"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 you and me clean and connecting us to him. As dead helpless branches, you and I have been forgiven at the cross and then grafted into the true living vine by the power of the Lord's word and promise pronounced upon us. Once connected to Christ by his word, though, notice that the calling is not for us to work toward becoming more connected or more grafted into Christ, but to abide and remain. Thus you can confidently know that you have been cleansed and are fully grafted into the vine through the Lord's powerful word (his word that delivers the benefits of Calvary to us). Yes, you can say with confident joy that you are completely justified because of Jesus' death on the cross and that you are also completely sanctified (that is, made clean) by the word spoken to you. Listen dear friends, you are reckoned saints, for Jesus is your complete sanctification as well!
Being completely sanctified means that you are not subjected to the enemies of assurance. Often those enemies take the form of adjectives such as more, greater, true, further, higher, real, and nearer. Although all communicate that the branch's grafting to the vine is lacking, in Christ you are not lacking anything. These enemy adjectives can strip assurance and create the impression that the goal of the branch is to move closer to the vine in order to obtain something that it is lacking. But this is not the case for you. Why? You have every spiritual blessing in Jesus because he has declared you clean. Yes, his word has declared you clean; it is what it is.
Being completely sanctified also means that it is not up to the branch to try and produce fruit (that is, good works) as a bargaining tool for continuing connection to the vine or as a payment for the status of being declared clean. Rather, this complete sanctification is the source of all the good works (fruit) that the forgiven Christian gets to bear. The implications of this are clear. The good works that you do have no power to make you "cleaner" or "more connected" to the vine. They're a result of being connected to Jesus by the word and faith, not the cause. The fruit of good works can be thought of as marks of faith and grace; they are descriptive, not prescriptive.
While it is spot-on to confess that good works are not the cause of sanctification and do not preserve faith, it must be noted that evil works do destroy faith (Eph. 4:30; 5:5; 1 Cor. 6:9ff; Gal. 5:21; Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5-6). What this means is that even though we are cleansed by God's forgiving word, we are daily in need of the Vine Grower's (that is, the Father's) work upon us because the old Adam still clings to us. The Father does not act upon us by applying spiritual cosmetics to our sin, nor does he give a bracing pep talk to encourage the old man to reform his ways. Instead, he puts an end to the old Adam and sin through the waters of baptism (Rom. 6:1ff). The Vine Grower prunes and strips the branches of unneeded leaves. Thankfully, God will not allow or permit the branch to simply exist in an unpruned status. It must be fertilized and tended, to keep it from degenerating into a wild and barren branch. To not act upon it would be to allow it to decay into nothing. (For more on this, see page 212 of Luther's Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John Chapters 14-16, Concordia Publishing House.)
The branch is pruned to make it bear more fruit’but fruit for whom? Martin Luther once said, "God doesn't need our good works, but our neighbor does." This is true in the parable before us, for the vine does not produce fruit for itself. 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, we bear good works (Eph. 2:10). God prepares good works for us’we don't do good works to become Christians; we do them because we are already Christians. A proper understanding of the doctrine of vocation helps us understand that God not only prepares good works, but he also gives us the opportunity to serve our neighbor with them in our callings. Our daily tasks are opportunities God gives us to bear fruit.
There are several cautions for us to consider when we think about the Christian life in light of this parable. The first item of caution is to note that the branch does not turn into a vine, nor is the branch established as a separate entity from the vine. Jesus says that apart from him we can do nothing. Historically we have seen that some traditions err in creating what is called double justification’Christ is the basis of justification, and Christians are responsible to exert their effort to validate that justification and enact their own regeneration. This unfortunately causes people to move away from Christ by teaching them that Jesus gets them started, but then they are to go on their own as autonomous beings. May this never be! Christian growth is not about arriving at some point where a person needs Jesus less. The Christian life is not the establishment of the unholy trinity of "me, myself, and I" as an independent autonomous vine; it is rather to abide in Christ’the true and only vine’by faith, continually receiving the word and sacraments that are for us.
Second, when we think about the idea of cooperation, we must be careful not to understand cooperation as if it means that we work alongside the Vine Grower in producing fruit together. In other words, after the Holy Spirit has begun his work of rebirth in us’through the word and holy sacraments’we do not cooperate with him as if we and the Holy Spirit are both vines, each giving 50 percent. Rather, we cooperate when we are made living branches in conversion. Indeed, as branches of God the Holy Spirit, you and I only do good to the extent that he rules, leads, and guides. If God the Holy Spirit would withdraw his gracious hand, we could not for one moment remain in the faith, let alone bear good fruit. Branches are dependent upon the vine and cooperate as they receive all that is good and salutary from the vine itself.
Third, since good works are the fruit of Christ's justifying grace and sanctification in the life of a Christian, we don't need to display our fruit. When I examine my own spiritual fruit, I end up eating it. My sinful nature grabs hold of my good works, hoists them up, and says, "Look at what I did!" Anytime we boast of ourselves as branches and fruit-bearers, we are putting the focus back onto ourselves and degrading the life-giving vine. Because good works are the fruits of the Spirit, we get to look to Christ and his word rather than ourselves and what we are doing. This is important to remember: if we look to our good works to spur on more good works, then our endeavor will prove to be futile at best. Jesus, the true vine, is the author and perfecter of faith. We abide by fixing our eyes on Jesus and his word for us.
Finally, may we never succumb to the ideology that an overemphasis of the true vine leads to licentious sin. Yes, being declared righteous by the powerful word certainly does grant great freedom’freedom from guilt, sin, death, and self-righteousness. It frees us from a position of slavish fear to childlike love of God. But does this encourage freedom to sin? Does it embolden us to serve our sinful nature? Do Jesus and his word promote and distribute sin? Of course not. The word of the cross is death to the old Adam, not a license to the flesh. Sin is never a fruit of the vine. If licentiousness does exist, this perversion of freedom is due to our sinful nature. Indeed, a focus on the vine does not lead to a neglect of good fruit, but its nurture and growth.
In summary, dear friends, you are completely justified because of Jesus' death on the cross and completely sanctified (made clean) by the word spoken to you. You are reckoned saints by the Father, for the Son forgives you of all your sins. Be of good cheer: your sins are forgiven. There will be no cutting off and casting away, for you are in Christ Jesus. You are clean; you abide in Jesus, the true vine, who through the Holy Spirit will bring your new birth to full fruition. Jesus is the true vine, we are the branches, and we live this sanctified life from the true vine.