Only God can read the heart. But we can recognize true followers of Jesus by their fruit. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, underscoring the necessity for Christians to have a life changed by God’s grace.
This morning, we are going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We’re still in chapter 6, where we have Luke’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’re now coming near the end of that sermon, as today I will be reading Luke 6:43–45:
For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
What you have just heard is the very Word of God coming through the superintendence of God the Holy Spirit and by His inspiration. Please receive it this morning with the full authority that attends unto it. Let’s pray.
Again, our Father and our God, we come before You as the Author of all truth, as the Source of all goodness, as the Fountain of all beauty. We ask, as we contemplate the significance of our Lord’s words this morning for our lives, that You will help us understand them and apply them to our own hearts, minds, and lives. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
No Middle Ground
I have mentioned before one of the favorite sayings of the late Dr. Jim Kennedy: “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t.” In the canons of the discipline of logic there are many types of fallacies, both formal and informal. One of the most common informal fallacies is the “either-or fallacy,” or the “fallacy of the false dilemma.”
We commit the fallacy of the false dilemma by reducing options to two and saying that it must be either this or that, when in fact there could be a third option, or more, to consider. We can err in our thinking by reducing things to one of two options when there are more. However, there are other situations and matters where it really does come down to one of two alternatives. You’re either alive or you’re dead. There’s no tertium quid involved with that. What we’re concerned with this morning is an example where Jesus reduced things to two, when He talked about good trees and bad trees.
Throughout the Scriptures, particularly in the New Testament, we hear such distinctions between two things. For example, in the church, we find both sheep and goats, which is to say we find people who are truly saved and people who are not. The sheep and the goats define those who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit and those who are not, because you can’t be somewhere in the middle. You’re either born of the Holy Spirit or you’re still in the flesh—there is no middle ground. It is of eternal importance and significance for everyone who is in the church to have a clear understanding as to their status.
I want you to consider your standing in the kingdom of God. Are you a sheep who belongs to the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd, or are you a false professor still numbered among the goats, even though you appear regularly in the household of faith every Sunday morning? Are you truly a regenerate person? Are you in a state of grace, or are you not?
Professing and Possessing
Even though God requires every Christian who comes to faith to profess that faith, the profession redeems no one. We must not only profess our faith, but we must possess that which we profess.
Jesus warns again and again about those who are quick to confess Him with their lips, while at the same time their hearts are far from Him. It boils down to this: Are you a Christian or are you not? Are you in a state of justification or are you not?
Jesus set two options before us about these matters. He said, “A good tree does not bear bad fruit.” This can also be translated, “A rotten tree does not produce good fruit.” If the tree is rotten to the core, that which will come from that tree will be rotten as well. He continued, “Nor does a bad tree produce good fruit.” Jesus was saying that every good tree produces good fruit, and every bad tree produces only bad fruit. He was using this as an exclamation point for His sermon: “For every tree is known by its own fruit.”
Faith Mixed with Works
The issue of fruit was at the heart of the controversy that broke out in Europe almost 495 years ago. Soon, we will celebrate the 495th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting the Ninety-Five Theses at the church door at Wittenberg, which became the celebrated cause for the Protestant Reformation. Luther made the declaration that the just shall live by faith and that being justified in the presence of God occurs by faith and by faith alone, not by faith mixed with good works.
In the Roman Catholic system, justification was thought to begin at baptism as a sacerdotal act administered by the priest, whereby the grace of justification was infused into the soul. When that soul assents and cooperates with the infused grace, the person is then in a state of justification before God. That state of justification lasts until a person commits a mortal sin. They call it “mortal” because it has the power to kill or destroy justifying grace in the soul. If a person commits such a sin, he loses his justification, even if he might still retain his faith.
In the Roman Catholic system, according to the sixth session Council of Trent, one can have faith and still not have justification, because you can have faith and commit a mortal sin. When you commit a mortal sin, you’re no longer justified. What is the remedy for that?
According to Rome, the remedy was through another sacrament, the sacrament of penance, which Rome called and still calls “the second plank of justification” for those who have made shipwreck of their souls. That is why, if you commit mortal sin, you go to confession and go through the sacrament of penance, confess your sins, and receive priestly absolution, but it doesn’t stop there. For justification to be restored, you must do what Rome defines as works of satisfaction.
Works of satisfaction may be seemingly small and insignificant. They may only involve saying so many “Our Fathers” or so many “Hail Mary’s,” but they produce for the sinner what Rome calls “congruous merit,” which is merit sufficiently fitting or congruous for God to restore a person to a state of justification. The person then continues in that state until or unless he commits another mortal sin, in which case he must go through the process again. If a person dies without mortal sin on his soul but still has venial sin or any impurity remaining, he still does not enter the gates of Heaven. First, he must go to the purging place, purgatory, where those impurities are cleansed away. When he is fully and finally cleansed, which may be after one day or after a million years, then the soul is finally able to enter heaven.
Luther reacted strenuously against the Roman system by saying: “That is not the gospel of Jesus Christ and that is not the gospel of the New Testament. The gospel of the New Testament promises that in the very second you put your trust in Jesus Christ, all that He is and that He has becomes yours.”
Paul writes in Romans 5:1, “Being justified then, we have peace with God and access into His presence,” just as Abraham was counted righteous the moment he believed God. The good news for us is that even though we are still sinners, we can still be justified in the sight of God by putting our faith in Him. At the moment we do so, we receive a covering. The imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ clothes us, covers us. Just like the atoning blood covered the mercy seat in the Old Testament, so now the righteousness of Jesus transfers to your account and to my account the moment we put our faith in Him. That’s the gospel.
Any works that I bring to the table count for nothing. The only righteousness by which we will ever be determined to be righteous in the sight of God, as Luther said, is a righteousness that is extra nos. It is apart from us and aside from us. It is an alien righteousness, a righteousness that doesn’t properly belong to us. I haven’t performed it. I haven’t achieved it. It’s somebody else’s righteousness—the righteousness of our Savior. The minute I put my trust in Jesus, He covers my filthy rags with His righteousness, and God pronounces me just in His sight. I come with nothing in my hand—no good deeds, no list of achievements. I can’t go to the gate of heaven and say: “I never missed church on Sunday morning. I was a deacon, I was an elder, I was a pastor.” No, the only thing that will get us into the presence of God is the righteousness of Christ and His righteousness alone.
Lordship Salvation and Carnal Christians
The question in the sixteenth century that persists today is, What about works? Doesn’t Jesus call us to do good works? Isn’t our Lord profoundly concerned about the fruit that we produce? If we’re regenerate and justified people, will we not manifest that by the fruit that we bear?
In the late twentieth century, a major controversy broke out within the evangelical world that was called the “lordship salvation” controversy. There were those in one camp who said that you can be saved if you put your trust in Jesus as Savior. If you embrace the Lord Jesus as Savior and don’t receive Him as your Lord, you can still be saved. That is, since justification is by faith alone, you can have a faith that is alone. You can have a faith that never brings forth fruit, a faith that never produces good works, and still be justified.
The idea that you could receive Jesus as Savior and not as Lord was partly the result of the wide dissemination of a distorted view of salvation, particularly the concept of the carnal Christian. Maybe you’ve heard of that. The idea is that in our fallen condition, we are altogether carnal. We have no spiritual fruit whatsoever. When we receive Jesus as Savior, Christ comes into our lives, although He’s not necessarily on the throne of our life. Even though we are saved, we can still be altogether carnal, showing no fruit and no works whatsoever.
Some people in that camp said, “If the Holy Spirit has really come into your life, if you really are justified, sooner or later you may show some fruit of that.” Others argued, “Fruit may never appear in your life, but you’re still in a state of salvation because justification is by faith alone without any reference to works.” That’s not the biblical doctrine, nor is it Luther’s doctrine nor the Reformation doctrine. Luther said that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. That is, the only kind of faith that saves is a legitimate faith, a living faith, not a mere dead profession of faith.
If you have faith, even though the works you produce out of that faith don’t count toward your justification, nevertheless they are necessary manifestations of that true faith, or you don’t have saving faith. If you don’t have works, it means you don’t have faith, and if you don’t have faith, you don’t have justification, but merely a profession of it. If all you have is a profession of faith and no fruit in your life, all that qualifies you to be is a goat in the church, a bad tree that brings forth only bad fruit.
How do you know whether you’re a sheep or a goat? How do you know if you’re saved or unsaved, regenerate or unregenerate? Our Lord told us the answer to that question: “You shall know them by their words.” That’s not what He said. He said, “You shall know them by their fruit.”
Godly Men Bring Forth Fruit
The idea of knowing believers by their fruit goes back to the Old Testament, to the very beginning of the book of Psalms. In the very first Psalm, David wrote:
Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2)
I could change a couple words in that text without changing the meaning: “Blessed is the man who delights in the Word of God and meditates on it day and night.” If you have no affection or love for the Word of God, that would be a sure indicator that your soul has not been changed. You are still in your sins, altogether carnal, with no spiritual life in you.
“But the godly man delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night.” What will the godly man be like? The psalmist continues in verse 3, “He’ll be like a tree.” What kind of a tree? A rotten tree? A diseased tree that brings forth diseased fruit? Not at all: “He’ll be like a tree that is planted by the rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season.” He’ll be a fruit-bearing tree, “whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper.”
David went on to say, “But the ungodly are not so.” The ungodly are not like that. They’re not like the tree that brings forth its fruit in its season. Rather, “The ungodly are like the chaff which the wind drives away.” The slightest zephyr, the smallest breeze is enough to carry away all that they have because it lacks spiritual substance.
The Hypocritical Fig Tree
Jesus went on with this metaphor in Luke 6:44: “For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush.” If you want to gather figs, you go to a fig tree. You don’t go to a thorn bush. Why? Because thorn bushes don’t produce figs. If you want figs, you go to a fig tree.
Not all fig trees are good fig trees. We know the account where Jesus Himself cursed a fig tree, pronouncing a divine malediction upon it. The Bible tells us that when He did it, it wasn’t even the season for figs. If there’s ever an event in the Bible where it seems that we see an arbitrary judgment of God in Christ, it was when Jesus cursed this fig tree.
It’s as though Jesus was hungry and saw a fig tree in bloom and leaf, and He walked over to it and there weren’t any figs there. It’s as if He was so frustrated, He was looking forward to that tasty morsel on the tree, and there weren’t any figs. Out of His frustration, He used His supernatural power to curse this poor, innocent tree that shriveled up and died at His command.
When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to study under an archaeological scholar who was an expert on the customs in Palestine, and He explained this text to us. He said that, in Palestine, there are many varieties of figs. Most fig trees that grow in Palestine bring their fruit in a particular season. There is such a thing as fig season, but not all fig trees bear figs in the fig season. There are those few, rare varieties of fig trees that bear their figs outside of fig season. When they do, they’re regarded as a delicacy. On this one occasion, Jesus saw a fig tree from a distance, and it was in leaf. The sure sign in Palestine of the presence of figs is the presence of leaves. If the fig tree has leaves, then it will also have figs.
So, our Lord said, “Aha, here is one of the fig trees with an unusual variety of figs.” He walked over, and there were leaves but no figs. The tree was a hypocrite. The tree gave the outward signs of fruit, but actually bore no fruit. Jesus used that as a prophetic object lesson, not to describe fig trees, but to describe people who give the appearance of fruit yet have no fruit. We’re called to be fruit-bearing trees, in season and out of season.
A Thesaurus of the Heart
Jesus continued, “Nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush.” If you want to plan a vineyard and raise a choice crop of grapes, you don’t start with bramble bushes. You need vines that will produce grapes. Jesus said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil.”
It’s interesting that the Greek word in this text for treasure is thēsauros, from which we get the English word thesaurus. If you’ve ever had to do any writing, you know that you not only have to have a dictionary on your desk but also a thesaurus, otherwise you’re left with a poverty-stricken vocabulary.
A thesaurus is a collection of our treasury of human language, and Jesus uses this same term of treasures, or a storehouse. In everybody’s heart there is a thesaurus. That thesaurus is a storehouse of either goodness or corruption. The Old Testament tells us that as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. Jesus was telling us that what a man treasures in his heart determines what he is.
I close this morning by asking you to examine your own hearts, to look at the bank account that is hidden from eyesight, to examine the thesaurus you have in your soul, and ask what kind of vocabulary is in it. Is it the vocabulary that demonstrates and manifests the fruit of true faith, or is it the vocabulary of the lie and the false profession?
I can read your faces, but I can’t read your hearts. Only God can read our hearts, and only God knows what’s in that storehouse. Only He knows what is in the thesaurus in our souls, but we can see fruit. Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, forgive us when we are fruitless, enable us to be fruitful and productive as your children. For we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.