“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.” John 15:1-6
It is certainly obvious from this parable that Jesus deserves all the credit in declaring us clean and connecting us to Him. For Christ’s sake we, as dead helpless branches, have been grafted into the true Vine, Jesus. Once connected to Christ though, notice that the calling is not for us to work towards becoming ‘more’ connected or ‘more’ grafted into Christ, but the calling is to abide/remain. Thus we can confidently know that we have been cleansed and are fully and completely grafted into the Vine; we are completely sanctified, reckoned saints for Jesus is our sanctification.
Being completely sanctified means that we can disregard the enemies of assurance, those enemies being adjectives. Adjectives like: more, greater, true, further, higher, real, and nearer all communicate that the branch’s grafting to the Vine is lacking. Adjectives can strip assurance and create the impression that the goal of the branch is to move closer or upward towards the Vine in order to obtain something that it is lacking. Alas, the branch should not be driven to ascend up the Vine to obtain a greater or improved ontological status. The reason being, we have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ! (See Ephesians 1:3) Otherwise stated, it is not dependent on you and me to move upon the Holy One, but rather it is the Holy One who has and continues to move upon the Christian.
Being completely sanctified also means that it is not up to the branch to try and produce fruit (i.e., good works) as a bargaining tool or payment for its status of being connected to the Vine or to be declared clean. Rather, this complete sanctification is the source of all our good works, works that we get to bear. The implications of this are clear. The good works that each of us bear certainly have no power to make you and me ‘more’ clean or ‘more’ connected to the Vine. The good works that we walk in are a result of being connected to Jesus, not the cause. The fruit of good works can be thought of as marks of faith and grace; they are descriptive of sanctification not prescriptive for justification. Thus, we must be on guard from believing that the reason for being connected and staying connected to the true Vine is due to our good works or some inherent strength that we supposedly bring to the table.
While it is spot-on to confess that good works are not the cause of our justification and do not preserve faith, it must be noted that it is certainly true that evil works do destroy faith. What this means is that even though we are cleansed by God’s forgiveness, we are daily in need of the Vinegrower’s (i.e. Father) work upon us, because the old Adam that still clings to us. The Father does not act upon us by applying spiritual cosmetics to our sin in order to masquerade our sin as legitimate fruit. Furthermore, the solution to the old Adam is not an exhorting pep talk to encourage us to tap into our willpower so as to motivate the old Adam in producing fruit, or possibly reform his old ways. Rather, what is needed is an end to the old Adam and his sin. What is needed is death. The old Adam needs to be cut off and drowned in the waters of baptism. The Vinegrower needs to act upon the branch by pruning and stripping the branches of unneeded leaves. “God proceeds to improve and perfect it [faith] by cross and suffering, so that faith is increased and the remaining uncleanness and sin are daily diminished and purged until death.” The branch needs to be acted upon by the Father who,
“… will not permit this Vine to lie unfertilized and unpruned. Otherwise it would degenerate into a wild and unfruitful vine which would finally perish entirely. But when it is well cultivated, fertilized, pruned, and stripped of its superfluous leaves, it develops its full strength and yields wine that is not only abundant but also good and delicious.”
The branch is pruned to make it bear more fruit, but fruit for whom? Martin Luther once said, “God doesn’t need our works, but our neighbor does.” This is also certainly true in our parable before us, for the Vine does not produce fruit as a means of circular consumption. The branches are not a means that the Vine uses to bear fruit for itself. Furthermore, as branches, you and I are not the source of good works, the Vine is. What this means is that we don’t produce good works, but bear good works. (See Ephesians 2:10) Good works are prepared in advance for us to walk in, which teaches us that we don’t do good works to become a Christian, rather we do good works because we already are Christians. Thus, our Lutheran understanding of Vocation helps us understand that God not only prepares good works, but He gives us the opportunity to serve our neighbor with these good works in our callings. Think of Vocation as avenues that God has called us to bear fruit.
There are several cautions for us to consider at this point in assessing the life of the Christian through this parable of the true Vine and the branches.
The first item of caution is for us to note that the branch does not turn into a Vine and the branch is not established as a separate entity from the Vine. Jesus says that apart from Him we can do nothing. Historically we have seen that some pietistic traditions err in ‘not’ treating the terms justification and regeneration as synonyms, but as separate events. Therefore, one is justified in Christ, but then they need to be regenerated. This results in what is called double justification where Christ is the basis of justification and one’s individual piety is the basis of their regeneration. No, may we never move away from Christ! Our Christian growth is not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less. This Christian life is not the establishment of the unholy trinity of ‘me, myself, and I’ as an independent autonomous vine, it is to abide in Christ the true and only Vine.
Secondly, in light of this parable when a person speaks about cooperation he must confess that he cooperates, “to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him, and that as soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from him, he could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God.” In other words, we neither cooperate in being the source of fruit nor the one that cleans ourselves. Rather, we cooperate when we bear and walk in the good works that have been prepared in advance for us. We participate as the direct object, the people who are connected to the Vine and acted upon.
Thirdly, since good works are the fruit of Christ’s justifying grace and sanctification in our lives, we shall not overemphasize the fruit of sanctification. Frankly, when I examine my own spiritual fruit, I end up eating it. Furthermore, anytime we overemphasize the branch and its fruits we are putting the focus back onto self and deemphasizing the life giving Vine. Because good works are the fruits of the Spirit, we get to look to Christ rather than ourselves and what we are doing. The reason being, if we look to our good works to spur on more good works, our endeavor will prove to be futile at best. It is foolish because Jesus, the true Vine, is the author and perfector of faith; may we abide by fixing our eyes on Jesus rather than self. Luther comments on this saying,
“…we must not look at ourselves to see what we are and what we do, whether we are worthy and our works are sufficient. Otherwise the doctrine of the papacy and the statement of monks and priests would be correct… For they do not look beyond themselves, their vocation, or their works but presume to reconcile to God and obtain mercy through these, just as the heathen and the Turks do. Therefore it is impossible for them ever to conclude with certainty that their calling and life are acceptable to God. They are doomed to eternal doubt.”
Luther goes on to say,
“Therefore, he who wants to be helped out of such doubt should be intent solely on coming out of himself and all his works into Christ and on learning to know how we come to grace through Him, are pleasing to God, and thus through faith are grafted into Him as branches. Then he can say: ‘I know, praise God, that unfortunately I am a poor and unworthy man and have deserved nothing but hell and wrath before God; but I also know that God is gracious to me for the sake of Christ the Lord, who suffered and died for my sin. And since I am in Christ and am cleansed by Him, God takes pleasure in my life and works, which proceed from such faith, and regards them as good fruit.”
Keep in mind though, while it is completely just to point out and describe what good works are by the Law, if we want more good works, we don’t tell a branch to ‘produce’ good works. The reason why we don’t tell a branch to ‘produce’ good works is that good works are not sourced in the branch but are sourced in the Vine and proceed from the faith that is provided by the Vine. May we direct each other to the true Vine where,
“…man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law, and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ. For such men are no more under the Law, but under grace, as St. Paul says, Rom. 8:2 [Rom. 7:23; 1 Cor. 9:21 ].”
Finally, may we never succumb to the ideology that an overemphasis of the true Vine leads to licentiousness. Yes, justification by grace through faith certainly does grant freedom; freedom from guilt, sin, death, and self-righteousness. It frees us from a position of slavish fear to child-like love of God. But does a robust theology of justification encourage freedom to sin; does it embolden us to serve our sinful nature? Are we to sin all the more that grace may increase? May this rationalization never be! Is Jesus a promoter and distributer of sin? How can we who died to sin still live in it? To assume that justification emancipates us to sin is impossible because both justification and sanctification are connected to the cross which means that the old Adam finds death, not life, at the cross. The old Adam cannot continue through the cross. Otherwise stated, it is ridiculous to believe that sin is a fruit of the Vine. Therefore, a vigorous theology of justification by grace through faith cannot be held responsible for licentiousness. Rather, if licentiousness does exist, this perversion of freedom can be traced back to something else other than the Gospel, namely our sinful nature. In summary, let us not make the mistake of imagining that an,
“…insistence upon justification leads to neglect of sanctification. On the contrary, wherever justification is not rightly inculcated, there can be no true sanctification; for justification supplies not only the motive, but also the power for sanctification. Hence, if the Christian minister would move his hearers to do good works, he must constantly point them to the grace of God, by which the regenerate have been endowed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ…”
Jesus said, “I am the true Vine.” We are the branches. We live this sanctified life from the true Vine.
Praise be to God.
 The term Sanctification, as used here, is to be considered in its wide sense where it speaks of everything that God does in the one who He turns from sin to holiness (i.e., God’s work of repentance, faith, justification, sanctification, and preservation of the person).
 See: Eph. 4:30; 5:5; 1 Cor. 6:9 :ff; Gal. 5:21; Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5-6
 Luther’s Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John Chapters 14-16 (Concordia Publishing, 1961, 212.
 Ibid 195.
 Valentin Ernst Loescher, The Complete Timotheus Verinus (Northwestern Publishing House, 2006), 113.
 “The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord” http://bookofconcord.org/sd-freewill.php#para66 (24April 2013).
 Martin Luther, 219.
 Ibid, 219-220.
 “The Solid Declaration of the Book of Concord” http://www.bookofconcord.org/sd-thirduse.php#para17 (24 April 2013)
 The term Sanctification, as used in this quote by John T. Mueller, is to be considered in its narrow sense where it speaks of the transformation of the believer through the work of God (i.e., the putting to death of the old Adam and the raising up of the new Man in good works)
 John T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics: A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen (Concordia Publishing, 1934), 413-414.