A Fruitful Faith

There are many views in Christianity on the details of salvation and the various terms, events or processes that go into it. I would like to survey some Biblical material which I believe suggests that one always becomes right with God through a relationship mediated by faith, i.e. by the grace of God, but that the faith must always be a faith that bears fruit. No simple set of words, no transaction, no non-productive faith will do. A few of the texts that I will quote go a little farther than that, but I am interested right now in a broad survey rather than the details.

Let me clarify some terminology. The word “salvation” can refer in scripture to redeeming someone from the rule of evil, to a process of spiritual healing and growth, and also to the final entry into the kingdom of God. Looking at texts from this perspective would constitute another essay. I will simply assume it here. Second, I will use the term “Old Testament” for the Hebrew scriptures for the most part, because I am looking at that body of literature from a primarily Christian point of view.

I will proceed in seven parts:

  1. The original pattern from creation through the end of the flood
  2. The pattern of the Exodus
  3. Messianic prophecy and the new covenant
  4. Jesus
  5. Paul and fruit
  6. General Epistles
  7. Revelation and the coming kingdom


(Since each of these is a rather large topic I’m simply going to outline the main points. This is a topic in which I believe one can say that the notion of salvation by a non-producing faith is unscriptural because it goes against the grain of all of scripture.)

1. The pattern

The “sin” pattern starts in Genesis 3 or 4, but can be most clearly seen, I believe, in the contrast between Genesis 1:31 (God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good!) and Genesis 6:5, (God saw . . . that the pattern of the intentions of his [man’s] heart was only evil continually.) Here we see the simple statement of the state of the world. It is good to recall that we are reading a story here with the moral points made through narrative. If we grant the situation as described in the story, the world is already in serious trouble before God brings on the flood. The focus in this story from the teller’s point of view is not the destruction of the rest of the world, but rather the saving of the eight people.

Note here that the problem is not that everyone is running around bothered by guilt. It is also not that they are afraid of death and of hell fire. Rather it is that the entire tendency of their thinking is evil. Thus an atonement that simply removed guilt would not meet the need. An atonement that left their thinking in the same state in which it was before would not be a response to the problem indicated.

This establishes the pattern that I believe is frequently seen in scripture, in particular in narrative form, which follows through all discussions of salvation–grace comes before law and instruction. Let’s look at that pattern as it occurs following the flood. Recall that for the eight people described here, they have just survived a harrowing experience–they have experienced a form of salvation from the situation.


  1. God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.
  2. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.
  3. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
  4. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
  5. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
  6. Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
    by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
    for in his own image
    God made humankind.
  7. And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it”
    (Genesis 9:1-7 NRSV).


First, there is a blessing which is the result of a rescue, then there is instruction. We will see the pattern repeated further on in the same chapter.

The same pattern occurs with Abraham who is called out without any particular request of good action recorded on his part, but who simply believes God. But his belief also results in action (Genesis 12:1-4; Genesis 15:6). One might even say that, beyond simply accepting that what God said was true, he put it into action–he put his trust in God. God’s act of rescue occurs first, followed by God’s promise of blessing, followed by the obedience of the person.

2. The Exodus (Especially Exodus 1-20)

In the Exodus, the single greatest narrative type for salvation in the Old Testament, we find the Israelites rescued from bondage in Egypt because they had cried out under their bondage, but without a great deal of cooperation on their part. Moses and Aaron certainly felt put upon by the very people they were trying to rescue. But note that the salvation again comes before the giving of the law–grace before law. But while grace comes before law, law always does come, i.e. there is fruit that demonstrates the reality of the faith.

3. The Messianic Prophecies

Continuing now to two prophecies, one generally acknowledged as Messianic, and the other related to the return from exile with Messianic overtones. Note that the Messianic kingdom, as proclaimed in Old Testament scriptures had both a moral aspect and a political/rulership aspect. We as Christians have separated these into two parts by applying essentially the “moral” scriptures to the first advent and the political scriptures on the renewal of a Davidic regime in Israel to the second advent. When we further reduce the moral side of these prophecies to a legal transaction, and make the first coming of Jesus primarily a process of sacrifice for sin that makes possible acceptance with God, then we move beyond a recognizable connection.

First, the following from Jeremiah:

31. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
32. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
33. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more
(Jeremiah 31:31-34 NRSV).


Note that there is no removal of the force of the law in this passage, but rather the possibility of keeping the law, and more specifically the placing of the law in the heart. I would suggest that this prophecy accords with the grace before law pattern in that only the creator can recreate in such a way that the law is written on our hearts, and that it is following such an act of writing that we can talk about living the Christian life or keeping of any sort of law. The actions are clearly the fruit of an act of God in writing them on the heart. In addition, the knowledge of the Lord is again an act of God, that is, it is the fruit. But if we suggest that God can write his law in our hearts, and then we find that it is not, in fact, written there, we would be suggesting that God’s word is returning void (Isaiah 55:10, 11).

Again, we have the prophecy of Ezekiel:

22. Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.
23. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.
24. I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
26. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
27. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances
(Ezekiel 36:22-27 NRSV).


Note here that again, there is no action which earns or brings on the act of God in redemption, this time to redeem Israel from exile, but the act takes place, and includes the cleansing, the recreation and the enabling to keep the statutes. There is again grace before law, but there is law, and there is fruit of the grace given by God. In addition, note that the recreation is part of the preparation for the political restoration. In this prophecy, at least, the two are very closely connected.

While this specific prophecy is made with reference to the return from exile it does have strong Messianic overtones.

4. Jesus

It would appear that Jesus was quite prepared at least to say that he was fulfilling the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says:

“20. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NRSV)


Now he has just said that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but rather that he has come to fulfill. Some interpreters suggest that he means not abolish but to fulfill in the sense that he does away with the law by superceding it with something else. But that would be to make “fulfill” mean the same thing as “abolish.” And if we allow Jesus to continue to tell us what he really means, we do not find him discussing anything of the sort. Rather, he continues with saying that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Indeed, he gives a series of examples that point to a greater inward attitude underlying the commands, in fact, a necessity of having the law written in the heart and controlling ones attitudes rather than merely controlling some actions.

Jesus did not here accuse the Pharisees of obeying the law too much as many Christians have suggested, and as the use of the term “pharisee” in much Christian discourse would indicate. Rather, he was saying that their keeping of the law was not deep enough. (I am not here attempting to paint a picture of the Pharisees as a group, but rather to note what Jesus is criticizing and what he is not. In fact, I would suggest that the criticism Jesus levels is one that might well be made by one Pharisee against another.) It is a rather tough ethic that Jesus teaches in chapter five of Matthew, including the command to love your enemies and finally to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Tough stuff! The Old Testament has nothing on this as demanding moral teaching. In fact, much of it can be traced to the Old Testament.

Now for Jesus’ approach to salvation. He says in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” He continues to list people who have exercised miraculous powers in his name and yet if they have not done his Father’s will, they will not enter the kingdom! I could easily see someone arguing *pure* righteousness by works from this passage, but Jesus was not afraid to put it in precisely those terms. In fact I believe that he was talking about living out the enabling provided by grace and received through faith which was already the redemption pattern throughout the Old Testament.

Jesus goes even further in Matthew 25:31-46, where he separates those entering the kingdom based on what they have done for the “least of these who are members of my family” (NRSV). The measurement is the fruit. Those who have received the grace through faith will produce the fruit. But Jesus is quite willing to talk about it purely from the point of view of the fruit, because the fruit is also an indication of what has happened in the heart already.

Let me note here briefly that Jesus also espouses the two laws, love to God and love to neighbor, which we will see in the general epistles. These are key texts about the content of righteousness. It is possible also to look for the wrong variety of fruit. In every case where fruit is required it is of the appropriate attitude and behavior variety. It is not of the correct understanding of doctrine, or of history, or of some other detail. Doctrine is to be judged as well by its fruit (but that’s another topic).

5. Paul

I will only quote one passage from Paul, though I will note that Paul regularly gets into discussion of the proper behavior, and does so generally after he has discussed the nature of the salvation provided by grace. I will take my example from Galatians, known as Paul’s strongest statement of salvation, though some might suggest Romans was even stronger. (I wouldn’t bother to argue with either!)

16. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.
18. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
19. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,
20. idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,
21. envy, {Other ancient authorities add [murder]} drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 
22. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
23. gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
24. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
25. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit
(Galatians 5:16-25 NRSV, emphasis mine).


Here Paul, who has proclaimed grace received by faith nonetheless says that those who practice the evil things he lists will not inherit the kingdom of God. I would suggest again, that while Paul would strongly state that salvation is always by faith, he would expect that faith to be one that produced fruit, just as all of the other Biblical writers or sources we have quoted thus far. He continues by contrasting the fleshly life with what the life of the spirit actually is.

6. General Epistles

The topic of salvation in the book of Hebrews is rather involved. For now, let me simply note that the basic message of Hebrews is endurance to the end so one can receive the prize. The idea that there must be fruit is apparent throughout the book. Note especially chapter 6:1-8.

James compares a faith that has no fruit to the faith of demons, which is certainly not a saving faith (James 2:19). But one of the best descriptions of faith and its fruit is in 1 John. “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6, 7 NRSV). One may suggest that “fellowship” and “salvation” are two different things, but the last clause suggests otherwise.

The content of such fruit is opened up in 1 John 3:18 “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And further, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7 & 8 NRSV). Now note again that this suggests that this is related directly to salvation, because we are told that one who does not love does not know God. This reminds me, on the flip side of the coin, of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you.”

And for those who would suggest that they can love God without loving one another, we have 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters,’ are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Often we are told that the command to love God is more important than the one to love our neighbor, but here we are told that our love for God must be demonstrated in love for our neighbors. This is the bottom line fruit.

7. Revelation

Finally, we see that fruit is involved in the final entry into the kingdom. Those who are inside the New Jerusalem are those who have washed their robes (Revelation 22:14), while “outside are dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15 NRSV). One can see the great fight against evil throughout the book, but those two texts kind of summarize the approach.


I would suggest from all of this that there is one pattern for relationship with God expressed in scripture in many different ways and at different times. God calls, God offers grace, it is received by faith, and it produces fruit. The fruit it produces is specifically love for one’s neighbor and even one’s enemies, by which one demonstrates love for God.

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