Have we fruit?

February 28th, 2023

When reflecting on fruitfulness, Christians often focus: 1) on inward spiritual experience and 2) individual practices such as prayer and studying Scriptures. Both important, even essential, these practices in Christian lives of faithful discipleship, are just the beginning. John Wesley offers guidance drawing on Scriptures to deepen and extend our discernment and practices of fruitfulness. For John Wesley personal experiences of grace lead individuals to share God’s grace with others producing fruit in community.

John Wesley preached and wrote constantly about grace, fruits, and love among Christians. From his first sermon and early ministry in Savannah, GA, to his very latest sermons and letters, John Wesley emphasized the work of God’s grace in Christians to cultivate fruit, which is demonstrated by love of God and others. This does not mean John Wesley consistently practiced what he preached.

Discerning Fruitfulness

A lay preacher named Thomas Maxfield began traveling with Charles Wesley to the societies in 1739.  Thomas had received a powerful religious experience while John preached in Bristol leading Thomas to follow a call to preach. John was skeptical of Thomas because of reports of a distinctive preaching style and impetuous nature. John wrote to his mother, Susanna, of his frustration.  Susanna replied, “Take care what you do with respect to that young man, for he is as surely called of God to preach, as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching, and hear him also yourself.”

John practiced discernment, examination of fruits, not only with preachers, but extensively throughout the Methodist renewal movement.  

Methodist Renewal

Early Methodism contributed to the Evangelical Revival in England. These renewal movements were characterized by strong preaching and dramatic conversions. Similar to the national revival, Methodists preached to large crowds initially George Whitfield later followed by John and Charles Wesley. These settings could see tens of thousands gathered to hear preachers in the open air. In John Wesley’s letter to Vincent Perronet, in December 1748, later published as a pamphlet entitled, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” he described the emergence of the early Methodist renewal movement with little if any reference to the number of those gathered and the movement’s quantitative growth. Instead, the document described a variety of fruits characteristic of the movement—an ecology—consisting of doctrines, organization such as class meetings and conferencing, and outreach growing from a shared commitment to ‘spreading scriptural holiness.’

Fruitfulness: Balancing Grace and Works

In his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley comments on John 15. In the following verses, John 15:8-15, John makes an interesting point about Christian practices. 

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 

In his commentary on John 15:14 John makes a clear argument for the importance of practicing our faith with others. John 15:14, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” In response to this verse in particular, John Wesley states, “On this condition, not otherwise. A thunderbolt for Antinomianism!”

During Wesley’s life and ministry, and arguably throughout Christian tradition, some argue for the prioritizing of good works over personal spiritual experience. Some even claim the essential nature of personal spiritual experience to the exclusion of good works, meaning good works are not necessary to faithful discipleship. This perspective has been described as “Antinomianism” or “without the law” referring, albeit inaccurately, to the Hebrew Law rooted in the Ten Commandments. The opposing perspective, “Pelagianism,” of which John Wesley was occasionally accused, argues for the prioritizing of good works over personal spiritual experience referring to an early Celtic theologian, Pelagius (354-418). Pelagius is remembered as a heretic for over emphasizing humankind’s good nature in opposition to Augustine of Hippo’s emphasis on humanity’s original sin. 

To be fair to millennia of Christian tradition in a few lines, Christians—including John Wesley—seem most faithful when these perspectives remain in a careful and generative balance informed by a canonical reading of Scripture. In short, love of God and love of others, including creation. In John Wesley’s commentary on John 15:14, we observe a small part of a longer conversation in which he encourages a balance of love of God and others, grace and fruits—internal and external. 

Fruitfulness: Love

John Wesley names an essential criterion from Scripture to discern fruitfulness in lives of Christian discipleship, love. John describes love, the fundamental component of authentic Christianity, throughout his writings and sermons. The following is one among numerous examples.

The necessary fruit of this love of God, is the love of our neighbor, of every soul which God hath made; not excepting our enemies, not excepting those who are now despitefully using and persecuting us: a love, whereby we love every many as ourselves, as we love our own souls.  

This excerpt appears in John’s sermon on John 3: 8, “So is every one that is born of the Spirit,” Marks of the New Birth III.3, Sermon 14 in Sermons on Several Occasions (1771). 

Scriptural understandings of love represent the ecology John Wesley and Methodists carefully cultivated. As John described throughout his writings and sermons, God’s love and grace for individuals, often experienced personally, inspires individuals to practice God’s love in community. When Christians practice God’s love, not only through individual prayer and devotion, but also in community Christians participate more fully in God’s work—fruitfulness—in the world. In this way, fruit is not merely personal, for example from a single tree, but a whole orchard participating in an ecology of God’s love manifest in the world through grace, as well as fruits such as forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation. 

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