In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said something very troubling: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21). It’s hard to imagine the horror of hearing these words spoken to us personally, yet that will be the future of many people who sit in church pews week after week. If church attendance is no guarantee of salvation, then what is?
Let’s begin by reading Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:15-20:
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”
In this passage, two destinies are contrasted, but only one takes us into God’s eternal kingdom. We could also use two different words to explain this contrast: regeneration and reformation.
“Whatever man may do after regeneration, the first quickening of the dead must originate with God.”—A.A. Hodge
Regeneration in the Greek language is the compound word paliggenesia, which combines the root words palin meaning “again” and genesis meaning “birth.” Jesus used this same concept when speaking with Nicodemus in John 3:3. Regeneration is the work of God whereby we are given a totally new life. The process begins when the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin and reveals the truth about Christ (John 16:8). When we respond by receiving and believing in the Savior, we are born from above and become God’s children (John 1:12-13).
Reformation, on the other hand, is a term that describes not a new life but a correcting of the old one through self-effort. Jesus’ parable about putting a new patch on an old garment illustrates the futility of such outward religiosity (Mark 2:21).
One of the most famous examples of self-reformation was Benjamin Franklin's 13 Virtues, which he described in his autobiography. Using a chart, Franklin recorded his progress as he worked each day to perfect habits such as frugality, temperance, industry, and sincerity.
Reformation begins when a person recognizes that things are not right in his or her life and makes a decision to change certain habits and practices. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. The Lord is pleased when His children grow and progress, but our efforts will never be a substitute for regeneration. From the outside, people working toward reformation may look just like Christians and could be serving in impressive ways, as described in Matthew 7:22. Others aren’t able to sustain their new habits. After a while they lose interest and drift back into their former condition (2 Peter 2:22).
Look at the Fruit
According to Strong's Concordance, the Greek word for ”fruit“—karpos—is used 66 times in the New Testament, most frequently in Matthew and Luke.
Jesus said the way to discern whether we belong to Him is by the fruit of our lives (Matt. 7:16-20). A truly regenerated life will be marked by:
•Obedience to God (1 John 2:3-4).
•Victory over habitual sin and worldly influences (1 John 3:6; 1 John 5:4-5).
•The fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
•The witness of the Spirit within (Rom. 8:15-16).
•Are you confident that you have been regenerated? What evidence supports your conclusion?
•If you’ve been trying to reform your life with self-effort, would you be willing to heed the Spirit’s conviction, receive Jesus through faith, and ask God to regenerate your life today?