The idea of someone losing their salvation isn’t something commendable. After all, the desire of God is that all men, every person, be saved, and that they remain with the Lord and endure “until death,” until the end.
Calvinism says that one cannot “lose” their salvation, that “God doesn’t give salvation and take it back.” But there are some problems with such a statement. First, it assumes that salvation is only based on God giving it, that there are no human requirements (such as faith in Jesus). We know that the idea that God picks people to give salvation to without regard to faith is unbiblical. So, if God gives salvation to those who believe, then only someone who tosses his or her faith and throws off his or her faith in Christ can lose salvation — provided they “throw away their confidence, which has great reward,” to use the words of Hebrews 10:35-36.
Next, the statement presumes that, if God makes a promise and doesn’t give it, “He has gone back on His word.” In reality, though, if the promise was made with a condition required on the part of man, and man didn’t fulfill the condition, God would be well within His prerogative to not fulfill the promise. If you tell your child(ren), “If you do well on your report card, I’ll give you a new toy or take you out to dinner,” have you “gone back on your word” if the child gets straight Ds on their report card and you refuse to take the child out to dinner? No. You only renege and are branded a terrible person if the condition is met and you don’t fulfill your word. If the condition isn’t met, then you’re righteous to not meet the promise or bring it to pass. The same can be said for God’s righteousness.
In that regard, then, if God says, “Salvation is conditional upon faith and perseverance in faith,” and someone throws off his or her faith after 25 years, is God just when He denies that person Heaven or eternal life? Yes, God is just. If the promise is conditional, then the promise can’t be fulfilled unless the condition is met. To assume “God goes back on His word” in such a case is to assume that there is no condition, that God guarantees the promise regardless of any condition when God has given a condition. It’s distorted thinking, to be sure.
In John 15, we see what I call “The Great Divorce.” Scripture doesn’t use this phrase, the book title for which Clive Staples Lewis (affectionately known as “C.S. Lewis”) is forever remembered. And yet, it is a title that fits Scripture for one reason: Scripture refers to divorce in the Old Testament with the Greek word apostasia, the same Greek word from which our English word apostasy derives. When Deuteronomy 24 mentions a “writ of divorce,” the word used there is apostasiou (the “ou” ending meaning “of” in the Greek, the genitive ending for possession, and the parent word apostasia is present).
We are well aware of human divorces, but the question is whether or not spiritual divorce between God and humanity happens; that is, whether or not God will abandon a believer, whether a believer can fall away from grace, stop believing and lose faith in Christ, etc. The answer to the question of whether or not God severs relationships with believers can be answered with a firm “yes,” but under certain conditions.
What are those conditions? We’ll get into them by way of our examination of John 15:1-6. Jesus is speaking here in an analogy: He is the vine, and believers are branches on that vine. God the Father is the “husbandman” or farmer, and God the Father is ever tending to the vine and the branches. There are two types of branches: those that bear fruit, and those that do not. The growing branches that bear fruit are pruned to bear more fruit, but the branches (or believers) that aren’t bearing fruit are removed by God the Father and cast into the fire (used here to refer to Hell), where, in the end, they are burned.
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” (John 15:1, NKJV)
Jesus says “I am the true vine,” a statement that conveys Jesus in terms that His disciples could understand. He is talking with the disciples who are with Him, seeing that Jesus starts His teaching and final words to the disciples in John 13.
Jesus didn’t mean that He was literally, a vine, but that His relationship with His disciples and all believers is akin to a vine with branches. Jesus is the vine, while God the Father (“My Father”) is “the vinedresser,” or the Greek word γεωργός. The word itself means “someone who dresses the vine,” or rather, someone who keeps the vine. The farmer is the one who dresses the vine, so God the Father is the Farmer in the analogy.
God the Father and God the Son are working together in this analogy, contrary to what some claim. The Father is the one who tends the garden, who dresses the vine, who upkeeps the vine and its branches. As usual, Jesus gives His Father the superior place. John’s Gospel is filled with Jesus’ exaltation of God the Father, and John 15:1 is just one example of many that testify to this motif.
2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:2, NKJV)
“Every branch in Me” is a statement Jesus says to get His disciples to make the connection between the vine/branches analogy and Himself and believers. “Every branch” refers to believers, since the branches are connected to the “vine” (that is, Christ). People are connected to Jesus through faith in Him (see John 3:16), so the branches that are “in Me” are believers, those connected to Jesus by faith.
Jesus says that “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away.” To whom is Jesus referring here? He is referring to Christians, “every branch in Me,” but those who do not bear fruit. If the text speaks correctly, then there are Christians who do not bear fruit, who continue to bear no fruit at all in the Christian life. These are the ones “He takes away,” the “He” referring to God the Father. God the Father is the “vinedresser” (John 15:1), and He is the tender/keeper of the vine, who is Jesus, where the branches (believers) dwell.
“In Me”: Union with Christ
Some would argue that the branches discussed here do not refer to believers but to “fake” believers. And yet, there are a few responses I have to such a claim. First, if these branches are “fake” believers, then how are they connected to the vine in the first place? If they are fake believers, then they’ve never been joined to Jesus at all — and, as such, aren’t even branches on the Vine. If these branches are joined to the Vine, if these believers are joined to Jesus, then they must be believers.
To this end, the following analysis will focus on the phrase “in Me” and its meaning throughout the New Testament.
6 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
Here we see Jesus connect “in Me” to “little ones who believe” in Matthew 18:6. “In Me” is the source of their belief, which means that Jesus is guarding child believers against being mistreated and influenced to turn against Jesus. Mark 9:42 is the same, in the context of Jesus having taken a child in His arms (Mark 9:36-37)
In John’s own Gospel, the phrase “in Me” is used quite a bit, often in the context of belief.
35 And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. (John 6:35)
47 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. (John 6:47)
56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (John 6:56)
Three times in John 6, the phrase “in Me” is used. In all three cases, it is used in the context of belief: “believes in Me” (v.35), “believes in Me” (v.47), and “abides in Me” (v.56). Jesus uses the idea of abiding in Him in John 15 as well. The word “abide” is the Greek word meno, meaning “to remain.” The word suggests that one cannot just trust in Christ for a moment, or for a few years, but that the believer will remain with Christ, not desert Him, never leave Him, stay united (connected) to Christ.
37 On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” 39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given,because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)
“Believes in Me” (v.37) is connected to having the Holy Spirit. To believe “in Him” is to believe in Jesus, Jesus being the object of faith or the one faith is about. Believers cannot have faith in just anything; they must have faith in Jesus Christ if they intend to be saved. Only those who have faith in Jesus are called “believers” and have the promise of receiving the Holy Spirit. Faith must be in Jesus.
37 If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; 38 but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” (John 10:37-38)
In John 10, Jesus speaks of believing in Him (“believe Me”), but He also speaks of union with the Father and the Father’s union with Him. “The Father is in Me, and I in Him,” referring to their union rather than the Father and Jesus literally inhabiting one another. Jesus shows us who the Father is, but Scripture is very unambiguous about maintaining the distinction of the persons Father and Son in the Triune Godhead.
24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:24-26)
Jesus says to Martha that those who “believe in Me” shall live and never die, even though they may physically decay and die a mortal’s death. Again, belief in Jesus is key, with “in Me” referring to the object of faith, the “who” to believe in.
44 Then Jesus cried out and said, “He who believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me. 45 And he who sees Me sees Him who sent Me. 46 I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. (John 12:44-46)
Jesus says here that those who “believe[s] in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me.” Is He saying here that believing in Him isn’t important? No, of course not. In verse 46, He mentions “believes in Me” again. His point in verse 44 is to say that those who believe in Him believe in the Father who sent Him. He’s pointing to the Father in His statement, stating that the Father is greater than Himself. Remember, in John 15, our passage that guides this “In Me” discussion, Jesus has already said that He is the vine and God the Father is “the husbandman” (KJV) or “vinedresser.” The vinedresser or farmer is greater than the vine, since the Father prunes the vine. This is the same point Jesus is making here in John 12.
Here Jesus is showing that belief in Him is belief in the Father, and belief in the Father is belief in Jesus, the Son. One cannot have the Father without the Son or the Son without the Father, a point that is being made here in John’s Gospel. John says the exact same thing in his first epistle when combating docetism, the idea that Jesus didn’t really die on the Cross but merely “appeared” to die (docetism comes from the Greek verb dokeo, meaning to seem or appear):
18 Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. 21 I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.
22 Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. 23 Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:18-23)
John says here, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel, that God the Father and God the Son are a package reception: either you accept both the Father and the Son or reject them both. But you can’t have one without the other.
12 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. 13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:12-13)
“Believes in Me” shows that Jesus is the object of faith, or the goal of it. Jesus says that those who believe in Him will do greater works than what Jesus has done. We see here that faith is more than just a mental and heart assent; faith in Christ unlocks the power of God to perform miracles. This makes sense when you consider that the disciples, both after Jesus ascended and even in the early church, performed miracles:
14 Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19 So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen. (Mark 16:14-20)
Jesus says here in Mark 16 that signs will follow believers: casting out demons (as Jesus did), speaking in new tongues, handling serpents, drinking deadly stuff without being wounded or dying, and praying for and laying hands on the sick and seeing them healed (Mark 16:17-18). And then, the disciples went out after Jesus ascended back to Heaven, “the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” In other words, the signs followed because Jesus guaranteed they would. And they did.
29 “And now I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe. 30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me. (John 14:29-30)
Here Jesus talks of Satan, “the ruler of this world,” whom He says “has nothing in Me.” What does this mean? It means that Satan has no part in Him, that Satan is not joined to Jesus, he has no union with Jesus. Calvinists need to read this to understand that Satan and thus, evil, are not connected to Jesus or God the Father in any shape, form, or fashion.
John 15 pertains to the use of “in Me,” and we will cover this as we assess the first eight verses of John 15. Here we see that in verse 2, Jesus says “every branch in Me that doesn’t bear fruit He takes away.” That is, every believer “in Me,” that is, those who believe in Jesus, who don’t bear fruit, become subject to the divine severance. Believers who continue to not bear any fruit are removed, severed, by God the Father. Now, some would say here, “Jesus says that any who come to Him He will never cast them out,” from John 6:37. And that’s true: all who come to Him Jesus never casts them out. But the one who severs non-fruit-bearing believers from the vine is God the Father, not Jesus. Remember? Jesus is the farmer, the vinedresser, and Jesus is the vine (John 15:1). Jesus is not appointed the task of severing believers from the vine; God the Father does that. Jesus doesn’t cast out any who come to Him, but Jesus says here in John 15 that non-fruit-bearing believers are severed from Himself. The Father removes dead branches (that is, branches that have the expectation of bearing fruit but constantly do not), not Jesus. Those who hold to eternal security and use John 6:37 still haven’t done justice to Jesus’ words in John 15:2. They’ve merely confirmed the meaning of John 15:2 because Jesus is consistent in that He casts no one out who believes in Him.
God the Father removes dead branches from the vine. Who are dead branches? Believers (“In Me,” Jesus says) who don’t bear fruit. Why is this important to reflect on? It’s important because believers have been chosen to bear fruit. Jesus says this in John 15 as well:
5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
8 By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. (John 15:8)
16 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. (John 15:16)
The goal of being saved and belonging to the Lord is to go and bear fruit. Bearing fruit is the purpose for which we made new in Jesus Christ. Paul agrees with Jesus:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
“God prepared beforehand” that we should walk in “them” (referring to the “good works” of Ephesians 2:10).
In Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Soils, Jesus only commends the believer that hears the Word, believes it, and persists in faith and bears fruit:
23 But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:23)
20 But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” (Mark 4:20)
8 But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” (Luke 8:8)
In these three verses, we see that “bears fruit” and “yielded a crop” are the common theme. Jesus commends the one who bears fruit, and we see that Jesus’ discussion of bearing fruit in John 15 is consistent.
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree shows us the nature of the dead branches, believers who are in Christ but bear no fruit:
6 He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’8 But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. 9 And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ ” (Luke 13:6-9)
In the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree in Luke 13, the owner was disappointed that he’d been seeking fruit on the fig tree for three years: “Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’” (Luke 13:7) Notice that the owner of the fig tree expected it to grow fruit. He had planted it. For three years, he had come expecting to see fruit. No farmer plants a tree for nothing, to just look at the tree and admire it. The whole point of planting the tree is to bear fruit. Otherwise, planting a dead tree that grows no fruit is an absolute waste of time.
In other words, if the fig tree was bearing no fruit for three years, why continue to keep it? What good is it for? That is why, as Jesus says in John 15:2, every branch that doesn’t bear fruit is severed from the vine: because branches are planted in the vine, as fig trees are planted, to bear fruit. Bearing fruit is the goal, and, if a tree or branch can’t fulfill the purpose for which it was created, then it serves no other purpose. Bearing no fruit, it is fit for nothing.
On an earthly level and from our human perspective, we are trained to not let bad branches that grow no fruit survive. Farmers are taught to get rid of dead branches so that new branches can grow that will grow fruit. If this is true on a human level, how much more from a divine perspective?
Only those who are in Jesus Christ, who have come to Christ by faith, can be expected to bear fruit. Jesus says in John 15:5 that “without Me, you can do nothing,” so one can only bear fruit if he or she is joined to Christ. Also, the fruit is produced in our lives by the Holy Spirit, so an unbeliever can’t bear fruit because he or she doesn’t have the Holy Spirit; only the believer does (see Galatians 5:22-25). The branches that are dead in the sense that they bear no fruit (in accordance with the divine expectation) are those that God the Father removes. Yes, contrary to the belief of some Christians, the Father severs dead branches from the vine. He who takes the divine initiative in Christ to reach out to us and reconcile us to Himself is the same one who takes the initiative to sever believers from the vine who no longer bear fruit.
How does a believer stop bearing fruit?
When some Christians say that they don’t believe anyone can lose their salvation, they say it because they believe God doesn’t take salvation away from a believer. They argue a certain stance because they want to defend God’s faithfulness. I understand the desire. And yet, at the same time, we must remember that God’s faithfulness to believers doesn’t outweigh God’s faithfulness to Himself. As Paul says to Timothy his mentee in 2 Timothy 2:
11 This is a faithful saying:
For if we died with Him,
We shall also live with Him.
12 If we endure,
We shall also reign with Him.
If we deny Him,
He also will deny us.
13 If we are faithless,
He remains faithful;
He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13)
“He cannot deny Himself” doesn’t mean that God cannot contradict Himself, act out of character, or violate His own character or laws. God remains faithful not to those who deny Him (for He denies them, as 2 Timothy 2:12 says), but to Himself. It is to Himself that God is true, above all else (see our article titled “Faithfulness Despite Our Faithlessness: 2 Timothy 2:11-13 and Eternal Security” for more information on how to interpret 2 Timothy 2:11-13).
Jesus says that there will be branches “in Him,” in union with Him, that cease bearing fruit. How does this happen? Well, the issue is persistence in faith. In the Parable of the Sower we covered above, those who bear fruit (whether 30, 60, or 100 fold) are those who continue in faith, who hear the Word continually, and continue persisting in living their lives by the Word. Take King Saul, for instance: the Holy Spirit departed from Saul not only because he was rejected as king but because he stopped listening to the Lord and only listened to himself. He was told to wait 7 days until Samuel arrived on the scene for the sacrifice, but he went and offered it anyway. Then, he was told by God to destroy the Amalekites and all their possessions — but he killed the everyday people, saved the king’s life, and spared the best of the sheep, oxen, and belongings while destroying the worst of it. Despite the fact that he disobeyed God and was so egotistical that he built a monument to himself at Carmel, he had the nerve to stand in the prophet Samuel’s face and say “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” Saul is an example of someone who “just didn’t get it.” The Lord told Samuel that “he [Saul] has turned back from following Me,” a divine admission that Saul had apostatized and walked away from the Lord. Saul no longer obeyed the voice of the Lord, but only his own. See our work on “Why Did the Holy Spirit Depart from Saul?” for more information.
We’re told that the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Triune Godhead, is the one who produces the necessary fruit within us:
16 I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16-25)
The fruit here is labeled to be “of the Spirit,” yet Paul tells us to crucify our passions and lusts because we are Christ’s, we’ve been crucified with Christ (Galatians 5:24). Bearing the fruit of the Spirit is something we can’t do without the Holy Spirit, yet we are responsible for choosing to live righteously before God. In other words, the Holy Spirit isn’t going to transform our lives without us. He desires our cooperation in righteousness, our cooperation in sanctification, our cooperation in salvation, that we conform in our hearts and minds as He conforms us to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Galatians 5:25, “if we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Living in the Spirit doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit does it all and we do nothing; rather, living in the Spirit means that the Holy Spirit is there to teach, lead, and guide us, as we seek to do God’s will. He advises us and guides us, but we must be willing to be led and guided. As my mother always said, “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman; He doesn’t force anyone to do anything.”
We need the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in the Christian life. Failure to listen and heed the Holy Spirit, failure to obey God in our daily living, is how we begin to “dry up” as branches on the vine. We may even stop assembling with other believers, what Paul warns the Jewish Christians in his letter not to do:
19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19-25)
Hebrews 10:24-25 reminds us that we must encourage each other to continue in love and good works, and that we must “assemble ourselves together” in order to do so. Meeting together regularly, exhorting one another, preaching the gospel to one another, reminding one another of the truths of God’s Word, will keep us from becoming sluggish and absent-minded in our walk with the Lord. The person that ceases bearing fruit stops listening to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, stops reading the Word, stops meeting with other believers, stops praying, stops renewing his or her mind in the Word, and starts re-engaging into his or her sins and temptations. Let’s look at this from the perspective of Scripture:
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:22-25)
According to James, it’s easy to be a hearer of the Word but hard to be a doer. A hearer of the Word can hear a sermon, observe a sermon, walk away from the sermon, and simply forget about it. James encourages us not to be “a forgetful hearer,” someone who doesn’t pay attention to what he or she hears. The easiest way to stop bearing fruit is to stop paying attention to the truth, to stop learning the truth and consciously digesting the Word. As Paul says in Hebrews,
Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will? (Hebrews 2:1-4)
Being a “forgetful hearer” as James says starts with ceasing to pay attention to the Word of God. After all, faith in Christ comes by hearing the Word of God, so those who cease to meditate on the Word are forgetful hearers. Paul says that it is imperative that we pay attention to what we hear, “So that we do not drift away.” Have you ever seen a boat or ship drift
Scripture tells us to meditate on the Word constantly:
Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
3 He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)
The godly man delights “in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” Here we see David commend the man (or woman, the word “man” here is gender-neutral referring to “person,” not “male”). The analogy David gives is of a tree planted by waters that bears fruit. In other words, meditating on the Word of God, the Scriptures, are the way to bear fruit. One cannot bear fruit and do good works if one doesn’t know the difference between the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh, as Paul distinguishes them in Galatians 5. If the godly man who reads the Word and thinks on it all the time is the one who bears fruit, then the man or woman who ceases bearing fruit ceases to meditate on the Word. He or she stops opening their Bible, reading daily. Sure, they may read the Bible for a while as a routine and play the role of a “forgetful hearer,” but eventually, they find the Bible “boring” and distasteful and wonder why they even read the Bible at all. Ultimately, they may even change their view of Scripture; at one point, they held to a high view of Scripture as the infallible and inerrant Word of God. Now, though, they no longer hold to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Bishop Carlton Pearson, author of a book called “The Gospel of Inclusion,” once held to the Bible as the infallible and inerrant Word of God; now, having abandoned the Christian faith and its doctrines, he believes that Scripture is “not the Word of God but the word of men about God.” He is an example of someone who has apostatized from the Christian faith.
One who ceases bearing fruit not only stops reading Scripture, assembling with other believers, meditating on the Scriptures, and listening to the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit. He or she also indulges in sin, temptation, plunging as far into it as one can go. The problem with apostates, however, is that many seem to assume they can handle their temptation. And yet, Scripture tells us otherwise:
6 Now godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
Those who are tempted by money can be led down the path that leads to destruction and perdition (damnation). “Some have strayed from the faith in their greediness,” Paul says. This statement is informative in that it reveals Paul’s observations regarding others in the faith. Some were led astray from the faith because of their greediness over money. Apostasy comes in all forms, not only in doctrine (1 Timothy 4:1) but also in greed over money and possessions. Any sin can be the catalyst for someone to stop bearing fruit and face divine severance (the Great Divorce).
Peter provides a succinct look at apostasy:
18 For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. 19 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. 20 For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. 21 For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:18-22)
Notice that Peter says “if they have escaped.” Who is the “they” here? It most likely refers to the false teachers who lure weak or baby believers into false doctrine. “Escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” is a phrase that should make you think back to Noah’s ark. Noah’s family escaped the destruction God brought on the world by walking by faith in God. God told Noah and his family to go into the ark, where they stayed until after the Flood upon the earth for forty days and nights. The false teachers have escaped the pollutions of the world spiritually, “through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In other words, these false teachers at one point came to the knowledge of the truth. At one point, they saw Jesus as Lord. “The Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” is how they “escaped pollutions of the world.” To escape the world involves escaping the wrath of God that is coming upon the entire world:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Here in Ephesians 2, we see that “the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) is the same course in which Christians once walked. We once did what the world did, but when we escape the pollutions of the world, we escape the wrath of the world that God will bring as righteous judgment upon it.
“We all once…were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Ephesians 2:3). “Just as the others” is a reference to the world, sinners, those who are unbelievers. Paul is saying here that unbelievers in the world are “children of wrath,” but that believers were formerly children of wrath, too. “By nature” refers to our initial state in the world. Everyone is born into sin and shaped in iniquity, David says in Psalm 51:5.
3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. (John 15:3)
Jesus declares the disciples clean because of the spoken word He’s given to them. Jesus has just told them that some branches, the ones that don’t bear fruit, are removed and the ones that do bear fruit are pruned to bear more fruit. This is done by the husbandman, the keeper of the vineyard, God the Father. Now, He declares them clean. What Jesus is saying is that they have been “pruned” by the words He has spoken to them. They are branches connected to the “Vine” (Jesus), that have been “pruned” by the words Jesus has given them — words that come from God the Father (remember, the message is from God the Father; Jesus is the messenger).
To “prune” is the Greek word kathairei in verse 2. In verse 3, when Jesus speaks of being clean, the same Greek parent word is used, though the Greek word katharoi has a different ending. Both kathairei and katharoi refer to cleansing, to purging. So when Jesus tells them they are clean, He’s saying that they are branches that have been “pruned” to bear more fruit. The expectation is that the disciples will go forth and bear fruit, do good works, “let their light shine,” as Jesus says in Matthew 5:16.
4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (John 15:4)
As branches that have been “pruned” through the words of Jesus, they are now responsible for their walk with the Lord. Jesus tells them to “abide in Me, and I in you.” In other words, the relationship between the disciples and Jesus is all about the presence of both Jesus and the eleven disciples in the relationship. They are to “abide in Me.”
“Abide in Me”: What Does It Mean?
What does the phrase “abide in Me” mean? The word for “abide” means to “remain.” It is the Greek word “meno,” used to refer to “remain” throughout the New Testament some 118 times (though with different endings and tenses).
Since the word used for “remain” in John 15:4 is the Greek verb meinate, we’ll study this form of the Greek verb meno to determine if it means “remain.”
Thus, the command verb meinate is used five times, John 15:4 being one of the places it is used. Let’s study the other four places.
The first use of meinate is Matthew 10:11:
11 “Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. (Matthew 10:11, NKJV)
The word for “stay” is meinate, the command that tells someone to do something. Jesus tells the disciples to remain in the city for a length of time. The word means to stay, dwell, not to leave, not to depart, and so on.
In Matthew 26:38, Jesus tells the disciples to stay with Him and watch while He’s praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest, trial, and Crucifixion:
36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” 37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.”
Again, to stay means to remain in a place, to not leave or depart. Jesus told the disciples to not leave Him, to remain with Him while He was praying.
In John 15:9, Jesus uses the same word “remain.” We’ll cover this when we arrive at the exposition of the verse.
Let’s look at John 15:4 again.
4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (John 15:4)
The phrase “abide in Me” refers to union with Christ. He says in the same verse that “as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” Jesus uses the analogy of the vine and the branches He’s set up to teach the disciples about their spiritual relationship with Christ. Branches cannot bear fruit alone; if they are severed from the vine, as we’ve seen happens with “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit” (v.2), then they can’t bear any more fruit. Remember, the branches that bear fruit are pruned by God the Father: “every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (v.2b).
Only the branches that stay connected to the vine can bear fruit. In the same way, Jesus says that believers that want to bear fruit must stay connected to Christ, who is the Vine.
How does one stay connected to Christ (John 15:4)?
Jesus has told the disciples to “abide in Me,” but the whole idea of staying connected to Christ brings up the question, “How does one stay connected to Christ?” John Calvin and his theology would tell you that there’s no such thing as “staying connected to Christ”; that is, when one of God’s elect is chosen and saved, he or she is forever connected to Jesus, “the Vine,” because the bond is unbreakable. Only an Arminian or someone considering the whole counsel of God could argue the contrary: that is, someone’s union with Christ can be broken if they decide to depart from Christ.
Calvinists would say that there’s no concern about staying connected to the vine, Jesus, because “God automatically keeps us and holds onto us.” The Christian group Casting Crowns in their song East to West has some lyrics to this end:
I can’t live by what I feel
About the truth your word reveals
And I’m not holding onto you
But you’re holding onto me
You’re holding onto me
It’s true that we can’t live by feelings but by the truth of God’s Word; with that phrase, I have no dispute. But the idea of “I’m not holding onto you but you’re holding onto me” is a problem, a theological one. If Jesus says that “neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4), He is saying that the disciples, and thus, all believers, have the responsibility of abiding and remaining in Christ. Jesus has told the disciples that they are to remain in Christ and He would remain in them, showing that their relationship consists of the actions of both parties involved. The same can be said for our salvation with Christ. Sure, He is holding onto us because we are His, and He has said that He doesn’t turn away any that come to Him; yet, we are also holding onto Jesus. We are also responsible for staying connected to Christ. If we have no responsibility in it whatsoever, why would Jesus give commands to the disciples about abiding in Him and remaining in Him? Why command the disciples (and believers) to do something that it is impossible for them to do?
This is why we find Jesus in John’s Gospel asking His disciples if they wanted to depart from Him:
66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. 67 Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
68 But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” 71 He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he who would betray Him, being one of the twelve. (John 6:66-71)
John 6, like John 15, is problematic (I should say destructive) for Calvinist theology. In John 6, Jesus is teaching about Himself and some of those following Him (who only followed Him because He fed the masses with two fish and five loaves of bread, see John 6:26) depart from Him. And then, Jesus turns around in verse 67 and asks the Twelve (yes, all of them), “Do you also want to go away?” Now, there may be some dispute about those who turned from following Him, but there can be no dispute about those He chose. Jesus handpicked the Twelve disciples, yet here He is asking them if they want to depart.
Calvinism can’t handle John 6:67 because it opposes Calvinism directly. If Jesus “elected” these disciples to salvation, then it doesn’t sit so well with Jesus later asking them to depart — for Calvinism says that God’s election of believers is unconditional (without regard to faith, bearing fruit, anything). If God chooses believers in Calvinism, then they can never depart from Christ. But how can Calvinism be true if Jesus asks His handpicked disciples whether or not they want to depart?
Calvinism and Jesus aren’t on the same side here. Calvinism says that true disciples can’t depart, that “elect” believers can’t fall away, yet Jesus asks His “elect” disciples if they want to depart. If Jesus’ handpicked disciples can depart, as Jesus asks them, then believers today can depart too. This is important because here in John 15, Jesus is teaching the disciples about staying connected to Him, “remain in Me,” suggesting that the disciples (and by extension, current believers) can depart from Christ if they choose to.
So, contrary to Casting Crowns, God is not only holding onto us; we are also holding onto Him and can let go if we so choose. There is divine sovereignty, but there’s also human responsibility. Calvinism stresses divine sovereignty to the erasure of human responsibility, but that isn’t in accordance with sound theology. When your theology, your view of God and salvation, has God doing everything and humans doing nothing (or when it has humans doing everything apart from grace; Arminius himself held to the necessity of grace at every step, by the way), then it needs to be revised. Immediately.
We must abide in Jesus in order to bear fruit, He tells us in John 15:4. Think about what this means, though: since the fruit we bear is called “the fruit of the Spirit,” and we can only produce it with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Triune Godhead, then we must stay in Christ, we must stay believers, in order to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This shows us that the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are on the same page theologically. They work together. In the same way that one cannot have the Father apart from the Son (thus, the Father and Son are a package deal, as John says in 1 John 2:23), one cannot have Jesus apart from the Holy Spirit, or have the Holy Spirit apart from Jesus. Without union with Jesus, there is no Holy Spirit present — and without the Holy Spirit’s presence, believers cannot be sanctified and bear fruit.
This contradicts the view of many an inclusivist who believes that believers can be saved “by way of the Holy Spirit” without Jesus, as if to say the Holy Spirit is Savior instead of Jesus. Jesus is Savior, and no one having the Holy Spirit can say “Jesus is accursed” (1 Corinthians 12:3) because the Holy Spirit declares Jesus (as Jesus says in John 16:12-15).
This also confirms, however, that, when the Father severs a branch from the Vine, from Jesus, because a believer is no longer bearing fruit, that, as said before, the Holy Spirit departs from the life of the individual. Jesus says here that the Father severs believers from the Vine (Jesus). Does this happen or not? It happens if Jesus says it does. And Jesus isn’t discussing hypotheticals here. So, if the Father severs believers, this means that someone can be a believer and then lose faith in Jesus and fall away, be severed from Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit departs from the life of the ex-believer (as was the case with King Saul).
The disciples cannot bear fruit if they don’t abide in Christ, because to leave Jesus is to give up faith in Jesus and to give up the Father and Holy Spirit, too.
Apart from Jesus, no one can bear fruit; this is why unbelievers cannot bear fruit until they are saved and joined to Christ. The same process happens for an ex-believer, too: once severed from the vine, they are “dead” branches. We’ll get into more in the coming verses.
For now, let’s cover one more detail of John 6. Jesus says that He chose the Twelve, “and one of you is a devil.” Calvinism is really dismantled with such a verse. It shows that, despite Jesus’ election of the twelve, one is a devil. That is, divine election doesn’t mean that one cannot become a devil. Judas was chosen by Jesus, and Judas left everything to follow Him. Yet, Judas loved money and ultimately sold His Master, Jesus, for thirty pieces of silver.
5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Jesus is the Vine, and believers (the eleven disciples) are the branches. Jesus is direct here about the proper analogy for Jesus and the disciples. Only “he who abides in Me…bears much fruit” (John 15:5). “For without Me you can do nothing,” Jesus says at the end of verse 5. Jesus re-emphasizes the necessity of union with Him in order to bear fruit. Without Christ, we can do nothing.
Without Christ, we can’t bear fruit, we can’t do any good thing. This statement of Jesus in John 15:5 has been used by Calvinists to say that we must be regenerated by God before we can come to Him – that is, we must be “already saved” to move in salvation. But to come to this estimation from John 15:5 is to take the verse out of context. First, Jesus is talking to disciples, those who are already His, about bearing fruit. When Jesus says “without Me, you can do nothing,” He has already said in verse 4 that “neither can you [bear fruit], unless you abide in Me.” The context is bearing fruit, and only believers can bear fruit. The only thing an unbeliever can bear fruit of is repentance, as John the Baptist told the Pharisees to do when they came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing (see Matthew 3:7-9; Luke 3:7-8)
The context of “without Me” and “you can do nothing” refers to bearing fruit. That is, the good works done in the Christian life can’t be done apart from Christ. Notice that Jesus says “you can do nothing” without Him. This is true in that nothing we do, apart from Christ, is commendable before God. No amount of money paid, good deeds done, reputation, celebrity status, achievements done without Christ mean anything to the Lord. They don’t. We aren’t good enough for Heaven on our works and sole human efforts. And yet, the implied statement from Jesus’s words is quite revealing. If we can do nothing apart from Him, then what does that say about what we can do with Him? With Him, we can do good deeds. With Christ, we can do good works. With Christ, we can glorify His name. With Christ, we can resist the flesh, sin, and Satan. With Christ, we can “let our light so shine before men.”
This is important because Calvinism tells us (the views of John Calvin, that is) that believers need not concern themselves with good works. Since they are necessarily saved, and God elected them unconditionally before time, their salvation has no bearing on what they do in time. What this means (and what will likely offend the adherents of Calvin’s theology) is that a person can be the biggest unbelieving soul in time but because of this eternal decree (that no one but God has ever seen, by the way), he or she is saved. Nothing done in time matters because, as Calvinism says, “we are not saved by works but by God’s purpose.” But this is problematic; are we not saved to bear good fruit? That appears to be Jesus’ purpose for addressing the disciples in John 15: to show them that they have been saved with the purpose of bearing fruit, that, to paraphrase Paul’s words in Ephesians 2, they have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God the Father prepared beforehand that they should do.”
The verse has been used to discuss the theological idea of regeneration before faith, but the verse doesn’t lend credence to such an idea. The reason? It boils down to how one as a branch can become “connected” to the Vine (Jesus) in the first place. Branches, believers, are not automatically grafted into the vine; rather, there is a condition they must meet. We’ll get into the idea of the nature of staying connected to Jesus (and how to get connected to Him) in the next section.
John 15:6: Believers Who Do Not Remain
John 15 doesn’t present Calvinism’s finest hour, and neither do Jesus’ words in John 15:6. Calvinism says that believers stay connected to the vine; that is, those elected by God “from before the foundation of the world,” Calvinism says, remain in Jesus. Those who do not remain were “never saved to begin with,” as the famous saying goes. That saying has destroyed more Christian witness than any other saying in the history of the Christian church.
Christians have, for centuries, whipped out their Bibles to “diagnose” the particular circumstances of believers they think have “backslidden,” but in our zeal to defend Christ, we’ve gotten God wrong altogether. We have good intentions: we want to remind Christians that we are secure in Christ, that He is our salvation, that He is strong enough to hold onto us; that He is mighty enough to keep us if we give our lives to Him. But the problem with such sayings is that, while they are true, they assume divine responsibility instead of human responsibility: that is, “Christ must keep us or He isn’t almighty,” as I heard one person say many years ago. And yet, why is it that we hand responsibility for our salvation over to Christ without considering the role man plays in it?
Are we not responsible for responding to the gospel message? We are. So, let’s fight the temptation to make our walk with the Lord all based on what God does. We are told within Scripture to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Since God is at work in our lives, we can do what is pleasing to the Lord. We can be responsible for our walk with the Lord because God’s power is at work in us. God’s power doesn’t excuse us from our responsibility in salvation but rather, empowers us to be responsible.
God desires that believers remain in Christ, but unfortunately, the words of John 15:6 demonstrate that not all believers will remain in Christ. In short, apostasy is not just a word used in the Old Testament to refer to the Israelites straying from God for idol worship; apostasy still exists today, and believers in Jesus can (and sadly, will) depart from Him. Please understand that Jesus never taught hypothetically about reality. Let us live in reality and not erroneously attribute Jesus’ words about the apostasy of former believers to the realm of “hypotheticals.”
Now, on to John 15:6.
6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15:6)
“If anyone does not abide in Me,” a reference Jesus makes to believers. Remember, not just “anyone” is a Christian; only believers are. So Jesus’ use of the word “anyone” is a reference to believers. After all, Jesus is talking to the disciples about staying connected, about being branches, and being pruned to bear more fruit.
Those who do not “abide in Me,” those who do not remain with Christ, are those who depart from Christ.
This brings up the question of, “how is one connected to Christ? How does one become connected to the vine?” followed by, “how does one depart from Christ or fail to abide in Jesus?” These questions are before us now.
Connected to Christ By Faith
We are connected to Christ by faith. Faith is that which joins us to Christ. Paul recounts to the Ephesians the exact moments in which they got saved:
13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, (Ephesians 1:13, NKJV)
Paul says that the Ephesians “heard the word of truth,” the gospel, and “believed” on Jesus. Jesus is the “whom” of Ephesians 1:13. So, one hears the Word of God, the gospel, and believes in Jesus for salvation. This is how one is connected to Christ. After believing in Jesus, the Holy Spirit indwells the believer. The Spirit’s presence is indicative of the faith in Christ that the individual has exercised. The Spirit doesn’t dwell in the life of someone who hasn’t professed faith in Christ.
Faith, then, is how we are joined to Christ. Peter says as much in the Jerusalem Council:
6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:6-9)
Peter refers to the Gentiles hearing the Word and believing (Acts 15:7). In verse 9, he says the Gentiles were “purified” in their hearts “by faith.” Again, faith is the key to the salvation of the Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles, like the Jews, had to hear the word of the gospel and believe what they heard. Faith is how we are saved and is the means by which we are joined to Christ. By grace, through faith in Jesus, we are “married” to Christ. This is why the church is called the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-32).
When we join the family of Christ, we are “married” to Him.
If Jesus’ words are right, though, this “marriage” between a believer and Jesus can end in “divorce.” This is “The Great Divorce”: to depart from Christ, to abandon and give up God and turn away from Him forever.
Staying Connected to Jesus by Faith
If we are united to Christ by faith, then how do we stay connected to Christ? By faith. If faith creates the union between Christ and an individual (after all, those joined to Christ are not called “believers” for nothing), then faith is what maintains the union between Christ and an individual.
Paul says as much in his response to the Gentiles, who were gloating over the fact that the Israelites as a whole nation were not saved while the Gentiles were coming to Christ in droves:
13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
16 For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” 20 Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. (Romans 11:13-22)
Here in Romans 11, Paul uses the analogy of the olive tree (Israel, Jews), the wild olive shoot (Gentiles, spiritual Israel), the branches (individual believers), the root, and the farmer (“God”) to discuss salvation. According to what we know about the books of the Bible, Romans 11 was written by Paul long before John wrote John 15, so perhaps Paul gets the attribution for being first to record it. Regardless, the fact that both John and Paul utilize the analogy shows its reliability in teaching about salvation.
In verse 17, Paul refers to the Jews as “branches” that “were broken off.” The Jews were “broken off” from the olive tree because of unbelief. As Paul says in Romans 11:20, “Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith.” As Paul says here, faith is the condition by which the Jews are rejected (unbelief means “the absence of faith”) and the Gentiles have been accepted (“you stand by your faith”).
Faith is how we are united to Christ, and faith is how we remain grafted into the “olive tree” or, as John says, “vine.” In verse 22, Paul tells the Gentiles to consider both the goodness and severity of God. God’s goodness is there under the condition that “you continue in His goodness.” In other words, the goodness of God in salvation is contingent upon the Gentiles’ remaining in faith toward God. If they didn’t continue in God’s goodness and remain in faith, “you also will be cut off” (Romans 11:22).
Think about this: the Gentiles stood by their faith in Christ and were grafted into the olive tree, with the “root” being Jesus (He is the “root” of our salvation, and the vine on which the branches sit). “The root supports you,” Paul told the Gentiles, reminding them that they weren’t grafted into the vine because of human merit but because of Jesus, and the grace of God in Christ. They were currently in grace, walking with Christ, but if they didn’t continue, they would be “cut off.” In other words, Paul was saying the following: “In the same way that the Jews have been severed from the vine by God because of their unbelief, you Gentiles can also be severed if you give up your faith and do not continue in faith. Don’t assume that your salvation is guaranteed and unconditional, because faith is what keeps you connected. Faith is how you stay connected.”
Paul’s words here echo Jesus’ own words in John 15:6: the branches, believers, that don’t remain with Christ “is cast out as a branch and is withered.” To be cast out of the vine is the same as being “cut off” in Paul’s words to the Roman church. To be cut off the vine is to be severed, and the branch that is cast out “is withered,” Jesus says. Remember, the Lord has already told the disciples in verses 4 and 5 that “the branch cannot bear fruit of itself” and “neither can you, unless you abide in Me,” as well as “without Me you can do nothing,” so these words about being cut off and withering make sense here. A branch detached from the vine dies; any farmer or student of nature can testify as much.
Paul confirmed the Christ connection by faith with the Corinthians as well:
19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me, Silvanus, and Timothy—was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes. 20 For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us. 21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, 22 who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
23 Moreover I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth. 24 Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand. (2 Corinthians 1:19-24)
“By faith you stand” (2 Corinthians 1:24) echoes Paul’s words to the Romans that “you stand by faith” (Romans 11:20). How are believers connected to Christ? By faith. How do believers fall away from Christ? How are believers severed from Jesus? By giving up their faith. Those who are cut off from the vine and wither are those who aren’t bearing fruit. And the only believers who don’t bear fruit are former believers who fail to abide in Jesus and remain in the teachings of Christ and the Word of God. Jesus is talking to the disciples, those that He already asked whether or not they wanted to depart from Him in John 6; so, when He mentions, “if anyone does not abide in Me,” He is not referring to “fake believers,” as so many Christians deem Him addressing. Instead, Christ is addressing believers who decide to depart from Him. These former believers no longer bear the fruit of the Spirit because they no longer have the Holy Spirit: the Father severs them from the vine because they abandon Christ (“The Great Divorce,” apostasy), and the Holy Spirit departs from them as He did from King Saul.
John 15:6b, former believers enter into Hell
6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15:6)
The branches that no longer bear fruit are severed from the vine; believers who don’t bear fruit any longer are severed, detached, from Jesus by God the Father (the vinedresser), and then they wither up. Notice that when they wither, they become dead branches. Believers are initially “dead” in their trespasses and sins, and those believers that abandon Christ cease bearing fruit and become “dead in trespasses and sins” once more. You won’t find this idea in Calvinism because Calvinism denies that a believer can cease believing and “revert” to his sinful state. And yet, the idea of reversion (the opposite of conversion) is a biblical doctrine. We’ll get into this in a few paragraphs.
Here in John 15:6, we haven’t dealt with the end result. Once these “dead” believers, who cease bearing fruit (implying they once did bear fruit and were once believers in Jesus) are severed from the vine (from Jesus), they wither and dry up. They stop bearing fruit a long time ago, but now, they wither to show that they no longer have the ability to bear fruit. Jesus has told the disciples that they can do nothing (including bear fruit) without Him; now, their “dead” state is a testimony to their inability to bear fruit (good works) without Jesus. The result of divine severance is the loss of fruit-bearing ability. When the believer departs from Christ and becomes an unbeliever once again, he or she departs from all the members of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and is then gathered and thrown into the fire: “they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.”
What does this mean? It means that their severance from the vine, their Great Divorce from Jesus and Christianity, is complete, final, irreversible. This goes against certain Arminian views such as that of John Wesley and Wesleyan Arminianism. Most Calvinists today believe that all Arminians hold to the idea that, when a believer falls away and “loses salvation,” he or she can come back again. And yet, James Arminius, the founder of Arminianism who preceded John Wesley, never held to such an idea. John Wesley did, however; because Wesleyans believe this, Calvinists have painted all Arminians with a broad theological stroke and accused all Arminians of holding to this view when only Wesleyans do.
With the dead branches, the ex-believers, in John 15:6, we see that they are not reconciled to the vine, to Jesus; rather, they are thrown into the fire and only good for burning. They no longer bear fruit, they “wither,” meaning that they lose all their fruit-bearing abilities, and their destruction is final. There is no possibility in Jesus’ words for a former live branch, once becoming “dead” again, to ever become alive once more. Once a branch connected to the vine, to Jesus, departs from Christ, the “divorce” is final. There is no mere “separation” here, but instead a terminal, final, departure that is forever sealed. Once the branch is dead, it is never brought back to life or “made alive” once more.
The dead branch is thrown into the fire and burned. What is this fire? Keep in mind that the entire analogy has been physical. Jesus never strayed from using earthly, natural phenomena to discuss spiritual matters. He does that here in John 15. If the branches refer to believers, and “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says in John 15:5, then what does “the fire” refer to other than Hell fire? I once heard someone suggest that the fire Jesus mentions refers to a “refiner’s fire,” but this can’t be true because the branch thrown into the fire has been severed from the vine (Jesus), cut off by the vinedresser (God the Father), and “cast out” from the vine. The only purging that occurs is for the branches connected to the vine (believers connected to Jesus) that are bearing fruit. “He prunes them” so that these living and thriving believers bear more fruit. There is no pruning for the dead branches that have been severed from the vine. There is no purging for these dead branches that no longer bear fruit. They are of no use to God because He is only interested in the “branches” (believers) that are planted bearing fruit.
The fire here is Hell fire, and the “they are burned” refers to the physical destruction of the branches. In spiritual terms, the Hell fire physically torments apostates, former believers who have now departed from Christ Jesus forever. The end for these former believers is Hell, eternal Hell fire.
Paul surfaces again in our discussion with his words in Hebrews 6, a passage that Calvinism has tried to make a foreign language in the church’s study of Scripture:
4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
7 For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; 8 but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned. (Hebrews 6:4-8)
Those who “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,” meaning that the action was done in the past whose effects are still present, who “fall away” (v.6), cannot return to repentance: “it is impossible…if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance.” To use the words of Jesus in John 15, dead branches that are severed from the vine cannot return to the vine or be restored to the vine. In analytical terms, believers who depart from Christ in The Great Divorce cannot be brought back to repentance because “they crucify again for themselves the Son of God.” In other words, if they reject Christ’s atonement, they can’t be saved by it afterwards; Jesus would have to be crucified a second time for the individual to be renewed to repentance. The phrase “renew them again to repentance” tells us that these individuals were once brought to repentance, that they would need a second atonement by Jesus to be brought to a second repentance. Jesus isn’t going to be crucified afresh again, so there’s no lifeline for them to ever be saved. Once they reject Christ and apostatize, they cannot return. Their apostasy is final.
Finally, a word must be said about the earth. Paul gives two outcomes for the land that drinks the rain: 1) the land bears herbs (v.7) or 2) bears briers and thorns (v.8). The land that receives the rain is like the branches connected to the vine: it receives the same resources from God as other branches, as other lands. The problem is that the apostate is like the land that has all the divine resources (represented by rain) that it needs but still chooses not to bear fruit; instead of fruit, it only bears briers and thorns, no fruit at all. Like the dead branches severed from the vine and former believers who depart from Jesus, the land that drinks God’s rain but bears briers and thorns is cursed in the end (“whose end is to be burned,” Hebrews 6:8).
To even read John’s quotations of Jesus, one cannot assume Calvinism’s lenses and doctrine because it is at serious odds with Scripture (including John 15’s discussion of believers who do not remain with Christ).
In the end, the question comes down to: “Can a believer, connected to Jesus, depart from Christ, become a “dead branch,” and end up in Hell? John says “yes.” Jesus says “yes.” And yet, Calvinism says no.
Calvinism may suffice for some because it explains in their view the sovereignty of God and God’s power to “break through the wills” of individuals, but it doesn’t explain John 15 and Jesus’ teaching about believers who apostatize. Calvinism doesn’t explain King Saul and the Holy Spirit’s departure from him, either. Sounds to me like Calvinism leaves a lot to be desired.