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Monday, March 22, 2010

What You Can Learn From Fruit

Jesus warned, “By their fruits you will know them.” (Mt 7:15-20) And intuitively, we see what he means. “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes,” he asks, “or figs from thistles?” Obviously not! Each tree, bush or plant produces its own kind of fruit, and thornbushes are just as incapable of producing grapes as they are anything else that’s truly good. Search every thistle, but you’ll never find anything that’ll nourish. Conversely, bad or harmful fruit is never produced by a good plant. The application to Christian living couldn’t be clearer: Real Christians are revealed by their fruit; wherever good fruit is lacking, or when scratching the surface exposes sinful habits or attitudes, it begs the question whether the life so examined is really Christian or not. As I recently read on one popular online Christian site: “A life that's dedicated to Christ will inevitably produce good fruit, whereas a sinful life will inevitably produce bad fruit.”

Take it to heart! Check your fruit, and remember the Lord followed up his teaching on fruit with the ominous words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Nothing could be clearer, right? Hmmm. How about, nothing could be more easily misapplied!

While even the word “fruit” needs to be examined and unpacked, it’s enough for now to let it simply mean any kind of good deeds, Christian behaviors, or positively changed lives. So far, so good. But pay attention to what we’re supposed to know by the kind of fruit we see: “By their fruits you will know them.”

Excuse me, who’s the “them” Jesus is talking about? Isn’t that kind of important? It’s their fruits which tell us something about them. But who does he mean? And how did so many get the idea we can apply this so as to get a handle on knowing ourselves by our fruit? Because that’s just what mixed up Christians are trying to do—discover whether they’re truly born-again or not by examining their own fruit. But is this a proper application of Jesus’ words?

Jesus was issuing a warning against false prophets and those who would come among them as wolves in sheep’s clothing. “Them” collectively refers, then, to teachers who would deceive the people to devour them. If we broaden it a little more, we can say we’re using the fruit test to evaluate anyone who holds out his life and teaching for others to follow before we get sucked in. Whether or not we should follow a purported prophet, teacher, leader, or moral authority comes down not just to what the person says, but also what kind of behaviors we observe in his life.

Why is the fruit test important? It’s not just because Jesus says so, and it’s not just because they might be teaching something incorrectly. It’s a little simpler than that. We check out the fruits, whether they’re good or evil, because after we start following a teacher, you can bet eventually he’s going to influence how we behave, and the more serious we are about being a loyal follower, the more we’ll probably become like him. So follow the Pharisees, and you’ll wind up acting like a Pharisee yourself. Follow a kooky John-the-Baptist figure, and you’re likely to become something of a kook. Follow a money-hungry, prosperity prophet, and over time he’ll influence you to judge your walk with God on the basis of what kind of car you drive. Do you want to be like that?

The false prophets can sound good; they may sound very orthodox and pious. They may be able to quote lots of Bible passages. The Pharisees certainly did. They had high regard for the Scripture. They were serious about the tithe, Sabbath keeping, and all the kosher laws. They tried never to miss the appointed times for prayer. They were even zealous about evangelism! What did Jesus say about them? “You travel land and sea to win one proselyte.” Wow, all that effort for just one opportunity to get a convert! That’s dedication!

Oh, wait a minute—the verse doesn’t end there. How does Jesus finish that thought? (Matthew 23:15) “And when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”

Yeah, that’s right. The zealous Scribes and Pharisees, who were all about keeping the Law, were sons of hell themselves—unless you think Jesus was only kidding. And when they converted anyone they got busy making that convert into a son of hell as well, only more so. You see, whenever they made a convert, they also discipled him so he’d start approaching living for God the same way they did, and in that way they made their new convert a “son of hell.” How? Was it because they taught from the Scriptures incorrectly? Or because they didn’t set a zealous enough example? Were they liturgically improper? Or not mission-minded enough?

None of those reasons. They were so sure they were right, so certain they had God on their side, and so uncaring about what they put other people through, that they went ahead with their plans to get the Son of God crucified! Their complicity in Jesus’ crucifixion was their ultimate fruit, their ultimate legacy. But I think Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7 was intended to say any observant person could already tell by their fruits how following their example would lead one to be just as bad as them: judgmental, legalistic, inflexible and lacking compassion, doing things mainly for the applause of men. Jesus implies, “Their fruits should tip you off there’s probably a good reason you don’t want to follow them.”

Now none of this applies to the question, “Am I saved? Am I born again?” Checking out your own fruit will never give you an accurate picture of whether you’re right with the Lord or not. Good, moral, pious behaviors can’t be relied on to prove your conversion is real. Evil, immoral, messed up behaviors aren’t the fruit proving you’re a hypocrite. “By their fruits you will know them.” It doesn’t say know yourself, whether you’re the real deal or not. It doesn’t say your faith is only pretend if you still fall into sin. You may have to question your own faith if you don’t care whether you sin or not, but no one should misapply this passage to say, “What I think about my fruit matters more than what God tells me to believe in His Word.”

So how do we know whether we are Christians? How do we know whether we’re saved? Go to God’s Word. What does His Word say about Jesus’ ability to save even the worst of sinners? And do you believe it? Do you believe he is the Son of God? Do you believe Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished the reconciliation between God and man? Do you believe his rising from the dead means he can also save you from the power of death? Do you so trust him that you’re willing to rely entirely on his fruit and not your own?

“Yes” answers mean you’re saved. Really saved. At least they do if God’s Word is true. If you call Jesus Lord because you know he really is Lord, and not just because it seems like the fashionable thing to do, then you’re no hypocrite.

But what about the fruit? Shouldn’t we examine ourselves? Doesn’t it matter what kind of people we are? Yes, we should, and yes it does. And when we find bad fruit—bad behaviors, unkind words or thoughts, selfish pride and ambitions, or any kind of lusts or lies—the thing to do is turn again to the cross and repent. According to 1 John 1: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In other words, the fruit produced in our lives can show us something about our hearts and what work still is left to be done in us, but our fruit never nullifies what God’s Word says concerning His great salvation: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)

What can you learn from fruit? Quite a bit, actually. Just not so much about yourself.

1 comment:

Tommy said...

Perhaps we can find out a lot about ourselves from our fruit. Those of us who are married and have children can look at our "fruit," our children. What we see in them is what is in us. How often do we say, "You take after your dad," or "You take after mother"? All the bad we see in them is from us, the bearers of the fruit. We gloss over a lot of our faults, but they are brought out into the light by our "fruit," our children.