Jesus says: “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2).
Christians who bear fruit get pruned? That’s not what most of us expect from a life of service to God. Deep down most of us expect a reward. After all, isn’t that fair?
What Jesus says here is counterintuitive and countercultural. When I grew up, it was tough to get a compliment for any achievement. Today, if a child merely participates in a team sport, he or she is awarded a trophy. Don’t think I’m some bitter old guy who thinks he never got his due. And I’m all for the amazing support many parents give their children today. But our society is starting to discover a negative effect of coddling our children. It teaches them to hate being corrected and when they’re celebrated for everything they do, they believe everything they do is right.
This describes much of the church today. As Christians, we enjoy unconditional love but we hate being corrected. In His analogy of the vine, Jesus says our Father wants us to know a deeper love than that of a coddling parent. Our loving God says, in effect, “Yes, you’re bearing good fruit, and that pleases Me. But I want to increase your joy of abundant life. And I will accomplish that by pruning you further.”
“He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Most of us do not get this concept. My wife and I learned it the hard way last year when a gardener took a pruning blade to our plants. We returned from a trip to find every green thing in our yard reduced to nubs. Our beautiful garden looked like the barren landscape of a lonely planet. We were ready to fire the guy!
But when spring came this year, every plant had doubled its blossoms. Each one had shot up faster and fuller, and what was once clutter was now clean and beautiful, with flowering fruit. God’s pruning work in our lives is like that. It isn’t easy on us—in fact, it’s painful. And it isn’t pretty—but it yields glorious fruit that could not have come in any other way.
Recent studies have predicted that by the year 2020 Islam will be the primary religion in Norway and all Scandinavian countries. If that is correct, we can expect to see it as the state religion in Norway within the next few years. That’s what has happened in every other country where Muslims developed a foothold.
It saddens me to see how little impact Christians have been making in Europe. We’ve been all but powerless in effectively reaching the lost—not only in European countries but in the United States. We pray for God to expand our territory, to help the Body of Christ grow and flourish, yet so few denominations are seeing that happen. Most are shrinking, and some are dying out altogether.
What will it take for God to finally grab hold and bring about the transformation that we need—the transformation we pray for? When will we finally rise up and make a serious dent in Satan’s foothold on the world?
The answer is so simple it feels strange to have to say it: We must trust in God for great miracles! We must rise together with contrite hearts and bold faith, asking God to make us mighty warriors for the kingdom. Like the young people who work with us—our Twelve Disciples—we must open our hearts and lives to God and allow Him to instill His passion for souls within us, to develop in our hearts a soul obsession. To break us, to use us, to empower us for service!
When you look at our small band of young people, these twelve unlikely heroes, these bruised and battered kids who own little more than a few sets of clothes and a raging fire of passion in their hearts, and you see how mightily God is using them on the front lines of battle, you begin to get just a small glimpse of what God can do with even the smallest ounce of faith. You see what it was that caused the early church to explode in numbers, drawing thousands to the faith from only a handful of disciples. You understand what it was that attracted people to the message—the message of Jesus. And you see how much God can accomplish with so very little.
“God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NKJV).
Nicky Cruz, internationally known evangelist and prolific author, turned to Jesus Christ from a life of violence and crime after meeting David Wilkerson in New York City in 1958. The story of his dramatic conversion was told first in The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson and then later in his own best-selling book Run, Baby, Run.
“Despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering: not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
What does Paul mean when he says this person despises the riches of Christ’s goodness? The word for despised here means, “He could not think it possible.” In other words, this believer said, “Such grace and mercy isn’t possible. I can’t fathom it.” It didn’t fit into his theology. So, instead of accepting it, he set his mind against it.
Why couldn’t the ungrateful servant of Matthew 18:23-35 accept the king’s grace? There is one reason: he didn’t take seriously the enormity of his sin. Yet, the king had already told him, “You’re free. There’s no more guilt, no more claim upon you, no probation or works required. All you need to do now is focus on the goodness and forbearance I’ve shown to you.”
Tragically, a person who doesn’t accept love is not capable of loving anyone else. Instead, he becomes judgmental toward others. That’s what happened to this servant. He missed the whole point of the king’s mercy to him. You see, God’s forbearance and unmerited forgiveness are meant for one thing: to lead us to repentance. Paul asks, “Don’t you realize that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”
It’s clear from the parable that this is the reason the master forgave his servant. He wanted this trusted man to turn away from his own works of flesh to rest in the king’s incredible goodness. Such rest would free him to love and forgive others in return. But instead of repenting, the servant went away doubting his master’s goodness. He determined to have a contingency plan. And despising the king’s mercy, he treated others with judgment.
Can you imagine the tortured mind of such a person? This man left a sacred place of forgiveness, where he experienced his master’s goodness and grace. But instead of rejoicing, he despised the thought of such unmitigated freedom. I tell you, any believer who thinks God’s goodness is impossible opens himself to every lie of Satan. His soul has no rest. His mind is in constant turmoil. And he’s continually fearful of judgment.
I wonder how many Christians today live this tortured existence. Is that why there is so much strife, so many divisions in the Body of Christ? Is it why so many ministers are at odds, why so many denominations refuse to fellowship with each other?
In the parable of Matthew 18:23-35 did the king overlook his servant’s sin? Did he wink at his debt and merely excuse it? No, not at all. The fact is, by forgiving him, the king placed upon this man a weighty responsibility, a responsibility even greater than the burden of his debt. Indeed, this servant now owed his master more than ever. How? He was responsible to forgive and love others, just as the king had done for him.
What an incredible responsibility this is. And it can’t be separated from Christ’s other kingdom teachings. After all, Jesus said, “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). His point is clear: “If you don’t forgive others, I won’t forgive you.” This word isn’t optional, it’s a command. Jesus is telling us, in essence, “I was forbearing with you. I handled you with love and mercy and I forgave you out of My goodness and mercy alone. Likewise, you are to be loving and merciful toward your brothers and sisters. You’re to forgive them freely, just as I forgave you. You’re to go into your home, your church, your workplace, into the streets, and show everyone the grace and love I showed you.”
Paul refers to Jesus’ command, saying, “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:13). He then expounds on how we pursue obedience to this command: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any. . . . Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (3:12-14).
What does it mean to be forbearing? The Greek word means “to put up with, to tolerate.” This suggests enduring things we don’t like. We’re being told to tolerate the failures of others, to put up with ways we don’t understand.
Jesus gave the parable in Matthew 18:23-35 to show us an example of a trusted, gifted servant who is suddenly revealed to be the chief of all debtors. Here is someone who is undeserving, full of wrong motives, not worthy of compassion at all. Yet his master forgives him freely—just as Jesus did you and me.
Let me say a brief word here about repentance. This concept is often defined as a “turning around.” It speaks of an about-face, a 180-degree turn from one’s previous ways. Also, repentance is said to be accompanied by godly sorrow.
Yet, once again the New Covenant takes an Old Testament concept even further. Repentance is about much more than merely turning away from sins of the flesh—more than sorrowing over the past and being sad for grieving the Lord. According to Jesus’ parable, repentance is about turning away from the mind-sickness that allows us to believe we can somehow make up for our sins.
This sickness afflicts millions of believers. Whenever such Christians fall into sin, they think, “I can make things right with the Lord. I’ll bring Him sincere tears, more earnest prayer, more Bible reading. I’m determined to make it up to Him.” But that is impossible. This kind of thinking leads to one place: hopeless despair. Such people are forever struggling and always failing, and they end up settling for a false peace. They pursue a phony holiness of their own making, convincing themselves of a lie.
Tell me, what saved you? Was it your tears and earnest pleading? Your deep sorrow over grieving God? Your sincere resolve to turn from sin? No, it was none of these things. It was grace alone that saved you. And like the servant in the parable, you didn’t deserve it. In fact, you’re still not worthy of it, no matter how godly your walk is.
Here is a simple formula for true repentance: “I must turn aside, once and for all, every thought that I could ever repay the Lord. I can never work my way into His good graces. Therefore, no effort or good work on my part can wipe out my sin. I simply have to accept His mercy. It’s the only way to salvation and freedom.”