Followers of Jesus are meant to be asking hard questions. Now I don’t mean we should be asking a middle-aged woman her age. Nor do I mean asking why a guy would want to barrack for the Collingwood footy club. Some of these questions are simply unanswerable!
No, the questions I have in mind are of a different order – and they are answerable. And these should be mainly asked of ourselves. That is, we need to be regularly inquiring about our own spiritual health. What condition are we in? Are we where God wants us to be in terms of our spiritual development?
Paul certainly saw the importance of such spiritual check-ups. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 for example he said this: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” Such examination and testing obviously includes asking some hard questions about our relationship with God, our spiritual state, and our commitment to Christ and others.
Of real interest is the fact that Paul actually says we should check to see whether we are in the faith. Now what is Paul on about here? After all, Paul was a Calvinist, wasn’t he? What about eternal security? What about ‘once saved, always saved’?
I don’t want to enter into that particular theological debate here, as important as it is. But let me just say that we need to take the warnings of Scripture seriously. Passages such as Heb 6:1-9 need to be considered very carefully. We cannot presume upon the grace of God.
While I do think we can have assurance of our salvation, it is always important to keep close tabs with God, and not be presumptuous about this very special relationship we have with God through Christ. We should be thinking in these terms as we look at Scripture, including its strong words and its warnings.
For example, we need to carefully ponder a serious warning such as found in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
The interesting thing about this passage is what it immediately follows: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matt. 7:15-20)
There is an interesting connection here. Jesus is making the point that a real disciple is one whose life is showing some fruit. A life without fruit is a life in danger. If there is no fruit, then we need to be asking some hard questions. That in fact is how we are to examine ourselves, to test ourselves, as Paul exhorted us to do.
Jesus spells out his test in John 15:1-8: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
So what’s all this about? Fruit inspection. Remember those interstate vacations you took with your family? Remember coming up to a state border and finding one of those big signs warning of not taking fruit over the border? Well, we tended to respond to these warnings in one of three ways. If you’re like me, you grab the fruit, give everybody four bananas, and say ‘Quick, eat!’
Another response is to have a temporary bout of amnesia, forget you are a Christian for a few minutes, and ignore the instructions and drive on. Or, you do the right thing and dump the fruit in the bin.
That is what Jesus is saying here – we must inspect our fruit. Is it good fruit? Bad fruit? Is there any fruit there at all? And remember, nature acts in a uniform manner: Only apple trees will produce apples. Only banana trees will produce bananas. Only spiritual trees will produce spiritual fruit.
Are you producing fruit? Am I? That is a major test Jesus gave us concerning genuine Christian discipleship. It is not about works, signs, wonders, converts, ministries – but fruit. Jesus made this point in Luke 10: “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’ ‘However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’.” It was not just the whiz-bang miraculous that seemed to be a sure sign of Christian discipleship and the main thing to be concerned about.
We need to remember that man’s capacity for self-deception knows no bounds. And that is true of believers as well. We still can deceive ourselves. We all have blind spots. We can easily become self-righteous, etc. Thus we are told in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
We can easily deceive ourselves. We have plenty of examples of high-flying Christian leaders who fell from grace. It may look like they have it all together but they can still lose out on the most vital thing: a dynamic and living relationship with God.
Consider just one example: Jimmy Baker and his PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry. In his moving 1996 book, I Was Wrong, he tells the story of how he had it all: a ministry, a mate, a mansion, a mission, and millions – but he lost it all because he forgot about the most important thing. This is what he says:
“I always felt that Heritage USA was merely the box in which we packaged the gospel, a big box, a beautiful box, but just a box, nonetheless. Unfortunately, the box began to get more attention than the gift inside. Eventually, we spent so much time, energy, and money trying to build a bigger, better box, we neglected the priceless gift of Jesus Christ.”
He continues, “We had so much going for us”. He recalls the conversions, healings and changed lives. “We had so great an opportunity . . . and we lost it, because we got our eyes on the box rather than keeping our attention on Jesus.”
Keeping an eye on our fruit
The book of Galatians talks about the fruit of the spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (5:22-23). Note that it is fruit, not works, which Paul appeals to here. As already mentioned, Jesus had said the same thing: we are to judge a person by their fruit, not by their works (Mat 7:16 ).
Having the fruit of the Spirit is of course a byproduct of abiding in the Spirit. Jesus made this clear in John 15:4-5, as we already saw. The word for fruit here is singular – we should see it all manifest in our lives. Romans 8:4 speaks about how the “righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit”.
Also, bear in mind that the fruit of the Spirit is not the same as the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12, eg.). Paul says the fruit of the Spirit should be seen in all of us, while the various gifts of the Spirit are not equally shared by all, but are distributed to us by the Spirit as He wills.
Moreover, this fruit should be seen in Christian relationships. As Galatians 5:25-26 says, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” Like Eph. 5:15-21, this passage teaches that the main sign of being filled with the Spirit is demonstrated in our relationships with one another. That is the real test of the Spirit-filled life. It is how we treat one another that we get an indication of the Spirit’s dwelling in us.
And as Gal. 6:6 reminds us, this includes very practical things, like the use of money: “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.” Being in loving and committed interpersonal relationships is the main test of being filled with the Spirit. Speaking in tongues isn’t even mentioned in these two passages (as important as that may be). Character and relationships are what counts.
We all know of individuals who seem to have great ministries but their personal life isn’t too hot – or their home life is a lot less than desired. But Jesus warns that on the last day it is not how many converts we have made that count, not how many demons we have cast out, or how much we have spoken in tongues. Character is the test.
Thus we must continue to remind each other: are we examining ourselves? Are we asking hard questions of ourselves? It is absolutely vital that we all ask these hard questions. For this is part of what Christian discipleship is all about.