One of the biggest differences between Christianity and every other religion is that our righteousness does not depend on our own efforts. Rather, it comes from God’s work in us, changing us from the inside out.
God first introduces that concept in the Old Testament, where he said through Jeremiah,
“The time is coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31,33)
And again, in Ezekiel, where God said,
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Now in this passage in John, Jesus shows us further the work of God, as he says,
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (1-2)
Here we see the work of the Father, first cutting off branches that bear no fruit while pruning others so that they will be more fruitful.
What does it mean that God cuts off branches that bear no fruit? I don’t believe from other scriptures that it means that we can lose our salvation. There are two other possibilities. One is that he’s talking about people like Judas who came to learn of Jesus. But after years of learning from him, he bore no fruit. He never came to true faith. And so he was cut off. Many people today go to church, they learn many things from the Bible, but never come to true faith. And so eventually, they’re cut off.
The other possibility, however, is that the words “cut off” are a mistranslation. Another possible translation is “lifted up.” And it’s possible that Jesus is saying that the Father lifts those branches that are not bearing fruit up into the sunlight to better nourish the plants so that they can start to bear fruit.
In the same way, God lifts us from out of our sin and failures, and works in our hearts to bring about change so that we can start to bear fruit. And as we start to bear fruit, he prunes us, cutting out the things from our lives that would hinder our fruitfulness. I think God’s work in Peter’s life illustrates all this.
At a time when Peter was depressed and discouraged for having failed Jesus so badly, Jesus lifted him up and encouraged him. He didn’t wait for Peter to change himself. He went to Peter, and started to work in his heart, pulling him out of his depression, and then challenging him to move on. (John 21)
And though Peter started to bear fruit, Jesus didn’t stop there. Rather, he pruned away Peter’s prejudices, and caused him to become more fruitful as he started to reach out to the Gentiles he had once despised. (Acts 10-11)
But it was a continual process, and when Peter fell again, Jesus lifted him up and pruned him further. (Galatians 2:11-14)
How about you? Are you discouraged about where you are as a Christian? Remember that God doesn’t condemn you. Nor does he give up on you. Rather, he will continue working in you until you become all he desires you to be. So don’t shy away from him. Draw near. Remain in him. And you will bear fruit.