Mathew 7:17-18, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”
The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls and is intrinsically linked to God’s sovereignty over salvation.
We Protestants state salvation is of the Lord, it is God alone who justifies the sinner, counting them righteous on the merit of the perfectness and completeness of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Our works, then, must be seen in that light. Though there were many issues with the Roman Catholic Church, this issue was the crux: Salvation is by faith alone and our works, or good fruit, cannot in any way produce our salvation. Official Roman Catholic doctrine claims we are saved by both faith and our good works[i] that somehow our good deeds both help produce and sustain God’s grace toward us.
They use this by quoting James 2:24. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This verse, ripped from its context, seems pretty clear. And yet, as is often the case, if we read this section in context, we see the natural outcome of one who has faith.
James, in his letter, used the example of Abraham in offering up his son Isaac to the Lord. The Lord told Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, to God as worship. And what do we read, “Abraham believed God.”? We see Abraham believed God, and what did Abraham do? He worked. God counted Abraham’s belief as righteousness, not his works. His works proved his belief.
Good Trees Bear Good Fruit
We move to a text, which I think illustrates well the relationship between faith and works.
Mathew 7:17-18 – “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”
Does good fruit make a tree healthy, or does a healthy tree produce good fruit? What must a tree first be in order to bear good fruit? Logically, we must conclude, along with Christ, that a tree must first be a good tree in order to produce good fruit.
This is the fundamental difference between religions of works and Christianity and falsereligions. Christians are justified by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ alone. No amount of works can produce or keep our salvation because God is the one who changed us from being diseased trees to healthy ones. Or, to put it in another manner, God is the one who brought us from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-10). And any good deeds we perform after salvation, we read, were already prepared for us to walk in, in Christ Jesus, before the world began (Ephesians 2:10).
We Work Because of Who We Are
“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” says John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8). “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” writes Paul (Ephesians 4:1). “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother,” John declares (1 John 3:10).
What do we see about the nature of faith and works in these passages? Through these, and many more, the Christian understands that works cannot produce salvation, rather our fruit comes from being justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Bad trees cannot bear good fruit, therefore, in order to produce good fruit, we must first become good trees. How is that done? John answers by becoming children of God, which we know is a sovereign act of God through being born again (John 1:12-13; 3:3).
That’s the fundamental question we must ask ourselves: are the works that we perform works done in keeping with our profession of faith or are we in some way trying to earn God’s favor through our performance? The ultimate question is where were are finding our merit for our salvation either in Christ alone or in our performance for God.
You Are What You Love
John 14:15-17 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
We perform these good deeds and follow Christ’s commandments because we love Him. This is, of course, because we have been saved, given a new heart, and desire now what Christ desires, not because we want to somehow earn or keep salvation. Roman Catholic doctrine states that once God saves us, our good works keep[ii] us saved. Their doctrine places the wrong emphasis on our works. We know this is false because God’s Word states as much (John 6:37). Christ will lose nothing of what God has given him. Salvation is a gift. And the gifts and calling of the Lord are irrevocable. That gives God all the glory in the whole of life of the Christian. We keep His commandments because of two things: our love for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us, leading us in all truth.
Having received this gift by the Holy Spirit’s effectual work in us, we should continue living in this same manner. Any fruit produced as a result of God’s good gift of salvation to us should be seen in this light. God grafted us into the good Olive tree, whose root is Christ. God, being the Master Gardener, prunes us in order that we might bear fruit. Therefore, we understand though it is our hands and feet and mouth and lips proclaiming the good news and performing good works in keeping with our profession of faith, it is in all actuality God who undergirds everything. It is His work within us, not our own. He gives life and sustains what He has given us.
That’s why, when it’s all said and done when someone points out our good deeds, our light shining on a hill, all the fruit that we produced and labors we bore, we may confidently say, yet not I but through Christ in me (Gal. 2:20).
What a beautiful, life-giving, sustaining, all-encompassing, complete gospel we have been received!
[i] Theopedia. The Council on Trent. Accessed July 23rd, 2019. https://www.theopedia.com/council-of-trent
[ii] Matt Slick, Maintaining Salvation in Roman Catholicism. Accessed July 23rd, 2019. https://carm.org/catholic/catholic-salvation-maintain