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Richard Greenham, one of the renowned Puritan theologians of the sixteenth century, was well loved in his day for the spiritual help he was to many believers in England, as well to his fellow Puritan ministers. Quite a number of Puritan pastors would send their congregants to Greenham for what they considered to be the more difficult “cases of conscience.” Nevertheless, Greenham expressed regret over not seeing much fruit in his own congregation in Dry Drayton—the exceedingly small rural town in which he pastored—during his almost twenty-one-year ministry there. Reflecting on the spiritual state of his congregation, Greenham spoke of “sermon sickness” and a “lack of fruit.” One writer once described Greenham’s ministry in Dry Drayton in the following terms: “He had pastures green, but sheep full lean.” After his death, the little congregation in Dry Drayton grew spiritually and thrived numerically under Greenham’s successor. Someone once asked the succeeding minister what he had done in order to experience such growth. Without hesitation, he intimated that it was the fruit of the faithful labors of Greenham. While Richard Greenham never lived to see that fruit among the people he pastored, his faithfulness in Dry Drayton was instrumental in preparing the fields of the congregation to bear fruit in the years to come.
Understanding the relationship between faithfulness and fruitfulness is of no small significance to those who pour their lives out in gospel ministry. It is equally so for all believers. If there is one question with which the mind of both ministers and congregants is frequently engaged, it is this: How do I know that my labors for Christ’s sake have been fruitful?
It is important for us to first establish the biblical teaching on fruitfulness. When the Pharisees came to John to be baptized by him, he told them, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). Likewise, Jesus said, “Every healthy tree bears fruit” (Matt. 7:17). Furthermore, Jesus promised that when the seed of God’s Word falls on a regenerate heart, it “indeed bears fruit” (13:23). The Apostle Paul revealed that he cared deeply about fruitfulness in ministry when he told the church in Philippi, “If I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor” (Phil. 1:22). The Apostle also cared deeply about fruitfulness in the lives and labors of believers. When he wrote to the church in Colossae, he reminded the believers about the way in which the gospel had been “bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:6). Of course, our minds naturally return again and again to the Apostle’s celebrated passage about the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). When we consider the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, we discover that fruitfulness is the work of God, grounded on the saving work of Christ and sovereignly brought about by His Spirit in both the lives (godly character) and labors (kingdom work) of His people.
But what determines the nature of fruitfulness? Is fruitfulness commensurate with our labors? Or, are we simply to seek to be faithful and let what happens happen? Thankfully, the Scriptures provide us with a number of ways by which we may answer these questions regarding the relationship between faithfulness and fruitfulness.
Fruitfulness is ultimately God’s work, accomplished as we commit ourselves to Him in seeking to be faithful in all aspects of our lives and in all to which He calls us. We must resist the temptation to view fruitfulness in the same way that a stockbroker views his portfolio. It is a spiritual misstep of enormous proportion for us to look at our lives and labors and say, “If I simply do this today and this tomorrow, the result will be x, y, or z.” The Apostle Paul, while defending his own ministry against ministers who boasted of their own accomplishments, wrote: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6–7). The psalmist, in no uncertain terms, taught the same principle when he wrote, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps. 127:1). The more we come to understand and embrace this principle, the more we will be prepared to commit ourselves to Him in such a way as to be willing to be used in whatever ways He wishes.
While we recognize that fruitfulness is the work of God, we must understand that diligence is an essential component of our faithful lives and labors. A subtle form of hyper-Calvinism can creep into our thinking once we acknowledge that fruitfulness is the work of God. We can start to think to ourselves, or catch ourselves saying to others, such things as, “It really doesn’t matter what we do because, at the end of the day, it’s all God’s work.” Interestingly, in the same letter in which he admitted that it is “God who gives the increase,” Paul declared, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). In Proverbs, Solomon wisely observed, “The hand of the diligent will rule” (Prov. 12:24). One writer helpfully sums up our responsibility to be diligent in our spiritual labors when he says, “You can do ministry with God’s help, so give it all you’ve got. You can’t do ministry without God’s help, so be at peace.” This is true in every sphere in which the believer is seeking to be faithful to God. Diligence in faithfully carrying out those things to which God has called us will ultimately lead to fruitfulness.
Skillfulness is another vital aspect of faithfulness that leads to fruitfulness. There are many things that I will never do because God has not given me the gifts and calling to do them. I’ll never play a professional sport or be a concert pianist. I’ll never be a nuclear physicist or a cardiologist. I am thoroughly content with the fact that I have not been gifted to do so. In the same way, God does not call every believer into full-time gospel ministry. Consider the Apostle’s charge to the believers in Rome:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Rom. 12:6–8)
We must also come to realize that fruitfulness is not dependent on circumstances or status. We can mistakenly convince ourselves that the larger the platform, the more fruit will be gained. We can fall into the snare of thinking of spiritual fruit in worldly terms—acting as if individuals who are naturally gifted, wealthy, or influential are those who are most likely to be fruitful. The Apostle Paul, however, gave this much-needed reminder to the church in Corinth:
Not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Cor. 1:26–29)
Consider the fruit that the Apostle saw in his own ministry while imprisoned. The Lord used Paul not for the conversion of Caesar but for the conversion of some of Caesar’s prison guards. Additionally, Paul told Philemon that it was the runaway indentured servant Onesimus who “once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me” (Philem. 1:11; Col. 4:9). This is a prime example of the sort of unlikely and unexpected individuals to whom God gives great fruitfulness.
Moreover, we must also remember that fruitfulness comes at different times and seasons. We cannot know when spiritual fruit will appear. The saints in the great Hall of Faith are said to have had different outcomes in their faithful lives and labors in this life (Heb. 11). Some triumphed—subduing kingdoms, working righteousness, obtaining promises, stopping the mouths of lions, quenching the violence of fire, escaping the edge of the sword, and so on. Others suffered—being tortured, not accepting deliverance, enduring mockery and scourgings, being chained and imprisoned, being stoned, being sawn in two, wandering in deserts and mountains and dens and caves. However, in the end, all of them received the ultimate fruit of their labors in glory. The ascended Christ gives each one the victor’s crown. In the resurrection, they will experience the full fruit of their lives and labors, together with all the saints.
Ultimately, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the ground of both our faithfulness and fruitfulness. “Our labors,” Paul explained, “are not in vain in the Lord”—because Christ has been raised from the dead (consider 1 Cor. 15:58 in light of the larger context of the chapter). The death and resurrection of Jesus have secured spiritual fruit in the lives of His people. Ultimately, all of our fruitfulness comes from our union with Jesus Christ, the life-giving, fruit-supplying vine (John 15:1–11, 16). Christ is committed to making us fruitful in our lives and labors so that God will get glory for the work He has done in His people. As we seek to be steadfast and immovable in everything to which the Lord calls us in His Word, we can rest assured that “our labors are not in vain in the Lord.”