“I AM the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this commemoration of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, the foundational confession of the Lutheran Church, is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: “I will speak of your statutes before kings, O Lord, and will not be put to shame.” June 25th, 1530. Augsburg, Germany. A group of laymen were gathered before the emperor, before the representatives of the pope, before the powers and principalities of this world. They read a document, a confession, crafted by theologians, principally Philip Melanchthon, but confessed by laymen, princes and political officials. These men were fully conscious what this confession would mean; not only were they putting their lives on the line, but they were also confessing before Almighty God, to whom they would answer on Judgment Day. But they were not put to shame. They were not ashamed, they were not embarrassed, they were not timid, for they took their stand on the Word of God. They set themselves forward, in accordance with that Word, to oppose any attempt to take honor away from Christ, any attempt to achieve salvation apart from Him, in full or in part, in accord with His Word: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Apart from Christ, there is nothing good in this world, for apart from Christ there is no faith, apart from Christ there are no good works. Apart from Christ, there is nothing, only sin and condemnation. Apart from Christ, no one has access to their Creator. Apart from Christ, there is no heavenly joy, only the wrath of judgment. To think otherwise is to think that a branch can survive without its vine. “I AM the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Christ is the vine, the true vine that replaces God’s original planting, the nation of Israel, which did not produce the fruit He desired. Apart from Christ, the branches are not nourished, they are not cared for. Apart from Christ, there is not the pruning that all healthy branches need.
“I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Apart from Christ, branches wither and decay, they are cut off to be burned. But those who are in Christ are pruned, and the word used here for ‘pruned,’ has the original meaning of ‘cleansed.’ How do you cleanse a branch? By cutting off its impurities, by pruning it. How do you cleanse a person, body and soul? By washing, the washing of the water with the Word. Jesus says to you and me, “Already you are clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you.” You have been cleansed by the washing of Holy Baptism, you have been scrubbed clean in the font; through the power of the Holy Spirit, you have been attached to the true vine, Jesus Christ. You are a part of His Body, the Church, connected to Him and your fellow Christians as branches are connected to a vine. And now the Father prunes you, cutting away every imperfection, cleansing you again and again, daily putting you to death in a return to your baptism and raising you up again to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever. You are cleansed, pruned, as the Father calls you to repentance through the Law and forgives your sin by the Gospel, each and every day, with each and every sin. You are cleansed, pruned daily, until that Day when every imperfection is finally cut away, and you stand before Him in the white robes, a pure and uncorrupted branch, forever.
Apart from Christ, you can do nothing. In Christ, you are clean by virtue of your baptism, you are attached to the true vine, and God works to cleanse you, to prune you, day by day in a return to the font. Apart from Christ, there is no cleansing, there is no pruning, there is only the growth of corruption. “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Apart from Christ, there is only burning. Apart from Christ, there is only destruction. Apart from Christ, there is no faith, no trust in the true God. A branch cannot live on its own; it can only have life if it receives that life from the vine. Christ is the vine; we are the branches. We receive our life from Him, by receiving His gifts, the life-giving nutrients that flow into us by the Holy Word, preached and read, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where the sap of the true vine flows into our veins. Any and all who cut themselves off from these means will wither away. Apart from Christ, you can do nothing. There is no other way, no other path. Either we are attached to Christ, receiving life from Him, or we are apart from Him, withering away and destined to be burned.
Apart from Christ, no one can be saved. Apart from Christ, all are alike condemned. Why? Because only Christ has paid the price for our sin; only Christ hung upon the cross and faced the wrath of God over your sin and mine. Only Christ is both true man, living a perfect life in your place, able to lay down His life as a sacrifice, and also true God, offering up a sacrifice sufficient for all the sin of the world. Only Christ went into the grave to come back out again, holding the keys of death and Hades. If you can find another savior who has paid the debt you owe, who has triumphed over the grave, you are welcome to him; but only Christ has won the salvation that all men need, only Christ gives it freely to you, and therefore Christ says, “apart from me you can do nothing.”
We can do nothing apart from Christ; nothing good, that is. With these words, Jesus shatters any confidence in human works; they are quite simply no good before God apart from Christ. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” No work is good apart from Christ; we cannot keep the Law apart from being connected to the One who kept the Law on our behalf. A branch laying on the ground, cut off from the vine, cannot produce fruit; it is impossible. In the same way, anyone who is apart from Christ cannot do a good work; it is impossible. Their deeds may look good, they may help many, and we can rightly praise and encourage them in an earthly way, but before God these works are only sinful. They cannot bring salvation, they cannot bring a man to God, but only condemn him.
On the other hand, those connected to Christ, those who are attached to Him as the true vine, bear much good fruit. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Branches connected to the true vine bear fruit; this is simply a fact. They do not bear fruit in order to be attached to the vine, but they bear fruit because they are attached to the vine. And what is that fruit? One word: love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” We love as Christ loved us: laying down our lives for others, placing them and their needs ahead of our own. That is the fruit that those who are in the true vine bear. That is the fruit that Christ calls on you to bear. But this fruit cannot be produced on your own, by yourself, but only through the life-giving gifts that Christ gives. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We love as Christ has loved us; we receive love from Christ here in this place, and then we extend that love to others as God places them before us.
We do this in joy; not under compulsion, not under the threat of punishment, not out of a need to earn God’s favor. We have God’s favor, we are attached to the vine; we now serve others in freedom, with great joy. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” It is no coincidence that Jesus calls Himself a vine when the picture of the joy of the kingdom of heaven almost always includes wine. Being attached to the true vine and bearing much fruit lead to joy, the very joy of heaven itself. Apart from Christ there is no faith, apart from Christ there are no good works, and apart from Christ, there is no joy.
It was on that great truth that the confessors at Augsburg took their stand. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Their Roman opponents certainly held to Jesus as the only one who gives access to the Father. Their error was more subtle; they privileged human works by giving them a role to play in achieving salvation. Faith and works together brought the believer into a saving relationship with God. In response, the confessors went to John chapter 15 and declared: “Without faith human nature cannot possibly do the works of the First or Second Commandments. Without faith it does not call upon God, expect anything of God, or bear the cross, but it seeks and trusts in man’s help. Accordingly, when there is no faith and trust in God, all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’” Faith comes first, then works, and those works have nothing to do with making a person righteous before God. No work that precedes faith and justification is good, but is damnable and condemned, no matter how beautiful it appears.
Melanchthon emphasizes this point in the Apology, or defense, of the Augsburg Confession. “Our opponents imagine that we are members of Moses rather than of Christ. They want to be justified by the law and to offer our works to God before being reconciled to God and becoming the branches of Christ.” The debate at Augsburg was not over whether Christians do good works, but where those good works were to be found: not before justification, not during justification, but flowing from justification, as those attached to the vine in joy bring forth the good fruit that delights the vinedresser, the fruit that will fill the foaming cups of wine in the halls of heaven, forever. In the Name of the true vine, Jesus Christ, Amen.