“When John the Baptist told the Jews that they must bring forth ‘fruit’ worthy of repentance, what did he mean by ‘fruit’ (Matthew 3:8)?”
There are three things to be taken into consideration in answering this question.
- Exactly what is “repentance”?
- What is the significance of the expression, “worthy of”?
- What is implied by the phrase, “bring forth fruit”?
We will examine each of these items.
What Is Repentance?
The Greek verb that is translated “repent” is
metanoeo. Literally, it means “after thought.” It suggests the idea of thinking about a deed after the commission of it. In the case of a sinful action, the idea would be a retrospection of the act and a subsequent feeling of sorrow for having committed the sin.
That repentance involves more than mere “sorrow” for the wrong act, however, is beyond dispute. It likewise entails a resolve to cease the wrongful conduct, replacing it with godly living.
J. H. Thayer commented upon the term in the following fashion. He declared that repentance is:
“the change of mind of those who have begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, so that it embraces both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and effects of which are good deeds” (1958, 406).
Clearly repentance entails more than mere remorse for one’s past conduct. On the day of Pentecost, Peter charged the Jews in his audience to “repent” (Acts 2:38). By his earlier message, however, already they had been “pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37). Obviously, repentance demanded more than mere regret. It required a change of life.
Later on, Paul would write that “godly sorrow leads to repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10). The repentance of this text, therefore, must be reformation, not mere grief over the act.
What Does It Mean to Be Worthy of Repentance?
The expression “worthy of” (
axios) originally had to do with objects that were of equal weight, i.e., one item “corresponded to” another in weight.
The metaphorical use in the New Testament may be employed of things both good or bad. The one who spends his time and energies in proclaiming the gospel is worthy of support (Mt. 10:10; 1 Tim. 5:17-18), i.e., a support that is commensurate with his labor. The person who commits a capital crime (e.g., murder) is worthy of death (Acts 23:29; 25:11).
With reference to the issue at hand, the change of life that is characteristic of repentance must correspond to the gravity and nature of the offense. Otherwise, there simply is no repentance.
What Is the Fruit of Repentance?
Finally, what is the actual “fruit” required in genuine repentance? Several factors must be taken into consideration.
First, if the sin has been against another person individually, amendment must be addressed to that person.
When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, it is absurd to conclude that his confession to Nathan, “I have sinned against Jehovah” (2 Sam. 12:13), would have exhausted the scope of his repentance. Had he no responsibility to acknowledge the wrong to Bathsheba, his partner in adultery?
Far too many people labor under the illusion that they can make a generic confession at a church service, without ever making things right personally with the victims of their sin.
Much less, even, is it the case that one may secretly repent of a sin, and subsequently, deny that the transgression ever was committed! Strange indeed is the meaning of repentance in such a person’s spiritual lexicon.
Second, whenever such is possible, an attempt at restitution should be made. There are a number of Old Testament passages that make clear this point (see Ex. 22:1ff; cf. Lk. 19:8b). Though we are not bound by the specifics of Mosaic legislation, the principle is important nonetheless.
In the case of a murder, the destroyed life can never be restored, but the murderer might be able, to the best of his ability, help support the widow and children of his victim. If one has stolen money, it should be repaid to the extent of his ability. If a banker has embezzled a million dollars from the financial institution for which he has worked, he might never be able to repay that entire sum, but he should attempt to do what he can. If a person declares bankruptcy, he is morally obligated to repay his creditors (as much as is feasible).
One is not permitted to enjoy the fruit of his crime. Of course it is always possible that the victim of the abuse might “forgive” the debt (Mt. 18:27), but the sinner must never take that for granted. One must never reason, “Because I cannot repair all my sins, I will make no attempt to remedy any of them.”
The conscientious Bible student is forced to conclude that any repentance without the full compliment of elements that define that term is no repentance at all.