It has been very interesting to say the least, to watch the first week of the Presidency of Donald Trump unfold. He has made appointments and issued executive orders which have pleased some, but have infuriated others. But there was, to me, a very telling statement on the CNN news website this week. CNN, as you might expect, has pretty much lambasted President Trump all week. But one day the lead story read that, love it or hate it, President Trump is doing just what he said he would do. And there’s something to that. In an era where we’ve almost come to expect empty words and empty promises in just about every arena of human life, it is somewhat refreshing to see someone actually DO what they said they would!
Last week we saw that John the Baptist came to the people of Israel with a strong message: after 400 years of silence, God sent him with the call to repentance: make a “u-turn” from what you have been doing, and come back to God. And the Bible tells us that people responded to that message. But when they did, John greeted them in an unusual way. Verse 7 says, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
We need to understand that the response that John had for those who came out to the Jordan River that day is the message that GOD has for many of us here in America today: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Don’t just make an empty “commitment” to God; DO what you say you are going to do. If you say you are really repenting and coming back to God, then DO it. “Bring forth the fruit of repentance.”
I. The Certainty of the Fruit of Repentance
John told the Pharisees & Sadducees, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, when you repent, there will be “fruit” of your repentance. There will be changes, evidences, that can be seen in your life if you genuinely repent.
Last spring my wife Cheryl planted eight tomato plants in her raised garden bed; two rows of four. For whatever reason, one whole row of them, 4 plants, died — but the next whole row, 4 plants, lived! Those last 4 were good plants — and they SHOWED that they were good plants, by the fruit that they bore. We were so excited when we got the first tomato off the plants. And then when she got 8 or 10, Cheryl made the first batch of salsa that we put in our freezer. And then another batch; and another. And by Labor Day, early last September, we were still getting so many tomatoes that Cheryl made that huge batch of salsa that she gave to everyone in attendance here at Pleasant Ridge on Labor Day Weekend. But that wasn’t the end. The tomatoes kept coming throughout September, and October — and we got the last tomato off of the last plant early December! It was amazing! Those 4 plants were really good plants — and you didn’t just know it by the little sign Cheryl put in the ground in front of them — they showed that they were good tomato plants by the fruit that they bore.
And God is saying here through John the Baptist that the same thing is true in religion as well. He says: there are a lot of people who SAY that they are coming to the Lord. But it is another thing to SHOW that you really are, by the “fruit” of your repentance — by the “u-turn” that you make with your life.
This is just what Jesus would say later in this same book as well. In Matthew 7, Jesus concluded the Sermon on the Mount by saying: “You will know them by their fruit … every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit … Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” And then He applied the meaning of that picture by saying: “Not everyone who SAYS to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who DOES the will of My Father who is in heaven.”
Both Jesus and John the Baptist are saying the same thing (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit): If you really repent and come to Jesus, you will “bear fruit” — you will SHOW by the way you live that you have really repented. You will be able to see the difference in your life. Just like those good tomato plants of Cheryl’s bore all that fruit and showed what they were, so YOU, if you really repent and come to Christ, won’t just “say” that you’re doing it, you will SHOW it by the way you live. People will be able to see “the fruit of repentance” in your life.
So in a very real sense, if you say that you are a Christian, someone should be able to ask you: “You claim to be a Christian? What FRUIT of your life shows that you really are?” And you should be able to list some things: some thing perhaps that you have STOPPED doing since you became a Christian; and some other things that you have STARTED doing since you repented and followed Christ. It should not be hard for you to list some things — some FRUIT — of the change in your life that shows that you really repented.
If you are “repenter” (remember the Romanians call Christians “repenters” because repentance is so basic to being a real Christian) then you and other people should be able to see the difference in your life. Do you say that you have really repented? Then show me the change; show me the fruit. If you have really repented, you will have “the fruit of repentance.”
Now let me add this: the fruit of repentance will be more pronounced in your life if you repented as an adult than if you were saved when you were a child. If you were saved as an adult, you might be able to point to a whole list of things that are different with you because you repented. But if you were saved as a child, you might not have that “dramatic” lifestyle change — because you hadn’t gotten very far down the road in sin yet. Someone said that being saved as an adult is like crossing a great river at midstream — but being saved as a child is like just “hopping across” a little brook way upstream. The important thing is that you have crossed that river! If you were saved as a child, you probably didn’t have a big lifestyle change — but if you think about it, there was a big change in what you MIGHT have been; in what you COULD have been, had you not been saved. Maybe there were others of your family and friends and neighbors who lived a certain kind of life that YOU never fell into, because you had been saved. Your repentance wasn’t as much from what you DID as from what you COULD have done. I hope this perspective might help give some peace to some of you who were saved as children. Don’t feel badly because you “don’t have a great testimony” of being saved from some wretched sin. Being spared from a life and the heartaches of sin is a GREAT testimony! Thank God for it! But see, IF you really “repented”; if you really “gave your life to Christ” as a child, you WILL have that testimony of what the Lord has done with your life. Your life will not be the same as others who grew up in your neighborhood or family or friends. You WILL have the “fruit”” of a genuine repentance and commitment to Christ. Young or old, a person who has genuinely repented will always bears fruit.
II. Examples of the Fruit of Repentance:
So what does this look like in real life? We see in scripture some examples of people who really repented, and the difference in their lives when they did:
It is interesting that Luke also gives this same account of John the Baptist preaching, but the Lord inspired him to include another part of the story. In Luke 3 John preaches about repentance, just like he does here in Matthew. But in :10, Luke records the RESPONSE of the people to John’s preaching. After he spoke to them about repentance they said: “Then what shall we do?” That’s a fair question. You’ve told us to repent. What do you mean? What kind of specific things should we do differently? And John told them:
— He said in :11 “The man who has two tunics, is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.”
— Verse 12-13 says some tax collectors came to be baptized and asked “What shall WE do?” “And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.'”
— In :14 some soldiers asked: “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
See, all of John’s answers dealt with some very specific areas of the people’s lives in which they had been sinning, and in which they were to STOP sinning, and turn around start doing something different: stop being selfish; stop ripping people off; stop lying and accusing people falsely; DO start caring about people and sharing with them; and change your stinking attitude. These are examples of the kind of fruit that God wants to see from our lives when we really repent.
There is a specific example of a person bringing forth the fruit of repentance found in Luke 19, in the story of the man named Zaccheus. Zaccheus was a tax collector, and had become rich, as many tax collectors had done in those days, by cheating and overcharging people on their taxes. As the famous story goes, Jesus came through Jericho, and Zaccheus had climbed into a tree so that he could see past the crowd to Jesus. When Jesus invited Himself to Zaccheus’ home, people objected that this man was a sinner. But Zaccheus said: “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Why? Because Zaccheus had bought his salvation? NO — because he was showing the FRUIT of genuine repentance. He wasn’t just SAYING that he was going to follow Jesus — he SHOWED it, by changing his ways; by stopping his cheating of people, by giving to the poor. Interestingly enough, Zaccheus lived out exactly what John the Baptist had told the tax collectors to do when they came to be baptized at the Jordan in Luke 3. He didn’t just “SAY” to Jesus “Lord, Lord”; He brought forth the fruit of real repentance in his life. And we will do the same thing when we genuinely repent. There will be real, specific changes in our lives.
One of the best books I read last year was entitled: The Secret Confessions of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Butterfield. It is the testimony of a former lesbian activist college professor who was saved and her life was dramatically changed by Jesus Christ. I highly recommend it not only for her own personal testimony, but because of the insights it gives you into the thought processes of a person who does not know God, and what speaks to them, and impacts them, and helps draw them to the Lord. It is very insightful. But one of the significant things we see in the book is that when Rosaria Butterfield finally did come to conclusion that the Bible was what it said it was: the word of God; and that Jesus Christ was who He said He was, she realized that she had to make some changes in her life. She couldn’t continue to live in immorality with another woman. She couldn’t continue to teach some of the things she had been teaching at the university. She really did REPENT of her sin, and her life is dramatically different today as a result. She is now a committed Christian, a pastor’s wife, and the mother of several children, serving right here in North Carolina. There is no question that she brought forth the fruit of real repentance.
And when YOU genuinely repent; when you are genuinely saved; you will also bring forth the fruit of real repentance. You won’t just “go up front and fill out a card” or get baptized, and then keep on living the same life you were living. Too many people claim to be Christians but they have never brought forth the fruit of repentance like Zaccheus or Rosaria Butterfield did. They say they gave their life to Jesus but they are still living in the same ungodly relationship they were living in; nothing has changed. They still live for money and mistreat people and do virtually everything the same way they did, before they were supposedly saved. Listen: if your repentance is real, then there will be specific changes in your life as you bring forth the fruit of your repentance before God. As we saw from God’s word last week: if you have not repented; if there has not been a u-turn; if there has not been a change in your life, then you are not saved. You must bring forth the fruit of real repentance.
(B.) And here’s an addendum to that: bringing forth this fruit of repentance is NOT just a one-time thing. Most trees don’t just bear fruit one time. They continue to produce fruit year after year.
And so will the genuine Christian. If you are really saved, you are not going to just bring forth the fruit of repentance one time, when you get saved — it will be a continual thing throughout your life. You don’t just repent once as a Christian; you do make a big “u-turn” when you get saved, and head back to God. But you will also CONTINUE to repent every day for the rest of your life as you walk with the Lord.
One of our sweet men came up to me last Sunday after I had preached the message on repentance and salvation, and thanked me. And he said, “This is a good message not only for lost people, but it was good for ME too. I need to continue to repent in my life.” And that is exactly right.
Repentance is like exercise. You don’t just exercise once on January 1st and think you’re good for the rest of your life. Starting that exercise on Jan. 1st is good — you’ve got to have a definite starting point at some time — but if your commitment is real you are going to keep up that exercise every day. January 1st was just the beginning of it.
And so it is with repentance. It isn’t that you just make a decision one day in church and “repent” and you are done. (And I’m afraid that is what a lot of people think! “I’ve repented; I’m done; I’m going to heaven now.”) But if your repentance is sincere; if your “u-turn” is real, then that first repentance is just the first of MANY repentings all through your life.
Just like we should be “life long exercisers”, and “life long learners”, we should be “life long repenters” as well. Every day, just like Jesus taught us in the Model Prayer, we should pray: “Forgive us our debts”, and ask God to forgive us for our sins — and then we should ask Him to “DELIVER US FROM EVIL”, and help us not to do it any more. As growing Christians we should be continually repenting as we read God’s word and pray every day:
— We’ll read in Exodus where God says “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” and we’ll go: “Oh man, I HAVE been coveting my neighbor’s house. Lord, forgive me, and help me not to do that any more.”
— We’ll read in Malachi, where God commands us to bring all the tithe into the storehouse, and we’ll be convicted because we haven’t been tithing, and we’ll repent of that and put God first in our next paycheck.
— We’ll come across Ephesians 4, where God says, “Be angry, and do not sin, and do not let the sun go down on your anger” — and God’s Spirit will convict us, and we’ll have to pray: “Lord I DID get angry with that person yesterday, and that wasn’t righteous anger; it was pride on my part. Forgive me for that pride, and anger, and help me to be different.”
— We’ll see in the Gospels where Jesus says the Great Commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart — and we’ll realize that we have loved other things more than we have loved God: possessions, and people, jobs, and hobbies, and even games and tv shows — and we’ll ask Him to help us repent of that and show with our time and our money and our schedule that we really do love HIM more.
And over and over like that every day. That’s one of the reasons why it is so important for a Christian to have a daily time in God’s word & prayer: so we can daily be confronted with our sins in the Bible, and be a daily, life-long repenter, “bringing forth the fruit of repentance” and showing by those specific, continued changes, that we really do belong to Him. (Which leads us to our last point: )
III. The JUDGMENT of the Fruit of Repentance
After he commanded the people in :8 to “Bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance”, John said in :10, “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John was saying: Listen; there is coming a judgment that is based NOT on what you have SAID you are, but which is based on whether or not you brought forth the fruit of repentance that he is talking about here. He said in :12 that when Jesus comes, “He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
This is a picture that all of us can understand: you keep what’s good & growing, and burn what’s dead & useless. It’s like in our back yard. We have a fairly small lawn area in both our front and back yards. When we first bought the house, I thought: man, this will be great — there’s almost nothing to mow here; it’s mostly just trees and flower beds! Well, as some of you know, trees and flower beds are a whole lot more trouble than just mowing a lawn! They take a lot of work. Thankfully Cheryl really enjoys working in the yard; it’s one of her hobbies; and I like to get out occasionally and do something outside. This will be our second full winter here now. So we know that in the spring, we are going to have a lot of cleaning up to do in the yard: raking up leaves we haven’t gotten out of beds; picking up branches that have fallen, as well as cleaning out areas around good, growing plants. Now I am not as familiar as Cheryl is with the specific plants and so on, so sometimes she’ll say something like: “Do you see that plant with the big green leaves there? That is something we want to keep; don’t pull that up.” So I’ll know that those are good, and they stay there. But there is also always a big bunch of twigs and branches that have fallen off of the many trees in our yard, during the winter storms. They are dead; they are never going to grow; so I will gather those up and I’ll get a fire started in the little brick fire pit we made in the back yard, and we’ll just burn those up.
And the Bible says that is what Jesus does as well. He sees those of us who are genuine, growing Christians, who are producing the fruit of repentance with the actions of our lives, and He will gather us into His “barn” — His home in heaven. But He also sees those who are nothing but spiritual “dead wood” — those who have NOT shown the fruit of real repentance in their lives. They may not go to church — or they may even be IN the church, because remember it’s not what you SAY you are; it’s what you really SHOW you are with your life that matters to God — and quite honestly there’s a whole lot of people in churches on Sunday who SAY they are Christians, but who are nothing more than “spiritual dead wood”; who do NOT show the fruit of real repentance in their lives. And God says here that just like with the dead wood at my home, Jesus will “burn (them) up with unquenchable fire” in hell.
So what about you? Are you wheat or are you chaff? Are you a growing tree that is bearing the fruit of righteousness and you’re headed to heaven — or are you “spiritual dead wood”, destined for the fire of hell?
Remember: it doesn’t matter what you SAY you are. You can tell me anything you want to; you can tell people here whatever you want to say you are. But God tells us here in His word that what really matters is what you SHOW HIM WITH YOUR LIFE that you are. “Bring forth FRUIT in keeping with repentance … He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”