Matthew 7:16. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
17. So every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.
18. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
19. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Having warned His followers to hold fast to His teaching and to be careful that they are not seduced by others who are ravenous wolves under sheep’s clothing, Christ, the Lord, now uses another warning to teach them how to recognize such people by their fruits. He cites an example in plain and simple words that even a child can understand. No one is so naive as to suppose that a thornbush bears figs or grapes. Nevertheless, though the words may be simple, no one can see their full implication unless he pays diligent attention to the Word of God. The most important thing is to understand what He calls a good or a bad tree and good or bad fruit. It is easy to say that this is a fig tree or a thistle or a good apple tree or a sour plum tree, and this is something that the eyes can easily see and the reason easily grasp. But what Christ is pointing to here cannot be located except by a spiritual understanding on the basis of the Word of God. We heard earlier that these same false teachers put on such an appearance and are so glib in their speech that reason is not capable of evaluating them or of defending itself against them. As a matter of fact, this sort of teaching springs from reason and is completely compatible with it. Naturally it pleases us, for it teaches about our own actions and works, which lie within our understanding and our capacity.
A brief definition of “a sound tree that bears good fruit” is this: one who conducts his life, existence, and behavior according to the Word of God, pure and unadulterated. Later on He will be discussing many people who have heard the Word of God, who say, “Lord, Lord!” and who have done many signs, yet are false and hypocritical. Here you have to close up your reason altogether and follow only the Word of God, basing your ideas and opinions about life and works upon it, so that you may know what the Word of God calls a “good tree” or “good fruit.” It is too hard for reason to understand that a man is not a sound tree with good fruit when it sees him wearing nothing but a gray coat, fasting every week like that Pharisee in the Gospel (Luke 18:12), and even doing miracles and signs. Its knowledge cannot go any higher, nor can its thought and understanding be any better. It is simply fascinated by all this, and it concludes that whoever leads a life different from that of other people must be a special and saintly man. Reason, the blind fool, fails to see that all such works are still very far from the Word of God. You may ask reason: “How do you know that these works are as precious as you make them?” The only answer it can give you is, “I suppose so.” Into the ashcan30 with your suppositions, if I am supposed to base my salvation and blessedness on them! The command is: You must not imagine or suppose, but you must know and have a sure basis and testimony from the Word of God, telling you that this is pleasing to Him. Then you can say: “The work is well done, the station is one that pleases God. I know this, not from my own light or star, which makes it seem good or bad to me, but from its agreement with the Word and the commandment of God. To me it does not seem right that a husband or a wife, a prince or a judge should be as holy as the one who sneaks off into corners or into the desert. But it will not do for me to decide on the basis of my supposition. Though someone were to be able to drive out demons and to do all the miracles that the apostles did, I would rather be a shoemaker’s apprentice or a dishwasher on the basis of the Word of God. I would elevate this occupation above all your suppositions, even if you were able to raise the dead.” So stick to the principle that bearing good fruit refers to the kind of life and good works that are in agreement with the Word and the commandment of God.
Thus the words “You will know them by their fruits” are set down as a distinguishing mark and a standard for judging and recognizing these prophets. If we are taken in, that is no one’s fault but our own. He has not left us in doubt but has portrayed them clearly and precisely. “If their sheep’s clothing makes it impossible for you to judge them,” He says, “then take note of their fruits and works, and see whether these are upright and good.” You may say: “All right, but how do I recognize these? They may fool me too.” Answer: You know what God’s commandments are. See whether they agree with them. I will guarantee that no schismatic spirit will come without making his own special mark and leaving a stench behind so that you can tell that the devil has been there. No false teaching or heresy has ever arisen without bringing along the distinguishing mark He points to here: that it has set forth works different from the ones which God has commanded and ordained. The world is seduced simply because it follows insane reason and leaves the Word of God lying under the bench. It does not notice what He commands, and meanwhile it stares at the masks in the hope of seeing something special.
Anyone who wants to judge correctly here should do as Christ teaches him to do. He should take their works and fruit in hand and measure them against the Word or commandment of God, to see how these harmonize. Take the saintliest Carthusian monk with his strict routine on the one side and St. Paul with the Ten Commandments on the other. You will see that St. Paul preaches this way: If you have Christ through faith, then let everyone be obedient and subject to the government (Rom. 13:1) and practice mutual love in your station (Rom. 13:8–10). You see, there you have the true mirror of a Christian life, based upon the commandment and ordinance of God. By way of contrast, the schismatic spirit comes along and says: “Oh, that is so ordinary. There are many wicked people in these stations, and it is all secular. We have to look for something better.” So he goes and makes something special and strange. He comes marching along in a cowl or a gray coat, which is now supposed to be a wonderful life and a perfect station. But if you are grounded in the Word of God, you can quickly judge and say: “Where did God command you to set up these special stations and works in opposition to the universal stations that He has ordained? I am well aware of the fact that in every station there are many rascals as well as many pious people, but what do I care if someone misuses them? I will remain with the Word, which teaches me that such stations are good in spite of the fact that there are bad people in them. I watch this, and I am guided by it. Since the station is good, the works and fruit demanded by it and done according to the Word of God must also be right and good. But since your station has no Word of God, the works that are done in it cannot be good. Thus both the tree and its fruit are rotten and useless.”
There you have a sure basis for judgment, one that cannot deceive you, when Christ teaches you to know them by their fruit. In my reading about all the heretics and schismatics I have discovered that without fail they all set out to do something different from what God had required and commanded, one in this teaching and another in that. One forbade the eating of certain food, another forbade marriage, a third condemned the civil government, and each set forth something all his own. Thus they all fall into this pattern. It all depends, therefore, on really knowing and maintaining the definition of what Christ calls good works or fruits: a good work is one that is required or commanded by the Word of God and proceeds on the basis of that commandment. So a wife who is pious and faithful in her marriage can claim and boast that her station is commanded by God, that it is supported by the true, pure, and unadulterated Word of God, and that it heartily pleases God. Hence her works are all good fruit. Good should not be judged and evaluated on the basis of our suppositions but on the basis of what God says and pronounces to be good. If you stick to this, you cannot go wrong. They must go wrong. There stands the judgment that they cannot teach about right fruit. God takes the same attitude toward them when they preach about nothing except the stunts they themselves have thought up. Since they despise the real fruit and works for their lack of any special show, He despises the rotten works that they undertake so ostentatiously in their presumption that they are improving on what He has done.
There is a proverb invented by the priests, and it seems to me that the devil himself was making fun of them with it. When our Lord God was making a priest, the devil was watching and wanted to imitate Him. But he made the tonsure too wide, and it turned out to be a monk. Therefore the monks are the devil’s creatures. Of course, that is said in fun, as a joke, but it is really true. When the devil sees God commanding obedience and mutual love and creating a fine, spiritual people of His own, he cannot let it go at that. He just has to build his chapel or tavern next to the church31 and then to start teaching his monkery, poverty, gray coats, and the like. Thus the monks are always the devil’s priests. They preach nothing but the doctrine of demons, as Paul calls it (1 Tim. 4:1), which they have taken up on the basis of their own supposition and which, in their superior wisdom, they claim to be an improvement on the work of God.
Christ wants to say now: “If you want to recognize and judge these people, cling to the pure Word of God. Then you will be certain what the right fruit is, and you will see how they measure up to it. You will surely discover that they teach and practice something different from what God has commanded. This gives you a way of testing the tree, too, to see that it is no good.” Now He gives them a crude and childlike example: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” They suppose: “Well, why not? Why should that be impossible? Why, you can gather pure sugar from them.” They regard these works as much more precious than the ones that God has commanded. Take a look at the two kinds of trees—the vine or the fig tree, and the thorn or the thistle by contrast. Thistles and thorns may bloom, too, but what sort of fruit do they yield?32 The fig tree is such an unpretentious tree and does not strut or brag about its fruit and leaves. It does not sprout any leaves until the fruit is ready, but before you realize it, it yields its fruit. Thus the grapevine has less glory in its outward appearance than any other tree and is just a dry and weak stick. Yet it yields grapes which are sweeter than anything else that grows, while other trees spread themselves and strut with their leaves and flowers so that it would seem that they will yield pure sugar; but all they produce is this sour and useless fruit.
These people likewise put on a fine outward appearance and set up a clatter with their bragging about the special works that they will be the only ones to perform. But when the blossoms have fallen, there is nothing left but a hawthorn full of stones, useless for nourishment or food, or thistleheads, which just prick and scratch if you take hold of them. If you measure them up against the commandment of God and ask whether God has commanded and required such works and whether they have served and benefited the neighbor, it is clear that they are valueless and only a hindrance to the genuine good fruit. The other stations, by contrast, put on no special outward appearance by glittering and glistening. Still they yield the finest and best fruit and are the most useful things on earth—but in the sight of God and of those who are illumined with spiritual vision so that they can see correctly and judge correctly.
This is why He says: “Are figs gathered from thorns?” As if He wanted to say: “The blossoms may be something wonderful, but wait a while and see what you will find when picking and gathering time comes. The only outcome will be disappointment for the people who have been expecting large and precious fruit but who find nothing that provides consolation or pleasure for them or for other people.” The regrettable thing is that this ghostly invention of the devil deceives and seduces even the sharpest mind that does not have the Word of God and a sound understanding. It follows its own supposition and devotion, and it imagines that if it finds these pleasing, God must find them pleasing too. But this should be reversed so that I find pleasing what I hear is pleasing to Him, even though all of God’s stations have their annoyances and many bad people in them who corrupt this fruit, just the way the bad worms do.
Now He closes this comparison with a common saying that He was fond of using otherwise too.33 “Every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.” Now, what is the point of teaching this in so many words? Who does not know it already? A blind man could tell it by feeling a bush. Does He think that we are such fools, not to know this? If someone already knows it, let him. We want to learn it and to remain Christ’s pupils. As has been said, it is not such an easy art to judge in the activity which Christ is discussing. The purpose of this saying is to comfort and strengthen people who are in the stations that conflict with the feelings and attitudes of reason—stations which have many annoyances and evil incidents in them so that people are taken aback and regard them as dangerous and as unsuitable for the service of God. St. Augustine used to torment himself and agonize over this, even when he had already become a great theologian.34 He would have liked to see everything just right and to eliminate the evil elements from these stations. The Pelagian heretics caused him a great deal of trouble in this regard. Almost all the heretics have tried to make everything perfectly pure and—if you will pardon the expression—they have fouled it up instead.
But why look for it far away? Here it is stated admirably and briefly: Nothing but good fruit can come from the station that God has created and ordained, and from the man who works and lives in this station on the basis of the Word of God. With this you can now comfort your heart against thoughts like these: “Oh, it was this person or that who got me into this station. It causes me nothing but disgust and trouble.” I have often been tempted this way in connection with my own office, and still am. If it had not been for the Word of God, I would have stopped preaching a long time ago and would have said farewell to the world, the way the monks used to do. It is the devil himself doing this and making everyone’s station hard for him. Though God has assigned this office and work to us and is heartily pleased with it as the good fruit of a good heart, the devil so confuses foolish human reason that it fails to recognize this and thus destroys its own station and fruit. Because it does not see that this is a good tree and a good station, it is an obstacle to itself and therefore cannot yield good fruit.
Learn to look at your station on the basis of this statement, and draw this conclusion from it: “Thank God, I know now that I am in a good and blessed station, one that pleases God. Though it may be annoying to my flesh and contain a great deal that is troubling and disgusting, I shall cheerfully put up with all that. Here I have the comfort that Christ says: ‘A sound tree bears good fruit.’ He says this about every station that is grounded in the Word of God, though it may be despised and decried by the world and the special saints. On the other hand, I hear this judgment: ‘Every bad tree brings forth evil fruit.’ When I see the saintliest Carthusian, therefore, I am looking at an abominably bad tree, though he may make a wonderful impression and have less worry and opposition than I do. The devil does not make things as bitter and as difficult for him as he does for the genuine divine stations. That is why people find such stations and occupations to their liking. As I cannot see that the fruit in my station is good, so he cannot see either that his station and fruit is rotten and useless. They would like to reverse this saying to read this way: ‘A bad tree brings forth good fruit, and a sound tree brings forth bad fruit.’ ” In other words, reason is unable to judge here, or to see the goodness in its station and its works, or to get any joy or pleasure out of them. Instead, it praises the exact opposite. If this were visible to us, we would live in sheer joy and bear and endure with a joyful heart whatever God lays upon us, being certain that because the tree is sound, the fruit also must be good. When a pious hired man is hauling a wagonload of manure to the field, he is actually hauling a wagonload of precious figs and grapes—but in the sight of God, not in our own sight, since we do not believe, so that everyone gets tired of his station and goes staring at another one.
Now, that is what Christ means by drawing the frank and direct conclusion: “A sound tree bears good fruit, and vice versa.” To make it even stronger, He adds the extra statement: “A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” “What? Do You mean that it is impossible for a servant or a maid to be a villain, or for a man or woman to commit adultery, or for a prince to be a tyrant, or for a preacher to be a seducer, as You Yourself have said? Where but in the various stations and businesses should we look for scoundrels and villains?”
Answer: Unfortunately, that is true. But then none of these people is a sound tree any more, since he is transgressing the limits of his station and living in opposition to the commandment of God. But if he remains in his station or office and does what this demands, he cannot be a bad tree. Therefore He says: “You just be sure to remain a sound tree, and I promise you that what you do cannot be wrong. The works that God has commanded must be laudable, and they cannot be called wrong.” Now, what greater blessing could we want than to have this praise and testimony from Christ Himself, in opposition to the schismatic spirits and eccentrics? We know that we are in a station where we cannot do wrong so long as we live according to the Word of God and do what we have been commanded to do. In fact, though something wrong might creep in by our excesses, not purposely or deliberately but through our ignorance or weakness, this, too, has to be good and pardonable. In other words, you cannot ruin it, since you are living in the divine office and in the Word. If you remain in that, it cannot be Wrong. Though it might be sin otherwise, it will not be called wrong but will be covered over and forgiven.35 Such is the wonderful blessing of the Word of God. Though a fig tree or other tree may sometimes bear wormy fruit, a fig is still good fruit and has no spines or thorns. Rather than to be fruitless, the tree will bear fruit that is wormy, though that is not its fault. So all the works of a Christian are of a good kind because the tree is sound. He lives in such a way that he would gladly bear nothing but good fruit, though sometimes, through the weakness of the flesh or some other obstacle, something wrong creeps in.
By contrast, even if those thornbushes and thistles strained themselves, they could not bear any fruit that could be called a good apple or a fig. If a Carthusian or a barefoot monk tortured himself to death with praying, he could not say an Our Father that God would call good, or do a single good work. The more he would do in his anxiety for doing good works, the worse he would make it. It is decided: “A thistle does not bear figs, and a thornbush does not bear grapes.” In short, “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” He is really threatening severely and frightening us strictly away from all self-chosen orders and stations, since they cannot do a single good work.36 And He is really giving us wonderful comfort, that we who live according to the Word of God cannot do wrong.
And so He concludes now: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” There you have the sentence handed down which will finally strike all those who teach and obey their own works, without any word of God. In doing this, their intention is to make their cause last forever. They imagine that since they are the really valuable trees and plants, God has to spare them, hedge them in and fence them, and take very good care of them. They do not see the sentence that has been pronounced against them. He has already taken hold of the ax and laid it to the tree, as Christ says elsewhere.37 All they are fit for is hell-fire. For it is written (Matt. 15:13): “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.”
He has been saying all this in comparisons and parables or obscure words. Now He goes on to explain what He meant by this, adding the correct gloss in clear and distinct words:
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:259). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.