When a child is born, we expect growth. When a seed or tree is planted, we expect growth and fruitfulness. Likewise, growth and fruitfulness is expected and actually required of the Christian. In John 15, Christ used an agricultural metaphor to describe his relationship with his disciples and by extension us and what’s required in that relationship–fruitfulness.
How Does Fruitfulness Looks Like?
According to John MacArthur, “The NT describes fruit[fulness] as godly attitudes (Gal. 5:22, 23), righteous behaviour (Phil. 1:11), praise (Heb. 13:15), and, especially, leading others to faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God (Rom. 1:13-16)”.¹ (Emphasis mine)
As a believer, you may want to pause and ask if any of these describes you. Fruitfulness is not an option for the believer. It is an obligation we must work towards in cooperation with the sanctifing work of the Holy Spirit. And in this post, I hope to explore in the text how a believer can bear fruit.
The True Vine
Christ described himself as the true vine in John 15:1: “I am the true vine….” The vine was an important plant in the lives of the Jews and the disciples would be well acquainted with that metaphor hence Christ’s usage of it to depict fruit bearing:
Vine, the well-known valuable plant (virus vinifera) very frequently referred to in the Old and New Testaments and cultivated from the earliest time. The first mention of this plant occurs in Gen. 9:20,21….The vines of Palestine were celebrated both for luxuriant growth and for the immense clusters of grapes which they produced, which were sometimes carried on a staff between two men as in the case of the spies, Num. 13:23…From the abundance and excellence of the vines, it may readily be understood how frequently this plant is the subject of metaphor in the Holy Scriptures. To dwell under the vine and fig tree is an emblem of domestic happiness and peace.²
The above tells how important the vine was in the life of the Israelites. Israel was described as a vine planted by God (Ex.15:17; Jer. 2:21, 12:10; Ps. 80:8). Israel as a vine was a foreshadow of the real and true vine–Jesus Christ. So when Christ described himself as the true vine, he was juxtaposing himself with apostate Israel which didn’t bear fruit.
The Vine dresser
If there is a vine, then there must a Vinedresser. And Jesus identifies the Vinedresser as the Father: “my Father is the vinedresser“. The Father as the Vinedresser also indicates to us the union of the Father and Son in working towards the fruitfulness of believers—the branches.
John 15 shows two means by which the believer bears fruit. I will describe these as (i) God’s Initiative and (ii) The Believers’ Response. This means fruit bearing is a two way approach. God works in the believer and the believer responds to God’s work. Paul in his letter to the Philippians perfectly illustrated this. He wrote:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13).
First and foremost, fruit bearing is possible only when one is in union with Christ through faith. Fruit bearing can’t happen outside of a union with Christ: “for apart from me you can do nothing” (v.5). Ultimately, it is God who works in us to bear fruit. Sinful as we are, separated from God by sin, we can do nothing pleasing to God without him first taking the initiative to love us and reconcile us to himself (Rom. 5:6-8, Eph 2:1-10; 1Jn. 4:19). God saves the sinner by grace and joins them to Christ through faith: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” (v.16).
God doesn’t leave us on our own after we are saved. He provides the strength and energy to please him through his Holy Spirit who indwells every believer. As a loving Father, one of the many ways he ensures we are bearing more fruit is pruning:
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 (vv.2-3).
The believer, as we see in the text, starts from a position of justification where they are already declared clean by the word: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” (v.3).We can only proceed to bear fruit because of this position of justification. We can bear fruit because we are clean before God.
Pruning is an agricultural term where branches impeding fruitfulness on a vine are trimmed off to allow for more room to bear fruit. Sometimes it involves lifting creeping branches on the floor, supporting them with stakes and washing them with the purpose of getting maximum fruit. This agricultural imagery is what God does to a believer who is bearing fruit. God prunes them so they bear more fruit. Pruning takes place in many ways.
When the word of God is preached for example, it searches our hearts and convicts us of our sins (Heb.4:12-13). It also involves discipline and chastisement (Heb. 12: 5-11) of the believer. God has the sole aim of conforming us to the image of Christ in character and holiness; therefore any sinful habit or even a ‘good thing’ which may stand between us and God in this journey of conformity would be cleared—pruned away.
We notice also in the text that there are those who don’t bear fruit and are cut off and cast into fire. This picture depicts eternal damnation and since a believer would not be brought into eternal damnation; these unfruitful branches are actually those who may appear to be believers but are actually not. If a person claims to be a Christian and is bearing no fruit in their walk with God, it may be a cause for concern. Are you truly saved? You must bear fruit.
The Believers’ Response
So far, we have looked at God’s initiative towards the believers’ fruitfulness. As already discussed, God works and the believer responds. And in John 15, Jesus tells the disciples how they will bear fruit or how they are to respond to the vinedresser—God’s initiative. They are to abide in him.
Abide To Bear Fruit
“Abide in me…” (v.4). The Bible student, to understand this, will naturally ask what does it mean to abide in Christ and then from there will proceed to find answers. The Christian takes her source of nourishment and growth from the vine. That means the Christian, as a branch, will have to be glued to Christ who is the vine in whatever she does. ‘Abiding in Christ’ is to continue daily to nurture our relationship with Christ in faith, obedience, fellowship in prayer, study of God’s word and other spiritual disciplines. It involves taking root in our faith walk. We come to Christ in faith and our journey and pilgrimage on this earth is that of faith for without faith no one can please God (Heb.11:6).
To abide is also to pray. I will call this communion with Christ where prayer is done alongside or with the study of God’s word—the Bible. Indeed Christ calls the believer into fellowship through prayer and the study of his word: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (v.7). Prayer and the study of God’s word is the means through which we encounter Christ. We cannot trust when we don’t have the word in us. Faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17).
Finally, to abide is to live in obedience—“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (v.10). In our days, any talk of obeying or keeping God’s commandments raises eyebrows and is very likely to receive the charge of legalism. However, Christ has called us to obedience. We can’t live anyhow and continue to call ourselves Christians. We must live in obedience to God’s commandments and indeed he has given us the grace to live in obedience to his word—“For this is the love of God , that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn.5:3).
Love for God is manifested in keeping his commandments. Loving God is not sentimental. It is obedience to his commandments and obedience in loving one another: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”. (v.12). Remember the greatest of all commandments is love—loving God and your neighbour (Matt. 22:37-39). When we have done all these, then the joy of the Lord, which is our strength and which is a fruit of the Spirit will become ours: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (v.11).
Our response to God’s initiative is to bear fruit by abiding in Christ.
What’s The Essence Of Fruit Bearing?
Firstly, fruit bearing is a mandate given to the believer. It is a ‘charge to keep‘³ the believer has. Christ tells his disciples he chose and appointed them that they will bear fruit (v.16). God’s sovereign electing grace of the believer has fruit bearing as a goal. There are good works the believer is elected to walk in (Eph. 2:10).
Secondly, bearing fruit is evidence of discipleship. A truly converted soul will have fruits to show. Saving faith must be accompanied by fruits– good works. True discipleship is evidenced by fruit. Martin Luther aptly said “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Faith without works, James says is dead (James 2:22; 26).
God has provided all the believer needs to bear fruit. He has given us his Word, his Holy Spirit and the body of Christ—the church— to aid us in our journey of faith. If indeed we are saved, we must be desirous to bear fruit to glorify God.
1.John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary ( Nashville, Tennesse: Thomas Nelson, 2005)
2. William Smith, Smith’s Bible Dictionary ( Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendricksons Publishers, Inc, 2008), 731
3. From Charles Wesleys’ hymn “A Charge To Keep I Have”