As we attempt to reach a culture that shows increasing resistance toward Christ, it’s difficult to maintain a balanced perspective of fruit and faithfulness. Discouragement sets in when we toil and bear little fruit. During these times, it’s easy to emphasize faithfulness and dismiss the importance of fruit. Yet, Scripture confronts us with passages which seem to assume believers will bear fruit. How do we strike the correct balance? First, let’s consider the centrality of faithfulness in the Christian life.
Scripture clearly emphasizes the importance of faithfulness. Myriads of passages speak of its importance. Here’s a small sample.
2 Thessalonians 1:4: “Among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.”
Hebrews 10:35-38: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith.”
1 Corinthians 4:2: “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
Galatians 5:22: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.”
2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season.” Paul instructs Timothy to preach God’s word even when Timothy isn’t seeing a fruitful harvest.
Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) – In Jesus’ parable, a wealthy landowner gives his first servant five talents, his second two talents and his remaining servant one talent (a talent referred to a large sum of money). Upon returning from a long departure, the wealthy landowner summons his servants and discovers the first two doubled his money. Jesus’ audience would’ve been impressed by the servants’ results, yet Jesus applauds their faithfulness and diligence. .
Fruit may give us a false positive of spiritual maturity.
The book of Judges furnishes us with an example of someone who possessed gifting without character. Samson possessed incredible strength and claimed victory over thousands of Philistines throughout his life. Yet, the author of Judges reveals numerous moral compromises Samson made when no one was watching.
I’ve encountered several Christian leaders who bore incredible amounts of fruit for God, only to find out they were hiding secret sin. Amazingly, God powerfully used them despite their compromise. That’s probably why the Apostle Paul lists mostly character qualities when he gives Timothy a list of requirements for choosing an elder (1 Timothy 3). In fact, none of his qualifications fall into the category of gifting. Paul even cautions Timothy not to elect elders hastily. He explains,
The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden. (1 Timothy 5:24-25)
Yet in the same breath, Paul acknowledges that fruit helps us identify those whom God has set apart as exceptional Christian leaders and teachers.
God anticipated the Gospel to bear fruit among its hearers. Paul gives the Colossian believers a broad picture of the Gospel’s spread throughout the ancient world when he said,
All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. (Colossians 1:5)
Jesus saw a great harvest among the lost multitudes.
When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. (Matthew 9:36-38)
Thus God expects his followers to bear fruit as they faithfully proclaim the Gospel.
Of course, we encounter different seasons, yielding different amounts of fruit. At times, we may bear incredible fruit for God. At other times, we toil and yield seemingly no fruit.
Shifting our theological emphasis to fit our discouragement
When the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal and conquered Carthage during the Punic Wars, it is said that he sowed salt into the fields so nothing would ever grow again. I’ve encountered discouraged Christian workers and leaders who view serving Christ as similar to cultivating a Carthaginian field.
Under these conditions, we may feel tempted to bend our theological emphasis to fit our discouragement. Often, we couch our discouragement with spiritual sounding statements.
§ ‘We’re just too “results focused” or “fruit centered.”’ How do comments like this fit with some of Jesus’ statements in the Gospels? Take for instance John 15:5:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.
Or consider what Jesus says later in John 15:16.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.
One might say, “Well, maybe he’s talking about the fruit of the Spirit.” The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 certainly fits with these statements. However, we must read John 15:5, 16 within the confines of John 15. Jesus specifies the kind of fruit he has in mind in John 15:17.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
Jesus links fruit with “loving others.” Therefore, he was instructing his followers to bear fruit by building up and growing God’s kingdom.
§ “Faithfulness is all that matters.” Faithfulness matters. We’re not disputing that. But results matter too. In the Parable of the Talents, the master expected a return on the talent he entrusted to the servant. Or think about what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22, 24, 26:
I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some…Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize…Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.
Paul not only prized faithfulness, he pursued results. See how agonized he was over his fellow countrymen who refused to place their faith in Christ.
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. (Romans 9:2-4)
The Apostle Paul wasn’t merely content with faithful proclamation, he sought results.
We cannot control whether someone places their faith in Christ, but that shouldn’t lead us toward complacent proclamation. Paul frequently evaluated his methods. He crafted each presentation of the Gospel to deliver maximum impact. He spoke with compelling clarity and cultural relevance without compromising the message of Christ. On the one hand, he could say,
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
He never veered away from the simplicity of Christ. He trusted God’s power to lodge the message of Christ deep into the hearts of his listeners through the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, he became like those he attempted to reach.
I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law…so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-21)
Acts 17 provides a striking illustration of this principle. Paul did his homework, carefully studying Athenian history and culture, before capitalizing on an opportunity to share Christ with the intellectual elite of the ancient world. He wove cultural references and quotes from renowned Greek writers throughout his talk at Mars Hill. Even though few believed, Paul became “all things” to the men of Athens (Acts 17:34).
God cares both about faithfulness and fruit. He doesn’t diminish the importance of either in Scripture. Paul manages to emulsify faithfulness and fruit in Colossians 1:10-11.
We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully.
“Bearing fruit” and “great endurance” pleases God.
God expects our faithful efforts to bear fruit, eventually. Paul entreated the Galatian believers, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). We often face hardships and setbacks in ministry. God uses these experiences to teach us valuable lessons about ministry. He introduces failure into our ministry in order to draw us closer.