The Sanctifying Spirit

In the early 2000s, Judge Michael Eakin became famous for delivering his verdicts with poetic justice. Literally poetic. For example, in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case involving a woman who claimed a lie about an engagement ring should void her prenuptial agreement, Eakin ruled,  “A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium / when his spouse finds he’s given her a cubic zirconium / instead of a diamond in her engagement band, / the one he said was worth twenty-one grand.”  The judge ruled against the husband for deceiving his wife with an imitation diamond. This morning, we are not talking about fake diamonds but imitation, cubic zirconium Christians, and how to tell the difference. 

Jesus tells us that those who are true disciples are known not primarily by the faith they profess but by the fruit they produce—fruit being the outward evidence of the internal reality of spiritual regeneration. The point is that if a fruit tree doesn’t produce fruit, we assume either that it isn’t a fruit tree, or it’s a dead tree. 

The same is true for those who claim to be followers of Jesus. I may claim I’m a Christian, but if there is no discernable fruit, then my assurance of being a truly regenerate believer should be low. This may be why the apostle Peter exhorts us to “make our calling and election sure” by examining our lives for signs of fruit.

Let’s be clear. We are not saved from our sins by producing spiritual fruit. Spiritual fruit is the evidence that we are saved from our sins, being reconciled to God as truly regenerate children of God. 

This begs the question. How does a disciple of Jesus produce the fruit of the Spirit as evidence of true saving grace?[2] Is it something I do or something God does? Or do we both have a part to play in the process? Thankfully, Jesus provides a clear and helpful analogy for us in John 15:1-5 that will resolve these questions. 

 “1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me and I also will abide in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must abide in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” 

As we consider spiritual fruitfulness and how this relates to walking with the Spirit, the first thing to note from our passage in John 15 is an imperative verb. 

An Imperative Verb

In just two verses there is one word that is used five times and implied twice more. The word is the verb abide, which in the original Greek text of verse 4 is imperative. As you know from grammar class, an indicative verb states a fact of being or the observation of an action, but an imperative verb is a command. An imperative says, “Do this.” 

With the imperative “abide” Jesus presents the primary “do this” of the Christian life, which is not to read your Bible, to go to church, pray, or be generous. Don’t misunderstand. As means of grace, those are all good things, right? Absolutely! But the essential and primary “action step” we are called to take that affects everything else is to, in the words of Jesus, “abide in me.”   

The image Jesus paints to explain what he means by abiding is how a branch is connected to a vine. A branch does not have life in itself but draws life from the sap that flows from within the vine into the branch. As Jesus says in the second half of verse 4, “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must abide in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me.”

The phrase that the apostle Paul uses to describe the process of abiding is found in one of his favorite phrases, “in Christ.” To be “in Christ” is to be in union with Jesus like a branch to a living vine. Everything concerning life and fruitfulness depends on that point of union. Jesus says, if we abide in him, he will abide in us. 

The question we must answer is this: “What does it mean to abide in Jesus?” The answer is much simpler than we may imagine. to abide in Jesus is to consciously believe the gospel–that Jesus is your sin-bearer and righteousness provider. 

Our “in Christ” union is the result of repentance and faith, where I confess my moral deadness and inability to produce good fruit and believe that Jesus provides me with the moral record of his good fruit, his righteous perfection by which I am able to stand before God the Father without fear but with full confidence of his acceptance and affection. 

When Jesus says, “Abide in me,” he is calling us to give up our self-righteousness and receive his gift-righteousness as our new identity, whereby I am no longer a dead branch but a living branch due to my faith connection with the living Vine, Jesus. This is the great, overarching imperative of Jesus to his people. Repent and believe, ongoingly and consciously, by holding onto God’s justifying grace to us in Jesus. That is what it means to abide in Jesus – to consciously remain in connection with your justified and adopted status as a forgiven child of God. 

However, before his command to abide, in the first two verses of John 15, he says, “1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” That sobering statement requires that we examine the fruitless branch. 

The Fruitless Branch

By describing the Father as a gardener who “cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit,” Jesus is not saying that those who were justified lose their salvation. He is saying that fruit is the outward evidence that someone is a genuinely regenerate believer—that they are truly justified. Otherwise, without bearing fruit they are like a dead, lifeless tree or cubic zirconium posing as a real diamond. They are not true believers. They are make-believers.

John Calvin once stated, “Those whom God justifies, he also sanctifies.” To be clear about our terms, justification refers to the legal status given to the believer upon receiving Jesus as sin-bearer and righteousness provider. Sanctification refers to the spiritual fruitfulness that takes place as we continue to consciously abide in our legal status. Justification is a declarative act (like a court verdict) while sanctification is an organic process (like fruit production).

Having a firm grasp on the distinction between the declarative act of justification and the organic process of sanctification is crucial for living in the context of grace. We must remember that justification is the foundation of our salvation, not sanctification. Sanctification is evidence that the foundation exists. That the tree is planted in the soil of grace. Or to use Jesus’ analogy, sanctification shows us that the branch is connected to living Vine. 

I want to be sure we do not make the mistake of getting justification and sanctification backward, which was the Pharisee’s mistake in Jesus’ day. They believed that living a good life earned God’s favor. The problem is that apart from abiding in Jesus, producing spiritual fruit is impossible. Simply put, we can’t live the good life required by God to earn his favor. 

The point of recognizing my fruitlessness is not to make me try harder to produce fruit. It is to make me come to the end of myself and confess my need for God’s mercy. This is Paul’s point in Galatians 3:24, where he says, “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith,”[3] as opposed to being justified by our own morality. 

The law acts like a mirror of sorts, revealing my fruitlessness, or how unloving and God-defying I really am. The law shows me that I am a dead branch, worthy of being cut off and thrown into the fire and that it is only by grace that I have been made alive and connected to the living Vine as my Justifier and Sanctifier. Ironically, it is by admitting my life is a fruitless branch that puts me on a course to experience the fruitful life.  

The Fruitful Life

The fruitful life is a supernatural life, where my abiding in Jesus results in Jesus abiding in me. But how does he abide in me? He abides in me through the Holy Spirit, who now indwells me with the mind, heart, and transformative influence of Jesus. 

To use Jesus’ agricultural illustration, when I as a branch consciously believe who I am in Christ as a justified, adopted, and beloved child of God, the Holy Spirit, like sap from the vine, begins to flow freely into my life. In that moment, as Paul says in Romans 5:5, God “pours out his love into our hearts by the Spirit.”[4] That is how we are “filled with the Spirit.”[5] To be filled with the Spirit is to be overflowingly aware of the love of God for me. 

As this filling of the Spirit takes place, not only do I begin to experience new desires to love well, but I am also empowered with a new ability to love well—to love like Jesus. I begin to have true joy, peace, and patience. Kindness and self-control begin to manifest themselves in my life. This is how marriages are restored and what causes the world to sit up and take notice. And this is not the result of trying harder but by believing consciously that my righteousness is Jesus alone. As I abide in that gospel reality, the power of the Spirit begins to take over our lives. I begin to repent deeply and forgive freely. 

Notice that Jesus does not call this spiritual change the fruit of trying harder or the fruit of self-discipline. The branch doesn’t strain to squeeze out fruit. The fruit strains to press into the Vine for life. The result is the evidence of spiritual life Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. [6]

Understood from this perspective, we can say that if my justification is what Jesus has done for me, sanctification is what the Spirit does in me. Therefore, if justification – the forgiven life – is by grace through faith for God’s glory alone then sanctification – the fruitful life – is by grace through faith for God’s glory alone. There is no room for self-boasting for the believer because our lives are all of grace from first to last.  

How Far We Will Go

The film 127 Hours tells the true story of then 27-year-old Aron Ralston. In 2003, while hiking in Blue John Canyon in Utah, deep in a crevasse, Ralston was trapped by a boulder that pinned his right arm to the wall. After surviving for five days on 500 ml of water and exhausting all options to free himself, he fashioned a homemade tourniquet and with a blunt pocket tool cut off his arm. As a result of such extreme measures, he eventually was found and rescued.[7]

On one hand, this true story is a parable of how far we will go to save our own lives. But it also provides a shadow for how far someone else would go to save those who were trapped in a crevasse far worse than the Blue John Canyon. 

Preaching in Acts 3:22-23 to Jews who were being presented the opportunity to receive Jesus as the Messiah, the apostle Peter reminded them about a prediction that Moses had made concerning a second but greater Moses, saying,

22 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. 23 Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.”[8]

Later, Paul would pick up this theme and, out of love for his Jewish brothers who were rejecting Jesus, wrote in Romans 10:3, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”[9] That is an extreme measure. Not just to cut off an arm but to cut off one’s life of blessing, exchanging it for a curse.

Paul could wish it, but Jesus did it. Though crucifixion, Jesus was cursed and cut off so that dead, fruitless branches like you and me could be engrafted into the Vine of the risen Savior as the forgiven, adopted, and beloved of God. Because of Jesus, rather than cursed and cut off, we are blessed and connected. 

If reading this post, you have become aware of your fruitlessness for the first time and sense your own need for God’s mercy, the way you can know whether you have been engrafted is not by examining your life for lots of fruit but by expressing the simple first-fruits of repentance and faith. By simply acknowledging your deadness and need for the Vine, and trusting that what Jesus has done he has done for you, you may know without a doubt that, while you may experience pruning, you’ll never be cut off. In fact, to your surprise and for the glory of God, as you abide in Jesus as your perfect righteousness, you will produce much fruit, not the least of which will be a very real desire to follow Jesus as your Lord and worship him as your Treasure.

This post is an excerpt from the upcoming book, Walking with the Spirit. If you want to be informed when the resource is released, just click here. Or you may be interested in browsing our Free Resource Library, where you may download and print anything to use personally, with your family, or staff.

Discussion Questions.

  1. Put in your own words what it means to “abide in Jesus.”
  2. Why do you think it is significant that abide is an imperative verb?
  3. How is abiding far more difficult than it sounds? What prevents us from abiding?
  4. What is the lesson for those who look in the mirror and realize that their lives are essentially fruitless? What is the hard lesson? What does grace have to say to the fruitless?
  5. Describe the difference between justification and sanctification. 
  6. Who gets the glory for your spiritual fruit? Why? Why do we forget that?
  7. What does it mean to you that Jesus was cut off so that you could be grafted in?

Listen to the post here.

[1] There may be no greater confusion among believers than understanding the dynamic of spiritual change, or what we call in theology, sanctification.
[2] Ga 3:24.
[3] Rom 5:5
[4] See also, Eph 3:14-21.
[5] Gal 5:22
[6] Wesley Hill, “Love Is a Cry for Help,” Critique (2011:2), 14-15.
[7] Ac 3:22–23.
[8] Ro 9:3.