In short: Apart from me, You can do nothing +

I am the Vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.

John 15:5a

Here Christ repeats His foregoing words almost verbatim. He wants to be sure to impress on His disciples that they must look to Him alone and adhere firmly to Him. “For I,” He says, “am the Vine, as you know, and you are My branches.” As though He were saying: “No one will ever alter this relationship. No, God has, as you heard, ordained that I, and no other, am to be the Vine. You dare not investigate and search further for any other vine or suppose that you or others might be true branches in God’s sight if you are not grafted in Me, the only Vine there is.” For Christ foresaw very well, as I have said earlier, what would happen in Christendom, how both raging tyrants and false teachers would oppose this doctrine and many would falsely call themselves the vine and the branches. In fact, this is what most of us have done up to this time. Thus the rabble of barefoot friars have publicly and impudently set up their Francis with his rule as the vine. They have elevated him and his works to the level of Christ in every respect. They have taught: Whoever would be a true branch and bear perfect fruit must follow in the footsteps of Francis and observe his rules.
There always have been, and always will be, innumerable people of this stripe who assume that name and appearance. Christ Himself said that they would “lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). For they gleam and glitter far more beautifully than Christ with His true branches. “In comparison,” Christ would say, “I appear, not as a vine but as the stalk of a wild thornbush, and you as a thorn hedge. But do not take offense at this or be misled by attractive outward appearances and fine words. For I, and I alone, must be the One planted and placed by God Himself as the Vine; and you, if you hold to Me and remain in Me, shall be the only true branches, even if the devil and all the world say otherwise.” It is necessary to repeat this reminder, since no one understands or believes this unless time and adversity demonstrate how many people and how many different kinds of people band together against this Vine and how few there are who endure and remain in Him. This is the first point.
In the second place, Christ speaks the words “He who abides in Me, and I in him” (John 15:5) against the false Christians, to inform us that a person is not a true branch in Christ by his natural strength and works. For the branch is not manufactured; it grows and it must be of the nature or species of Christ the Vine. The vine and the branches are not assembled or grafted, as is done with a little twig or shoot on a dry stem; but the branches must be of the proper type—they must grow from Christ. For the mere name does not make you a Christian, nor does the fact that you live among Christians, as the apostle Judas and others did. People may dwell among Christians, pray, fast, partake of the Sacrament, and conduct themselves outwardly as Christians, so that they cannot be excommunicated; but in spite of all this they are not true branches. They are strange and withered twigs of thorns among the grapes, although they excel the others in appearance. But it will always be true that he who is a Christian must have emerged and grown naturally from Christ the Vine.
Here it is not possible to make or carve. The mock bishops who consecrate Easter cakes, the monks, and nuns imagine that they make people holy with their tomfoolery, when they smear on their chrism, trim their tonsures, and don their cowls. But this is not making and carving; it is fraud and hocus-pocus pure and simple. A Christian and a true saint must be a divine work and creation, the creature of a Master who with a single word can make everything out of nothing, and make it complete and perfect. No human effort, rule, or order can do this. For even if an abbot teaches and trains a monk for a long time, the final product will, after all, be no more than a human being as he has been created—a human being endowed with a free will and reason, and made up of flesh and blood. To be sure, he is clothed and adorned in a different way with works; but in spite of this his nature remains unchanged. He is still a knave, and his nature and his thoughts are no different from what they were before. For he still drags the old Adam around with him; but he has pulled a mask over the old Adam and has feigned a different way of living, and different works. These are all human works, just as a school-teacher trains and schools a child with works but cannot make another creature or form. This only the Creator can do with His own hand and power, and without human aid.
And it is done in this manner: When I am baptized or converted by the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is present. He takes me as clay and makes of me a new creature, which is endowed with a different mind, heart, and thoughts, that is, with a true knowledge of God and a sincere trust in His grace. To summarize, the very essence of my heart is renewed and changed. This makes me a new plant, one that is grafted on Christ the Vine and grows from Him. My holiness, righteousness, and purity do not stem from me, nor do they depend on me. They come solely from Christ and are based only in Him, in whom I am rooted by faith, just as the sap flows from the stalk into the branches. Now I am like Him and of His kind. Both He and I are of one nature and essence, and I bear fruit in Him and through Him. This fruit is not mine; it is the Vine’s.
Thus Christ and the Christians become one loaf and one body, so that the Christian can bear good fruit—not Adam’s or his own, but Christ’s. For when a Christian baptizes, preaches, consoles, exhorts, works, and suffers, he does not do this as a man descended from Adam; it is Christ who does this in him. The lips and tongue with which he proclaims and confesses God’s Word are not his; they are Christ’s lips and tongue. The hands with which he toils and serves his neighbor are the hands and members of Christ, who, as He says here, is in him; and he is in Christ.
Behold, with the words “He who abides in Me, and I in him” (John 15:5) Christ wants to indicate that Christianity is not brought in from without; it is not put on like a garment, nor does it consist in the adoption of a new manner of living, which, like monasticism and self-chosen sanctity, is concerned with works. It is a new birth brought about by God’s Word and Spirit; there must be an entirely new man from the bottom of his heart. Then, however, when the heart is born anew in Christ, fruits will follow naturally, such as the confession of the Gospel, works of love, obedience, patience, chastity, etc.
Here Christ wants to exhort His disciples to be sure to remain in His Word, which makes true and regenerate Christians—Christians who bear much fruit from the Vine and are on their guard against every other kind of doctrine, which perverts the Word and presumes to make the tree from the fruit, or grapes from thistles and thorns, which, of course, is impossible, since like begets like. Even if a person teaches this for a long time, slaves over it, and exhausts himself with works, human nature is not changed. You must have the true nature and type to begin with; you will not accomplish anything by slaving and by wearing yourself out. For the two things are and always remain widely separated: the one is called human fabrication; the other, natural growth. It always happens that what we ourselves fashion requires greater and harder effort; yet it does not prosper as well as that which has grown naturally. For this moves, stands, lives, and acts of itself as it should. “Thus,” Christ says, “all other doctrines must concern themselves with fabricating something out of works. Yet they can never carry it out. But if you remain in Me as natural branches on the Vine, you will surely bear good fruits, and many of them.”

For apart from Me you can do nothing.

John 15:5b

This is a brief conclusion and a clear explanation. “Apart from Me,” says Christ, “that is, if you do not remain in Me and become regenerated Christians through Me, you will do nothing, try as you will.” But how can Christ make such an exaggerated statement? How can He be so offensive? could it be possible that all the pious and excellent people there were at that time among the Jews, and all there may still be among the Christians, accomplished nothing? Could all their efforts have been in vain? Is it not true that they performed, and still perform, many more works, and greater ones, than the poor, wretched, little flock, which can boast of nothing but of this Christ? Oh, these are offensive and blasphemous words to the ears of the great saints—the holy Jews, the Pharisees, and others, such as St. Paul in his fine and irreproachable righteousness according to the Law, the spiritual and devout hermits of our time, the Carthusians and other monks, and I myself at one time! They strive with great earnestness for piety; they want to go to heaven. Or look at the heathen. See how well they have governed lands and people, established law and order, maintained peace and discipline, fostered knowledge of many kinds. As a result, the whole world praises and admires their wisdom. Furthermore, we read that some heretics lived a much stricter life and performed greater works than the true Christians. I am thinking of the Cathari and the Encratites. The forty-day fast was also introduced by heretics, and it is said of the Turks that many among them lead a very ascetic life and perform wonderfully great works: fasting, giving alms, etc. And now all factions cry out against us and our doctrine for not devoting ourselves to this as they do. They say that we do not have the Spirit, because we do not live as they do. How, then, can Christ say here: “Apart from Me you can do nothing”?
As said before, the answer to this question is: Here Christ is not speaking of physical or worldly life and conduct, as the scoffers misinterpret Him; He is speaking of the fruits of the Gospel. For when He created the world, He commanded and empowered man to rule physically over beasts, birds, and fish, to maintain home life, to rear children, to cultivate the fields, to rule over lands and people, etc. It was not necessary for Christ to give instruction about this, for it was implanted in nature and written in their hearts. Furthermore, all books, with the exception of Holy Writ, are derived from that source and spring. Therefore Christ’s words and doctrine must not be interpreted as though He had wanted to teach and ordain anything in addition to this or to institute anything better. Christ is speaking exclusively of His spiritual kingdom and government, in which God Himself dwells, reigns, and works through His Word and Spirit toward a spiritual, eternal life. For this is God’s own realm: to baptize, to preach the Gospel, to administer the Sacrament, to console and strengthen timid and grieving consciences, to terrify and punish the wicked with excommunication, to perform works of love and mercy, and to endure the cross. All this is done because thereby we please God, are His children, are redeemed from sin and death, and have eternal life. The secular realm can do nothing at all to achieve this end, for it all must end with this life.
“In this kingdom,” Christ says, “you are nothing and can do nothing unless you are and remain in Me.” Yes, all that the world undertakes, contemplates, and is able to do counts for nothing before God; as, for instance, the zeal, the spirituality, and the self-chosen worship of all the Jews, Turks, and the pope’s saints. Nor can any schismatic spirit who has fallen away from Christ ever teach or do anything that is right; he only leads both himself and others farther away from Christ. Take, for example, the Anabaptists of today with their fanaticism. They only baptize people out of church and contend against the Spirit, as is finally seen by their fruit. Nor can all monks and monastic orders who teach and practice their work-righteousness ever come to Christ or bring a person to true knowledge. They cannot counsel and console a conscience, deliver from the smallest sin, or bear any Christian fruit. Consequently, whatever they do is lost, even though the works are numerous, important, and arduous. The more they torment and torture themselves, the less they accomplish. I can testify to this on the basis of my own experience. For more than twenty years I was a pious monk, read Mass daily, and so weakened myself with fasting and praying that I would not have been long for this life had I continued. Yet all this taken together cannot help me in even one little crisis to be able to say before God: “All this I have done; now please consider it, and be gracious to me.” What else did I achieve with this than to plague myself uselessly, impair my health, and waste my time? Now I must hear Christ pass this judgment on it: “You did this without Me; therefore it is nothing and has no room in My kingdom. It can avail neither you nor others for eternal life.” Yes, I myself must now stamp and condemn it as sin committed in idolatry and unbelief. I must be terrified when I think of it. Still everyone clung to this and regarded it as the way to salvation. For such a purpose all the world, eager to purchase such holiness and merit, is ready to give and donate. And this holiness was shamelessly offered for sale—signed, sealed, and delivered.
Thus a fearful judgment is decreed here against all life and activity—no matter how great, glorious, and beautiful—if it has no connection with Christ. Then it can do nothing and be nothing. It is great and highly esteemed before the world, for it is regarded as excellent and precious work. But here in the kingdom of Christ and before God it is truly nothing, because it has not grown out of Him and does not remain in Him. For it is not His Word, Baptism, and Sacrament; it is our own fabrication, which we have chosen and exacted apart from the Word. Therefore it cannot bear fruit or pass muster before God; it must be exterminated like a rotten and withered tree without sap and strength. As Christ says later (v. 6), it must be cast into the fire. Therefore let others carve and make whatever they can without Him, until they have fashioned a new birth out of their works and a tree from the fruit. What they will do, please God, is to verify this verse, and it will all amount to a big zero.
But who believes that this verse could be so comprehensive and damn so many people? Or that the world is so full of false Christians and saints? But this proclamation is addressed to us, lest we run and toil in vain, as St. Paul admonishes in 1 Cor. 9:26. We must see to it that we are always found in Christ, that is, that we hold to His Word and let nothing tear us away from it. Then the true and enduring fruit will surely follow. It is a mighty comfort and bulwark for a person to know that his life and works are not in vain but are pleasing to God and are called true fruit, and for him to be able to say with all his heart: “I was baptized in the name of Christ. I did not invent this Baptism or institute it through my monastic order or rule, nor did it come into being by human choice. No, Christ my Lord Himself is the author; this I know for certain. In the second place, I know and profess before all the world that by the grace of God I believe in that Man, and I am resolved to remain with Him and to surrender life, limb, and everything rather than deny Him. In this faith I stand and live. Then I go forth, eat and drink, sleep and wake, rule, serve, labor, act, and suffer all in the faith in which I am baptized; and I know that this is good fruit and is pleasing to God.”
The life of such a person and whatever he does, whether great or small and no matter what it is called, is nothing but fruit and cannot be without fruit; for in Christ he has been born into a new existence, in order that he may constantly be full of good fruit. Everything such a person does becomes easy for him, not troublesome or vexatious. Nothing is too arduous for him or too difficult to suffer and bear. By way of contrast, the others, who do not have faith and who presume to make good fruit themselves, never have such comfort, even though they torture themselves intensely and perform many important works and more than others perform. They do everything with a heavy heart. Consequently, they can never be happy or have the assurance that what they do is pleasing to God. Thus everything they do is wasted and lost. Therefore it is true that whatever is done without and apart from Christ amounts to nothing and is altogether corrupt, useless, and worthless. On the other hand, everything that counts is done in Christ and is altogether rich, perfect, and precious fruit.
But the world with its pseudo saints and its sects cannot understand this. They say: “What kind of Christian can such a person be? All he can do is to eat and drink, work in the home, tend the children, guide the plow, etc. That much I can do just as well and better!” Ah, one must make a distinction between what a Christian does and what the heathen also do, and not be so quick to designate everything as fruits of the Christian life! Judged by such common task as those performed by father and mother, child, servant, husband or wife, the heathen would fare better than we. Therefore we must have something different and out of the ordinary—something beyond what the common man does, as, for instance, entering a cloister, lying on the ground, wearing a hair shirt, or praying day and night without ceasing. Such work they call a holy life and Christian fruit. And they are quick to deduce from this that rearing children, doing domestic work, etc., is not a holy life. For they look solely at the outward appearance of the works and are unable to judge by the source of these work and their origin in the Vine. And who does not know that monasticism with its work appears greater when it is appraised by its outward shape and form, and not by the nature of its origin?
But now Christ says that only those works are good fruit that are done by people who are and remain in Him. And all their life and everything they do is called good fruit, even if it were something more menial than when a farm hand loads and hauls manure. This is incomprehensible to those people; they consider such work—as they see them before their eyes—ordinary pagan task. Among Christians, however, there arises a very great difference between what they do and what a heathen or someone else—apart from Christ—does, even if the work is completely identical. For the work of the heathen do not spring and grow from Christ the Vine. Therefore they cannot please God or be called Christian fruit. But since the work of Christians proceed from faith in Christ, they are all true and useful fruit. The Christian is just like the lamb, of which it is said that everything about it is good and useful, not only the flesh, the hide, and the bones but also the urine and the droppings.
It is true that a Christian is not as impressive with his works and fruit as a schismatic spirit or an eccentric, for he does not choose any particularly striking works but confines himself to the ordinary tasks that come up in everyday life. The trouble is that the world is unable to see that these are works performed by a new person in Christ. Therefore one and the same work becomes different even in one and the same person, depending on whether it is performed before or after he has come to faith in Christ. Previously he was a thistle and a thorn; for he was not a part of the Vine and for this reason was unable to bear fruit, and all the works he performed were lost and condemned. But now that he is a Christian, the same work is a fine and precious grape—not because it was done in this or that manner, but because it issues from the good Vine, which is Christ.
Therefore the point is to judge the work by the motive behind it, not by the kind of work it is. What is done—whether great or small, much or little—is not important; all depends on the source and fountain from which the works flow. Here Christians live and are active in a manner that is different and apart from the life and activity of all other people on earth. For here comes Christ and draws the dividing line. To him who occupies himself with self-designed works He says: “Your deeds are nothing; they are futile.” “Well,” you say, “have I not read Mass daily for so many years? Have I not abstained so long from eating meat? Have I not mortified my body? This ascetic life has been extremely hard for me. Is it possible that so many great and arduous works should be nothing?” “To be sure,” says Christ, “these can be called great and arduous tasks; but I declare that they are absolutely nothing, for they all have been done without Me.”
On the other hand, there may be some poor maiden, such as the Virgin Mary, who never performed any work that stood out above the works performed by others. With regard to her, Christ pronounces the judgment: “Lo, this maiden has not performed any of your great and arduous works; yet her life abounds in good works, for hers are works that are done in Me. For this reason I prize them as precious gems and will praise and reward them before God and all the angels. But your works shall be fit for nothing else than to be cast into the fire like thorns and thistles, for they are not done in Me.” And it will not help you to cry out that you are treated unjustly, or to make excuses and pretend ignorance; for He will say: “Why did you ignore My words, which foretold this and also warned you to be on your guard against all activity that excludes Me? Why did you not draw the clear and cogent conclusion that no one can do anything without Me?” Therefore one must learn not to look at works as a cow looks at a door; one must learn from what kind of heart and person they proceed. If the person is in Christ, then the work, be it as big or as little as it will, is a good fruit; for whatever remains in Him must bear much fruit, and all such works are precious grapes, even though sin creeps in now and then and there are false steps. For this is the manure with which he can fertilize his field, so that even his shortcomings must redound to his good and not to his hurt.
On the other hand, in the case of the other saints—monks, Turks, and heathen—not only the public sins are condemned; but even their best works, because of which they think they merit heaven, are rejected and, together with them, are sentenced to be burned. And this judgment against them is fair and just. For what devil induces us who are called Christians and are baptized to renounce Baptism and Christ and to seek for ourselves works of our own apart from Christ? Those who do this do not want to live, work, and act like other, ordinary Christians; they want to attract open-mouthed admiration on the part of the public with their special, novel, and self-chosen deeds. The schismatic spirits say: “We see no special work or fruit of the Spirit in those who know nothing to teach but Christ. One must really put forth strenuous effort by looking morose, wearing gray garments, owning no property, or, like the monks, by fasting, mortifying the flesh, and not eating and drinking as others do.” Such a life is outwardly very impressive, and the rabble, is quick to say: “What are our clergy and their followers in comparison? These are saintly, Christian people who forsake all, wear gray garments, etc.” In this way they let themselves be duped and turned away from Christ. And it serves them right. Do you not hear Christ declare here that you are not to look at and judge by such external appearances of works but by the stem and the root from which they grow? Therefore you should first inquire: “Why do you look so morose? Why do you wear gray clothing? Why do you set yourself apart from others?” They reply: “Well, one must really do one’s utmost and withdraw from the world if one wants to be saved.” There you see the donkey with its long ears! You abominable hypocrite and seducer, how will you bear fruit apart from and without the Vine? A morose mien will never take you to heaven. You must be in the Vine first. He must be the source of growth. Hence such works of yours are lost; they are null and void, because they are apart from and without Christ. Yes, on top of this, they are against Christ.

Quoted from Luther Works Volume 24 – and here is a reading of Eduard Ellwein´s selection of Luther´s commentary to this verse in German.

In this confidence and faith we sing, praise and confess another hymn of the church:

1 The church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is his new creation
by water and the Word:
from heav’n he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.

2 Elect from ev’ry nation,
yet one o’er all the earth,
her charter of salvation
one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy name she blesses,
partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses,
with ev’ry grace endued.

3 Though with a scornful wonder
men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

4 The church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
to guide, sustain, and cherish,
is with her to the end;
though there be those that hate her,
and false sons in her pale,
against both foe and traitor
she ever shall prevail.

5 ‘Mid toil and tribulation,
and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation
of peace forevermore;
till with the vision glorious
her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious
shall be the church at rest.

6 Yet she on earth hath union
with the God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with thee.

Samuel J. Stone (1839-1900)

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Eastertide, Lectionary etc, Martin Luther and the Reformation, psalms and spiritual songs, Sights and pictures, You comfort me + and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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