Thoughts from “Fruitfulness on the Frontline”

I have a bad habit.  Maybe others have it, too. 

I often will buy books that look really great, but then they sit on my shelf in a queue.  Some sit for a little while; some I have never got around to reading yet.  One of those books that sat in a small pile on my desk for about a year is called Fruitfulness on the Frontline.  I finally picked it up last month.  I was so glad I did.  Let me share some profound excerpts from the first three chapters.

The author, Mark Greene, is the Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  I had the privilege of meeting him at the 2018 Faith@Work Summit.  I attended a seminar he taught entitled, “Connecting How We Read the Bible to Faith at Work in Practice”.   It was a great session on the implications in the book of Ruth, which inspired me to write an article.

Chapter 1 – Overture to the girl with no name

Early in the first chapter, he quotes 1 Cor. 1:26-29, where the Apostle Paul reminds the church in Corinth that God chose ordinary people to follow Jesus.  People, just like most of the folks that you and I know who were not particularly wise in the eyes of the world; they were not influential, nor were they of noble birth.  But God in Christ chose people who were seen by the world as foolish, weak, lowly, and despised.  He did this so that none of us could boast about why God chose us.

Greene’s main point here is that ordinary people, redeemed by Jesus Christ, can be used by God to influence for eternity those whom God has placed right where we live and work.  This place he calls our frontline.  He asks, “Do we really need to have a high position, or a university degree, or lots of money to have a significant impact for God?”  The answer, of course, is a resounding no.

Greene states that he will share lots of stories about “followers of Jesus who have come to see the places and the people they encounter on their frontlines with hearts shaped by God’s redemptive priorities.”  He states that his purpose is to encourage his readers “to grow more alert to the ways that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has been working, is working, and might work in and through you right where you are, whatever your frontline.” 

He issues his readers a bold challenge:  “We have yet to see what extraordinary things might happen in the offices and factories, cafes and clubs, fields and forests of our land when God’s people really work together to support the daily mission of their brothers and sisters where God has placed them.”  These are inspiring words!

Chapter 2 – Bananas are not the only fruit

Greene starts the chapter with brief stories of three people: one a university student, one who works in a factory, and another one with chronic arthritis who volunteered in her local church.  They had one thing in common: they did not see how they could be fruitful for God right where there were. 

Later on, the student came to discover that “God could work in and through her at university in a rich variety of ways.”  One day, the factory worker realized that God “must have something he wanted him to do right where he was . . . and he began to see what that was.”  And the disabled church volunteer “realized that she had a frontline, a place of ministry and mission . . . her illness no longer made her a victim; it gave her a ministry.”  I loved how these and other stories are presented.

Greene defines how he will use frontline: he means “a place or a time where we meet fairly regularly with people who don’t know Jesus.”  He makes us think, emphasizing, “In different ways and in different seasons, all of us have a context where we meet people who don’t know Jesus.”

For the remainder of this chapter, he explains what “fruitfulness” looks like.  I liked his approach as he clarifies that it is not all about evangelism.  (Note: I invite you to read an article I wrote about this topic.)  Greene articulates a concern that I have also sensed for quite some time:

Vast numbers of Christians don’t believe that they are being fruitful for God, because fruitfulness has been narrowly defined as evangelism.  Now, if you don’t think anything other than evangelism matters to God, then at the end of an average day or an average week at work or at the school gate, it’s pretty easy to feel that you aren’t doing anything significant for God, that your day, your week has been a bit of a waste. . . And so, it’s quite likely that you will feel discouraged or perhaps detached from God’s real work in the world.

Right away, Greene anticipates that there will be some who will object to his viewpoint.  He clarifies, “Now evangelism really does matter. . . . But evangelism, as we shall see, is not the only expression of fruitful living, any more than bananas are the only fruit. . . Bananas are not the only fruit, any more than new converts are the only fruit that God is concerned about.”  He concludes, “What we need is a richer picture of what fruitfulness in Christ looks like.”  Such refreshing words!

Greene carefully explains that in the Bible, fruit is used as “an overall metaphor for the consequences of the obedient, godly life.”  For example, he quotes Ps. 1:1-3

He continues, “Godly living shaped by godly obedience leads to a life that fulfills the purposes God has for it – fruit at the right time. . . Good fruit is any attitude, any word, any action that pleases God.  Fruit is any consequence that is in line with his will – an animal properly cared for, a local pond cleaned up, a person saved, healed, fed, given a cup of water, taught, corrected, trained in righteousness, defended, rescued from injustice, or loved in any godly way.  Fruit is anything done with authentic love.”  He concludes, “Ultimately, then, fruit is anything that brings glory to God.”  I appreciate his illustrations of ordinary work.

Chapter 3 – A life more fruitful: his invitation

There were just a handful of inspirational quotes in this chapter that I wish to share.

Greene reminds us of a pivotal passage in Col. 1:16, where the Apostle Paul states that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, the Creator of all things: ‘For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.’”

Greene asks rhetorically, “If all creation, visible and invisible, is his, wouldn’t he be interested in the impact that our activities in the kitchen, at school, in factories, fields and offices, in government and radio stations and art galleries and hospitals and science labs have on his creation and on people created in his image?”  He then answers, “And he is.”  Well said!

At the conclusion of this chapter Greene asks his readers to be prayerful as they explore his ideas.  He reminds us of the constant presence of God as we are growing in our understanding.  He counsels, “He is at work in you, but he does not need you to be perfect in order to work through you.”  Amen!

I appreciated Greene’s well-thought out and practical perspective on the theology of work.  I look forward to reading the rest of this book. It lines up quite well with my own emphasis on the connection between God’s presence and human work.  God called us to work right where we are for such a time as this.  He is with us in it.

About the author:

Russell E. Gehrlein is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Fifty articles posted on this blog have been published on numerous Christian organization’s blogs or websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

Controlled Not by the Flesh, but by the Spirit

what-is-the-holy-spirit2-720x420I read through the book of Romans earlier this summer.  In chapter 8, I was struck by the contrasts that the Apostle Paul highlights between living in the flesh versus living in the Spirit.  In context, this expands on what Paul introduced back in Rom. 7:5-6.  This also connects with Paul’s contrast between the death that Adam brought to all and the life that Jesus Christ brings in Rom. 5:12-19

In this book, more than any other New Testament epistle, Paul indicates that when a person comes to faith in Jesus, there are irreversible changes, both external and internal, that God brings about, which gives them a new identity in Christ.  At the very moment of salvation, they are made right with God through Christ (justified) and begin to be transformed into Christlikeness (sanctified).  Justification is a one-time event; sanctification is a life-long process.  Both are gifts of His grace.  (For an original summary that traces Paul’s argument in the book of Romans, I invite you to read what I wrote while going to seminary that I posted on my blog in two parts several years ago.)

Let me unpack what Paul informs us in the first half of Romans 8 about those who live the flesh and those who are living by the Spirit.  Understanding the contrasts the Apostle Paul makes in Romans 8 will help to give us assurance that although we as Christians will always wrestle with our sinful nature in the course of this life, we are no longer merely in the flesh.  We have been changed.

What is the flesh?

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (vol. 2) highlights the theological significance of the flesh.  Flesh, by itself “represents the natural, created human aspect”, which only means that it is “weak, limited, and temporal.”  On the sixth day, God created humans in His own image; it was described as being “very good” (Gen. 1:31).  (See also Gen. 2:7.)  Human flesh by itself is not evil.  This is demonstrated by Jesus, who was fully human, with the very same limitations we have. 

However, we do see the flesh, with all of its weaknesses and limitations drifting naturally into sinful behavior.  Galatians 5:17 indicates that our fallen nature (residing more in the mind than the body) has inherently evil desires that are in opposition to God’s will for us.  These actions are described in more detail in Gal. 5:19-21.  I think we can all identify with at least one of these items on this list. 

What is true of those who are “in the flesh”?

Let me summarize the truths that Paul outlines in Romans 8, about those who are in the flesh.

  • Those who live according to the sinful nature (flesh) have set their minds on natural desires (8:5)
  • The mind of sinful man results in death (physical death/separation from God) (8:6)
  • The sinful mind is hostile to God; it does not and cannot submit to God’s law (8:7)
  • Those who are controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (8:8)
  • Those who live according to the sinful nature will die (8:12)

Christians could easily pull any of these verses out of context and apply these generic truths to their own lives.  However, in context, that Paul seems to be contrasting the identities of two groups of people.  What he states here is true of those who are not in Christ.  These are true of those who are not Jesus’ sheep.  All these things were true of every believer before coming to faith.  This sad description of what was true back then has been replaced by all of the things I will describe below.

The role of the Holy Spirit

In John 14:16-17, Jesus taught His disciples that the Father would send a Counselor who would always be with them and would also be in them.  Jesus explained that the Spirit would teach His followers and would remind them of what He said (John 14:26).  He would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).  Paul also clearly states that the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian.  (See Rom. 8:9). 

In the NIV Application Commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo reminds us of the critical role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life.  Moo states, “Possessing the spirit is the mark of being a new covenant believer, and his ministry must be basic to any description of what it means to be a Christian. . . Paul gives the Spirit the key role in mediating to us the blessings of our new life.” 

What does it mean to be “in Christ”?

Earlier in this epistle, the Apostle Paul laid out many of the gifts of God’s amazing grace that were true of both Jew and Gentile who came to faith in Jesus Christ.  For example, in Rom. 3:22, we read that those who believe in Christ are justified.  This changes their legal standing before God.  They are seen as righteous; they have a new identity in Christ.  They are no longer under Adam’s curse, but have become members of a new kingdom where what is true of Jesus is now true of them. 

In Rom. 6:3-7, Paul writes that all believers who were baptized into Christ (by faith and through the ritual of baptism) were symbolically baptized into (immersed in and identified with) Jesus’ death.  Paul explains that being identified with Jesus’ crucifixion and death results in being dead to sin’s power and that being identified with His resurrection gives them the power to live a holy life.

What is true of those who are in Christ?

Let me summarize the truths that Paul teaches in Romans 8 about those who are in Christ:

  • There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1)
  • They have been set free from the law of sin and death (8:2)
  • God’s righteous requirements of the law are fully met because of Jesus’ death (8:3-4)
  • They do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (8:4)
  • They have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (8:5)
  • The mind controlled by the Spirit results in life (abundant and eternal) and peace (8:6)
  • They are not controlled by the flesh but by God’s Spirit who indwells them (8:9)
  • Their body (flesh) may be sinful and is dead, but their spirit is alive (8:10)
  • God’s Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead lives in them and gives them life (8:11)
  • They have an obligation, not to live according to the flesh, but to put to death the misdeeds of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit (8:12-13)
  • They will be led by the Spirit of God because they are children of God (8:14)
  • They received the Holy Spirit who does not make them a slave to fear; rather, it makes them a beloved child of God, who can call their heavenly Father “Daddy” (8:15)
  • As children of God, they are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (8:17)

What Paul states above is true of those who are in Christ.  These are true of those who are Jesus’ sheep.  All these things are true of every believer.  Some of them are one-time changes by grace through faith when they became a Christian.  Other things Paul lists are ongoing things to pursue.

Identity is the key to victory over the flesh

Lest you think that I have mastered the application of these wonderful truths in my own life, let me be clear.  I have not.  I still struggle with my own fleshly tendencies.  Some of them were passed down from my father.  Some sinful habits I have no one else to blame but myself.  Some sins are relatively new.  Some of them have been a challenge to me off and on for my entire Christian life.

What helps me, and I think will be of help to my brothers and sisters in Christ, is for me to always keep in mind whose I am and who I am in Him.  I am not just a mere human.  I have been set free from sin.  I have been delivered.  God declares me righteous in His sight because Jesus has paid the penalty for my sin.  I am a new creature in Christ.  He is making me new every day.  If I focus on Jesus waiting for me at the finish line, and run the race in the power of the Holy Spirit, I run well.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Fifty articles posted on this blog have been published on numerous Christian organization’s blogs or websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

Remembering the Brave Workers on 9-11

Picture1On this Patriot’s Day, I want to share something personal that my son wrote several years ago.  It is a moving reflection on 9-11 as he experienced it as a 13 year old Army brat living on an Air Force Base. 

His account reminds me of the heroic actions of a variety of ordinary American workers who risked their own lives to save others on that fateful day: firefighters, policemen, first responders, and military personnel.  Their work truly made a difference back then.  Their work still makes a difference today.

My 911

By Brian Gehrlein

I’m thirteen. It’s the eighth grade. The towering Wasatch front protects me like a great stone wall to my east as it runs north to south, the entire length of the horizon. I’m safe. The sun creeps over the mountain peaks each morning and then melts into a perfect pool of pink within the crystal, saline waters of the Great Salt Lake to the west. When snow blankets the front, the whole range glows the reflected colors of the sunset. Dad’s in the Army but the Air Force lets us live on base. The jets roar day and night but that’s part of life here. I learn quickly to identify which planes are taking off. Mostly F-16 fighter jets. They’re louder and fly lower but disappear into the desert faster. C-130s shake the earth and take longer to quiet. It’s constant. Waking up behind barbed wire fences and guarded gates and deafening military might reminds me once again in strange way…I’m safe.

First few weeks of school pass and it’s just normal thirteen-year-old stuff. Girls. Friends. Girls. Figuring out my skin. Girls. Figuring out how to make my teachers laugh. Girls. Figuring out how to fix my hair (for girls) and who I am and who I want to be. Today is Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and I leave for school on a normal bus. It’s warm. Peaceful. As we leave, I don’t have to look but know the sign at the gate says: THREATCON ALPHA. It always does. Because this means business as usual. Still gotta have your military ID on you at all times but they don’t check too much on the bus. Maybe have to hold it up but they don’t look close.

We get to school and the TV is on in the band room. I don’t pay much attention but the news isn’t usually on when I’m putting my drum-sticks and bells away for later. I hear a concerned reporter talking about something happening on my way out with my friends. I say something stupid ‘cause I have no idea what’s going on yet.

School starts and we get the news. It’s hard to comprehend what’s happening a few thousand miles east of us. The teachers are really worried and don’t teach that much. All they can do is listen to the radio or watch TV or answer our questions and try and give us as much normalcy as possible without giving away the fact that they are more afraid than we are because they understand what it all means. They can’t pretend very well and it sets all of us on edge. The rest of the day is a blur. A lot of my friends who have parents in the service like me are extra worried. We know what they’re saying. “Act of war” sticks in my head. War. My dad. I need to get home.

We finally pile onto the bus and we’re talking like normal except all we can talk about are those planes and those buildings and all those people. We talk about our parents and how we need to get home. We talk about war. Something’s wrong on the street. There’s never traffic like this after school. I stand up to get a better look and all three sides turning into the base are gridlocked. A car turns and I see the sign outside the main gate. As I read I realize this isn’t just about New York and DC and Pennsylvania. This is about right here…THREATCON DELTA. The highest threat condition used in the military reserved only for times of actual war. Other kids see the sign and the bus goes quiet because we know—but we can’t. The bus driver is nervous but tells us to have our IDs ready. I pull mine out.

Then the slow crawl to the gate. There’s airmen everywhere. It’s swarming with Military Police in full gear that I’ve only seen on soldiers training when visiting my dad on post, or in war movies. Every Army kid has worn their parent’s stuff before. Tried on a helmet, a rucksack, worn a jacket, or put on boots and eaten dozens of MREs. But that’s all pretend. This isn’t the movies. This is real. Full combat ready camo flak jackets, helmets and loaded M16s and 9mm side-arms. They have mirrors on big sticks looking under every car and big MP dogs patrolling, and sniffing around everywhere. I’m anxious and can’t sit down anymore. It’s almost our turn.

As we approach the guards my heart stops. Not fifteen feet ahead of me, set up on the median that divides the road, is a sandbag pillbox with a 50-caliber machine gun pointed at my bus. There’s an MP manning the gun. Just waiting. We stop as my heart starts pounding in my chest again. The doors open and two armed guards get on, M16s drawn—not over the shoulder. Assault rifles in hand, ready to search this bus. I can tell it’s anything but a joke by how serious everyone is. I’ve never seen them act like this. They check IDs and look through bags. I’m in the middle of the bus waiting for my turn. A lot of kids are crying. They give out orders but I don’t remember what they say. He’s next to me now. He’s drenched in sweat and terrifying. I hand him my ID and open my bag. He looks at it for a long time then moves on to the back of the bus. I can’t breathe. I look outside and I see the guys with mirrors and the German Shepherds going around our bus. We get the clear and move along to our “normal route” and begin dropping people off, stop by stop.

When we eventually get to my street, and I walk the hill to the cul-de-sac, I start to cry as soon as I see my house. Before I walk in, I take a look at the mountains to the east. I see a subtle peppering of reds as the beginning of autumn rolls up from the foothills to the top. Giant. Still.  And yet somehow…different. Because they’re no longer keeping me safe. Neither is the tall, grey razor wire fence that surrounds the base where I live. And the sound of the jets taking off just down the road seems to mean something else now. Where are they going? What do F-16 fighter jets do when it’s Threat Con Delta and our nation is under attack? My head is spinning but seems to return to the same word again and again. Dad. What will this mean for him? My family? Will he be sent somewhere I cannot follow? Will he be killed? There are too many questions and not enough answers. The one thing I do know is that everything has changed. My country has changed. This place has changed. And I’ve changed. Forever.

This isn’t a story I like to tell because I don’t like thinking about it. But I wanted to share because this day reminds me that fear never has the final word… love does. I remember how close it brought us together and how many answered the call, and how in the face of the worst of what we are capable of, we also saw acts of the best of what we are capable of—not just as Americans, but as human beings. This day reminds me that we can’t truly appreciate the sweetness of spring until we feel the bitter bite of winter’s icy chill and that the morning after our darkest day…the sun glows just a little brighter.

About the author:

Russell E. Gehrlein is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Fifty articles posted on this blog have been published on numerous Christian organization’s blogs or websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.