Here, John the plain-spoken Baptist devastates his compatriots’ worldview with words that echo in eternity. God can turn rocks into Israelites; national heritage won’t cut it. Each and every tree that doesn’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance will be chopped up for firewood. The seed from which it sprouted will serve as no defense, no protection from God’s judgement.
This is serious, deadly serious, so its imperative that we learn what sort of “fruit” God expects to see. John’s audience certainly wants to know, and they ask him “what on earth should we do then?”. He responds:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
- Luke 3:11-14
On first glance, we may read these instructions and conclude that “fruit” is an outward action that pleases God. After all, most of these commands really don’t seem all that difficult; dropping a little charity into the collection plate and refraining from abusing others ought to do it, no?
First, John’s instructions are that difficult. The first two items on the list command us to give away half our stuff (ouch), and not collecting more taxes than Rome required wasn’t as painless as it sounds. Tax collectors didn’t earn a salary, they made their living by charging extra. John is instructing them to give up their livelihoods. Same deal with the soldiers. These demands don’t merely exhort us to become reasonable and rational people who avoid stepping on other peoples’ toes; something much more challenging is implied.
Fortunately for us, John isn’t giving us an austerity checklist, an itemization of incredibly difficult behaviours that will please God and convince Him to lay His axe elsewhere. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Read for yourself what Jesus has to say about fruit:
"And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."
- Matthew 13:23
Sit on this metaphor for a moment. Let it ruminate. Follow it to its natural conclusion. Does soil decide whether it’s good or bad? Does it will healthy trees into existence? Can a patch of dirt sitting loosely on a sidewalk choose to produce a robust and healthy apple tree? Of course it can’t. Even if it isn’t swept away by the wind or the rain, and even if the seed lands where it’s supposed to, and even if said seed manages to sprout, the roots will have nowhere to go; and the tree will die.
No, the point isn’t for you to put together a checklist of “good fruit” (i.e. “deeds”), start ticking off boxes on that list and keep it handy for the judgement day. Your benevolent and/or religious activities will not save you, because they are not the fruit John is talking about. What is?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23
Ah, here we go, now we’re getting to brass tacks. Fruit in keeping with repentance, though it may (and generally ought to) lead to a radical lifestyle change, is a change of heart, a replacement of wickedness with Godly virtue. We must lay hold of the sin that is firmly rooted in our hearts and yank it up, sowing seeds of selflessness and self-control in its place:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
- 2 Peter 1:5-7
Well how on earth are we to do that? Soil can’t change itself, remember?
Why, the Cross of course! Jesus’ loving sacrifice on our behalf frees us from the judgement of sin under which we’ve been living all this time. While we still do sin and still must contend with the flesh, God sees in us only the righteousness of Christ. We are now a fitting abode for His Holy Spirit. He takes up residence in our hearts and begins the critical work of uprooting weeds and planting healthy trees in their place.
No, scratch that…
WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!!! Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that Jesus died for us so He can live in us, personally uproot the nastiness that ails us and turn each one of us into a fountain of everlasting righteousness? How can we even function with this knowledge? How do we ever get off our knees and cease shouting God’s praises so we can eat, drink, or go to work?
Now, some of us come to Jesus with more weeds than others; sanctification is not an easy or instantaneous process. So don’t be disheartened if you’ve sincerely asked Christ into your heart but aren’t living a life that would impress John the Baptist. Beating your breast and condemning yourself will get you nowhere, neither will pulling up your bootstraps and going on a religious self-improvement program. Remember, the work isn’t yours.
Rather, remain firmly rooted in Jesus, for:
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:4
And do everything within your power to deepen your relationship with the Holy Spirit, who inhabits your heart; for those who walk by the Spirit do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.
- 2 Peter 3:17
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
- Acts 15:10
In one place in the New Testament, Peter condemns the lawless. In another, he rebukes his brothers for trying to yoke gentile believers with a law that his own ancestors could not bear. What are we to make of this seeming incongruity?
Let's be careful not to get tied up in a fruitless debate on the mechanics of salvation. We know that we're saved through Christ's redeeming work on the cross, through no effort of our own (Ephesians 2:8-9). We also know that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Since we trust the bible not to contradict itself, we must conclude that salvation is God's work, but obedience is ours; and a faith that does not lend itself to obedience must be questioned, tested, and brought before our Lord.
Obedience to what? Obedience to the clear teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If I find myself in a place where the seed has been sown and no good fruit has been produced, what might I conclude except that I'm not good soil? And if I'm not good soil, what choice do I have but to throw myself on the mercy of the cross and plead "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me!" (Psalm 51:10).
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.