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Leading Question: Is it possible to identify true followers of Jesus by their fruit?

The basic biblical passage that focuses on the fruit of the Spirit is Galatians 5:13-26. In particular, the nine traits listed under the fruit of the spirit (vss. 22-23) provide the framework for our discussions this quarter. But in this initial lesson we will also touch on three passages in the Gospels that deal with bearing fruit. Among other things, these passages speak of the importance of pruning but also of the possibility of removal.

1. Can we really identify Christians by their fruits? Matthew 7:15-20. The Christian doctrine of sin declares that all of us fall short of the mark (e.g. Romans 3:9: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”). In other words, our fruit will always be imperfect. To press the metaphor, could we say that Christians produce imperfect fruit? If so, is the fruit simply misshapen or does it have rotten spots or other imperfections that must be cut off before it can be eaten? How do we factor in the reality of the Christian who is struggling to be like Jesus but isn’t there yet?

That tantalizing question of the ideal is suggested in this quote from C. S. Lewis:

Already the new [people] men are dotted here and there all over the earth. Some, as I have admitted, are still hardly recognizable: but others can be recognized. Every now and then one meets them. Their very voices and faces are different from ours; stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. They begin where most of us leave off. They are, I say, recognizable; but you must know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of “religious people” which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other [people] men do, but they need you less (We must get over wanting to be needed [188]: in some goodish people, specially women, that is the hardest of all temptations to resist.) They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. When you have recognized one of them, you will recognize the next one much more easily. And I strongly suspect (but how should I know?) that they recognize one another immediately and infallibly, across every barrier of color, sex, class, age, and even of creeds. In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun. – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 187-88 [IV.11, para. 11]

But Lewis also addresses the question of struggle. After cautioning against conclusions based on the comparison of the nice atheist and the less-than-nice Christian, he says:

But if you are a poor creature – poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels – saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion – nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends – do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrapheap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all – not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)

“Niceness” – wholesome, integrated personality – is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power, to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up “nice”; just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat. But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.

For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 181-82 [IV.10.14-16]

2. How does the follower of Jesus produce good fruit? John 15:1-5. Could it be said that the business of the believer is not to produce fruit, but to stay connected with the vine?

3. If one is connected to the good vine, will the fruit be good? How does this question relate to the question of struggle noted above? Also crucial is the question of good fruit coming from those who don’t know even know that they are connected with the tree. Matthew 7:15-20; cf. Matthew 25:31-46; Romans 2:12-16; 1 John 2:29. An Ellen White quote and one from C. S. Lewis, suggest that good fruit can come from those who don’t even know they are connected with the vine or the tree. The C. S. Lewis quote presents the faithful pagan, Emeth, who discovers that he has ended up in Aslan’s kingdom:

But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek. – C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 149

Similarly, Ellen White’s commentary on the parable of the sheep and goats declares that the good heathen who have never heard the name of Jesus can still be part of God’s kingdom:

Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God. – Desire of Ages, 638

How do these comments relate to the question of doing good and being good?

4. The need for pruning and extra care. Luke 13:6-9; John 15:2. Jesus told a parable about the tree that had produced no fruit and was apparently destined to be pulled. Give it one more year, said the master. In his vine discourse in John 15, Jesus also spoke of the need for pruning so that the vine could produce more abundantly? Can we be more specific in defining the nature of the “pruning”? Will it hurt? In a sense, one could argue, as C. S. Lewis does in the following quote, pruning is not enough; God needs to be more brutal:

Christ says “Give me All. I don”t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don”t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don”t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked–the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” – Mere Christianity, IV.8.4

A more tangential quote from Lewis, expresses the need for some kind of cleansing, a purging, before we can come into God’s presence. One does not need to believe in an actual Purgatory to sense Lewis’s genuine concern for cleansing.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.” “It may hurt, you know.” – “Even so, sir.” – C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm XX.10 (pp 108-109)

5. Removing the unproductive tree: Matthew 7:15-20; Luke 13:7-9; John 15:1-5. All three of the Gospel passages refer to the possibility that the tree will be cut off, uprooted, or otherwise destroyed because of the lack of good fruit. What would such a tree or branch look like, especially in contrast with the “struggling” tree or branch noted under question #3 above? How does this possibility of being cut down or cut off relate to the idea of God’s unconditional love for his children? Or is his love unconditional?

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