At the beginning of May we are in the middle of spring: the grass is growing, the weather is getting warmer (or at least it’s getting there), and most iconically, the plants are blooming. When we see apples growing on a tree, we know it’s an apple tree, and not a maple tree. When we see grapes growing on a vine, we know it’s a grape vine, and not a cantaloupe vine. If we want to identify a plant, we can look at what it produces and then discern what kind of plant it is — this is a foundational principle God has placed in nature.
This fact not only applies to plants in the natural world, but also to people. We are familiar with the man who always talks about the latest news in the NHL, stays up-to-date on every “trade”, and most of all, never misses watching the game (which really turns out to be every game). It goes without saying that this man loves hockey. And why is that? It is because his outward fruit reveals his inner identity.
This concept of bearing fruit, however, can go one step further: it applies to being a Christian. Specifically, if you have salvation in Jesus, you will demonstrate that by obeying Him as Lord. John Bunyan echoed this concept in his work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the protagonist, Christian, aptly remarks, “Talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life; and let us assure our selves, that at the day of Doom, men shall be judged according to their fruits.” Christian understood that even if someone professes to know God and enjoys talking about Him, it will not give him a free-pass into glory; rather, “men shall be judged according to their fruits.”
Bunyan’s penetrating yet truthful message hits home for today’s church. Many professing Christians have a stigma about being judged for their fruit. It manifests itself in refrains such as: “You can’t tell me I’m not a Christian”, or, “Jesus said we shouldn’t condemn each other.” Although we cannot make definitive statements about people’s eternal destinies, many people will often leverage that fact to excuse unhelpful behaviour — or worse, outright licentiousness.
So, if we want to truly follow and obey Jesus, it is our duty to find out what it means to bear fruit. To do that, we will look at the pattern in creation, the preparation of a herald, and the preaching of Christ.
When God made the world, He set a standard in place for all living things. In Genesis 1:11 we read, “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’ And it was so.” At the very beginning, God laced a norm throughout his world that creatures would bear fruit according to their kinds. This would apply, however, to more than just reproduction. Throughout the Old Testament, we read phrases such as “fruit of his deeds”, which refers to the results of someone’s choices (Jeremiah 17:10), and, “fruit of your labor”, which refers to the natural earnings of someone’s work (Exodus 23:16). God not only intended plants to bear fruit according to their kinds, but also intended people to bear fruit according to what they have done. As the story of Scripture unfolds into the New Testament, the Word delves even deeper into this idea.
When John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan river, he gave a stinging rebuke of certain people coming to him. Luke 3:7-8 reads,
“He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.’”
The “fruit” language resurfaces once again. But in this case, John is drawing an analogy between trees and people: just as a good tree will bear good fruit, a saved sinner will bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Yet, what does it mean to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (v. 8, emphasis added)? Well, it seems the crowds had the same question. We read in verses 10-11, “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” Repentance, as illustrated by John’s response, goes much further than just uttering a profession of faith, it’s an entire “change of mind,” and by extension, a change of life. If a person truly changes his mind, he will not only communicate that change in his words, but he will also demonstrate that change in his actions.
This fact is intuitive in many areas of life. For instance, say our friend Joe tells us that he has recently come to the conclusion that his usual routine of three banana muffins for breakfast will not bode well for his gravitational future. Now, imagine that when we approach Joe next week to see how he’s doing on his new dieting plan, we find out that Joe has not only not ditched his daily dose of three banana muffins, but has “upgraded” to eating four banana muffins every morning. To any onlooker, it would be absurd to think that Joe actually changed his mind about banana muffins. Rather, it would be obvious that Joe’s initial claim about banana muffins was flimsy. While Joe professed to change his mind, we know that he did not actually change his mind because he did not produce fruit which accorded with a changed mind. Though it’s an extreme example, it illustrates the principle: when we authentically repent, or, “change our minds,” we are not only confessing our sins, but also beginning the process of mortifying them. Later in the New Testament, we get an even fuller picture of what this looks like in the believer’s life.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He reiterates the tree/fruit analogy used by John, but He applies it to two specific aspects of life: words and actions. He states: “‘For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit… The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.’” (Luke 6:43, 45) Since our mouths reflect who we are on the inside, we can identify problems in our hearts by looking at the symptoms which pass through our lips.
Though bearing good fruit in our words is necessary, it is equally important for us to bear good fruit in our actions. Jesus says in John 15:8-10, “‘By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.’” We can only be the objects of God’s love if we bear good fruit by obeying Christ. Without such obedience, we demonstrate that we are vines which do not abide in Christ. What sort of fruit does he demand from us? Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” For us to abide in Christ, we must define our lives with such godly virtues.
Many people call Jesus their Saviour, but few people truly follow Him as their Lord by obeying Him. Yet, according to Christ Himself, words alone are insufficient evidence for true salvation: “Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,’” (Matthew 16:24, emphasis added). It isn’t enough for us to simply not deny Jesus and proclaim Him—we must also deny ourselves and follow Him. Otherwise, on judgement day, we will not be told, “well done good and faithful servant,” (Matthew 25:21), but rather, “I never knew you; depart from me you workers of lawlessness,” (Matthew 7:23). We are ultimately defined by what we produce, not by what we proclaim.
When Christ comes again, He will find only two kinds of trees: good trees and bad trees. When He sees good fruit coming from a tree, He knows it is a good tree. Likewise, when He sees bad fruit coming from a tree, He knows it is a bad tree. Good trees He will bless, but bad trees He will cut down and throw into the fire. Which sort of fruit is coming forth from you?
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Oxford University Press, 2008.
The Greek word for repentance, metanoeo, means: “change one’s mind.” See Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 640.