Genuine faith in Christ manifests itself through genuine repentance and a changed life. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke and calls professing Christians to examine themselves for the fruit of God’s saving grace.
This morning, we will continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading this morning from Luke 13:6–9:
He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’”
This brief parable is connected to other sayings of our Lord. It immediately follows Jesus’ teaching regarding the tragedies that had befallen those in and around Jerusalem with the slaughter of worshipers by Pilate and the falling of the tower in Siloam, wherein Jesus said to those making inquiry, “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.” This text comes immediately after that record and is an amplification of it.
This teaching is from the lips of our Lord Himself. Let us receive it with all the authority and honor that is due to Him. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, by nature, we are dense to sacred things. In our fallen condition, the truths of Thy Spirit often remain, even in our converted state, beyond our full understanding. We ask this morning, as we contemplate these words from Jesus, that You will help us. Help us to understand them. Help us to embrace them. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Theme of Conversion
Before the service this morning, when I first arrived in the building, a gentleman in our congregation was sitting inside. We talked, and he handed me a little book. He said, “This book changed my life.” He was referring to a recent publication from Dr. Steve Lawson—a study of the life and ministry of George Whitefield. I was pleased to hear that comment about what the ministry of Whitefield meant to one of our own.
George Whitefield was one of the greatest preachers ever anointed by God. He was one of three men God used to bring about the spiritual revival in eighteenth-century America called the Great Awakening. If you study that period of church history and the preaching of John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, you will see a common theme that runs through their preaching. It was the theme of conversion.
We were talking among our staff recently about the messages we give here at Saint Andrew’s Chapel. Since we follow the expository method of preaching through various books of the Bible, our sermons are not dictated to us by the whims of our own drums that we like to beat. Rather, they are dictated by the next text. At the same time, even though I follow the text of the Book of Luke seriatim, I find that I have a pattern and emphasis in my own preaching. This is not by accident, but partially influenced by men such as Edwards. It is the theme of conversion.
Repent or Perish
I am profoundly concerned that everybody in this congregation and everybody who comes as a visitor is truly and thoroughly converted to Jesus Christ. If you are not converted to Christ, as Whitefield, Wesley, and certainly Edwards emphasized, your destiny is the wrath of God forever.
Conversion, which requires the presence of saving faith, contains within it the need for authentic repentance. That is why, in last week’s text, Jesus said to those befuddled by the tragedies in Jerusalem, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Can we pause for just a second? It may not be the pause that refreshes, but perhaps the pause that terrifies. It was Jesus who said “unless,” and that little word “unless” introduces a necessary condition for some consequence to follow. Jesus said, “Unless,” that is, “If you don’t do this, if you don’t repent, you will perish.”
I cannot imagine that anyone in this room wants to perish, and certainly not at the hands of a holy God. We do not want to perish. We want to be spared. We want to be rescued. We want to be saved from judgment.
Seeking True Repentance
Edwards, in Northampton, where he preached frequently on the theme of conversion, understood that there were probably people who came to his church and listened to his sermons every Sunday who remained unconverted. He also was convinced that unless the Holy Spirit changed the inclinations of their hearts through the supernatural work of regeneration, they would never repent, and they would never come to saving faith.
Some people in Edwards’ congregation realized that they were unconverted and the only way they would ever be converted was through the merciful sovereign act of God and His saving grace. They would say to Edwards, “What then can we do?” Edwards developed a doctrine called the “doctrine of seeking,” where he appealed to their enlightened self-interest. He appealed to them to repent as far as they could in their unregenerate state.
In theology, we distinguish between two kinds of repentance. There is the repentance of attrition, which is motivated by a fear of punishment. It is a repentance driven by a desire to get a ticket out of hell, to be rescued from perishing. It is the repentance of Esau. It is the repentance of your little child when you catch him with his hand in the cookie jar and he says: “Mama, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t spank me.” Repentance of attrition is driven not by a genuine sorrow for having sinned and disobeyed, but an attempt to escape the consequences of punishment. Edwards understood clearly that a repentance of attrition would never lead to salvation.
True repentance is the repentance of contrition, where our hearts are broken from our sin. We are awakened to the fact that we really have grievously offended God, and our sorrow is real. Men and women of faith who experience the repentance of contrition are reconciled forever to almighty God.
Edwards said that even though you are not inclined to true sorrow and contrition, if you only are looking for a ticket out of hell, take advantage of your vested interest. Take advantage of your enlightened self-interest and seek after God. Peradventure He will save you. He was saying to those who asked what they could do: “If you are not sure you are converted, or if you are convinced you are not, do not leave the church. Make sure you are here every Sunday.”
We know that God saves people outside of the church, and sometimes He does that despite the church and against the teaching of the church. That being said, the main place where the means of God’s saving grace are concentrated is in the church. It is where you hear the Word of God, and God uses His Word as His primary means to bring people to faith.
“Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” God Himself has chosen the foolishness of preaching as the method by which He will save His people. If you are unconverted, do not take Sunday off and go play golf. Be here and hope that under the preaching of the Word of God, you will be saved.
A Fig Tree in a Vineyard?
Jesus continued His teaching about the need for repentance and the evidence of true repentance in His parable about the fig tree. He said, “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.” Let us stop there. Why would you plant a fig tree in a vineyard? A vineyard is a place where you grow grapes, not figs.
To the ancient Jewish farmer, his vineyard was sometimes called his fruit field, because the vineyard was the best place not only to grow grapes but also other types of fruit. It was not unusual for the Jewish farmer to plant fruit trees along with his vines of grapes in the vineyard because that section of his land received the best care and contained the best soil. If you wanted to grow a productive fig tree, the best place to grow it was in the vineyard.
As Edwards said, if you want to grow a repentant sinner, the best place to grow him is in the visible church, where the means of grace are concentrated. In terms of agriculture, God’s means of grace for this little fig tree were best found in the middle of the vineyard.
You Must Bear Fruit
The man in Jesus’ parable came seeking fruit on the fig tree. Figs on fig trees are usually concealed by the leaves and foliage and are not evident from a distance. The owner had to come in close to inspect this fig tree to see if there was any fruit on it, but he found none.
Throughout the teaching of Jesus, He was concerned that His people bear fruit and, chiefly, the fruit of repentance. Classical dispensational theology had a doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit that was not only seriously defective but fatally so. It taught that in rebirth, the Holy Spirit could bring a person to salvation and saving faith without that person ever changing, which is a manifest impossibility theologically.
Any human being regenerated by God the Holy Spirit is, by necessity, a changed person. It is impossible to be born of the Spirit and not be changed. The popularization of this classic dispensational doctrine has spread across the globe through the otherwise great ministry of Campus Crusade, with their doctrine of the “carnal” Christian, which teaches that a person can be saved and reborn yet still be altogether in the flesh.
The idea of the carnal Christian is a ghastly distortion of biblical truth. It is not simply ghastly because it is bad theology, but the consequences are severe because it encourages people who have made a profession of faith but do not possess the faith into believing that they are saved, even when there is no evidence of it.
A Fig Tree with No Fruit
In Reformed theology, we emphasize the doctrine of justification by faith alone. With Luther, we agree that it is the article upon which the church stands or falls. We affirm the idea that whatever works we do in this world add nothing to our justification. To be justified by faith alone is to be justified by Christ alone. Yet, in the sixteenth century, Luther was quick to add that while we are justified by faith alone, it is not by a faith that is alone.
True faith always manifests itself in the fruits of repentance and good works. Good works do not justify, but if they are not there, that is evidence that there is no real faith. If there is no real faith, there is no justification. The presence of fruit is essential to be assured of the reality of your conversion. I ask you this morning: If you are converted, do you have fruit? Or, when the Lord comes and examines you and looks beneath the foliage of your life, will He say, “There is no fruit”?
Jesus spoke of the man who had planted the fig tree, who said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Look, for three years,” which did not mean the tree was only three years old. It could have been much older. It takes a while for fig trees to be fruit-bearing. He said: “For the last three years, I’ve come seeking fruit on this fig tree. I can’t find any. There is none.”
What did the owner say? “Cut it down. Why does it use up the ground?” Notice that since it was not bearing fruit, it was useless, so he might as well cut it down. Not only was it useless, but it was harmful because it took nutrients from the soil. It took up space in the vineyard. Not only was it fruitless, but it was damaging the rest of the vineyard.
The Dead Tree
I have had a couple of practical experiences and failures trying to grow things from the ground. Agriculture is certainly not my strong suit, but I have had friends who are very good at it. When our study center was founded in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania in 1971, the woman who provided the land for it was a wealthy woman who was noted in Pittsburgh society. For example, she had donated the library at the University of Pittsburgh.
She was famous for her philanthropy, but at the same time, she was eccentric. She used to ride around on a Jeep wearing combat boots, a straw hat, and blue jeans. She was obsessive about growing trees. She constantly visited the land she donated to us for our study center in an effort to grow more trees, and we did.
She used to give us advice: “If you want to plant a ten-dollar tree, you have to dig a hundred-dollar hole.” She gave us explicit instructions on how to prune and take care of the trees. In fact, everywhere she went, she carried her pruning shears in her purse.
She did not always wear blue jeans and combat boots. On the evening when the library at the University of Pittsburgh was dedicated, she was on local television dressed exquisitely and carrying a beautiful purse. After the dedication, she went out onto the campus of Pitt University and began to trim the trees on the campus with her pruning shears. Eccentric is what she was.
I will never forget the occasion when she planted one tree about two hundred feet from a house. She had her handyman string together several hoses so that the tree could be adequately watered, but the tree was not flourishing. It was withering, and it looked sick.
One day, she pulled up in her Jeep with her handyman and looked at the tree, and she said: “The tree is not doing well. Ken, put some more water in it.” Ken said to her, “This tree is dead, boss.” The lady said: “No, it isn’t. It just needs more water. Just give it more water, Ken, and it’ll thrive.” He said, “I’ll do it, boss, but this tree’s dead.”
Ken did as he was commanded. He strung the two hundred feet of hose and filled the area of the tree every day for a week. At the end of the week, he said to the lady, “Boss, this tree is dead.” The tree was dead. All the water in the world was not going to bring it back. Have you had experiences like that?
I have another story to tell you. When I was in sixth grade, I had a girlfriend. I did. Her name was Vesta. It did not last. We broke up, so I had another girlfriend. Her name was Joanne. As things would happen, Joanne’s parents decided to move to Florida. They moved to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
I would get letters regularly from Joanne. Her address was 452—do not ask me how I still remember—Bougainvillea Drive. In the thirty years that we have lived in Florida, Vesta has never allowed us to have bougainvillea. She put a curse upon bougainvillea.
Shortly before our fifty-third anniversary, Vesta finally relented and allowed our lawn man to plant several bougainvillea bushes in our backyard. They all came loaded with flowers. The man who planted them, whose name will remain anonymous to protect the guilty since he is an officer of this church, planted and duly fertilized these bushes. The bushes consequently lost the blooms they were originally bearing. Since that day, not one bloom has appeared. He blames it on the deer. He says the deer come and eat the buds before they bloom. I blame it on the curse of Vesta. In any case, I just asked him this morning, “Any buds on the bougainvillea?” He said, “No, not yet.”
I understand. I feel the pain of the man with his fig tree. For three years, he came looking for figs, only to find no figs. Finally, he said, “Cut it down.” The workman said to him: “Sir, let it alone this year also until I dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit, that’s good. But if not, then after that you can cut it down.”
Do Not Wait to Repent
Jesus did not tell us what happened to the fig tree. We do not know if, in the fourth year, when it had more exposure to the things that would cause it to bear figs, it suddenly blossomed and bore fruit. Or, after the fourth year, it might have still been barren and fruitless, and if so, we don’t know if it would have passed the limit of the lovingkindness, tender mercy, and grace of the owner.
Jesus used this parable to amplify what He had taught the people concerning the tragedies that befell their city: “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” In this amplification, what our Lord was saying was not, “If you repent someday,” but, “Now is the time.” You cannot assume three more years of patience, three more years of longsuffering. God commands us to repent of our sins now.
If you have lived this long on this planet without ever having truly repented of your sins and fled to Christ for your forgiveness and healing, today may be your last chance. You may not have a tomorrow. You may not have next week. Do not ever presume on the grace of God.
Before this day passes if you remain unconverted, when you lay your head on your pillow tonight, I pray you will not sleep until you are on your knees before the living God, taking advantage of the blessed redemption given to all who repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. May this church be a fruit-bearing church, a church of people who are honestly and genuinely converted.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.