Productivity & The Gospel (Part 1) – Is Christian Productivity Legalistic?

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We’ve been talking about God’s grand plan for man and work. Previously, I wrote about God’s good design for work in Work is Not a Dirty Word. Then, in No TED Talks in Eden, we looked at how the curse affected work and how that makes attention to productivity even necessary. Now, I’d like to focus on the relationship between personal productivity and the gospel.

I have spent the last few years writing about Christians and productivity. And while many believers I interact with have met the intersection of these two subjects with interest, there are a couple of reoccurring responses which I have found somewhat vexing.

The first troubling response I hear from time to time is what I call the “that’s good for you” response. These people see the idea of giving focused attention to being productive stewards of our lives for Christ as a neat add-on activity for the super-Christian but by no means necessary for all believers.

The second type of negative response I’ve received to my calls for Christian productivity is more troubling. I call it the “yo, that’s legalism, bro” response. There are people who think that I am promoting a form of legalism by telling Christians to focus on their productivity. I want to show you that not only is Christian productivity non-optional, it’s also not legalistic in the least. In fact, Christian productivity is the natural outflow of the gospel having done its work in a person’s life. According to Jesus, the believer transformed by grace inevitably becomes a productive Christian and has a desire to ever increase in that productivity.

Defining Legalism

So, when we use the word “productivity” to refer to our work output, we are actually using a euphemism for bearing much fruit.

Now, when someone says “legalism” there are at least two definitions. First, they can mean that they believe you to be imploring people to be saved by their works. This is an impossible endeavor for sinful man and the very reason we needed the God-man, Jesus Christ to fulfill the law requirements on our behalf and die to pay our penalty (Romans 5:6–8; cf. 8:3). But I don’t think this is what people think I mean by Christian productivity. The second definition of legalism might be closer to the mark.

Second, by legalism they may simply mean that we are binding the conscience of all Christians with something that goes beyond the bounds of what Christ requires for believers. Like if I were a vegetarian by conviction that would be fine, but if I were to say that eating meat is a sin for all believers that would be this second type of legalism. Because that is not something which Scripture requires of all Christians. This seems to be the charge that is laid against calls for Christians to be deliberately more productive with their lives. Some see this as an unnecessary and grace-less burden. And, therefore, they call it legalistic.

What I will attempt to demonstrate is that the call to Christian productivity is not a call to merit-based salvation. Nor is it a call to an optional, next-level type of Christian life. My insistence on the necessity of Christians exercising deliberate stewardship in all of life is not legalistic at all, but rather the very call of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Defining Productivity

Did you know that the word productivity is actually an agricultural term? An apple tree which yields an abundance of apples would be called a very productive tree. Walk through your local grocery store and you will find that those fresh foodstuffs which have been grown on a farm are located in the “produce” section. So, when we use the word “productivity” to refer to our work output, we are actually using a euphemism for bearing much fruit. When Jesus, therefore, speaks of fruit-bearing in passages like John 15 He is talking about productivity.

I propose that a Christian’s understanding of productivity should be synonymous with the biblical notion of bearing fruit. And making this connection explicit is essential to establishing a biblical foundation for personal productivity as it relates to the gospel. It also rules out any of the misunderstandings which might cause a person to think that productivity is optional or legalistic. We can look at the Scriptures to find both the call to be productive in bearing fruit, as well as the content of our productive fruit bearing. Let’s first look at the call to Christian productivity.

The Call to Christian Productivity: It’s Not Optional

In John 15 Jesus is speaking with His disciples about what it means to follow Him and he steps into an extended analogy about a vine and its branches. Take a look at John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” What Jesus is saying is that those who are united to Him by faith will be productive in the bearing of fruit. We will see in part 2 that by fruit He is talking about good works. But lets first focus on this profound call for Christ’s disciples to produce fruit.

This is key: If Christian productivity is simply another way to talk about bearing fruit, then productivity is not optional for believers. According to John 15, productivity/fruit-bearing is, as R.C. Sproul put it, “the mandate of Christ.”

Being united to the Vine (Christ) enables us to become productive fruit-bearers. And since being united to the Christ is part and parcel of being a Christian, it is necessary for all Christians to be productive. This is made all too clear in the very next verse. “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:6).

Jesus is saying that those so-called “Christians” who are bear no fruit actually prove themselves to not be believers at all. For if they had truly been connected to the Vine, they would have some fruit to show for it.

But Jesus isn’t just concerned that His branches bear some fruit. No, He would that we bear much fruit. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that in verse 2, he says that the low-producing branches will be pruned that they might bear even more fruit. “Every branch that does bear fruit the Father prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:2).

That’s a pretty serious focus on productivity!

No, this isn’t talking about works-based salvation. But it is about Lordship Salvation, the biblical concept that those who are Christ’s have been transformed and are therefore marked by lives of obedience. And this is precisely what the author of John is getting at when he writes, “By this [abiding in Christ and making requests of Him via prayer] my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8). The call to fruit-bearing is a matter of proof that we are Christ’s disciples and a matter of glorifying God the Father through said productivity.

Over and over again John uses the expression “bear much fruit.” So again I will say it, the Christian’s life must be marked by productivity. It is neither optional nor legalistic. Christ has called us to it.

But productivity in what? What is the fruit Jesus is talking about exactly? What is the content of Christian productivity? We will look at these questions in part 2.

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