Withered on the Vine
By Jack Kinsella
When we were in Israel, we toured Israel’s border with Syria near the Golan Heights. Going up from the floor of the Galilee one can actually note the changes in elevation by the different crops planted at the various levels.
Thanks to Israel’s various elevations, one can experience almost every climate variation in the world, with everything from desert to tropical to temperate climates being within an hour’s drive of Jerusalem.
Everything grows in Israel, from tropical date palms to northern apples. But Israel is especially well-suited for olives, grapes and figs. The Festival of the First Fruits (Shavuot) is a celebration of the harvest.
Although everything grows there, the offerings of the first fruits (bikkurim) brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot were brought only from seven “species” of agricultural bounty.
The seven species of agricultural produce that symbolize the fertility of Israel celebrated at Shavuot are wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey (from dates).
Israel is often represented metaphorically in one of the seven species, most often as God’s ‘fig tree’ or with God as the husbandman and Israel as a vine or a vineyard.
“For a nation is come up upon My land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek teeth of a great lion. He hath laidMy vine waste, and barked My fig tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white. Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the Husband of her youth.” (Joel 1:6-8)
“Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.” (Psalms 80:8)
The vine is a perfect metaphor in the sense that a vineyard requires constant care or the fruit will quickly degenerate. After the rains, the round must be plowed and cleared of weeds.
In the early spring the plants must be pruned by cutting off dead and fruitless branches. The fruit itself must be protected from the foxes and the birds. After the harvest, the gleanings are left for the poor to gather.
In the New Testament, the metaphor of the vine and the branches is extended to include the Church, symbolizing its relationship both to Christ and to Israel.
“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without Me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
One of the passages offered recently as an objection to the doctrine of eternal security concerns what Jesus taught His disciples in the Upper Room shortly before His Crucifixion.
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman.” (John 15:1)
Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew and was crucified as King of the Jews. He is the True Vine. The Church is the fruit of that Vine, dependent on God the way a vineyard requires constant care if it is to continue to bear fruit.
How does a Christian bear ‘fruit’? The purpose for a Christian’s life is summed up by the Great Commission.
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: (Matthew 28:19)
Other than that, the Bible says that all our good works are as filthy rags before the Lord. We tend to think we know the Mind of God but He says that we are totally clueless apart from that revealed to us.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD.” (Isaiah 55:8)
According to the Bible, we are so limited in our understanding that we don’t even really know how to pray.
“Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26)
But here’s what we do know how to do in order to bear fruit acceptable unto God. Live the Great Commission.
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:” (1 Peter 3:15)
Continuing the theme of the vineyard and its need for constant tending, Jesus told His Disciples;
“Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” (John 15:2)
This is where the doctrine of eternal security comes into question. Jesus says a branch in Him that does not bear fruit “will be taken away” by the husbandman. Does this mean that a saved Christian that does not bear fruit will lose his salvation?
That doesn’t line up with the Scriptures that say salvation is by grace through faith and not of works — ‘lest any man should boast’.
So what does it mean when a Christian ‘withers on the vine?’ John does write in his first epistle of a ‘sin unto death’.
“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.” (1 John 5:16)
“Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without Me ye can do nothing.” (15:3-5)
Does this mean that once we are saved by grace, we maintain our salvation by our works?
The statement that ‘without Him we can do nothing’ is merely a restatement of the obvious. It means that the closer you are to Jesus, the more productive a branch you will be and the more fruit you will bear.
It is the Vine that bears the grapes, not the other way around. One is not saved by bearing fruit. One bears fruit because one is saved.
“If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” (John 15:6)
This is the verse that seems to raise the most difficulty. At first blush, it seems to suggest that if a man abides not in Christ, he loses his salvation and is cast into hell. But that’s not what it says.
Remember that Jesus is speaking metaphorically about vineyards and branches in the physical sense. A branch withers and dies, men gather them together and dispose of them.
Physically, a person withers and dies, his body is gathered and disposed of by burial. When a Christian is fruitless in life, oftentimes the Lord uses his physical death to plant new seeds.
When Anaias and Sapphira lied to Peter (and by extension, to the Holy Ghost), they fell down dead at Peter’s feet. They sold their land to help finance the Great Commission — to bear fruit for the Kingdom. Then they tainted themselves and their offering.
They didn’t lose their salvation, but they had rendered themselves useless as branches on the vine.
Since the only point to a Christian’s earthly life is to bear fruit, Anaias and Sapphira had more to offer the Church in terms of edification by falling over dead than they did in terms of helping to spread the Gospel.
“And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” (Acts 5:14)
Everything we know about the Church, its purpose and its goal brings us to the same ultimate point. Bearing fruit unto God. The Church bears fruit unto God by saving the lost from hell by sharing the Gospel.
The individual doesn’t bring glory to God by his own good works. A person’s good works bring glory unto the person doing the good works.
People didn’t go to a Billy Graham Crusade to hear the Word of God. They went there because Billy Graham was preaching it.
When a Billy Graham Crusade resulted in a thousand professions for Christ, people didn’t say, “Wow! Look at God go!”
They said, “Wow! Can Billy Graham ever preach!”
The Lord used Billy Graham in an amazing, powerful way. But in this life at least, most of the glory is reserved for Billy Graham.
It is no big deal for a professional baseball player to hit a home run off a 12 year-old kid. But it is a very big deal for a 12 year-old kid to hit a home run pitched by a professional baseball player.
The Apostle Paul recounted the time he went to the Lord Jesus to ask Him to remove what he called a thorn in his flesh, a “messenger of Satan, sent to buffet me.” Whatever that thorn was, Paul felt it interfered with his ability to minister effectively.
“And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
“If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love; even as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love.” (John 15:11)
Is this an admonition to keep the Ten Commandments in order to maintain one’s salvation? Read it all — in context.
“That ye love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
“These things I command you, that ye love one another.” (John 15:17)
A person is saved, first and foremost, by grace. That is to say that God in His grace made a way for sinners to be reconciled to Him despite the fact that they are sinners by nature.
A person is saved by faith in God’s acceptance of the sacrificial Blood shed at the Cross and only that sacrifice is all sufficient. That faith is ‘made perfect’ when it is realized at the Bema Seat.
Salvation cannot be a combination of grace and works because they are mutually exclusive. If it is one, it cannot be the other. And since I know my works as well as God does, my only hope lies with grace alone.
“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Galatians 2:21)
This Letter was written by Jack Kinsella on June 15, 2010.