Someone told me a few years ago that there’s an expression in the SCOC that “dead churches” are just taping dead fruit to the tree, or taping fruit to a dead tree. I’m not sure now which expression they use, but I really like the latter. It’s the equivalent of saying someone is just photoshopping their results, or astroturfing them. It’s a very colorful phrase that is packed with a lot of meaning. Ironically, though, taping fruit to a dead tree is precisely what Stanton does.

In fact, it’s the only thing a legalistic church, Stanton or otherwise, can do. There is no better metaphor for legalism (law-keeping as a means to justification before God) than taping fruit to a dead tree. Our human will to be good can never bring us to perfection. We will always fail in our efforts in some way or other, which means our only recourse to look and feel righteous will be to fake it.

You can never be real, or vulnerable, or truly confess your deepest flaws to your brother under legalism. There’s too much status or power at stake. So it’s just easier to tape some fruit on the dead or dying tree to maintain appearances.

But if we replace the brute force of our human will with a heart-changing relationship with the God of love who created us, then we tap into a strength that is greater than anything we can muster on our own. Fully forgiven, we are freed to live a life of service purely out of thankfulness for our debt that God by his grace (undeserved favor) cancelled for us.

We will still fail from time to time. But those failures will get fewer and fewer, and the strength of the tree (and the sweetness of the fruit) will still be an incredible blessing to those around us.

You see, fruit is simply a metaphor for visible results. Fruit is the publicly seen consequence of a life lived well, on one hand, or poorly, on the other. This is why Jesus often used this metaphor with the Pharisees—that you can know the quality of the tree by the fruit it produces.

Of course, this is just a generalism. It’s not true in every example of life. Sometimes we have things happen to us that are not at all related to our life choices (like Job, for example). But the metaphor is still a valuable one.

My wife and I talk a lot in foster parenting circles about using natural consequences as learning opportunities for kids and teens rather than “punishments.” Punishment for breaking the law is the language of legalism. It’s also the language of justice, and you might think, what’s wrong with justice?

Well, I’m all for law and justice in our human forms of government. But we tend to want justice for others, and not ourselves. If justice is what we really want before a perfect God, we’ll be condemned every time. As Matt Thiessen wrote:

And this life sentence that I’m serving
I admit that I’m every bit deserving
But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair

Be My Escape by Relient K

Natural consequences, however, are simply what happens when you make choices. Isn’t that like bearing fruit—whether good or bad? In my home, if a child sneaks candy at lunch, they’re not getting dessert with the rest of the family that night. Or if they break trust on a connected device like a phone or laptop, guess what? They lose that privilege for awhile (maybe permanently!).

Controlling behavior through punishment can work for a time, but what that child, teen, or adult really learns is how not to get caught. Law and punishment only photoshop the fix. It’s only a temporary one until the photoshopping is discovered. Then you have to start the process of punishment and measurement of behavior all over again.

Isn’t it far more permanent and meaningful to correct visible behavior (fruit) by reforming the thought process itself? After all, it’s the heart that eventually determines our behavior, right? We should seek to treat the disease, not the symptom.

When you look at it this way, “fruit” is simply the natural consequences of our internal thinking and decision-making process. When that process is driven by a good heart, the fruit will generally come out looking good. But trying to make sure the fruit looks really good—i.e., all the behaviors are “correct”—without addressing the heart; now that’s the essence of legalism.

Obeying God should be the natural result of loving Him. Obedience is what should naturally proceed from a heart that is aligned with God. But measuring righteousness by outward appearance is the natural outcome of legalism.

If law-keeping is your primary concern, the heart you have while doing something matters far less than the appearance of having done it (remember Stanton’s “appearance of evil” fetish?). In fact, in this world view, the heart while sinning matters less than the fact of having sinned. As strange as this may sound to legalistically trained ears, that’s not Biblical. Go and sin no more, Jesus said.

We need to face the reality that the grace of God is an infinitely more powerful motivator to do good than the fear of eternal punishment. If all you’re doing is trying to avoid punishment, let me just suggest to you that your religion is probably in vain…although I’ll gladly let God be the judge of that. But if you’re serving the world around you in love because you’ve recognized how loved you are by God; that’s a force that can’t be stopped, even by the most brutal tormenter in a communist prison cell.

Outward law-keeping as the metric of righteousness means that human oppressors (read “Pharisees”) can outwardly measure your performance. You either follow the law visibly, get sidelined for not making your adherence more visible, or get caught outright breaking the law when you dissent from their judgments. You’re then sent up to the Sanhedrin for your punishment. To put it more bluntly, you either follow the May Meeting’s “teaching for doctrines, the commandments of men,” or you get withdrawn from.

The Pharisees attempted to make those outward determinations of performance by enforcing all the rules they heaped upon their followers. Stanton makes a valiant attempt at doing the same thing.

But take heart. Turning your heart over to God, from the inside out, is a far more powerful life-changer than just going to church in an attempt to turn your behavior over to the Lord. And it has the added benefit that it simply cannot be measured by any human.

1 Samuel 16:7 – … For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

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