Can You Really Tell a Tree by Its Fruit? by C. Matthew McMahonArticles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
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Matthew 7:16-20, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
This is a simple question, but it has the most profound consequences. Can you really tell a tree by its fruit – or was Christ lying? I want to make this as simple as possible, and short as well (people like “short). In the midst of a sermon on lawlessness (lawless people are those who hate God and reject His holy commandments, sometimes called Antinomians) Christ said in Matthew 7:16-20, “You will know them by their fruits…a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” These are profound statements. They press Christians to deal with the reality of judging things to be good or bad, evil or righteous. How do Christians view men? How do they view false teachers or hypocritical church members, as in this context? Christ and His apostles often told us that false teachers plague the church (Matthew 24:11ff; Acts 20:29-30; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1, 4:3). How discerning should we be?
Before I turn to the “hard sayings here” I want to first sound very optimistic. I like to think the best for people. I would like to think, with Charles Spurgeon, that most people go to heaven because I cannot fathom that Christ would allow so many people go to hell. But, nonetheless I have to go with what God says and not with what Spurgeon would have liked to think. Matthew 7:14, “…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Or, Matthew 22:14, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” In light of God’s sovereignty, optimism in that regard goes flying out the window. The reality is – most people go to hell. That is unfortunate, and tears at our heartstrings especially in light of grandpa’s death or Aunt Mary’s growing cancer. We love our friends and relatives and do not want to think the worst, but the reality is – most people go to hell. God is much smarter and glorious than we will ever be, even in our glorified state. For whatever reason, God thought it would glorify Him most to send most people to hell. If you were God you could change the rules. But if you were God, you would have done exactly what God did from all eternity – determine that most people go to hell. That is what glorifies His justice and holiness most. God will have His glory, and sending most people to hell is the way He receives that glory in a certain number of his attributes.
Heaven is fixed with an innumerable number of saints. If that is true (and it is (Rev. 14:6)), then I cannot imagine how many people are actually going to be in hell. Much more! That is an unpleasant thought that can ruin our day if we do not have a proper theology running through our minds in relation to the glorious God we serve and love. You see, I do not particularly like to think about people going to hell. (Anyone who does has a screw loose somewhere.) God is not a sadist. According to Ezekiel, He would rather see wayward people turn and live. But He knows that if He does not grant them repentance, they will not turn and live and He will have to damn them. God is fair, and He is just. When we think about hell, we should hate the thought of people going there. I particularly think that hell is a topic I would rather not let my imagination run away with. I hate thinking about eternal torment, and people screaming and gnashing their teeth in hell. It’s a depressing thought process to ponder to a great extent, and if pondered long enough, could drive a person mad. On the other hand, certainly it raises in my mind thoughts about God’s holiness, justice, and righteousness, and those are all good things to think about. But ultimately, I would rather think optimistically about people rather than pessimistically in light of their eternal state. However, I do not get to live with my feelings. Rather, I have to live with what God has said. God says most people go to hell. That is the true reality (whether I like it or not).
Aside from the fact that I would like to think optimistically, I am forced to think biblically. Oftentimes, on a number of issues, those two ideas do not meet so happily. Optimism is not always Biblicism. How does this apply to the eternal fate of a man or woman? Are we (you and I) able to make any kind of determination on the soul of a man or woman as to whether we think they are in heaven or hell? I can tell you from past experience, when you attend a funeral, most people think everyone is “in a better place.” No one seems to have a hard time dealing with the eternal fate of a loved one or of a friend when we say they have gone to heaven. Heaven is optimistic. Imagine if you were in the midst of a wake where your best friend died, and you were with the family, you wrapped your arm around the mother of your best friend and said, “He’s in a better place – with Christ in heaven.” She would be consoled. It’s what people want to hear. Johnny went to heaven. It’s a hard reality when we face the death of a loved one, but it’s comforting too that he is in heaven with Christ – God called him home. Now, on the other hand, imagine if you said, “Johnny went to hell.” What would the relatives say? They would tell you not to judge. They would tell you that saying such things is harsh. They would be appalled. Then they would probably throw you out of the wake.
So, are Christians able to make real determinations about people? Let’s be blunt and frank – if your Christian friend died, would you be sure they went to heaven? Or, if your pagan father died, would you be sure he is burning in hell? What if your pagan father, who rejected the Gospel and hated Christ, spoke publicly about how much he hated Christ and hated the Gospel? He was an atheist who publicly railed Christ and the Gospel like Bertrand Russell. Would you think that upon his death he was in hell? I suppose to a certain extent this question presses you to consider whether you really believe the doctrine of hell and whether Christ was right when he said that, “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22)” People falling into this category are in a real danger because hell is real. Deuteronomy 32:22, “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and shall burn to the lowest hell.” I’m not so concerned about the category. I am more concerned with the reality that hell is real, people go there, and we can be sure of it because Christ said so. Since hell is a real biblical teaching, and a real place of eternal torment, Christians believe that Christ was not lying when he said people go to hell. Since people do go to hell, can we be sure that people actually go there? This is not a mixed up question. If hell is real, and pagans die (and they do) then they go to hell according to what God has said. The real question lies in the reality as to whether or not we know if Johnny went to hell or not. Let’s further the “pagan father” illustration. If your father is on his deathbed, and continued to speak against Christ, and then died, would he go to hell? Frankly, yes, godless men go to hell. Let’s turn the tables a bit. Can you know he went to hell? Are you absolutely sure he went to hell? In other words, your dad dies a pagan God hater. Does he get to go to heaven or hell? I know I am belaboring this a bit, but my point is just around the corner. Bear with me. I would imagine, as much as the truth hurts, we would have to conclude that pagan God haters go to hell. I do wish that God decided to send all men to heaven, but if my father died a pagan God-hater then he would go to hell. Christ is clear – Matthew 25:46, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment.” I’d like to think he is in heaven, but I have to face reality. The God-hating dad is burning in hell and has no means of escape.
I think we are clear so far. God-haters go to hell. What about false teachers? What about the lawless who died without Christ? What about Hitler, Stalin, Ghangis Kahn, Alexander the Great, or the Pope of Rome? Are they somehow sticky wickets in this overall question? Can the Christian determine that God-haters who do not repent go to hell? Can they determine that false prophets who do not repent go to hell? Can they be sure, without a shadow of a doubt that those who teach false gospels and do not repent go to hell? I cannot see any real Christian denying this unless they simply misunderstand Christ’s words in the Bible. Someone who teaches a false Gospel, and teaches others to obey that false Gospel, and does not repent of that false Gospel, will go to hell. I think the bible is clear on this too, “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1)” Why then do people have such a hard time with what Christ says about knowing a good tree from a bad tree?
Here is the kicker – can Christians confidently know whether someone goes to heaven or hell? Can they be confident in it? Again, Christ said in Matthew 7:16-20, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” This section of the Sermon on the Mount is chiastic. That means it is written structurally with a special grammatical purpose. The first part of the quotation matches the last part. The middle section about trees is inverted as well and is structured after a Hebrew poetic construction. That is as technical as I will get. The Holy Spirit was emphasizing something specific through the Gospel writer even by the way it is structured in the passage. Though it is technically awesome to study, Christ, here, is also being quite simple. Trees are known by their fruit. Now Christ does not say that He alone will know them. Rather, he is emphatic in the beginning and then end of the quotation “You,” and “You.” (Not “I” and “I”). Christ is saying you and I have the discernment to know whether a tree is good or bad by its externals. In other words, what the tree produces will guide us into whether or not we have a good judgment about the nature of the tree. The fruit on the tree does not make the tree good or bad. The fruit simply shows us whether the tree is a good tree or bad tree. Christ says that bad trees are not known by Him. He will tell them in the last day to depart from His glory and the joy of His presence. In this same passage, He says that we will know these trees now. James tells us this same thing when he says, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:26)” This is relatively the same thing Christ is saying. You can tell whether or not a tree is good or bad based on biblical directives and biblical guidelines. This also means that you have to have God’s opinion about what is good and bad. You do not get to make up the rules. You have to follow the rules that God gives in His Word, and that means you have to know the bible very well to make good judgments about doctrinal issues and practices. You have to know whether a person is a false teacher or not, and that means you have to know quite a bit about false teachers and the true Gospel. Judging rightly is hard because we must biblically be equipped to judge. The sad reality to this is that most people want to enter into the “I am not a theologian” category, so they say that we should not judge anyone’s eternal destiny – that is for God alone to decide. If that is true, then in this passage, Christ is a liar.
Others will say – do not judge! They say that Jesus says, “Judge not!” Stop that. Christ says that we are not to hypocritically judge. Matthew 7:1-5, “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. 3 “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? 4 “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? 5 “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Jesus does not just say, “Do not judge.” He explains exactly what He means – do not judge hypocritically. First, take the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly to judge. If you cannot see clearly to judge, then the problem is that you have a log in your eye and it needs to come out. If it is removed from your own eye, then you have clear vision and can see the speck in your brother’s eye. Unfortunately, this is a very abused text where most people will just say, “Judge not!” They simply do not want to be judged, or take the responsibility to do what God has said, which is to be discerning between good and evil. This is judging of the highest order. Rather, they want to wallow in the “judge not” category and throw away the biblical directives of Christ to discern whether trees are good or bad. The point to all this is that Christ has told us that we would know good trees and bad trees. We would know them by their fruits. By what they do, say, act, teach, lead, etc., we will know them. Do you know them? Do you want to know them?
I have to admit, as everyone would, we sometimes judge wrongly. We are sinners and we get our judgments befuddled a bit. Sister Jones, although we may think she is as saved because of her sweet and gentle disposition, is really as lost as they come. And some of the young people in our youth group seem a bit extreme, and we would write them off as unsaved. But God’s grace is sufficient to save them, and so we make judgment calls that are obscure or just plain wrong without have sufficient facts. We think, “That tree looked a little disheveled”, so we write it off right away forgetting that we have sawdust in our eyes. That crosses the line between being discerning and censorious. We must continually remember, if it were not for the grace of God, where would we be? Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” We continually stand in awe at God’s mercy to save us.
On the other hand, there are others in history and throughout history that are abominable men and women. There have been witches, warlocks, Satanists, oppressors, dictators, queens, and the like, who have been more evil than Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. We could simply use some of those cartoon characters to prove a point, if they were real. If we had to make a judgment on the eternal destiny of a soul after they died, what would be the determination, say, of the witch in Snow White – is she in heaven or hell? What about the wicked Maleficent? Where would she go? Would you have a problem condemning them to the flames? Why then are so many having such a problem with the death of Hitler, Stalin, Nero, Diocletian, or Pope John Paul II? Christ said that we would know them by their fruits. In our passage at hand, Christ is dealing mainly with false teachers who do signs, miracles and other things that make them stand out with pomp. They are false teachers who are known by their fruit. Christians must test them. These tests can be general and specific. Are they conforming to the true nature of the Christian? Do they love Christ and His commandments? Do they teach the Gospel? Tests are not hard. What Gospel do they preach? False teachers in and out of the church fall prey to some of the simplest tests because they teach a false Gospel. Now, if you are ignorant of the Gospel, then judging here would be guessing. But if you are a Christian who knows his bible, the judging is discerning. We do not judge because we want to judge every soul or think we stand in the place of God. Rather, we judge because every tree is known by its fruit. We can, by Christ’s direction, know good trees and bad trees.
It would be sin for us to simply be censorious. We do not want to walk around like the Pharisees did with a notebook in hand writing down every name that we believe may be going to hell. But on big issues, and important consequences of action, we should be able to make definitive judgments on whether the pagan God-hater or false teacher went to heaven or hell. Christians need a little backbone to stand up and say with conviction that those who preach and teach a false Gospel go to hell. We could speak about Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, or any of the other major cultic religion and find the false prophets abounding. Is hell empty? Or are these people there? Christ said we could tell them by their fruits. Was he lying? Can we be sure? Christians should not be timid to place theology into practice. Matthew 7 is important, among other texts, for the churches well being. Excommunication could never take place unless we knew who was a heretic or a lawless person, and who was not. Paul is very specific about such things when he says in Titus 3:10-11, “Reject a heretic after the first and second admonition, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.” Two brief points are to be made on this verse – 1) the Greek aretikos means schismatic, divisive and a follower of false doctrine. It is a man who teaches something that divides the body of Christ from the truth of the Word. They promote heretical doctrine. 2) The word “knowing” is eidow which means to see and perceive. This is not “seeing with the eyes” necessarily. Rather, it is like when someone says to you, “Do you see what I’m saying?” Paul is telling Titus that heretics will be around, they are godless followers of false doctrine, and after two admonitions to repent, you are to have nothing to do with them. Why? Because you know they are self-condemned. What does it mean to be condemned? Condemned by who? Condemned to what? No doubt, this means he is to be expelled from amidst the church and handed over to Satan. He is excommunicated after two admonitions. This is for the well-being of the church, and the glory of God. But no action could ever be taken unless the church knew he was a heretic, sinning, being self-condemned.
You say, “But I don’t like to judge.” Then you need to repent. Christ desires His church to act in accordance with His word. If you reject Christ’s authority, and reject His word, then you are either on the road of apostasy, or you are not even a Christian. (Don’t shoot the messenger – take it up with Christ – these are His words (Isa. 7:15; Gen. 3:22; Ma.l 3:18; Heb. 5:14).) As a matter of fact, when we get to heaven, we will even judge reprobate angels. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:3, “Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?” This should be plain. We will judge angels, but now, we are the midst of judging rightly as well in terms of those in and out of the church. Remember, Christ says that we must make judgments about good trees and bad trees. Not because we have an authority complex and want to be “judgmental”, but because we desire the glory of God to be reflected in our judgments, we desire to see the well being of sanctification grow in the church, and we desire to see the church stand strong amidst ferocious wolves.
Now do not go and take all that had been said here out of context. Do not run around your local congregation with a notepad writing down everyone’s name and making judgmental calls on their eternal destiny. Do not presume to be the Holy Spirit, or the “sanctification police”. However, be sure, and make no mistake, you should discern whether people are good trees or bad trees. Are they Christians, false teachers, God-haters, or heretics? The well being of the church depends on knowing such things. Your well-being is on the line as well. If you were not discerning and judgmental in this way, how would you ever know if something is to be believed or not? Christians are to make good judgments based on the word of God, not rash judgments based on their own haste. Calvin says, “There is a wide difference between wise caution and perverse squeamishness.” Christians should be wise as serpents in these things, and yet harmless as doves.
Some will say, “But how do you know that you are not making a wrong judgment and becoming judgmental?” Christ takes care of this objection as well when he says, “Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?” He presses the point by using proverbs that were well known in those days. False prophets cannot deceive Christians unless those Christians are willfully blind. Just as people gather fruits that are plain to the eye, so these false teachers are plain to those who know the Word of their Master (cf. Luke 6:43).
One must also take into consideration that these judgments are not regarding the Law of Christian Liberty (Romans 14:13). We are not talking about eating meat or not eating meat and so judging our brother. The judgments or discernment we are speaking of is in the context of the eternal condemnation of the wicked and false teachers who plague the church from within and without. As Jonathan Edwards says, “Christ often forbids the members of his church to judge one another. But in this way of ecclesiastical proceeding, it is done continually, and looked upon as no hurt, a great part of those admitted into the church are by others of the same communion indeed unconverted, graceless persons, and it is impossible to avoid it, while we stretch not beyond the bounds of a rational charity.” So there is a great gulf fixed between Christian Liberty and the condemnation of the heretic.
If you really want to begin in the best place for discerning these things, then begin with yourself. Are YOU a good tree or bad tree? 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you are disqualified.” Test your doctrine. Test your knowledge. Test yourself against the Gospel. Do you believe the Word of truth or not?
What sparked this brief article on judging rightly? Well, to be honest, I received a number of emails from people as a result of my article “The Pope is in Hell” where I made the determination that Pope John Paul II is burning under God’s wrath for propagating a false Gospel and teaching others to believe a false Gospel. You would think Christian people would be discerning about false teachers, as Jesus instructed us (and many are). It was not the fact that people emailed me that spawned me to write this article, but it was that Christians emailed me telling me that I could not know where a false teacher eternally went who defied Christ and His perfect Word. It was alarming to me as to how many professing Christians did that. They quoted the “judge not” Scripture, and the Christian Liberty Scriptures, and a host of other verses ripped from their context. Hopefully, this brief article will help us all get on the right track to making judgments that Christ instructs us to make with all resolve. Let us, as the 21st Century Church, have a resolve that desires to follow the teaching of Scripture, instead of the feelings we are often swayed by. Let the Bible rule our judgment, not the “warm fuzzies” that sway us away from the truth for the good of our warped optimism.