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.
The Relationship Between Faithfulness and Fruitfulness
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?
Fruitfulness is the work of God, grounded in the saving work of Christ and sovereignly brought about by His Spirit.
The Bible’s Teaching on Fruitfulness
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 at Colossae, he reminded the believers of 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 in 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 God’s Work
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 way(s) He wishes.
This article first appeared at the TableTalk Magazine website and is posted here with permission of the author.