(Taken from A Vine-Ripened Life by Stanley D. Gale)
My wife and I are officially empty nesters. After thirty-three years of having at least one child at home, we are now left with just our dog. We recently deposited our last born, Nathan, in western Pennsylvania to begin his studies at Grove City College. It seems it wasn’t that long ago that Nathan emerged from the womb to enter our home. Now he’s leaving to enter college. I remember watching him jump his highest in an effort to touch the top of the doorway to our living room. Now his head almost brushes against it.
Nathan has entered the next phase of his life. That’s a good thing (I keep reminding myself). He has grown in every way: physically, spiritually, intellectually, and relationally. His mother and I take some credit for that growth. We fed and clothed him, supervised his studies, and cultivated friendships. We also raised him in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, living out the gospel before him through our instruction and example. Nathan also had a role, though. He ate the food we provided. As he grew into a teenager, he ate more than we provided. His going to college halved our food bill.
But what caused Nathan to grow? What spurred on his physical development into the strapping young man that he is? I would suggest that it was not just the food. It was the way his body worked to assimilate that food to his physical growth and nourishment. God designed his body to act upon that intake.
That’s how sanctification works. We, as believers, take in the nourishment of God’s Word. That Word enters the open mouth of our minds. We chew on it through study and meditation. Prayer aids in its digestion to our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sanctification: “Sanctification is the work of God’s grace, wherein we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of God; and are enabled to die more and more unto sin; and live more and more unto righteousness” (Q&A 35). This definition offers a comprehensive explanation. It describes the breadth of the sanctifying process (the whole man); the goal (the renewed image of God); and the process itself (die to sin and live to righteousness).
Another way we can look at the spiritual growth process of sanctification is by way of fruit. In His Upper Room Discourse in John 13 to 17, Jesus talks about fruit: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 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” (15:4–5). Among the fruit to which Jesus refers is that of a changed life, which flows out of being partakers of the new life bound up in Christ. Abiding in Christ produces “much fruit,” fruit that will last (15:5, 16).
In this metaphor Jesus indicates that abiding is accomplished in large part through utter dependence on Him. The grace of sanctification flows from experiential union with Christ. We must abide in Christ so that the fruit of character change in our lives is not the product of self-will or best effort. Such efforts at love or joy or patience will be meager and short lived.
We want the fruit of a changed life to grow organically and not artificially. Organic spiritual fruit grows from the good soil of a well-tended heart. Artificial fruit is akin to religious hypocrisy that is different in public than it is in private. Such fruit is as removable as an article of clothing, detachable as false eyelashes.
But artificial fruit is not merely the product of pretense. It can flow from good intentions as well. We try our best to be patient, loving, or self-controlled. We know that’s what our Father wants of us. We want it for ourselves. But our best efforts will produce only imitation fruit. It may look great in our eyes and others’, but it is not the fruit of abiding in the Vine. We want the fruit of a changed life to grow from the inside out by the hand of our God—a Vine-ripened life. Let’s enter this vineyard of life and explore God’s design for our spiritual development and growth in grace.
Fruit of the Vine
Complete the following: Red, white, and . Most people, especially if they are Americans, would reflexively write blue in the blank. Let’s try another: Peanut butter and . There are those who might fill in banana or marshmallow, but I suspect 90 percent of respondents would write jelly. One more: Fruit of the . My guess is those reading this book would automatically respond Spirit (if they had not been tipped off by the chapter title).
Normally when we think of fruit related to Christian character, we think of fruit of the Spirit. Fruit of the Vine, on the other hand, brings to mind Jesus’ words at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, not character qualities. But actually, fruit of the Vine gives us a better orientation to what our heavenly Father has in mind for us.
How do we grow as Christians? Does the Holy Spirit just come to us on His own, like one of those independent contractors who knocks on our door asking if we want a free estimate on home repair? Does He just show up to start a spiritual makeover of us? No, He brings Christ to us and us to Christ.
Jesus made it clear in John 15 that fruitfulness in the Christian life comes from abiding in Him as the Vine. Both before and after His teaching on fruitfulness in John 15, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in John 14 and 16. The production of “much fruit” in John 15:5 is framed by the work of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus would send upon His ascension. Like a power cord to a wall outlet, the Holy Spirit conveys the life, power, and fruitfulness of Christ to us for our growth in grace.
Rather than calling the fruit of the Christian life “the fruit of the Spirit,” we might call it the “fruit of abiding in Christ through the Holy Spirit who unites us to Him.” “Fruit of the Spirit” is shorthand for God’s handiwork of grace to conform us to Christ. The fruit the Spirit works in us is not apart from Christ, but is bound up in Christ. We abound in that fruit through abiding in Christ. The fruit of new life comes about through union with Christ that flows from the inside out. It grows from the good soil of a changed heart that is transformed by God’s Spirit.
I was laid up following surgery. Turning the tables on pastoral visitation, a woman from my church and a friend visited me at my home. They thoughtfully brought me one of those edible arrangements, fresh fruit cut to look like flowers. It had pineapple blossoms, cantaloupe and honeydew leaves, strawberry buds, and grape sprigs. It was pleasing to the eye and to the taste.
As beautiful as that fruit was, it would not last. It would not multiply. No matter how well tended, it would spoil. But the fruit God wants of us will grow heartily by virtue of being united to Jesus Christ as the Vine of life. It will display the grace and vigor of God’s workmanship as the Vinedresser. It will be Christlike, Christ drawn—like a flower draws life- giving nutrients from the soil in which it is rooted.
This fruit will not be produced by sheer willpower or determination to be more loving or patient or kind. Those of us who have attempted to produce fruit by our own efforts have learned how fruitless that is. Rather, bountiful and enduring Christlike character will grow organically by abiding in Christ, through the operation of the Holy Spirit.
As we explore the fruit of the Spirit, our approach will not be self-reformation: no “get your act together” or kick-in-the-pants “try harder.” If we come away from this study without a deeper knowledge of Christ and more pro- found dependence upon Him, we have missed the point.
Part 2 will be published next week.