Considering that I planted late, the tomatoes and the green peppers did great. But the beans turned out to be bush beans instead of pole beans and ended up in the shadow of the tomato plants, so they didn’t produce. One day I walked out to the garden to find the squash shriveling up! It got the same amount of water, light and organic bug/fungus stuff as the rest of the garden, so I don’t know what happened. The leaves eventually rotted away, along with one sick little squash fetus who just wasn’t meant to be. Bad plant, bad fruit. I guess that’s just the way it goes. It’s downright biblical.
In Matthew 7:18 we read that a healthy tree doesn’t bear bad fruit. Someone who hasn’t spent much time in church may read that and be surprised that the Bible offers helpful gardening tips. However, for those of us who have heard countless sermons on how we’re failing to live up to God’s wonderful plan for our lives, we know better. Christians hear Scripture like that and we don’t think about oranges or apples; we start thinking about our sin. We know all too well about the bad fruit: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy and the list goes on. Sure, we also think about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, but it doesn’t take an expert fruit inspector to discern that we Christian trees are bearing some nasty produce.
Still, while each Sunday the preacher reminds us of our bad apples and sour grapes, we are offered forgiveness in the cross of Christ. But even then, just as we breathe a sigh of relief and cautiously approach to dip our roots into the healing and nourishing water of life, along comes the guilt kicker, “After all that Jesus has done for you…” Sure, salvation is a free gift, but now that we’re forgiven we should step up the effort a bit this week to show our gratitude. Or worse, the pastor tells us that the sin we just confessed is reason to question our salvation (a personal experience of mine as a young new believer). After all, faith without works is dead, so you better put down the bong and get about the business of proving you’re a real Christian or else you’re gonna get it!
Of course, it is true that we should be grateful for our salvation and glorify God with our actions, but failing to acknowledge ALL that Jesus has done (and does) for us strikes at the root of both gratitude and holy living. Moving straight to the carnal effort to give God our all seems to make sense, so we thank God for the forgiveness and get back to work. The trees walk away determined to prove their love for God by bringing him some fruit next week instead of faithfully staying planted by the water to abide and imbibe life. It won’t be long before the trees stand fearfully ashamed before the fruit inspector again.
What’s wrong with this picture? Where’s the fruit? It’s not that we don’t care. It’s not a lack of trying. We’d make bushels of fruit if we knew how. And it’s not because the preachers haven’t told us over and over again about how rank bad fruit is and about the value of good fruit in our lives. Week after week we’re urged to produce the produce, but something is missing. As Matthew 7:18 tells us, the problem isn’t with the fruit… it’s the root. Jesus makes this even clearer when he says, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad” (Matthew 12:33). But how? How do we make our trees good?
The answer is so simple that we don’t trust it. God makes trees good, but our problem is that we haven’t reckoned them as such.
Here’s the deal, if you have even the flimsiest faith in Jesus to save your sorry butt, it’s proof that God chose you from eternity to be His child. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed and you can throw your mountain of sin into the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness. Now, I haven’t planted any mustard seeds in my garden, but I hear them seeds is pretty small. And that little faith you have was planted in you before time began. It’s an eternal done deal. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:3-7). Geerhardus Vos put it this way, “The best proof that He will never cease to love us lies in that He never began.”
Now, you may ask what any of that has to do with good fruit, and my answer is quite literally, everything! The fact of God beginning something is the guarantee that He will finish it (Philippians 1:6). Because of His great love for you, the Father planted his seed of faith in you, and faith in His loving work in you is what will yield a harvest of love and holiness in your life.
Attempts to motivate God’s children with guilt, shame and fear incite them to declare that God is a “hard man.” As a result, they bury God’s gift of grace in a faithless grave instead of planting it in the good soil of trust that their Father will bring the work he started to fruitful completion. The fruitless effort of guilt preachers veils the eyes of believers from the glory of the gospel of grace and inhibits faith in the finished work of Christ, and sanctification suffers. It puts fruit trees in a dark cave and shows them the fruit they should be producing in an effort to get them to blossom. The preacher who resorts to guilt, shame or fear unwittingly risks standing in the place of the accuser of the brethren thereby subjectively reinstating enmity with God in the minds and hearts of his children. Enmity with God is friendship with the world. This is in direct opposition to Scripture’s witness that believers are covenant friends of God. It introduces disease into an otherwise healthy tree and hacks at the root of faith. Instead of trusting God’s nature in believers to take its course, these misguided preachers encourage unhealthy introspection as the route to holiness. However, the good seed can’t grow when it’s constantly being dug up in order to examine its growth!
Instead, the preacher should proclaim the truth that believers are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and a people for God’s own possession. Not that Christians should be these things with greater effort, but that they are these by faith in God’s grace and mercy. Preachers of the gospel set good trees in the brilliant sun of God’s love to be nourished by his warm rays, stretch toward him, draw the living water of the Spirit of Christ through the root of faith, and bear good fruit. If gratitude should motivate good works, give God’s people the only thing for which to be truly grateful. If we reflect Christ’s glory in holy living as we see him as he is, then the preacher must make Christ clearly visible. Everything that God has required of us has already been given to us in Christ. “Whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Romans 8:30). It is eternally finished!
All is ours with even the flimsiest faith because it all depends on God’s eternal done deal. What joy and fruit awaits! If we simply dare to believe the good news, we will say with Spurgeon “While I regarded God as a tyrant, I thought sin a trifle. But when I knew Him to be my Father, then I mourned that I could ever have kicked against Him. When I thought that God was hard, I found it easy to sin. But when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good.”