming, Christ says, “on their own”; that is, though they do have the office, still they bring a kind of word and teaching that God has not committed to them and that He did not send them to preach, their own dreams and “doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1), decorated with the name of God. Take special warning, therefore, against the sheep’s clothing. Trust no man, however fine an impression he may make, but look only at the Word. See whether he is properly using it or whether he is using it as a pretext to peddle his own stuff.
You see, if we took up this warning and guided ourselves by the words of Christ, we could easily defend ourselves against all the false prophets and preachers. They are breaking in all over the place. This is due to the fact that we who hear the genuine Gospel do not take it seriously and are not concerned about really having it and keeping it. We act so sleepy and slothful, as if we could never lose it. As a consequence we are taken in by this lovely outward appearance and show before we have a chance to look around. As soon as a different new teacher comes along and goes to work, the word “Beware!” is forgotten. Yet it is with this word that we should be armed, listening to each individual as though we did not hear him, looking and paying attention only to the doctrine. Some frivolous and fickle spirits only look into the preachers’ mouths and chase after them, impelled by a curiosity that makes them think: “Oh, I have listened to this one already. Now I have to listen to that one, too. He is such a fine, learned, and saintly man.” There the devil already has a foothold, and he has taken them in before they realize what is going on. Now he drives and directs them at will from one schism to another. Paul says of such people that they are like a reed (Matt. 11:7), “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). If a different one arises today or tomorrow, they quickly rush over to listen to him. The cause of this is the fact that in their heart they do not have a sure understanding of the Word of God and that they depreciate the Gospel. They imagine that if they have heard it once or twice, they know it all and have it all. They quickly become bored with it, so that as soon as someone else comes along bringing something new, they open up their eyes and ears wide. The same thing happens to them that happened to Adam and Eve when they were seduced by the serpent, who made them open up their eyes to see the forbidden tree and who insinuated such beautiful thoughts as these, contrary to the Word of God (Gen. 3:1): “Why should we not eat from this tree, too?” Thus their desires and curiosity were aroused, and they became bored with all the trees in all of Paradise, staring only at this one.
If we took the Gospel seriously and if, in our lives, we were concerned to keep this treasure pure and clean, we would not be deceived so easily. I hope that no schismatic spirit could overturn me very easily, since I know that the Gospel is true and I would not want to lose it. If someone comes along in his beautiful sheep’s clothing, I will not pay attention to his mask, as though I wanted to hear something different or new, but to whether or not he agrees with my Gospel. If not, then, thank God, I am well grounded and certain enough to know that he is a false prophet and a ravenous wolf under his sheep’s clothing.
So the demonic spirits have a double advantage: the fact that we are such careless, smug, and frivolous people; and the fact that they can deck themselves out in the beautiful wool of a sheep. By “sheep’s clothing” He does not mean wickedness and coarse sins, like those of heathen and non-Christians. He means the excellent name and reputation of true Christians, who have Holy Baptism, the Sacrament, Christ, and everything that is Christ’s. They have to bring all this along. None of them dares to come along with the statement: “This is what I say.” They come along instead with the statement: “Dear friends, this is what Christ says. There you have the Word of God and the Scriptures. If you want to be saved, you must believe this. Anyone who teaches otherwise, is deceiving you.” They make use of the glorious name of Christ and God, and of awesome and grand words like “the glory of God,” “truth,” “eternal salvation,” and other words like these. When someone hears himself being admonished by these glorious words, with the salvation or damnation of his soul at stake, he becomes frightened and makes a commitment immediately, unless he is well armed and well grounded against this. For it cuts like a sharp razor and penetrates body and soul.
This is one part of the sheep’s clothing. In addition they deck themselves out in special works and ways. They walk around in gray coats, with a sour look on their faces. They give the impression of being strict ascetics, with their fasts, chastisements, hard beds, and the like. They simply do not live like ordinary people. This, too, is very impressive and really bewitches the people so that whole crowds fall into line. With a single sermon such a criminal can seduce an entire city which has had the Word of God for a long time. In one hour he can make them forget24 what they have been listening to for ten years. If I wanted to, I could easily manage in two or three sermons to preach my people right back into the papacy, and put on such an appearance of special sanctity that I could create new pilgrimages and Masses. As has been said, the common people are easy to talk into something, besides being curious and eager to hear something new.
You see, that is how they have to deck themselves out in both doctrine and life. They make use of the same Word that we hear, and in addition they lead a beautiful and glittering life. Our Anabaptist schismatics seduce many people by yelling that the Gospel we have is not the right one, since they claim that it does not produce any fruit and that the people remain wicked, proud, and greedy. Or they say that you have to have something more than the mere Word and letter; you have to have the Spirit working, and an honest resolution to improve your life. If what we have really were the Word of God, it would certainly produce fruit. Then they proceed to say that they have the right understanding and the right fruit in their life. When a simple and inexperienced man hears this, he says: “That is really true!” Thus he lets himself be overwhelmed by the glorious words “Spirit” and “fruits of the Spirit.” Then they take the next step and say: “Whoever wants to be a Christian must not participate in secular government or wield the sword or own private property (the way we do). Only he is a genuine Christian who proves it with his works by forsaking everything, by refusing secular power or authority, by wearing a gray coat, and by enduring hunger and trouble.” This is what they call “the fruits of the Spirit.” You see, these ate nothing but sheep’s clothing, by which they mislead whole crowds of the poor people.
Now, who can recognize the wolf under the sheep’s clothing and defend himself against him? I reply that the only advice I know is what I have already mentioned. Everyone should see to it, above all, that he is sure of his cause and of the doctrine. In his heart he should be so well grounded in it that he can stick to the doctrine even though he sees everyone on earth teaching and living contrary to it. Anyone who wants to move along in safety simply dare not pay attention to any of the outward masks in Christendom and guide himself by them. He must pay attention only to the Word, which shows us the right way of life that avails before God. For example, you must hold on to the chief part, the summary, of Christian teaching and accept nothing else: That God has sent and given Christ, His Son, and that only through Him does He forgive us all our sins, justify and save us. Then if you open your eyes, you will see all sorts of differing situations and ways of life—men and women, masters and servants, princes and subjects, rich and poor, and whatever stations and offices there may be in the world, all so intertwined that nothing about them makes any special impression on me. But since I am so well grounded and know the chief part, which includes everything, my heart draws this conclusion: “Whether, please God, I see a married person or a single person, a master or a servant, a learned man or a layman, gray clothes or red, fasting or eating, a sour face or a smiling one, what do I care about that? In other words, the differences that I see among them are all identical to me. For I have come to the insight that a girl in her red coat or a prince in his golden spangles can be no less a Christian than a beggar in his gray coat or a monk in his shirt of wool or hair. With this insight I am safe against all kinds of outward masks.”
Anyone who does not have this chief part, or who does not know how to guide himself according to it, cannot defend himself against being taken in by these masks. He sees one person carrying on with his wife and children or decked out so gloriously and expensively, while the other person has a sour expression on his face, fasts, goes around barefooted and in a gray coat. Immediately he draws this conclusion: “This is really a holy man! But those others amount to nothing.” So he is unrestrained in his admiration for the masks, and he does not have the sense to ask: “Could a villain be lying hidden under that gray coat?” A Christian can draw this conclusion and ask: “Dear monk, are you wearing your gray coat out of necessity? Or do you have the special idea that you want people to think of you as something special? You are simply doubling your desperate wickedness when you make people stare open-mouthed at your disguise. Otherwise you have to say: ‘If a farmer plowing or spreading manure on his field is no less a Christian and no less entitled to get to heaven than I, what am I accomplishing by my special way of life?’ ”
As I have said, the great common crowd cling to these masks, which give them an eyeful and provide something special to see. Therefore it does not help to preach a long sermon against them. By nature we are inclined to such a teaching and to such works anyway, since it appeals to our reason, which would always prefer to deal with God on the basis of its own works. So the devil stirs up the fire and blows on it through these teachers, till he has taken us in completely. But if we want to get through safely, we must be careful, above all, as I have always taught, to be correct in the chief doctrine about Christ. Then we can make the right judgments about all the outward masks and ways of life, and the Spirit will teach us and lead us well. Thus any individual who wants to be pious will find enough genuine good works to do in his own station, and he will not have to go looking for anything special.
If you are a prince or a judge, a servant or a maid, and you are expected to practice and prove your faith, to administer your office and station correctly, and to act properly, then you will surely get such a task and assignment that no Carthusian will have a more stringent routine than yours. Why is it such great trouble and hard work for him to wear a gray coat or a cowl or wooden shoes, or to cause his body a little trouble—if he is a strict one—and meanwhile to live without concern or worry and have plenty for his gluttony and guzzling? This other person has to eat his daily bread in the sweat of his face (Gen. 3:19) with bitter toil. Not only his body but also his heart has to be tormented by the wicked world and his neighbors. And he has to expect and suffer every kind of trouble, discord, and sorrow. Thus real citizenship, when carried on in a Christian manner, is ten times as hard as a Carthusian routine, except that it does not shine the way a monk does when he wears a cowl and lives in isolation from society. If you open your eyes and really compare the two, even your reason will have to draw this same conclusion.
Thus a prince may wear golden chains and a mantle of sable. But if he is pious, he is such a tormented and miserable man under that mantle of sable that you could not find his equal in any monastery. In this way you can go through all the offices and stations. Wherever you find a pious man or woman, you do not have to go looking for a monk or a nun. For such a person is already enough of a monk and is following a harder routine than the whole hooded and tonsured crowd. Before God all the monks and hermits are foolishness in comparison with one pious child, servant, or maid who is obedient and faithful in the performance of his duty. Just do what a pious man or woman should do, and you will have a rule more stringent than the rules, the cowls, and the tonsures of Francis and all the monks, which are more likely to cover a villain than a pious Christian.
Our crazy reason refuses to pay attention to this. It decries it and thinks to itself: “Why, that is an ordinary thing that anyone could do in his own home!” It yearns for something else that is strange and special, stares at it, and lets itself be led by all the clatter. Yet this is all just a pretense. They come along and rebuke us with their worthless way of life, in order to make every other way, though it may be God’s ordinance and station, seem contemptible and worthless. Our inadequacy comes from our failure to hold on to the Word of God seriously enough; otherwise we would soon say: “Bring on the Carthusians, the Anabaptists, the devil himself, or his mother!25 None of them could make a better station or way of life than God has made.” Every pious husband, servant, maid or faithful worker, therefore, must be said to have a station that is excellent, high, and godly. If we could evaluate all occupations and stations correctly on the basis of the Word, then everyone could teach and live correctly, and everything would go along just fine. The proper stations then would be those which God has created and ordained and with which He is pleased. And if God made it possible for us to get to the point that one city would have many such pious citizens—men, women, and children; masters, servants, and maids—we would have the kingdom of heaven on earth. We would not need any monasteries. People would not have to fast or pray and sing all day long in church but simply do no more than what their various stations and occupations required.
Now you see what the sheep’s clothing is with which they make the people stare. But what are they inwardly and at heart? Nothing else, Christ says, than ravenous wolves. The aim of these desperate scoundrels with the beautiful appearance of their doctrine and life is to destroy souls and to tear them up. They will not do it outwardly, like the tyrants and persecutors who tear up life and property, or like the preachers who preach against us publicly and condemn our doctrine. They will do it inwardly, by secretly tearing away the treasure in our heart, which has now become the throne and kingdom and dwelling place of God. In other words, the aim of their villainy, which they decorate with their doctrine and life, is to tear up the faith and chief doctrine about Christ. Right now the Anabaptists are bearing our name outwardly.26 They even acknowledge that we have the Gospel in our word and proclamation; but they say, “The fruit does not follow.” With this phrase, “no fruit,” they divert people from faith to works, and they remove the chief item, which is faith in Christ, leading us away to look only at the fruit. When this is present, then the Gospel is the correct one, and vice versa. Their whole teaching is nothing else than that you have to take hold and prove your faith by your fruit, by owning no private property, and by forsaking everything. Thus they fall back on their works again and put their trust in them for their salvation.
The worst part of it is that they do not even teach the real fruit, which the Gospel teaches and demands after faith, but their own dreams and imaginations. They do not say anything about the fact that everyone should carry out his station correctly and faithfully and should remain in it. On the contrary, they lead the people away from these stations. They teach them to desert them and run away from them as something secular and to take up something special—to wear a sour expression, to live strictly, not to eat and drink and dress like other people, to let themselves be tortured and killed voluntarily and unnecessarily. “Otherwise,” they say, “the Gospel is not bringing any fruit in you, and you are still not a Christian, though you may have been believing for a long time.”
They decorate these dreams of theirs with Scripture and with statements from the Gospel. Never, either by precept or example, did Christ teach or command that we should run away from human society, forsake everything, and own no private property, except in case of necessity, when we must either forsake this or forsake His Word. You must not, therefore, forsake all this until He commands you to and you are forced to. If it comes to that, then you must say: “Before I forsake Christ and the Gospel, let my wife and children, ray body and goods, sun and moon and all the creatures be gone.” Except in the case of such a necessity, you have God’s commandment: love your neighbor, serve him and help him with your body and goods; love and rule your wife, children, and servants; do not run away and leave them sitting there. Yet that is what these people do, in opposition to the Word and ordinance of God, and without any necessity. And they claim to be special saints and brag about the great fruit of the Gospel!
Learn to recognize how, under the sheep’s clothing, these spirits inwardly tear up and take away your faith. They lead you away from Christ back upon yourself, and this they call the fruit of the Gospel, something they themselves have thought up to destroy the genuine fruit. These are the ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing who have corrupted Christianity in every age. Until recently they were called monks; now they are the Anabaptists, the new monks. In previous ages it was the Pelagians, Ishmaelites, Esauites, and Cainites.27 This faith28 has lasted since the beginning of the world; and though these Anabaptists may be on the way out, others are on their way in. In other words, monkery must remain as long as the world stands, although it may assume other names and new activities. Anyone who takes it upon himself to start something special that goes beyond faith and the common occupations is and remains a monk, though he may not affect the same manner or habit or bearing. Of course, it is easy to beware of those who go around with cowl and tonsure; they have been described often enough for everyone to recognize them. But beware of the new monks. They do not wear cowls, but they are setting up other special ways. They make a pretense of great devotion and sanctity, with their sour expressions, gray coats, and ascetic life. They say that it is wrong to wear satin or silk, red or colored clothing—just what the other monks taught. Thus it is still the same old monkery, only with a different mask. Therefore the artists have hit it exactly right when they portrayed the devil in a monk’s cowl, with his devilish claws protruding underneath.29 Since the beginning of the world, all he has been doing is seducing the world by monkery.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:247). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.