BY JAY SAWRIE
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. -John 15:1-8
Growing up in the Bible Belt religiosity that I did, there was always an emphasis on fruit bearing. I can remember countless youth rallies where the evangelist would ask sugar high teenagers, "What are you doing for God? Are you a missionary to your school or in the locker room? Is God calling you to the mission field somewhere? What big things are you doing for God? Is there sin in the camp? (which if you grew up in the stanch Baptist background may be a term you've heard more than you care to admit). But if I was honest, my thought was always "No. I love God, I am resting in Christ, but I'm a sinner. I know that I continue to sin, though I don't want to. Nor am I doing these great and mighty things for God. I'm just a seventeen-year-old football player who wants to listen to Hawk Nelson and drink Full Throttle.
One of the passages in Scripture that has always terrified my soul is the Vine and Branches section of the Upper Room discourse in John 15. I know that sounds odd, but when we get to verse two, we come to this teaching, "Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away."
We ought to feel the weight of this. The logical question that follows here is often “Am I bearing fruit?"- Which is a reasonable question. Good works are a natural fruit of our salvation. But I struggle to accept that this passage is focused on fruit bearing. Rather, the issue rests on our union with Christ. If we look at the passage, we see that the repeated phrase is "in me," specifically "abide." In fact, "abide in me" is said more than fruit in this discourse. The word often translated as "takes away" has an alternative meaning, to lift up. What we are dealing with here is vines, not trees. I know that sounds like much ado about nothing, but it does matter. Branches that don't have proper support won't get sunlight and thus won't continue to grow. Very often, gardeners would see these branches that had lost their support and would steak them up, much like what my grandfather does with his tomatoes. So then when we come to this word in John 15:2, we must ask if "take away" is the best translation.
Here’s why I don’t think, at least for this passage, it is.
The point here is to speak about the location of the branch in relation to the vine because that is where the fruit-bearing comes from. If we connect the dots with verse four and five, we see that apart from the vine, no branches are bearing fruit. Christ is specifically saying that only those branches who abide in Christ are those who are producing fruit. The word "abide" in verse four carries with it a command- Abide! But it is also a continuous action. It is Christ calling us to continue to abide in Him. But look at what is said about those branches in verse six.
“If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Those branches that are being cast aside aren't those who aren't bearing fruit; rather they are those that do not abide in Christ. The point of the passage is not so much fruit-bearing, but rather the location of the branch in relation to the vine. But what does this have to do about anything? I know you're sitting having your morning coffee or your evening beer and thinking, "What does this obscure Greek translation issue have to do with anything?"
But it has everything to do with everything!
Our continuing and growth in the Christian life is not then based on fruit bearing. Bearing fruit is wonderful, but you do not stay a Christian through fruit bearing. You bear fruit and are growing because you are united to Christ. We see through this whole section- abide, abide, abide in Me. The imperative here is not to bear fruit, but to abide in Christ. Fruit bearing, that is good works, are the natural outcome of our abiding in Christ. Yes, God is glorified in our good works (v. 8) Yes, we ought to fight sin and walk in holiness. But the primary way we do that is by being united to Christ by faith. Do you want to bear fruit, and thus glorify God? Then the way to do that is to abide in Him. Rest in Him. Find your peace in Him.
But so often we find our faith weak. We find the sins that cling so closely to us to be far sweeter than the fruit of obedience. We find that we aren’t bearing fruit, though that is our desire. We are wrestling, we are struggling with sin, and yet we find ourselves deep in the dust. What can we then say? United to Christ, yet not bearing fruit, is there no hope?
Absolutely there is hope! God does not cast away those united to the Son. Rather He cares for them. He reaches down to them. He lifts them up. He takes them away from that which hinders their growth and props them up so that they will bear fruit. He does not abandon His people, but rather lovingly cares for His branches so that they may glorify Him. God does not bring us to Himself and then not give us everything that we need to bear fruit.
So then, let us not look to God as the dresser who will cast us aside. Instead, let us abide and keep abiding. Let us seek to glorify God and pray as Augustine did: Command what you will and give what you command!
Jay Sawrie is an intern of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is also a contributor for Late Night Theology, a reader of Flannery O’Connor, and is working toward pastoring Presbyterian churches in the South.