Suppose you and your neighbor were to plant a vegetable garden. One of you put the plants and seeds in, watered them once, then stepped back to let it all grow naturally. The other watered and weeded diligently, trimmed where needed, staked up the vines, and poured time and attention into the garden. The first will have a small harvest, if any, from plants choked by weeds and eaten by bugs. The second will enjoy a bountiful harvest of tasty, healthy vegetables. That’s the analogy Gary Thomas uses in his book Sacred Pathways to talk about growth in the Christian life.
“Some of us live with the mistaken impression that our faith needs only to be planted, not tended. Becoming a mature Christian, some think, is like becoming six feet tall — it either happens or it doesn’t. This is not the view of those who have written the classics of our faith or the view of the writers of scriptures (see, for example, Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Timothy 4:15-16; James 1:4; 2 Peter 1:5-11).” — Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways, p. 232
The Bible is full of talk about spiritual growth and fruitfulness. We can’t do anything to earn salvation or accomplish reconciliation with God on our own — that only happens through the work of Jesus Christ. But once He gives us the precious gift of salvation He expects us to do something with it. That “something” can be summarized as “grow.”
Growing Your Gift
Examples of God’s expectation for growth are found in the parables of the talents and of the ten pounds. A lord goes to a far country, entrusting great wealth to his servants. When he returns, every servant who increased their gift (no matter by how much) is praised as “good and faithful,” and welcomed into the lord’s kingdom. There’s one servant, though, who did nothing with their gift except hide it. It sat in the ground, useless. This servant is the only one who is not praised. The lord actually takes their gift away and then casts them out (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).
I honestly don’t see how people can read the Bible and still teach “once saved, always saved.” It is true that no one has the power to take you away from God (John 10:28-29), but you can reject God’s gift, or continue in sin without repenting, or neglect to use and grow what He’s given you (Heb. 10:26-31; Gal. 5:16-21; Matt. 18:21-35). Even the Apostle Paul didn’t think he could sit back and relax, assured that he’d get eternal life no matter what he did post-conversion (Phil. 3:11-14; 1 Cor. 9:27).
If we choose to do things that separate us from God and don’t then come back to Him and ask for forgiveness, we could miss out on the kingdom. God tells us how to get there and He even died to make it possible. He very much wants us to accept, use, and grow the gift He’s given us. But He won’t force us to.
Tending To Your Salvation
Talking about how God can take back gifts which He gives (a Biblical idea that’s found right there in the Jesus’s parables) is not designed to make us live in a state of uncertainty and terror, wondering if we’re “really saved.” Paul clearly didn’t think he should live in despair and doubt because he hadn’t yet attained the end goal of a Christian life. On the contrary, it motivated him to keep growing and striving to follow God.
God doesn’t really ask much of us when you boil it all down. Just the things needed for a good relationship. Love Him. Respect Him. Abide by the boundaries He sets. Apologize if you do something to wrong Him. Use the gifts He’s given you instead of setting them aside like they don’t matter.
So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13, all quotes from WEB translation)
Salvation is something Jesus accomplished once for all humanity, and He is the only path to eternal life (Heb. 9:12; 10:11-12; Acts 4:12). Salvation is also a life-long process that we’re involved with as God works in and through us.
Be diligent in these things. Give yourself wholly to them, that your progress may be revealed to all. Pay attention to yourself and to your teaching. Continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Tim. 4:15-16)
Paul isn’t telling Timothy that he can save himself or his congregants in the same sense that Christ saved us. But he is pointing out that we are involved in the ongoing aspects of salvation. To return to the garden analogy, people can plant and water spiritual gardens but only God can make them grow (1 Cor. 3:6-9). We’re expected to work on growing, but God’s the one who makes all that growth possible.
Producing Fruit to Glorify God
Paul describes us in 1 Corinthians as “God’s farming.” In Romans, he uses another agricultural analogy by describing the people of God as trees with grafted branches. Israel is God’s olive tree, and when He opened salvation up to a wider group of people it was like He “grafted in” branches from wild olive trees. As the farmer, God is allowed to graft in or prune out as He pleases. He can even graft people back in after they’ve been cut out so long as they repent and turn back to Him in sincerer belief (Rom. 11:16-24). And we get to play a role in whether or not we stay grafted in.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. … I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. … In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. (John 15:1-2, 5-6, 8)
In another place, Jesus tells us that we will know false prophets by their fruits. We can discern whether or not someone is trustworthy by how they live and the fruits they produce. God applies the same logic to us; He knows us by our fruits (Matt. 7:17-23). And we are warned, like the people John the Baptist preached to, “every tree therefore that doesn’t produce good fruit” (e.g. “fruits worthy of repentance”) “is cut down, and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).
God Is Eager To Help Us Grow
Now, don’t go thinking all this talk of pruning and burning is happening because God doesn’t like us or wants to terrify us. He’s not up there waiting for any excuse to wack us out of the Vine. On the contrary, these things serve as a warning so that we’ll understand exactly how important it is that we stay close to Jesus Christ (the source of our life, as the roots that feed a plant) and commit to living in a Godly way (having a character that produces spiritual fruit). So long as we make even the tiniest effort, God is ready and eager to facilitate our growth.
Consider the lilies, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. … Don’t seek what you will eat or what you will drink; neither be anxious. … But seek God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be added to you. Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. (Luke 12:27, 29, 31-32)
One of the key characteristics of God’s kingdom is that it grows (Luke 13:18-21). And we’re invited to be a part of that. Seek Him. Grow with Him. Keep adding to your faith moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Pet. 1:5-8). Produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
One of the most encouraging studies I’ve ever done (for me at least) was on how God talks about human perfection. So long as we’re growing toward the goal of being perfect, as He is perfect, He treats us as if we’re already there. We don’t have to get everything right all the time or worry we’re not good enough. The only way to fail is to not even try. So long as we put effort into tending our spiritual gardens and do not neglect the gifts He has given us, God will make certain that we live abundant, fruitful lives that lead to the best eternal outcome.
Featured image credit: Dean Moriarty via Pixabay