As someone who believes that grace is at the very heart of the Gospel I’ve always tried to be careful to avoid saying things that people could interpret as a call to legalistic observance of religious duties. That has particularly been the case when I’ve talked about things like reading the Bible, praying, and going to church regularly. I do not believe for one moment that those are things that can earn our way into God’s ‘good books’ or our place in heaven, and I would always caution people to avoid doing such things out of a sense of obligation or duty. Our justification is achieved by faith and not by works.
As I’ve been pondering John 15:1-17, though, I’ve started to wonder whether my carefulness to avoid preaching law rather than grace might have made me downplay just how important things like quiet times and corporate worship are. I have wanted people to be clear that they need not fear divine retribution for missing quiet times or church, but I wonder whether in so doing I’ve given the impression that these things are ideals that none of us actually achieve and that we really don’t need to be too concerned about our failure. John 15 shows that they really are essential and that we must take them very seriously indeed.
In this passage Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine and its branches to describe the relationship between Jesus and us. There are two types of branches: those that bear fruit and those that don’t.
The branches that do not bear fruit are taken away (v.2), because they have withered, and are gathered up, thrown into the fire, and burned (v.6). Fire and burning are images that are often used by Jesus to depict the final judgment. Jesus’ message is clear: someone’s failure to bear fruit is evidence that they are not in fact a genuine Christian and so will face God’s wrath in the final judgment.
Whilst the fate of branches that do not bear fruit is dreadful God’s treatment of those that do is truly wonderful. They are branches that have been made clean by Jesus’ word (v.3) and are pruned (v.2). Pruning is a process whereby some interests and activities are removed so as to leave the branch more fruitful, and although that pruning may at the time be painful it leads to greater fruitfulness (v.2, 5), which proves the genuineness of that person’s faith, and in so doing brings both glory to the Father (v.8) and the fullness of joy to that person (v.11). Branches that do not bear fruit are destined for fire and those that do are destined for the Father’s glory and their own joy.
But what does it mean to bear fruit? There are a few possibilities as to what Jesus meant, none of which need to be exclusive. One is what he meant in Matthew 13:8, where it seems to be an advancement of God’s work and kingdom in the world; another is the sort of changed character that Galatians 5:22-23 talks about.
What determines whether a branch will bear fruit or not is simply a question of whether or not that branch ‘abides in the vine.’ A branch that does not abide in the vine cannot bear fruit (v. 4); in fact it cannot achieve anything of any significance (v. 5). A branch that does abide in the vine, though, will bear much fruit (v. 5). The difference, then, between our fruitfulness, or lack of it, and therefore whether we will face joy or judgment, is simply a matter of whether or not we abide in Jesus.
The important question for us, then, is what does it mean to abide in Jesus? How do we abide in him? There are three glimpses of an answer in the passage.
Firstly, abiding in Jesus involves having his words abiding in us (v. 7). Abiding in Jesus includes listening to what Jesus has said, dwelling on it, and keeping it as part of us. For a 21st Century believer this most certainly includes reading and meditating on the Bible.
Secondly, abiding in Jesus involves asking things of him (v.7): “ask whatever you wish”. For a 21st Century believer this means prayer.
Thirdly, abiding in Jesus involves obedience to his commandments (v.10) which is not a dull drudgery but actually leads to a profound experience of God’s love. The commandments that Jesus gave are many and varied but his words in v. 10 surely include the commandment that he gives in v. 12, to love one another as he has loved us. Part of abiding in Jesus, therefore, is fellowship with other believers, and for a 21st Century believer that must surely include regular involvement with a church family.
Abiding in Jesus, therefore, includes reading and meditating on the Bible, prayer, and involvement with a church family, or to put it even more simply, quiet times and corporate worship.
The connection between doing these things and bearing fruit could not be clearer in this passage. Not doing them will inevitably lead to fruitlessness, because it is impossible to bear fruit without abiding in Jesus (vv.4-5). Doing them, however, will lead to great fruitfulness; someone who abides in Jesus won’t just bear some fruit but will bear much fruit (v. 5).
The ridiculous thing in the lives of so many of us is that it is our desire to bear fruit that stops us abiding in Jesus. Our thinking is so often that we have too many things to do, many of which are very noble and worthy, and so we cannot afford to spend time ‘abiding in Jesus’. We have things to do so we cannot abide. That is the exact reverse of what Jesus says: unless we abide we will not be able to do those things. Unless we abide we can do nothing. If we do abide we will achieve a very great deal, or bear much fruit.
This is the logic of faith. Faith says ‘it is worth spending a good portion of the very limited time available to me having a quiet time, because if I do that not only will it bring glory to the Father (v. 8) and joy to me (v. 11) but it will also enable me to achieve much more in the remaining time than I would have been able to had I spent the whole time doing the things that I need to do.’ In worldly logic that makes no sense, because it is self-evident that the more time we have available the more we will get done. But worldly logic does not acknowledge our weakness or know an all-powerful God who will keep his promise that we will bear more fruit through abiding in him than we possibly could apart from him.
The other thing that stops us abiding in Jesus is that we think it is going to be boring and devoid of pleasure. We think we will enjoy it more if we spend our time doing something other than having a quiet time. Again such thinking is the opposite of what Jesus said: it is through abiding in him that we experience his love (v. 10) and that our joy will be full (v. 11).
The consequences of not abiding in Christ are almost too dreadful to consider. Not abiding leads to not bearing fruit which serves as evidence that our faith is not genuine and therefore leads to the fire of v. 2. Whilst I still would not want someone to fear divine retribution for skipping their quiet times from time to time I would want them to be aware of just how important abiding in Jesus actually is. It is not something that we can neglect lightly.
Conversely, though, if we all committed ourselves to making our private quiet times and our corporate worship an absolute priority there are four outcomes that Jesus promises here:
- We will be more fruitful (vv. 2, 5): we will achieve more and greater things for his kingdom.
- The Father will be glorified by the evidence of the genuineness of our discipleship (v. 8)
- We will enjoy greater intimacy with Jesus (v. 10)
- Our joy will be full (v. 11)
Our individual lives and our church would be transformed.
In saying what I have just said have I preached law rather than grace? Have I replaced God’s merciful treatment of us with duties that we must perform? Certainly Jesus’ words emphasise God’s mercy and grace. He speaks of guilty sinners being washed clean by his word (v. 3), and the word translated as ‘prunes’ in v. 2 (kathairo) has at its root the word for clean in v. 3 (katharos), so even the language of pruning is related to God’s work of making us clean. The passage does not imply we make ourselves clean or worthy through our quiet times or by going to church, but makes it very clear that that is the work of the Father, the vine dresser. But that does not stop Jesus saying that there is a choice of judgment or joy and which we receive is determined by whether or not we abide in him by having his words abide in us, asking things of him, and obeying his commandments, including the commandment to love other believers.