John 15:5-6 - The Vine and the Branches: No Covenant Automatism
The Canadian Reformed churches have sometimes been accused of preaching a sort of covenant-automatism. It is said that we operate with the idea that as long as you’re outwardly member of the covenant and church of God, then everything will automatically turn out fine for you in the end.
Now, that’s not what is officially being taught in the Canadian Reformed Churches. However, even though we don’t teach covenant automatism, it could be that we do give others the idea that we do believe it by not putting into practice what we believe about the covenant. We need to ask ourselves if we’re really serious about our covenant relationship with the Mediator.
In John 15 our Lord Jesus Christ explained very plainly what it means to be members of Him in the covenant. “I am the vine,” He says in verse 5. Almost every house in Palestine had its own grapevine. That’s why it was often used as metaphor for God’s people in the Old Testament. The Saviour says to his disciples, then, “I am the vine.” He means that He is the reality to which all the Old Testament metaphors about the grapevine pointed. Israel was vine of the LORD in the Old Testament, but ultimately not a fruitful vine. Jesus Christ came to be the true vine, which would bring forth fruit of righteousness to God’s glory. He is the Mediator of the covenant, the life of the covenant.
When the Lord adds in verse 5, “...you are the branches,” He is speaking to his disciples, and in them to his whole church. So those words apply to us today too. “Vine and branches” is an allegory of the wonderful, close, living relationship between Christ the Mediator and his covenant people.
By nature we’re all connected to that old, degenerate stalk of our first father, Adam. By nature we’re branches of that root through which sin and curse and death flow to all men. But as a covenant child you have been cut from that old stalk and grafted into the vine Jesus Christ. He is now source of life, new and holy life for you. Just as sap flows from the roots through the vine to the branches, so we have the promise that his Spirit flows to us so that we can live a new life and bear fruit for God.
Jesus continues in vs.5: “If a man remains in me and I in Him, he will bear much fruit.” Our remaining in Christ and his remaining in us go together. In the covenant of grace you have the promise of forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ. The vine won’t fail the branches, we could say. But that may never bring us to a false sense of security, as if now everything goes automatically. No! A relationship is a two-way street. That relationship is started by grace, and Christ promises to remain with us.
But there needs to be response for it to be a living relationship. Our covenant calling as branches of the vine is to remain in Christ by loving Him and seeking his Spirit through the Word and prayer.
Do we still take enough time for that? Do we not only make time for regular Bible reading at home, but also truly struggle to understand that Word? Do we pray regularly for his Spirit so we not only understand, but also obey his Word? Life is busy. But if you really embrace your Saviour who gave Himself for you in faith and love, then you’ll also seek the living relationship with Him through his Word and through prayer. And you won’t let anything else, whether work or pleasure, crowd the Word and prayer out of your day. That’s what it means to remain in Christ.
What’s the purpose of that remaining in Christ like that? Jesus says in our text, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” To remain in Christ means that He will give you growth so that you bear much fruit for the glory of God. After all, what’s the covenant relationship with God in Christ is all about if it doesn’t bring forth fruit of love and good works pleasing to God?
But the Lord Jesus warns in verse 6: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” If you don’t remain in Christ, you not only don’t bear fruit anymore. You become a branch that dies off and falls from the vine and which is raked up and burned. And that burning is image of God’s covenant wrath and curse. How often didn’t God seek fruit in His vineyard in the Old Testament, but ended up finding nothing? He finally said, “That’s it. They’re dead branches, only worthy to be burned.” Then the covenant itself doesn’t help anymore. It only brings greater curse.
No covenant automatism here! If there isn’t a living relationship with Christ in the covenant, a seeking of his Spirit in Word and prayer, then the relationship dies off and we fall away and we come under God’s covenant wrath and curse. If we don’t see much fruit in our lives, then we need to live closer to the Lord. In humble repentance we need to listen to his Word more, and be more fervent in asking for his Spirit in prayer. Then, as the Lord promises, it’ll come to growth and to fruit again too. Much fruit!