What does it mean to bear fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8)?
When the Pharisees and Sadducees went out to observe the ministry of John the Baptist, he recognized them for what they were—religious imposters. John confronted their hypocrisy with these harsh words: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance'" (Matthew 3:7–8).
In preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, John preached a baptism of repentance (Matthew 3:11; Acts 19:4). Repentance embodies a radical change of mind and direction—a turning away from sin and self toward God. Genuine repentance is the first step toward salvation because, without it, there is no way to respond to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ and enter into the family of God (Acts 2:38; 3:19).
To "bear fruit" is to produce actions that fit one's true nature. A tree bears fruit according to its kind. An apple tree produces apples; an orange tree produces oranges. Someone who has repented of sin proves it by changing how he or she lives. The command to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (NKJV) is rendered "prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God" in the New Living Translation.
The Jewish religious leaders claimed to have repented of their sins, but their lives and actions told a different story. These Pharisees and Sadducees continued to live in sin yet refused to see their own guilt. They pointed out misdeeds in others, often the very transgressions they were guilty of themselves. They thought they were good enough to please God because of their pious observances and religious pedigree, but in their hearts nothing had changed. They were not "bearing fruits worthy of repentance." True repentance results in evidence of a changed heart and a transformed life (Acts 26:20).
Jesus taught that a tree could be identified by its fruit: "If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad" (Matthew 12:33, NLT). Like John the Baptist, Jesus confronted religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness with strong language: "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" (Matthew 12:34–35; see also Matthew 23:13–36; John 8:39–47).
Our words, behaviors, and actions should be outward signs or "fruits" of genuine heart repentance. As we stay in close fellowship with Jesus Christ, abiding in Him, we will continue to produce an abundant harvest of fruit worthy of repentance (John 15:1–17). This fruit will be a natural outgrowth of the fundamental condition of our regenerated heart (Psalm 51:10; Luke 6:45; Ephesians 4:29).
The apostle Paul encouraged believers to "walk by the spirit," allowing the Holy Spirit to guide them and work in them to produce "the fruit of Spirit," which is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law" (Galatians 5:16–23). These Spirit-wrought qualities are fruits worthy of repentance.
Genuine followers of Christ will bear fruit that backs up their testimony (1 John 1:6–7; 2 Corinthians 5:17; James 2:14–26). Other fruits worthy of repentance include sharing the gospel and making disciples (James 5:20; Matthew 28:19–20), living a life of humble sacrifice and service (Romans 12:1–8), growing in faith (2 Peter 1:3–8), loving our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:14; 4:7; John 13:35), and setting a godly example (1 Timothy 4:12; Titus 2:2–3). True faith and repentance produce lifestyle modifications that demonstrate the reality of a revolutionized heart.
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