Great Commission Spirituality: Treefulness

Our union with Christ allows us to mature in spiritual virtue and bear fruit in Great Commission ministry.

The pastoral doctrine of union with Christ was a decisive truth that caused me to recognize the extravagant beauty of God’s Word, world, and works.

Our union with Christ transforms how we see into the ordinary and the extraordinary. In addition, it establishes Great Commission service and spirituality. How so? We begin to see that all of creation, life, redemption, and eternity are about God lavishly bestowing the riches of his kindness upon his beloved people in Christ. That preposition is absolutely crucial, which sounds like hyperbole. But it’s not.

What does in Christ mean? It certainly does not mean locally in Christ, since we are physically on earth and Christ is physically reigning at the Father’s right hand. And it is not merely a metaphor or an analogy. Neither is it merely instrumental (“by” or “with”). Instead, it suggests being “within,” “among,” or “within the sphere of.” Christ inundates and immerses us into a new identity altogether.

Here is a word picture that approximates our fruitful abiding in Christ in Great Commission service. It is the idea of “treefulness.” The term “fruitfulness” seems to have been overused or misused in recent decades, probably because so many of us are removed from agrarian lifestyles. We don’t experience those seasonal rhythms of farming. To be sure, now there are ways to manufacture fake, artificial, simulated fruit with bioengineering and other chemical interventions. But that is not true, organic fruit as God designed it in the created order. Any farmer throughout history would tell us that life exists in the seed, though dormant. Essential for its growth is a combination of good soil, rain, sun, and time (in addition to watching for the threats of birds, thieves, floodwaters, and deep cold).

It’s obvious that trees don’t have minds, but please follow this analogy: by nature, trees do what God designed them to do without fretting, striving, or failing. They just are treeful. According to their nature, as they soak up the rain and sunshine, they eventually bear fruit. It’s not so much what they do as it is what they are. They are fruitful because they are treeful. Hudson Taylor described it this way: “Work is the outcome of effort; fruit, of life. A bad man may do good work, but a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”[1]

Great Commission spirituality would have a hollow ring if it did not underscore our organic growth by God’s power through faith in his promises for effective fruit-bearing. Here is how the Bible grounds the fruitfulness in our life in Christ:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8)

God has ordered our days as we grow up into his divine likeness. Our spiritual life and godliness find their source in God. He has granted us all we need to grow into perfect Christlikeness. What is the tool he uses to do that? His “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4). And being rooted through faith in those promises, we devote ourselves to maturation in virtue. Notice that these verses describe our spirituality as virtue rather than as a habit. Virtue is more of an instinct, inclination, and mindset than it is a rule, practice, or behavior. Of course, we should act virtuously. But that presupposes that we have a virtuous nature. Otherwise, we are hypocrites and actors.

As we mature in the knowledge of Christ, we increase in virtue. Virtue is not measurable in quantity, but it is evidential in quality. As seasons come and go, we can discern the health of the tree as it gets bigger and puts out more and better fruit. But after a great drought, deep freeze, or windstorm, the health of the tree may stagnate and suffer. Nevertheless, that does not mean it is dead or lost. It just needs extra care and nurture to regain its strength and bear fruit again. In Christ, the evidence of our Great Commission fruitfulness and effectiveness comes from God’s power maturing us in virtue through resting in his promises. Christ’s cross is the tree. Our Great Commission success is his fruit. Because of our union with him in death and in resurrection, his treefulness is our treefulness, and fruit-bearing is merely the natural offshoot of our identity in him and his tree.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the first chapter of the forthcoming book: E.D. Burns, Great Commission Spirituality: Abiding in Christ, Serving in Obscurity (Littleton: William Carey Publishing, 2024).

[1] Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149.

E.D. Burns

E.D. Burns, Ph.D., is the international director of Frontier Dispatch. He has been a long-term missionary in the Middle East, East Asia, Alaska, and currently SE Asia. He serves on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary. As a linguist and ordained minister, Burns develops theological resources and trains indigenous pastors and missionaries to the least-reached.