08 December, 2019

Luke 13:6-9—“let it alone this year also ... then after that thou shalt cut it down.”

He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down (Luke 13:6-9).

Q. “Why was the fig tree given another year? Given the occasion for this parable, the question must have immediately entered the minds of Jesus’ listeners: ‘Why are others in Galilee and Siloam spared if all are equally wicked?’ Why was the fig tree given another year to see whether it would yet bear fruit? Or to put the question into its entire context: If Israel had throughout the ages committed these monstrous crimes, why were they given more time? Why were they not immediately destroyed?  Surely this postponement of judgment was a measure of the grace and mercy of God. Israel was given ‘a last chance,’ or ‘one more opportunity for repentance.’ Israel was spared temporarily in order that once more God might reveal his ‘offer of salvation’ to them as the way of escape ... Every sinner is at this moment under the condemnation of eternal death; and the reason why he is not executed is that Christ pleads, ‘Let him alone this year also!’”


Herman C. Hanko

[Source: “The Sovereign Purpose of God’s Forbearance” in The Mysteries of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Jesus’ Parables (RFPA, 2004), pp. 164-171]

[The argument put forward by “free offer” advocates] is a distortion of the truth of scripture. This is the age-old error of Arminius, who taught that the salvation of man depends upon the freedom of the will: God longs to save all, but the choice rests with man.

Such an interpretation is a denial of the sovereign dealings of God with men. It is a denial of God’s sovereign and determinative decree. It presents man as stronger than God, and God as waiting upon the will of man for the outcome of salvation. Did not God know that Israel would not repent? Of course he did; he is the sovereign Lord. But even more than this, the Lord determined that Israel should not repent, for his counsel stands, and he does all his good pleasure (Isa. 46:10).

We must look elsewhere for the solution to this problem.

[1: That Sin May Appear in its True Character]

If we interpret this in the light of the whole of scripture, the only possible answer to our question is this: God preserved Israel as a nation a little longer in order that Israel might fill the cup of iniquity and become ripe for judgment. When Israel became ripe for judgment, the justice of God would be perfectly vindicated in rejecting the nation and casting the wicked into hell.

This, God accomplished by causing the light of his revelation to shine its brightest. Always there was progress in revelation. From the kernel of that revelation given to our first parents in paradise, the tree of revelation grew throughout the ages of the old dispensation. From the first flicker of this light in the darkness of the night of sin that settled over the world when our parents fell, the light grew brighter and brighter. It increased in intensity through all the means that God used to reveal it in the Old Testament: the history of the nation of Israel itself, the law, the sacrifices, the prophets. Then God sent the Sun of Righteousness, the Dayspring from on high, to shine in all the splendor of his glory.

Even in the life of Christ there was progress toward a goal, for the brightest revelation of the promises of God did not shine until Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead.

With this ever-growing light of revelation came the obligation to Israel to repent of her sins. In fact, the brighter this revelation grew, the more insistent came the calling to turn from evil and to return to the living God. This does not mean that Israel could repent without grace, but it does mean that God never relinquished the demand he had placed upon man in paradise: “Love me!” Israel was given opportunity to repent at every turn. They were given the full revelation of the truth. When they refused to repent, it was not because they did not know the way of repentance. They could never plead ignorance. They could never justify themselves by saying that they had not known that repentance was required of them. When in their wickedness they refused to repent, the only explanation was the hardness of their hearts and the rebellion of their own transgression. The nation of Israel was rejected because of its sin of rejecting Christ.

Having said this, we have not said enough. This rejection of Israel was also God’s sovereign purpose, for God had determined to destroy Israel. He had determined to bring the gospel to the elect of every nation. Israel stood in the way. It was a fig tree that cumbered the ground. It must be removed so that the other plants and trees in the vineyard could grow.

Paul teaches this explicitly in Romans 11:7–11:

What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day. And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompense unto them: Let their eyes be darkened that they may not see, and bow down their back alway. I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.

As the light of revelation grew brighter with the passing of the years, the sin of Israel grew proportionately worse. God forbears so that sin may appear in its true character. He does not come immediately in judgment, because the horror of sin must become fully evident. It is possible that for a while the wicked assume an appearance of hypocritical piety, but the light of revelation pierces through the mask of their piety and exposes all the sins of their evil hearts.

The result of it is that Israel at last turns against the Christ of God and nails him to the accursed tree, thereby committing the crime of the ages. Then all external piety is wiped away, and all self-righteousness is swallowed up in sin. Sin has appeared as it really is. Transgression is exposed in the full horror of its terrible character. The Christ hangs despised and mocked by the church on the accursed tree of the cross. And so, as God reveals the fullest salvation he has prepared for his people, the apostate church of the Jews stands before that cross and heaps on Christ the mockery of its fullest expression of sin.

This is true throughout the ages. As the gospel increases in brightness and intensity, sin is more clearly exposed. The wicked hate the truth and rebel against it. Always those who have known the way of salvation best are those who most bitterly despise it. And when at last that gospel is fully revealed, the wicked “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:6). In this way the cup of iniquity is filled because sin reaches its climax.

This is all sovereignly determined by God in order that he alone may be vindicated. When the fig tree is at last chopped down, it is done in fullest justice. It has become everlastingly evident that man cannot repent of himself and turn to God. All that he does is increase in sin and multiply his transgression.

God, however, is revealed as just. He is vindicated in everything he does. As the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth who rules over all men, he now appears as the righteous judge of all wickedness. And when the wicked are sent to everlasting destruction and beaten with double stripes, they will never be able to raise a complaint against God. They knew the truth, but hated it. They saw the Christ, but crucified him. And so they are punished in the justice of God, who is triumphantly vindicated also in their own consciousness. In this way God receives the glory. This is what Isaiah 5 says …

And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry (vv. 5–7).

As I have said, behind this purpose of God to reveal his justice is his sovereign decree of reprobation, which he accomplishes in the way of the revelation of his just punishment of sin. God is always sovereign in all that he does.

[2: The Salvation of the Elect]

God also has a positive purpose when he does not immediately come in judgment. This is realized in the salvation of the elect.

As we already noticed, those elect are, according to God’s purpose, gathered from all the nations of the earth. The nation of Israel must be pushed aside as a nation in order that the Gentiles may be saved (Rom. 11:7–11). God’s purpose is not to limit his people and church to the Jewish nation, but to gather a church that is truly catholic, from Jews and Gentiles alike.

Always, although the nation of Israel apostatized, God preserved to himself a remnant according to the election of grace. It is true that this was always a remnant, a “seven thousand … which have not bowed unto Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). As small as it might be, it always existed. As the church became more and more corrupt and wickedness increased, the elect of Christ, the faithful of God, were always there, preserved by God’s power and grace.

This remnant of election in Israel also was present at the time of Jesus’ ministry. It consisted of a Mary and Joseph, a Zacharias and Elisabeth, a Simeon, an Anna, and a few shepherds on Bethlehem’s hills. This remnant was there throughout Christ’s ministry. If the nation of Israel had been destroyed, they could not have been saved. In the inscrutable wisdom and sovereign mercy of the Most High God, judgment did not occur immediately, so that this remnant could be gathered and saved before the end of the nation came.

This principle is always true. Always the world merits judgment, but God does not come in judgment now, nor will he come tomorrow, because there is a remnant that he has chosen which must first be gathered before judgment finally arrives. For the sake of this remnant, God restrains, as it were, his anger and fury against the wicked. To put it a little differently, God not only purposes to reveal the fullness of his wrath and justice in the just punishment of the wicked; he also determines to reveal the depths of his mercy and love in the salvation of the church. It is only when the full number of the elect are saved that the infinite depths of the mercy and love of God are fully displayed. Forbearance toward the wicked is for the purpose of the salvation of the elect.

Scripture abounds with illustrations of this. Wicked Sodom was spared until Lot was delivered. Wicked Israel was preserved as a nation until the remnant was gathered. The wicked world will not be destroyed until the last elect is born and saved. Paul speaks of this in Romans 9:22–24: “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

Peter also mentions this remarkable truth in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

And so it is that God saves his church through the way of repentance. The only escape from judgment is repentance; there is no other way. This was true of Israel, even though they boasted that they were the people of the Lord while they prided themselves in their righteousness and in the works of the law. This is always true. There is no road to glory except the road drenched with the tears of sorrow for sin. There is no gate to heaven but the gate of a broken spirit and a contrite heart. For to repent is to show bitter sorrow for sin and a longing for forgiveness. Repentance is to seek the cross of Christ and the forgiveness of sins in that cross alone. Repentance is to condemn all the works of which we are capable as unworthy of anything but judgment, and to flee speedily to the suffering Savior to find forgiveness in his bleeding body. Repentance is the road to glory because the way of the cross leads home. The cross of Christ is the salvation of the church. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

But this repentance is God’s gift. It cannot come of us. This was true of Israel; this is evident in all time. God works that repentance in the hearts of his people. God breaks the stubborn heart of sin and softens the hard heart of rebellion. God brings tears of sorrow and repentance to our eyes. God takes his people by the hand and leads them to the cross. As the cross is the revelation of the love of God, so also is the repentance of the sinning elect the fruit of God’s love shed abroad within their hearts. It is when the light of the cross shines not only before our eyes but also in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit that we sing, “In the cross of Christ I glory!”

This repentance is the road to heaven: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). In granting repentance to his people, God is fully and triumphantly glorified forever. Not to us must be the glory, but to the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth must be all glory, now and forever. Not only in the just punishment of the wicked must this be true, but also in the glorious salvation of the elect.



More to come! (DV)

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