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The cure for the fruitless soul

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: John 15:1-17

A man was unknowingly caught in an automated speed trap which measured his speed using radar and photographed his car. He soon received in the mail a ticket for $40 and a photo of his car. He sent the police department a photograph of $40. He received a letter from the police containing a picture of handcuffs. He mailed in his $40.

One day you and I will receive a summons to appear before the highest court in the universe. Our Judge won’t need radar and cameras to render his verdict. What proof will he find that you and I were his followers? Not just Christians, or church attenders, but true disciples? What kind of evidence will he be looking for?

I’m teaching systematic theology at DBU on Tuesday nights this semester, and have discovered that students haven’t changed since I left the faculty of Southwestern Seminary years ago. They still want to know: will this be on the test? They want to know what to study for the exam.

Let me give you a study guide, and tell you why it matters so much today.

How do we become part of the vine?

Here’s the “I Am” for the week: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). These words were spoken while Jesus and his disciples were walking to Gethsemane from the house where they ate the Last Supper.

Probably they’ve turned off the road and into one of the temple courts for a while. And here they’ve come face to face with one of the most beautiful and powerful symbols in all Israel: the vine of grapes. A large vine of pure gold, fixed to the gate of the Temple itself.

The “vine” was Israel’s image of herself. She put it on her coins, and used it constantly. As America’s image is the eagle, and Russia’s is the bear, so Israel’s was the vine. Over and over again in the Old Testament, this symbol was used for their nation.

However, the Old Testament also makes clear that Israel’s vine had degenerated. Her vineyard has run wild; her grapes are sour and bitter.

The psalmist complained: “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire” (Psalm 80:16). Jeremiah quotes the Lord: “How did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine” (Jeremiah 2:21; cf. Isaiah 5:7).

On the other hand, Jesus is the “true,” authentic and correct vine. Israel is the false and corrupted vine; Jesus is the true and right vine. Being “attached” to their temple or our church is not enough. Being an adherent of their religion or ours is not enough. We must be connected to the “true” vine, the only One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). No other vine will do.

When we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, we become his. We “shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16); we are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17); we “shall never perish,” for no one can take us out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). All this happens when we make Jesus our Lord. To what vine are you attached today?

But it’s not enough to be in the vine—we are also supposed to bear fruit: “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (v. 16). This is the proof that we are really the disciples of Jesus: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (v. 8). If we bear “fruit,” we are his true disciples. If we do not, we are not.

So, what is this spiritual fruit? How do we bear it? What happens to us if we don’t?

What is spiritual fruit?

The vines of Israel, then and now, grow two types of branches. One bears fruit—the other does not. Those which do not bear fruit are immediately cut off, so they won’t burden those which do. Those which do bear fruit are pruned—cut back, disciplined as it were—so they will bear more fruit. This occurs each year in December and January.

Jesus’ point is clear: some branches bear fruit, while others do not. How do we know which we are? Here are the “fruit” God inspects.

One: our lives glorify God. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). Jesus told us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When last did someone praise God because of you?

Two: we have the joy of Jesus: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). A recent Gallup poll showed that those who attend worship regularly and give $2,000 or more annually to their faith community are more likely to be “satisfied with their lives” than those who do not.

When we are properly related to the vine, we bear the “fruit of the Spirit,” including “joy” (Galatians 5:22). We have joy which no circumstances can give or steal. How much joy is in your heart today?

Three: we reproduce spiritually, bearing “fruit that will last” (v. 16). A tree reproduces by bearing fruit—so does a disciple. We are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We are to tell what we know, to give what we have. God measures the faith we possess by the degree to which we share it.

How do we bear spiritual fruit?

So, what do we do to bear such fruit? How can we be attached to the vine so that our lives glorify God, bring us joy, and bring others to him? Let’s learn Jesus’ imperatives, as they build one on the other.

First, admit that we need the vine: “apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Not something, but “nothing.” No matter our stock portfolio or educational achievements, or title or status.

So we repent of our self-dependence. We agree: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1). We say with Paul: “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).

When we moved to Midland many years ago, I was sent out to the front yard to clear off all the vines that had grown up on the walls of the house. I thought they looked just fine, but the landscape artist who lived inside disagreed. So, being the hired help, out I went. I pulled at ivy and vines for hours, to little effect. Then a thought occurred to me: it would be easier to cut them off at the roots, then come back later. I did—a week later they were all dead. I didn’t have to pull them off the brick—I could brush them off. They had turned to dust. The branches couldn’t abide without the vine.

Admit that you need the vine, that you’ll shrivel up and die without staying connected to Jesus every day. “Abide” in him, choose to stay connected with Jesus every day, to “remain in me” (v. 2). A branch without the vine is Christianity without Christ. A branch in the vine climbs and grows to the sky.

Second, pray continually: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (v. 7).

I agree with John Wesley that God does nothing except in answer to prayer. The Lord of the universe has chosen to limit himself to the freedom he has given us. As a result, he can do nothing which requires our will, without our permission. He cannot guide us to the right decision unless we ask him to; he cannot meet our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19) unless we ask him to; he cannot lead us into the abundant life (John 10:10) unless we ask him to.

How much do you pray? How often? Prayer is how we connect with the vine. We are never taller than when we are on our knees. We are never stronger than when we are surrendered to God in prayer.

Third, obey his word: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (v. 10).

Jesus was insistent on this point: “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15); “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (v. 21); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (v. 23). We are his disciples only if we obey our Master.

Is there an area of disobedience in your life? Do you need to confess gossip, slander, anger, lust, laziness, pride? Are you giving the tithe to the Lord? Are you using your spiritual gifts fully in evangelism and ministry?

Last, love his people: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v. 12). How did he love us? Unconditionally, absolutely, no matter how we treated him. Our Master says it again: “This is my command: Love one another” (v. 17).

Here is how we “abide” in the vine, staying attached so that our lives bear spiritual fruit: stay humble, admitting that you need his help; pray constantly, surrendering your will to his; stay obedient to his word; love his people. How connected to the vine are you this morning?

What happens if we are fruitless?

Before we close, we must ask one more question: what happens if we don’t do as Jesus asks? What happens if we are self-reliant, pray seldom, disobey his word and will, hurt his people? We will not bear fruit—we will not glorify God, know his joy, or reproduce spiritually. What then?

Jesus warns us: God “cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit” (v. 2). This does not mean that fruitless Christians lose their salvation—such branches are “in me” and “already clean” (v. 3). As we have already heard today, whoever makes Christ his Savior “has eternal life” (John 3:16).

Instead, fruitless branches “are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (v. 6). Their wood was too soft to be used for anything. So they were cut off from the vine and burned. The same will happen to our fruitless works: “If any man builds on [Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

If we are fruitless Christians, we will suffer an eternal loss of reward. The holy Lord simply cannot reward self-reliant, prayerless, disobedient, hurtful lives. Whatever we think we have gained by refusing to abide in the Vine, we more than lose in eternity. It’s a bad deal.

Conclusion

We’ve covered much ground today. We’ve learned that Jesus is the “true vine,” so that only by being connected to him can we have eternal life. When did you make this connection yourself? He intends us to bear spiritual fruit: to glorify God, have his joy, and lead others to him. Does he find such fruit in your life? We bear this fruit by admitting we need him every day, praying constantly, obeying his word and will, and loving his people. If we don’t, we lose the joy of Jesus on earth, and his reward in heaven.

Now the choice is yours and mine. Our joy on earth and reward in heaven depend on choosing wisely. Only one life—’twill soon be past; only what’s done with Christ will last. Do you agree?