Does Jesus exaggerate when he says: “… apart from me you can do nothing”?

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“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.” (John 15:5). We Christians are no strangers to this saying of Jesus. Just as the branches separated from the vine will wither away and die, Christians who do not “abide” in Jesus cannot attain eternal life. Yet when considering Jesus’ words at face value, it may seem at first to be a slight exaggeration that we “can do nothing.” A critic may point out that atheists can certainly do many things that Christians do. They are smart, they have good jobs, they build useful things, and so on. In short, they seem to fare just as well or better than Christians. They seem to do just fine apart from Jesus. What is one supposed to make of this? Is the saying “you can do nothing” an exaggeration on Jesus’ part?

What Jesus refers to here is a life that is lived with respect to one’s final end: a life that leads to eternal life, one that begins in holiness. Yet this life of holiness cannot be accomplished simply by one’s willing it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “the fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ” (CCC 2074). In other words, for Christians, “[we] can only bear fruit – that is, attain personal holiness, do good works, and keep the commandments – by the grace of God” (CCC 1442).

But what about the observation that atheists, who have no faith in Christ, seem to do just fine? It seems that they can accomplish much good – albeit worldly good. Atheists, though not “abiding” in Christ, are still God’s creatures whether they believe it or not. Thus, whatever good they – or anyone else – do has its origin in God by the virtue of the fact that God is their creator. On the question of “whether man can wish or do any good without grace,” (Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 109, Art. 2) St. Thomas defends the necessity of God. Even atheists who chose not to abide in Christ, and thus reject His grace, do still receive from Him their human nature – though it is corrupted by sin. This corruption, however, is not so complete that they cannot perform any natural good. These people, in their human nature, “by virtue of its endowments, work some particular good, as to build dwellings, plant vineyards, and the like.” Apart from these works, however, they, just like any other person deprived of grace, cannot “carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious,” and which are indicative of a life of holiness – one that really matters as an “ultimate end.”

In summary, far from being an exaggeration, Christ’s words that “you can do nothing” are a warning for both Christians and atheists alike that what is truly at stake here is not the material accomplishments which one may attain in this life, but a life of holiness that is only possible in union with Christ. Let us renew our commitment to depend exclusively on this grace of God, for through Him all things are possible.

Br. Martin Maria Nguyen, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE