What does “Ye shall know them by their fruits” mean in Matthew 7?
Jesus makes this statement in Matthew 7:16. The previous verse provides surprising clarification: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” False prophets are described as wolves. Clearly, they are unsaved in contrast to sheep. But they parade themselves as if they are saved through the pretense of sheep’s clothing. The point is, they look saved. So when Jesus next says “ye shall know them by their fruits,” the fruits cannot be referring to outward matters that correlate with “looking saved.” These wolves wear sheep’s clothing and thus look like sheep.
The fruits in this context must be referring to their wrong doctrine. How can you discern false prophets? By their false doctrine. You shall know them by their fruits—false teaching. Otherwise, you might think they are saved because they have the appearance of sheep.
After Jesus wraps up His illustration by saying, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” He immediately asks and explains, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 7:16-19).
As a good tree produces good fruit, so good doctrine produces good eternal results. As a corrupt tree produces evil fruit, so corrupt doctrine produces bad eternal results. That the issue is eternity is seen by the preceding emphasis on the narrow gate that leads to life (Matt. 7:13-14) and the immediate subsequent emphasis on entering the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21). Then Jesus again states, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
Carefully note His next example: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:20-23).
This text is often misused to influence backslidden believers to think they are not even saved. But note the carefulness of Jesus’ words. Why did He call these workers of iniquity? Because they were trusting their own works, their self-righteousness. The will of the Father is for people to believe in Jesus, and this should have been their plea. Instead they pointed to their “many wonderful works.” Therefore, when Jesus says you shall know them by their fruits, He is referring to doctrinal fruits, to false teaching. He does not call for scrutiny of outward actions because, by design, the outward appearance of these false prophets is good.
John Van Gelderen