Can a Christian Know If Someone Else Is Saved?
24 Jun 2018
The issue is generated from “So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20 NASB) and “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they” (Matthew 7:16)? Some take these verses to mean, one can know if someone is saved by their fruits or actions (i.e. works). First of all, you can’t take one verse and make a doctrine from it. This would not be following proper hermeneutics. Second, we are not fruit inspectors. God did not give us the job of inspecting other people or their works to see if they are saved or not. We are to “preach the gospel to everyone” (Mark 16:15).
Before we examine what Matthew chapter 7 is really saying, it is important to note, “The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b NLT). You cannot tell if a person is saved by the clothes they wear; if they attend church regularly; Their language; Their behavior; or actually by any means. There is not a gauge to hold up to someone to see if they meet the requirement (more on that later). Being saved is a “heart issue,” not a fruit, works, or if you fit into my box issue. Only God knows if a person is saved. So why do some say that they can tell based on Matthew 7:20? Let’s look at the Bible for the truth.
One of the first rules of hermeneutics is that you must consider a verse in context with the verses around it; the passage from which it comes; the whole chapter and the book of the Bible where it is found; and then the context of the New or Old Testament. A cursory look at the passage surrounding Matthew 7:20 gives us our answer.
“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” (Matthew 7:15-20).
Verse 15 says, “Beware of the false prophets.” What follows through verse 20 is a discussion about “false prophets” not about identifying saved or unsaved people. False prophets refer to those whose teaching contradicts Jesus’ teaching. These were people who falsely claim to speak on God’s behalf. Peter warns us, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1 NASB). Peter identifies the current false teachers with the false prophets of the Old Testament era. In the first century, a heresy (Greek hairesis) referred to a faction or a school of thought (compare Acts 26:5; 1 Cor 11:19). Therefore, Peter has to specify that these are not just any teachings, but destructive ones (cf. 2 Pet 3:7, 16). Peter’s primary concern with the false teachers is their denial of the return of Christ and God’s judgment that will come with it (2 Peter 3:4-10). In addition, these teachers not only tolerated but promoted immorality (2 Peter 2:2–3, 13–14, 18–19). They distorted what the apostles taught about Jesus Christ seeking to cast doubt on the authority of the apostles (cf. 1 John 2:22–23; Titus 1:16). This may also refer to their blatant immorality (cf. Jude 4; 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23). They promoted false prophecies and ritualistic sexual indulgences.
One reason that so few were entering the kingdom is the many influential “spokesmen for God” who were promoting the wide gate and broad path. These teachers were not readily perceived as “false prophets,” for they are wolves “in sheep’s clothing.” Their predatory nature is hidden by an innocent appearance. They cloak their false teaching with what seems to be good works. But as Jesus said, “they say and do not do” (Matthew 23:3). Pharisaical righteousness will not get anyone into the kingdom.
Jesus teaches that a plant or tree is known “by [its] fruit.” Their ingenious means of reducing the demands of the Law to something people can keep for salvation betray who they really are. The false teacher (not an unsaved person) is likened to “a bad tree” that naturally produces “bad fruit” whose end is destruction by fire.
These false teachers are detected “by their fruits.” The fruit of the false teacher is not his “works,” for these appear to be good. Rather the false fruit is their doctrine (cf. Matthew 12:33–35). In the case of the Pharisees, it was legalism, that one could merit acceptance with God by his deeds. Testing doctrine is the means by which the seeker can discern a teacher’s true nature. We are not being told to test peoples works or fruit! To be able to test someone’s doctrine, one must be well versed in the Word of God.
Today many false ideas are being taught. Paul wrote of false apostles who offered a counterfeit Christ, a counterfeit Spirit, and a counterfeit gospel (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:4, 13–15). Satan loves to enlist religious teachers who obscure the gospel. False prophets or teachers may look as innocent as sheep, use religious language, and sound spiritual. If their doctrine does not teach Christ and Him crucified as the only way to be saved through grace, we should remove their influence from our lives as radically as an orchard owner would cut down a fruitless tree. “But that prophet shall be put to death because he has counseled rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So, you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 13:5).
The next section of Matthew describes true believers and not pretenders, 21 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. 22 “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?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS” (Matthew 7:21-23 NASB).
Here Jesus rejects salvation by works. A profession of Jesus as Lord will not guarantee entrance into the kingdom by itself. Those who still cling to their pharisaical righteousness but profess Christ will not make it. Only those “who [do] the will of [the] Father” will “enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The will of the Father may be viewed from two perspectives. Jesus’ interpretation of the Law is the Father’s will. But to do this for entrance into eternal life requires “perfect” obedience (cf. Mathew 5:48; Luke 10:25–37; Revelation 21:27). No one can be perfect, only Jesus was and is perfect. But there is still another way! Jesus said in John 6:40, “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that everyone who sees the Son, and believes in Him, may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” The will of the Father is to believe in the Son. Obeying the will of the Father in this manner brings salvation. Salvation is given by grace and obtained by belief or faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The individuals in verses 22–23 do not do the will of the Father. Although they claim to have performed supernatural “wonders in [Christ’s] name,” at the Great White Throne Judgment (“in that day”) they will be convicted as those “who practice [or do] lawlessness.” Jesus will declare, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”
These verses do not refer to people who once performed works only a saved person could do and then lost their salvation. The verses are referring to those whom Christ “never” knew (an unsaved or lost person). These were counterfeit believers, not real ones. Whether they actually performed supernatural wonders or not remains unclear. If they did perform such works, it could not be from Christ, but must have been of Satan. If they did not, they are simply fabricating an experience they never had. Through their actions, the false teachers are recklessly denying the Lord who offers them redemption from death, through His death; in doing so, they are bringing destruction (the full wrath of God) upon themselves.
There is another scripture which causes confusion with our topic. “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2 NASB). In the OT the nation Israel is referred to metaphorically as a vine (Psalm 80:8; Ezekiel 15:1–8). The nation was intended to be like a productive vine that bears much fruit. Instead, it was like an unproductive, fruitless vine.
In this “I am” statement—the seventh and last one in John’s Gospel—Jesus identifies Himself as “the true vine, and [His] Father [as] the vinedresser.” Though Israel did not live up to its name as the vine, Jesus did.
Some theologians do not believe that there is such a thing as an unproductive believer. They are forced to argue that “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit” refers to unbelievers. Yet it is difficult to imagine how an unbeliever could rightly be called a “branch in” Jesus. The issue with unbelievers is unbelief, not lack of fruitfulness. Jesus is warning believers (see v 3, “you are already clean”) against being unfruitful and unproductive. Unbelievers are not in Christ and they are not branches from which He expects fruit.
The word translated “He takes away” (Greek airei) can also be translated “He lifts up.”
If the former translation is correct, it suggests that unfruitful believers are taken home (v 6). The latter translation suggests that God “disciplines” unfruitful believers in an effort to spur them on to fruit-bearing. In viticulture, low-lying branches that are unproductive are propped up (or lifted up) on wooden stands in order to facilitate productivity.
The latter translation is probably correct for three reasons. First, the two halves of v 2 are antithetical. Verse 2b concerns increasing the productivity of productive branches. This suggests that v 2a concerns stimulating productivity of unproductive ones. Second, not until v 6 is the removal of unproductive branches clearly discussed. The distance seems to suggest that removal is normally not instantaneous. Third, there is a play on words in this verse which suggests that the goal of the intervention in each type of branch is to heighten productivity.
“He prunes” is the same Greek verb as “He lifts up” except that a prefix is added (kathairei vs. airei). The pruning of a productive branch refers to what God does in the life of a fruitful believer “that it may bear more fruit.” God’s discipline is not merely directed at unfaithful believers. God disciplines faithful believers as well (cf. Hebrews 12:3–11; James 1:2–12).
In conclusion, I would like to remind everyone of Luke 6:41-44, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye. “For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. “For each tree is known by its own fruit.”
Jesus is the vine (John 15:1). You can’t be a Christian unless you are part of the vine. It is easy to misinterpret metaphors. Bearing fruit has nothing to do with being saved or not. Just being a vine, means one is already saved. The passage in Matthew 7 is about false teachers, not about unbelievers verse believers. There is only one way to salvation believing in Jesus. Believing or faith is a mental activity. No human being can tell what another human thinks. You can’t judge a person by their “works” or fruit-bearing in order to tell if they are saved or not. Only God can judge someone’s heart. Work out your “own” salvation, striving to become more Christlike. It’s not your job to tell if someone is righteous with God or not.