A frequent listener of the podcast emails this question: “Pastor John, my name is Sorin. I’m from Romania, but living right now in Germany. My questions is this: How do you understand John 15:1–10 in a Calvinistic way, because the text tells us things like: ‘He cuts off every branch that bears no fruit,’ or, ‘If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned’?” What do you say Pastor John?
That is a really crucial question, because the biblical, reformed, Calvinistic view of union with Christ, a vine and a branch is that if we have been united to Christ in a new birth and in an effectual calling, we will never be caught off from Christ. We will be eternally secure. And we base that on lots of texts. For example, John 10:27. My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me and I give them eternal life. They will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all. No one will be able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. The point there is if you are my sheep you are secure.
Or Romans 8:30. This is for me the most compelling. Those whom he predestined he called and those whom he called he justified and those whom he justified he glorified. Nobody falls out of that chain. If you are justified, he says, you will be glorified. There are no justified people who get lost between justification and glorification.
Or Philippians 1:6. I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the last day.
Or 1 Corinthians 1:8. He will sustain you to the end guiltless in the day of Christ. God is faithful by whom you are called into the fellowship of his Son.
Or 1 John 2:19. They went out from us because they were not of us. For if they had been of us they would not have gone out, but they went out that it might be plain that they were not of us. So John is explaining being cut off there, being thrown out as not being a part of us in the first place. So lots of texts show that those who are truly born of God and truly called are secure forever.
So then we come to John 15 and we read verse two. 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.
Now what does take away mean? I have hear people try to solve this problem by saying, well, it doesn’t mean take away. It means lift up. So you prop up the branch so it can bear more fruit. That won’t work. It won’t work because of verse six. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers and the branches are gathered and thrown into the fire and burned. So there are people who are attached to Jesus who go to heaven. So what do we make of this? We could say, if you were minded to, that John is contradicting himself, because in chapter 10 it says just the opposite. Or you could give John who is very worthy of our trust the benefit of the doubt and say: Ok, you don’t mean for us to press this image that far. What are you saying? And I think what John is saying is that there is a kind of attachment to Jesus that is not a saving attachment. There is a kind of union with the vine that is not a saving union. And therefore if those get cut off they are not compromising the doctrine of eternal security, because they were never saved in the first place.
Now the reason I think that is not special pleading is because of the numerous examples in the New Testament of that sort of thing. Here is one of the clearest. Judas. Judas was chosen by Jesus. He wa s one of the 12 apostles. He had a relationship with Jesus. When they went out to heal and to cast out demons there is no evidence that they all said: How come Judas can’t do this? Judas did it. He cast out demons. He healed the sick and nobody wondered why he couldn’t. And he did it in the name of Jesus. And he was not saved. He was not born again. He was not elect. He was, Jesus said, a son of perdition. And it was written in the Old Testament that he was going to betray Jesus.
John 17:12. Jesus says, “I have guarded them.” This is like I have kept all my branches. “I have guarded them and not one of them has been lost, except the son of destruction that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” So there was nothing surprising here to Jesus. He chose to have in his band and to give unusual power to Judas. And so if anybody looked at this they would say: Whoa, that branch is in the vine. And it was in that sense. But it wasn’t in the born again, effectually called sense.
Here is another illustration. Matthew 7:22 Jesus says this. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of lawlessness.’” Those are Judas type people, that they really have been in the church a long time. They have benefited in all kinds of ways from their walk with Christian people and their external connection with Jesus Christ and they are performing certain kinds of wondrous works. And they are not saved.
Now here is a last one. 1 Corinthians 13:2. Paul said the same thing. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. So the mark of the truly born again person is not an attachment to Jesus that can do miracles. But rather an attachment to Jesus that loves. The fruit of the Spirit is the mark of the true branch. And I think that is the point. If you read on down further in John 15: I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit. There is an abiding. There is an abiding that is real and there is an artificial grafting that is not real. Apart from me you can do nothing.
So I think John 15 does not contradict eternal security. It does not contradict the reformed, Calvinistic understanding of perseverance of the saints. But it does warn that true saving union with the vine is more than church membership. It is more than ministry. It is more than miracles. It is bearing there fruit of love.
Thank you Pastor John. And speaking of union with Christ, our 2014 Conference for Pastors is dedicated to this very theme. Sinclair Ferguson and Michael Horton will join you, Pastor John, to speak on this “Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ.” Paul Tripp and Jared Wilson will also be in town speaking, among others. This all happens in Minneapolis in about two months, and you can find more details on our website at desiringGod.org. There click on “events.” We hope to see you there. Until then, I’m your host, Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening.