The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ most well-known set of teaching, and for good reason. It lays the framework of what the life of a follower of Christ ought to look like.
Many focus on the Beatitudes or the Lord’s Prayer, which are both amazing and deserve our attention and understanding. However, one segment of this teaching that seems to be often neglected is Matthew 7:15-20, where Jesus teaches,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Jesus warns his followers of a perennial reality: There will be people who claim to be teaching the Bible faithfully yet fail to do so. There are things that seem to be good but are toxic.
There are even supposed translations of Scripture that claim to be God’s Word yet are not faithful to the original language.
In the modern-day, there are countless examples of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and Christians must be able to recognize these threats and avoid them.
The Prosperity Gospel Is a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
One of the most prevalent wolves in sheep’s clothing in the modern church is the prosperity gospel. This is the line of teaching that claims that God will reward faithfulness with material rewards.
It is also known as the “health and wealth” gospel because people claim that if you follow Jesus, you will be rich and live a long, happy life.
This teaching is so enduring and popular because it is exactly what non-Christians want to hear. I do not know anyone who became a Christian because of the cost of discipleship.
However, there are millions of people who started going to church because a local pastor was teaching that God will reward his followers with success and money. This is a very appealing message and almost seems too good to be true.
The problem is, it is too good to be true! There is no place in the Bible where God promises to reward faithfulness with material success and physical health. In fact, there are many examples in which God teaches the exact opposite.
The following are just a few examples in which Jesus teaches His followers to not pursue material wealth and success:
For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:25).
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Luke 12:33-34).
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).
The prosperity gospel seems like a wonderful message of God’s love and grace. In reality, it is directly contradictory to the teaching of Jesus. It is not a biblical teaching, and it is toxic to the Church.
Legalism Is a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
This is another false gospel that has been around for hundreds of years and is possibly even more popular than the prosperity gospel. Legalism is a form of religion that is entirely focused on the right actions and obedience.
Legalism states that salvation is the result of doing the right actions and obeying God’s commands, rather than salvation being a result of God’s grace.
Legalism has been popular in conservative churches both large and small for hundreds of years and remains the foundation of religion for many Christians today.
Legalism is largely the result of a misunderstanding of Scripture, in particular, a text in James, in which it is written, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Upon first glance, it seems clear that James is saying that one needs to do the right works in order to be saved.
However, this is the opposite of what James is teaching. He continues, saying, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). What James teaches here is that words are the evidence of faith, not the cause of faith.
Legalism is toxic to the Church because it undermines the gospel of God’s grace and it directly contradicts biblical teaching. Paul teaches,
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This teaching from Paul completely abolishes the claims of legalism. It is by God’s grace that one is saved, not by one’s actions.
Legalism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing because it seems to provide a logical roadmap to salvation by simply guiding believers to doing the right actions.
However, this roadmap will inevitably lead believers astray, thinking that God wants them to jump through hoops, whereas all God desires is that we believe in Christ and follow Him faithfully. Obedience to God is the natural product of faith in Christ, not the cause.
Unfaithful Translations or Paraphrases of the Bible Are Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
Unfaithful translations of Scripture are some of the most devious wolves in sheep’s clothing. Fortunately, they are not very common. The majority of translations and paraphrases of Scripture are very faithful to the text, and you can read them with certainty that they represent the original languages well.
Read translations such as the ESV, NIV, NKJV, CSB, NASB, and The Message.
Unfortunately, not every English version of the Bible that exists is faithful to the original words in Greek and Hebrew.
When reading a new translation of Scripture, it is essential to do your research on the translation and whether it is appropriate or not. Unfaithful translations are toxic because people take them to be God’s Word when in reality the message given is not the same as originally written in Scripture.
When you come across a new translation of Scripture, compare it side-by-side to some of the more literal translations of Scripture such as the ESV and NASB. How do the words and thoughts compare?
In most cases, they will be similar, and there is nothing to worry about. However, there are sometimes where there may be significant differences in meaning, and it is imperative that followers of God are reading accurate translations of His Word.
Some Bestselling Christian Books Are Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
Just because an author claims to be a Christian and writes a Christian book, it is not guaranteed that the message of the book aligns with Scripture. There are many “Christian” books that have become bestsellers yet are not teaching the same gospel that is found in the New Testament.
These books are wolves in sheep’s clothing because they can have a very broad reach, being read by Christians and non-Christians alike, but are not biblically faithful. For non-Christians, anything that is associated with Christianity will affect one’s view of who God is and what Christians are like.
A non-Christian is unlikely to read a Christian book, but if a book becomes popular enough, it is likely to be read by, at least, a few unbelievers. The problem is that if the book is not accurate to Scripture, it will lead the unbeliever astray, rather than giving an accurate understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When a new book becomes popular, it is essential to read the book critically. A book’s popularity does not mean that it is in line with the teachings of Scripture. Do not take what you read in a book (or an online article) as gospel. Read critically and compare its message to Scripture, lest you be led astray.
What Does a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing Mean for Christians?
Since the time of Christ, there have been countless examples of false teachers, those whom Jesus refers to as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Modern society is inundated with false teachers, and it is essential for Christians to recognize when a teaching is faithful to Scripture and when it is not.
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Lucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.