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.