Being fruitful in a period of grace
In Luke 13, Jesus tells a parable that is meant as a warning, and paints a vivid picture of the time we are living in: a grace period.
“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 vine dresser, ‘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 round it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)
The point of the parable is not that hard to work out. In the context of Luke, it’s a warning, particularly to Jesus’ Jewish audience (Israel often being connected to the imagery of the fig tree in the Old Testament). And the warning is that God, the vineyard owner, is tired of their failure to repent, and is now of a mind to give the tree what it deserves. But instead, he gives more time for his people to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (as John the Baptist puts it in Luke 3:8).
God chooses, in other words, to give people—both Jews and Gentiles—a grace period. As the Apostle Peter puts it, it is not that the Lord is “slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
It’s yet another example of the wonderful character of God, which he described to Moses:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-8)
We should be enormously thankful for God’s love, faithfulness and mercy. It is those qualities that result in him giving us this grace period—and in sending Jesus to enable our forgiveness.
But the grace period will come to an end. The tree will face its examination “next year” (figuratively). God will not ultimately clear the guilty, but will judge and punish them.
So when does the grace period come to an end? When God alone chooses. That’s all we know (2 Pet 3:10).
All this is a stark reminder of the urgency of gospel sharing. “Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). Now is the time when we can still implore people to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). And if by God’s grace we have within us an ounce of the love and mercy in which he abounds, we will do so.