On the night of His betrayal, the Lord spoke at length with the eleven apostles after Judas had been dismissed to complete his treachery. John’s gospel is the only one that records what the Lord spoke on that occasion. One of the most important parts of His instruction that night was His comments on the vine and the branches. In Jn. 15:1-6 the Lord said, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”
As we consider these words, most of our attention focuses on the question of what it means to “bear fruit”. For generations of Christians in the last one hundred years this question has been answered with a single statement: “The fruit of a Christian is another Christian.” This is a simple, easy to understand, and quantifiable answer to the question. Whoever first made this statement undoubtedly believed he had captured the heart of the matter. However, as this answer was repeated from person to person and congregation to congregation, an unintended consequence arose. Many Christians became burdened with the idea that the only way one may bear fruit in Christ is to convert lost souls.
There is no question that saving the lost is indeed bearing fruit. This is the expected result of preaching the gospel, as the Lord enjoined upon us in the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16). But, is this all the Lord meant by this statement? Is our bearing fruit only to be measured by the number of souls we have converted? If we are honest with ourselves, many Christians have never had the joy of seeing one obey the gospel primarily because of our personal teaching and influence. Some faithful Christians, in spite of their best efforts, have never been able to persuade a lost soul to obey the gospel. Are we then to judge them as unfruitful and thus in danger of being cast into the fire?
In the larger context of the New Testament the answer to this question is an unqualified “No!” The most similar imagery of bearing fruit is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In Gal. 5:22-23 he said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” When we study this statement we typically speak of bearing the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, one whose life is filled with the Holy Spirit will exhibit these qualities as evidence of His presence with him. We correctly observe that one whose life is not characterized by these qualities is not bearing the fruit of the Spirit.
Bearing the fruit of the Spirit shows that one is growing and maturing in the faith. It shows that one is serious about his commitment to the Lord, and is striving to be all he is capable of being in the Lord’s service. One who is thus growing in the faith may indeed persuade others to become Christians as well, but he might also never bear that kind of fruit. The parable of the sower (Mt. 13:3-9) certainly suggests this. The sower sowed the seed, but three of the four soils were unproductive, through no fault of his own. The lesson from this parable must be that not everyone will obey the gospel.
Our job is to sow the seed (God’s word, Lk. 8:11). If we do this, we have fulfilled our responsibility. What happens thereafter is outside our power and control. Indeed, Paul made this very point in 1 Cor. 3:6. He said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” In other words, the outcome of our sowing does not determine if we have borne fruit or not.
Is it not likely, then, that bearing fruit in Christ must not be judged solely by the number of converts one has made? Indeed, even in the context of Jn. 15 the emphasis seems to be more on personal growth and maturity than on the multiplication of numbers. This is not to suggest that we need not be concerned about converting the lost. Rather, it is to suggest that if we are growing and maturing in the faith in accordance with our gifts and abilities, then we are indeed bearing fruit in Christ. If we are faithful to the Lord and are dedicated to serving Him to the best of our abilities, we are bearing fruit and the Father will prune us so we may become even more fruitful in His service. If we bear fruit on this level, we will faithfully sow the seed of God’s word, and He will cause that seed to grow in good soil.