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. 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.
– John 15:4-5
One thing about growing tomatoes that has always frustrated me is how finicky they are about water. Once the plant matures and begins to bear fruit you can no longer water from above – say, by way of a sprinkler or something – since if the tomatoes get wet they will become diseased and rot. You have to water the root.
Sanctification is the same way. Let me explain.
Often, when dealing with sanctification, we find ourselves wanting to talk about good works. What they are, how to do them, and the like. If we see a neighbor who is not bearing the good fruit we think they, as Christians, should be, the assumption is that they need some good old-fashioned exhortation to straighten them out. So we turn their hearts and minds towards considering their own works and ways, so they can improve them.
This is all well and good if one is intending to apply the Law, because that is what the examination of one’s own dead-in-sin works is. And like all Law it will lead either to pride (the sinful heart thinking its own works are better than those around it and deserving of praise), or despair (the heart acknowledging its own wretchedness by the grace of the Holy Spirit). However, in neither case will it change the fruit for the better. It is addressing the fruit, watering the fruit. It can only produce rot; either by further tainting the fruit with sinful self-satisfied pride, or by exposing the corruption that was already there (as in Is. 64:6).
No, if a person is to produce good fruit – really and truly good fruit – it is the root that must be watered. And that root, just as the vine, is Christ. The Christ who saved them by His death. The Christ who has redeemed them by His blood. The Christ who washed them in Baptism and feeds them with His Supper. Point them to Him, crucified and risen. Show them that they abide in Him, and as such nothing can separate them from the love of the Father. And when you have bolstered their faith in so great a Savior, then they will indeed do good works, because He is in them and they in Him. When their root of faith has been watered by the streams of living water from Christ’s word about His person and finished work, how then can they fail to produce good fruit, a nourishment to their neighbor?
Water the fruit, and the fruit will rot and die. Water the root, and there will be fruit in abundance.
*Alternate Title: “Your sanctification is spoiling my ketchup.”