On Christ Alone – The Parable of the Vine and Branches

Two of the five solae (only’s) resulting from the Protestant Reformation are that of solus Christus or, “Christ alone”, and soli Deo gloria or, “glory to God alone”. These two seem to have been added at some point well after the initial three (the bible alone, faith alone, and grace alone), but we see them commonly included in a list of five solae by the middle of the twentieth century. Depending on how these two are formulated they can be less problematic than the other two, but nevertheless in their exclusionary language they still fall short of the fullness of Christian teaching as contained in the Scriptures and as taught by the Catholic Church.

Through Christ Alone?

So what is typically meant by these declarations? Most Protestants would strongly assert that  Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and that there is no salvation through any other. And obviously, on the face of it we would agree. But by this teaching the fathers of the Reformation sought to eliminate the need for priests who would (through their apostolic authority) dispense of the sacraments on behalf of the laity – instead they taught a, “priesthood of all believers.”

In declaring Christ’s unique mediation, they unfortunately neglected the fuller context of St. Paul’s instruction to Timothy which begins with the instruction, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”1

Did you catch that? It is St. Paul’s wish that we make intercession and mediation for all men! He then goes on to say, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” ((1 Timothy 2:5)) In other words, it is only through the primary mediation of Christ that our secondary mediation for others can have any effect. But we are called (indeed commanded) to mediate and intercede for others precisely because Christ mediates for us.

To the Glory of God Alone?

The fifth solae, the assertion that all glory belongs to God alone, was intended by the Reformers to eliminate the practice of venerating Christ’s mother Mary – or any of the saints or martyrs recognized by the Church. It is closely tied to the assertion of, “Christ alone” in that both of these solae denied the practice of asking the saints for their intercession, and grossly misconstrued the entire doctrine of the communion of saints.

Why ask for a saint’s intercession when you can go directly through Christ the one mediator between God and man? Why give any honor or praise to a saint when all glory belongs to God alone? On the face of it, these seem to be assertions that would be supported by the Scriptures and at least generally hold true – but let’s dive a little deeper.

Both of these statements are not fundamentally wrong on the face of it. If someone said, “To the glory of God alone.” we would respond, “Let it be!” If someone proclaimed, “Christ alone.” we would respond, “Amen!” It is only when we look at what the Reformers intended these statements to mean, indeed what they intended to strip from the faith with these proclamations, that a problem arises.

Instrumental Causality

In Catholic theology there is a principle which is referred to as instrumental causality. Instrumental causality recognizes that an individual can accomplish an action either with or without the use of a tool. The instrument can be defined as that which an individual uses in order to accomplish his purpose.

The tool may be external to the person accomplishing the action (a screwdriver or a hammer), or it may be a tool that is a part of their own constitution (their hand). I use my hand as a tool in accomplishing many tasks, but generally I would say that it is I who accomplish the task – not my hand. Even though it is I who accomplish the task, it may very well be through the utilization of tools that I accomplish my goals, i.e. I use a hammer to build my deck.

In Catholicism there is a recognition that God intends to make use of secondary instrumental causes in order to dispense of His grace. An example of this would be the way in which God inspired the sacred authors of Scripture and used them as instruments through which He communicated His divine Word. It is because of our understanding of instrumental causality that we can talk about the dual nature of the holy Scriptures, declaring that they are both fully the Word of God, and also fully the word of man – in the same way that Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word of God) is both fully human and fully divine.

The Sacraments as Tools of Divine Grace

Another example would be when God makes use of the Virgin Mary in order to give birth to His son. It was not necessary that Christ be conceived and born of a woman. He could have arrived on this earth as a fully grown man, descending from heaven in the same way that He would ultimately ascend. And yet Mary was the instrumental causality through which Christ was made incarnate. She was the instrument by which Christ entered the world.

In the sacraments we see another example of how God chooses to work through ordinary physical elements in order to dispense of His grace. Ordinary physical elements like water, or bread and wine, become instrumental causes of divine grace. The role of the priests in offering God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of penance is a particularly poignant example of this instrumental causality by which God dispenses of His grace.

The very first thing that Christ does when appearing to His disciples after His resurrection is to breathe on them, fill them with the Holy Spirit, and give them His own authority to forgive or retain sins.2 He makes them the instruments through which God forgives sins. St. Paul says it this way, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”3

The Vine and the Branches

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. 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. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as 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 will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”4

Let me ask you a question. Does the fruit at the end of the branch come only from the branch? Does the fruit come only from the vine? Does part of the fruit come from the vine and part from the branch? No, rather the fruit comes completely from the vine and completely from the branches. It comes entirely from both inseparably. It is entirely God and entirely His instruments. God is the first cause and we are the causal instruments through which He works. This is what so many Protestants miss when it comes to the doctrine of the communion of saints. When we are joined to Christ as the branches are to the vine, when we are in Him as He is in the Father, when we become His very body, His very own hands and feet and mouth, then, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”5 “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”6

We, the body of Christ, are the continuation of the incarnation and Christ’s work in the world. Is it Christ at work or us? Is it the vine or the branches? The answer is yes. – Tweet This

Forgiveness of Sins

And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.7

Notice here that it is the faith of the paralyzed man’s friends which becomes the causal instrument through which Christ extends His forgiveness – it is not the faith of the paralytic! Furthermore, the scribes and pharisees object that it is blasphemy for a man to forgive sins. Notice Christ’s response – he doesn’t claim the authority to forgive sins via His divine nature. Instead, He says, “But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”

It is through the instrument of His human nature on earth that Christ forgives sins.

If He can communicate from His own divine nature the power to forgive sins through the instrument of His own human nature, then surely He can communicate that same power to other human natures as His instruments. The crowd anticipates this reality glorifying the God, “Who had given such authority to men.” And, this is in fact exactly what we see at the end of St. John’s gospel when Christ communicates this divine authority to men.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”8

All to the Glory of God

Fundamentally we must realize that when God chooses to work through His instruments it in no way detracts from His glory! When we are joined to Christ (as branches to a vine) the question of who produces the fruit becomes meaningless. When we understand this principle, we can begin to understand St. Paul when he writes, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”9 Is it Christ who saves? St. Paul who saves? The vine or the branches who produce fruit? The answer of course is yes!

Christ works in and through us, as the instruments by which He extends His grace, His forgiveness, and ultimately His salvation! – Tweet This

When we admire a painting or a sculpture by a great artist, the artist isn’t jealous – rather in appreciating their work we are appreciating them! And as the art reflects the glory of the artist, so to will we reflect the glory of God!

To the glory of God alone? Amen!

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  1. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 

  2. John 20:21-22 

  3. 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 

  4. John 15:1-9 

  5. Galatians 2:20 

  6. 1 Corinthians 12:27 

  7. Matthew 9:2-8 

  8. John 20:21-22 

  9. 1 Corinthians 9:22b 

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