Let’s imagine we have a man with a paintbrush, a palette of colors, and a blank canvas. Suppose he says to himself, “I am determined to be a great painter, and this will be my first masterpiece!” How do you think his painting is going to progress? I think he will be staring at that canvas in fear for a very long time. Three weeks later, we will find no more than a smudge rubbed out, and a very frustrated painter. Someone may ask him, what do you do sir? And he may answer, “I am a great painter!” Yet if they look at his fruits, all they see is a blank canvas and no body of work. His own demand of himself to do great work is killing his ability to do great work. His determination to be a great painter has destroyed his ability to be a great painter.
On the other hand, suppose he says, “This is fun! What do I care what other people think, I simply enjoy painting!” How do you think his work will progress? I think he will have made wonderful progress on his painting within a day or two, and will quickly develop a huge body of work. Someone may ask him, “what do you do sir?” And he may answer, “I have a little fun with paints.” If they look at his fruits, they will find many paintings obviously painted with enjoyment and perhaps even some talent. Perhaps over time there is improvement. They might say, “Here is a great painter, a man with great potential!” His lack of demand upon himself to do great work opened the door to do great work.
I want to add that the still life at the top by Monet puts this idea into high relief. Monet’s style hinges upon an artful dependance on imperfection. Imperfection and impermanence are the touchstones of the impressionist style.
So, it is not the demand for righteous fruits, but the actual presence of righteous fruits, that serve as a signal of the presence of true faith. If we determine first to show true fruits, we put the cart before the horse.
Consider these verses from 1 John, which have been put forward (for instance in the comments on this post) as a defeater of radical grace:
And in this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.
He who says, I know Him, and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in this one;
-1 John 2:3-4
In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest. Everyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, neither he who does not love his brother.
-1 John 3:10
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten of God, and everyone who loves Him who has begotten loves him also who has been begotten of Him.
In this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and do His commandments.
For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.
-1 John 5:1-3
Notice that there is not one of them in that list that actually says, “Keep his commandments! Do it or die!” It says, if someone says they are a painter, maybe there should be some paintings there. He says, “are you wondering if your faith is real, if you really know Him? Or if this other person’s faith is real, if they really know Him? Look at their faith! Look at their love and compassion for other believers! Look at their remorse over their sin! Sure enough, we do seem to know Him! How else are we to harmonize these verses with verses such as these:
1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
4:18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
Are we to throw these verses out? Ultimately, this is all harmonized by this verse:
3:23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
In the flow of the actual text of 1 John, faith in Christ and love for others is all mixed together. When John talks about keeping His commandments in the text, he means this, and when he says we are to love, it cannot be interpreted in a way that conflicts with the idea that love comes from God first loving us. First, come to the belief that God loves you, that Jesus died for your sins. Really believe that, move over to radical grace. Fruit follows that kind of faith.
Consider this passage from the Psalms:
8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go;
I will counsel you with My eye upon you.
9 Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding,
Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check,
Otherwise they will not come near to you.
10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
But he who trusts in the LORD, lovingkindness shall surround him.
Ps 32:8-10, NASB
If you require force, threat, punishment, fruit-checking, bit and bridle, etc. to believe in Christ and to love the brethren, you actually cut yourself off from the ability to bear the fruit you so greatly seek. You’re seeking the wrong thing. Fruit is an idol anyway. My whole point is, forget about fruit. You can’t demand it, you can only look back and see it. Look at Christ’s love for you! As T.S Eliot wrote,
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
Choruses From the Rock, I, T.S. Eliot