Bearing the Fruit of Repentance

Are you waiting for something? An event, a purchase, or the end of a trial? I am waiting for several things—a new recliner, my mums to come back to life, and a conference with a friend in mid-February. The passage for today has heightened my sense of anticipation. All of these things are outside of me—that is, I have no control over their dates. In the case of my mums, I don’t even know if they will ever blossom again, in spite of my feeding and watering them as I should. “And [Jesus] told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, “Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?” And he answered him, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”‘” (Luke 13:6-9) God nurtures his redeemed people to produce fruit, especially the fruit of repentance. The Lord rejects the fruitless, those who refuse to repent of their sin and self-idolatry. But, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Today is a day of grace. Those of us who are Christians are to eagerly receive and employ God’s blessings to be more productive fruit-bearers today, as repentant sinners. “This parable in the first place refers to the nation and people of the Jews…Yet it is, without doubt, for awakening all that enjoy the means of grace, and the privileges of the visible church.” (1)

One of the dangers of a topical Bible study, sermon, or devotion is the tendency to make Scripture fit your topic. I wrestle with this every time I write because I want to be contextually accurate to our passages. It’s so common for us to manipulate Bible verses to meet our needs or philosophies because we are wired to self-interest in our sin nature. It would be much safer to move through a book exegetically, but even there we tend to insert our own meaning and perspective on the text. Why am I addressing this now? Well, I have listened to at least two sermons, five commentaries, and two devotions on the parable in Luke 13:6-9 to be sure that I have the right understanding of its meaning. The pictures that Jesus’s parables offer are unmatched in their vividness. But the meanings are sometimes obscure, and questionable when not provided by him. I recommend great caution with their interpretation and application only as is consistent with Scripture’s whole truth.

So is the parable about the barren fig tree in the garden about the ultimate, definite coming judgment, which will not be denied? Is it a warning against obduracy, like that of the Jews and all those who reject Christ? Does it teach that just because God hasn’t yet judged them they won’t be judged? Is Jesus turning the tables on those who judge others, reminding them that they too will be judged? Can we apply a meaning to believers who think they are saved, even if their lives don’t produce any visible sign of belonging to Jesus Christ? After my studies, I am going to risk saying that all of these may be valid ways to apply Christ’s parable. (But please write to me if I’m wrong!) I’ve even read about caring for fig trees. They don’t require much care to produce fruit, but will never do so in the first year. It will be two to three years before trees will produce seeds, then fruit, but can take up to six years. Feel free to google it. So it’s wait, wait, wait…ah, fruit. But in our parable, the vineyard owner was still waiting for his fruit after three years.

If our vineyard owner is our pastor or a mentor, imagine their disappointment if we aren’t producing fruit from all the time they’ve invested in us. Imagine God’s displeasure if we aren’t actively responding to the good news of the gospel that Christ has given us. Every source I have consulted has agreed that the figs God’s wants from us here are our repentant hearts. “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17) Redeemed Christians bear the fruit of repentance. ” Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?”(v. 7) In a sermon on the parable, Dr. R.C. Sproul teaches about the kind of repentance that is biblical. He says that attrition is repentance that is driven by the fear of punishment, like a child not wanting to be punished, but not sorry about committing the act. Contrition, on the other hand, is true repentance of a broken heart, sorrowing because we have offended God. There is a kind of theology that teaches that a Christian can be “carnal,” that is, having Christ as Savior but not as Lord, without bearing any fruit. But this is an impossibility since the Holy Spirit renews the whole person at the time of conversion. (2)

So Christians, if we think we have any reason to bear less of this fruit or repentant, or none at all, we do not. No matter how hard our lives may become, no matter how busy, full, or demanding, God expects and wants us to be confessors. And the more humble and mature we become, the more we realize the need to admit our sins and ask for his help to change. “Christ taught His disciples to pray daily for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 6:12), and the Bible saints are often pleading for pardon and obtaining it (Ps. 32:5; 51:1-4; 130:3, 4)…The believer who is really conscious of his sin feels within him an urge to confess it and to seek the comforting assurance of forgiveness. Moreover, such confession and prayer is not only a subjectively felt need, but also an objective necessity…The divine sentence of acquittal is brought home to the sinner and awakens the joyous consciousness of the forgiveness of sins and of favor with God. Now, this consciousness of pardon and of a renewed filial relationship is often disturbed and obscured by sin, and is again quickened and strengthened by confession and prayer, and by a renewed exercise of faith.” (3) Is life good? Are we blessed? Let’s ask ourselves, “…do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) In the parable of the barren fig tree, the vinedresser kindly and patiently  gives the tree another full year to produce fruit. “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:8-9) The gospel of Jesus Christ is offered to us with love, and God gives us the desire to respond in love. That is only the beginning of our sanctification. Repentance is one of the most potent graces operating in my life, to produce fruit that others may share. After studying this parable this week, my prayer has been for the Holy Spirit to help me repent because of God’s goodness through the gospel. Just because he hasn’t disciplined me lately doesn’t mean I have nothing to confess. “So great is the blindness of the sinner that he abuses to his own harm the things that have been given to him for his own benefit.” (4) May we receive and employ God’s graces to be more productive, repentant fruit-bearers today.

God has placed us in the body of Christ, and our local churches as fig trees were placed in fruit-fields for their best productivity. Are you worshipping regularly with your church family to grow in your fruit of repentance? Do you avoid thinking about the things you feel guilty about or run to God for the sweet gift of forgiveness? How much goodness will it take for Christ to convince you to engage in regular confession, for your intentional or unintentional sins? Are you willing to ask the Lord to reveal your heart, intellectual, attitudinal, or ethical sins? “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

(1) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Luke 13:6-9, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/luke-13.html

(2) Sproul, R.C., “The Parable of the Barren Fig,” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/sermons/parable-barren-fig/

(3) Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “Soteriology—Justification,” pages 514-5,” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993

(4) Ligonier Devotions, “Presuming upon God’s Kindness,” Martin Luther on Romans 2:4, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/presuming-upon-gods-kindness/

January 31, 2020

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