John 15:5

“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.”

Our works of obedience play no role in our justification — God’s declaration that we are righteous before His seat of judgment. Instead, we are justified solely on account of the perfect righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to our record through faith alone (Gal. 2:15–16; 2 Cor. 5:21). In our justification, we are not made inherently righteous. God’s declaration does not mean we cease to sin before we die. Each of us is, as Martin Luther said, simul justus et peccator — “at the same time righteous and sinner.” We are covered in an alien righteousness, a righteousness that is not our own, but under that covering we are still inclined to break the law of God. Justification declares us righteous, it does not make us sinless.

We are granted citizenship in God’s kingdom based only on the righteousness of Christ, but good works are not an optional part of the Christian life. In fact, believers must do good, not to secure justification but to evidence their justification. The Apostle Paul, who presents the doctrine of justification by faith alone more frequently and clearly than any other biblical author, tells us that Christians were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). Paul also reveals that those who have died to sin through Jesus Christ will not walk in sin impenitently (Rom. 6). Our good works are the necessary fruit of our justification, not its basis.

Throughout history, many have believed that the doctrine of justification by faith alone makes people think they can sin with abandon. Question and answer 64 of the Heidelberg Catechism addresses the contention that this doctrine makes people “indifferent and wicked.” The catechism answers this claim, turning to today’s passage as proof that it is impossible for those who are truly in Christ not to “produce fruits of gratitude.” We are united to Jesus by faith just as branches are joined to a vine (John 15:5). In this union, we are so nourished by our Savior that we bear fruit, and if we are in union with Him, we cannot help but bear fruit. The branches of a grapevine do not bear fruit before they are united to the vine; rather, they are first united to the vine before fruit shows itself. The same is true for us in our justification. We are united to Christ by faith alone before we bear the fruit of obedience, not vice versa.

Coram Deo

John Calvin writes, “Before we are in [Christ], we are dry and useless wood.” After we are united to Him through faith alone, however, we become living, fruitful branches. The doctrine of justification by faith alone frees us to do good works. Because we know we have a secure place in heaven, we need not be overly anxious about making a wrong step and losing our citizenship. Instead, we serve Him boldly, knowing that He is our Advocate when we fail.

For Further Study