A Branch Cannot Bear Fruit By Itself

Guest Author: Jonathan Jones

I am convinced that some of the most crucial doctrines of the New Covenant of Jesus Christ are also some of the most misunderstood by the church. One of the most visible examples of this is the New Testament doctrine of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7; Romans 3:28).

It saddens me at the number of Christians that I perceive to be living by a “salvation-by-works mindset.” This mindset grows like a spiritual cancer from “working hard to get to heaven,” to legalism, to bitterness, to spiritual burn-out, to despair, and eventually to apostasy. The entire system of the New Covenant is built upon a system of salvation by grace, not salvation by the accumulation of good deeds done or even by perfect rule-keeping. Good deeds cannot save (cf. Isaiah 64:6), and no one can ever keep all the rules all of the time (Romans 3:10; Acts 15:10). If good deeds and perfect rule-keeping could save, then there would have been no reason for Jesus to die and mankind would likely be under Mosaic Law.

But what is the relationship between our faith and our works? Paul states that we are saved by grace and not by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet, James affirms that we are saved (justified) by our works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). Are Paul and James contradicting one another?

Jesus teaching about the vine and the branches (John 15:1-17) gives a perfect picture of the harmony between Paul and James, faith and works. In his lengthy illustration, Jesus compares himself to a vine and his disciples to branches on the vine. Jesus explicitly states that a “branch cannot bear fruit of itself” (15:4), and “apart from Me you can do nothing” (15:5). It is impossible for a branch to produce fruit if the branch is separated from the vine. It is only when the branch is connected to the vine, and is receiving the life-giving nourishment of the vine that it is able to produce fruit. The key concept Jesus is stressing is to remain connected to the vine. Jesus uses the word “abide” nine times in the first ten verses of chapter 15. We must stay connected to Jesus and only then will we bear fruit as a result of that connection. Remember, a branch cannot bear fruit by itself.

We remain connected to Jesus Christ by living a life of submissive faith to Him. We are saved by that faith. By staying connected to Jesus, his life-giving force flows through us and He bears fruit in our lives. Our works are not our own, they are the natural result of being connected in genuine relationship to Christ. For this reason, Paul describes the characteristics of Christ within true disciples as “the fruit of the Spirit” and not the “fruit of our works” (Gal. 5:22-23). When we are in faithful relationship to Christ his spirit dwells within us–automatically bearing fruit in the life of the true believer. It is in this sense that James could say that we are saved by works (cf. James 2:24) because the fruit of Christ’s Spirit dwelling in our lives demonstrates that we have a living faith (not a dead faith) within us. The fruit hanging on the vine branch shows that the branch is connected to the vine.

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