What Are Christians Defined By?

“And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” Luke 13:6-9

In 2007 I took 30 TCU students to Bay St. Louis, MS to serve alongside Lagniappe Presbyterian Church doing hurricane relief work. In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit Bay St. Louis, MS hard and there was still much work to be done.

Once we arrived on the scene, our group worked hard to make a positive difference in the lives of those impacted by the storm. After a long days work, we would collapse into bed and then awake with a huge appetite. I’m normally not a big breakfast eater but I was beginning to develop a fondness for breakfast during our trip because I knew I needed fuel to get me through the day.

One morning when we awoke and went to the dining hall (at the church where we were staying), I noticed something delightful on the breakfast buffet. One of my students confirmed my suspicion. We were having “truck driver’s special”! That’s biscuits and gravy for all of you non-truckers.

I was about to come out of my skin with excitement. There’s nothing I like better for breakfast. They had taken a lesson from the Greystone Kitchen and rolled out some extra-large cathead biscuits that were begging to be covered in the gravy. One of my students, Hunter Smith, was first through the line and immediately tasted the goodness of the gravy. He told me to be sure to get at least two biscuits. Absolutely!

As I sat down to enjoy my breakfast, something was seriously wrong. “Yuck! That’s not truck driver’s special.” A cruel trick had been played on me (and everyone else for that matter). Though the gravy looked just like “sausage gravy” it was anything but sausage gravy. It was “Cream of Mushroom Soup” to be exact. I’ll spare you the details but as you would imagine my gag reflex kicked in right away upon my first bite. Emotionally, I went from very high to very low in just moment. Looks can be deceiving!

In Luke 13, Jesus uses a similar example to teach us about the heart of Christianity. A group of people comes to Jesus reporting the horrific headlines from the previous day’s news. Jesus responds to their report with an equally disturbing news update. At the heart of both news events were people who had experienced tremendous suffering and then died an awful death.

The group questioning Jesus was looking for a reason to explain the horrible events. They assumed that bad living had resulted in a bad ending. They believed that “what goes around comes around”—that God loves and rewards those who do good and He hates and punishes those who do bad. In essence, they believed that good behavior is the defining factor of real Christians. Jesus corrects their faulty assumptions.

Just like the gravy biscuits, looks can be deceiving. Jesus tells them a story about fig trees in order to clear up the confusion. He wants them to see that Christians, fig trees and Truck Driver’s Special for that matter, all have their own defining characteristics. The defining characteristic of fig trees is the figs that they produce.

A fig tree is a worthless tree apart from the figs just like truck driver’s special is worthless without the sausage gravy. In Palestine, fig trees would produce figs 10 months out of the year. For fig trees, it’s all about the figs. So what is the defining characteristic of a Christian? Our first assumption is that it must be the fruit of good works in our lives. If we don’t pay careful attention, we may assume that Jesus is telling us to be good, try harder, and do better so that he will love us and reward us. A closer look reveals something altogether different.

Jesus says that the fruit of a Christian’s life is repentance. What is repentance? Repentance means to turn around and go the other way. Repentance means acknowledging our sin, sorrowing over our sin, confessing our sin, and turning from our sin to Jesus, our Savior.

Repentance is the default mode of the Christian life, living in light of our constant need for Jesus. Most of us think that a good day as a Christian is a day when we didn’t need Jesus very much. The Bible says something altogether different. The best days are the one’s when we realize that we need Jesus every hour and minute of the day. What is the defining characteristic of your life?

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