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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Spatha

Baring Fruit: Exposing the Commercial Gospel

Updated: 3 days ago



There are a lot of horticulture metaphors in the New Testament, including vines and branches, trees and fruit, and wheat and tares. One of the "tests" found in scripture to ascertain the nature of a tree is to see if it produces good fruit. But that begs the question: what is "good fruit?" Thankfully the Bible not only prescribes the test, but also the parameters, providing the standard by which to measure. However, man often inserts his own definitions based on worldly, personal, or cultural values and therefore the test can actually produce a false positive.



Produce vs. Produce


One of the cultural values engrained in Western civilization is the economic philosophy of capitalism. While the word itself wasn't coined or popularized until the 19th century — actually as a pejorative by Karl Marx — the idea of commercialism dates back to at least the 18th century with Adam Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and the concepts of private ownership, free markets, and work ethic and a productive society date back to nearly the beginning of written history, indeed even being prominent biblical themes. But what began as solid foundational principles has taken on a life of its own and has gradually strayed from the biblical precepts. Values of work ethic and being a productive member of society were transformed during the industrial revolution and large-scale commercialism quickly took root. The drive and desire for larger and larger scale then led to abandoning one of the core principles of capitalism (investing capital) in favor of a new economic philosophy called creditism, where economic growth is fueled by debt rather than savings.


This cultural value of production, scale, commercialism, and consumerism then combined with the philosophy of humanism and crept into the church resulting in a distorted reading of the scriptures. This produced the prosperity gospel, the idea that God's desire is for humanity to be happy, healthy, and wealthy. While this ideology is not uniquely American, we certainly have led the charge of turning the Gospel into a business, focusing on its production, marketing, and scalability. Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the US Senate once summarized it this way:

 

“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.”



One of the most influential, insightful, and convicting sermons of the 20th century was "Ten Shekels and a Shirt" — a sermon I present to Western believers often. Paris Reidhead preached that sermon to address the spirit of the age during the cultural high of America where she emerged from World War II as one of the few developed nations with her manufacturing capability intact. As such, optimism was high, our economy was booming, and nothing seemed impossible for man. It was in the midst of that cultural moment where a former missionary to Africa preached from a rather obscure passage in Judges 17 and 18 about a Levite who "sold out God" by performing priestly duties and fashioning a facsimile of Judaism for an individual who paid him an annual salary of ten shekels and a shirt. But Reidhead probably could not even imagine the depths of commercialism the church would sink to over the following decades.


Thankfully, many have since come to realize the error of the prosperity gospel and returned to a more balanced theology where God is enthroned rather than man, where His glory rather than our happiness reigns supreme. But the commercialization of the gospel has yet to have its full reconning. Like the Levite in Judges, many in this era have found great utility in religion and have discovered there is a lot of money to be made in it. Even those who have guarded themselves against the allure of money still have a tendency to view scripture through the lens of commercialism. Where the prosperity gospel lens had every blessing in scripture interpreted as financial gain, the commercial gospel distorts passages about produce to be interpreted as what we produce. This may seem innocuous at first glance, but it subtly shifts the focus on external metrics rather than internal growth.



Biblical Fruit


The problem with cultural lenses of course is that we often don't even realize we're wearing them. Their effect is pervasive, but their presence is undetected, and often even denied. So, to begin, let's just read several key passages regarding fruit.


Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. -Mat 7:19-20 ESV


And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” -Luk 13:6-9 ESV


“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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit... 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. 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. -Joh 15:1-2, 5-6 ESV


Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. -Rom 7:4 ESV


These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. -Jud 1:12-13 ESV



The lens of the commercial gospel will tend to have us interpret these passages as regarding external products or tangibles. We read them as metaphors for reproduction and multiplication regarding finances, disciples, ministries, or other quantifiable, physical things. So, believing we must earn some element of our salvation, we strive to produce for God, lest we be thrown into the fire. This drives us to external metrics of success and a lot of comparing ourselves, our ministries, or our lives with others, trying to justify our existence, stroke our ego, and condemn other brothers and sisters who do not appear to be producing as much as we are. If we find ourselves rather low on the tangibles totem pole, we may be tempted to accuse those individuals or ministries above us of selling out, diluting the message, or some other form of compromise. In self-righteousness and envy, we'll turn to passages like Psalms 73 lamenting how the wicked prosper and mumble a hearty "amen."


But whether you're near the top of the tangibles totem pole calling for everyone below you to be pruned or near the bottom of it calling for everyone above you to be burned, the entire totem pole is based on external metrics of human-defined success — and this should be conspicuous to everyone in light of scripture.


But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” -1Sa 16:7 ESV


Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. -1Co 4:5-6 ESV



So, if man looks at the outward appearance and wrongly judges based on that criteria, what fruit should we be looking for to be able to tell a good tree from a bad, a good vine from a bad, or a wheat from a tare? There should be no confusion on this matter as the New Testament plainly identifies these fruit as not external or tangible, but internal and spiritual.


But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. -Gal 5:22-26 ESV (emphasis added)


For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. -Eph 5:5-11 ESV (emphasis added)


And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. -Php 1:9-11 ESV (emphasis added)


And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. -Col 1:9-12 ESV (emphasis added)


For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. -Heb 12:11-17 ESV (emphasis added)



If you read any of those passages and interpreted the "fruit" to be external metrics or tangibles, read them again — slowly and carefully — because in each, the context is clearly internal. The "fruit of light" found in the Ephesians passage certainly speaks of external behavior reflecting the inward change, but not sinning and walking in righteousness and truth is a far cry from the commercial gospel idea that "bearing fruit" equates to bigger ministries, bigger buildings, bigger impact, more salvations, more disciples, more staff, more locations, more books, higher profile, more attention, more views, more followers, etc. etc. etc. The "bearing fruit in every good work" found in the Colossians passage likewise indicates inward growth must produce a change in external behavior (as is the case with the book of James regarding faith and works), but all the surrounding context is regarding the inner man and character development, not external quantifiable metrics.



Reproduction & Multiplication


As disciples of Jesus, we are certainly called to go and make disciples, and there are plenty of passages which establish this missiological truth. However, passages talking about bearing fruit are not a very good fit for conveying that biblical tenet, first and foremost, because the horticulture metaphor typically used in scripture regarding reproduction and multiplication involves seeds, not fruit. The parable of the sower for example, talks about the seed of the gospel falling on various types of soil. The final soil in that parable which both received the seed and grew to maturity did indeed produce fruit, but again, fruit are not new plants. Fruit are the sign that the original plant is healthy and mature, producing the payoff of all the labor and toil which went into planting, watering, and cultivating it. Character, righteousness, and spiritual maturity take a lot of work and discipline, but the fruit they produce are both evident and sweet.


Now, there are passages that use the fruit metaphor which are not talking about spiritual maturity. Paul uses the metaphor in the context of asking support and finances from those whom he has ministered to (1Co 9:7). He also uses the metaphor in the context of the gospel going out into the world and seeing results (Col 1:6). The author of Hebrews uses it to describe the sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15). James uses it to describe the long-awaited return of Christ (Jas 5:7). Jesus uses it in the parable of the tenants to condemn the Jews and Pharisees for rejecting God's prophets and the Messiah (Mar 12:1-12). Elizabeth uses it to describe Mary's baby (Luk 1:42), and indeed the phrases "be fruitful and multiply," "fruit of the loins," and other variants throughout the Old Testament relate to children and descendants.


The latter is clearly a usage of the term "fruit" which relates to separate "plants" and quantifiable tangibles, but the context makes this clear and the metaphor still involves a "seed" which is planted in the fertile "soil" of the womb and grows to maturity. It could also be argued that Paul's use of the term in Colossians refers to converts and disciples, which are also new "plants" and quantifiable tangibles, but again, context is king and this usage relates back to the parable of the sower. There is quite obviously a connection between seed, plant, and fruit, and though not explicitly stated in the biblical metaphors, I find it interesting that it is the fruit which bear the seeds. Indeed it is the attractiveness of the Spirit in us, producing the fruit of the Spirit in us, which often plants the seed in others. It's when we give lip service to God and the transformative power of the gospel but bear none of its fruit in our lives that many are put off and are turned away.



The Commercialization of Christ


Missions, evangelism, discipleship, and multiplication are all very biblical concepts and values. The problem is when we conflate the biblical concepts of bearing fruit and doing good works with numbers and then insert our cultural value of commercialization, economies of scale, efficiency, and mass production in an even greater and universal context of the worldly love of fame, fortune, and success, that we produce a very warped gospel and a church with very questionable motives. As such, we gloss over passages which instruct us to lead peaceful, quiet, and dignified lives (1Ti 2:2) believing that may apply to others, but not to one such as ourselves who is obviously called to greatness. Because the truth is, our culture has inculcated in us the idea that unless we make a big splash, we have little value, and so we desperately seek the limelight and approval of those high on the tangibles totem pole.


When we hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," and "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," (Mat 5:3,5), we shift uncomfortably in our pews because it creates cognitive dissonance in us, creating an inner conflict with what we want to believe. When we hear someone quote Jesus' famous words, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” (Mar 9:35) we consider it merely a quaint mantra and then, just like the disciples, return to our posturing and arguing (or fantasizing) about who among us is or will be the greatest. When we stumble across Jesus' warnings against wanting our righteousness, our ministries, our works, or even our prayers to be seen and heard by others (Mat 6:1-6), we clap and say "amen" loudly so everyone hears.


The reality is, we have been so discipled by our culture and by the world, that it barely even registers that Jesus' warning explicitly stated that we will be rewarded for what we do in secret, not in public. And so, we continue to long for bigger, more prominent, and more public ministries, blasting our numbers and the highlight reels of our effectiveness in newsletters, social media posts, and any other bullhorn, microphone, or camera which we hope will draw attention to the amazing work we're doing for God in order to justify our existence, give us a sense of value and worth, and keep the finances flowing due to the immense return on investment our donors and supporters are getting in our commercialized minds.


The flesh's desire to be seen and heard, to be praised, to be admired and even envied is great, and is also diametrically opposed to the fruit of the Spirit. Technological advancements have only increased and amplified the temptation as fame and fortune now seem merely one viral video or post away. We spiritualize and justify the commercialism and narcissism by thinking of all the good we could do for God with a large platform and a lot of money, ignoring all the biblical warnings of the toxic and corrosive effect money, power, and influence have on the human heart and the pride, arrogance, and ignorance required for those who do not have it to believe they will not succumb to the same fate of so many who have. So, we keep hoping for our big breakthrough, the idea, sermon, ministry, book, video, speaking invitation, conference, or viral post that will put us on the map and open doors to bigger and better things. We claim our desire for external rather than internal growth is for Christ's glory and for His kingdom, but in reality it's just our desire for commercial success.



Focus on Fruit


The beauty of the biblical focus on fruit is that there isn't really the possibility of mixed motives to cultivate them. While the flesh can easily co-opt external metrics, it can only wither and die in the presence of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Furthermore, as we focus on cultivating the fruit, it naturally attracts others to it, who after tasting its sweetness, then find the seed inside. But if we focus instead on outward success, multiplication, growth, and metrics — which can be signs of selfish ambition — we often discover the truth of the old adage that our talent and ability can take us to heights that our character cannot sustain... and then comes the fall which have become commonplace in large, successful, public ministries.


Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love... The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition. -Php 1:15-17 ESV


Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. -Jas 3:13-17 ESV



That is not to say that all large, public ministries are corrupt or evil. I think the parable of the talents (Mat 25:14-30) is important in this conversation, but maybe not for the reasons many would think. Again, our commercial mindset interprets that passage as having to perform for God in order to have any value or to be assured our reward, or even our salvation. Of course there is an important lesson about stewardship in that parable as well as many other passages of scripture as nothing we have is ours and everything we've been given is a gift from God and should be used for His glory.


But another, less popular element of that parable is that one servant was given five talents, another was given two, and another only given one — each according to their ability. Given the opportunity for confusion due to the English meaning of the word "talent," note that Jesus was speaking of a Roman unit of currency equivalent to 6,000 denarii (silver coins), with one denarii being equal to a day's wages. So, the master gave one servant the equivalent of over 82 years worth of his salary, another servant over 32 years worth, and the last he gave over 16 years worth. These were incredibly large sums of money but none of the servants knew when the master would return, so they had to steward those finances wisely. The point that needs made here though is that the master gave each servant a different amount based on their ability and the fact that the first two doubled the amount given to them didn't mean they were evil — quite the opposite in fact.


So, we must remember that man judges by the outward appearance, but God judges the heart. Successful looking leaders and ministries may be moments away from a dramatic humbling which serves as yet another warning to the broader body of Christ, or they may be faithful servants who God entrusted with much due to their proven track record and ability. Likewise, unsuccessful looking leaders or ministries may only be so due to being faithful in the small things, or they may simply have less ability. We shouldn't jump to the conclusion that they are bad stewards. As always, the principles found in scripture are best sincerely and humbly applied to oneself rather than used to condemn others unless sin is clearly (rather than simply assumed to be) involved.



Countercultural Christianity


But for all of us living under the spirit of the age, we must be vigilant to guard our hearts against its influence and stop commercializing the gospel. Large ministries are not better than small ones simply because they can leverage economies of scale or have more resources at their disposal, because that does not necessarily mean they can reach more people. Their large platform and influence does not automatically make them more effective or efficient — in fact, the larger and more complex an organization gets, often the less effective and efficient it becomes. Even in the business world it's the small, scrappy startups that move quickly, work efficiently, and innovate. As soon as they become large corporations, they often become the slow, lethargic, systems-driven, bureaucratic, defender of the status-quo that forces another startup to do what they either cannot or will not.


It's ridiculous to think that God needs a servant with five talents in order to accomplish His will when the reality is that He holds all the talents to begin with and can just as easily use five other servants each with only one talent to accomplish the same task. In fact, that's exactly what God intended in the New Covenant by tearing the veil in two and giving everyone access to the presence, peace, and power of God so that each and every one of us would be equipped to serve Him as prophets, priests, and kings. We all are commissioned into His service and His will would be done a lot quicker if each of us took our talent and did something with it rather than working, wishing, or waiting to be given five. If every disciple of Christ simply went out and doubled what they were given, making two disciples, and those new disciples went and doubled what they were given and made two more disciples, the world would be reached far more efficiently and effectively than if a hundred large, successful, and influential ministries pooled their vast resources and launched a very public and very polished campaign. God isn't looking for large or successful ministries and He doesn't need high-profile leaders. He uses the weak, small, and foolish so that no man can boast — and the good news is, 99% of us meet those qualifications.


For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. -1Co 1:26-29 ESV



So, let us be rid of the commercial gospel. Let us be done with the notion that bearing fruit means looking successful. Let us disabuse ourselves of the idea that performance produces value in God's economy and that He is constantly reviewing every son and daughter's external metrics to evaluate whether or not they'll make this round of corporate layoffs, which HR prefers to call "pruning." Let's stop kidding ourselves that our deep-seated desire for success is rooted in anything but fleshly pride and insecurities, beholden to the lie that God couldn't possibly love us for who we are rather than what we do. Let us repent of the mentality that believes our Father wouldn't simply be proud of us for our well-developed and hard-earned character, because He must be more impressed with our accomplishments. That's a religious spirit seeking to earn salvation and be worthy of God's love, and we have received the spirit of adoption.


Therefore, let us go forth and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with a gentleness and authority that can only come from walking in our identity rather than looking for it. Let us be free of the love of money, fame, and success and be content with merely being heirs to an eternal kingdom, clothed in humility rather than striving for what moth and rust will destroy to impress a world today that will burn tomorrow.


For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. -1Co 9:16-19 ESV


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