The Divine Limitations to Fruitfulness in Ministry

By David Servant

Over the past few decades, I’ve found myself often addressing the large segment of professing Christians whose lives reflect very little validation of a genuine, saving faith. Just like Paul, I’ve challenged such professors to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Cor. 13:5a). There is no shortage of New Testament scriptures that specifically speak about the kind of fruit that always grows from the hearts of those whom Christ has genuinely come to live within.[1] As Paul wrote in his very next sentence to the Corinthians: “Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5b).

“Christ in you” is what true Christianity is all about. He not only died for us, but He lives for us, and He also lives in us and through us. And He doesn’t come to live inside believers just to be a spiritual hitchhiker!

I have many Christian friends in vocational ministry who carry the same burden as I do. We often feel like “voices in the wilderness,” but unlike John the Baptist, we’re alone in our deserts. The masses are not streaming to us. For comfort, we read Jeremiah, a man chosen by God but rejected by men, who prophesied and preached for 40 years without seeing a single person soften their heart.

Thank God for the Jeremiahs and John the Baptists today who continue to faithfully proclaim a biblical gospel of repentance, living faith, and moral transformation, and who are able to keep loving those who ignore or reject them. They are some of the finest saints I know, and their reward is great in heaven.

Among those particular saints, however, I’ve found a segment who may have swung with the pendulum a little too far. They are those who are bearing fruit, but who wallow in condemnation because, in their minds, they “just aren’t doing enough.” When they read the stories of the Bible’s preachers and prophets and compare themselves, they come up short. The same is true when they read the biographies of other spiritual “heroes” in Christian history. “I must not be as devoted as I should be, otherwise my ministry would be more anointed and effective, just like _______’s ministry was.”

I’m certainly not wanting to discourage anyone from deeper devotion or higher consecration to the Lord. The key to fruitfulness for any Christian is abiding in Christ:

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5).

And holy consecration is what makes us useful to the Lord:

Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work (2 Tim. 2:20).

In vocational ministry, however, there are divine limitations to our fruitfulness. Those limitations are often intuitively understood, but not as often well defined. We may subconsciously realize that the large majority of God-called ministers will never have the impact of the Apostle Paul, yet we sometimes talk as if all ministers could attain to Paul’s level of spiritual success, if only “we were as dedicated as the apostle Paul.”

Let me qualify what I just wrote by emphasizing that it would be a good thing if all ministers imitated Paul’s devotion. Part of the secret to his success was his devotion. Imitating Paul’s devotion, however, does not guarantee his success, because there are divine limitations for fruitfulness in ministry. It is not God’s will that all ministers be equally fruitful. Even Jesus’ familiar saying, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:4), supports that truth. Some are given more than others.


Let’s unpack this idea, first by considering the ministry office of the apostle.

The Greek word translated “apostle” is apostolos, and it simply means “one who is sent” or “messenger.” Generally speaking, apostles are sent to plant churches in unreached places. I believe that God still calls, anoints and sends apostles, just as He did in New Testament times. But just as in New Testament times, He sends them where they are needed.

We must understand that there are plenty of apostles mentioned in the New Testament besides the original twelve. Judas forfeited his apostleship, but he was replaced by Matthias, whom Scriptures says “was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts. 1:26). Matthias followed Jesus along with the Twelve from the beginning, but he was never mentioned in the Bible before he was selected to replace Judas.

Paul, of course, was an apostle (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1). So was at least one of his early traveling companions, Barnabas, named as apostle in Acts 14:14. Some think, based on 1 Thes. 1:1 and 2:6, that two of Paul’s other traveling companions, Timothy and Silas, were also apostles.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul mentions two people who were “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7) named Andronicus and Junias.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul identifies James, “the Lord’s brother” as an apostle (who should not to be confused with the apostle James who was one of the original Twelve).

And, of course, Paul indicated in Ephesians 4:11 that God would be calling and anointing pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets and apostles for as long as there is a need for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).

Apostolic Classes

There are, however, for a lack of a better way to say it, “classes” of apostles, who are more or less gifted and anointed. Obviously, that is something that is determined by God, and which thus divinely limits every apostle’s fruitfulness.

For example, the original twelve apostles (with Matthias replacing Judas) were among a special class identified in Scripture as the “apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14). All were supernaturally gifted with signs and wonders:

Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles (Acts 2:43)

At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico (Acts 5:12).

It is obvious, however, that among the Twelve, Peter was the most anointed. It was Peter who delivered an inspired sermon on the day of Pentecost that resulted in 3,000 new believers (Acts 2:41). Not long after, the Holy Spirit used Peter to instantly heal a beggar who was lame from birth, and to preach another convicting sermon to the crowd attracted by that miracle. 5,000 men were added to the church as a result (Acts 4:4). And it was Peter whom God used to supernaturally discern the deception of Ananias and Sapphira and pronounce divine judgment upon them, a miracle that caused “great fear” to come “upon all that heard of it” (Acts 5:5).

It seems reasonable to think that if God used any of the other Twelve to a greater degree than Peter, Luke would have focused on that in his account in Acts.

Directly after we read in Acts 5:12 that “at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people,” Luke tells us:

And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number, to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed (Acts 5:14-16, emphasis added).

While God used the hands of all the Twelve to do signs and wonders, He apparently uniquely used Peter’s shadow as well.

All of this is to say that Peter was clearly in a class by himself. And that was not due to Peter’s superior devotion. Rather, it was due to God’s manifold grace, of which Peter was just a steward (1 Pet. 4:10).

So here is my main point: God uses whom He uses. When ministers think to themselves, “If I was as devoted as Peter,” or “If I had faith like Peter, then I would lift crippled people and command them to walk,” they needlessly condemn themselves. Think about it. When a crowd gathered because they saw a crippled beggar walking and leaping, Peter confessed, “Men of Israel…why do you gaze at us, as if by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (Acts 3:12, emphasis added). Peter was certainly aware of the fact that it had not been too long ago when Jesus said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan!” And he also remembered how, even more recently, he’d denied Jesus three times—and worse, after claiming he would never abandon Him, but was willing to die for Him! (And it would not be too long before Peter would be messing up again, even compromising the gospel, which necessitated a public rebuke by Paul [Gal. 2:14]).

Peter knew that God used him to heal a lame man because of GRACE towards him, the lame man, and the gathered crowd, and nothing more. The healing of the lame man at the temple gate was a sudden impartation to Peter of one (or more) of the nine gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, perhaps the gift of special faith, healings or miracles. Peter was just as surprised as anyone else about what had occurred. Keep in mind that John was right beside him when it all happened, but God did not appear to have anointed him, either to speak prophetically to the lame man or to lift him up. Why? God uses whom He uses.

And the fact is, we can’t heal people “if we just have enough faith.” Even Jesus didn’t heal people that way. He never said to anyone, “My faith has healed you.” No, when he credited faith for healing, it was generally the faith of the person who needed healing (or, as in the case of paralyzed man lowered through a ceiling, the faith of the group that was involved, which included the paralyzed man). And gifts of healings (1 Cor. 12:9) operate as the Spirit wills (1 Cor. 12:11), and that was true even for Jesus (Mark 6:5; John 5:1-19; Acts 10:38; Phil. 2:5-7).

Another Specially-Anointed Saint

Of some comparison to Peter’s sovereign calling and anointing was Stephen’s, whom Luke tells “was full of grace and power,” and which resulted in him “performing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). It stands to reason that, although the apostles recognized that Stephen was well respected and “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) when they selected him—along with six other men of similar qualification—to administer the daily feeding of Jerusalem’s widows, he was not yet “performing great wonders and signs among the people.” Had that been that case, Stephen would have been in the same category as the apostles, and they would have likely said of him, “It is not desirable for us or Stephen to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables” (Acts 6:2).

All of that is to say that Stephen obviously found himself suddenly anointed by the Holy Spirit to stand in a special place of ministry. We might be tempted to think God promoted Stephen because he was faithful in his service to widows, and that if we are faithful to serve in some capacity, we will also be promoted to be used by God in some more miraculous way. But the fact is that there were six other men just like Stephen, and God only used one of them, Philip, similarly to Stephen. There is no record that God used any of the other five as He did those two. God uses whom He uses.

Stephen had a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God as he was being stoned (Acts 7:55-56). God gives visions to whom He gives visions. (Although many of us have tried to drum up some visions, a more accurate word to describe most of them is “imaginations.”)

Yet Another Specially-Anointed Saint

Although every believer is called to love his neighbor as himself and thus spread the gospel to his neighbors, only a few are called to serve in the ministry office of “evangelist.” Evangelists are specially-called and equipped to proclaim the gospel.

After highlighting the ministries of Peter and Stephen in the book of Acts narrative, the Holy Spirit next focuses on Philip, identified in the New Testament as an evangelist (Acts 21:8), and who was also one of the seven men who were first appointed to serve Jerusalem’s widows. Philip was obviously anointed not only to preach (which requires an anointing, not only for public speaking, but also for boldness), but also to heal certain kinds of physical infirmities and to deliver the demonized:

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in that city (Acts 8:5-8).

Philip is actually the only New Testament example we have of an evangelist. Surely there were others in New Testament times (see Eph. 4:11). Were all the early evangelists used consistently in gifts of healings and miracles as was Philip? There is some reason to think so. When we compare Paul’s two lists of ministry gifts in 1 Cor. 12:28 and Eph. 4:11, we note that in both, he lists apostles, prophets and teachers. He only mentions evangelists, however, in Ephesians, while in 1 Corinthians he uniquely mentions “miracles, then gifts of healings.” For that reason, it seems reasonable to think that Paul was describing evangelists in 1 Corinthians as those whom God consistently uses in miracles and gifts of healings, which is exactly what we see in the ministry of the only person in the New Testament who is identified as an evangelist, that is, Philip.

Just as with apostles, however, there are apparently different classes of evangelists, as not all who proclaim the gospel to the lost have ministries that are characterized by miracles and healings. Some, like the late Billy Graham, are only anointed to preach.

Tragically some (whom we refer to as cessationists), who are only familiar with evangelists whose ministries do not included healings or miracles, have wrongly concluded that God stopped doing miracles after the apostolic age. If they would only study historical or global Christianity, however, they would realize God has never stopped calling and anointing certain evangelists with supernatural power, just like Philip. Those evangelists are in a different class of calling (for lack of a better way to say it), and are obviously better equipped to convince sinners to repent.

Why are some modern evangelists apparently only anointed to preach the gospel while others are anointed to preach and to heal and/or deliver the demonized? Because God uses whom He uses. Interestingly, back in the 1950s during America’s “healing revival,” when scores of “healing evangelists” were holding large revival meetings all over the nation, it was observed that some evangelists were more anointed than others in regard to certain diseases or infirmities. That is, the Holy Spirit would use one evangelist consistently in gifts of healings for cancer, whereas He would use another evangelist more consistently in gifts of healings for blindness or deafness.

It is also possible that some God-called evangelists, who theologically reject modern miracles (and even preach against them), have “quenched the Spirit” [1 Thes. 5:19], and for that reason their ministries are not as empowered by the Holy Spirit as God might prefer. God is pleased by faith, and it is clear from Scripture that He doesn’t bless doubt and unbelief. I can understand why God would not grant signs and wonders to evangelists who believe and preach that miracles ceased with the original apostles.

And Finally, Super-Apostle Paul

Finally, in the book of Acts narrative, we come to the apostle Paul’s story, which dominates Acts chapters 9 through 28. If there was ever a story that illustrates that God uses whom He uses, and that there are different “classes” of ministries, his is it.

As I’m sure you know, Paul wasn’t a faithful follower of Christ whom God promoted for His faithfulness. Paul was a persecutor of Jesus and His church, and he later referred to himself as “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Incredibly, God decided to make the chief of sinners the foremost apostle of his day and perhaps the past 2,000 years. Obviously, God uses whom He uses.

Like Isaiah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist (Is. 49:5; Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:15), Paul was called from his mother’s womb (Gal. 1:15). He was predestined to “bear [Jesus’] name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

How God is able to execute such predestined callings without violating the free will of those He calls certainly contains much mystery. Could Paul have said “no” to Jesus when he was struck down by a blinding light and audibly heard he voice of God on the road to Damascus? I suppose he could have, but I think the chances were slim that he would have.

Interestingly, every Christian has been predestined for a unique ministry according to Ephesians 2:10:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

But back to the apostle Paul. Very few whom God calls does He call by knocking them down with a blinding light and speaking to them audibly. In fact, in the history of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts, there is only one example of such a dramatic calling. Right from the start, we see the uniqueness of Paul’s calling.

Paul’s primary calling was to preach the gospel to Gentiles, as he himself testified to the Roman believers, “I am an apostle of Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13). As an apostle, he was called to plant Jesus’ church in unreached places, and he was only able to do it because of God’s anointing. His ministry was characterized by miracles that drew attention to his message. He could claim what very few God-called ministers can:

My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:4).

According to Paul, it seems one really can’t claim to be a New Testament apostle unless one’s ministry is characterized by New Testament miracles:

The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles (2 Cor. 12:12).

At one point in his ministry, Paul was miraculously anointed beyond what might be considered to be an “ordinary” apostolic anointing:

God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out (Acts 19:11-12, emphasis added).

So, we see that Paul was in a class by himself among apostles, which is why none of the Corinthian believers would have accused him of pride when he wrote to them: “For in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody” (2 Cor. 12:11). His readers knew his claim was an understatement. His claim also reveals that, in his day, there were more eminent and less eminent apostles, or we could say “different classes” of apostles. God uses whom He uses, and He uses them as much or as little as He desires.

Beyond all these things, God used Paul to pen letters that even in his own day were considered worthy to be referred to as “scripture” (2 Pet. 3:16). Although we may look to teachers and prophets today for revelations that help us understand the Bible, no one is going to be contributing any additional books to the Bible, one more element of Paul’s ministry that set him in a special class among apostles.

Some Common Questions

A question that is often asked is, “Should we consider modern missionaries to be apostles?” The answer is yes—if God has supernaturally equipped them by means of signs and wonders to plant churches. Those who plant churches without the aid of signs and wonders perhaps could be considered to be apostles of a “lower class,” and I say that with the deepest respect, as anyone who “has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for Jesus’ sake” (Matt. 19:29) will be proportionately rewarded by God and deserves our deepest respect.

Of course, not all missionaries are planting churches in unreached regions, but rather are functioning as teachers, pastors, evangelists, prophets or some other capacity that helps advance Jesus’ kingdom. Thank God for them all.

And since I’m mentioning teachers, pastors and evangelists and prophets, I’m persuaded from observation to note that there are also different classes and anointings related to those ministries just as there are with apostles. There are divine limitations assigned to all of us, and that is God’s business, not ours. We may think that surely God wants us to have a “big” ministry that touches millions of people, but the truth may be that God wants us to have a small ministry that touches a handful of people—but perhaps much more deeply.

One final question that is often asked is, “Should those who are called to vocational ministry pray for a greater anointing?”

I think we should all pray that the Lord of the harvest will send laborers into the harvest, just as Jesus directed (Luke 10:2), but we should allow the Lord to call whom He wills and to anoint them as He wills. Very few, if any, vocational ministers were initially called or anointed because they prayed to be called and anointed. Our calling and anointing was because of God’s sovereign decision. So it stands to reason that any changes in our calling, or any increases in our anointing, should be the result of the sovereign will of God.

Our job is to be faithful in whatever the Lord has called us to do, stewarding His manifold grace, regardless if our ministry is large or small, anointed more or anointed less. When we pray for God to increase our anointing, we presume that is something He desires, and our presumption may be wrong. Moreover, such prayers often hide a motive that is less than pure:

“God, please use ME for your glory!”

The desire for self-exaltation can be hidden so deep within one’s heart that it is fully hidden from its possessor.

I also think we should pray that God would raise up ministers who are anointed with signs, wonders, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, without caring if He ever uses us in those ways. One is a candidate to be exalted by God only if one does not want to be exalted. God exalts the humble, and humble people don’t want to be exalted.

Keeping all of this in balance, I’m also persuaded that those of us who are called to vocational ministry can hinder the anointing God has bestowed on us through carnality, as well as by neglect of prayer and meditation in God’s Word. If we want to walk in the maximum anointing that God desires for us, we need to be consecrated and devoted.

I should also note that Paul encouraged all the believers at Corinth: “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (1Cor. 14:1). Only in the context of unselfish love is it safe to even desire spiritual gifts.

Finally, I realize that there is some danger in what I’ve written if it is used as an excuse for lazy contentment and spiritual mediocrity. I am in no way advocating a hyper-sovereign view of God or Christian fatalism. Like Paul, we should all be saying, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14). There is an upward call upon all of us. Whatever your specific calling might be, your job is fulfill it and “finish your course” (Acts 20:24). We will all be judged by God regarding the stewardship of our calling and anointing, and not someone else’s. – David

[1] I wrote a book that includes most of those passages titled, The Great Gospel Deception: Exposing the False Hope of Heaven Without Holiness.