Grace, works, and fruitfulness

Many Christians are familiar with the distinction between grace and works as the entryway into a relationship with God. Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV) presents this contrast quite memorably: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Likewise, Titus 3:4-5 says, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy.” The clear teaching in these passages is that our salvation is given by God as a gift, not in response to our impressive religious résumés.

But these verses and others do not simply discard good works from the life of a Christian. Loving, God-pleasing actions are still meant to characterize the Christian life. Throughout the New Testament, the imagery of “fruit” communicates that God expects loving and productive lives to blossom as a natural outgrowth of our relationship with God in Christ.

Even in the Old Testament, and continued in the New Testament, God talks about his people as a vineyard that is lovingly planted and cultivated by God himself. Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-43 both display the shocking incongruity between such a carefully planted and tended field and the lack of fruit that results (as a result of the people’s hard hearts and resistance to God’s work).

The famous parable of the four soils identifies fruitfulness as the mark of the person who hears and truly receives God’s message of his kingdom (Matt 13:22-23). John 15 develops the imagery of Christ as the vine and believers as the branches, with the desired outcome of “bearing much fruit” (John 15:5, 8) and bearing long-lasting fruit (John 15:16) as we draw life from Christ.

Paul talks about the “fruit of the Spirit” produced in a believer’s life (Gal 5:22) and prays that believers would “please God in every way, bearing fruit in every good work” (Col 1:10) and that we would be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:11). In fact, the very reason that we are united in relationship to God through the resurrected Christ is so that “we might bear fruit for God” (Rom 7:4).

On the flip side, biblical authors warn against a life of unfruitfulness, devoid of good works: “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive (literally, unfruitful) lives” (Titus 3:14); and, “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive (unfruitful) in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). Jesus himself makes it clear that “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 7:17-18).

The imagery of fruitfulness is so appropriate for the Christian life. Trees or vines become fruitful because they have life flowing through them. The Christian is made alive with Christ by the life-giving Holy Spirit. Our union with Christ and empowerment by the Spirit make fruitful living possible.

As a new semester is about to begin for many of us, let’s pray for and aim for a year of fruitfulness – productivity in our studies and service, along with relationships and actions that bless others. Deep down, this is the life we all want, and it is what God has designed us for since the beginning of time.

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7 Comments

Filed under Biblical Theology, Discipleship, New Testament

7 responses to “Grace, works, and fruitfulness

  1. Samuel Judge

    Dr. MaGee, I realize that this does not have much to do with this recent post, but I was recently reading Blaise Pascal’s Pensees and came across something I had not noticed last time I read it. Item 239 says “Man is not worthy of God but he is not incapable of being made worthy. It is unworthy of God to unite HImself to wretched man, but it is not unworthy of God to raise him out of his wretchedness.”

    While I understand the logic to be good and undeniable, I struggle with this idea. I feel like all my life I have been taught that mankind is a crooked people and no matter how hard we, as Christians, try, we will never become uncrooked, We will ask for our sins to be forgiven and then sin again. We will ask for this sins for be forgiven and sin again. How then can we ever be worthy of God?

  2. Samuel,

    A lot could be said here, both from a biblical perspective and from a church history survey (especially looking at how Luther and Wesley might answer this question differently).

    But I will stick with a brief exploration of biblical theology. Your description above has some truth to it, but in the end it seems too gloomy. I believe that the key is the indwelling presence of the Spirit in a believer’s life. The Spirit turns hearts of stone (that cannot obey God) into hearts of flesh (that are responsive and alive to God) – see this promise from Ezekiel 36:25-27. Before we are united with Christ through faith, we do not have the Spirit in our lives, and sin reigns in us. But the Spirit’s presence frees us from the reign of sin and gives us the ability to make progress towards righteousness (see the argument of Rom 6:1-7:6), even though complete transformation will not occur until Christ returns (note the “groaning” language of being incomplete in Rom 8:19-27). This is the “already” and “not yet” of the Christian life: we are transformed by Christ’s saving work already, while we wait for ultimate transformation when Christ returns. In the meantime, we live by the Spirit in our ongoing struggle against sin (Gal 5:16-25) and remember that the sacrificed Son is our advocate (1 John 2:1-2).

    On a personal level, what does this look like?

    – Sin is forgiven through the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. This is a source of great comfort.
    – Struggle against sin is still a daunting and ongoing reality in my life, but the Spirit’s empowerment allows me to move forward with hope.
    – Sin is still a discouraging reality – we groan for the day when sin in our lives and world will be done away with completely.

    I hope this addresses your question. If not, feel free to continue the discussion –

    • Samuel Judge

      I understand what you are saying and that makes sense, but how can something created by God ever be worthy of God? For example, while we as humans cannot create anything out of nothing, we can use the things given us by God to “create,” or a better word would be “reconstruct” things. But even things that we, as a human race, “reconstruct” are not better than the human itself nor could those things ever really be considered “worthy” of us for their worth is determined by ourselves, is it not? I suppose that while God could dictate our worth to be such that it is worthy of Him, wouldn’t this be equivalent to almost the same as our dictating the artificial intelligence on par with human intelligence?

      • Hmm . . . interesting thoughts and analogy. Something that comes to mind from your analogy is that the worth of the creation is tied to the worth of the creator (we might recall God’s repeated pronouncement in Genesis 1 that everything he created was “good” and “very good”). God’s work through Christ involves, in part, a restoration to the original good design of creation. I wouldn’t equate “worthy” with “equal” though. As Christians we are being conformed to the image of Christ, but God remains supreme and is forever the recipient of our worship as believers. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we are made worthy through Christ for relationship with him and participation in his kingdom.

      • Samuel Judge

        But how can something inferior be worthy of the superior thing? I mean, when we look at sports, we say a team is a “worthy opponent” when they either match the team they are playing or are superior (though more commonly the former). We say someone is worthy if they are deserving. Could mankind in its primitive state of sin-less be worthy of God? I mean, obviously God believed so since He kept Adam and Eve company, but was that because of man’s “worthiness” or was that because God graciousness?

      • At creation it is probably better to speak of God’s grace and our worth rather than our worthiness (especially as worthiness is used in popular speech). God graciously gives us life, worth, and value. In that state humans were not so much worthy of being in relationship with God (because of any equality of status) as they were granted that as part of the order of creation and being made in God’s image.

  3. Pingback: Tipping Points – Christian Practice | Watchful

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