Fruit Sins and Root Sins

Dr. Ab AbercrombieRoots

In his Bible study entitled, “Behold Your God”, Dr. John Snyder provides an excellent teaching on “fruit sins” and “root sins” which has special relevance to the practice of biblical counseling. Within the study, Snyder emphasizes the importance of true repentance that reaches to the heart of one’s deepest spiritual condition so that character and identity are literally changed.

Fruit sins are defined as the behavioral expressions of an inner heart condition. As Scripture relates, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident…” (Gal 5:19a): they are obvious. Like apples hanging from a tree, these expressions of sin are dependent upon the root. In other words, an apple tree cannot produce pears nor an orange tree avocados. Consequently, removing the obvious fruit will not change the identity of the tree.

In human terms, the modification of behavior does not change the character of a man or woman. Only by impacting the root can the fruit be altered. Jesus taught this truth plainly, saying:

“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” (Matt 7:16-18).

Since fruit sins are visible, repentance often centers only upon what has been revealed or discovered. When a husband is caught in pornography he repents for what has been found out. When a wife’s excessive spending becomes apparent because hidden bank statements are exposed, she is sorry for the consequences of her actions. Both the husband and wife may then strive to stop their individual expressions of sin, and for a season, may be successful. But unless the heart issues are addressed (root sins), the behavior will likely return in its original or modified form.

This type of repentance is superficial and fails to address the true depth and scope of the spiritual problem. At the root of these issues there lies a much more insidious problem that is grounded in one’s identity, integrity, and character. Many of the most common and compromising root sins include idolatry, unbelief, selfishness, pride, unforgiveness, anger, wrath, and bitterness. Until the fullness of the heart is addressed, these core vulnerabilities will continue to yield behavioral sin.

If a farmer were to remove every apple from the apple tree at harvest, the roots and identity of that tree will produce more apples the next year. Self-denial, discipline, and hard work are fine things, but they are not transformative. Even the constant and continual removal of the obvious fruit will not alter the heart.

Should the husband referenced above avoid pornography for ten years, his core spiritual dilemma (idolatry) may continue to compromise his life and undermine his eternity. His love of pleasure and worship of self, will likely morph into some equally disturbing expression of sin. Even though he may have sorrow for his repeated failures, he is yet unaware of the gravity of his offense before a holy and righteous God. His sin and ongoing behavioral struggle actually distracts him from the only solution he has for his idolatrous heart.

The wife we discussed earlier is in the same circumstance. She may cut up her credit cards and behaviorally restrict herself from the mall. She may become rigidly frugal and count every dime. But as she picks the tree clean of observable sin, what is going on beneath the surface? What is the nature of her self-centered and prideful heart?

The Pharisees were obsessed with the external evidence of righteousness and often contended with Jesus to make an outward demonstration in keeping with the “tradition of men” (Mk 7:8). But Jesus knew the core of human temptation and the source of all unrighteousness:

And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mk 7:20-23).

Clearly our sinful actions “proceed from within and defile the man.” Human defilement is our common plight before God and our good works and management of behavior will never suffice as our eternal remedy. We must revisit the words we know so well:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).

As biblical counselors we can lose our way if we are not careful and respectful concerning God’s Word (2 Tim 2:15). We can quickly become behaviorists and employ Scripture incorrectly in our quest for outward change. We must never forsake our calling to address the spiritual condition of our counselees as primary to any other goal. Change in behavior is important; but altered conduct has never saved a single soul. Saved, regenerate people however, will in time, demonstrate behavioral change as a byproduct of their transformation. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God asked the following question of wayward Israel:

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin
Or the leopard his spots?
Then you also can do good
Who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23).

In this passage the Lord challenges Israel with the futility of any effort to change. God compares their status to the unchangeable color of a foreigner’s skin and the spotted fur of a wild beast. Basically the Almighty proclaims that without His intervention, the capacity to “do good” is impossible for those “accustomed to doing evil.” Can a leopard change his spots? No…but God can. In order for the external to change, the internal must be supernaturally remade. Paul reminds us:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor 5:17).

My daughter Sarah is adopted. If you were to observe our relationship it would be externally obvious that she is my child. We love and demonstrate affection toward each other, we struggle and argue like a father and daughter, and to all the world we are family. But if you were to take a sampling of her blood, her DNA would reveal she is not my biological child.

But when an individual is born-again, transformed by the Savior, his/her spiritual DNA literally changes. According to Scripture, that person becomes a “new creature”, endowed with the indwelling Spirit who forever alters the heart, and over time, the associated conduct.

As fundamental as these truths may seem, they are foundational to our calling. Biblical counseling is the advancement of the Gospel; both as a means unto salvation and as a manner of life. When we fail to address the spiritual roots that lie at the core of every human dilemma, we are guilty of biblical malpractice, acting more like a humanist than a minister.

In order to move beyond the superficial management of sin, Biblicists must test and examine the roots through Scripture, which is “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). But the use of Scripture must go beyond the alteration of external sin, or repentance will be incomplete.

Dealing with fruit sins often provokes the “sorrow of the world” (2 Cor 7:10), which ultimately leads to death. Worldly sorrow expresses regret, shame, and even disgust for the impact sin has within one’s life. The counselee is sorrowful for the consequences of his/her sin which has affected his/her world.

But when counselors strive to acquaint the counselee with the God of Scripture, the counselee begins to see the glory, sovereignty, authority, severity, and love of the Creator. In the light of His countenance (Rev 1:16), the counselee is confronted with his/her own humanity which yields a desperate awakening to his/her plight before holiness (2 Cor 7:10-11, Is 6:5). King David offered a glimpse of His wonder:

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O LORD, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence? (Ps 139:1-7).

As a correct view of God emerges, so emerges a correct view of self. Conduct that was acceptable and even loved, is now hated. One’s character, previously defined by the willful, repetitive practice of sin, is replaced by an identity in Christ. Affections and worship begin to change; will is surrendered; and a quest for purity ensues. Those destined for damnation are rescued by grace. And in the midst of God’s miraculous work, sanctification occurs. Paul defined this process directly:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:9-11).

Only in the hopelessness of his/her sinful plight, with the glory of God in view, can the counselee cry out in repentance leading to salvation or restoration. Realize that even repentance is beyond the scope of man; it is a gift of God. Change is initiated and finished by the “…author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2). Only through His work can we apply the past tense to our identity… “Such were some of you…”

To borrow the Lord’s question to Israel:
“Can the idolater change her god?”
“Can the fornicator change his affections?”
“Can the homosexual change his desire?”
“Can the covetous change her obsession?

No…But God can.

Copyright © 2015, W.P. “Ab” Abercrombie and The Biblical Counseling Institute

4 thoughts on “Fruit Sins and Root Sins”

  1. Root pruning takes more time, effort, energy and expense. It would be easier just to rip the plant out and throw it in the fire.
    Thank you God for caring enough to take the time on a worthless shrub like me.

    • In your context, I would also think Christian root pruning processes and rate of transformation would depend on the nature of fertilizers or manure for which we are feed on. E.g a manure / fertilizer applied on a maize crop when applied on a mango tree its impact would be less or even no impact at all though they are all plant fertilizers…(just my thought)

  2. This is a very good teaching; it really helps us focus on who we are in Jesus Christ and look at our heart on a daily basis.

  3. This concept of fruit and root sin has opened my spiritual eyes further! I thank God for your ministry helping the church understand more of this by allowing to share this knowledge of Truth. I will extend it further…. And just like wind, so does the working of the Holy Spirit amongst His people and the Church as a whole.
    May God bless you so much!


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