What Happens to Unfruitful Branches?

Jesus said, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15, NASB).

In the hands of a religious person this becomes a conditional statement: You have to keep the commands of Jesus to prove your love. The problem with that, however, is the commands of Jesus are impossible to keep.

As we saw in our last post, Jesus said anyone who keeps His commands, “will do what I have been doing and even greater things.”

Well Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead. Can you? On your own it’s impossible, but that’s okay because you know what? Jesus has a plan. In the very next verse He begins to tell us what it is:

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, who will stay with you forever. (Jn 14:16)

Who is the Helper? He’s the Holy Spirit, the One who empowers us to show and tell the gospel of the kingdom (Rms 15:19). (Note that the Holy Spirit doesn’t come and go. Jesus said He will “be with you forever”!) Jesus then tells the disciples that on the day that the Holy Spirit is given,

… you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (Jn 14:20)

This is the most awesome, incredible thing in the world! This is the mystery that Paul sought to make known to the Gentiles – Christ is in you! And you’re in Him! Do you need a picture to help you see this? Then look at the picture on the right…

Jesus said He is the true vine and we are the branches. Look at the picture and draw a mental circle around the vine. Do you see any branches that are not part of the vine? The vine is bigger than any branch but there’s no branch that is not also vine. Touch any branch and you are touching the vine. This is how Hudson Taylor describes it:

Here, I feel, is the secret: not asking how I am to get sap out of the Vine into myself, but remembering that Jesus is the Vine – the root, stem, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit all indeed… I have not got to make myself a branch. The Lord Jesus tells me I am a branch. I am part of him and I have just to believe it and act upon it. (Quoted in The Normal Christian Life, pp.56-7)

Now Jesus knows that you can’t bear fruit – “no branch can bear fruit by itself” (Jn 15:4) – but He plans to bear His fruit through us. What’s our part in this? He wants us to abide in Him, which means to dwell or stay put. It means don’t run off and try to do your own thing in your own strength. What’s His part? He plans to live His life through us and go on healing the sick and delivering the oppressed and doing all the other heaven-on-earth things He did when He was here in the flesh (Mk 16:17-18).

Are you a branch with no fruit?

What happens to unfruitful branches? Jesus said the branches that don’t bear fruit are “lifted up” (Jn 15:2). They are not cut off – that is a bad translation that would’ve made no sense to a Mediterranean listener! A viticulturalist would never throw away a branch for that would be like amputating part of the vine. (If you’re thinking of suckers, see my note in the comments below.) Unfruitful branches are lifted out of the dirt and re-dressed so they can be nourished by the sun. Sticking with that metaphor, the reason why some Christians are barren is that they’re facedown in the dirt and not looking at the Son. They’re busy, distracted, stressed, and have wandered from their protos agape, their primary love. When believers lose sight of Christ’s love they tend to become religious, just like the Ephesians. The next thing you know, they’re thinking that they have do stuff like obey His commandments to prove their love or earn His.

What is the remedy for unfruitful branches? God is. He is the Gardener who does the lifting up. He is not there to slash and burn but to prune and lift. As you begin to bear fruit it will be for His glory, not yours. If you’ve been distracted doing the dead works of religion, just stop and come back to your first love which is His love. His love is like food for us. We are energized by it. I might tell myself that I am writing these posts because of my love for Him, but in truth, it’s His love for me that compels me to tell others the good news. I would not love Him except that He has first loved me (1 Jn 4:19).

God believes in you!

When Jesus said, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments,” He was not making a threat but a promise! He was saying, “If you love me you will do the works and greater works that I have done because I’m the one who’s going to do them through you. Trust me! Believe in me! Abide in me!” Why does Jesus say we will do greater works? Because 2000 years ago there was only one Christ, but now there are millions of Little Christs. Back then He was just a tender shoot (Is 53:2), but now He’s a mighty vine with branches reaching into every place.  Back then God lived in just one man, but now He lives in millions of men, women and children all around the world and He wants out! What are the greater works? They are the works of Jesus done millions of times over, every day, all over the world by ordinary branches like you and me.

Aren’t you amazed that God operates this way – through people? It’s like God is saying, “I believe in you. I have confidence that you will come to rest in my love and allow me to reveal myself to you and through you.” Carnal religion says it’s all about you and your faith so you’d better perform, but the gospel of grace declares it’s about Him and His faith so rest! Paul understood this which is why he said, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me” (Gal 2:20).

Branches can not bear fruit but vines can and do so naturally, without any effort. As a branch you carry the nature of the True Vine in you and He will bear His fruit through you. He promised! Do you believe Him?

At this point you probably want me to tell you what to do. “What’s the takeaway? What must I do?” We Christians are so hung up on working for God that we don’t know what to do with Jesus when He says, “just abide.” Okay, here’s something you can do. Write this down. The next time you’re faced with a problem or trial, take a moment to let Jesus love on you. Allow the Lifter of your head to turn your gaze from the dirt back to Himself and then bask in His love. He is already shining on you. He has already been gracious to you and blessed you and given you His peace. Receive it!

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. (Jn 15:9)

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38 Comments on What Happens to Unfruitful Branches?

  1. Warren (South Carolina) // June 23, 2015 at 11:39 pm // Reply

    Thank you Paul for helping me to gain understanding on the correct translation that I have NEVER heard in any “church” by any pastor or teacher. Lifted up out of the dirt to face the Son, so His love can flow once again.. . . .love it!!!

    I have heard about the Sucker Vine before and that the church was grafted in to a sucker, not the true vine. Any thoughts?

    Thanks and Blessings!!!
    Warren (South Carolina…..if I get a vote, I vote to take it down)

  2. Konda Nayak Mudavathu // July 1, 2015 at 8:57 pm // Reply

    Dear Too good professor Paul thank you so much for your scripture clarification. I am more blessed through Hyper Grace preachers like you.

  3. Thanks for the article. I am learning a lot about His grace.

    I would like to know what: “You Will Know Them by Their Fruits” mean? Is it our behaviour (the fruits of our spirit described in Galatians 5:22-23)
    Or is there another way to understand “by their fruits”?

    Do you have a teaching so that I can understand what a false prophet really is. Can you be called a false prophet when you (were still trapped in the lie of believing that) God punishes people for their sins? Can you be called a false prophet when you didn’t show love (good behaviour) towards another person?

    I searched for an article related to fruits, because I was once called false because I didn’t keep my cool in a situation. So I have been wondering. Thanks

  4. Jules Hunter // December 10, 2015 at 7:43 pm // Reply

    I really loved this explanation. Very well written, easy to understand, lovely piece, thank you!!

  5. And what about verse 8 (……so shall ye be my disciples).

  6. Dear Abhishek,

    In John 14:21 it does not have ‘if’ in the Koine Greek, NOR is the Koine word for ‘obey’ used here, for the reasons that you mentioned. (No one ‘obeys’ 100%, but because we love Jesus we constantly ‘guard’/’keep watch’ over all his commandments and sayings.” The Koine Greek actually says, “The one having the commandments of Me and GUARDING/keeping/taking-heed-to-pay-attention-to-them, that-one is the one loving Me. The one loving Me will be being loved under the Father of Me and I will be loving him and will be inwardly-manifesting Myself to him.” ‘obey’ is NOT an accurate translation there, and this is sad, because it makes legalists of us instead of remembering and thinking about Jesus saying, “The one who is forgiven much loves much.” How will we know the tremendous love of God in forgiving us unless we ‘guard’/keep watch/take heed to observe His commandments? John 14:21 is actually to tell us that we are loving Him when we involve all of His words and teachings with our whole selves. Then we are open to loving Him even yet more when we know when to ask for forgiveness.

  7. Articles like these make me angry and I dread to think how angry it makes my Father. I am praying against this terrible ministry.

    • Colleen G // May 16, 2016 at 7:42 am // Reply

      I thought of so many snarky, scathing remark to put down. Yet that it not really conductive to mind renewal or the truth. Philippians 1:6 Who is the person who brings completion? God. 2 Timothy 2:13- Who remains faithful when we do not? God, Hebrews 12:2 who is the finisher of our faith? Jesus. We have no fear of not abiding in the vine as we do not abide via our own power or strength.

  8. This is good news! The fire is the Father himself, and used to purify not destroy.

    • I’m not sure why you would think that since Jesus has just said the Father is the gardener. The word for burned that Jesus uses means consumed, not purified. It’s the same word use to describe a martyr burning (1 Cor 13:3) and the Second Death (Rev 21:8).

  9. We heal the sick and raised the dead when we share the gospel… the gospel is the greater work than the works of healing, cleansing lepers, or deliverance from demons. (matt 9:5)

  10. Logically thinking, if the branch is cut off, then branch just withers away or dies off. Then there is no question of branch bearing fruit.

  11. What about the rest of the verse that says that the vinedresser burns the branches?

    • In that story God is the vinedresser except in the part you mentioned. Men with gather them up and burn them, not God. Not sure what it all means but it is an important distinction

  12. I love this!

  13. It feels like the balance between sinner and religious is well a balance. But it’s not. It’s not two truth’s held in tension but a revelation of Jesus that we might have life.

  14. I love “Escape to Reality.” Thats exactly what it is and this article referring to getting your face out of the dirt and looking off and up to Him is the perfect support for the blog title. Paul Ellis, the author of this, caused me to see its a promise and not a threat! Wow!

  15. “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

    This is the follow up of the initial statement, a plain reading of this passage in context doesn’t seem to allow for the ‘lifting up’ interpretation.
    I am concerned by this, it seems that this could be an exercise in a sort of spiritual ‘gaslighting’. If we can’t trust the word as it is written, what can we trust? must we follow certain preachers and teachers in order to discover what the bible really says?
    This interpretation seems to ignore the fact that we can still appropriate the curse in our lives through the knowledge of good and evil by simply modifying the input information to include scripture or even formulaic interpretations of grace.
    Jesus seems to be confronting that reality in this passage, we can (through grace) appropriate the finished work of the cross in our lives by letting go of the old, abiding in Him and submitting to the leading of the Holy Spirit, or we can continue to appropriate the curse by simply modifying our knowledge of good and evil. One path leads to increasing fruitfulness in our lives, the other still results in spiritual death.

    • Yes, a plain reading of scripture would preserve us from so much bad theology, but a plain reading is difficult unless you read the Bible in the language it was written. We have to make do with translations, some of which are poor.

      John 15:1-6 speaks of two kinds of branches – those that abide or have made their home in the Lord (believers and the unfruitful ones are lifted up) – and those that have not made their home in the Lord (unbelievers). Believers and unbelievers, living branches and dead sticks. Just as you don’t prune a stick, you don’t burn a branch.

  16. Logan Baty // April 11, 2018 at 8:50 am // Reply

    Daniel has a point surely Paul. The fuller passage from John he referenced does suggest that those who don’t abide in Christ can be cut off. His view in my opinion is supported by other passages such as Romans 11:17 – 22. And while I would not support a belief that this would be done lightly, the passage to me suggests that continuing to live in moral rebellion to the Lord after coming to a knowledge of the truth, it remains a possibility. Grace is not given to us so we can make a mockery of the Lord’s righteousness.
    With respect you are free to correct any of us with a fuller explanation of what these Scriptures teach if you think the translators of numerous Bible versions over the ages have got it wrong. I would welcome this. But to merely suggest he does not understand because he is not an expert in the common Greek and Hebrew of 2000 years ago is an inadequate response in my opinion. It may even sound arrogant to some.

    • I’m not sure which translation you are reading, but an accurate translation of John 15:6 is that those who don’t abide in the Lord are CAST or THROWN away. They are not cut off because they were never part of the vine. They are dead sticks, not fruitless branches. As for the Jewish branches being broken off, please see this. Nowhere in scripture does it say God casts away or cuts off his children. In fact, there are 132 New Testament scriptures saying he won’t. Good news, no?

      (My apologies for poor tone. I try to answer as many messages and comments as I can before I start my day and I appreciate my abruptness can come across the wrong way.)

    • The core problem is sin. If we do not know the fullness of what scripture says about Jesus sacrifice and our sin it is easy to misunderstand certain passages as warnings of being cut off because of too much sin. Somewhere in church history teachers began taking one or two verses pulling them out and teaching them as stand alone statements without regard to the local context and certainly not the whole picture scripture gives on the topic. The ideas many people have about passages such the vines, the olive branches and others as loss of salvation are fallout from this poor treatment of the bible. Yet the poor conclusions have been around so long they are thought of as undeniable fact.

      • Momzilla, grand conspiracy theories aside, no one gets cut off because of too much sin. However, if an individual continues to practice the knowledge of good and evil (the curse) then they will still be abiding in sin and death. Jesus has done everything possible to break the power of the curse, but if we continue to practice plucking fruit from the wrong tree, His finished work will profit us nothing.
        We effectively still have the same choice as Adam and Eve, with one important distinction. When we inevitably do pluck that fruit (and we will) we can realize our error (by the power of the Holy Spirit), drop the fruit and run back to the Lord. God is not unreasonable,He knows how hard it is for us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, he knows how pervasive that good and evil ‘operating system’ is in the world, but He has outsmarted the devil and thrown a curve ball called “grace”. It is a brilliant, incredible, wonderful strategy, because the process of doing this also brings us ever closer to Him, relationship was His goal from the start. God has completely turned the tables on the evil one and turned what was meant to destroy us into a process of ever increasing life.
        When God prunes us back, He is not removing anything that came from Himself, think about that for a moment, what do you think He is pruning away?

      • momzilla76 // April 12, 2018 at 12:35 am //

        I was speaking of being completely cut off from Christ not just having the sinful parts of our lives trimmed up by God’s pruning shears. A segment of Christianity teaches that we are cut off from Christ not that we are merely trimmed up to be cleaner. The person I was answering seemed to be of the cut off from Christ mind set. The full picture we see in scripture of Christ and our sins shows that the pruning passages are not speaking of being cut off from Christ. Yet so many live is fear wondering just when the sin that they struggle to break free from is finally going to get them cut off from Jesus or if the one big fall they took was the end for them.
        (No conspiracy theories, just a really bad practice that influenced way too much of what the average Christian thinks about certain bible verses)

  17. This is from a book by _____
    “…evidence that grapevines were sometimes supported on wooden posts or frames (which no one denies), there was no evidence given by any source showing that unfruitful vines or branches were “lifted up” so that they would bear more fruit. No Free Grace publication that I could find produced any evidence from the ancient world that said that unfruitful vines or branches were “lifted up.” The most extensive description that I found of ancient agricultural methods with regard to grapevines is the discussion in Natural History by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79, very close to the time of Jesus’s earthly ministry). He includes some instructions that are relevant for understanding John 15, for they show that unfruitful vines are to be cut off and burned: If a vine is making poor growth, make a bonfire of its shoots and plow in the ashes therefrom.6 If a meager vine has not got suitable branches, it is a very good plan to cut it back to the ground and get it to put out new branches.7 . . . pruning away only the decayed parts of the vine and those beginning to wither, and leaving the rest to bear grapes relieved of superfluous weight.8 Pliny thus says the opposite of what Free Grace supporters argue. Far from being “lifted up,” he says unfruitful branches were cut off and unfruitful vines were burned up in a “bonfire.”

    • Hi Ryan. I don’t normally publish cut and pasted comments – I would rather hear what you think – but I’ve allowed this one because I’m head deep in first-century history with the preparation of a book. As it happens, I’ve been reading Pliny this week and can confirm he wrote extensively on the first-century practice of viticulture, especially in Book 17, Ch. 35 of his Natural History. I would always encourage readers to check out original sources for themselves and not take the word of any intermediary, and this is why I have provided a link to the chapter in question. I would also hesitate to build theology on a treatise on viticulture rather than the words Jesus. In the example provided above, the vine is cut back to the ground and every branch is removed. What spiritual conclusions might we draw from that?

      Anyway, to the matter at hand. It is factually incorrect to say there is no ancient evidence of lifting up branches. In fact, Pliny provides evidence in the very chapter quoted above. In ancient times there were two basic ways to grow a vine; let the branches trail along the ground or lift them up and support them with a trellis. Pliny describes trellising in some detail. Vines don’t trellis themselves. A trellis implies a gardener taking care to lift up branches and provide support. The gardener does all the work, and the branches become fruitful as a result. What a beautiful picture of God’s aiding grace.

      • I appreciate your engagement. I actually have three arguments to make, this one is conceptual, the others are exegetical and historical.
        Pliny said this, “There are five different kinds of vine: that with the branches running along the ground, the vine that stands without support, the vine that is propped and requires no cross-piece, the vine that is propped and requires a single cross-piece, and the vine that requires a trellis of four compartments.”
        Assuming you are right and Jesus talking about the trellising. Someone who is a caretaker of the vine lifts it up and ‘trellises’ as the vine is growing, as the branches grow the vineyard owner continuously lifts the branches up onto the trellis. The vine itself is already being ‘lifted up’ onto the trellis as it grows, which implies that a branch that isn’t bearing fruit wouldn’t necessarily be hanging off the side/near the bottom, a branch that doesn’t bear fruit will already be on the trellis. My question is what if a branch is already attached at the top of the trellis, and it is not bearing fruit, how do you lift it up then? It doesn’t even need to be ‘at the top’, if a branch is on the trellis whatsoever, how do you then lift it up on the trellis? It seems that it has already been lifted up. It also seems that in order for your scenario to work, you have to impose a very specific situation, rather than a general.

      • It’s all about photosynthesis and access to the sun. Branches need about 1500 hours of sunlight/year to fruit and if they’re in the shade that won’t happen. In primitive times vinedressers used a variety of methods for lifting up branches and getting them out of the shade. I will talk about these in some detail in a forthcoming article.

      • Thanks again for responding. Just to note, I am not debating the point that plants in general need sunlight to survive and thrive. I’m not debating the fact that vine branches may not even produce as much fruit if they are in the shade. I therefore am not debating that if there was a specific scenario where a branch happened to be in the shade that a vineyard keeper might move it into the sun.
        My problem with your argument is, that it is only valid in the very specific isolated scenario, of a branch being low, in the shade, and not connected to the trellis. Your scenario application fails if there is a branch has already been connected to the trellis and is not bearing fruit because then the solution is not to lift it onto a trellis, or if the branch is already in the sun and not bearing fruit, or if the branch is located at the top section of the trellis and not bearing fruit because there would be no where to ‘lift it up’. The assumption that you are required to make is that every branch that has already been ‘trellised’ and is receiving sunlight can’t not bear fruit, it is impossible, you would have to eisegete the text to make it mean that because any person who grows grapes well knows that a branch can exist that doesn’t bear fruit and is lifted up and receiving sunlight.

      • I’m not really sure what point you are trying to make either horticulturally or spiritually. Vines bear fruit. It happens naturally, all by itself. It only doesn’t happen if something has gone wrong, in which case the vinedresser will step in to fix it.

      • Paul, I realize your blog is fairly large, and I truly do appreciate your willingness to engage with what seems to be everyone’s comments. Even if we disagree, I believe you truly believe what you stand for with your whole heart and do a great job taking the time to explain and engage with anyone’s concerns!
        The point I am trying to make is horticulturally. What I am saying is I recognize that your theory can work under a specific set of assumptions. Those assumptions are: It is physically impossible to be a branch in the vine that is already lifted up in the sun and for that branch to not bear fruit (either presently or in the near future). Horticulturally speaking, I fundamentally disagree with that set of assumptions, mainly because in real life vines can have branches that get plenty of sunlight and be properly positioned on a trellis and still not produce fruit.
        So my argument is this, if a branch is already properly positioned in the sunlight and it isn’t producing fruit, it would make no sense to “lift it up so it could receive sunlight”.

    • Someone unfamiliar with grape vines can easily misunderstand the parable as many Christians have. There are 3 parts to the grape vine. One is the root stock, then the main vine and then the branches. The root and the vine are not pruned only the branches are. Once a branch has produced fruit it will never produce again so it is cut off to keep the plant compact and more easily cared for.

      • momzilla76 // April 16, 2018 at 3:34 am //

        I did not finish my train of thought. If we are the branches then we are cut off of Christ because we produced fruit. Yet if we are the vine, with Jesus being the rootstock that we are grafted onto, our branches may get trimmed up as part of fruit production. God is cutting off the bits of our life that is just sort of sitting there sucking up nutrients without giving anything in return. Jesus is talking proverbial haircuts not getting sent to hell because we don’t fruit up better than our neighbor can.

  18. Jared Westendorp // April 24, 2018 at 11:47 am // Reply

    Is it possible that “cut off” or “take away” is the translation? Well here is my reason. The Message version helps give understanding for my reason. I look at what Jesus said in that first paragraph of John 15 as Him giving a timeline or history. The characters represented in that paragraph there are the law, OT faith (which was incomplete without us, somewhere in Hebrews 11), and the disciples. He cut off the law, He pruned backed (gave it perspective, clarity) the OT faith so it could bear more fruit, and He prepped the disciples through the messages they heard; to them and others.

    • Jared Westendorp // May 6, 2018 at 3:12 pm // Reply

      One more thing….It makes me remember the line in the book of Hebrews where it says the has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. Either way it is an encouragement to see Father as being so good to us. peace.

      • Jared Westendorp // May 14, 2018 at 12:41 am //

        I feel sorry for disagreeing and keep searching to see if what I understand is truth. I guess there is no anxiety because it will all get sorted out in the end. This website has helped me so much in the now to be free from misunderstandings, encouraging me to seek out truth, and help me encourage others. I pray for the grace, we so much enjoy, to abound beyond all I could ask into our knowing Him

      • No need to apologize, Jared. Just keep pressing into the Lord and enjoy the journey. We are all learning here.

  19. This is simply marvelous! I read each line and felt the Father’s love shinning down on me. thanks for showing this.

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