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Fruitless Knowledge (1:10)

There's a reason why I put a question mark after the title for this meditation. I'm asking whether knowledge of God, true, soul-saving knowledge of God, can be fruitless? Can a person "know" God in the way Paul describes in Colossians 1:9 and not bear the fruit of holiness?

George Barna recently described 77 million church-going Americans as "born again." In my review of his book, Revolution, I took issue with this. I didn't do so because I regard myself as the infallible judge of human hearts! It's simply because the Scriptures tell me in no uncertain terms that genuine, saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus is transforming and life-changing and sin-killing and Christ-exalting in its effects. I fear countless people are living a religious charade, having been assured by no doubt well-meaning ministers that their "decision" for Jesus was unto eternal life in spite of the fact that there is little if any spiritual fruit in their experience.

Consider Paul's words in Colossians 1:9-10. He has prayed that we might be filled with the knowledge of God's will, which consists of spiritual wisdom and understanding (v. 9). But why? To what end? For what reason? The answer, according to v. 10, is so that we might "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."

The language of v. 10 is clear and inescapable. We know God and his will for this reason: to equip, enable, and encourage us to walk in holiness of life. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is fatal. To learn simply for the sake of learning expands the mind but does not necessarily transform the heart. Elsewhere Paul declares that "the grace of God has appeared" in the person of Jesus Christ to train us to "renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age" (Titus 2:11-12). Indeed, the very reason Jesus gave himself for us was "to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14).

All this to say that the knowledge of God and his will is eminently practical in nature and purpose. Paul's aim in praying for the Colossians to be filled with spiritual wisdom and insight is so they might be energized in the daily mortification of sin and cultivation of spiritual fruit and good works. Had Epaphras informed Paul that the Colossians were loudly proclaiming their love for God and knowledge of his ways all the while they lived unrepentantly in sin and disobedience, I suspect Paul would have replied: "I beg your pardon!" Well, he probably would have said a lot more than that, but I trust you get my point.

It's interesting to note that what Paul said in 1:6 about the gospel he now says in 1:10 about the Colossians themselves: "it (the gospel) is bearing fruit and growing" (v. 6) and you are "bearing fruit . . . and increasing" (v. 10; the Greek word translated "increasing" in v. 10 is the same as that translated "growing" in v. 6; the ESV translates them differently for stylistic reasons). The point seems to be that the way in which the gospel is bearing fruit and increasing (v. 6) is by producing Christ-like and holy lives, through the Spirit, in those who have received it in faith (v. 10).

Paul's closing words in v. 10 ("increasing in the knowledge of God") deserve close scrutiny. Two views have emerged.

(1) Some argue that we should render this phrase in an instrumental fashion, hence, "by means of" or "through" the knowledge of God. If this be true, Paul's point is to reinforce what he said in v. 9, namely, that the knowledge of God (of his will, his grace, his character, etc.) forms the basis from which or the means by which the bearing of fruit and the growth in good works comes about. As James Dunn notes, "repetition of the same . . . form (epignosis [= knowledge]) as in 1:9 doubles the insistence that such conduct can only grow from such knowledge" (72).

If this view is correct, it reminds us again that all efforts at Christian behavior without a solid foundation of orthodox, theologically robust, and wide-ranging Christian belief will eventually prove to be a mere vapor.

(2) Others contend that Paul's point is that genuine transformation always includes growth in understanding of God. Heat without light eventually degenerates into fanaticism, much in the same way that light without heat breeds arrogance. The saving presence of the Spirit in our souls yields the rich harvest of both good deeds and deep insights, both orthopraxy (right behavior) and orthodoxy (right belief).

We simply can't live a life that is "pleasing to him" (v. 10) if we fail to increase in the knowledge of what he is like and how he acts and why he does what he does. This, then, is what the Lord says: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things, I delight, declares the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:23-24; cf. Hosea 4:1-6).

Praying that you might be laden with fruit,