Do Wolves Know They Are Wolves?

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Mat 7:15). Peter understood Christ as correlating false prophets that were among God’s people with false teachers among us now, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you” (2Pe 2:1). The question is sometimes asked, and I’ve also pondered many times, is if false teachers know they are false teachers. We could ask “Do wolves know they are wolves?” Of course they do! But that’s pushing Christ’s analogy too far. The sheep/wolf analogy is simply warning us about men that seem to be leading us to salvation but actually to destruction.

Christ warned His disciples, “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (Jhn 16:2). This is precisely how the apostle Paul used to be: “And Saul was consenting unto his death” (Act 8:1); “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Act 9:1); “And I persecuted this way unto the death” (Act 22:4); when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them” (Act 26:10). He would later tell Timothy that he was sincerely ignorant at the time, “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1Ti 1:13). Paul considered those persecuting him to be zealous for God as he also had been, “was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day” (Act 22:3); “they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2); “They zealously affect you, but not well” (Gal 4:17); “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church” (Phl 3:6). But how could anyone truly think they’re doing God service by persecuting others even unto death?

I still remember over 30 years ago in church when I first heard the teaching about God as three persons. It just didn’t sound right but I knew very little at that time and those teaching me knew much more. Therefore, I trusted them that they must be right, and I found ways to explain away any Scriptures that spoke otherwise. This began my downward spiral of trusting men over the Scriptures. And what I experienced over those decades was a hardening of my heart and a warping of my thinking. I taught classes, small groups, main services, and even on television false doctrine while sincerely thinking I was helping people.

Do wolves know they are wolves? Each individual and situation is different. We can’t make a blanket statement that covers everyone and everything. However, the conservative and loving approach is to consider false teachers to be zealous of God in sincere ignorance. This is what Paul did, “zealous toward God, as ye all are this day” (Act 22:3), “they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2); “They zealously affect you, but not well” (Gal 4:17).

Evil breaths/spirits operate through people to spread false doctrines, while not allowing them to know they’re even being used. It’s through years of compromising the truth of the Scriptures and yielding to sin that people become hardened and insensitive to the point that they can do evil and justify it to themselves as good. And since nobody’s strong enough to overcome evil breaths, the only hope is casting oneself at the mercy of Jesus Christ. He is greater and gives God’s breath.

John said that many false prophets/teachers had gone into the world, “Beloved, believe [trust] not every spirit [breath], but try the spirits [breaths] whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1Jo 4:1). And if God’s breath isn’t in them, then another breath is, “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1Jo 4:4). How can we know the breaths of teachers, whether they’re of God or not? It’s if they listen to Christ and His apostles, “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit [breath] of truth, and the spirit [breath] of error” (1Jo 4:6). If they won’t listen to them, then they don’t have God’s breath but an evil breath. Certainly some things are hard to understand as Peter even admitted, “in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest [twist], as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2Pe 3:16). But what Christ and His apostles taught about God is clear, simple, and of utmost importance. If teachers have clever ways of “twisting” or explaining away what they taught, then they’re not of God. Those that handle the Scriptures as such, do so “unto their own destruction” as Peter said.

Do wolves know they are wolves? Not likely. Even many hardened criminals really don’t think they’re bad—they’re full of excuses to justify themselves. False teachers are zealous of God. They labor, study, pray, fast, give, sacrifice, and serve. But it’s only sheep’s clothing. How can we know the breath in them? It’s if they submit to the clear teaching of Christ and His apostles, or if they find ways to explain it away.

They Went Out from Us

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1Jo 2:19). Calvinists and the proponents of “Once Saved Always Saved” (OSAS), use this verse as a proof-text that people leaving their local church never were saved to begin with otherwise they would have stayed and continued in their church. But it’s clear from the immediate context just who “they” really are. “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour” (1Jo 2:18). “They” are false teachers who deny the Son, “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (1Jo 2:22). John wasn’t talking about average churchgoers but about false teachers trying to deceive them, “These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you” (1Jo 2:26).

Now since “they” are false teachers that came out from “us,” of which John included himself, then “us” were the leaders of the early church with the 12 apostles at the core. In the first chapter of this epistle, John stated that fellowship with the apostles is necessary for having fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1Jo 1:3). Anyone teaching doctrine about Christ that is contrary to what the apostles taught is a false teacher and doesn’t have fellowship with God, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1Jo 2:23).

According to OSAS proponents, John 2:19 proves that those who leave their church never really were saved in the first place because if they had been, then they would never have left. But John wasn’t talking about professing Christians leaving their local church but about false teachers no longer in fellowship with the apostles. And it seems these heretics were using their past association with the apostles as credentials to gain acceptance by these churches. This was the main reason John was writing, to warn about these men.

So when he said “they were not of us,” did he mean that they never were in fellowship with the apostles? He couldn’t have meant this because then “they would have continued with us” wouldn’t make sense. The only way they could have continued in fellowship is if they were in fellowship at one time. And if they had been in fellowship with them then they had fellowship with the Father and with the Son. So when “they went out from us,” they must have been part of this group led by the apostles. Now it could be that these men were made to leave the fellowship—that they had been excommunicated through the discipline prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18:15-20. But regardless, John wanted his readers to recognize that they weren’t true teachers because they no longer had fellowship with “us,” therefore they weren’t sent out by them.

The “of us” in the statement “They went out from us, but they were not of us,” can also be translated “belonged to us” (1Jo 2:19 NIV). A more literal rendering is, “Out of us they came, but out of us they were not.” The same Greek preposition ek for “out” is used in both parts of the statement. Therefore, he wasn’t saying that they never really were “of us,” but that they weren’t sent out by them.

Also, the last part of John 2:19 is sometimes mistranslated: “none of them were of us” (NKJV); “none of them belonged to us” (NIV). But other translations get it right: “not all” (KJV, YNG, WEB); “they all are not” (ESV, NASB, RSV, ASV). It literally says, “they are not all out of us.” It isn’t that none of them who left never really belonged to them, but that not all of them who went out were sent out by them. This is crucial, because if you hold to OSAS and that this verse supports it, then you want it to say that none of them belonged. If it means that those who left the church never were saved in the first place, then it also means that this is not true for all of them. In other words, some who left were saved thus disproving OSAS.

The entire verse literally says, “Out of us they came, but out of us they were not. For if they were out of us they had remained ever with us. But that they may be being made to appear that they are not all out of us.” John was saying that the way his readers would know these teachers hadn’t been sent out by the apostles is that they didn’t remain in fellowship with the apostles. Not all who came out from them were sent out by them because not all remained in fellowship with them.

In closing, this verse isn’t about professing Christians leaving their church, therefore proving they never were saved. It’s about false teachers who left fellowship with the apostles. The letter sent out from the Jerusalem church to Gentile Christians explicitly says, “Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘You must be circumcised and keep the law’—to whom we gave no such commandment” (Act 15:24 NKJV). Not all of them who went out from the apostles were sent out by them, but only those who remained in fellowship with them. And fellowship with the apostles is fellowship with the God the Father and His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hedge Apple Trees, Known by Their Fruits

Hedge apple trees (Maclura pomifera), in contrast with apple trees, bear fruit that’s unpalatable and useless for food by either people or animals. But consistent with apple trees, the seeds from its fruit produce more of the same kind of trees, “the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself … the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind” (Gen 1:11,12).

Christ warned, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.” (Mat 7:15-16). As there were false prophets among God’s people, false teachers are the equivalent today, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you” (2Pe 2:1). And Christ wasn’t just teaching us how to identify them, but urging us to identify them. He commended the church at Ephesus for doing so, “thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (Rev 2:2).

Concerning the Pharisees, He said, “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” (Mat 12:33-34). What the fruit is to the tree, the mouth is to the heart. God first created trees whose seeds are from its fruit, then created humans whose words are from their hearts. And as good fruit comes from good trees and corrupt fruit from corrupt trees, so it is with true and false teachers. The seeds from their fruit produces more trees just like them.

Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus the requirements for ordaining bishops, deacons, and elders over churches, “A bishop then must be blameless” (1Ti 3:2), “ordain elders in every city … If any be blameless … For a bishop must be blameless” (Tit 1:5,6,7). To “Lay hands suddenly on no man” (1Ti 5:22), is to give time for men to be proven first before ordaining them, “And let these also first be proved” (1Ti 3:10). All of this was to ensure that “apple trees” were in fact being planted because the same principle is true with hedge apple trees.

Hedge apple trees only plant other hedge apple trees. They’re not going to ordain and place apple trees—men truly leading people to salvation—over churches. They only plant hedge apple trees which, in turn, plant more hedge apple trees. This is why all “Christian” churches over the entire world today are simply a vast forest of hedge apple trees. And anyone within these churches sincerely seeking the truth objectively, questioning from the Scriptures what’s being taught, are kept in check or pressured to leave if not conforming. This ensures entire churches continue to be hedge apple trees on their way to destruction.

Hedge apple trees placed over churches aren’t passive either. It isn’t that they’re just not helping people get saved but that they’re preventing it. They’re not simply neglecting to gather with Christ, but working to scatter from Him, “he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Mat 12:30; Luk 11:23).

False teachers will never agree with Christ’s claims about God and about Himself any more than a hedge apple tree can grow apples from its branches. Time and again I’ve spoken with Trinitarian “ministers” who deny Christ’s own claim that His Father is the one true God and His God. But when they become irate and contentious, it’s not against my words but against His.

When I was a Trinitarian, there was one minister in particular I was very close with. He was the utmost example of how I wanted to be one day in my walk with God. And over the years we had many, many good times together in study, prayer, small group discussions, co-teaching, home visitations, retreats, and just talking with each other. He always had time for me, and I consistently sensed warmth and care from him. There were a few times, however, when sharing with him in private the truths I was learning from the Scriptures, that I experienced conflict. It bothered me that he not only wasn’t excited about discovering the truth like I was, but was actually resisting it. But I didn’t know then what I know now.

Wolves can’t be known by their lifestyles because their “clothing” is virtually that of sheep. In fact, they’re usually better “sheep” than true sheep! They can be known only by their fruits, just as Jesus said. It’s because they’re all on the same side—in agreement, fellowship, endorsement, and support of each other—that they’re all hedge apple trees. They keep us listening to their sermons, reading their books, and using their study resources because they don’t want us understanding the Scriptures for ourselves and becoming apple trees. After all, if we become apple trees ourselves, we’ll be a threat to their agenda by planting apple trees.