This is actually a very fascinating question. I have a lot I’d like to say on this, but here are just a few thoughts for now.
Sometimes you hear it said that “God requires faithfulness, not fruitfulness.” But the reality is that God requires both. God requires both faithfulness and fruitfulness.
However, the point behind the statement and what most people actually mean when they say that is true and critically important. Here are four reasons for that which, I hope, also flesh things out a bit more accurately.
First, faithfulness is the path to fruitfulness. So the wording of the question itself is slightly off. It implies that faithfulness and fruitfulness are somehow disconnected; that we are of course to be faithful, but that somehow being fruitful happens by some other means.
This would be a radical misunderstanding. For it implies that faithfulness is not enough for fruitfulness. And if faithfulness is not enough, then what else is there? Only unfaithfulness, which would be horrible. Fruitfulness comes through the path of faithfulness, and no other way. In this sense, we truly can say “God requires faithfulness only.” We can say that, not because fruitfulness is optional, but because faithfulness necessarily results in fruitfulness. Which leads to the second point.
Second, faithfulness always results in fruitfulness. It is not only that faithfulness is the path to fruitfulness. Rather, it is that faithfulness always and inevitably results in fruitfulness. Always.
The NT has no categories for the unfruitful Christian. The unfruitful Christian simply does not exist. Notice, for example, how Jesus talks in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23). There are four categories of people. All of them ultimately prove to be unbelievers, except the last: the good soil. And in relation to the good soil, Jesus says “This is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23).
The issue is not whether the good soil bears fruit or not. It is simply how much. Everyone who is good soil — who truly understands and accepts the Word — bears fruit: either thirty, or sixty, or a hundred.
Likewise, in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14 – 30), every servant was fruitful — except the last one, who was an unbeliever. One made five talents more and another two talents more. The last person, who received one talent, hid the talent and did nothing with it. He is not an example of an unfruitful Christian, but an unbeliever (vv. 26 – 30).
God does require fruitfulness. But that fruitfulness is certain to follow if we are faithful.
This is, of course, simply the traditional doctrine of justification and good works. We are not justified by our works, but those who have been justified by faith will inevitably and always live a life of good works (Ephesians 2:8-10; etc.). To say that God requires fruitfulness, not just faithfulness, is simply another statement of this truth.
Which of course leads to the question: What, then, is fruitfulness? Perhaps another reason people say “God requires faithfulness, not fruitfulness,” is to guard against wrong concepts of fruitfulness being used as the measure of what God requires. That’s an important issue, which leads to our next point.
Third, faithfulness is a form of fruitfulness.
This points out another issue in the way the original question is worded: It implies that faithfulness and fruitfulness are necessarily two different things. I think they can be distinguished in some ways (as we will see next), but it is also important to realize that faithfulness itself is a form of real fruitfulness. Faithfulness is one of the “fruits” that God produces in us and requires of us. Faithfulness is a form of fruitfulness. This is an important point that is not to be overlooked.
Related to this, another component of our fruitfulness is our character and just plain the godly responses to the situations we are in, whatever they may be. This is a form of fruit that is not necessarily broadly visible, but it matters and is even more important than the often more visible ministry “results” of walking faithfully.
Finally, though, fruitfulness does also include the results of our faithfulness — the effects in the world of following Christ and trusting him and loving him and obeying him. If you look at John 15, for example, where Jesus discusses our bearing much fruit, the fruit includes things like answers to prayer (John 15:7-8) and loving others (John 15:10, 12, etc.). And in the Parable of the Talents, the “fruit” in view seems to naturally include the results of our obedience and work in the Lord, as well as the faithfulness itself.
But here again there is a critically important truth that is safeguarded by those who say “God requires faithfulness, not fruitfulness.” We should of course seek to be as fruitful as we can possibly be. But notice that in the Parable of the Sower, there is not a hint of judgment or disappointment regarding those who bear thirty-fold or sixty-fold fruit rather than a hundred-fold. Jesus simply says “He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23). All of these yields are considered good and significant. The one who bears thirty-fold is not judged or looked down upon for not bearing one-hundred fold.
So also in the Parable of the Talents, Jesus doesn’t say to the one who gained two talents “Well, you should have gained five talents, but I guess this is good enough.” Not at all. He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:23).
So the other key intention behind the statement that “God requires faithfulness, not fruitfulness” that is fantastically, critically true is: You aren’t more accepted by God for producing more fruit or less loved by him for producing less. If you are faithful, the fruit that results from your faithfulness is good and acceptable to him. If you are faithful, you shouldn’t worry about the “amount” of fruit you see or don’t see. As long as you are faithful and doing what God requires, you shouldn’t ever feel that you just aren’t “fruitful enough.” We don’t have control over the results; our responsibility is to be faithful to do what God has said.
Related to this is the fact that we are simply not in a position to judge our fruitfulness. It is reported that Billy Graham once said to his staff at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that “many of you will have greater reward in heaven than me.” Many looked skeptical when he said this; some of the people there were responsible for stuffing envelops and other such tasks. How could they be rewarded more than Billy Graham? So he reiterated his point and said: “I mean that. The reason is that God rewards faithfulness, not fruitfulness.”
I think he meant that statement in the right way, the way we are unpacking it here. And his main point was: God decides what our reward is. The way things look now are not necessarily indications of how God views things. Someone who is stuffing envelops in faith may indeed be rewarded far beyond someone whose visible results, right now, appear to be greater. For it is faith that makes our works good, and God may be doing incredible things through our seemingly mundane efforts that we simply will not see until we get to heaven.
So, another critical thing underscored by the statement that “God requires faithfulness, not fruitfulness,” is that we are not in a position here to judge our fruitfulness and feel that our fruitfulness is low simply because the visible results don’t seem to be large at this time.
Now, if there is all this good behind the statement that “God requires faithfulness, not fruitfulness,” what’s the problem with talking that way at all? I think in general, that phrase can obscure some of the four things we have just seen, especially the fact that faithfulness always results in fruitfulness of some form and to some degree, and that faithfulness is the path to fruitfulness, and that we should take courage from knowing that we will always see some degree of fruit.
But there is one other thing that statement can obscure. What should we do when we aren’t seeing fruit?
The first thing to say is that there will be times when we seem to experience a visible lack of fruitfulness. There can even be times when Christians seem to be going backwards in their obedience and seem to be flagging in the fruitfulness of faithfulness itself. But God will always keep his children faithful and persevering to the end. So I don’t want the reality that true fruitfulness will always follow faithfulness to be taken to mean that there are never times of little fruitfulness in the life of a Christian.
But the other thing to say here is that one way faithfulness responds to an apparent lack of fruitfulness is by saying “do I need to change how I’m doing anything here?”
God’s commands are unchanging, and so that I’m not talking about changing at the level of obedience. But at the level of application, there are ways to do things that may be more helpful to people or less helpful; more edifying or less edifying; more likely to help people come to see the truth of the gospel or less likely.
We shouldn’t let the essential call to focus on faithfulness rather than fruitfulness become a call to ignore the need to make legitimate changes that are likely to help us do better in our lives and ministries.
Which is the last point: One thing that faithfulness does is have a view to it’s fruitfulness. Many times our fruitfulness is out of our hands; the results are God’s alone. Sometimes, though, there are things we can adapt or improve in order to do better, and the result will be more fruit. Faithfulness keeps alert to ways to adapt and improve in order to serve others more effectively, and thus more fruitfully.