In part one I discussed the challenges I experienced during my teens and early twenties in trying to overcome sin. As I mentioned, my key misunderstanding was about the nature of sin. I had grown up with a definition of sin that was very narrow. I believed that sin was limited to actions and thoughts or feelings that were dwelt upon at length. Because of this definition, my spiritual battles revolved around my actions and behaviors, but these battles felt necessary to me because the Bible is clear that Christians should be striving to overcome.
Over time, I began to place limits on my lifestyle and create rules for myself in order to help me grow in my walk with God (aka. overcome sin). My efforts were very sincere but they made me feel increasingly burdened and mentally exhausted. I would question even the smallest actions because I was worried that I might be sinning. The sinful things I was capable of doing seemed like an endless list that I couldn’t keep track of.
After I encountered biblical evidence that contradicted my views of sin, the nature of my spiritual battles changed. I realized that the Bible points towards a broad definition of sin which condemns both my actions and my “fleshly” state as being in rebellion against the law of God. This recognition humbled me because I began to understand that I had been like someone uselessly trimming weeds with scissors instead of uprooting them.
Now I discovered that “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit” (Luke 6:43). I could only conclude that “the tree is known by its fruit… How [could I] speak good, when [I am] evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:33–34). It was as if God was speaking to me personally. “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23).
A Tale of Two Trees
According to the Bible, it doesn’t matter if I produce some fruit that looks pretty good along with the bad fruit. The presence of any bad fruit at all is enough to condemn the whole tree. Because, the Bible declares, “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” If I have bad fruit of any kind, then I am a bad “tree.”
This imagery brings us back to the original good and bad trees in the Garden of Eden. In Eden, we are told, were two trees of opposite natures. One tree, the Tree of Life, was a good tree and provided good fruit capable of perpetuating life for eternity. The other tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was a bad tree whose fruit would begin the precipitous plummet of humanity into eternal death. The very fact that the “bad” tree possessed some good did not redeem the tree. Indeed, the “goodness” of the “bad” tree’s fruit only made the tree more deceptive and dangerous.
Ever since humanity ate the “bad” fruit, our natures have been poisoned and we are born into this world already spiritually dead. This is the consequence of the first Adam’s sin.
As a result, “man cannot possibly meet the demands of the law of God in human strength alone. His offerings, his works, will all be tainted with sin” (RH Feb 4, 1890 par. 4). We are bad trees bearing bad fruit.
A Tale of a Root
It should be clear by now that Scripture presents us with an apparent contradiction. On the one hand, we are warned that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). But on the other hand, the Bible condemns our condition stating that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6).
How is humanity ever to reach the standard necessary to be saved?
While I held to a narrow view of sin, the standard of righteousness seemed achievable. But the moment I saw my condition as it truly is – completely unacceptable toward God in every way – I recognized that my ideal of righteousness had been too incomplete and too small. Just as I had narrowed my definition of sin to fit into a neat, little box, I had also narrowed my expectations of God’s holiness. As the gulf of sin gave way beneath my humanity I saw just how unapproachable and exalted God (and by extension his law) truly is.
And yet this same God in his perfection took it upon himself to step down into this enormous gulf that separates humanity from the divine.
“Divinity took humanity, that humanity might touch humanity. With his human arm Christ encircled the race, while with his divine arm he grasped the throne of the infinite God. The world that was separated by sin from the continent of heaven, he drew back into favor with God” (YI Feb 22, 1900, par. 5).
This is, of course, the glorious gospel. The good news that is so incredibly good.
But how is this even possible?
Within the gospel itself is another apparent contradiction. Jesus (the perfect, absolutely righteous God) somehow “[took] upon Himself our fallen nature” (DA 112) (tainted, polluted, and condemned by the law) and yet was without sin.
The answer to the mystery is wrapped up in another plant metaphor.
In Isaiah 53 the coming Messiah is depicted as “a root out of dry ground.” In Isaiah 11 the Messiah is similarly described as “a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots [that] shall bear fruit.” These comparisons seem to point to the mysterious combination of Christ’s nature. On the one hand, he springs up from an apparently earthly source that is dead and unfruitful. Dry ground doesn’t grow trees and stumps don’t produce fruit. But on the other hand, his presence inexplicably brings life and produces fruit. This is completely opposite to the language used in Jeremiah 17:7–8 to depict those who trust in the Lord. Those who follow God are compared to “a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes.”
Unlike sinful humanity, Christ is self-existent. Unlike us, he possesses life without drawing his life from an external source. “In Him was life, original, unborrowed, underived. This life is not inherent in man” (1SM 296). As the apostle John eloquently expressed the nature of Christ, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Christ is the true Tree of Life whose perfection cannot be marred by the imperfection of humanity.
Throughout his ministry on earth, Christ continually violated the Old Testament laws of clean and unclean. He touched lepers. He touched a woman with an issue of blood. He touched dead people. Yet never once did he become unclean by his association. Instead the unclean became clean. Lepers were healed of their disease. The woman with the issue of blood became healthy and whole. Dead people were raised to life. Divinity, when it is combined with humanity, cleanses humanity.
“Christ overcame every temptation of the enemy, because in him divinity and humanity were combined” (ST September 26, 1892 par. 3).
The Vine and the Branches
In John chapter 3 Jesus describes the need for “fleshly” humanity to be reborn in the “Spirit” in order to have spiritual success. In John chapter 15 he takes up another theme.
“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. 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. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:5-8).
It is the Root, the Vine, the Tree, that is ultimately able to save you and me and make us live fruitful victorious Christian lives. It is an association with the life of God that can bring us back from spiritual death.
The reason why I struggled to overcome temptation was that I was concerned with my actions and only wanted Jesus to help me. But Jesus invites us to consider our state of inability without his continual presence. I could not overcome with his help while I was ok with viewing myself as basically just a work in progress. Jesus needed all of me and I could only give all of me when I recognized that there was nothing good within me that was worth keeping.
Now I make it my first work, not to simply study my bible, and pray, and do all those good Christian actions because they are good. But to bring my heart to Christ and ask him to take it fully and completely. I find that I must confess not just my actions but my impurity and lack of goodness. But as I confess and acknowledge my great need he makes provision for me.
The striving, the work, and the effort of Christian life are not in producing fruit, but in staying connected to the Vine. Christ wants to do a work in us. But this work can only be done when we let go of our self-sufficiency and instead unite ourselves with him.
Does this concept still seem vague and undefined? In the third and final part, I will explain what abiding in the vine actually looks like in concrete terms and how this concept transformed my Christian experience.