A Fruitful HeartErwin W. Lutzer | August 20, 2000
Selected highlights from this sermon
The allegory of the vine and the branches in John 15 should remind us that we are dependent on God and that God will prune us so that we’ll bear much fruit. And though the stroke of His pruning knife may cause us pain and may seem to be a random slice, it isn’t. Every stroke of God’s knife is carefully calculated to help purify our hearts and minds.
Let me introduce you to Linda. I met her this last week: 37 years old, two children, husband a cocaine addict, whom she divorced, lonely, trying to earn a living for herself and her two sons. One is a teenager and one is eight.
Linda loves the Lord, but was also lonely, had a boyfriend, and had an abortion two years ago. And so she looks into my eyes and asks this question: “With all of this that is going on and all the difficulties in our life,” because she is a Christian, she says, “What really does God want?”
That’s a good question. What does God want? It’s not the only time I’ve been asked that question. I was asked it in the life of a family that had experienced a windstorm that blew down some of their buildings, a disabled child, the man lost his job, deaths in the family, everything seemingly falling apart. At the end of the day, what does God want?
I want you to keep that question in the back of your mind, and then I want you to keep another one in the back of your mind. What do you want?
Let’s suppose I were to come to you and ask you that question, “What do you really want out of life?” What would your answer be? Pleasure, money, some of you say joy, fulfillment, family, long-life, whatever. Have you ever felt the tension and the diversion between those two questions? What does God want? What do I want?
Today we are going to find an answer to both of those questions. I’m so glad that you joined us. The passage of Scripture is the fifteenth chapter of John, (we are doing a series on the upper room discourse,) Jesus is saying goodbye to His disciples and gives us some of the richest truths anywhere in Scripture.
And in John 15 verse one, He says, “I am the true vine.” It’s the last and the seventh of the “I am’s” in the book of John. “I am the true vine,” in contradistinction to Israel, which was the false vine. You can read about this in the book of Isaiah, chapter five, where God says, “I had this vineyard, I planted it, but it brought forth wild grapes.” The wrong kind of fruit. So Jesus says, “Israel did not bear good fruit, but I am the true vine.”
Now what I want us to do today, is to take our cameras (I hope you brought one, a Polaroid will do.), you need only three pictures left on your film. And what we would like to do is to give three portraits of this wonderful extended metaphor, as we go through the passage. And I want you to be able to leave with those three portraits firmly trenched upon your imagination and your mind.
The first portrait is this: Notice that the Father is the gardener. I’m picking it up there in verse one: “I am the true vine, 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.” What does the Father do? He is the gardener.
Well, let’s walk through this vineyard and let us see. Now we come to the most difficult interpretive part of this metaphor. Jesus says, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit” He cuts down. Later on in verse six it says that, “The branches that are worthless are cast into the fire and they are burned.”
Who are these branches? Some people say, “Well, these are Christians who know the Lord and are a part of Jesus, and then they don’t bear fruit and God cuts them off, so they lose their salvation.” The problem is, if you have a high view of Scripture that’s difficult, because there are so many other passages that talk about our security, and God’s ability to take His own children all the way up to heaven. So that does not seem like a likely interpretation.
And furthermore, you wouldn’t take a metaphor like this and use it to build such a theological doctrine in light of the fact that there is so much other Scripture that is really specifically doctrinally based.
Well, others say that, “These are Christians who perhaps are fruitless Christians,” and when the Father cuts them off, my translation says, “They bear no fruit.” You’ll notice it says, “He cuts off every branch,” and later on, verse six, “They are cast into the fire and they are burned.” And so many people say, “This fire is the fire of the judgment seat of Christ.”
Just because the word fire occurs, doesn’t mean you should read the word “hell” into it. And that’s a possibility too. And I used to hold that interpretation, but as I wrestled with this during this past week, I think perhaps there may be another explanation.
Maybe these branches are not true Christians at all, that’s why they are cut off and cast into the fire and burned. Now I know it says that, “Every branch in me that bears no fruit,” but maybe Jesus wants us to understand that there are branches that appear to abide in Him, there are branches that appear to be connected to the vine, but they aren’t.
There are some people, you know, who are, what shall we say, they seem to be in Christ on Sunday, but they’re in the world during the week. And so really they are spurious. They aren’t really Christians at all. I think for example of Judas, who had the conduct apparently of a saint, but the heart of a devil.
There are Christians like that, or I should say there are people like that who aren’t real Christians, and the Father cuts them off and He casts them into the fire. You say, “Well, why isn’t the wood used for something?” Well the wood is not really wood at all from these branches. We think of a branch of a tree. These are branches of grapes.
Here’s what you do this week. You go into Dominick’s this week and buy some grapes. And when you buy them in clusters, those branches that hold the grapes together, those are the branches that Jesus is talking about. They are thin, they are spindly. A good translation is that they are twigs. They’re not strong enough for anything. All that they can do is to be cast into the fire, withered and burned. They are good for nothing.
So that’s the first category of people that Jesus is talking about here that the Father prunes. And by the way, I know that you brought your cameras, but I am going to tell you specifically when the picture should be taken, so you hang on here.
There’s a second category of people, and that is much easier to interpret. He says that “While every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, so that it bears more fruit.” So what you have is, first of all, the Father purging some of the branches.
Now I need to tell you, and those folks who grow vineyards in Israel will tell you, that a good gardener will recognize almost immediately that there are some vines that bear fruit and some vines that never will. And so those are the ones that are cut off, as we mentioned a moment ago.
But who are these that they bear fruit, but He prunes them that they may bear more fruit? That of course is a believer; that’s you and me who have trusted Christ as Savior. We are fruit-bearing Christians, but He prunes us.
Now what do gardeners do? They will go through the vineyard and they will cut off these branches. They’ll cut off the leaves, the little twigs, so that the real branches that are connected to the vine will do two things. First, that they don’t dissipate their energy by bearing all these leaves. Secondly, that they might further engraft their relationship to the vine; that they might become more firmly rooted into the vine. And because of that, you find that the gardener prunes these branches.
Now it’s time to take your camera and take the first picture, and I want you to see what you’re taking a picture of. Let’s visualize a vineyard that’s just been pruned all over. You have various piles of branches that are lying there. And they are very green. But as you look at their roots, where the cut was made, it seems to have wounded them so deeply, they almost seem to be bleeding and crying up in pain. That’s the first thing that we notice.
The second thing is that it seems to be so random. To us it looks as if a gardener just came in there and lopped things off. My friend, it’s not random. Did you know that you have to work for at least two years as an apprentice before you could be a gardener, because it is not only where you cut, but even the direction of the knife, becomes it is important to do the pruning properly.
Now that’s what the Father does to you and me. Why? Because the Scripture says in verse eight, “The Father is glorified when we bear fruit.” He wants us to bear fruit. And as a result of that, every stroke of His knife is carefully calculated and has a reason. It is done scientifically.
It’s like someone says, “There’s not a single branch that is cut off but that there is a gain in having it cut off.” It is not random. To the untrained eye it is, but to the eye of God, who knows what He wants to produce, everything is done carefully, systematically. That’s why no trial comes to us except that it has come through the hands of our Heavenly Father, because the gardener knows what He wants, He wants us to bear fruit, and He knows what you and I have to go through to bear it.
Now, my friend today, do not miss the major point. If you are not a fruit-bearing Christian, if you are not a fruit-bearing person, to God you are worthless. You’re worthless. Now that doesn’t mean that you are worthless as a person, we all have value, no matter whether we believe in Jesus or don’t believe in Jesus, every human being has value.
But so far as God is concerned, the glory that He delights in to receive fruit and to have us bear fruit, we are worthless to Him in that respect. And that’s why He says that if you are not fruit-bearing, you are cast into the fire and burned. That’s the only value you have.
Why? This is a gardener folks who longs for fruit. That’s what He’s thinking all the time, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit. That’s why it says in verse eight, “He is glorified when we bear much fruit.”
Your first picture is that of a vineyard with heaps of cut branches done lovingly by the gardener who knows what He is doing.
Let’s go on to a second picture here in the passage. And that is of course the picture of the vine, the Son. You’ll notice it, I should have commented on verse three, you are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you, yes, and I do need to add something here. Because, one of the questions we ask is, what kind of a knife does He use?
Well, He uses people, both those who irritate us and those who bless us, to prune us. He uses our circumstances; most assuredly that prunes us, doesn’t it? If you’ve ever been sick and laid aside for a couple of months in bed, that’s a means of cutting us back and pruning us so that we develop a closer relationship with Him. Most assuredly He uses that too.
But my dear friend He always uses His Word. Don’t miss the connection between verses two and three. Because He says, “Now you are clean.” (katharos, from which we get the word catharsis.) “You are cleansed by the Word that I have spoken unto you.” Listen, this comes to you today from my heart to you, there is no such thing as pruning without purifying. That’s what God wants.
And so our Lord takes us through these difficult circumstances, and He uses His Word to cleanse us. Part of the answer to the question, “What does God want?” is a clean heart. “Keep thy heart with all diligence for out of it are the issues of life.” Why? Because “You are cleaned through the word that I have spoken unto you.” You can’t be a fruit-bearing Christian apart from being in the Word. We’ve got our first photograph, let’s go to the second.
The second is the Son, who is the vine. I’m picking it up here in verse five: “I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” The responsibility of the gardener is to do the pruning because he wants fruit, but it is the responsibility of the vine to bear the life.
Now you look at a vine, it is much thicker than a branch, thicker than these twigs that we’ve talked about. And that vine, which is willing to go into the heart of the earth I’m told, perhaps dozens of feet, to get to the water.
Now, nobody expects the twig to do that. The twig does not have the ability; the twig does not have the resources. One of the great lessons in the Christian life is to distinguish between that which Jesus can do and that which we can do. Most of the time we are filled with anxiety because we are bearing upon ourselves responsibilities that fall upon the vine.
All that we can do, as we will see in a moment, is to abide. But, it is the responsibility of the vine to bear the life and to be able to energize and give the nutrients and sap and all that is needed for life, and all that is needed for those lush grapes. That does not come from the twigs, my friend. That comes from the vine.
It’s the responsibility also of the vine to stay connected to the branches. Now we have a responsibility too, to remain and to abide, and we will get to that in a moment. But as I see it, the vine grows, and out of the vine, the branches come. And it’s the connectedness that gives the energy to those twigs because eventually they are going to bear the fruit.
Now, if you’ve ever seen a vineyard, my untrained eyes go immediately to the grapes. I see the grapes. But the simple fact is that often times we don’t even see the connection really between the vine and the branches.
It’s just like people today where you are working in your bank and in your hospital or wherever you find yourself. People don’t see Jesus, do they? I mean, Jesus is in heaven, His body is in heaven, but His spirit indwells us so He is with all of us. But Jesus himself is not seen, but they see us, they see the grapes, they see the fruit. And that should lead them to the recognition that there must be a vine somewhere.
So I want you to take a second picture with your camera. And that is the picture of the vine going deep into the soil. That strong vine that goes and provides everything that is needed, and I mean everything for the life of those branches.
Let’s go on to a third figure here, and that is of course now the believer, the branches. And I’m going to be re-reading some of the text here. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” verse five, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can’t do much.” Is that what your Bible says, or am I reading from the reversed vision? “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
What is a twig? A twig essentially is a grape rack. What can those twigs do apart from the vine, cut off from the vine? Absolutely nothing! We’ve already learned that they are to be cast into the fire and burned because they are totally worthless.
How much can you and I do without Jesus? You say, “You know, without Jesus I can do good things.” Yes, you can, and there are people who don’t know Jesus at all and they are doing good things, they are doing good works. No question about it. There is a sense of compassion; there is a sense of helpfulness that can take place, and many of those things.
But one thing you can’t do without Jesus is to bear fruit. That is impossible; the fruit that the Father wants. You see you can’t manufacture fruit. Some of you who are scientists, and here at The Moody Church we have researched when we wanted to have some information researched, we were delighted to find the number of people that are.
Some of you “bright lights” who are into research, why don’t you go into a laboratory sometime and spend an afternoon, we’ll give you an entire afternoon. Go ahead, make an orange. Just go there and make one. You say, “Well, we can’t.” Well, why can’t you? What are the ingredients? Can’t you put it together?
And the answer is, “No, you can’t put it together because fruit can only be grown.” It can only be grown in a certain context. And without Jesus, we cannot have one little scintilla of the fruit that the gardener wants to see. None; “Without me he can do nothing.”
Well, it’s time for us to define what this fruit means. The fruit you see is the expression of the inner nature. I think we call them horticulturists, but they can walk through a forest, and they can see that that tree is going to bear that kind of fruit, and that tree is going to do this and have that kind of leaves, simply because they can look at the tree, they can see it by the bark, by its shape.
I can’t do that. But you know one time I was in Florida, and I will never forget the first time I saw oranges grow on trees. Now I was born in the North where we were always told that oranges grow on trees, that’s where they come from, and we believed that, we saw pictures of that as children. But the first time I saw it I was astounded! I said, “They really do grow on trees.” And I looked at those oranges and, you have to understand, this takes a keen intellect (laughter), I deduced, “That must be an orange tree!” (Laughter)
You plant an apple, and you get an apple tree. You get apple seeds, you plant the tree, and you get apples. Why? It’s the expression of the inner nature. And the fruit is the expression of all the inner nutrients and all that goes into that nature, and that’s why we have fruit.
Now think of the analogy. What is fruit-bearing for us as Christians? Well, of course, it’s Christ-likeness. It is Jesus being reproduced in us because He said that “If we abide in Him and He abides in us,” when somebody hits us, Jesus should break out.
Was Jesus compassionate? Yes, well then, we are compassionate people. Did Jesus tell others about the Father? Yes, of course He told others about the Father, so we tell others about the Father, we do, don’t we? I hope we do. Was Jesus able to endure the suffering of Gethsemane with all of its horror, with a sense of knowing that this was the will of God? Yes, and then we suffer as the will of God and within that will of God.
And yes, it’s the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness and so forth, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s everything that Jesus wants to reproduce in us. And as we abide, more and more of Him comes to the surface, and His nature breaks out, and we say, “Wow! That is a fruitful Christian!” In fact, we can live so closely to Him, I wish I could say this is true of me, I’m sure it’s not, but it’s possible to live so closely to Him that you actually begin to think alike.
And that’s why the Scripture says “If you abide in me.” I’m in verse seven: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you,” because we are going to be thinking alike, and the requests that you are going to be making are going to be my requests. And there is going to be a unity between what you want and what I want, because the relationship is so intimate. That’s what fruit-bearing is all about. And, apart from Christ, you can’t do a single thing. No fruit, none, nothing but leaves.
Well, the question of course is, what does it mean to remain then? What are these branches supposed to do? And the picture that I want you to take, the third picture, is of course of branches with huge clusters of grapes. Because that is what we are really interested in.
But what is this “abiding” bit, this “remain in me?” Well, first of all, it’s a sense of dependency, obviously. It’s coming to Jesus and saying, “I don’t have the resources that I need to bear fruit because naturally I do the opposite. So what I’m asking you to do, is to grant me this sense of yieldedness so total, that is so complete. It is a yieldedness that is so beyond my emotions, I don’t have to feel like yielding, I don’t have to feel like I have these resources, but I submit to you.”
Yesterday on my way to the airport at Hartford, Connecticut, a man gave me a book by Henri Nouwen called The Way of the Heart. And I read it there in the airport, waiting for United Airlines. (laughter) I can’t even begin to tell you all the books I have been able to read this summer, waiting for United Airlines. (laughter) But this was only a short book, maybe 90 to 100 pages, and basically it is to revive some of the ancient mysticism, Christian mystics.
And while I don’t agree with all of it, there is a part of it on solitude that somehow I said, “Yeah, this is right.” He says that “Solitude is the furnace that brings about the transformation of the heart.”
And he goes on to talk, and I thought, “You know, the older I get, the more I realize that I have to come away, I have to give God time to search my heart. I have to give God time for me to be yielded. I can’t be rushing in and out of the presence of God, in a hurry, doing things, reading books, preparing messages, and all the other things that we have to do, and at the same time abiding. Abiding you get your roots down deep.
Hudson Taylor wrote his book A Spiritual Secret when I was a new Christian. I read it, and you’ve got all these books, the secret of this, the secret of that, and listen, with all the books that are published, I need to tell you, there are no secrets left. But in his spiritual secret, could I read just a couple of paragraphs.
He says, “I knew that if only I could abide in Christ, all would be well, but I could not. I would begin the day with prayer, determined not to take my eyes off Him for a moment. But the pressure of duties, sometimes very trying and constant interruptions apt to be so wearying, caused me to forget Him. There is nothing so much that I desired as holiness, nothing so much I needed. But far from any measure of attaining it, the more I strove after it, the more it eluded my grasp, until hope itself almost died out.”
He goes on to say that he began to think that there was no such thing as real satisfaction in Christ until heaven to make heaven all the sweeter. He said, “How shall I get my faith strengthened? Then the Lord showed me the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never known it before. My faith could be strengthened not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One.”
“Ah, there is rest, I thought, I have striven in vain to rest in Him, I shall strive no more. For has He not promised to abide with me and never leave me? Nor was this all that He showed me, nor one half. As I thought of the vine and the branches, what light the blessed Spirit poured directly into my soul. How great seemed my mistake and wishing to get to the sap and to get the fullness out of Him.”
You’ve had the experience. You say, “Well Jesus, I know that you’re powerful, but look at me.” How do we make the connection? And then he says, “I saw now that not only will Jesus never leave me, but I am a member of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. The vine is not just the root, but all the root, the stem, the branches, the twigs, the leaves the flowers and the fruit.”
“And Jesus is not that alone. He’s the soil, the sunshine, the air, the showers, and ten thousand times more than we ever dreamed, wished or needed. And the sweetest part is the rest, which this identification brings. I’m no longer anxious about anything as I realize this. For I know He is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine.”
What do you do when you are anxious, when you don’t know how to abide? You come to the One, and you simply confess your need. Yes, you confess your sins. We’re not talking about a rest of inactivity, where you sink into passivity. There’s a war to be won and a battle to be fought. But we fight from the standpoint of strength, we fight while remaining, while we are dependent upon Him. There is that place, yes, of quiet rest. So it’s a dependency.
There is also obedience. It’s right here in the text. You’ll notice that Jesus says in verse nine, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remained in His love.”
So, what does abiding mean? It is dependency and obedience. You say, “Obedience to what?” Obedience to whatever God shows us through the Word. Obedience to sin that needs to be confessed, obedience to the purity that He demands from us if we are to be purged and cleansed, obedience to His leading in our lives. That’s the way in which we put our puny little twig, which is already in Christ if we are believers. And we learn to simply say, “I look to the vine for everything.”
Some of you, bless you, you’re going through times of anxiety because of circumstances that are beyond your control, there’s nothing that you can do about it. And you’re wondering, “Is there really some place that I can go to?” Yes, Christ. And I might say also to His people, because we are strengthened in one another and part of the cleansing process is to be together, and how I look forward to being here today. I missed being here last Sunday, and I want you to know that my heart went a little twitter when I thought of the fact that finally I get to be back at Moody Church this morning, because I am strengthened by your presence and by your prayers and by your singing, and us doing it together. And that’s certainly all part of it too, but it is yieldedness and obedience.
Well, how do we finally nail all this down? What are the conclusions to which we can come? We’ve taken three pictures. You’ve seen the vineyard with all of the branches that have been cut, the purging process, and the pruning process. Spurgeon said, “Oh, blessed acts of sorrow that cuts a pathway to my God by chopping down the tall trees of human comfort.”
So we have been thinking about that, we have seen the picture of the vine deeply embedded in the soil. We’ve seen the grapes, the fruit. What is the conclusion?
First, let me impress upon you again that the Father is much glorified by fruit. “Therein is my Father glorified,” and what an important statement that is. “What does God want?” Linda asked. God wants fruitfulness. And with His knife, He will cut away everything. Either through the conviction of the Spirit, or the means that we have talked about, He will cut everything away to get that fruit. Because if He does not, we are worthless to Him. He loves his Son, and He wants to see his Son in us, and He will go to great lengths to make sure it happens. That’s why “being” always precedes “doing.”
I was at a conference where a young man was just getting over alcoholism, he’s been sober for three months, bless him, and he’s going to be in a church where he can continue to have accountability. He asked me a question that kind of blew me away. I normally have some kind of an answer. But in effect he was saying “The world is going to hell, we’re in this great mess, how do you think I can strengthen the Kingdom of God?”
Well, I commended him for his great vision. But, my goodness, it was almost as if the world has been waiting for his unveiling, and it’s about to take place.
And I said, “You know I don’t know if I can give you a specific answer, but let me tell you something. What you should concentrate on is who you are. You take care of your character, your integrity, and your purity, the discipline that God has in your life, and God will find a way for you. No question about that.” “Being” must always precede “doing.” “Abiding” precedes “serving.”
Let me give you another conclusion. I asked the question at the beginning, what does God want? Well, we know now what God wants: fruit. I also asked the question, what do you want?
How would you like to die? Gallup did a survey on death that I attended when George Gallup was actually in town. And I think it was, if I remember correctly, that 80% of people say they would like to die thinking that they had lived a good life and made some kind of a contribution to society. I don’t know what the other 20% were thinking.
What do you want? What do you get out of it? Your Bibles are open, aren’t they? You’ll notice that it says these wonderful words in verse eleven: “I’ve told you this, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” That’s not a bad deal, is it? You learn to abide and what do you get? The Father gets what He wants: fruit. We get what we want: joy and fulfillment.
So the will of the Father and our will converge and turn out to be one and the same thing. We are fruit-bearing Christians, therefore we are joyful Christians, and our joy is complete. Where else can you find that?
I think I may have told this story recently of Joni Eareckson-Tada. My wife and I were with her this summer at a conference together in New Orleans. And every time I see her, I am reminded of the story of she, who is a quadriplegic as you may know, because of a diving accident perhaps 25 or 30 years ago, how she used to pray for healing. She begged God; she attended faith-healers, and tried to go forward. And there was no healing.
And she always thought of John chapter five, the man there at the pool of Bethesda, the man who was disabled, whom Jesus sovereignly healed. And she used to read that story and pray that it would be she. But it never was.
Then a couple of years ago she went to Israel, as a quadriplegic to the pool of Bethesda. And she said that as she sat there, she thanked God that she had never been healed. Because she knew that if she had been, she would not know Him as well as she has come to know Him through her disability.
I have a friend who likes to say, “You know, God loves to use His knife to prune, to cut His people. But He wounds in order that He might heal, because He is after fruit.”
Well, as you know, yesterday I was in Northfield. And at the back of the house where D.L. Moody was born, I went to his grave and where Emma is buried. And there I saw on his grave, one of his favorite verses: “He that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”
Notice in verse sixteen, you can just glance at it very quickly, Jesus said, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you. I’ve ordained you to go and bear fruit and that your fruit might remain.” Wow! He that does the will of God abides forever.
Now I understand that when we are dead, nobody is going to come to our grave. Maybe the children for a little while, but we will be forgotten. We are not going to be D.L. Moody’s that are going to be remembered, I know that. But we are remembered to God. Because the Father says, “I have one agenda – fruit-bearing – and will put you through the furnace until I see it.”
Let’s pray together. “Our Father we want to thank You today for the wonderful relationship that we have with Jesus. We thank You that when we were saved, we were put into Him. Help us to get away from all the distractions, all of the sins that doth so easily beset us, all of the agendas and in solitude. May we seek You and know something of what it is like to have Jesus in our lives reproduced. Grant that for Your people. And Father, for the Linda’s among us, and for people who are going through difficult trials, help us to surround them with our encouragement. And in so doing, that we as a congregation might reflect Jesus, in whose name we pray, Amen.