Christ warned His disciples, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 15–16a). Like every word uttered by the mouth of the Lord, He speaks these words purposefully: He would not have warned us against “wolves in sheep’s clothing” if they posed no danger. Quite to the contrary, cults would draw those who hear them away from the one true, saving faith in Christ.
To understand the danger cults present, consider Martin Luther’s explanation to the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation.” He writes, “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory” (Luther’s Small Catechism).
Were you to ask most people, even Christians, for examples of “really big sins,” they generally would respond with things like murder, sexual sins, or perhaps even sins against the property of another. So why does Luther single out “false belief” and “despair”? Luther does not think in terms of what violates God’s law here. He speaks rather to those things that would overthrow the Gospel! No matter what you have done in terms of sin, as long as you still know the blessed and holy Triune God, and as long as you still trust in the death of Christ on the cross to have paid for all your sins, there is still a way back. You cannot sin a sin bigger than the sacrifice of Christ. Repent and receive His forgiveness.
However, if you have the wrong God (false belief), or you no longer believe the atoning sacrifice of Christ counts for you (despair), then you have cut yourself off from the source of forgiveness. So we pray most fervently against these salvation-destroying things, and then secondarily against “other great shame and vice.”
This is where cults come in. They are nothing but mighty tools in the hands of the evil one to lure you into false belief, that is, to lure you into trusting a false god for your salvation. Know this, that the appeal of these organizations goes well beyond issues of a “sense of belonging,” opportunities for social interaction, or psychological attraction. There is demonic power behind all falsehood, and the father of lies wants nothing more than to unleash faith-destroying falsehood on all who would follow Christ.
Immediately after warning against false prophets, Christ tells us that we may recognize them by their fruits. What does He mean? It must mean more than who does outwardly good things: most religions encourage such civic righteousness, and they cannot all be true. No, when Christ points us to the fruits, He means most particularly their doctrines. Do they come to you in the Name of the only true and living God — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Do they teach that Jesus Christ is true God, that He is true man, that He was born of the Virgin, crucified, rose, and ascended into heaven? Do they point you to the work of Christ for your salvation, or do they point you away from Him, inviting you to trust in your own good works (a false god if ever there was one!)? These are the fruits we seek. When the focus is turned instead to the works of man, to a charismatic leader, or to some new revelation, then God is being robbed of His glory, and we turn away.
How do you guard yourself against false doctrine? Many have become experts about the particular beliefs and practices of certain cults, and they render a great service to our Lord and His church. Nevertheless, the single best way to protect yourself against false doctrine is to know the truth of God’s Word thoroughly. When we have a firm grasp of the truth, we will easily recognize falsehood when it comes our way.
Finally, how can we reach out in Christian love to our neighbor who has been led astray into one of these cults? It is not enough to show them that what they believe is false: they will likely see this as a personal assault on them. At best, they will receive the critique, realize that their cult is a deception, and as a result have no idea what, if anything, to believe. Further, even an approach that says, “I know it sounds good, but it’s not true,” already concedes too much.
The holy Christian faith offers one thing that no other religion can: certainty of salvation! Any cult or religion that looks to the works of man for salvation can never give the guilty conscience peace. As we doubt ourselves, so we must inevitably doubt the acceptability of our works in the eyes of God, and so salvation must remain an uncertain thing. One can be certain of salvation only when that salvation is the work of Christ alone, for only Christ is reliable beyond all doubt. This is the precious gift we can offer those whom the cults have deceived.
God grant us complete confidence in the all-sufficient work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and so protect us against all that would lure us away from it. So then shall He also have use of us to speak to those who sit in darkness about the good news of salvation solely by grace, solely through faith, solely on account of the atoning work of Christ. Amen.