If you have been around West London Alliance Church longer than a couple of weeks, you are likely to have heard me say that, in terms of our philosophy of ministry, we focus on faithfulness over fruitfulness. In saying this, I am trying to promote the biblical idea that we—as individuals and as a church—are called to be faithful and that it is in fact God’s work to make us fruitful.
I didn’t come up with this myself. I was first introduced to this concept by Mark Dever in his book The Deliberate Church. That book, along with the ministry of 9Marks, has had a great influence on my approach to ministry. I am grateful for this ministry and the help they have been to me.
That being said, I do not hold to this philosophy because Mark Dever says it is correct nor do I hold to it because it is espoused by 9Marks. I follow this path because I believe it is biblical. I do not believe the Scriptures admonish us to produce fruit, but rather they call us to faithfulness and to trust God to produce fruit in us and through us. I’ll perhaps save that explanation for a later date. However, I understand that this stance needs clarification.
This post will attempt to clarify the faithfulness over fruitfulness paradigm by addressing a few things I’m NOT saying when I say we are to focus on faithfulness over fruitfulness.
I am not saying fruitfulness isn’t important.
Clearly, from the Bible’s perspective, therefore God’s perspective, fruitfulness is important. In John 15 Jesus informs his disciples that “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” (John 15:1-2 ESV, emphasis mine) and the branches he takes away are “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6 ESV). Similarly, we read in the Gospel of Matthew that “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10; also see Matthew 7:19). The apostle Peter indicates that fruitfulness is the desired and expected result of faithful disciples:
5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV)
Fruitfulness is important. No question. But, I do not believe the Bible calls us to focus on fruitfulness; our fruitfulness is God’s concern. In the vine and the branch illustration we called to abide; “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV, emphasis mine). We are to abide and the “doing” of producing fruit is not something we can do apart from Christ. Even the fruit we read about in Galatians, which we are to see in our lives, is the fruit of the Spirit.
Fruitfulness is important, but it is God’s work in us as we remain faithful.
I am not saying that faithfulness and fruitfulness aren’t connected.
In fact, I believe they are. I believe that as we remain faithful, as in faithfully abiding in Chris for example, that God does make us fruitful. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building” (3:5-9).
Consider a few things: 1) It is Paul’s expectation that as we faithful endeavour to do God’s will that “each will receive his wages” which are the fruit of ministry, and 2) it is “God who gives the growth.”
Though we need to be careful about our expectation of visible fruit (we may not see visible fruit), we can anticipate God to reward faithfulness with fruitfulness.
I am not saying that all fruit is the same.
I do not think that all fruit is the same. That is, I think there can be fruitfulness in ministry that does not result in godly fruit. Sometimes the fruit we see in ministry is not godly fruit at all. Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (15-23 ESV)
Again, let us consider a couple points. First, note that there is good fruit and bad fruit. The false prophets are recognized not by unfruitfulness, but by bad fruitfulness. Second, the visible fruit that unfaithful people produce may appear to all the world like good fruit: prophesying in Jesus’s name, casting out demons, and many mighty works. Which one of us, if we saw these seemingly miraculous deeds, would have the discernment to realize that they were not the result of God’s response to faithful disciples?
So, keep in mind, we need to be careful about equating visible and invisible fruit and we should not expect immediate, visible fruit in response to faithfulness. Also keep in mind, that visible fruit, when it comes, is not necessarily good fruit. And finally, remember that invisible fruit is just that, invisible. It may be hard to see and there are often no means available to measure it. And that is why we ought to focus on faithfulness and leave the fruitfulness—visible or invisible—up to God.
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 ESV