February 18, 2001
Do our lives bear fruit for Christ? In considering the parable of the merciful vineyard owner, Alistair Begg takes on the tough questions it raises about the nature of our faith. Although God may be patient with us for a while, He will not withhold His judgment forever. If we see no evidence of Christ at work in our lives, we can ask God in faith to reveal the Savior to us and to transform our hearts for Him.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, we pray that as we turn to our Bibles tonight, that the Spirit of God will be our teacher. We earnestly long that we might hear your voice beyond the voice of a mere man. And that’s why we come to you in this moment of prayer. Hear our cry, O Lord, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I invite you to turn to the portion of Scripture in Luke’s Gospel—chapter 13—which was the focus of our consideration this morning. And for those of you who were not present this morning, we began to look at this parable which begins in verse 6:
“Then [Jesus] told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
“‘“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”’”
We said this morning that these stories that Jesus told, these parables, were used by Christ in order to bring emphasis to a truth that he was making. And therefore, we reminded ourselves that the emphasis that had immediately preceded this story was a call to repentance, which Jesus issues in verse 3 and reissues in verse 5—a strong warning that unless repentance takes place in the lives of his listeners, they will perish, and who knows but that they may perish just as suddenly and as dramatically or as dreadfully as those who were the focus of consideration among the Galileans or those who had died in the fall of the tower at Siloam?
We sought this morning to understand something of the illustration itself. I’m not going back over that again. And we then went to look at the explanation of this illustration and spent the majority of our time recognizing that Jesus was, first and foremost, primarily speaking to the Jews in his listening audience. And we pointed out that as you rehearse the instruction of Jesus to this point in Luke and as you go back into the Old Testament, you can see just how clearly the mind of the Jewish listener would fasten on this illustration employed by Christ. And so we recognized that there was an immediate application that was there for the Jew, and indeed, the warnings of Jesus found their fulfillment very soon after these events, when, around AD 70, Jerusalem fell, and the destruction that Jesus had anticipated and predicted came upon the people of Israel.
However, we ended this morning by saying that while there was this immediate application, it did not exhaust the impact of the story. Clearly, if the reason that it was in Luke’s Gospel was simply in order that we would have a record of the fact that this happened in this way and that Jewish people were impacted in that way, then it would have no value to us beyond its historical significance. But, of course, we recognize that the Bible is multifaceted in the way in which truth is conveyed and also in the way in which application comes.
Now, it’s very important for us to recognize, in doing what we’re now about to do, the principles of interpretation that we have iterated before—namely that, for example, when we were studying in Corinthians, we said to one another that it was very important for us to reach Cleveland by going through Corinth. And what we meant by that was, it was vital for us to understand the context in Corinth to which Paul was writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that, once understanding the historic and geographical and cultural environment to which the letter was initially penned, we may then, once we have understood that, proceed from there to make application to Cleveland. But it is very unwise for us to seek simply to read the Bible and immediately make application to Cleveland until first we’ve understood what the application was to Corinth—the reason being that we want to prevent one another from seeing the Bible as a collection of material into which we delve, and once we have read it for a very limited time in our home Bible study group, we want to volunteer to the group, “I want to tell you what this means to me.” “I want to tell you what it means to me.” And, of course, we may well be interested in what it means to you, but we are not initially and primarily interested in what it means to you. We are initially interested in what it means. And then, once we’ve discovered what it means, then we will be prepared to hear what it might mean to other people. But we’re not going to determine what it means on the strength of what it means to you, or even to me.
So, for example, the Bible interprets itself. Fact: Christ died. Interpretation: for our sins. So we have the fact of Christ’s death. What does that mean to you? Well, it might mean a number of things: that Jesus was a martyr, that Jesus was this, or Jesus was a kindly person. And so people could sit around for a long time and explain what it means to them. But first we have to understand what it means: Christ died for our sins according to the gospel.
Now, I say that because what we have said this morning in our study is a number of things directly related to its application to Israel itself, as a safeguard to prevent us from launching off into all kinds of flights of fancy. But the application goes beyond what we saw in the morning hour, so that we’re able to say that the danger that faced Israel was not unique to Israel; that the repentance demanded of Israel was not limited to them; that the warning of final judgment on the impenitent is a warning that needs to be heard widely and clearly; that the need for fruit that befits repentance was not exclusive to the people of Israel; that the slowness of God to punish is a wonder for all men and women to ponder; and that the opportunity to repent will not last forever is a solemn truth that everyone needs to face.
So in other words, the abiding lessons and application of the parable apply not only to the people of Israel but to every nation and to the church and to every individual—indeed, to all mankind. And therefore, as we sit here this evening, we recognize that although God, through his grace, postpones—clearly for a long time—the punishment of the impenitent in order to give men and women opportunity to repent, the day will inevitably dawn when the time of grace expires. And this is the point of emphasis. Jesus says, “I know you’re interested in what happened to the Galileans, and I know that you would be interested to discuss for a while this matter of the eighteen who died in the fall of the tower, but I want to tell you about this fact: that unless you repent, you too will perish.” And then he tells this story in order to reinforce this fact. Those who remain unrepentant will finally be punished without mercy. The man or the woman who does not desire to be saved in time will bring inevitable judgment upon themselves.
And the problem for Israel lay in the fact that a special relationship had deteriorated into a barren religion. A special relationship had deteriorated into a barren religion. Now, let me just stay with that thought for a moment and see if you can follow along with me as I make application of it.
What about those of us who this evening are present who have known the privileges of being born in this land of the brave and the home of the free? Or “free and … the brave”; I can never remember it without singing it, and this is not a time for the singing of it. Let’s just say, “who have had the privileges of being born in a country which is not heathen but which has been largely Christian.” We may refer to it now as somewhat post-Christian, but nevertheless, there are tremendous benefits, and there have been influences upon our lives from our birth as a result of having been put in this place.
Many of us who are here this evening have had a Christian upbringing—parents who were professedly or even truly Christian. And as a result of that, they read to us from the Bible; they put us within the framework of the instruction of the Bible; they nurtured us in the opportunities of church. And as a result of the access to the Bible and its teaching, we became familiar with the stories of Jesus, and we became familiar with the ordinances of the church. We may even have begun to participate in them. In fact, so many and so great are the advantages that we have enjoyed that the Lord might justly inquire of us what he inquired of his vineyard, as we saw this morning in Isaiah 5, where he says, “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done to it?” In other words, he had nurtured and cared for and provided for it, and the advantages were legion. And this special relationship had deteriorated into a barren religion.
I hope that doesn’t describe you this evening. I hope that you do not find yourself seated here, and you are simply like this fig tree: barren of all fruit, despite all of the privileges and all of the opportunities that you have enjoyed and, in many cases, continue to enjoy; despite your awareness of Christian privileges, even your enjoyment of Christian privileges. Is there fruit on the tree of your life? Is there spiritual fruit—the kind of fruit for which God looks?
Now, surely no believer is as fruitful as he might like to be or she might like to be. But the picture here in this little story of this fig tree is descriptive of the totally barren professor. It is a picture of a merely nominal Christian. A man at a fig tree: “For three years now, I’ve been looking for fruit on the fig tree, and I haven’t found any. It’s in a place of privilege. It is nurtured and cared for and maintained. And yet when I’ve gone to look for stuff, there’s nothing there at all.”
Is that a description of you this evening? A nominal Christian, growing up with all the privileges and all the opportunities? For whatever reason that others can’t really deduce, you’re prepared continually to put yourself within the framework of the instruction of the Bible; you have a routine whereby you show up from time to time; and yet you’re as barren as the fig tree in the story. And as the fig tree occupied space that might otherwise have been put to some good use in the planting of another tree, so—as dreadful as it is to say—you are simply occupying space. And you’re occupying space that could be put to good use. And like the fig tree that overshadowed and injured the possibility of other plants around it so that nothing could survive in its vicinity, it’s a dreadful description of you, because you overshadow the plants that are seeking to grow in your vicinity. You have a form of godliness, you have a participation in the externals, but your children know that you’re unconverted. They know there’s no fruit in your life. They know that you do not genuinely love Christ. They know because they live in your home. Your mother knows that you do not read your Bible. Your parents know that beyond the formal attendance and the externals of religion, all of the privileges of your life have descended into a barren external orthodoxy, and you’re in the most dreadful of all predicaments, the most fearful of all positions—like a fig tree standing year after year with no fruit on it at all—and you’re at the same time simply taking up space.
Do you know that the unconverted member of a church is not only useless but is actually harmful? Harmful! That’s what Jesus says about the fig tree. The thing was useless, and it was harmful, because it caused the deterioration that was represented in others that were around it. And that’s exactly what you find in churches where there is no concern about whether a man or a woman genuinely professes faith in Jesus Christ—where the notion is “Come one and come all; it doesn’t really matter what you believe or how you behave.” Is it any wonder that there is such chaos and confusion in so many local churches?
And so men who have no fruit in their lives find themselves in positions of leadership. And what they usually do in such environments is they pick men who are prominent, who are conspicuous—usually because they’ve done well in business, or because they are men of property, or because they are men of power, or because they have unsanctified talents that “can be put to good use.” And the greater the individual is in his unconverted state, the greater the chaos that follows from him—because he’s like a barren fig tree. All of the privileges have degenerated into this sad and sorry predicament.
Now, how are we to distinguish, then, between the nominal Christian and the genuine believer? Well, first of all, it is God that does the distinguishing, not us. But he does also provide for us, in the Scriptures, means whereby we may assess ourselves. And the Bible is very clear: “Let a man examine himself to see whether he is of the faith.” So the examination is first of all a self-examination—far easier for me to look around and point out the absence of fruit in others rather than face the absence of fruit in my own life. The distinguishing feature of genuine Christianity is fruitfulness.
Now, in order for a man or a woman to bear fruit, they need to be pardoned, accepted through faith in the righteousness of Christ, regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit. For absent that, then there is no life that produces life, and all that you have in terms of evidences of fruit are like Christmas ornaments, which are hung on a tree but are not produced as a result of life within the tree. And it is clearly possible for the unconverted to hang enough stuff on them so as to bypass inspection by blind guides, but we cannot pass the inspection of God, who surveys our hearts. So the fruit which the Lord expects to find in believers is none other than the graces of the divine life which he puts within the truly converted.
Now, we could enumerate this in a number of ways, but let me just give you one or two illustrations. Galatians chapter 5: the fruit of the Spirit. If you turn to it, you’ll see it; if you don’t, you can take my word for it that it’s actually there, and you can check later. But in Galatians chapter 5, Paul says, “You know, if you face facts, you will realize that the sinful nature [desires] what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” And then he enumerates the acts of the sinful nature in 19 and following and contrasts that with the fruit of the spirit in 22 and 23: “The fruit of the Spirit”—that which the Spirit of God produces in a life—“is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” And the phrase that comes to mind is from 2 Peter 1: when you have these things “in increasing measure, they … keep you from being … unproductive,” and they “make your calling and your election sure.” So I need to set my life against the plumb line of God’s Word tonight: love, joy, peace, and so on. This is not to be found except in the work of grace.
We’ll skip Ephesians, go to Philippians—Philippians 1:11. Paul prays for the people in Philippi that their “love may abound more and more,” that they may grow “in knowledge and depth of insight,” that they might “be able to discern what is best and … be pure and blameless until the day of Christ,” and then, verse 11, he says, “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” So you see this direct correlation between our trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, and then our being indwelt by the Spirit of God, and then the evidence of the fact that the Lord Jesus has taken up residence in our lives is because there’s fruit there. It’s really a very straightforward picture, is it not? I mean, you don’t have to be a horticultural genius to sit and look at trees that have produced fruit and say, “Well, there’s an apple tree, and there’s a pear tree, and there’s a plum tree.” Someone says, “Wow! You’re good, aren’t you?” Well, I’d be good if there was no fruit there. But as long as there’s fruit there, anybody could work it out. A child knows the difference between a pear and a plum and an apple. So how do we tell? How do we tell? By the fruit that is produced—the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of righteousness.
Colossians chapter 1, from which we read: “bearing fruit in every good work.” And perhaps the classic passage in it all: in John 15, where Jesus says, “I am the vine; [and] you are the branches,” and “No branch can bear fruit by itself.” Well, we understand that as well, don’t we? There’s all kinds of branches lying around our yards as a result of the winds of a few weeks ago—at least in mine. I’ve been meaning to pick them up; I will eventually. But there’s nothing going to happen to those branches now except they will be thrown out. They’re totally useless. They’re completely unattached. There is no possibility of fruit. And that’s what Jesus says: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
Well then, let me ask this: In light of all of this, what impact, then, should these considerations have upon our lives? Well, clearly, the first is that we should be provoked to examine our lives to see whether we are actually barren or fruitful. Now, it’s not going to be too difficult to work out. If we’re honest at all, we know it.
Let me say a word to those of you who are prepared to say, “You know, frankly, I am like this fig tree. I am completely barren. I have an external religion, I come along, I’ve been doing a number of things, they are vaguely religious, and they are sort of quasi-Christian, but there is no question: I am barren. I’m barren,” you say, “when it comes to the matter of serving God and giving him glory. I know that you’re supposed to do that, I know that we sing hymns about that, but I don’t serve God, and I don’t give him glory. I serve myself and I take glory to myself. I’m like a barren fig tree. Frankly, I’m barren in relationship to the Lord Jesus himself. I know that he has died on the cross, and I know that he apparently loves the sinner, but it means nothing to me at all. It rattles in my head, but it has got nowhere beyond that. It is not down in my heart; it is not in the core of my being. If you look at my life—if I look at my life—before the searchlight of the Word of God, yes, I am as barren as this fig tree. And therefore, it is no surprise—and I must admit it too—that I am barren as to the interests of the church. I go to church. I’m here. I sleep through most of it. I comfort myself in the fact that I am here. But I really have no interest in the things of the church. Oh, I like, every so often, to give, because it makes me feel better about myself. I like also to know that the church is doing things that I concur with, because it just gives me a feeling that all is well with the world. But if you left me all on my own, I frankly have no interest in the church at all. I’m as barren as the fig tree.”
And you know what? If you’re honest, you’re barren in relationship to your complete life. You’re like Hamlet in one of his soliloquies, where he stands—and I can’t bring it all back, but it’s in there somewhere, hidden—where he says, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this [life]!” “I’m barren! Even the things that are supposed to delight me leave me cold. Even the stuff that is supposed to make me feel like a success leaves me longing only for more. The things that I have filled my life with, the evidences of my well-being and my achievements—frankly, when I look around my room, I’m as barren as the fig tree.”
Well, let me ask you a question: What are you planning on doing about it? Are you content with your position? I applaud your ability to be so honest as you assess yourself before the gaze of God’s Word, but are you going to presume upon God’s mercy? That you can simply continue to acknowledge that you are what you are? Are you going to miss the fact that there’s a lot of digging going on around you? That there are people who love you and care for you—who are fertilizing, as it were, around your life? That they are seeking to urge you and prompt you and stir you, and they pray for you? Would you not like your life to bear fruit? I don’t even like the word barren. Do you?
If the threatenings of God’s law will not awaken you to flee from his wrath, perhaps the promises of the gospel may encourage you to come to Christ. But you should bear carefully in your mind that in this little story, a reprieve is not a pardon. And what is asked for here is a reprieve: “Give it another year, and if it produces fruit, fine. If not, then cut it down.” And although God may bear with us for a long time, he will not bear with us always.
What of those of us who, in assessing ourselves, would say that we are seeking to bear fruit for God? We believe that we have truly repented of our sins and we’ve turned to Christ. Should we not confess to him our shortcomings and ask God to make us more productive than we are to this point in our lives? Are we really cultivating things? Are we really about the business of seeing the fruit emerge in all of its wholeness and all of its beauty? Are we content that there’s the odd shoot or two? There’s at least enough evidence to know that the thing has not died and is about to be uprooted, you know. “Well, don’t let’s chop it down now. There’s one or two things sticking out, you know. I can see that it’s still alive.” Is that how you want to live your Christian life? Is that how I want to live my Christian life? “Lord Jesus, I’m alive, just. Jesus, there’s a wee bit of fruit in my life, you know. You won’t see it regularly or continually, but if you look really hard, you’ll see it from time to time. And Jesus, I hope you’re gratified, you know.” Is that how we want to live? I’m tempted to want to live that way.
And what about the warnings that come to me when others are removed so quickly from this life? What about the threatenings that come and the troubles that we face? What are we going to use them as? An incentive to discouragement? Or an incentive to greater diligence? And given all the benefits we enjoy, are we not right to long to see a corresponding improvement in our fruitfulness?
Secondly and penultimately, I think that this story should provoke us not only to consider ourselves as to whether we’re barren or fruitful but also should provoke us to work diligently to the end that others might be saved, that our prayers for the ungodly…
“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year.” He intercedes on behalf of this fig tree. Are we genuinely interceding on behalf of the barren fig trees amongst our neighbors and our friends? Amongst our family members? Do I have any genuine empathetic interest in the fact that the lives of men and women around me are absolutely sterile and fruitless? And am I prepared to go beyond simply asking God to accompanying my asking with actual endeavors for their conversion?
When is the last time that I seized the opportunity in casual conversation to convey to someone, with all the clarity and love that I might muster, the fact that the Lord Jesus loved them and died for them? When is the last time that I invited somebody, because I’ve grown confident in the preaching of the Bible, to come and listen to the Bible being preached, because I have come to the conviction that “faith come[s] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”? This parable says to me, “Alistair, if you really believe that people are barren, if you really believe what this says, then it is one thing for you to intercede on their behalf—‘Leave it alone for one more year.’ It is quite another to get your sleeves rolled up and dig around it and fertilize it.”
Ask yourself, believer: Whose life are you committed to fertilizing at the moment in order that they may become fruit-bearing Christians? Whose? I don’t know! You must. One? Two? Does a name come to mind? Is a face before your mind’s eye? Have you gone and purchased a book for them and sent it to them with the prayer that in the reading of it they may be drawn to Christ? Have you picked out a piece of Christian music and dispatched it directly to them because you know they love that kind of thing? Have you met them at their favorite restaurant because you know they love to eat that fish and you want to use the fish as a very opportunity to fish them out for Christ? Or are we going to kid ourselves into believing that we can be as fruitful as we might choose to be while at the same time having no yearning for fruitfulness in the lives of others?
I like this man, don’t you?—whoever he was. He’s just the man in the story. “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year.’” I’d like to be like him. My wife knows I want to chop everything down. She refuses to leave me alone with secateurs, which is a fancy name for those things where you can chop everything down in your garden. Sometimes I think I like neatness more than flowers. If someone asks, “What would you like in your garden?” I’d say, “Concrete.” That way, I can control it. It’s tidy. I want to be like this man. I want to be the guy who says, “You know, let’s give it one more year.”
And then, finally, I think we ought to be careful not to allow the sparing mercy of God to cause us to presume upon his mercy but instead to take action that we might be prepared for the day of our death.
That’s really the task, you know, of the pastor. It is to prepare his congregation to die. That is really my task: that I might prepare you to die. So are you ready, then, to die? Would you die barren as this fig tree and be lost for all of eternity, despite the threatenings of God’s law and the promptings of his gospel? We dare not continue to despise the riches of God’s kindness, which reveals itself in his patience.
I can’t remember, again, in the play; I think the bell just sounds in the background, doesn’t it? And then the character says, “Hear it not, [Macbeth].” “Hear it not, [Macbeth]; for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell.” And despite the fact that everything surrounding our lives tonight says to us, “Don’t worry about a thing. It’ll all be fine. You’ll wake up in the morning. And don’t be unduly concerned by this little parable. Don’t let this man influence you one way or another. Just get on with things. You’re fine the way you are.” The devil comes to the converted soul and says, “Don’t waste your time on this kind of thing. Just get on and enjoy yourself. Improve yourself.” But the fact is, loved ones, none of us knows if we’ll be left alone to live out the year. “The man replied, ‘Leave it alone for one more year.’” We don’t know if we have one more breath, frankly.
It’s not morbid to say that. It’s just realistic! When my mother died at forty-seven, she died on a routine evening, having shared a routine meal with her routine family in the same old routine way. And if she’d been asked, or any of the family members had been asked, to write the top ten eventualities that may pass the way of our home on Victoria Grove before the midnight hour dawned, none would have put the death of a family member in the top ten. And yet in an instant: from time to eternity! Last Sunday evening, as I spoke along similar lines, Gordon Morris sat and listened to me—and was gone within the week! So it is not a matter of engineering on the part of the speaker to say these things. It is simply a matter of realism.
That’s why John says, “I want you to bear fruit that befits repentance. The ax is already,” he says, “at the root of tree.” Listen, loved ones: the ax at the root of my life may not actually simply be lying beside my life; it actually may be lifted up and be about to fall with a fatal and a final stroke. Therefore, is it not of the utmost common gumption to ask the Lord Jesus to grant that we might be ready for that stroke when it descends—to pray, “Lord grant that the same blow which shall fell my body to the ground shall release my soul to heaven”? And until that divine transaction is settled, men and women walk back out of the door tonight presumably trusting in the fact that God’s judgment will remain for another day, for another opportunity, for another time, and that you would simply like to remain like the barren fig tree and take your chances with your destiny.
I actually find myself completely shut up to the whole task. I listen to myself talking, and I say, “You know, there aren’t words in my vocabulary to convey to these dear people what this Bible says about this.” I look on your lives, and I look on your faces, and I yearn after you, because we will go to eternity—all of us. It’s not like, you know, some are going, and the rest are staying here forever—you know, “It’s not going to matter.” We’re all going! “It[’s] appointed unto [man] once to die, [and] after this [comes] judgment.” Are you ready, young person? Are you waiting until you live another year? Two more years?
I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above:
Of Jesus and his glory,
Of Jesus and his love.
Father, unless, by your Spirit, you come to our waiting hearts tonight, the words of a mere man are like rain falling on a tin roof. And so we earnestly pray that you will speak to us by name, calling us from barrenness to fruitfulness, calling us away from that meager representation which suggests that we’re prepared to tolerate the lowest and the least—just, as it were, to be in the door. Help us to see that your plan for your children is abundance. Hear our prayers as we offer them in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 See Luke 13:1–5.
 See 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.
 Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814).
 Isaiah 5:4 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 13:5 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 5:17 (paraphrased).
 2 Peter 1:8, 10 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 1:9–10 (NIV 1984).
 Colossians 1:10 (NIV 1984).
 John 15:4–5 (NIV 1984).
 John 15:4 (NIV 1984).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2.
 See Romans 2:4.
 Romans 10:17 (KJV).
 See Romans 2:4.
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 2.1.
 Luke 3:8–9 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 9:27 (KJV).
 Kate Hankey, “I Love to Tell the Story” (1866).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.