I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
Christ laid down in a repeated fashion – the mark of a good teacher – this simple principle: The Christian life is about abiding in Christ, making our home in Him and letting Him make His home in our hearts, and from this reality of life in Him we bear spiritual fruit.
To try and do anything else will result in no true spiritual fruit. It is good to consider the goal of Christ stated in John 15:16:
You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.
The Lord is not building a kingdom like earthly kingdoms, that will last for a few years or centuries, and then vanish into history. He is building an eternal kingdom, and as the Master Builder, He is consistent with His method and His goal. His method matches His goal, so His method in building is to emphasize from beginning to end this matter of abiding in Him. A branch cut off from the vine may appear green and healthy for some time, but eventually it will wither and show that it is truly dead, cut off from life.
But, someone might object, surely Christ has overstated the case here, after all Paul said, “Some preach Christ even from envy and strife … from selfish ambition” (Phil. 1:15-16). They took the gospel of Christ and preached to make their own name more popular among Christians – yes, even in Christian circles people can serve out of selfish ambition. But then Paul added, “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).
Christ also said, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'” (Matt. 7:22-23)
In both cases these were people who preached the gospel, or at least enough of the gospel to have had some spiritual fruit, to have seen salvations, victories over demonic powers, and perhaps even the building up of some churches. It is interesting that the only profession that is specifically mentioned in Scripture as being in hell is the professional religious practitioner, the preacher, if you will. And they did this without Christ in their lives. It will be a personal tragedy for these people at the judgment, but yet there was some spiritual fruit. So how can Christ say, and what did He mean when He said, “Without Me you can do nothing”?
Without Christ there can be no true conversions: The first meaning we can derive from this is that He and He alone, through His Spirit, is able to bring salvation to anyone’s life. The lost man who toils in the preaching of the gospel, even though he is disqualified from enjoying the results in his life because of his lack of faith, still enters into a divine work. The Spirit of God brings conviction (John 16:8-11) and conversion to each soul (John 3:6). The heart of Christian work is converting the lost, and this is impossible without Christ’s Spirit doing His work.
Without Christ personal holiness is impossible: The lost man or woman can pretend to be righteous, but only up to a point, then they will go no further. The reason is that they lack the divine work of God in their hearts and lives. The finest secular course of self-improvement will only take a person so far. Only by abiding in Christ will the entire individual be transformed. The tiny little dirty secrets of our hearts that prevent us from becoming all that we can become must be broken down, and only Christ can do this.
In 2 Corinthians 10:2-5, Paul wrote,
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
The divine weapons he spoke of are included in the thought of Christ, “Abide in Me.” Only by abiding in Him do we have this divine power to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. Only the Spirit of Christ is able to truly set us free from the sinful nature.
Without Christ the work lacks endurance: No lasting work for Christ can be done in the flesh. All of it has a way of petering out, of fading and not continuing. Someone once said to D.L. Moody the great evangelist, “I saw a convert of yours yesterday and he was drunk.” To which Moody replied, “Yes, he was my convert only, but not Christ’s convert.” In the flesh we may talk someone into taking some actions, of doing something for the cause of good, or even of believing in Christ, but unless the entire work is founded upon a greater power – namely the life and Person of Christ – then it will not last.
I have seen those works for Christ that seem to be more founded on the works of men than on the work and person of Christ. In everyone of them there is something profound missing, some necessary ingredient, some essential understanding, some grace gift that God has said we need. These converts falter when it gets tough. They bear little if any fruit. They are like branches cut off from the vine that soon wither.
Without Christ the work lacks depth: There is shallowness in all the works for Christ that omit the believer’s abiding in Christ and Christ in him. The only plan that God has and the only method that God uses for the building up of the believer, and thereby the fellowship of believers, is through the knowledge and meditation on His Word (John 17:17) and by the power and presence of His Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). There is no second plan or second method with God. The church itself is to join into this work, “speaking to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19), but the heart of the work is always Christ Himself at the center, being the Vine, pouring His life into the branches. He and He alone will build His church.
Without Christ the Christian servant lacks depth and stamina: No one will continue to serve for a lifetime without the abiding presence of Christ in his or her life. The parable of the soils has relevance here, and there Christ spoke of the seed that fell on good soil: “He who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matt. 13:23). If we will understand the gospel, we will gain the knowledge of what it means to abide in Him, to live in Him, and for Him to abide in us.
There is something wonderfully positive here: If we continue in Christ then all things are possible. We are alive in Him. We have endurance and depth because he is at work in us. And we bear fruit not because of our strength or determination or cleverness, but because of Christ.