Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul
by Octavius Winslow (1841)
Chapter 7: The Fruitless and the Fruitful Professor
"Every branch in me that bears not fruit, he takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit." (John 15:2)
If there were any one feature in our Lord's ministrations more peculiarly impressive than another, it was the discriminating character that marked them. No one, on hearing him, could retire without the deep conviction that he was the man whose moral image Jesus had been drawing, and in such true and vivid resemblance, as to compel him to acknowledge the faithfulness of the portrait. There was no personality, no harshness, no unnecessary keenness in his reproof, no exaggeration of coloring, nothing overdrawn; but such a simple, faithful, scriptural dealing with human conscience, as either compelled his hearers to submit to his authority, and rank themselves among his followers, or to retire, silenced, self-accused, and self-condemned. Thus it is recorded at the conclusion of one of his discourses, - " And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spoke of them." Matt. xxi. 45; and on another occasion we read, as the result of one of his peculiar and emphatic modes of teaching, - " And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last." John viii. 9.
In the parable of the vine and the branch, we have, perhaps, one of the most striking specimens of our Lord's analytical style of instruction. He who formed the heart, and knew, in consequence of its apostasy, how deeply it was tainted with evil, was not ignorant how far a man could go in an outward profession of his name, and yet live and die destitute of regenerating grace. In the parable, therefore, to which we have alluded, he goes into a faithful and searching discrimination of character, lays bare the evil to which men were exposed, warns them of the danger of self-deception, distinguishes between the true and the false professor, and describes, in striking and affecting terms, the final state of both: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that bears not fruit he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit." In these words of our dear Lord, we have first, a solemn description of a fruitless professor; he then directs us to the pruning of the fruitful branch, and he assigns a reason why he prunes it - " that it may bring forth more fruit." Let us, in the present chapter, take the description of the fruitless professor as the basis of our first reflections.
That there can exist such a state as a fruitless professor of the Gospel, is, perhaps, one of the most indubitable evidences of the deep degeneracy of the human heart, and its natural tendency to self-deception, that exists. " The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked ": and here is the proof, if all other were wanting, that an individual may approach so near in his external resemblance to a child of God, may look so like a believer in Jesus, may appear to be united to him, and still remain among the dead. Of all states this side of eternity, this is the most awful: and yet it is to be feared, if we are to judge of the tree by its fruits, and not by its leaves, that this is the state of thousands at the present moment. How important, may we not pause to remark, that the ministers of the Gospel - those who stand between the living and the dead - should model their ministry, as closely as they can, after their blessed Lord's; that they should be careful how they preach - that their preaching should be discriminating without being harsh, pointed without being personal, searching without being caustic; that no hearer should go away from beneath their ministrations, without a faithful delineation of his own character, the voice sounding in his conscience, and following him amid all his windings and his wanderings, " You are the man."
An expression of our Lord's may need a moment's explanation: he speaks of the fruitless branch as united to himself, - " Every branch in me that bears not fruit." We are not to understand this of a vital union, a spiritual grafting into Christ; the analogy of truth is opposed to such an interpretation. The word of God invariably maintains the influential character of a living faith, - that it is ever productive of the fruits of holiness, - that a union to Christ will always result in a living to God: to suppose, therefore, that a dead and fruitless branch could be vitally in Christ, is to suppose that the word of God was against itself, which it can never be. But we are to understand our Lord as referring to an external union, to an outward profession only. There is such a thing as being externally in Christ; in him by an avowal of attachment to his cross, by a profession of his name, by adherence to his cause, by an apparent zeal for his glory: all this may exist, and in thousands does exist, without one particle of real, spiritual, life-deriving union to Christ. We may repair to a nursery, and may lop off a branch from a dead tree, and simply tie it to a living tree, and to all appearance it may resemble a true vital graft. A casual observer may be deceived; but time proves its false appearance: we come and look for fruit, the natural result of true grafting, and we find nothing save a lifeless, sapless, barren branch, externally united to the living tree. Look at such a professor! Where is the fruit? where is the real severing from the wild olive-tree? where is the great separation between himself and his own righteousness? where is the breaking up of the fallow ground of a hard, corrupt, stony heart? where is the humble, lowly, contrite spirit? where is the self-loathing, self-abhorrence, self-accusing, self-condemnation? Hear we the cry, " God be merciful to me a sinner?" Mark we the low posture in the dust, the smiting upon the bosom, the standing afar off, the eye not lifted even towards the dwelling-place of a holy God? Where, too, is a living faith in Christ, a living upon Christ, and a living to Christ? Where is conformity to the Divine image? Where the fruits of holiness increasing and abounding? What of the spirit, the meekness, the lowliness, the gentleness, the sanctity of Jesus, do we discover? What self-denial, bearing of the cross, crucifixion to sin, deadness to the world, and living for eternity, do we trace? Alas! alas! we have mistaken the external profession for a vital, spiritual union to Christ! And is it any marvel, that when we came seeking fruit from such a branch, we should have found none?
But look at the profession of our day. If to put on the Lord Jesus by an outward avowal of his religion, - if to profess and call themselves Christians, - if to bow the knee at the mention of his name, - if to partake of the outward symbols of his body and his blood, - if to speak well of Jesus, - assent and consent to his doctrine, approve of his Gospel, follow his ministers, crowd his temple, contribute liberally to his cause, - if these constitute the sole and essential elements of real spiritual union to Christ, then may we not exclaim, - "The millennium has broken upon us in noontide splendor!" We speak of no single sect, we speak of all religious sects, for among all are to be found the lifeless, fruitless professor. Was it not so in the days of our Lord, and during the searching ministry of his apostles? Discriminating in his preaching as he was, and vigilant as they were in their oversight of the flock, false professors abounded in their time, and even rose to places of distinction in the church. Look at the case of Simon Magus; he was but a fruitless professor; concerning whom it is recorded, that he had " neither part nor lot in the matter - that his heart was not right in the sight of God - that he was in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity." Look at the case of Demas; he was but a fruitless professor. " Demas has forsaken me," writes the apostle, "having loved this present world." And look at that eminent and awful instance of a mere external union to Christ - a fruitless profession of his name - Judas Iscariot; in reference to whom, Jesus prays to his Father, "those that you gave me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition." And to those whose union to himself was but external, and where life was fruitless, our Lord alludes in these solemn words, " Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and has shut the door, and you begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence you are. Then shall you begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in your presence, and you have taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence you are; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out." Luke xiii. 24-28. If possible, in yet more awful terms does the word of God unfold the final doom of the Christless, fruitless professor. " Every tree which brings not forth good fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire." " Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into his garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Matt. iii. 10,12.
But it is not often the case that the fruitless professor clings even to his bare profession, until his doom arrives. There are many, who, long before the awful note of approaching judgment falls on their ear, throw off the outward garb, and stand forth in their true character. Our Lord seems to intimate this in various parts of his word; especially in his explanation of the parable of the sower, does he refer to it in clear and affecting terms, - "Those by the way side are those who hear; then comes the devil, and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe it and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection." Luke viii. 12-14. These are they whom the spiritual Husbandman "takes away." The season of temptation, the time of persecution, the accumulation of worldly cares, the increase and glitter of riches, are periods and occasions that place a man's religion in the crucible, that bring it to the test. The bare professor cannot stand it. The wind sweeps over the tree, and all its leaves are scattered. The fire kindles around the ore, and proves it to be base metal. But let us not be misunderstood. We dare not affirm of all mere profession of the Gospel, that its false character soon discovers itself. There are thousands who make mammon their trust, "whose god is their belly, whose glory is their shame, who mind earthly things "; and whose " end," if they are not brought to true repentance, will be " destruction ": who yet, in the midst of it all, rigidly maintain the form of godliness, and who would regard it as the greatest offence, were their Christianity for a moment doubted. Oh, the heart is deep and treacherous as the sea; and they who trust it will be fearfully and eternally ruined! A man may be a lover of pleasure, and a lover of the world, and a lover of sin, - his heart may go after covetousness, and his mind may be immersed in worldly cares, and all the while be a rigid formalist, and a proud Pharisee, and a noisy disputant, and even suffer persecution for conscience' sake, rather than yield a principle bearing upon some lesser matter of the law. But we would now turn the reader's attention to the PRUNING OF THE FRUITFUL BRANCH.
Our dear Lord's words are deep and rich in meaning: " Every branch that bears fruit, he purges it." Here is life, here is true union; it is a fruitful branch, deriving its fruitful-ness from its vital union to the Lord Jesus Christ. It will be observed, that this fruit-bearing branch is in Christ; grafted upon him, united to him, and dwelling in him, as the branch is one with the vine. The union of the believer with Jesus, and the consequent fruitfulness, is a glorious truth: the Holy Spirit, in his word, has laid great stress upon it. It is spoken of as a being in Christ: " Every branch in me "; " If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature"; " So we, being many, are one body in Christ"; " Those who are fallen asleep in Christ." But in what sense are we to understand this being " in Christ" ? We have shown how a fruitless professor may be externally united to Christ, there being no Divine life in the soul, no true faith, and consequently no spiritual fruitfulness: he is " dead while he lives." But to be in Christ truly, spiritually, vitally, is more than this; it is to be in that eternal covenant of grace made with Christ, as the Surety and Mediator of his people; one of the number spoken of as the Lord's " peculiar treasure," - " For the Lord has chosen Jacob unto himself, and Israel for his peculiar treasure," Psalm cxxxv. 4; and concerning whom the Holy Spirit declares that they are elected in Christ, - " Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly things in Christ: according as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love." Eph. i. 3, 4. To be " in Christ" truly, is to stand accepted in his righteousness, to be justified by him freely from all things; it is to be brought to the knowledge of our own vileness, insufficiency, and guilt; to be made to cast aside all self-dependence, that is, all works of human merit, and to come as the thief on the cross came, without any allowed confidence in anything of self, but as a poor, helpless, ruined, condemned sinner, all whose hope of pardon and acceptance is through the free mercy of God in Christ Jesus. To be " in Christ," is to be the subject of a living, holy, influential principle of faith; it is to be brought into the blessed state thus described by the apostle as his own: " I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." Gal. ii. 20. To be " in Christ," is to be one with him; it is to be a member of his mystical body, of which he is the spiritual head; and the head and the members are one. It is to have Christ dwelling in the heart: " Christ in you the hope of glory " - " Know you not that Christ dwells in you, except you be reprobates?" - "I in them." Yes, it is to dwell in the heart of Christ; it is to rest there in the very pavilion of his love, to dwell there every moment, to be sheltered there from all evil, and to be soothed there under all sorrow. Oh blessed state of being "in Christ!" Who would not experience it? who would not enjoy it? " There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." Rom. viii. 1.
These are the living branches, united to the true Vine, which bear fruit. From their union to the living Vine their fruit comes: " From me is your fruit found "; " As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can you, except you abide in me." And oh what precious fruit does such a living branch bear! the broken heart - the contrite spirit - the mourning over sin - the low, abasing, humbling views of self - the venturing by faith on a full, mighty, willing Savior - the going out of self, and resting in his all-atoning work and all-satisfying righteousness. This is followed by a progressive advance in all holiness and godliness, the fruits of faith which are by Jesus Christ, abounding in the life, and proving the reality of the wondrous change, - the close walk with God, - the submission of the will in all things to his, - the conformity of the life to the example of Jesus, - the "power of his resurrection" felt - the "fellowship of his sufferings " known - and " conformity to his death " marking the entire man. Phil. iii. 10.
These are some of the fruits of a truly regenerate soul. The Holy Spirit testifies, that the "fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, and righteousness, and truth"; and still more minutely as consisting of " love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance."
Now observe, it is the fruitful branch only that the Husbandman prunes: "every branch that bears fruit, he purges it." If it be asked - why ? the answer is, because it is only the fruitful branch that bears the pruning. He prunes it, because it is fruitful, because it has life from, and union with, the Vine. This purging, or pruning of the fruitful believer by the Lord, is the trial of his own work. The very discipline which a covenant God employs with his child, proves the existence and reality of grace in the soul. It is not the lifeless branch that he prunes, it is not the spurious ore that he puts in the furnace. When he takes his child in hand to deal with him, it is with a view of drawing forth the grace which he has first implanted in the soul. The very trial of faith supposes the existence of faith; and the trial of any one grace of the Spirit, supposes the previous indwelling of that grace in the believer. No man goes to a dry well to draw water from it; no man goes to a bank in which he has made no previous deposit, to draw money from it. When God, - the spiritual Husbandman of the church, - comes into his garden, and walks amid the " trees of righteousness," and in his sovereignty marks one here and another there for discipline, for pruning, whom does he select for this blessed purpose, but the trees which he has himself planted? Jesus, the Vine, has declared, that "every plant which his heavenly Father has not planted, shall be rooted up." And have we not often seen the solemn fulfillment of this threatening in the case of graceless professors? - the first blast of temptation has carried them away, root and branch. God, perhaps, has brought them into deep trial; the storm of adversity has fallen upon them; death has snatched away the " desire of their eyes with a stroke"; riches have taken wings and flown away; character has been assailed; temptations have overtaken them; and what has been their end? We look for their religion, - it has fled away like the chaff of the threshing-floor before the sweeping hurricane; their profession, - it is all gone; their prayers, - they have evaporated into empty air. The solemn " place of the holy " that knew them, knows them no more. And so it will prove with every plant that our heavenly Father has not planted; and so with all the wood, hay, and stubble, built upon an outward acknowledgment and profession of Christ. And oh their end! 'For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge (not an experimental or saving knowledge is here meant) of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, " The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire."' 2 Pet. ii. 20-22.
But the true child of the covenant, the Lord tries; the living, fruitful branch, the Husbandman prunes. There is that in every believer, yes, the most eminent child of God, - eminent for his holy and close walk, - that needs pruning. We cannot always see the necessity of the discipline; we wonder, often, why such a believer is so constantly, and, in a sense, so severely dealt with. We look at his godly conversation in all things; we mark his holy deportment, his consistent walk, his lowly spirit, his spiritual gifts and graces, his devotedness and zeal in the cause of the Lord, and we exclaim, " Lord, make me like him, as he is like you!" And when we see the cedar in Lebanon bend before the sweeping tempest - when we mark how the man of God becomes the subject of the most overwhelming afflictions, how wave follows wave, and messenger after messenger comes with tidings of evil still more bitter than the last, - when we see this mercy blasted, that comfort removed, - here a check, and there a disappointment, and he whom we gazed upon as one in whom the Lord had deposited great grace, and favored with peculiar nearness and conformity to himself, thus deeply afflicted, - we marvel that the dear Husbandman should prune him as he does. But what says the Husbandman? - " I, the Lord, search the heart." Here is the secret revealed; the hidden evil of that holy man of God we could not discover. The powerful corruptions that dwelt in his heart, - which he, in a degree, knew, and mourned over and confessed daily before the Lord, - were concealed from our eye; and while we were judging from outward appearance, - and, it may be, judging correctly too, for by their fruits we are to know the true and the false professors, - the Lord was probing and searching the heart, and for the subjugation of the evil that he discovered there, was thus disciplining, and pruning, and purging his beloved child.
Dear reader, if you are experimentally acquainted with the truth as it is in Jesus, if you are a living branch of the true Vine, it will be nothing new for you to be informed, that the Canaanites still dwell in the land. You will recollect, that when the children of Israel took possession of Canaan, although they conquered its inhabitants, and took supreme possession and government of the country, yet the former occupants of the soil they could not entirely dispossess. The circumstance is thus recorded: " The children of Manasseh could not drive out the inhabitants of those cities; but the Canaanites would dwell in that land." Josh xvii. 12. Now what these Canaanites, these heathenish idolaters, were to the children of Israel, the natural corruptions of the heart are to the called children of God. After all that Divine and sovereign mercy has done for the soul, - though the inhabitants of the land have been conquered, and the heart has yielded to the power of omnipotent grace, and the "strong man armed " has been deposed, and Jesus has taken the throne, - yet the Canaanites will dwell in the land, and we cannot expel them thence. These are the natural corruptions of our fallen nature, the evils of a heart that is but partially renewed, the heathenish lusts, and passions, and infirmities that formerly were the sole occupants of the soil, and still dwell there, and which we shall never, in the present state, entirely dispossess. But what did the children of Israel do to these Canaanites, whom they could not drive out of the cities, but who would dwell in the land? We read in the 13th verse: "Yet it came to pass, when the children of Israel were waxing strong, that they put the Canaanites to tribute: but did not utterly drive them out." Now this is what the children of God must do with the spiritual Canaanites that yet dwell in the renewed heart: they cannot be driven out, but they may be put to tribute; they cannot be entirely extirpated, yet they may be brought into complete subjection, and even made to contribute to the spiritual advance of the soul, and to the glory of God. Yes, even these very indwelling and powerful Canaanites, these strong corruptions that war and fight in the renewed soul, may be made subservient to the spiritual benefit of a child of God. Will it not be so, if they lead him to put no confidence in himself, to draw largely from the fullness of grace in Jesus, to repair often to the throne of mercy, to deal much and closely with the atoning blood, to cultivate a watchful, prayerful, tender spirit and daily and hourly to rejoice in Christ Jesus, having no confidence in the flesh? And yet all this may be the result, when the believer has waxen strong in the Divine life, and has learned to put his indwelling corruptions to tribute, though he may not utterly expel them from his bosom. Thus " God turned the curse of Balaam into a blessing," Neh. xiii. 2; and thus, too, may the renewed soul, - often led to exclaim, " O wretched man that I am ? who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" - through a supply of the Spirit of Christ Jesus, and becoming more thoroughly versed in the are of the holy war, be able to turn the risings of his indwelling sins into occasions of more holy and humble walk with God. Happy believer, the tendency and real effect of whose indwelling infirmities of the flesh and the spirit are, to school the soul in the knowledge of its own nothingness, to constrain it to a soft and lowly walk, and to endear the blood, the mercy-seat, and the holy of holies, into which the most burdened, distressed, and humble soul may at all times enter!
This pruning does not destroy or weaken the power of the Divine life in the soul. We may go to a tree of the forest, and prune it of every branch, yes, we may level it to the earth; and yet, - the principle of life still remaining, - the genial showers, and the warm sunshine, will cause it again to spring forth and bud, blossom and bear fruit. The Divine life in the soul of man is indestructible, - it cannot perish; the seed that grace has implanted in the heart is incorruptible, - it cannot be corrupted. So far from trials, and conflicts, and storms, and tempests, impairing the principle of holiness in the soul, they do but deepen and strengthen it, and tend greatly to its growth. We look at Job; who of mere man was ever more keenly tried, or more closely pruned than he? - and yet, so far from destroying, or even weakening, the Divine life within him, the severe discipline of the covenant through which he passed, did but deepen and expand the root, bringing forth in richer clusters the blessed fruits of holiness. Think you, dear reader, the Divine life in his soul had undergone any change for the worse, when, as the result of God's covenant dealings with him, as the effects of the severe pruning of the fruitful branch, he exclaimed, - " I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye sees you: wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes?" No: the pruning of the fruitful branch impairs not, but rather strengthens and renders more fruitful the principle of holiness in the soul, as we now proceed to show. The pruning of the fruitful branch, our Lord declares, is with the view of its increased fruitfulness; " Every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit."
It is the will of God that his people should be a fruitful people. " This is the will of God, even your sanctification," - the sanctification of a believer including all fruitfulness. He will bring out his own work in the heart of his child; he will show that where grace dwells, it is productive of good fruit: and never does he take his child in hand with a view of dealing with him according to the tenor of the covenant of grace, but that dealing results in a greater degree of spiritual fruitfulness. Now, when the Lord afflicts, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies the affliction of the believer, are not these among the costly fruit of that discipline? In the first place, self has become more hateful. This, God declared, should be the result of his dealings with his ancient people Israel, for their idolatry, - " They shall loathe themselves for the evils which they have committed in all their abominations." And again, - "Then shall you remember your ways, and all your doings wherein you have been defiled: and you shall loathe yourselves in your own sight, for all your evils that you have committed," And when the Divine compassion was drawn forth, this is described as having been the state of his beloved people, - "None eye pitied you, to do any of these unto you, to have compassion upon you; but you were cast out in the open field to the loathing of your person." And this is no small fruit, the result of God's covenant dealings with the soul: it is one of the useless branches which he prunes away. To loathe self on account of its sinfulness, to mortify it in all its forms, and to bring it entirely into subjection to the Spirit of holiness, is indeed no small triumph of Divine grace in the soul, and no mean effect of the sanctified use of the Lord's dispensations. That must ever be considered a costly mean that accomplishes this blessed end. This unmortified self in the believer, is one of the most deadly enemies of his soul; it shows itself in a thousand ways, and wearing a thousand disguises. It is often difficult to detect the under-current working of the principle; for, frequently, where suspicion of its existence is most lulled to rest, there is it most rife and powerful. Self-confidence as in Peter, self-boasting as in Hezekiah, self-righteousness as in Job, self-deception as in Balaam, - in how many numberless ways may this hateful, ruinous principle discover itself! and how much " deceivableness of unrighteousness " is in it - is only fully known to him who solemnly declares, " I, the Lord, search the heart." Beloved reader, in your heart and in mine, the principle of this sin exists; and who can search it out, and root it out, but the Lord the Spirit? " If we through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live." Is your covenant God and Father dealing with you now?. Pray that this may be one blessed result, the abasement of self within you, the discovering of it to you in all its modifications and deformity, and its entire subjection to the cross of Jesus. Blessed pruning, if the tendency and the effect are, to lay you in the dust before the Lord, to cause you to loathe yourself, and to go softly and lowlily all your days!
Another holy tendency of the pruning of the fruitful branch, is, to endear the Lord Jesus in his person, work, and offices. Jesus, the " Branch," the " Plant of Renown," grows only upon the living and the pruned heart. There are many professors in whose hearts there is not room for Christ: the world, unmortified sin, take up all the space, occupy all the affections; and while his name is outwardly professed, His cross is inwardly despised. Oh, what emptying, what humbling, what pruning, are necessary, in order to make room for the lowly Lamb of God in the heart of a poor believing sinner! And for years after the first reception of Jesus, is this emptying and pruning needed. If it were not so, would our dear Lord discipline as he does? Would he sever this and that limb; would he cut off this and that dependence; would he take us off of creature trust, and that sometimes in the most painful way? Oh no! by these means he seeks to establish himself in our affections, - he would have our whole hearts, he would make us fruitful. And when thus unhinged from earthly trust, when emptied of confidence in self, when pruned of earthly comforts, - oh how unutterably precious does Jesus become! Then do we see him to be just the Jesus that we want, just the Savior that we need: we find in him all that we ever found in the creature, and infinitely more - wisdom, strength, tenderness, and sympathy, surpassing all that men or angels ever felt, or could possibly feel, for us. Then it is, his blood and righteousness are endeared; then we fly to his fullness of all grace; and then the tender, bleeding branch takes a firmer hold on its stem, and henceforth looks only to it for all its vigor, its nourishment, and its fruit. " As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can you, except you abide in me." Ah! beloved reader, if you are his child, he will cause you to know it, and will endear himself to you as such. And this is seldom done, save in the way of severe pruning. Shrink not from it, then. All the good that the Lord ever takes from you, he returns ten thousand-fold more in giving himself. If you can say, "the Lord is my portion," then what more do you, can you want? And remember, too, the Lord will prune you of nothing that was for your real good. He is the Judge of what is best for you, not yourself: he will sever the useless tendrils only, the small branches that consume the sap, that absorb the nourishment, and are productive of unfruitfulness. We are but imperfect judges of what tends best to our spiritual or temporal benefit. That which we may deem absolutely essential to both, the Lord in his wisdom and love may see proper to remove; and as frequently, that for the removal of which we had often besought the Lord, he may see fit to retain. Thrice Paul prayed for the removal of his infirmity, and thrice the Lord denied his request: but the denial was accompanied by a promise, calculated to soothe into sweet acquiescence every feeling of the apostle - " My grace," said the Lord, " is sufficient for you." Let it ever be remembered by the tried believer, that supporting grace, in the season of trial, is a greater mercy than the removal of the trial itself. The Lord Jesus did seem to say to his servant, " I see not that it would be for your good to grant your prayer, but I will enable you to bear the infirmity without a murmur: I will so support you, so manifest my strength in your weakness, my all-sufficiency in your nothingness, that you shall not desire its removal." " Lord," he might have replied, " this is all that I desire. If you in your wisdom and love do see fit still to prune me, I am in your hands to do with me as seems good in your sight. The continuance of the trial will but prove the strength of your grace, and the tenderness and sympathy of your heart." After this, we hear no more of Paul's thorn in the flesh: the grace of his Lord, doubtless, proved all-sufficient for him.
There are one or two points of caution and encouragement upon which we would touch before closing the chapter.
Let the believer beware, how be despises what little fruitfulness the Lord the Spirit may have given him: there is danger of this. Many who read this chapter, may close it with deep mourning over their barrenness; they may think their fruit nothing but leaves, their religion nothing but profession. But stay, dear reader: it is a mercy for you to know that the Lord does not regard your estimate of a fruitful state; else, were the Lord to judge and condemn us as we do ourselves, were he to despise his own work as we too frequently do, it would indeed go hard with us. But he does not: that which we have often thought unworthy of his notice, he has looked down upon with the fondest complacency and delight. And when at the close of a sermon, or the reading of a book, or on retiring from the throne of grace, we have hung our heads, and blushed to lift our faces towards him, exclaiming, - " Lord, I am vile; look not on me, for I am black," he has beheld the fruit of his own Spirit, costly, fragrant, and precious in his sight. See, then, that you despise not what the Lord has wrought for you. Any desire of the heart for Christ, any secret brokenness, any godly sorrow over indwelling sin, any feeble going out of self and leaning on Jesus, is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the soul, and must not be undervalued or unacknowledged. A truly humble view of self, is one of the most precious fruits of the Spirit: it indicates more real fruitfulness, perhaps, than any other state of mind. That ear of corn which is the most full of grain, hangs the lowest; that bough which is the most heavily laden with fruit, bends the nearest to the ground. It is no unequivocal mark of great spiritual fruitfulness in a believer, when tenderness of conscience, contrition of spirit, low thoughts of self, and high thoughts of Jesus, mark the state of his soul. "Who has despised the day of small things?" - not Jesus.
But, dear reader, rest not here; blessed as it is to know your barrenness, and to mourn over it, it is still more blessed to press forward towards a deeper and more spiritual acquaintance with Christ, the source of all real fruitfulness. Too many rest in a mere deploring of their barrenness; they will ingenuously acknowledge their state, freely confess it before God, and yet meet them when you will, this is always their posture, and this their confession. One seems to mark in them no advance, no striving after higher attainments, the crucifixion of known infirmities, the mortification of easy besetting sins, the surrender of that which feeds as a worm upon the root of their religion. There seems just life and consciousness enough to detect the secret declension of the soul, but not enough to arrest its progress.
But, reader, that this should not be your case, seek an increasing knowledge of Christ; be assured of this, - here lies the grand secret of a growing, fruit-bearing Christian. " As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can you, except you abide in me." There is a perpetual proneness to seek our fruitfulness from anything save a close, spiritual, and constant dealing with the cross of Jesus: but as well might we expect the earth to clothe itself with verdure, or the tree to blossom, and the blossom ripen into fruit, without the sun's genial warmth, as to look for fruitfulness in a regenerate soul, without a constant dealing with the Lord Jesus Christ; for, just what the sun is to the kingdom of nature, Jesus the Sun of righteousness is to the kingdom of grace, - the blessed source of all its verdure, fragrance, and fruitfulness. Then, let all your expectations be centered here. No real good can come to you, no healing to your spirit, no fruitfulness to your soul, from a perpetual living upon convictions of sin, legal fears, or transient joys: the Divine life can derive no nourishment from these. But live upon the atoning blood of Jesus. Here is the fatness of your soul found; this it is that heals the wound, wins the heart, and hushes to repose every fear of condemnation; this it is that enables a poor sinner to look full at God, feeling that justice, holiness, truth, and every Divine perfection are on his side. It is the blood of Jesus, applied by the Spirit, that moistens each fiber of the root of holiness in the soul, and is productive of its fruitfulness; this it is that sends the warm current of life through every part of the regenerate man, quickening the pulse of love, and imparting a healthy and vigorous power to every act of obedience. And when the spiritual seasons change, - for it is not always spring-time with the soul of a child of God, - when the summer's sun withers, or the autumnal blast scatters the leaves, and winter's fiercer storm beats upon the smitten bough, the blood and righteousness of Christ, lived upon, loved, and cherished, will yet sustain the Divine life in the soul, and in due season the spring blossom and the summer fruit shall again appear, proving that the Divine life of a believer is " hid with Christ in God." Then shall it be said of you, as was said of the church by her Beloved: " The winter is past, and the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. The fig-tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." Sol. Song ii. 11-13. Then let your heart respond, " Awake, O north wind, and come, you south, blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out." Thus shall you be " filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God."
Afflicted believer, do not forget that it is the fruitful branch only that the Lord prunes: "Whom the Lord loves, he chastens ": and again, he declares, " Whom I love, I rebuke and chasten." Then, thank him for the pruning; bless him for the sanctified trial that weans you from earthly things, that deadens your heart to every rival of Christ, and that imparts an upward spring to faith, hope, and love. Not one unkind thought is there in the heart of the God that now chastens you. True, he may have severed from you branch after branch, he may cut off all your earthly springs, he may lead you down into the deep valley of abasement; yet still is he love, and nothing but love. Could you look into his heart, not a spring would be found dwelling, nor a pulse beating there that would not speak of love to you at this very moment. All that he seeks with regard to yourself, is your increased fruitfulness; and to promote your real sanctification, is to promote your real happiness. In all God's dealings with his covenant people, he seeks their greatest good, their highest happiness, and in nothing more manifestly than in this does he show the intense love which dwells in his heart towards them.
Frequently call to mind our Lord's words: " Herein is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, so shall you be (manifestly) my disciples." This "much fruit" is often found mostly in those with whom the Lord mostly deals. He has created his people for his own glory, and this he will secure to himself in their abundant fruitfulness. This is why the most illustrious saints have ever been the most deeply tried, severely pruned: their great fruitfulness sprang from their great afflictions. And yet, beloved, the Lord deals with his saints according to his holy sovereignty; not by one line, or in one path, does he always conduct them. Is God smiling upon you? does the summer sun shine? is your sea smooth and flowing ? does the " south wind " blow upon you ? See, then, that you walk humbly with God; " Be not high-minded, but fear." If God in his providence has elevated you a little in the world, you have need to besiege his throne for great grace to keep your spirit low in the dust before him. Do your fellows admire your talents, extol your gifts, applaud your works, and court your society? Oh how closely and softly and humbly ought you now to walk with God! That breath of adulation that lighted upon you, will prove a blight upon your graces, if you go not upon your knees before God; that flattering word which fell upon your ear, will prove as the fly in the apothecary's ointment to your soul, if you get not closer down at the foot of the cross. Let every circumstance and state take you there; whether the north wind or the south wind blows, whether the dark cloud of adversity gathers over you, or the sunshine of prosperity beams upon you - still let your posture ever be low before the Savior's cross; nothing can harm you there. See that the season of outward prosperity is the season of your soul's fruitfulness; see that every mercy takes you to God; convert every new blessing into a fresh motive for living not unto yourself, but unto Him from whom the blessing came.
And if you are constrained to take your worst frames to Christ, your sins as they rise, your weakness as you are conscious of it, your corruptions as they discover themselves, even so shall you be a fruitful branch of the true Vine. In the very act of going, just as he is, to Christ, the believer brings forth fruit. For what marks the frame of the soul thus traveling up to the cross, but self-distrust, self-abasement, deep conceptions of its own nothingness, high views of Christ's sufficiency? And is not this precious and costly fruit? I know of none more so.
And let the fruitful believer anticipate the approaching period of his translation to a more genial and healthy soil. In heaven, the home of the saints, there will be nothing to blight the flower of grace; no frosts of winter, no burning heat of summer, no crushing storms, no sweeping tempests; the former things will all have passed away, and a new heaven and a new earth, in which dwells righteousness, shall have succeeded them. Happy hour of this release! Here he is a " lily among thorns "; there he will be a tree of righteousness, on which the storm will never rise, on which the sun will never set.
"Oh what a garden will be seen,
When all the flowers of grace
Appear in everlasting green,
Before the Planter's face!
"No more exposed to burning skies,
Or winter's piercing cold;
What never-dying sweet will rise
From every op'ning fold!
"No want of sun or showers above,
To make the flowers decline;
Fountains of life and beams of love,
Forever spring and shine.
"No more they need the quickening air,
Or gently rising dew!
Unspeakable their beauties are,
And yet forever new.
"Christ is their shade, and Christ their sun;
Among them walks the King:
Whose presence is eternal noon,
His smile eternal spring."