Matthew 12:33-37 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. 35 “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. 36 “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37 “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Here in verse 37 “to justify” clearly means something like to show yourself to be a good tree. Note the context in vv. 33-35. Just as evil words proceeding out of the mouth show that the heart is bad. Even so good words proceeding out of the mouth show that the heart is good. It is in this way that good fruits and good words justify us. They show that our hearts are truly good. This is an entirely different connotation than the verb has, for instance, in Romans 3:21-5:21.
It is also clear that the justification to which Jesus refers will take place in the day of judgment. Verse 36 plainly says that this justification has for its venue (or is to take place in) the day of judgment. This is the time period in which our words will justify or condemn us.
Thus, contrary to Irons, we have here a justification by works which takes place in the day of judgment. Granted, it is a justification of an entirely different kind than that which takes place by Christ, grace, and faith alone and which is already possessed by the believer. Yet it is a “justification” according to the ipsissima verba of Scripture.
The above states what I think is the straightforward (and in some sense indisuptable) meaning of the passage. But several further words of clarification and vindication with regard to it are important.
First, when I say that the connotation of the verb, justify, here in Matthew 12:37 is an entirely different connotation than it has in Romans 3 and 4, I have in my mind the important distinction between “connotation” and “denotation.” What a word connotes and what it denotes or two different things. Webster’s New Word Dictionary says the following under its entry for connote: “to suggest or convey (associations, overtones etc.) in addition to its explicit, or denoted, meaning: as, the word mother means “femaile parent,” but it generally connotes love, care, tenderness, etc.”
It is important to make this distinction between the connotation and denotation of the verb, to justify. Here is why. Though its connotation is quite different in Matthew 12:37 than, for instance, in Romans 3:24, its denotation is the same. What I mean is that in both passages its meaning is to “account righteous” or “acquit” and not as the Roman Catholic doctrine holds “to make righteous” or “to infuse righteous moral qualities into someone.” This denotation of justify is made clear by means of the contrasting (and, thus, clarifying) verb used in Matthew 12:37, condemn. To condemn is not to make something bad, but to declare it bad. Just so, to justify is not to make something good, but to declare it good. Thus, Matthew 12:37 actually upholds the Protestant and forensic understanding of the verb, to justify.
Second, it should be clear from a fair reading of the passage that taking this passage as hypothetical is simply impossible. Jesus is not talking about what would happen in a hypothetical judgment by works. Jesus is talking about what really will happen both now and in the day of judgment. Right now in this life and also in the day of judgment the true character of someone is manifested by the general tenor of his words: the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. This is not hypothetical. This is not just the use of the law to slay self-righteousness and bring us to Christ. These words may do that in some cases, but they refer to what actually happens in this life and in the day of judgment.
Some argue that it would require perfectly pure language to pass judgment before God. It would if Jesus were discussing the ground of our righteousness before God. But that is not what Jesus is discussing. He is discussing what manifests or declares someone to be either a good tree or a bad tree. Perfection is not necessary to manifest that someone is a genuine believer. Perfection would only be necessary to do this if genuine believers were perfect. They are not. Thus, only the kind of speech that manifests a genuine change of heart toward God and sin is necessary. That is, only works in keeping with repentance are necessary to vindicate that someone has repented. Notice the parallel uses of this imagery in Matthew:
“The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 7:13-24 13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’ 24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.
These other uses of the good tree/bad tree language in Matthew are patently not hypothetical. Neither are they just examples of the law slaying. They speak of real, historical events and some who actually do follow the narrow way, actually do the will of the Father, and actually are received as genuine believers at the day of judgment.
The third thing I want to say by way of the clarification and vindication of the interpretation of Matthew 12:37 that I have offered is that it is virtually identical to the interpretation of Calvin himself. Here are his comments in his New Testament commentary and its harmony of the gospels:
“But Christ turns it to a meaning somewhat different, that a wicked speech, being the indication of concealed malice, is enough to condemn a man. The attempt which the Papists make to torture this passage, so as to set aside the righteousness of faith, is childish. A man is justified by his words, not because his speech is the ground of his justification, (for we obtain by faith the favour of God, so that he reckons us to be righteous persons;) but because pure speech absolves us in such a manner, that we are not condemned as wicked persons by our tongue. Is it not absurd to infer from this, that men deserve a single drop of righteousness in the sight of God? On the contrary, this passage upholds our doctrine; for, although Christ does not here treat of the ground of our justification, yet the contrast between the two words points out the meaning of the word justify. The Papists reckon it absurd in us to say, that a man is justified by faith, because they explain the word justified to mean, that he becomes, and is, actually righteous, while we understand it to mean, that he is accounted righteous, and is acquitted before the tribunal of God, as is evident from numerous passages of Scripture. And is not the same thing confirmed by Christ, when he draws a contrast between justified and condemned?”
Brandon Adams on Mar 8, 2010 2:12pm
Dr. Waldron, if I understand you correctly, you believe the justification in Matt 12 is the judgment of the last day. You believe that this judgment does not determine one’s standing before God, but instead it determines the genuineness of one’s faith. In other words, this judgment does not justify before God, it simply determines if someone is already justified before God. Is that an accurate understanding?
If so, then would you say the same thing is true of the unbeliever in the judgment of the last day? It is not a judgment to determine his standing before God, to condemn him, but instead it is just a judgment to determine if he is already condemned?
Sam Waldron on Mar 10, 2010 8:37am
Interesting question. The final judgment is according to the 1689 Confession of Faith for the purpose of revealing His justice and mercy. 32:2 says: “The end of God’s appointing this day, is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the eternal damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient.” So let me answer your questions.
Yes, the works of the wicked display the justice of God’s punishment of him. Yes, the evangelical obedience or works of the righteous display the mercy of God in that they show that His mercy in Jesus Christ does not leave them in a state of wickedness but actually transforms them into the image of Jesus Christ. Yes, the wicked are already condemned before the day of judgment. (John 3:18 says, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”) Yes, the judgment is to display or reveal God’s justice. Yes, this judgment does display that someone has already been justified by faith in Christ and the works of the righteous in question are not the ground of his justification. But still the Bible describes what happens here in the day of judgment and throughout life as a justification by works (in the sense defined). That is, the works vindicate to the believer and to the world the authenticity of his faith. It is “righteous” or genuine faith. This justification is subsequent to, distinct from, but inseparably connected to his original justification by faith alone.