God’s metrics are not our metrics. The way in which we seek to measure fruitfulness and faithfulness is often quite skewed. No one understood the issue of faithfulness and fruitfulness so well as the great Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 3, he first explained the nature of a fruitful Gospel ministry by drawing off of the farming metaphor:
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor. 3:6-8).
The fruitfulness of a Gospel ministry is never observed in total in the here and now. The one who waters the seed of God’s word in men and women’s lives may see the increase, while the one who sowed the seed may not. The one who planted and the one who watered may never see the increase, but a future generation may see it. God may chose to delay fruit until some later period in an individual’s life. The fruit may appear on a deathbed–rare though deathbed conversions may be–when those things that faithful ministers taught and proclaimed come rushing into an individual’s mind and heart by the working of the Spirit in their last moments of life. The increase is entirely the work of God and entirely dependent on God’s timing.
While the fruit may not always be evident in the here and now, Paul insisted that there is a day coming when “each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” What ought a faithful ministry look like? Paul moved on to the illustration of a builder to capture this point:
“As a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
I built homes for a number of years after I was converted. On one occasion, the company for which I was working was building a large cabin on the top of a mountain. Another construction company happened to be building another cabin on the same property on which we were building. We had begun our work quite a while before this other construction company had begun theirs. Both cabins were going to be essentially the same size. We sought to be meticulous in our craftsmanship. However, I started noticing that the other construction company was building much faster than we were. The owner of the cabin we were building started complaining that we were not timely enough in our work. I asked my boss why the other construction company was finishing much more quickly than we were. He walked me over to their cabin and reached up under one of the eaves. When he pulled back the trim, I quickly realized that there was no frame behind it. The construction company was (literally) cutting corners to finish more quickly and to be able to boast about their timing. This, it seems to me, helps illustrate just what the Apostle is getting at in 1 Corinthians 3. Anyone can build something quickly using wood, hay and stubble. These are not costly materials. Gold, silver and precious stones, by way of contrast, are costly and take a great deal of time to refine and shape before they can be used for building.
In the same way, men may build what appears to be a thriving ministry with money, gimmicks, entertainment, comedy, personality, legalism, aesthetics, social engagement, etc. However, those who are faithful will build with the persistent preaching of Christ crucified, sound doctrine, prayer, the sacraments, church discipline, a loving and holy Christian community and biblical worship and evangelism. A truly biblical ministry will often grow at a much slower rate, but it will last into all of eternity. It’s easy for those laboring faithfully to become discouraged when they look over at other churches and see how much more quickly they seem to have grown. It is much more difficult for them to remember that everything is merely scaffolding; and, one day God will reveal what sort of materials were used in the building. The fruit of a faithful ministry will last into eternity, the seeming fruit of an unfaithful ministry will disintegrate in due time.
A friend of mine recently reminded me that one of the greatest encouragements for faithful ministers of the Gospel is the truth that we will forever be in glory with those to whom we faithfully ministered God’s word and the Gospel. He said, “I like to think that there will be a reunion of all those people who were fed under a faithful ministry in glory–everyone rejoicing in what God did by sending faithful ministers to plant and water the seed of His word.” This, it seems to me, was the great hope and anticipation of the Apostle, who wrote to the members of the church in Thessalonica and said, “What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?” (1 Thessalonians 2:19).