A lot of people struggle with John 15:1-11 and our Lord’s teaching on the vine and the branches. This week I’ve been looking at the question of the relationship between professed faith in Christ and consistent obedience to his commands. This passage speaks directly to the issue. Let’s look closely at it.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that 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. 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. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:1-11)
Here we read that God, as the Vinedresser, lovingly “prunes” believers (v. 2), i.e., cleanses, purges, and purifies them of whatever does not contribute to their spiritual maturity (or fruitfulness). This might occur in any number of ways: discipline, teaching, testing, etc. The debate centers on what God does with the fruitless branches, and what the latter represent. There have generally been three views of this passage.
One popular view is that the “fruitless branches” are genuine Christians who, because of their fruitlessness, or because of their failure to persevere in holiness of life, lose their salvation. When Jesus says these branches will be “thrown into the fire, and burned” (v. 6b), he is referring to eternal punishment in hell.
Another perspective is that the “fruitless branches” are genuine Christians who, because of their fruitlessness, undergo divine discipline. Their “removal” and judgment is physical death, not spiritual death. They are and remain saved, but are prematurely taken to heaven as a disciplinary response to their failure to walk in obedience to Jesus.
Yet a third option for those who believe in eternal security is to understand the “fruitless branches” to be so-called “disciples” who experience only an external, superficial connection with Jesus. Although they “believe” and “follow” Jesus in one sense, their outward allegiance and verbal commitment to him is not the expression of having been born again and having trusted Jesus sincerely for salvation. The “fruitless” branches, therefore, are not saved and never were. I believe the third option is most consistent both with what we read in the gospel of John and in the rest of the NT. My reasons for adopting this view and rejecting the others are as follows.
First, it’s important that we take note of what Jesus declared in John 10:28-29. There he said in no uncertain terms that those to whom he gives eternal life shall never perish. Even more important is the word Jesus uses in John 15:6. There Jesus says that the fruitless branches will be “thrown away” (a form of the Greek verb ballo, “to cast,” “to throw,” together with the adverb exo, “outside” or “out”). But in John 6:37 Jesus uses virtually identical terminology and says, “All that the Father gives me shall come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out” (ekballo with exo).
Are we really prepared to say that what Jesus denied could ever happen to a believer in John 6:37, he affirms will happen in John 15:6. In other words, Jesus says in John 6:37 that he will never cast out those who believe in him but in John 15:6 he says that he will cast them out. Surely neither our Lord in speaking, nor John in recording his words, is guilty of the most obvious of theological contradictions.
Second, what Jesus says of the destiny of the fruitless branches reads more like eternal condemnation than temporal chastisement. The fruitless branch is “taken away” (v. 2). The fruitless branch is “thrown into the fire” and “burned” (v. 6; cf. Matthew 3:12; 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7-8; Rev. 20:15).
Now, I suppose someone could make the case that this is the language or imagery that one would expect in describing what is done with old, dead, fruitless branches. What else would one do with them but burn them? So perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of it. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 3:15, Paul is speaking of Christians when he says: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” So it isn’t entirely implausible to conclude that Jesus has in view temporal or physical discipline when he speaks of throwing the fruitless branch into the fire.
Third, the view that the fruitless branches are unregenerate people, unbelieving people, is supported by what John’s gospel says about “unsaved believers.” Although this sounds strange, John often portrays people as “believing” in Jesus who are clearly not born again. He clearly envisions a stage in the progress of belief in Jesus that falls short of genuine saving faith and thus falls short of salvation. Let me take just a moment and demonstrate this to you.
A clear example of this is found in John 2:23-24. There we read that “when he (Jesus) was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people.” Here we see that not all so-called “belief” is genuine, Spirit-wrought, saving faith. People can in some sense “believe” in Jesus and never truly know him as Lord and Savior. In this case these people were fascinated by the miracles Jesus performed. They believed “when they saw the signs that he was doing.” Their so-called “belief” or “faith” was grounded in their surprise and infatuation with the supernatural. But clearly it was not saving faith, it was not a belief that trusted and treasured Jesus as Lord and Savior.
The point here is that people claim and actually do, in a sense, “believe” in Jesus for any number of reasons other than a legitimate desire to receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that he offers. Some “believe” (like these in John 2) because they are swept away by the sensationalism and excitement of supernatural activity. Some “believe” because by identifying with the local church they find instant friendships and social activities and a place to belong. Some “believe” because they are looking for a way to soothe their guilty conscience or to experience personal affirmation or because they long for transcendent meaning in their lives and religion appears to provide it. Some “believe” because of the pressure to conform that they feel from family or friends. Some “believe” because they find Christianity intellectually satisfying. I could go on almost without end in citing reasons why people “believe” that have little or nothing to do with genuine, heartfelt repentance, love for Christ and a passion to follow him.
Yet another instance is found in John 6. You may recall that after Jesus insisted that those who follow him must “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” (6:53), many were befuddled and bothered. We read in John 6:60 that “when many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” This is then followed in John 6:66 with the declaration: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” D. A. Carson explains:
“’Disciples’ must be distinguished from ‘the Twelve’ (cf. vv. 66-67). More importantly, just as there is faith and faith (2:23-25), so are there disciples and disciples. At the most elementary level, a disciple is someone who is at that point following Jesus, either literally by joining the group that pursued him from place to place, or metaphorically in regarding him as the authoritative teacher. Such a ‘disciple’ is not necessarily a ‘Christian’, someone who has savingly trusted Jesus and sworn allegiance to him, given by the Father to the Son, drawn by the Father and born again by the Spirit. Jesus will make it clear in due course that only those who continue in his word are truly his ‘disciples’ (8:31). The ‘disciples’ described here do not remain in his word” (300).
Yet another example is found in John 8:31. There John refers to certain Jews who had “believed” in Jesus. Yet, according to the verses that follow, these people are in fact slaves to sin (v. 34), indifferent to Jesus’ word (v. 37), children of the devil (v. 44), they accuse Jesus of being demonized (v. 48), they are liars (v. 55), and are guilty of mob tactics including attempted murder of the one they have professed to believe (v. 59). They are said to have “believed” but are clearly not only unsaved but among the enemies of Jesus!
It is clear that in John’s gospel not all so-called “belief” or “faith” is authentic, Spirit-wrought, saving faith. Not every person who aligns himself with Jesus is born again. Not every person who follows Jesus or is in some manner identified with Jesus is saved. What we see in these passages in John’s gospel can only be called “fickle faith,” a degree of commitment, perhaps a willingness to agree with the truth of some of what Jesus said and a desire to follow him temporarily. There is also the possibility that these people were swept up in the excitement and euphoria of the crowd and were captivated or fascinated with the spiritual energy that surrounded Jesus. He was a magnetic personality and many were inclined to follow him as much out of religious curiosity as out of genuine love. Clearly this applied to these Jewish people. [Although we can’t be sure, this may also be the case in John 7:31 and 12:11, 37.]
To put it in as simple terms as I know how, one can in some sense “believe” in Jesus and declare oneself to be his “disciple” without ever having been saved in the first place. There is in John’s gospel, therefore, a transitory, superficial, surface “faith” or “belief” that may be based solely on miracles seen but is not grounded in and is not the fruit of a saving understanding of and trust in who Jesus really is. Such people are in some sense connected or united to Jesus, perhaps mentally or emotionally, that they may even be called “disciples,” yet they are not Christian disciples. These, I believe, are the unfruitful branches of John 15:2and 6.
So how does one differentiate between genuine faith and fickle, false faith? Jesus tells us inJohn 8:31. The mark of true faith is abiding or remaining in Jesus’ word. To “remain” or “abide” in Jesus’ “word,” says Carson, means that a person “obeys it, seeks to understand it better, and finds it more precious, more controlling, precisely when other forces flatly oppose it. It is the one who continues in the teaching who has both the Father and the Son (2 Jn. 9; cf. Heb. 3:14; Rev. 2:26)” (348).
Abiding in Jesus does not make you a Christian. What makes you a Christian is the new birth and that saving faith which is its fruit. Abiding is not the condition for becoming a child of God. Abiding is the consequence or the evidence or the fruit of being a disciple of Jesus. You become a Christian by faith, the evidence of which is that you abide or remain in your devotion and pursuit of Jesus and your desire to learn from him and love him.
Genuine, saving faith is the sort that not only learns what he says but loves it as well. Genuine faith displays its true character by producing in the heart of the individual a persevering attachment to Jesus. Momentary, flash-in-the-pan commitment to Christ means nothing. We’ve all seen people like this: excited today and out the exit tomorrow; men and women who display an attraction to religion and the benefits it can bring them, but who during the course of an ordinary week are never heard to utter a distinctly Christian word or commit a distinctly Christian act. They are, in essence, indistinguishable from the world. Discipleship is not a sudden, short-lived enthusiasm about Jesus but a life-long love affair, a life-long dedication that is characterized by love and obedience.
Notice how Jesus describes these people who “believe” in him: “you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (John 8:37b). That is to say, Christ’s word does not operate in their lives, is given no value in their thinking, has no role in their daily decision making, does not give shape or direction to how they relate to God or others.
Listen carefully. These Jewish people are religious, law-abiding, monotheists! They believe in God. They faithfully attended their synagogue services. They commit no scandalous sins. In some sense of the word they even “believe” in Jesus. Yet, they have Satan for their father (v. 44)!
In 1 John 2:19 John is seeking to expose the false teachers in the church who were leading astray the people of God. Here in v. 19 he indicates that at one time they were “members” and active, vocal participants in the community which professed faith in Christ. They were immersed in the ministry of the church, were well-known among God’s people, and until the moment of separation were hardly distinguishable from the rest of the Christian society. Here is what John says of them:
“they went out from us” – Here John means they either were excommunicated or, more likely, that they voluntarily separated or departed from the community of faith. Note the distinction between “they” and “us”.
“but they were not of us” – Here John says that in spite of their external membership, they did not share our inner spiritual life. The words “of us” refers to the spiritual bond of the body of Christ.
“for if they had been of us, they would have continued (or, remained) with us” – The point here seems to be that if they had truly been “of us,” that is, if they had truly been born again and had shared our saving faith in Jesus, they would have persevered; they would have borne fruit and would have abided in Jesus. Again, we see that the test of life and salvation is abiding or persevering.
“but they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” – In other words, there is a divine purpose in their secession, namely, exposure of those who are but professors but not possessors. Their departure was their unmasking (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18-19).
The inescapable point John is making here is that abiding or remaining or continuing or persevering is the sign of the saved, just as apostasy is the evidence of initial unbelief. Note the emphasis of the phrase: “for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us . . .” The presence of genuine faith (“of us”) implies (necessitates) perseverance.
Note carefully how the author of Hebrews makes this same point: “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14). He refers in the latter half of the verse to our “original confidence” in Christ. Clearly he is describing the initial act of faith when a man or woman claims to have put their trust in Jesus for salvation. If a person who professes to have confidence in Christ, a person who claims to have trusted him for salvation holds firmly in this faith all the way “to the end” (a likely reference to the “end” of his life) this proves that they truly “have come to share in Christ.”
How can we know whether or not Charley or Karen or Mike or Megan genuinely shares in Christ, which is to say, is born-again and is justified and is a child of God? How can we know? We can know by observing whether or not they hold that original confidence firm to the end. Note well: the author does not say that if you hold that confidence firm to the end you “will” be one who shares in Christ. He says, rather, that we “have come” (past tense) to “share in Christ” if “we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” In other words, it is one’s on-going, future perseverance in faith or consistent abiding in confidence in Christ all the way to the end that serves to demonstrate or prove that a person genuinely came to share in Christ in the past.
Also note that he does not say if you fail to hold firm your original confidence this means you once had it but later lost it. Rather, if you fail to hold it, it means you never had it. If a person does not hold firmly to the end of this “faith” or “confidence” that he claims to have put in Christ, this reveals that he never truly and sincerely shared in Christ in the first place.
Perhaps it will help you see what our author is saying if you state it negatively. “We have notcome to share in Christ, if indeed we do not hold our original confidence firm to the end.” His point again is that if you are born again and have thus come to share in Christ, if you were justified and forgiven of your sins and adopted in God’s family by faith, you cannot fail to persevere. You will hold your original confidence firm unto the end.
Fourth, and finally, let’s not forget that Jesus is using an image drawn from horticulture that requires we be careful in not pressing the details for more theological information than he intended. The point Jesus is making is that fruitfulness is a necessary and infallible mark of true Christianity. He uses the picture of a vine to drive home this truth. Where else could a branch be located if not in some way connected with the vine. Jesus could hardly make his point by directing their attention to a bunch of disconnected and isolated branches scattered about on the ground. Jesus is saying that no branch that fails to bear fruit can be thought of as part of him or as united to him. If you are going to be connected to Jesus, you must bear fruit. Therefore, what else can be done with fruitless branches other than to cut them off and cast them away?
But we shouldn’t press the imagery and draw the theological conclusion that this means many people are true Christians but then fail to bear fruit and are then cut off or lose their salvation and suffer eternal condemnation. That is pressing the image beyond what it is intended to teach us.
My conclusion, then, is that this passage does not teach that a true, born-again Christian can apostatize from the faith and lose his/her salvation. It does teach that it is impossible to bear fruit apart from a life-giving, saving union with Jesus (v. 4) and that it is impossible not to bear fruit when that connection with Jesus truly exists (v. 5). It also teaches that some (many?) who profess to be “united” with Jesus, who claim to “believe” him, and who even “follow” him as so-called “disciples” will be revealed by their lack of fruit as spurious and thus subject to eternal judgment.