The Gospel and the Soil of the Human Soul
Yesterday I posted an article on ten things we should all know about the so-called Lordship Salvation controversy. It reminded me of an article I came across a few months ago (www.mattmoore.org, "Is Your Heart Good Soil?") that instantly captured my attention. The author confessed both his "sadness and terror" as he thought about the departure from Christianity on the part of several of his close friends. "One moment they appeared to be joyfully walking with God," he writes, "and then out of nowhere - to my shock and horror - they began trampling all over his Son . . . . I'm not talking about just a little backsliding or a bit of stumbling. These guys and gals flat out rejected Jesus. Today, they proudly admit that they couldn't care less about the biblical realities of sin, judgment, or God's gracious offer of redemption. They are utterly finished with Christianity."
This young man was at first convinced these friends were, what he calls, "bona fide believers." Their spiritual transformations, he goes on to say, "looked just like mine. They walked, talked, prayed, and praised just like me." To try to gain some insight into what had happened, he turned to Matthew's gospel and the parable of the sower. There we read:
"Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered way. . . . As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away" (Matt. 13:5-6, 20-21).
The author of this article goes on to say this:
"Sadly, my friends who fell away were 'rocky ground' kind of people. There was something inside of them that initially found the gospel appealing, but it wasn't enough to sustain faith and repentance. Maybe the dominant motivation of their heart was to sail smoothly and happily through this life, and they thought Christianity would give them that? Maybe desperation to find good friends or a decent spouse drove them to Jesus and his church? Maybe they were just afraid of Hell? I can't know what was going on in their hearts, but I can know -because they now reject the gospel - that they didn't long to be rescued from the penalty and power of sin, and 2) they didn't see a relationship with Jesus as the most valuable treasure they could ever possess. As soon as life wasn't running smoothly, church friendships weren't as dreamy as anticipated, potential spouses were scarce, and the paralyzing fear of God's fiery wrath wore off a little, they bailed. Gratitude and love weren't tethering these folks to Jesus. Something else - something incapable of sustaining the Christian life - was keeping their fake-faith afloat."
I don't agree with everything in the article but I do believe this author has done a good job of reminding us that not everyone who joyfully professes to trust Jesus is necessarily and always genuinely born again. Jesus himself addressed this issue on yet another occasion in Matthew's gospel. In the span of five verses he twice said: "You will recognize them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16, 20). It would be impossible to overemphasize the importance of this principle. The point that Jesus is making is simply that the essence of what you are on the inside will inevitably and unmistakably become evident on the outside. Or to say it in different terms, who you are will eventually show itself in how you live.
In that same passage from Matthew's gospel Jesus said: "Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit" (7:17). Early on and from a distance you may not be able to differentiate between trees. They may look much the same. But eventually, over time, the fruit they bear will testify to the kind and quality of tree they are. If the tree is rotten and diseased, such will be the fruit it produces. If, on the other hand, it is alive and healthy, so too will be the fruit that comes forth.
The simple but profound truth here is that Christians will produce moral and spiritual fruit that bears witness to or testifies concerning the reality of what is on the inside. In the absence of such fruit, we should be extremely cautious about telling such a person that he/she is a born-again child of God. We should be rightly suspicious about their claim to conversion. If their behavior doesn't measure up to their beliefs, something's terribly wrong.
Some people have mistakenly thought that this puts too much emphasis on good works. To them, it sounds as if we are saying that good works are the condition for salvation, that good works justify us in the sight of God, or that good works are the basis for our acceptance with God. I assure you I am saying no such thing. I do believe good works are essential, but as the evidence of saving faith. Good works are not the root of our salvation, but its fruit. They are not the cause of salvation, but they are its consequence.
Perhaps the best way to say it is by using a familiar phrase that was made popular by both John Calvin and Martin Luther during the time of the Protestant Reformation: Faith alone justifies, but not the faith that is alone. The faith that truly saves, the faith that genuinely unites us to Christ, is a particular kind of faith. It is faith of a unique quality. It is living, fruit-giving faith that invariably leads to personal holiness, good works, and a gradually transformed life. That is why Jesus and the authors of the NT so often say, if you want to know whether or not someone's claim to "faith" is real, test and taste the fruit.