Good Tree, Bad Tree
An exposition of Mathew 7:17-20
By Josef Urban
Matthew 7:17-20 – 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.
In the immediately context of this Scripture, the Lord is talking primarily about false prophets (see v. 15). They look like sheep, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Just as Satan appears as an angel of light, so his servants can appear outwardly to be ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Thus, these false prophets can be extremely deceptive. They appear to be true, they appear to be preaching righteousness, and they appear to be of the light, of the truth. Yet they are counterfeits in the church. The Lord tells us that even though they outwardly appear to have everything right, not to be fooled. And the way we are to test them so as not to be fooled is to “know them by their fruits”.
So since false prophets and false teachers need to be known by their fruits, this means that we have to examine every preacher of the Gospel by their fruits, since we don’t know who the false ones are until we examine them. This is not contrary to the Lord’s command in verses 1-5 where He forbids unrighteous, hypocritical judgment. While it is wrong and sinful to judge others when we are guilty of greater faults, or to judge them based on “appearance” with opinion, tainted motives, or wrong judgment, we are commanded to “judge (with) righteous judgment” (John 7:24). We must use some standard of judging righteously if we are to examine the fruits of Gospel preachers. And the standard that we use to judge others must not our own standard, neither our own opinions, but rather, must be according to the standards laid down in God’s Word, and any conclusion we come to must be in line with the judgment that the Word of God has already pronounced upon such things. Then we are obeying the truth, judging righteously and not wrongfully. God is the judge, and my judgment is true when it simply comes into line with and agrees with His just judgment that is already proclaimed in the infallible Word.
That being said, this means that we need to examine every preacher that we listen to using God’s Word as the standard. If they don’t match up to the qualifications therein, then they are false and need to be exposed for what they are in order to try to prevent further damage being done to God’s flock by them.
And while all this is true, and the manner of recognizing false prophets is admittedly the primary context of our Scripture, I believe there is a secondary application that can be made to apply to all of us on a broader scale. There is so much more we could say about false prophets and how to recognize them, but for the sake of this short exposition please suffer me to approach this text from a broader perspective to relate directly to us all. I will now draw out some points of application from this text in the context of how it relates to all who call themselves a “Christian”, because, let’s face it, preachers aren’t the only ones who need to be tested today, but since there is so much false profession and counterfeit Christianity going on, everybody needs to be examined with the tests of Scripture to ensure they are truly brethren in Christ. And not only this, but we each need to examine ourselves to make sure that we pass the tests of Scripture as it relates to the nature of true faith and true fellowship with Jesus.
POINTS OF APPLICATION
1. A tree is known by its fruit. Obviously, the Lord is speaking in metaphorical language. He’s not interested in discerning every literal tree of the literal forest, but of discerning between true and false Christians. Every professing believer is a tree in the sense of which this Scripture speaks. And every professing believer bears fruit of some kind, whether it is good or bad. Therefore, just like the false prophet, the person who calls himself a “Christian” can generally be known by the fruits that they bear. By “fruit”, the Lord is speaking of our works. Therefore, in a general sense, we can usually tell who is a true Christian and who is a false one by examining a professing believer’s fruit with the Word of God, by the things they do, by the works being manifested in their lives, when comparing them with the testimony of Scripture. This can’t always be done, because to a certain degree the tares (false believers) in the church sometimes look a lot like the wheat (true believers), and we are instructed to let them grow together lest we root out and harm a good grain of wheat (Mat. 13:29-30). Yet, at the same time, when the fruit is manifestly obvious it must be discerned and the wicked must be dealt with appropriately according to Scripture (1 Cor. 5:12-13). The utter failure of most of the modern professing church in this area has resulted in multitudes of more tares in the field than there is wheat, and has destroyed the testimony the church is supposed to have in the world.
Note that a tree is known not by the fullness of its leaves, but by its fruits. That is, a tree can look healthy on the outside, full of thick branches and a fullness of brightly colored leaves, yet still bear bad fruits, proving it to be a bad tree despite its outward appearance. What I mean by this is that a professing Christian can make a good and loud pretense of saying they believe in Jesus, and even provide many lush evidences to endeavor to support their profession of faith. Yet, if they are bearing bad fruit then they must be a bad tree. Just because they say they are Christians who love Jesus doesn’t change the fact that they are a bad tree and a false believer. The fruit proves it. We must remember that the Lord Himself said this in just a few verses after our text, in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
Evidently, one’s profession of faith means absolutely nothing before God, even if it’s combined with “many wonderful works”, if that person is practicing iniquity. So if someone says they are a Christian, does many great works, but lives a lifestyle in the habitual practice of sin, bearing the bad fruit of doing continually what is wicked in the sight of God, then it means nothing if they say they love Jesus. It doesn’t save them. Their faith is a spurious one; it is not the true faith by which God’s people are justified which inevitably results in a lifestyle of habitual holiness and righteousness (Rom. 6:16-19).
2. The tree makes the fruit; the fruit doesn’t make the tree. The fruit doesn’t determine what kind of tree a certain tree happens to be. Rather, the fruit only identifies to outsiders what sort of tree it is. But the real producer of the fruit is the nature of the tree itself.
This is important to understand because a failure to recognize this will have us trying to remedy a problem in the wrong way. For instance, if a sinner recognizes that his life is full of terrible sins, and he knows he needs to get right with God and stop living in such sin, it is a folly to him to attempt to deal first with his sins. If he takes the axe to the stems of all the fruits of sin on his tree and chops off all the fruits and destroys them, he will for a short time experience some degree of victory, and possibly even pride himself in what his own hands accomplished. But he will be sadly disappointed when in a short time all those corrupt fruits grow back. He can continually deal with those fruits, but they will continue to grow back. Thus, a sinner cannot stop living a lifestyle of sin by simply dealing with his sin and resisting it. There needs to be a deeper work going on.
The sinner needs to recognize that he’s not a sinner just because he sins, but he sins because he’s a sinner. The real problem is not the outward manifestations of sin in his life. The real problem is his wicked, depraved heart from whence all these sins flow (Mark 7:20-23). The axe won’t profit much if taken just to the fruit. It needs to be taken to the root of the tree. The sinner needs to utterly confess himself as hopelessly lost before God and allow God to do a deep work of grace within his heart, allowing the Holy Spirit to destroy the dominion of sin at its very throne from where it reigns -inside the heart. When the heart is “purified by faith” (Acts 15:9) through the Gospel by a real supernatural power working in his heart, then the love for sinful pleasure within will be subdued and replaced with the love for holy things. The old tree of the love for sin within needs to be chopped down, and the supernatural power of the Creator needs to create a new tree, a new heart, which desires all that is pure and holy. Then, and only then, will the corrupt fruit cease to appear outwardly.
In the same way, a good tree is not good because of its fruit. The reason its fruit is good is because the tree itself is. This means that a true Christian is not saved by his own works no matter how good they are. Rather, he is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and as a result, glorifies God through bearing the good fruit that God produces in him. First comes salvation by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9) and then comes the essential good fruits of God-glorifying works that prove that grace has truly saved (Eph. 2:10). This order cannot be reversed; it’s impossible. Any attempt to do so and put good works before salvation by grace is to manufacture a heresy and foster to self-righteousness, which is no good work at all, but actually adds sin on top of sin (Isa. 30:1). It’s God at work within His saints through their new nature that causes them to bring forth good fruits.
3. A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit. Notice that Jesus didn’t say that a corrupt tree can only sometimes bring forth good fruit, but He said, “never”. The very plain meaning of His analogy here proves that it’s impossible for a tree which is corrupt by nature to bring forth anything which is not corrupt, let alone to bring forth that which is good.
Therefore, a sinner who has not been justified by faith in Jesus, who has not been born again, who has not had his heart regenerated by the Spirit of God in a work of grace, cannot do anything which is good and pleasing to God. Every work and fruit he brings forth is one of corruption, springing from a depraved and blackened heart. It is done from impure motives, motives which are not acceptable to God. Nothing he does flows from a heart of true saving faith in Christ, and whatever is not done in faith is sin, even if it would otherwise be something innocent (Rom. 14:23). Nothing he does flows from a true love for the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore there is an “Anathema” pronounced upon him, and consequently, since the man himself is cursed, so is everything he does (1 Cor. 16:22). He is still under the curse of the Law for failing to render to God perfect obedience as is right (Gal. 3:10), and he abides under the very wrath of God (John 3:36). He is an unclean thing (Isa. 64:6), and any attempt of any unclean thing to approach a holy God and have His favor will find that only wrath awaits them. He is a slave of sin, and therefore is free from righteousness (Rom. 6:20). There is no favor for such a sinner, such a one as has never been created anew in converting grace, and nothing he does can commend him to God’s favor. It is impossible for him to change his own nature in his own power and bring forth good fruits which are acceptable to God.
“They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:12).
Let it be settled forever. This has been wrongfully attributed to a doctrine of “Calvinism” long enough. This is not a doctrine that a man invented several hundred years ago; this is a doctrine of the Word of God. Man is by nature a child of wrath, a depraved creature, an accursed thing, unclean, and free from true righteousness -so the Word of God describes him. He cannot please God. Nothing he does can please God. There is not a single unregenerate man that does good, no, NOT ONE! Sovereign grace must regenerate his heart and make him a new creature, created anew in the image of God, imparting faith to believe into his very soul that he may see Christ and be saved, and then after being converted he will certainly bring forth good fruit.
4. A good tree cannot bring forth corrupt fruit. This is plainly obvious. A good tree will continually bring forth that which is good. A true Christian will continually bring forth deeds and works and fruits which glorify God. Springing from the nature inside of the good tree itself, the fruit is good, and a believer who has the Holy Spirit residing within, from their depths will spring forth works which give honor to God. Yet, though this is the habitual practice of the true child of God, we must remember that a good tree does not always produce perfect fruit. While the majority of what it produces is good, there will occasionally be some fruit with defects, far from perfect. In fact, if it is scrutinized close enough, one would find that even the best of its fruit has defects; thus the fruit of the tree is full of many defects. But though it has its defects, it is still good for consumption, good to be given abroad, because for the most part it is delightful fruit, good for all, pleasing in the sight of God.
It is so sad to see some ignore this obvious fact and to frequently use as a ‘proof text’ for the false doctrines of sinless perfection. However, it is plainly clear that the Word of God teaches that believers do stumble into sin and still have a sinful nature to war against (Gal. 5:17). The Lord Himself taught His disciples to pray, “forgive us our sins” just as He taught them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”, thus showing in this daily prayer the believer’s need to constantly walk in a state of repentance before God -not of continual confession as a precondition of a repeated justification as some teach (for justification is once for all), but as a fruit of having the Holy Spirit within. When a man has the Holy Spirit, he will grieve over his own sin, and be humbled by it. He will readily acknowledge it before God and plead for grace to conquer continually. Therefore, it is a sign of saving grace, of true salvation, that a believer sees his shortcomings, stumbles, and sins which he hates so much and acknowledges them before God with a heart desiring perfect purity. Anyone who says they never sin and live in a state of sinlessness in the flesh only deceives himself, and the truth is not in him (1 John 1:8). And while this is true it also remains true that a real Christian will not be in constant bondage to the remaining sin within their fallen flesh, they will walk habitually in the Spirit in self-dominion over it, in holiness as a way of life.
So what does Jesus mean by these words? He must be understood in context. I believe he goes on to explain exactly what the “corrupt fruit” is that a good tree cannot bear: in Matthew 7:23 (already quoted), the Lord describes this corrupt fruit as being the “work of iniquity”. The Greek word for “work” is one denoting an ongoing, continual action, or in other words, a practice. It is a term of habit. And “iniquity” simply means, “lawlessness”. (And so the New King James translates the Lord’s words as “you who practice lawlessness”.) This is describing someone who lives as if they can sin without eternal consequence. They are living in sin. They sin and their hearts are not broken over it. They keep sinning and sinning and haven’t come to true repentance and of renouncing all sin deeply within their heart by faith in Christ.
So while a believer will not be absolutely sinless and perfect in holiness in the flesh, he will certainly not live a lifestyle of indulging in any sin willfully and continually. “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life” (Romans 6:22). A good tree will not, and cannot, produce the corrupt fruit of living in continual carnality and sin, since the divine nature abides within him (1 John 3:9). God’s own Spirit within his heart won’t allow such a one to continually practice sin. Therefore, if such a one claims to be a Christian, but practices lawlessness, they are not a good tree, they are a bad tree, which the Lord goes on to explain what will happen to such a one:
5. Every tree that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. This is without exception. God will not overlook corrupt fruit. He will rid His Kingdom of it all. If someone is living in the practice of sin, with the desires of their heart continually enjoying their sin, they are in for a fearful day when the axe blade of God’s justice is sharpened and is swung forth by the mighty hand of omnipotence, and those trees thrown into the fire to be burned forever. They will “suffer the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7). Oh, what a fearful thing! Oh, how man should tremble before God! As Jesus said: “Fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat. 10:28).
But let’s go even a little further. Notice that the text doesn’t say, “Every tree that brings forth bad fruit…” but it says, “Every tree that doesn’t bring forth good fruit”. -This goes even further. See, not only will every tree which is bringing forth corrupt fruit be chopped down and burned, but so will every tree that doesn’t have good fruit. Note, that the tree could look good from a distance, it could look just like a good tree, and there may not be any visible corrupt fruit on it. Yet, if there is an absence of good fruit, it is still a bad tree. A person may think they are saved, and may live what appears to be a morally spotless life in the eyes of their fellow man, yet if they fail to bring forth the good fruits of holiness, righteousness, truth, purity, love, faith, hope, peace, etc. as the Holy Spirit gives to His people, then they too will be chopped and burned. So we see the utter necessity here, not only for the absence of the practice of willful sin, but also for the positive righteousness and holy living that is the evidence and proof of our confession of faith. Faith without works is dead (Jam. 2:17).
6. A bad tree cannot become a good tree except only by the supernatural Creative power of God. It is an impossibility of nature that a corrupt tree changes its own inner nature and transforms into something which will bring forth good fruit. It simply cannot happen by natural means. There must be something supernatural; there must be a mighty miracle. There must be the making of a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The God who created the world and called the world into existence from nothing must be the One who miraculously changes a man’s heart, destroys the roots of the sinful nature which only continually desires sin, and creates a new tree which will bring forth good fruit. It is takes His creative power, and this power is displayed gloriously in the work of redemption, namely in the work of regeneration. The new birth is the miraculous work of the Spirit of God wherein He creates in man a new nature resulting in an entirely new person and giving him the ability to produce good fruit. Apart from this creative work, no bad tree can ever produce good fruit.
7. Those who recognize themselves as bad trees need to be created anew in the image of God. The curse has passed upon all men, because all have sinned (Rom. 5:12). All men are cursed, corrupt trees by nature. And only those who are created anew and made to be good trees will inherit the Kingdom of God. There needs to be a work of grace in the hearts of those who are living in sin, changing their hearts, washing their sins away, and giving them a new nature to obey Christ, or else they will die in their sin. They must be born again (John 3:3).
Dear soul, the question goes to you now: Are you a good tree, or a bad tree? Don’t listen to your profession, but rather let the fruits prove it. Take an honest look and see if the things you are doing are springing from the divine seed of God within, resulting in that which is holy and godly to characterize your life, or whether they are coming from a evil heart of unbelief resulting in the practice of sin and iniquity. And if you know you have been made a new creation, and the fruit of your life and practice proves it beyond question, then rejoice and receive the assurance of faith from these words of the Lord Jesus. But if you see that you haven’t been thus made a new creation, then fear, fear God with all your heart, humble yourself before Him, renounce your sin, repent from your own ways, turn from all wicked things and turn to Christ alone in living faith, trusting Him with your whole heart to save you. Cry out to Him to do this work of grace in you. Call on the name of the Lord in desperation and simplicity of faith, trusting in His promises to save to the uttermost all that come to God through Him. The time is now to be converted, before the great Lord of the harvest returns with the axe in his hand. “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Mat. 3:10).