The kingdom of God expands through an organic process because the gospel of the kingdom is a seed. The graphic above depicts the growth cycle which holds true for organic life and for the new life of the kingdom. Evangelism and discipleship are often seen as separate functions within the church, but just as organic life must remain whole to continue and thrive, so evangelism and discipleship must be held together into a unity that we call gospel growth.
According to Colossians 1:6, the gospel grows throughout the world, as it bears fruit among communities through redeemed relationships, that fruit in turn is the result of the gospel seed taking root within individuals as they hear and understand God’s grace. I’ve taken Paul’s series of gospel effects and placed them into a diagram that I call The Growth Cycle. I arranged them as a cycle because of the implication that those who understood the gospel and had their lives changed went on to speak that message into the lives of others who heard and understood and so on.
If you’ve stalled out as a Christian, it’s probably because The Growth Cycle has stopped spinning in your life. Sometimes, Christians read the Bible and pray, but they do so as a religious exercise without intending to bear fruit by applying the word to their lives. Others focus on investing in redeemed relationships, but they do so by focusing specifically on the problems in their own circumstances rather than on the gospel of Christ. Then, there are those whose Bibles are well-worn from beating others over the head with them and yet their lives mostly discredit the message. All of these and other aberrations of the new life lead to spiritual stagnation because no one can defy the spiritual laws of growth any more than they can defy the natural laws.
Paul told the Corinthian church that the contemplation of Christ in the Scriptures leads a person to become like Christ from one degree of glory to another. Contemplating Christ in the Scriptures happens in the Take Root segment of the Growth Cycle. Believers in Christ continue to take in the life giving word of the gospel through individual and corporate consideration of the Bible.
The gospel also Takes Root in us as we worship together in song just as Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
Each revolution of the Growth Cycle begins with hearing and believing the message of Christ. We might attempt to grow as people through reading and applying self help principles, but the best case result will just be a better version of ourselves and not the character of Christ. Personal development isn’t the same as discipleship. Those set out to follow Christ look away from their own strengths and weaknesses in order to attend to his personal virtues which the word of the gospel reveals.
Some people might consider moral reform or repentance as the result of receiving the gospel, but Scripture makes those things part of the means whereby the word permeates the intellectual surface to germinate within the heart. Penitence prepares the soil of the heart for the gospel to Take Root. It might be helpful to think of greed, sensuality, etc. as weeds and rocks that prohibit the gospel seed from really taking hold. Until we’re ready to let go of our own agenda, the message of Christ will simply be to us ticket to heaven or a high aspiration. In Acts 2, those cut to the heart by hearing the word still needed to repent. James describes the repentance requirement for the gospel to Take Root with these words:
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:21-25)
The gospel Takes Root not in people who merely admire the image of Christ they see in the word, but in those who actively affirm that they are that image. The word which depicts the image of Christ must be to us a mirror and not a canvas. And so Paul wrote in Colossians 3:1-10:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature:sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
The kind of faith which receives the gospel affirms not only that Christ died for me, but also that I died with him. For that affirmation to be authentic it must be seen in my character, because as a seed takes root below the soil the shoot rises up above it. When the gospel Takes Root secretly in the heart, a change of character can be seen externally in the open. Where no repentance appears, no saving faith exists. Those who say they believe but demonstrate no change lie to themselves and others. The gospel word sits ungerminated on the arid surface of their impenitent heart. Where a person has come to abhore his sin and to adore God and his brethren, new life has begun to spring forth.
All who have the heart of God beating within them will be pleased with the appearance of that new life but none of them will be satisfied with it. We can’t be satisfied with renewed hearts and reformed characters because they are only part of God’s agenda. Like any farmer, Christ plants seed in order to bring in a crop. In other words, he wants the gospel planted in hearts to Bear Fruit for his pleasure and glory.
In our individualized society, we often confuse personal life change with the fruit that God wants. After all, we’re no longer engaging in self-destructive, shameful acts (at least to the same degree) like we used to. We might come to think that our personal health and joy are the fruit that God desires since they nourish us. Certainly, God is pleased when an individual reconciles with him and begins to live in fellowship with him, but that is only the flower and not the full fruit of God’s efforts in the world.
Isaiah, the prophet, sang about the harvest which God desires in Isaiah 5:7:
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
God wants to harvest a just and fair society from his labors. The earth is his field and he isn’t interested in gathering a head of grain here or there. He wants to reap the entire field. Humans collectively are his field and the harvest he wants must be produced among us. That’s why Isaiah goes on in verse 8 to pronounce woe on the greedy who amass goods to insulate themselves from the needs of others:
Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
While the gospel Takes Root on an individual level, it Bears Fruit on a societal level. The fruit of the gospel grows between people in redeemed relationships. The fruit of the gospel is a culture remade by the norms of the kingdom of God.
I’m pretty sure that Paul meant for Colossians 3:1-16 to depict the gospel Taking Root in believers as they personally and collectively accept the gospel again and again. If I’m right, then verse 17 serves as the thesis for the “Bear Fruit” section of that book. You begin to Bear Fruit when, “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
“Whatever” can be too vague to get ahold of so Paul gives some examples:
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:17-4:1)
Here are some things I notice about this list:
- All this stuff is just the mundane matters of life.
- All of these roles can be performed with reference to Christ and for his sake – that is, in his name.
- Every one of these instructions regards interpersonal relationships.
- None of them require that the person on the other side of the relationship be a Christ follower or even a decent human being.
Believers Bear Fruit when the gospel seed growing in them promotes the wellbeing of other people and society as a whole through them.
To put a word to it, the fruit of the gospel is “shalom.” We were made to live in a culture of industry and opportunity. We were made for personal wholeness and interpersonal intimacy. We were made for dominion and care over our planet. The Jews had a word for all of that – shalom! Imagine a world where families deferred to one another, respected each other and developed each other. What would it be like if employees gave their best effort every day without complaining and employers rewarded them in ways that were unselfish and fair? That would be just a taste of the shalom we were made to build and enjoy. And because we were made for it, we can expect to live like that when God returns creation to “factory default.” In the meantime, we’re called to demonstrate the first fruits of that greater harvest to come. The cross shaped conduct of God’s people living in the world will promote peace and justice right now so a world shrouded in darkness will be able to see God’s intention and our hope.
Our hope being made evident through fruitful interactions in the world will awaken interest which will allow the gospel seed to grow into more hearts and communities. If you’re still with me about Colossians 3:1-16 covering the Take Root segment of the Growth Cycle and 3:17-4:1 describing the Bear Fruit segment, then I want to introduce to you to the third and final segment which can be found in 4:2-6 – “Grow.”
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Here are my observations from this section:
- Our mission to plant the seeds of the gospel throughout the world must begin with prayer. This was the case with the People of the Way in Acts 1. Jesus having spent 3+ years investing in these people, and then having died for their sins and having risen again, gave them one instruction, “Wait in the city.” Apparently, they knew that meant they were suppose to spend that time in prayer and so they held a 10-day prayer meeting.
- Our prayer must be vital. We can’t expect gospel growth from mealtime, bedtime, and crisis prayers. We have to be given over, appointed to, addicted to (another meaning of the word translated “devoted”) prayer.
- We must pray relationally, strategically, and specifically. Nobody will be able to be devoted to prayer unless they have come to see it as it is – our lifeline in a hostile society which we’re called to bless.
- Every encounter with “outsiders” is an opportunity which we can either seize or blow.
The progress of the gospel among communities and throughout the world can’t be stopped from without. Our enemies have no countermeasures to proactive prayers and the proclamation of the gospel. All they can do is deceive us into believing these thing to be impotent. When we accept that lie, we become stagnant and shallow. Without the regular experience of answered prayer (which we must watch and be thankful for) our faith shrivels into religion. With no recent examples of conversion, our appreciation for the gospel as God’s power to salvation becomes obscured by our embarrassment over the “foolishness” of its content. Not only does the gospel stop growing outwardly into the world, it stops growing downwardly into our own hearts. It’s roots begin to die and our profession withers. Conversely, every time we prayerfully speak the word of life, we find our understanding deepened and our appreciation heightened. In this way the Growth Cycle returns to the top as the gospel Takes Root afresh in our hearts.