My professor of counseling at Westminster Seminary, Paul Tripp, once told this true story about himself. He and his wife were looking at their apple tree one day. The apple tree was not doing very well. His wife said, “Isn’t there anything we can do to make this apple tree look better? I mean, it looks just awful! The fruit looks terrible. It’s all rotted and withered.” Paul didn’t say much of anything, but was thinking to himself. One day, about a week later, his wife looked out the window toward the apple tree and saw a strange sight. She saw Paul with a ladder, a staple gun, and a bushel basket full of beautiful apples. Paul then proceeded to staple the apples to the tree in order to make the tree look better. I’m sure you can see that this is plain silly. The tree would look great for a little while. However, the fix was only temporary, because the good apples would only stay good so long before they too would wither away to nothing, leaving the tree in precisely the same condition it was in before. This is a great metaphor for how much Christian counseling is done today, and how people view the Christian life. Behavior is all people are concerned about, it seems. But behavior is the fruit. The heart is the root. Much of Christian counseling looks at the fruit and tries to staple on good behavior to a rotten heart. It might look good for a little while, but it will not stay. What Jesus is telling us is that we need a new heart, a new root system, so that the fruit of our lives will also be good.
We looked last week at the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were committing that unforgivable sin. And, of course, the only way that could happen is if the Pharisees had old withered up, dry hearts. Jesus is going to call them something else in these verses, a less than complimentary name: brood of vipers. Loosely translated, “bag of snakes.” Jesus knows what their heart condition is, and the evidence is there for anyone to see. They are blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which is not something the people of God could possibly do. The heart is the source of behavior. There is an unmistakable connection between the root and the fruit. If the heart is made good, the fruit will be good, but if the heart is bad, then the fruit will be bad.
Matters are not so simple for us, however. Jesus can read hearts perfectly, whereas we only have the fruit to go by. Jeremiah tells us that the heart is very deceitful. Our own hearts can tell us many things that are not true about ourselves. How many have deceived themselves into thinking they were saved when they were not! How many people have deceived themselves into thinking they were not saved when they were! The truth of the matter is always found in Christ. All too often, we try to peer into our own hearts to see if we have faith. But that is not helpful. As Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “For every one time you look inside yourself, look ten times at Christ.” Christ is the assurance of salvation, not ourselves. We should not trust what our hearts tell us, but what God tells us in the Scripture. If you believe that Jesus Christ has done His work for you personally, that He died to take away your sin, and rose again to conquer death for you, that is your salvation. It does not depend on what your heart tells you, but on what God tells you in His Word.
The heart is a treasury, Jesus tells us. It is a treasury of good or it is a treasury of evil. And that is in accordance with its nature. The principle here is that we are free to do what it is in our nature to do. This gets into the question of free will. There are two definitions of free will, one biblical, and the other non-biblical. The definition of free will that is biblical is this: any person is free to do whatever it is in their nature to do. If their nature is evil, they can only do evil. If their nature is good, then they can do good, although even people who are renewed still have remnants of the old nature left, and hence it is still possible for Christians to sin. However, there is no evil in God, and so it is not possible for God to sin. Any person can do what it is in their nature to do. This definition is biblical, since we can see it laid out for us right here. However, there is a second definition of free will that is not biblical. This second definition of free will says that a person can do anything good or anything bad regardless of what their nature is. This definition of free will means that a sinner can please God, and that God is able to sin. Otherwise, they would not be truly free, according to this definition. This definition conflicts with God’s sovereignty, since if God has decreed that a person do something, and yet it is possible for that person to do the exact opposite, then it is possible for a person to thwart God. And yet we believe that God has decreed everything that comes to pass. And yet we also say that man has a free will, but it must be the first definition, which is that a person can do whatever it is in his nature to do. If a person has only a sin nature, then he cannot please God. The first three chapters of Romans makes this very plain: none of us have a good nature by birth. We all have a sin nature. None of does good, no, not one. Paul says it about fifteen different ways, just in case we didn’t get it the twelfth time. Human beings in their sin nature cannot please God. That is why God has to be the one to change us, change our hearts, change our natures, and thereby change our will. After we become Christians, then we can indeed choose to please God, by God’s help.
The last point of the text has to do with the Final Judgment. The Pharisees might have been thinking to themselves that their statement against Jesus was only spoken in an unguarded moment. They knew that they were “just kidding.” They were only trying to prevent the crowd from following after Jesus. Paul Tripp said an interesting thing about drunk people and what they say, because often they don’t know what they are saying. He said that there is nothing that comes from a drunken man’s mouth that wasn’t there before in his heart when he was sober. From the overflow of a man’s heart, a man speaks. Even careless words fall under this judgment, says Jesus. The Pharisees cannot get out of things that easily! Every careless word will be judged on the Final Judgment Day. Every careless word is evidence of what is in the heart.
This last verse might seem to be a works salvation. But the context tells us that it is the heart that will be judged, and the words will be the evidence of the heart. It is the fruit. One can judge how good a tree is by how good the fruit is. The scary thing about this, of course, is that every word will be judged. Every single thing that you say can and will be used against you…unless! If your faith is in Christ, then have already been judged in Christ. As Paul says in Romans 8:1, one of the most comforting verses in all of Scripture, there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. You have already been judged not guilty, if you trust in Christ. So your words will be judged in Christ. And your greatest friend, your Savior, your Brother, the Lover of your soul, the husband of the Church, your Shepherd, your Rock, your Redeemer, your salvation, He will be your judge! If the thought of Final Judgment scares you, then just remember that you know the Judge! You know the Judge, and the Judge knows you, and has already pronounced your sentence! You are already not guilty by faith. A perfect righteousness is required, and perfect righteousness has been supplied in Christ Jesus. When God looks for you, He sees you in Christ and His righteousness.
So grateful ought we to be for this judgment that our fruit will be good. Bear fruit, my friends! Every branch that bears good fruit is pruned by God so that it will bear more fruit. But every branch that does not bear fruit is cut off and thrown into the fire. But this is not a works salvation, either. For you can only bear fruit if God makes your heart good. The good apples will come, as long as the root system is sound. Ultimately, there are only two kinds of people: the brood of vipers, which is really just another way of saying “the seed of the serpent Satan;” and, on the other hand, the seed of the woman, the Christians, those with faith in Jesus. The best thing about all this is that the root system can be changed. Only God can do that, but He is doing it all the time for people. He changes their heart of stone into a heart of flesh, so that He can start implanting the Holy Spirit inside us. The Holy Spirit is like the sap of the tree that eventually produces the fruit in us. It is heavenly sap, and the fruit will come. Tend your own branches. If there is something in your life that is preventing you from bearing as much fruit as you should, you should cut it off and throw it away. Maybe it is something that is good in and of itself, but which has you distracted from better things. Maybe it is a sin of some sort that seems to get you down all the time. Put that sin to death, and cut off that dead branch. Then the sap will flow to the fruit in your life, and you will produce beautiful, full, ripe fruit to the glory of God.