I went to the midweek Lent service at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church. Last week’s service was cancelled due to snow and ice. The pastor this Wednesday preached about John 15:5-8. John 15:1-17 states the following (in the KJV):
John 15:1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.
11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.
12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.
16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
17 These things I command you, that ye love one another.
Here are some thoughts, some based on the sermon, some not:
A. V. 2 says that the Father takes away the branches that are in Jesus yet bear no fruit. Does that mean that a Christian, one who is in Jesus, can lose his or her salvation if he or she is not producing the fruits of a righteous spiritual and moral character?
Those who believe that Christians cannot lose their salvation have ways to explain this passage. A Reformed view is that the fruitless branches are only superficially, loosely, or apparently attached to the vine (representing Jesus), not fully or genuinely attached to it. Andrew Naselli, who is Reformed, appears to go this route in his book, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful. John MacArthur in his commentary goes a similar route when he states: “The picture is of the vinedresser (i.e., the Father) getting rid of dead wood so that the living, fruit bearing branches may be sharply distinguished. This is a picture of apostate Christians who never genuinely believed and will be taken away in judgment (v. 6; Matt. 7:16; Eph. 2:10); the transforming life of Christ has never pulsated within them (8:31, 32; cf. Matt. 13:18–23; 24:12; Heb. 3:14–19; 6:4–8; 10:27–31; 1 John 2:19; 2 John 9).”
Christians who believe that Christians can lose their salvation can then retort, “But does not the passage say that these fruitless branches are in Christ? How can they be in Christ, if they were not are genuine Christians?” That is a good question, and yet, in my opinion, the Reformed argument does have some merits. John 15:5 appears to say that abiding in the vine leads to the production of fruit; John 15:6 affirms that a branch that abides not in Christ is cast forth as a withered branch and is thrown into the fire. A fruitless branch is a branch that does not abide in Christ, in short. One could then ask: Can a branch be in Christ, while not abiding in Christ? Is abiding a deeper connection with Christ than merely being in Christ?
B. Another “once-saved-always-saved” interpretation of John 15:2 is that it means that God lifts up the fruitless branches, washes them, exposes them to the sunlight, and enables them to bear more fruit. See here and here for articles that argue along these lines. This is an appealing view, in that it affirms that God does not give up on people. It reminds me of Luke 13:6-9. In that passage, the master of the vineyard observes that a fig tree has not produced fruit for three years and tells the dresser to cut it down, but the dresser offers to dig around it and give it dung to fertilize it. If it still has not produced fruit, the master can cut the tree down. But Jesus bends over backward to bring fruit from the fruitless tree.
Some, including the articles to which I link, argue that it was the practice in first century Palestine to try to improve fruitless branches rather than discarding them. Bruce Wilkinson, in his book, Secrets of the Vine, refers to a conversation that he had with a modern-day vineyard owner:
“New branches have a natural tendency to trail down and grow along the ground,” he explained. “But they don’t bear fruit down there. When branches grow along the ground, the leaves get coated in dust. When it rains, they get muddied and mildewed. The branch becomes sick and useless.”
“What do you do?” I asked. “Cut it off and throw it away?”
“Oh no!” he exclaimed. “The branch is much too valuable for that. We go through the vineyard with a bucket of water looking for those branches. We lift them up and wash them off.” He demonstrated for me with dark, callused hands. “Then we wrap them around the trellis or tie them up. Pretty soon they’re thriving.”
As he talked I could picture Jesus’ own hand motions when he taught in the vineyard that night…When the branches fall into the dirt, God doesn’t throw them away or abandon them. He lifts them up, cleans them off, and helps them flourish again.
By contrast, Craig Keener, in the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, asserts that the practice in first century vineyards was that farmers “removed unfruitful branches entirely” (page 293). Keener states: “Those tending vines (and some kinds of trees) would cut away useless branches lest they wastefully sap the strength of the plant; in the long run, this diverted more strength into the branches that would genuinely bear fruit.”
C. The pastor was making a similar point to what Keener makes, only the pastor seemed to be interpreting the fruitless branches as the sinful aspects of individual believers: God, through God’s refinement of believers, clears away what is fruitless (i.e., sins, character defects) from them. V. 2 does appear to be making a similar point when it affirms that God prunes fruitful branches that they might produce more fruit. But the branches themselves seem to represent people who are somehow connected to the vine, not characteristics of those people. When God takes away the fruitless branch, in short, God is taking away a person, not a characteristic (i.e., sin) of that person.
That said, when the pastor talked about how the fruitless branches sap the strength of other plants, I wondered if John 15:2 related, in some way, to church discipline. An unrepentant person in church can conceivably hinder the spiritual growth of other believers: Paul states in I Corinthians 5:6 that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Romans 16:17 states: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (KJV). In a sense, people in a church need to be on the same page, at least on some level, to edify one another spiritually.
John Gill believes that there is a multifaceted meaning to John 15:2:
taketh away; removes them from that sort of being which they had in Christ. By some means or another he discovers them to the saints to be what they are; sometimes he suffers persecution to arise because of the word, and these men are quickly offended, and depart of their own accord; or they fall into erroneous principles, and set up for themselves, and separate from the churches of Christ; or they become guilty of scandalous enormities, and so are removed from their fellowship by excommunication; or if neither of these should be the case, but these tares should grow together with the wheat till the harvest, the angels will be sent forth, who will gather out of the kingdom of God all that offend and do iniquity, and cast them into a furnace of fire, as branches withered, and fit to be burnt.
Gill alludes there to a variety of biblical passages: Matthew 13:21//Mark 4:17; I John 2:19; Matthew 18:17; I Corinthians 5; Matthew 13:30. His point is that God takes away fruitless branches from the church, in the present and also in the eschaton.
That does not mean that believers are to lack compassion for the unrepentant people in church. I Corinthians 5:6 affirms that the fornicator is delivered unto Satan in hopes that he might be saved at the Day of the Lord. Matthew 18:15-17 outlines a process of giving the sinning brother opportunities to repent, and, if all of that fails, he is to be treated as an outsider. Galatians 6:1 talks about meekly restoring those who are caught in a fault, while taking care that one is not tempted. The pastor talked about telling people God’s law in a loving manner, while remembering one’s own faults.
Questions occur in my mind: Is not the church supposed to be a hospital for sinners? Do not Christians develop better character when they learn patience with those who are unrepentant, or who are not on the same page as them? Perhaps. But it is understandable that some churches have concluded that disruption can pose a problem to the health of a church and should be addressed.
D. What does abiding in Christ mean? Naselli in No Quick Fix seemed to argue that abiding in Christ is keeping Christ’s commands, and God abiding in believers occurs when God’s word abides in them (through Scripture memorization?). Naselli is arguing against a Christian view that abiding in Christ is passively letting go and letting God, waiting for Christ to produce fruit in a believer’s life.
Naselli’s teaching, as I understand it, is difficult for me. Is abiding in Christ loving other Christians, which, in John 15:12, 17, is a commandment from Jesus? Am I cut off from the tree when I do not do that? I have difficulties loving people, so I hope that my salvation does not depend on that. The idea, however, that I can bear spiritual fruit, including the fruit of love, by looking to Jesus in faith at least offers me hope. Jesus himself is the vine, according to John 15:1-17, and Jesus is the source of fruitfulness.
The way that the pastor discussed this topic, Jesus is about love, and that means that we should be about love, as we are connected with Jesus and brought together through what Jesus did. There are conditional sayings in John 15:1-17—-the statement in v. 14 that we are Christ’s friends if we do what he commands. But, at the same time, John 15:1-17 emphasizes Christ’s proactive love towards the disciples. I think also of I John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us” (NIV).