There is a lot of confusion surrounding what role our works play in our salvation. We know from Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by faith, not our works, but James 2 reminds that we do not have real faith unless we also have good works.
How do these two ideas fit together?
Here is where Matthew 12:33-37 is helpful. It says:
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, son the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
The important phrase here is “the tree is known by it’s fruits” though much in these verses is helpful in answering this question. Jesus is saying that if you say you’re an apple tree, we should expect to see apples come harvest time. If we find oranges or potatoes or chicken, then chances are, you are not an apple tree. But He is also saying that your fruit should be good. A tree that bears rotten, shriveled, mealy apples may be an apple tree, but it is not a beneficial tree to anyone who is hungry.
In other words, a Christian is saved by grace through faith, but if your life does not show a consistent pattern of obedience to Christ (flawed of course) then chances are, you’re probably not a Christian.
Now, some people will point 1 Samuel 16:7 at this point: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. And they are right to do so, only if they realize a very important point:
God looks at the heart. He knows we are saved, and He is the ultimate judge of our lives. And, according to this verse, we look at the outward appearance. So what are we supposed to think if someone does not live in a way consistent with the commands of Christ? We can’t see their heart. All we can see is their life choices. So, if we see someone who consistently chooses to live in a way that to contradicts the Christian life, we must assume that this person is either a Christian who is currently experiencing a season of rebellion, or they are not a Christian.
This is not mere judgementalism, for we are not to judge someone quickly or harshly or with pride in us. Jesus reminds us that we must deal with the plank in our eyes before we deal with someone else’s speck. If we encounter a professing Christian who is not living to honor Christ, we must confront them, and we must confront them with much grace and love, care and affection.
The real take away from this passage, however, is to examine the content of our own lives. Do I have unrepentant sin? Do I consistently display patterns of rebellion against God? Do I feel guilt over my sin that leads to casting it away, or do I show little remorse at wrong doing?
In other words, if I say I’m an apple tree, do I see any apples?
Ask your loved ones these questions. Often they see our lives better than we do. Humbly accept their words of loving correction. Ask the Lord to make the roots of your tree strong and healthy so that the fruit will not only prove your place in the kingdom, but will be a blessing to others that they might become fruit bearing trees as well.