It’s easy as WELS pastors to read the first paragraph of Sunday’s gospel (Mt 7:15-29) and mentally check off this pericope as having no rebuke for us.
Jesus urges his hearers to be constantly watching for false prophets whose sheep-like smile conceals wolf-like teeth. To shift metaphors with Jesus: their fruit (their words) is poisonous. Well, by God’s grace, as WELS pastors, we fear few things more than preaching false doctrine and treasure few things more than a common confession of God’s truth.
But Jesus isn’t willing for us to check off this pericope quite so quickly as mission accomplished. Notice how deftly he pivots from speaking to hearers in 15-20 to speaking to those claiming to speak for him in 21-23. Jesus hasn’t carelessly changed the subject of false prophets. Instead, he is narrowing his focus to a very specific kind of false prophet for whom we wouldn’t typically use that term. Jesus pictures those who may be able to say honestly on the Last Day that they prophesied in his name and cast out demons or did miracles in his name. (Notice Jesus doesn’t contradict anything they say.) Yet to them he speaks that most awful Last Day sentence: “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!” (23)
So what’s the warning for us? God’s truth doesn’t merely want to lay claim to our lips but to build its stronghold in our hearts. The heart of doing “the will of [our] Father in heaven” (21) is that our hearts believe in his Son. Our mouths can preach like Paul and our kingdom accomplishments can rival Moses, but, if our hearts end up as unclaimed property for the gospel we proclaim, our hearers will forever enjoy what we eternally forfeit.
So let’s just state it plainly: there is a grave danger for public ministers of becoming functionaries who mouths preach the truth that saves other but whose hearts lose that same salvation. How can that happen? To borrow from Jesus final metaphors, there are powerful rains, floods, and winds of temptation that are uniquely aimed at the outwardly faithful public minister. It is the rain of the rave reviews falling from the lips of parishioners all too willing to put us on a pedestal for our pious lives. It is the flood of false confidence rising up in presumption that life or ministry or family success is the fruit of our faithfulness. It is the constant contrary wind that wearies us to the hard work of applying every text first to the hidden remnants of our own hearts’ sinfulness.
And that is only a sampling of the torrential pastoral rain, flood, and wind that wants to reduce us to mere functionaries whose mouths speak God’s truth but whose hearts are more and more untouched by its power. All of which can bring the day when we are shocked that it’s not special recognition waiting for us from our Judge but utter rejection. How awful to arrive before Jesus to find out that we were, in fact, preaching about solid rock while foolishly standing on sinking sand.
But Jesus did not speak these words to predict what his words will be to us on the Last Day but to prevent us from ever hearing such words. He even clearly outlines the alternate path: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who build his house on the rock” (24). The most important part of putting his Word into practice is not that we use it to win or hold our hearers for the kingdom of God, but that his Word first woos our hearts again and again by the marvel of our Bridegroom’s faithful love for us! The most important part of that practice of the Word is not that we wow God and others by ministry exploits done for Jesus, but that we are overwhelmed day after day by Jesus’ exploits for us.
That is how God’s powerful gospel fixes our hearts on the rock so that we can withstand the rain, flood, and wind which inevitably come our way. In this way, we will not only have watched our doctrine, but we will have also first of all watched ourselves. In this way, God is at work to save not only our hearers, but first of all ourselves (1 Timothy 4:16).