Many preachers and Bible teachers say that you have to bear fruit in order to prove that you’ve really believed. They propose that all true believers will inevitably, necessarily, and automatically begin to bear fruit. They may use phrases like this one:
No fruit. No root.
I was chatting with a theologically minded buddy about this concept a while back. I explained that if you require that someone bears fruit in order to prove they are saved, then that is the same thing as requiring good works for salvation. He disagreed that bearing fruit means that the person does good works.
He used the analogy of the tree. He said, “Does a tree do work in producing fruit?” I thought this was a funny question, since obviously bearing fruit in a metaphor. We don’t literally grow fruit from our armpits. What’s more, the answer is technically, yes, according to thermodynamics:
Work performed by a system is energy transferred by the system to its surroundings, due solely to macroscopic forces exerted by the system on its surroundings, where those forces, and their external effects, can be measured.
So yeah, a tree is working when it produces fruit. In all ways possible when a tree produces fruit is working. The second thing he said was, “And anyway, these are the fruits of the Spirit, which means that it’s the Spirit that does the work, not me.” So His analysis was that bearing fruit is not good works and all believers will do them automatically.
I began by trying to put together an argument philosophically. I was going to try to unravel his premise line by line, but thankfully before I spent a bunch of time doing that it occurred to me to do a quick Bible word search. I thought I wonder if the Bible ever directly calls fruit, good works. One quick concordance search later, I found this:
…Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:10)
To my friend's credit, as soon as he saw this verse he said, "Yeah, I was wrong on that one." That's why we’re good friends. He cares more about what the Bible says than being right. I hope you see what my friend saw. We bear fruit When we do good works. When we do good works, we are bearing fruit. The problem, then, is quite simple. We are saved:
…not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:9)
You cannot be saved by doing good works. Thus you cannot be saved by bearing fruit. This is sticky, because if you claim that bearing fruit is not a prerequisite, but then say that bearing fruit is the result of being saved, they have just made works a postrequisite. Either way that makes works a requirement for salvation, which Paul says is not accurate.
So, what gives? How do we sort out this confusing issue? I think I'd like to employ one of Jesus' parables to make sense of this topic. You may have heard of the parable of the sower, or sometimes called the parable of the four soils. It deals with this exact issue.
If you'd like to read the parable for yourself, you can find it in Matthew 13, Luke 8, and Mark 4. Though it's important that you pay special attention to the version found in Luke 8. This version includes an important detail that will help us understand what Jesus was teaching. If you read only the Mark and Matthew version, you may miss an important aspect.
“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” (Luke 8:5-8)
The parable gives 4 groups of seeds sown by a farmer. (1) Seed falls on the road. (2) Seed falls among rocks. (3) Seed falls among thorns. (4) Seed falls on good soil. The other day my buddy Matt, who had just recently read the parable asked, which of the seeds represents saved people? That's a fundamental question. To find the answer, we have to look at Jesus' explanation of the parable. Later in the day, he got with His disciples and explained:
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. (Luke 8:11)
Jesus begins by defining his terms. When he says the word of God clearly this represents the Gospel. So the seed being cast out represents the Gospel being shared. Now Jesus turns His attention to the four groups where the seed falls. Notice what He says about the first group. He includes an essential line.
"Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved." (Luke 8:12)
So this is talking about the first group, (the seed that falls by the wayside). Notice that it's the only group of whom it says they are unsaved. They could have believed and become saved, but they missed out.
To illustrate this concept a dad might say, "I have four kids, and one is an unbeliever." What is that dad saying about his remaining three children? By inference, he's affirming that three of his kids are believers and one is not. In the same way, Jesus presents four soil options. The first option is being an unbeliever and thus unsaved. That means that all other soils represent believers who are saved. This point is made stronger because Jesus calls the other three groups believers in His continuing explanation.
It's also valuable to note that the first group didn't believe and then stop. They never thought they believed. They weren’t fooled into thinking they were believers when they were not. Simply put, they never believed in the first place. They heard the message of Jesus but never believed. They were never convinced that it was true. So group (1) is the only group that this is said of. Let’s look at the next two groups:
But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.
Notice what Jesus says about this group. They believe for a while but then they fall away. He does not mention them having even a sprig or a bud. They seem to produce no fruit at all. However, they believed, and sprang up with new life. What follows is a sad commentary on what can happen to a believer. Though, this group is saved, they bear no fruit. I would put my friends who grew up in church, were believers as children, but then left the faith and become atheists later in life, in this category. They will arrive in Heaven without any fruit to their name, but at least they will be there. Let’s look at the next group.
Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (Luke 8:12-14)
Jesus uses the word heard to represent the experience of the previous group. So this group hears and believes, but the outcome is different. Notice what Jesus doesn’t say about this group. He doesn’t say that that they fall away as he did with the previous group. Instead, this group of believers remains within the Christian faith, but they get distracted by the cares, riches, and pleasures of life. The cares, riches, and pleasures are not necessarily sins. They are distractions that keep the believer from bearing a bunker crop. What’s really fascinating, and most people seem to miss this, is that this group does bear some fruit, but they simply don’t bring that fruit to maturity. These are distracted Christians, whose fruit is woefully small, underdeveloped, and basically useless. I imagine the vast hoard of believers who go to church on Sunday but do very little else with their faith in this category. Let’s look at the final group.
But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11-15)
Jesus speaks glowingly of this final group. They are his exemplar for how Christians should live. Once someone believes, they ought to follow Christ on a daily basis and bear fruit. Though the fact that there are four groups rather than two, demonstrates that there are a lot of different outcomes that believers can experience.
Notice that the last three groups, (2) seed among rocks, (3) seeds among thorns, (4) seeds in good soil are all lumped together. Of these three groups, Jesus never calls them unsaved. If you don't believe me, reread the parable. Point to the verse that says these three groups are unsaved... you won't find it. In fact, He shows that each has life. It's true that the life gets choked and withered in two out of three of the saved groups. Nonetheless, He never says they are unsaved.
What's more, He doesn't say that any of these three groups die. In fact, group 2 is still alive but withered at the end of the story, and group 3 is alive with unripe fruit at the end of the story. Don't miss this; Jesus does not say that group (2) or (3) die. Most people just assume that they die, but it's not what the story says. Don't believe me? Go back and reread it.
Groups (2), (3), and (4) have life, even at the end of the story. Each retains life, but two out of the three have a choked and withered life. Each was made alive by Christ, even if their mortal lives are less than obedient.
Now let me ask you a question. If you spent time removing the thorns from group three what would happen? What would happen if you carefully removed the rocks from the soil around group two? The struggling and withered plants would begin to thrive. The thorns are choking the plant so remove the thorns. The rocks are blocking the roots so root out the rocks. This is what Jesus is trying to teach. He's not shaming them for being unsaved. He's telling saved believers that they ought to remove things that choke out their spiritual life. This as much as anything proves that he's talking about saved people. He wants to turn people in group two and three into the fruit producing crops.
He's telling group two and three that they are in danger of going through life without bearing fruit. This would be a tremendously sad outcome. There are consequences for not bearing fruit as a Christian. It just so happens that the consequences are not a loss of salvation. Jesus wants you to bear fruit, but your eternal destiny is not based on how much fruit you produce or whether you produce any at all. Instead, your eternal destiny is determined by whether or not you believe in Jesus for salvation. Notice what Paul said about your good works or lack there of:
If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:15)