Word Study: “Fruit” in the New Testament

In a previous post, I wrote about whether or not God calls us to be faithful or fruitful.  In that post, my contention was that God calls us to both.  In being faithful to Jesus, I argued, we will see fruit in life, ministry, and our relationship with God.

So, to dig a bit deeper into this issue, we need to know what the word “fruit” means in New Testament language.  After a survey of the usage of “fruit” in the New Testament (using the ESV Bible), I found that the word “fruit” (and its derivatives “fruits” and “fruitful”) occurs 66 times.  The Greek word most frequently used is καρπός (karpos).  This word can be used literally or figuratively.  Most often (41 times), it is used figuratively.  Karpos, in the figurative way, is defined as “being the visible expression of power working inwardly and invisibly; the character of the “fruit” being evidence of the character of the power producing it” (Vine’s Dictionary of NT Words).  In simpler language, we can say, “[Spiritual] fruit is an expression (or overflow) of what is happening in a person’s spirit that translates heart-level affections and motivations into external actions, words, and attitudes.” 

From my study, I think we can make six categories for how the word “fruit” is used in the New Testament. The categories are: 1) Conduct; 2) Salvation; 3) Literal or Analogy; 4) Organic Production; 5) Evangelism; 6) Reward.

The point of this study was to answer Andy’s question on the previous blog’s comment board.  He asked, “What does ‘fruit’ refer to when the New Testament writers use it?  Then see if it is ever linked to the effects of evangelism, namely salvation.”  I found three specific verses relating to fruit and our goal in evangelism.  I found three others relating to fruit and Christ’s role in salvation.  

Fruit in Evangelism
In John 4:35-36, Jesus says, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.”  This shows us that the point of evangelism (or faithfulness to God’s kingdom work) is converts.  “The one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life.”  We don’t evangelize so that we feel good about ourselves.  We evangelize so that people will enter life.

In Romans 1:13, Paul writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.”  This word “harvest” is the same word (“fruit”) that Jesus uses in John 4. Paul says his goal of coming to Rome is to reap a harvest (i.e. “bear fruit”) among the Jews there, as well as among the Gentiles.  Paul does not want to go have a warm, cuddly, Christian-bubble meeting.  He wants Jews and Gentiles to get saved!

Finally, in Philippians 1:22, Paul writes, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.”  Again, Paul’s goal is “fruitful labor,” not just labor.  Paul’s goal is faithfulness, most certainly!  But faithfulness comes with a concrete hope of fruitful labor.  As long as Paul is on earth, he will produce fruit.  And we know that this lead to converts, because Paul said that he did not want to name Christ where he was already named, but he wanted to plant churches in areas where Christ was not known, lest he build on another foundation (Rom. 15:20).  Paul wanted the gospel to spread — and it did — as long as he lived.  He knew that dying meant gaining Christ, but that living meant fruitful labor in evangelism.

Fruit Because of Salvation
In the gospel accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the same parable of the sower.  Each time, the respective authors quote Jesus saying, “As for what was sown on good soil, 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” (Matt. 13:23; cf. Mark 4:20; Luke 8:14-15).

This is not an evangelistic “fruit” in a direct sense, because there is no evangelist in the passage (though God is the ultimate evangelist as the sower).  However, it is implicit in this passage that God uses people to preach his word to the lost so that they might be saved (cf. Rom. 10:11-17).  Contrast verse 23 in Matthew 12 with verse 22, which says, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” Notice it does not say the word or the sower is “unfruitful.”  Neither is the phantom evangelist “unfruitful.”  The “it” in verse 22 is the soil. The soil is confrimed and convicted as unfruitful in its growth. It is worthless. That particular soil (the thorny soil), with the other two (path and rocky), is not the good soil.  Those people will be cast away to eternal judgment and fire because of their unfruitfulness.  Only the good soil will hear the word, understand it, receive it with joy, and bear fruit.

What Fruit Should We Strive For?
Based on this short expose of the word “fruit” in the New Testament, what’s our application?  When Jesus says, “Bear much fruit,” what does that mean for us?  It means, I think, to be faithful to him.  Faithfulness and fruitfulness coincide.  If we look at Galatians 5, we have an answer.

In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul lists what is of the flesh and what is of the Spirit.  “We know what the works of the flesh are,” he says, “and if you do those things, you won’t go to heaven. But if you have the Spirit, you have his fruit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Notice that Paul says, “The fruit of the Spirit is…”  He doesn’t say, “The fruits of the Spirit are…”  The noun fruit and its corresponding verb is singular.  They come as a package deal. If you have Christ, you have the Spirit; if you have the Spirit, you get all his fruit — the expression of what he is doing in your heart that will overflow from motives, intentions, and thoughts into actions, words, and attitudes.

So let us all strive “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10).  Let us strive to have the fruit of the Spirit manifested in our lives.  Bearing fruit doesn’t only happen in evangelism.  It happens when we kill sin.  It happens when we sing unto the Lord a new song.  It happens when we love our neighbor as ourselves.  It happens when we suffer well.  It happens when we increase in our knowledge of God.  It happens when we are distraught and we run to the living fountain that gives the water of life without price.  It happens when we trust that the sovereign God who began a good work in us will finish what he has started.  It happens when we believe that God will work in us what is pleasing to his sight.

And if we look at these things as a whole, they equate a life that is a living sacrifice and one that is not conformed to the world.  A holy life bears much fruit, and a holy life always has, and always will be, the best strategy for evangelism.

2 thoughts on “Word Study: “Fruit” in the New Testament

  1. Well done! I’ve heard some differing opinions on this, which is why I wanted to see a thought-out, and more importantly, biblical perspective. Thank you for taking the time to search and dig a little deeper!



  2. Nice little study. I googled it cuz I was doing my own little study. I came up with OT references (wonder if they used the same Greek word for fruit in the LXX as in the NT). Ps. 1 “Blessed the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked… his delight is in the Law of the Lord… he is like a tree firmly planted… bearing fruit in due season.” cf also Jer 17:8, also Lk 6:44, “every tree is known by its fruit”. I was trying to make sense of Augustine’s statement, “Mary conceived Christ in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb.” Lk 8:15 brings it all together nicely (and for that reference I thank you), “they…hearing the Word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart and bring forth fruit with patience.” What I’m getting out of all this is when the Archangel Gabriel comes to Mary, she first responds in faith and gives full consent of the will, and then she conceives the Lord. She is the example for all those who would “conceive” (receive cf John 1:12) Christ as their Saviour. She is also the antitype of that first virgin, Eve, the “woman” (cf Jn 2:4, 19:26) who brought forth the “fruit” of death due to her disobedience (by her “obedience” to that other rebellious “angel”). So thanks a bunch.


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