Luke 13:6-9 “Then he 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.’”
The man in the parable was looking for fruit on his tree. That is a picture of the Lord coming to us and looking for fruits in our lives– the product of repentance and faith. Where there is true repentance and faith, a life of love naturally follows. That is the true measure of repentance–the love that flows from faith. It’s how we respond to God’s grace to us.
But it is easy for us to confuse fruits of repentance with something else. When you see a decorated Christmas tree, you are not confused about the source of the ornaments hanging on the tree. I have seen little children try to eat a Christmas ornament before, but we understand that those ornaments are not the fruit of a pine tree. They may make the tree look better, especially Charlie Brown’s little tree in the Peanuts Christmas Special. The proper fruit of a pine tree, however, is a pinecone, not a shiny ball.
Somehow Christians find it hard to see that the fruit of repentance must be…the fruit of repentance! Repentance involves three parts: First, we feel sorrow for our sins and confess them to God. Second, we trust in God’s grace and receive his forgiveness (that’s the part many people forget). Third, we produce the fruits: a life of love. Any change of behavior or loving actions that don’t follow sorrow for sin and faith in the gospel aren’t the real thing. They are like hanging ornaments on the tree. You can change people’s behavior by making them feel guilty, appealing to their pride, or promising them all kinds of treats. Psychologists understand the principles of behavioral modification. But none of these are the product of true repentance, because they don’t come from our response to God’s grace.
In order to produce real thing, God himself works hard at inspiring our response. “‘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.’” There are three things we can note about the Lord’s efforts here. First, he is patient. The man in the parable had been coming around to this tree for three years. He didn’t chop it down right away. In the same way, the Lord keeps extending our lives. He gives us and others time. He genuinely loves us and wants to see his work come to fruition in us.
Second, he is persistent. He keeps coming back. Jesus gives the impression that the man in the parable kept coming to the tree and looking again and again. It was more than an annual visit. So our Lord pursues us. As poet Frances Thompson once described him, our Lord is “the hound of heaven.” As a hound chases a rabbit, relentless, steady, the Lord keeps after us though we try to run from him or hide in our sin.
Third, he is proactive. “Sir, leave it alone for one more year and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.” The gardener didn’t mess around with the externals. He addressed the roots. Our Lord does the same. He acts first. He gives freely to nurture life in us. He meets us in his word with the message of the cross. He meets us in his supper, where Jesus’ own body and blood nourish our souls with forgiveness. As a God of grace, our Lord does not wait for us to respond to him. He takes the initiative. He produces the repentance he seeks in us, and fruits of love grow from the faith he has cultivated in our souls.
There is a reason the Lord is digging around in your life, making you uncomfortable, yet always leaving you with reminders of his forgiving grace. He is looking for something. Let the gospel do its work, and give him the fruit he seeks.