Most of us feel quite comfortable with the idea of effort and hard work resulting in rewards, whether that is higher pay, more holidays or other bonuses. We find a certain satisfaction in the idea that merit brings its own rewards, and conversely often find it difficult to accept salvation as God’s free gift. It would be easier if we could balance our goodness and moral acts and conclude that we deserve God’s grace and help.
Unfortunately, the gospel does not work like that. Paul makes it plain in Romans 1-3 that no amount of good works or righteousness can ever be enough to save us. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. (Rom 3:23) Our only hope, therefore, is in the generosity and grace of God, meaning we are made righteous through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and not because of our own merit or righteousness.
When we think about spiritual growth, we may start by grace, but the old way of doing things often creeps back, something Paul had to contend with when he wrote to the Galatians. (Gal 3:1-9) We can very easily start to think that spiritual growth comes by doing good works and following the law. In natural terms, we may associate growth with the care and products used by the farmer, forgetting that so many things – the weather, for example – are beyond his control. It can be the same spiritually, with people associating good practices (prayer, reading the Word, witnessing and so on) with their actual growth and somehow rendering God obsolete in our thinking.
Jesus made it plain, however, that growth is absolutely dependent on our relationship with Him. He said, ‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ (John 15:4) He said, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5)
For the vine, growth is equated with fruitfulness. The same is true of us, for Paul urges us to allow the fruit of the Spirit to grow and flourish in our lives – fruit which can be seen in our behaviour and attitudes. (Gal 5:22-23) Living God’s way means allowing Him to bring gifts into our lives: ‘He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.’ (Gal 5:22-23, The Message) But fruit does not grow through the efforts of the grapes (as the story Basil the Branch illustrated!) In that story, Basil the branch desperately wanted to grow grapes through sheer effort alone. He had to learn that growth came through resting, remaining, abiding in the vine.
Jesus said, ‘if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.’ (John 15:7-8, The Message) Growth in the spiritual realm is as natural, organic and intimate as it is in the physical realm, and it all starts by abiding in Jesus and letting His words have free rein in our lives.