One of the qualifications for elders is that they should be “blameless.” This confuses many people. After all, who among us can claim to be truly “blameless”?
It is interesting to note in Scripture that God describes Job to Satan, saying, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8). Luke also refers to Zechariah and Elizabeth saying, “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6).
Either Job, Zechariah, and Elizabeth were completely sinless and messed up their perfect attendance record right after these descriptions were given, with Job complaining and questioning God, and Zechariah disbelieving the word of God given by the angel, or else we need to examine our understanding of what it means to be “blameless” before God. My money is on the latter.
In the last devotional I wrote, I made the point that the teaching of Christ with regard to the tower of Siloam which collapsed, killing the Galileans, was to remind his hearers that God’s kindness is meant to lead to repentance. The very next parable that Luke records in 13:6–9 reads as follows:
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.’”
What was the fruit that God was looking for? Jesus helped the rich young ruler to understand that this fruit was not righteousness or moral perfection per se. He said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). If no one is good except God, then blamelessness cannot practically arise out of obedience to the law. This is precisely what Israel had been missing for centuries. They took the law and tried to garner favour with God by attempting to keep it. They didn’t understand that they could not keep it. Since they were sinners, there was no way to be blameless by keeping the law. This is the point that Paul makes in the book of Romans. There was no problem with the law. The law described perfect holiness. The problem was with the sinners to whom the law was given.
Righteousness and moral perfection are ships which sailed back in Genesis 3 when our forefather Adam fell. We can no longer bear the fruit of a righteous life. So what is the fruit that Israel (the fig tree) ought to have been bearing to avoid destruction?
Let me suggest to you that Luke 13:1–5, together with 13:6–9, teach that the fruit God was looking for was repentance. Repentance is a taking hold, by faith, of the God-ordained means to be made right with God. To be made blameless. Blamelessness in Scripture is a description given to those who take hold of the covenantal provision for our moral failure: the covenantal provision for forgiveness and atonement.
In the old covenant, this was appropriated by offering sacrifices by faith, trusting that God would forgive sin, remove blame, and place it on a substitute. Perfect obedience in the old covenant was impossible but old covenant blamelessness was still possible by taking hold of God’s ordained means for being made righteous.
Obedience in the new covenant means that, instead of striving to fulfil the law, we recognise that we cannot fulfil it. Instead, we look to and trust the one who has fulfilled it. This faith in the Lamb of God is the obedience that the new covenant calls for. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This obedience is seen first and foremost in our repentance.
The fruit Israel should have born was repentance. Instead, Israel tried to achieve moral perfection according to the law. If we want to avoid being cut down, we must not make the same mistake! We must not think of blamelessness as moral perfection, but rather as the descriptor of one who has been made perfect by God imputing his sins to Christ, and Christ’s blamelessness to him. The wonderful news of the new covenant is not only that the Lamb of God has been sacrificed once-and-for-all to make this possible, but that those who have been declared blameless, are also progressively being made blameless in their conformity to the holiness of God through the sanctification of the Spirit.
This is how men like Job and David and Zechariah could be called blameless, and this is how we can be blameless today. Incidentally, this is how I believe parents can urge their children to obey the gospel. We cannot obey the law but, by grace, through faith, we can obey the command to repent and believe the gospel and be made blameless by receiving the righteous merit of Christ!
So, how are the branches of your fig tree looking? Anyone can tape fake fruit onto dead branches. The real question is, are you displaying the primary fruit of the Christian life: the fruit—the obedience—of repentance?