More Than Leaves: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”

Written by Dr. Tim Willis, January 9, 2021

Isaiah 5 opens with a song that captures the Lord’s disappointment with Israel. Isaiah sings about the work that God the Farmer has done in his vineyard – preparing the soil, protecting the land from predators, watering it with “showers, showers of blessing” – and then waiting expectantly for the sweet fruit that is sure to follow (notice “expect” in verses 2, 4, and 7). But when the harvest comes, the grapes taste wild and sour. The Lord expected justice and righteousness, but he sees “bloodshed” (the suffering of the oppressed) and he hears “a cry” (the pleas of the powerless). He spells out his grievances in the following parade of woes (verses 8-25) that sound all too similar to 21st century America. What his “pleasant planting” produced was no different than what he could have harvested from wild vines growing in the countryside (other nations).

I recently realized a couple of basic Biblical principles illustrated in Isaiah’s song. First, Isaiah is talking to people who worship the Lord regularly (Isa. 1:10-17; Amos 5:23-24) with songs and hymns and spiritual songs. Second, the underlying assumption is that the blessings the Lord provides – good soil, rain, protection – are the means to an end. He expects more than leafy plants, he expects fruit. He expects more than a blessed people, he expects a people who use their blessings to do justice and righteousness; he expects a nation through whom all nations on earth will be blessed. The Lord chose and blessed Abraham and His “house” to prompt and enable them to participate with Him in His work of “doing justice and righteousness” (Gen. 18:17-19; there are echoes of this in 1 Kgs. 10:8-9; Ps. 72:1-4, 12-17; 99:1-5; Jer. 9:23-24).

Jesus teaches from the same perspective. He speaks of God’s people as trees or vines that should bear good fruit (Matt. 7:15-20; 13:1-23; John 15:5-8). Of particular relevance are his remarks about fig trees that look vibrant and alive yet bear no fruit (Mark 11:12-25; Luke 13:1-9). In both of these passages, Jesus calls religious people, who worship regularly, to repent. Like John the Baptist, he says they produce leaves, but they do not bear “fruits of repentance,” which God expects of the children of Abraham (Luke 3:7-14).

As a lifelong member of the Stone-Campbell Movement, this perspective makes me squirm a bit. First, it challenges the typical messages I have heard about bearing fruit. We commonly speak of “bearing fruit” in terms of making converts and increasing membership. These passages raise the very real possibility that, in God’s eyes, success in these areas amounts to more branches and leaves; but bearing the fruit God expects of His people involves more. Biblically speaking, we produce fruit when we help the needy, lift up those who are down, ease the burdens of the weak, engage in “love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). Second, I am concerned more basically that our movement has too narrowly defined the gospel message. We cultivated a robust and Biblical response to the crucial question, “What must we do to be saved?” Unfortunately, our focus on that question has often kept us from moving forward and living as those who have been saved.

Let me illustrate with the most obvious example. We designate two of the main branches in the Restoration Movement according to basic worship styles, either a capella or with instrumental accompaniment. The recent moves toward unity between these branches have been successful to the extent that members on both sides have let go of the idea that this distinction is “a salvation issue.” The mere fact we think in such terms shows how much we – long after we hear, believe, repent, confess, and are baptized – orient our theology narrowly toward “What must we do to be saved?” If the goal of our unity efforts is that we worship together, our aim is too low; we still miss the larger goal of the gospel, which calls us to produce the fruits that God expects from those he has blessed. It is not the musical mode of worship that pleases or angers God, but whether or not His people worship (= “serve”) Him with acts of righteousness (Amos 5:23-24) and love (John 15:5-8, 1 Cor. 13:1) in their day-to-day lives. I think a good place to begin is to embrace our inheritance as children of Abraham (Gal. 3:28-29), recognizing that Abraham’s children are a “blessed nation” so that “through you all nations on earth may be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; 18:17-19).

Tim Willis is Professor of Religion at Pepperdine, specializing in the Old Testament. He received M.Div. and M.A. degrees from Abilene Christian, and a Ph.D. from Harvard. He serves as an elder for the Conejo Valley Church of Christ, where he and his wife, Jan, have been members for 30 years