Dead, lifeless, dried, hard wood. On one level I love it. I start burning wood to warm the house as early as May and continue to do so into late August, with even the occasional fire in early September. On my day off I can sometimes be seen searching the neighbourhood for recently cut trees that have been piled along the pavements. I collect it, cut it, chop it, and add it to my woodpile. Yes, I love to collect dead wood.
But on another level, I dislike dead wood, and thus I am quite content when I don’t collect it. I am speaking of course of the dead wood of false professors: professing believers who give no sign of spiritual life. The Lord Jesus spoke of these in John 15 as He described Himself as the Vine and professing believers as the branches. He clearly taught that true believers will be like a living branch – bearing fruit (vv. 4-5). But he also identified and likened the merely professing believer to dead wood, whose only useful purpose is to be burned up (vv. 2a, 7). Jesus made it very clear that not all in the church are truly saved. That is, alongside the green, live wood is the dry, dead wood.
The church needs to accept this as a fixed reality. Until the Lord Jesus returns and brings world history to a glorious end, and thus to a glorious new beginning, we will have to contend with the presence of dead wood in the congregation. How then should we deal with such a reality? I would suggest that the Scriptures offer us some practical guidance regarding this.
First, we must leave the final assessment of the wood in the hands of God. In verse 1, Jesus said that His Father is the One who cuts off the dead wood. We need to be careful that we do not assume that our judgements are infallible. There may in fact be some life under the surface of death. We dare not quench smouldering flax or break a bruised reed.
Second, realising the seriousness of the situation, we should do all we can to guard against giving dead wood a false assurance. If one’s profession of faith is false, then he/she is currently under the present wrath and condemnation of God. And unless they receive new life through Jesus Christ they will forever experience God’s wrath in the fires of hell (see vv. 2, 6). Surely this is an issue even greater than life and death! The church must not give even a hint of false security to dead wood. What then can we do?
First, we can preach the Word. By a robust, soul searching expositional ministry, the dead wood will either come to life by God’s power or it will resist and will pull away and eventually completely fall away. It may still be dead but at least it will not be piling up in the congregation.
Second, the church must biblically observe the ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When the church properly practises baptism it will be careful to insist on a credible profession of faith before covering the professor with water. But alas, it is still true that many branches have been immersed only later to resurface as mere driftwood. This is where the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper helps. As we are confronted with the rite of Communion, an examination is expected to take place. This can go a long way in us making a self-assessment of whether or not we have spiritual life. If we are driven to look to Christ alone for forgiveness, this is a good indication that we have life. But on the other hand, if we can glibly go through the motions, then perhaps it is because where there is no life, neither is there hunger, and in this case, no hunger for the Bread of Life.
This raises an important issue: frequent attendance at the Lord’s Table. Just as dead wood has no appetite for the nutrition offered by the roots, so a careless attitude toward feeding on the body and blood of Christ indicates a lack of appetite because of an absence of life. If I can mix a metaphor, dead wood has no hunger. If the church recognises this and habitually observes the Lord’s Supper, then dead wood will be guarded against the illusion that it is alive.
Third, and finally, the church guards itself against a collection of dead wood by a proper exercise of church discipline. When the church fulfils her responsibility to hold one another accountable to live according to the new covenant, then dead wood will be exposed. Again, the church is not infallible in her judgements, but by doing what is expected of her, the Lord will honour her with the appropriate and promised fruit which comes from living branches while at the same time removing the dead wood.
Our planned renewal of the covenant is a biblical means toward the biblical end of helping BBC to be fruit-bearing branches rather than a collection of merely dead wood. By renewing our covenant we are renewing our commitment to lovingly holding one another accountable for our profession of faith as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour.
Every church will face the reality of having, at different times, some dead wood. But if we adhere to the three duties outlined here, then we will be protected from the error of stockpiling it. We dare not become lax in this, for just as a large collection of dead wood creates a fire hazard, so does a lot of dead wood in the church invite the fire of the judgement of God.
The Lord indeed has given us much by way of living, and thus fruit bearing branches. May He continue to grant us the grace to be living and abiding wood for His glory.