This is maybe one of the more popular phrases Jesus said in the church. Yet, do we use it correctly? Notice this answer in gotquestions.org, a popular Bible questions site:
“Answer: The statement “you will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16) is part of Jesus’ teaching about recognizing true followers and avoiding false prophets…
….Often, people profess faith in Jesus as Savior, but it is a mere profession with no real faith. Some religious groups encourage baptism, confirmation, or other religious rites that are supposed to ensure one’s future in heaven. But as time goes on, the fruit being produced in such a life looks nothing like what is clearly prescribed in the BibleGotquestions.org
Notice, according to this site (which illustrates what many teach) True followers are those who don’t fall and produce fruits as ‘prescribed in the Bible’.
So, let’s look at what this verse says…
“You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?Matthew 7:16
Here’s a verse that is often used to say that a ‘true believer’ can be known by his fruits. A ‘true’ believer should be identified by his deeds…
Let’s use this ‘formula’ and look at the life of Lot…
Lot in Sodom
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.Genesis 19:4-8 NIV
Later on, God tells Lot through the angles He is going to destroy the city of Sodom because of the wickedness found in it.
The angel tells him to flee to the mountains… Lot (taking his time) begs instead to go to a nearby city. On the way, Lot’s wife turns around (sad to leave the city behind) and turns into a pillar of salt.
Sometime later, Lot gets drunk and his daughters commit incest with him so that he might bear children with them. From this relationship, we get what were the Moabites and Ammonites.
If we are so sum up all the evidence or ‘fruit’ as some like to call it, everything says obviously Lot was not saved! In fact, perhaps we would even use him as an example of a pagan, immoral person!
The New Testament comments on Lot…
This conclusion may seem reasonable. Our experience, feelings, and outward evidence back it up. Except… the Bible states Lot was righteous…
and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men…2 Peter 2:7
No! This verse is not detecting true versus false believers by way of evidence or ‘fruits’! Also, it is not teaching to see if people are believers or not.
For more examples, take a look at Sampson and Rahab and others that make up a lengthy list of ‘fruitless’ people listed throughout Scripture.
The correct interpretation of this verse
The instruction in this verse was for them (sermon on the mount believers) to be alert regarding false prophets!
Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Ye shall know them [false prophets] by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?Matthew 7:15-16
You will know them…the presumption is that them is referring to false believers, but the context is not talking about true vs false believers. The previous verse tells us, it is a caution to beware of false prophets! False prophets can be known by their fruit.
We can know false teachers by their fruits, having primarily to do with their teaching if we examine the teaching in light of Scripture (Acts 17:11). This is not a verse that is talking about knowing ‘authentic’ believers or teaching a means to identify ‘true’ believers. This is a man-added requirement for salvation and faulty philosophy requiring evidence to demonstrate ‘God’s grace’ to be efficacious to this particular person.
Let me go a bit further…
This thinking comes from the philosophy that man is unable to believe in the Good News unless he is first regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Yet the Bible is clear, first, a person must hear the Gospel, then believe it, then he/she is sealed/regenerated.
In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,Ephesians 1:!3
Some teach man is a corpse and unable to respond to God’s drawing dynamics (His Word, the Holy Spirit, creation, His Son, the church, conscience, etc, etc). So, why does God call them disobedient if they can’t respond?
Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:Ephesians 2:2
Therefore, they have to conclude in their teaching that there must be evidence after the ‘regeneration’, otherwise who could ever know God had truly given them faith to believe. There has to be a ‘moment’ and ‘experience’ when you were one way then you were another way (since it’s not in you to believe). It gets worse…in order to truly know, God has to make the person persevere until the end, otherwise they were never one of the elect to begin with. Justification and regeneration are a progressive work over the lifetime of a believer. A real Christian they say…will ‘persevere’ until the end.
“First, then, PERSEVERANCE IS THE BADGE OF TRUE SAINTS.” – C.H. SPURGEON
The Bible does not teach the perseverance of the ‘true saints’. It teaches the faithfulness of the Savior.
If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself.2 Timothy 2:13
The believer’s security is to be in God’s promises in His Word and not in feelings or evidence (fruit).
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.1 John 5:13
Notice it’s not to those who ‘persevere’ or show ‘fruits’ or feel anything. It is to those who have believed. The condition is simple, the promise is trustworthy because God made it!