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(This originally appeared in the Fall 2000 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 15)

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The most used and abused verse of Scripture among cults and pseudo-Christian groups, in my opinion, is Matthew 7:16 where Jesus said to His disciples, You will know them by their fruits. Every cultic group, by ignoring the context, misuses this verse to prove to outsiders that they are the true Christians. The common attitude of the cults is, “LOOK AT OUR GOOD WORKS AND JUDGE FOR YOURSELVES WHETHER OR NOT WE ARE THE TRUE CHRISTIANS.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) boast. “We don’t participate in war, and we are the only ones going door to door.” The Mormons brag, “We are the only group that has a living prophet and apostles, and we also have the strongest and closest-knit families.” “Oh, you think that’s Christian?” Marshall Applewhite (of Heaven’s Gate fame) might have retorted. “We have left our families to follow Christ, and we are the only ones who have truly followed Jesus’ advice about cutting off any offending body parts,” the Heaven’s Gate crowd might have crowed. “Isn’t it obvious from our fruits that WE are the truth?”

Sorry fellas. Jesus Christ said that He, not any organization or religion or church, is “the truth” (John 14:6). And you’re really going to have to give Matthew 7:15-20 another look, because it does not say what you try to make it say. Jesus was not talking about identifying Christians at all! He was warning them to beware of false prophets (verse 15), and telling them to judge whatever prophets come to them by their fruits! And what, my dears, are the “fruits” of false prophets? False prophecies! Apple trees bring forth apples, pear trees bring forth pears, and false prophet trees bring forth false prophecies! You can bank on it. These false prophecies can be in the form of false predictions of future events, or they can be in the form of false teachings that contradict scripture. Cults usually have both. Did the end come in 1914,1925, or 1975 as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (JWs) predicted? Is Jesus actually Michael the archangel whom has already returned “invisibly” as they also claim? Can human beings become gods as the Mormons teach? Was there, after all. a space ship behind the Hale-Bopp Comet as Applewhite asserted?

Why did Jesus warn the people to look for false prophecies and false teachings to help them identify the false prophets? Shouldn’t they have been able to judge them by their “works”? No. In fact, Jesus cautioned them that the false prophets who came to them would be wearing sheep’s clothing. If one is wearing sheep’s clothing, what is one going to look like? A sheep! People cannot identify false prophets by the way they appear, because they look like true prophets (or true Christians)!

False prophets, false Christians, and false religions will be able to show you good works, but do not be fooled — GOOD WORKS DO NOT A CHRISTIAN MAKE.

You say. “But wait a minute. Joy! The New Testament is full of exhortations to Christians to do good works, imitating the love and goodness of their Father in heaven.”

That is very true. In fact, Paul told us that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). But faith in Christ is what makes one a Christian. Salvation is a free gift with no strings attached. Along with salvation comes a new nature: the good works Christians do come out of hearts that have been changed. Let me give you my apple-tree illustration:

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Apple tree (A) represents a true Christian. See the apples? They are his Christian works produced from his very nature as an apple tree. The new nature is one of love and love always produces good works.

But what about tree (B)? Does the fact that this tree has apples fixed onto it make this tree an apple tree? No! This is obviously an evergreen tree in apple-tree clothing! Beware! On the outside he may be decked out like an apple tree, but inside he is a ravenous evergreen! So instead of checking out the apples, we should be looking for the “pinecones” of false predictions and teachings.

Can we always tell a tree by its apples? What if we were to find a genuine apple tree with no apples on it (C)? Would we then label that tree an evergreen? That would be silly, because an apple tree, with or without fruit, is not an evergreen tree. We know that in nature, there are sometimes good reasons why a tree might not be bearing fruit. It may be out of season or. perhaps, it is merely immature. Maybe it suffered an injury from a particularly bad winter, a late frost, or a crippling storm. By the same token, we all know someone who claims to be a Christian, and yet, our inspection does not turn up any evidential apples. Does this mean the fruitless one is not a Christian? Perhaps. But sometimes we need to be patient. Then the miracle happens The tree matures, blossoms, and then—APPLES!

How is an evergreen tree transformed into an apple tree, and gain eternal life and acceptance into God’s family? Paul tells us in Romans 4:5, “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned (credited or counted) as righteousness.”

You do not have to “try to be a Christian.” Only believe. Leave the rest to God.Ω

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