A Tree and Its Fruit
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

The Two Foundations
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:15-29, NASB).

Backsliding…

It’s a term that I was introduced to when I moved to the Southeastern United States—also known to many as the Bible Belt. The term’s use is not on par with the phrase bless your heart, but probably falls somewhere in that next tier of Christianese, alongside phrases such as help my unbelief and create a hedge of protection. For those not familiar with the word’s use in Christian vernacular, backsliding Christians are true followers of Christ who are allowing sinful habits to move them away from their Lord. For Christians, to be backsliding is a serious matter, as it deters sanctification.

And yet, do we as Christians take the concept of backsliding too far, or, not far enough? This is a question that challenges me, because I don’t believe it’s a question that is capable of being answered by an individual for the collective; though, still warranting consideration. How do we know if someone is backsliding versus occasionally succumbing to a sinful action? On a day-to-day basis, how can we ascertain whether we’re progressing in our relationship with Christ? Is it possible for us to possess a stagnant faith?

Here’s where I’m at with answering such questions.

First, I don’t think that many—if any—of us are equipped enough to discern what God deems “too far,” considering that sinning in any capacity is to fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). It’s a heart matter, and only God knows the depths of our hearts and minds (Jeremiah 20:12; Acts 15:8).

Second, from my current understanding of scripture, I’d suggest that the frequency with which Christians commit sin is forgivable when they’re ignorant or unaware of their behavior’s sinfulness. When they become aware of their behavior’s sinfulness, however, they must repent; otherwise, they’ll be held accountable for their sins (Luke 12:47; John 9:41; Hebrews 10:26-30; 2 Peter 2:20-21). The parable of the wedding feast seems to speak specifically about accepting God’s invitation for relationship without conforming to Christ (Matthew 22:1-14). Why accept the invitation if we don’t plan to respect our Host? Consider both our selfishness and irreverence to enjoy the feast but not participate in the celebration!

Third, I believe that if we perceive our faith as stagnant, then we’ve most likely discontinued our pursuit of relationship with Christ. We know Him, but we’re not working on maintaining an active relationship; thereby, no longer allowing for it to grow.

Think about it. Can we say that we’re following Christ if we’re no longer pursuing active relationship with Him? Or, did we ever know Him, only falsely believing that we did? (Because if we knew Christ, why would we ever stop pursuing a relationship?) There are always opportunities to know Him better, and grow our relationship with Him, until the day when we’ll know Him in full (1 Corinthians 13:9-13).

…or Unsteady Foundations?

The Holy Bible wasn’t originally segmented into chapters and verses. These elements weren’t incorporated into most Bible translations until the 13th and 16th centuries respectively. While chapters and verses often facilitate our ability to digest scripture, sometimes it may encourage us to compartmentalize its teachings into contextually incomplete excerpts. I believe that I’m guilty of doing this with my interpretation of the following scripture:

Tree and Its Fruit
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness (Matthew 7:15-23, NASB).’

The above excerpt possesses what may contain the most terrifying Bible verses for professed Christians. It warns us that a profession of faith is not equivalent to following in faith. While I still consider such teaching from these verses accurate, until recently, I’ve ignored its contextual relevance to the scripture that it immediately precedes:

The Two Foundations
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:24-29, NASB).

I’ve regularly read these two scriptural excerpts as if they’re separate from one another. Although similar topics, the heading (i.e. “The Two Foundations”) had always indicated to me that the parable progressed to a new thought. I’ve always considered the parable of the two foundations to be emphasizing the necessity of doing work that builds upon our foundation in Christ—and I still do. While the message is the same, it now possesses greater contextual depth for me.

Previously, I read the parable as a message about simply being a believer versus a nonbeliever. There’s still Truth in this simplified message, for the only kingdom that will stand forever is the kingdom of heaven (Daniel 2:44). God’s Word, however, has more layers than an onion. Now, when I read “Therefore” to start the parable, I see it as Jesus signaling the need for His audience to pay extra attention to His powerful closing statement. A message that continues to build from everything prior.

Christ’s “Therefore” would function similar to the late Billy Mays hook, “But wait! There’s more!,” when pitching infomercial products. The difference, however, is that while Billy Mays was trying to encourage his infomercial viewers to purchase an innovative consumer product that would cost them between $9.99 and $19.99 (plus shipping and handling), Jesus was calling all people to place their faith in Him for eternal salvation and relationship with their Creator (Romans 5:1). Where the products that Billy Mays pitched offered us small everyday conveniences, Jesus was encouraging his audience to receive a saving faith that offers no substitutes (John 14:6).

And who was Jesus’ audience? From what we can discern, they were primarily Jews, God’s chosen people. The message was primarily targeting those with knowledge of God, who professed faith in Him. When considering His audience—and its function as a continuation of His discourse against false prophets—the parable is still relevant for today’s professed followers; particularly those in Church leadership.

In the past, I saw the parable of the two foundations addressing the difference between the work done in Christ versus that which wasn’t. And yes, as I mentioned a short while ago, I still believe that’s the general message. However, the parable was likely intended to also serve as a specific and powerful admonishment to those who claim to—and possibly do—further God’s Kingdom, but whose foundations aren’t Christ.

On multiple occasions, Jesus denounced the practices of the religious elite during His earthly ministry—the Pharisees and Sadducees. These groups were highly respected within Jewish society, believed to represent the strongest adherents to the faith. Yet, Jesus referred to them as whitewashed tombs, in that they possessed a clean external appearance; though were dead (with sin) inside, “full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28). Regardless of how it may have appeared to others, their work wasn’t for God’s glory. Rather than store up for themselves treasures in heaven, they chose to store up for themselves fleeting earthly treasures (Matthew 6:19-21). There’s no reason to believe that such false representation doesn’t still exist during these times.

When considering the aforementioned scripture more comprehensively, I think it suggests that there are those who will be recognized by society for building something significant for the earthly (visible) Church, yet, find themselves in Sheol because their work—whether or not it ultimately benefits the kingdom of heaven—wasn’t done for God’s glory. And when considering such work, there often seems to be controversy as to whether it furthers the kingdom of heaven, or muddies the waters (i.e. creates confusion) for those trying to understand what it means to truly follow Christ.

The Roman emperor Constantine is considered a Saint by Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics, and also the Anglicans. He was influential in the Edict of Milan (313 AD), which decreed tolerance for Christianity within the empire. Furthermore, he was the first Roman emperor to claim conversion to Christianity, and enacted laws that favored Christians; granting them privilege. Whether intended or not, Christianity became a political entity within the Roman empire. It also became militarized.

However, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was based on a vision he had before one of his great battles. There are questions whether he truly converted, or was only keeping his vow to the Christian God after his victory at the Milvian Bridge, given the Roman norms of that day. While his writings frequently speak of God, there is rarely mention of Christ…

Pope John Paul II is revered in Poland, and was respected as a religious leader worldwide, yet there are those who believe that he taught false doctrines and is now in hell. To support such belief, there are those that claim they’ve seen visions of him (among others) residing in hell…

There are prosperity churches that focus more on personal well-being in this world than God’s glory and the kingdom of heaven (see again, Matthew 6:19-21) Many such churches are megachurches, such as World Changers Church International, led by Pastors Creflo and Taffi Dollar, or Lakewood Church, led by Pastor Joel Osteen. While the world sees size as a powerful indicator of success, I’d suggest that a church’s size is not its most important indicator (see Christian fruitfulness).

Is Constantine or John Paul II in hell? I don’t know, but there’s reason to wonder. Will some of the well-known prosperity gospel and mega church preachers of our time one day find themselves in hell? Again, I’m not their judge, but it’s possible. According to Jesus, many go to hell (Matthew 7:13). Though, if any of the individuals noted above are rejected by Christ upon their day of Judgment, I’d consider their fall great (Matthew 7:27).

My point is that we can be viewed by the world as glorifying God through our work, without that being the case. What we profess to do for God’s glory may actually function to satisfy our earthly idolatries (e.g. wealth, power, prestige, comfort, etc.). Being a heart issue, only God (and possibly those closest to us) can tell the difference.

As we focus on the new year, let us look upon our own hearts; examining everything carefully, so that we can hold onto that which is good—and turn away from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Most of us live with wealth and privilege, even if we don’t consider ourselves particularly wealthy or privileged. Jesus warns that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24-26, NASB). Let us be honest about whether we’re holding onto any earthly idols as we come upon this new year. May we who profess Christ as Lord, following Him better in this new year than we’ve done prior. May our foundation be that of Christ, and Christ alone.

And may we live to further His kingdom, for His glory and our joy.

 

 

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