Here we examine another purpose of this metaphor. The importance of works in the life of a Christian cannot be missed. This is easy to overlook in churches that preach the gospel by repentance and faith, because there is a downplaying of works to avoid appearing as if we believe they are a part of our salvation.
But works are a product of our salvation. Just as fruit is a sign of a healthy plant, works are a sign of a healthy Christian. A plant that isn’t producing fruit is either not healthy or not alive at all.
If plants could claim they are plants like people can claim they are Christians, they would, as James said, show us their fruit. People who claim Christianity must demonstrate they have Christ in them through their works:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. –James 2:14-26
This can be an extremely confusing passage because it seems as if James is saying works play a role in salvation, which would then conflict with Paul’s writing in Ephesians 2 and other passages. I have previously written extensively about why these two passages actually harmonize with each other.
James was dealing with people who claimed Christianity but lived a life outside of God’s commands. His point is that works are a product of faith, and if there is no sign of works, there is not actually faith. Works demonstrate (the other meaning of the word “justify”) that we have faith, and James calls upon his readers to live it out.
Once again, fruit is not what makes the plant a plant, but it is what naturally occurs in a living plant.
A similar message is seen in John the Baptist’s harsh message to the Pharisees and Sadducees while he was baptizing in the Jordan River:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance… –Matthew 3:7-8
But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. –Acts 26:20
Here the word translated “meet” is the Greek word axion, which has the meaning of “fitting” or “worthy.” John doesn’t accept the unsubstantiated profession of faith, but instead tells these men that they need to bring the works fitting for repentance. Repentance is a reversal of path, a change in behavior. Repentance is a part of salvation, so if there are not works that show that we have repented—if there is no difference in who we were before our “salvation” and after—there is no salvation. Because there is a wrath to come, we have to be honest with ourselves and others.
This is not to mean that committing any sin is proof that we are not actually Christians. But there has to be a demonstration of works fitting for our repentance. If those are totally absent, there’s an issue.
Good works do not inherently mean someone is born again, but a lack of good works is a demonstration that someone isn’t.
I John gives a sort of litmus test of security that we are born again, and each item on the list involves examining our works:
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. –5:13
If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. –1:6-7
And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked. –2:3-6
He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes. –2:9-1
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. –2:15
We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. –3:14-15
Notice it does not say, “We know Him if we keep His commandments.” It says, “We know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.” Keeping God’s commandments is a product of salvation, but it will be there if there is new life.
I should mention that not all fruit is good. There is evil fruit that demonstrates that an individual belongs to the darkness, and not God:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. –Matthew 7:15-20
What makes fruit a good indicator is that the good fruit and evil fruit are so easy to distinguish, and there is no way a good tree can produce evil fruit or a corrupt tree produce good fruit:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. –Galatians 5:19-24
The Bible lays out what is evil fruit and what is good fruit. Fruit betrays whose we are, based on the kind of fruit we produce. We should be living in a way that makes it obvious who we belong to.
This is not a new subject. People who have spent much time in church have surely heard this before. But in mentioning that works are not what save us, it cannot be missed that they are still a part of the daily life of the Christian. It is my challenge to myself and to the reader that we examine the fruit in our own lives and find areas in which we are not producing. We do not obey God to have a relationship with Him. We obey because we have a relationship with Him that involves Him sanctifying us to be more like Him every day. Lack of production of fruit doesn’t make a plant cease being a plant, but it is a sign that something is wrong, that it is unhealthy, and that there is no growth occurring. Without production, the plant has no practical purpose.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. –Psalm 90:5-6
Works demonstrate who we belong to. They are the fruit of our relationship with and growth in Christ. While not life-giving itself, it indicates that we have life. That’s important for our reassurance of our salvation. It is also important in reproducing new Christians:
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. –Matthew 5:14-16Third Post: What is Fruit?: The Patience and Time Required for Germination
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