Many years ago when doing evangelism training with him, a friend asked me, “what is the benefit of the gospel? I know we get Heaven, but is there good news in the gospel now? What good is the gospel for people today?”
I don’t remember what I told my friend on that occasion, but I know what I would tell him now. And one of the things I would tell him is that the gospel keeps us out of sin, enables us to do righteous acts that please the Lord, and have fruitful lives.
Paul says it very plainly in Romans 7:4 —
“Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.“
Paul was so excited to make his point that in the middle of his sentence he shifted from the second person (“you”) to the first person (“we”). Here he identifies the purpose of justification that frees the sinner from his sin, from his position in Adam, and from his relationship to the Law — that the believer (all believers, apostles included) would bear fruit for God. Justification is given to sinners to make them fruitful in their labors for God.
Just what does it mean to bear fruit? The term Paul uses is unique, appearing in the Epistles only here and in Col. 1:6, 10. In those passages it seems to infer prosperity, growth, and maturity. There is productivity in a particular kind of life — pleasing the Lord, doing morally good works, and increasing in the knowledge of God. But Paul uses similar terminology elsewhere. He speaks about fruit in Romans 1:13 to refer to conversion and spiritual growth. In Ephesians 5:9 and Philippians 1:11 he speaks of fruit as being righteous, good, and true living. And in the most well-known passage, he speaks of fruit as a multi-faceted work of the Spirit in every believer, producing things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
The context of Romans 6-7 would suggest something similar. Justification is not given so that we can waste our lives in licentious or legalistic living. Justification is granted so that through the indwelling Spirit of God we can obey Christ and live for Him (7:6, 25).
So Paul means us to understand that we are declared righteous by God in salvation for the purpose of finally being able to be fruitful for Him.
Jesus also teaches on this same theme in John 15. There He says that bearing fruit is natural and expected because we are branches that are connected to the Vine that is Him — we are “in Him” (v. 2). Fruit-bearing is the result of abiding (living) in Christ (v. 4). If we live in Christ (and are alive in Him), then we will not only bear fruit, but we will bear “much fruit” (v. 5). And if we are not in Him, then we can not bear any kind of fruit (v. 5b). And the fruit that we bear is fruit that demonstrates that we are His disciples and obedient to His commands (vv. 8, 10), so we might say that Jesus is teaching that to bear fruit simply means that we look like Christ, doing the kinds of things that Christ does so that people recognize Christ in our actions.
It is also worth remembering that under the Law, there was no ability to be fruitful for God. The Law did provide a guideline for what God declared to be morally right behavior and the only standard to please Him (perfection). But the Law was also given to demonstrate that no man would ever attain that standard (see Rom. 7:7; Mt. 5:48). It was impossible for the Law to produce sanctified living — the Law only produced more and more sin through the rebellion of our flesh to the standard of God (Rom. 7:5, 8).
But now, because of Christ and justification, it is typical, normal, and expected that one will bear fruit for God. We can even say that fruit bearing is “required” because it is God Himself who produces the fruit in us through Christ and the Spirit (Jn. 15:1ff; Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 2:10; Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
Since that is true, let us live by grace so that we are fruitful. John Piper has well-said, “Don’t waste your life.” We might well add, “Don’t waste your justification.” Don’t waste your justification by engaging in self-indulgent fleshly, and ungodly activities (that’s what Romans 6 is about). And don’t waste your justification by engaging in self-righteous and legalistic activities by which you presume yourself to be righteous without Christ (which is what Romans 7 is about). You are not righteous without Christ; but in Christ, you have been declared righteous and you can do deeds of righteousness. So use your justification to do the things that please the Lord, out of your devotion to Him and fellowship with Him.