What does it mean that you will know them by their fruit in Matthew 7:16?

Jesus warned, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:15–20). Jesus is essentially saying that the things that are evident in a person's life or that result from their teaching demonstrate what is really in their heart.

The English idiom to "walk the talk" reveals a similar sentiment as knowing someone by their fruit. A person can say whatever they want, but we test the veracity of that claim based on what it produces. For example, a person could say, "I really care about children," but if he then proceeds to open a child-labor camp, he obviously does not actually care about children. Consumer goods are another example. We know the label claiming the box contains a certain item is true when we open the box to find that item. Just as the apple hanging on the tree communicates to us that it's an apple tree, the actions of a person communicate to us their heart.

The Bible is replete with warnings against false teachers. First John 4:1–3 counsels, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already." One of the "fruits" by which we can know people is who they claim Jesus is. If they teach He is anything less than fully divine and fully human, they are false teachers.

Second Timothy 3:1–9 warns about sinful attitudes of people, those who have "the appearance of godliness, but [deny] its power. Avoid such people" (verse 5). Paul says that false teachers who "creep into households" and are "always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth" will "not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all" (verses 6, 7, 9). In other words, they will be recognized by their fruits.

The best way to guard against falsehood is to be steeped in the truth. If we know what God actually says, we are less likely to be deceived by lies. We can also pay attention to the lives of those who purport to speak truth. Does what they do line up with what they say? Does their teaching result in things that glorify God? Do their lives point others closer to God or further from Him? In asking questions like these, we're looking at the "fruit" to help us discern falsehood from truth.

Fruit is a common image in the Bible. For example, when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist, he called them a "brood of vipers" and told, them to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:7–10). They were not to assume they were righteous based on their heritage or through mere ritual, but needed to actually be righteous in heart, something only God could bring. Jesus spoke a similar warning, saying, "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" (Matthew 12:33–34; cf. Luke 6:43–44). Again, we see that a person's heart is revealed by his life.

John's and Jesus' warnings are similar to the concept that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26). To be clear, salvation is by God's grace through faith alone. No one will be made righteous by their fruit. Rather, their fruit is an outward demonstration of an inward change. True faith results in life change (Ephesians 2:1–10). We do not just utter words, we are actually made new in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17–21). That newness shows—it bears fruit.

In John 15 Jesus compared Himself to a vine and the Father to a vinedresser. He told His followers, "Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. … By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:3–11). We can be made righteous because of Jesus' work on the cross and His resurrection—"Already you are clean." But salvation does not end there. When we put our trust in Christ, we receive the indwelling Holy Spirit who works in us to transform us to be more like Jesus (Ephesians 1:3–14; Philippians 2:12–13; Romans 8:28–30). As we abide in God's love, He bears fruit through us.

Galatians 5:22–23 describes the fruit of the Holy Spirit, essentially explaining some of the characteristics that are present when a person is living by the Holy Spirit. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." When we see a life characterized by such things, we are seeing the fruit of God's work. John wrote, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God" (1 John 4:15). He also said, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7). James said, "be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (James 1:22). Proclaiming the truth of God, obeying Him, and loving others are evidence of God's presence in a person's life. These are the types of fruits by which we can know our own hearts and which can help us recognize false teachers from followers of Jesus.

Psalm 92:12–14 declares, "The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him." When the fruit of our lives is of God, it lasts.

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