Question: "What does it mean to produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8)?"

Answer: In the wilderness of Judea, John the Baptist began his ministry of preparing Israel to receive her Messiah, Jesus Christ. Enormous crowds went to hear John (Matthew 3:5) as he traveled through the region “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Many people received John’s message, confessed their sins, and were baptized (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5). These baptisms stirred up such a commotion that the Pharisees and Sadducees went out to investigate. Aware of their insincerity of heart, John said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7–8).

John spoke severely, challenging these religious leaders’ spiritual pride and hypocrisy head-on. They needed to know that God’s judgment for sin was coming. Baptism is an outward symbol of true heart change. John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance.” Repentance is the act of changing one’s mind that results in a change of actions (Luke 3:8-14, Acts 3:19). Sincere repentance involves turning away from sin both in thought and action. When the crowds came to John for baptism, they were showing their repentance and identifying with a new life. The Pharisees and Sadducees were detached observers at John’s baptism. They claimed to have repented of their sins—sins they eagerly pointed out in others—yet they lived as sinners, all the while denying their own guilt.

The religious leaders of John’s day had refused to submit themselves to God. They thought they were good enough by way of association with Abraham through their Jewish heritage (see Matthew 3:9; John 8:39). But their religious rituals and spiritual “pedigree” were not enough to please God. The only way for sinners to enter a relationship with God is through genuine repentance and faith. These religious leaders should have been setting an example and taking the lead. Instead, they lived in self-righteous, hypocritical denial of their spiritual condition.

John the Baptist warned, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). The tree represents Israel. If Israel did not repent, it would be cut down and destroyed (see Luke 13:6–10). Only those who genuinely repented and began to produce good fruit would be prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ.

Luke’s gospel gives further insight into what it means to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. John told the people, “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones’” (Luke 3:8, NLT). John’s baptism of repentance was meant to be the start of a brand new, continuous life of producing fruit in keeping with righteousness. Our family tree won’t earn us a place in heaven or give us an automatic claim to God’s promises. John told the Sadducees and Pharisees who took pride in their lineage to take a more humble view: just as God had made Adam from the dust of the ground, God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones of the wilderness.

At John’s preaching, the people began to ask, “What should we do?” (Luke 3:10). In other words, “What is the fruit in keeping with repentance?” “John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same’” (Luke 3:11). He told the tax collectors in the crowd, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (verse 13). He told the soldiers, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (verse 14). Such actions were the “fruit” of repentance in that they showed the genuineness of the change of heart.

When the apostle Paul began his preaching ministry, he, too, spoke of good deeds as proof of genuine repentance: “I preached first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that all must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do” (Acts 26:20, NLT).

The believer’s spiritual life and growth are often compared to a fruit-bearing tree in Scripture. Just as fruit production is proof of life and health in a tree, so are good actions the evidence of spiritual life in Jesus Christ and the presence of God’s Spirit dwelling within a person. Jesus said, “A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions” (Matthew 7:17–20, NLT).

Fruit in keeping with repentance represents the good deeds and changed behaviors that naturally flow from a truly repentant and transformed heart. In James 2:14–26, James teaches extensively on the subject, explaining that “faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (verse 17, NLT). James concludes, “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works (verse 26, NLT).

Paul prays for the Philippians to be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11). He gives examples of good spiritual fruit: “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23, NLT; see also Ephesians 5:9; Colossians 1:10; James 3:17).

The believer’s ability to produce fruit in keeping with repentance depends wholly on our intimate fellowship with Jesus Christ, who said, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4–5, NLT). The root will naturally produce fruit. Fruit in keeping with repentance is the evidence (as well as a result) of a changed mind, transformed life, and ongoing communion with Jesus.