“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
Pruning is a horticultural practice involving selective removal of certain parts of a plant, such as branches, buds, or roots. There are many reasons to prune: deadwood removal, improving or sustaining health, shaping, increasing yield or quality of fruit.
In John 15, Jesus applies the pruning process to us. As we are all connected to Jesus Christ, the true vine, God the Father prunes by removing the “diseased, damaged, dead, non-productive, structurally unsound, and unwanted tissue” from our churches and from our lives. The purpose of being in the vine of Christ, and being pruned by God the Father, is that we bear fruit. In Galatians 5, Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit. In Colossians, he prays for the fruitfulness of the young Church, that they would be “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:10).
The question raised by Jesus’ words of John 15 is this: Are we willing to submit to God’s pruning in our churches and in our lives so that he may be glorified by a fruitful harvest? God promises that he is at work, whether we acknowledge it or not. Jesus says that his Father is pruning with two specific purposes—1) cutting away the dead and 2) pruning the fruitful to increase their fruitfulness. This cutting and pruning is now happening in the grand scope of mankind. It boils down to two groups: those who accept the message of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and those who reject it.
“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit”—the dead wood. Those who reject the free gift of salvation in Christ are cut off and removed. This picture of judgment is seen throughout the Scriptures. Cutting away dead wood can bring an immediate sense of safety.
Look at aging or dying trees around our homes. There is great risk that the winds will break loose those dead branches hanging above sidewalks, driveways, and roofs. We may be quite unaware of the rot on the inside, until the branches suddenly fall, crushing whatever they land on.
For a grape vine, a large dead branch can cause extensive damage. Falling, it may take with it healthy branches and shoots that are bearing fruit, resulting in destruction, or even death, of the greater vine. Cutting away dead wood benefits the life of the greater plant. A dying branch sucks life-giving nutrients from the rest of the plant. It drains energy. It causes distress.
Who is to be cut away from the True Vine? Those who do not believe. Those who have heard God’s Word, have witnessed him in creation, yet reject him. Never truly having life in the vine, they are cut off, and piled up to be burned. This is the picture of the coming Judgment, but it reveals the immediate consequence of rejecting Christ: separation from the peace, grace and gifts that come through salvation in the Lord. The Book of Revelation suggests that those who claim faith but do not bear the fruit of the Spirit will be cut off: “So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (3:16).
Jesus puts this another way: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father…” (Matthew 7:21). Not everyone who says they are a Christian is alive and bearing fruit. If they are indifferent toward God’s Son, toward his grace and mercy and truth, they will be cut off.
God cuts off the dead and unfruitful, but he prunes the fruitful to increase their fruitfulness. This is judgment turned promise! The main effect of pruning is to stimulate growth, to ensure the health of the Church as a whole and to increase the effectiveness of its production. The pruning that we undergo as individuals, or face as churches, is not for our own beauty to be seen or for the sweetness of our fruit to be tasted. Rather it’s to display the glory of the Lord, that he would be made known and that people we encounter may call on the Lord and also be grafted into the vine, as he promises.
Pruning is painful and hard, but it is the Lord’s work. We who are being pruned do not always see or understand what God is doing. Suffering can be refining. Disease can produce faith. Struggles we endure can provide witness and testimony to the lives of others. In our churches, these struggles may be felt as unexpected budget drains, leadership changes, faltering programs, even scandal. God’s pruning is a process and a promise to make his Church into the image of his Son by removing the thoughts, behaviors, and identities that this world imposes, but that are contrary to the Father’s will. He removes the idols, behaviors, secret sins, and even people that distract us from his work and his will.
Not all of our church ministries are bearing good fruit. What is God cutting out as dead wood or fruitless work in the ministry of his Church? What is robbing resources and focus from the rest of the ministry? God promises to do the judging and the cutting, for his glory, so that the vine—his Son—may produce fruit through those connected to the vine. God prunes the fruitful to increase their fruitfulness.
When the gardener does his pruning well, he leaves little more than the vine. May we learn to rest in the pruning work of the Father, as he shapes and directs the growth of his Church and bears his fruit through us, his people!
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Pastor Jon Ronnevik serves Word of Life Lutheran Brethren Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.