Objections to Eternal Security – What about John 15
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©200|
|John 15 has been used to teach loss of salvation, but Drs. Ankerberg and Weldon explain why that is not the best way to understand these verses.|
Objections to Eternal Security—What about John 15?
John 15:1-11 is also often used to teach the loss of genuine salvation. If more seemingly difficult passages such as this and those in Hebrews are capable of resolution, then certainly, so are the less difficult passages.
First, what is the context of the passage? It refers to bearing spiritual fruit and to abiding in Christ relationally—not to loss of salvation. Nowhere is this theme mentioned or implied.
In verses 1-8, the words “fruit” and “abide” are used six times, indicating predominant themes and the intent of the passage. This tells us 1) the context is of fruit bearing and 2) the “abide” cannot be positional abiding, but must be relationship abiding. Why? Only if we are in a relationship-walk with Christ can we produce true fruit. We do not actually produce fruit merely because of our spiritual union with Christ. The fact of this union with Christ has nothing directly to do with our choice of and responsibility to bear fruit here in this life.
Only verse two refers to our union with Christ when it uses the phrase “in Me.” “In Me” is not the same as “abide” but it clearly shows we are dealing with believers only which again substantiates the theme—Christ could not be concerned with the “abiding” and “fruit” of mere professors or hypocrites.
Verse nine reinforces the above interpretation of “abide.” Positionally, we abide in Christ’s love totally and irrevocably (Rom. 8:37-38, cf., v. 28-38). There is no need to abide in our union; we already do that perfectly. There is, however, a genuine need to abide in Christ’s love relationally—in this area we all need encouragement, help and exhortation towards abiding—towards maintaining our love relationship with Christ and the obedience that flows from it.
Clearly the one who abides in Christ relationally will bear “much fruit”; one who does not abide in Him relationally cannot bear any fruit; for verse five states clearly “apart from Me you can do nothing.” A severed walk with Christ is utterly useless to God, and in fact does not bring honor to God but dishonor.
In the entire passage of eleven verses, only one verse is used to teach the loss of salvation: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
What does the warning mean? The context seems to refer to either being put aside as to service and/or possibly the sin unto death (1 Cor. 9:27; 1 Jn. 5:16 and perhaps Heb. 6:6). Certainly it declares the utterly useless state of the condition of not abiding, whether or not it is permanent.
Jesus declares that every branch “in Me” that does not bear fruit is “taken away” (v. 2) and “thrown away as a branch and dries up” (v. 6). This is the negative reality of our not abiding in Jesus.
Remember, since Jesus is paralleling a spiritual situation to a material practice (vineyard keeping), the details of the earthly practice cannot be pressed beyond their intended meaning into the spiritual situation. For example, Psalm 1 does not mean, e.g., we will only yield fruit in the summer or we will live as long as a tree. The illustrative purpose of the Psalm is limited: the righteous, those who trust in the Lord, will be strong, fruitful and prosperous in contrast to the wicked who are so spiritually unstable they blow away like chaff.
In John 15, to refer to branches being cast into a fire was the normal practice and expected end of dried branches—it has no intended reference to the fate of Christians. It is only an illustration of what Christians are like in a condition of non-abiding. They are as worthless to God for fruit bearing as dried branches—whose normal end is to be tossed into a fire.
Thus, note the change of pronouns in verse six. The Christian (he) is thrown away as a branch and dries up (spiritual situation); but the branches (they; material illustration) are cast into the fire and burned. It does not say “he” is cast into the fire and burned.
The practice of the vineyard keepers was to take away (remove) the unfruitful branches, gather them together and burn them. Since this was the normal fate of the branches in vineyards, Jesus naturally referred to the practice. In fact, Jesus chose the illustration deliberately to show the worthlessness of the carnal Christian. Brown, dead, dried branches are fit merely to cast into a fire—how contrasting to lush, green, living branches bearing eternal fruit.
What then was the meaning of using such an illustration for Christians? Clearly, not that they might go to hell, for Jesus Himself clearly denied this elsewhere (Jn. 6:47; 10:27-30, etc.) and He would not contradict Himself here (see below).
Jesus’ intent was to show that if a Christian does not abide in Him relationally, that the natural and inevitable end of such a state is that of: 1) no fruit and 2) the condition of becoming spiritually useless.
The meaning is that the Christian’s potential for fruit bearing is (perhaps irreversibly) destroyed, just as the branch’s potential for fruit bearing is irreversibly destroyed.
Possibly there is no intent by Jesus that the illustration be pressed so far. He may merely wish to indicate the utterly useless condition of a non-abiding Christian, not the permanency of that state with no hope for reversal (in which case repentance would be impossible and the sin unto death would probably result). If the latter is true, “takes away” then could mean sin unto death—1 Jn. 5:16; Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 11:30; and the “they are burned”—i.e., the complete destruction of the branches, could signify the irreversible nature of the situation (Heb. 6:6).
On the other hand, Jesus probably meant to show that, as to one’s relationship with Christ and fruit bearing, while one remains in that condition one is as good or useful (to God) as a bunch of useless branches that are only fit for casting into a fire. The larger context would seem to favor this, and as a result the details of the passage should not be pressed.
Another statement by Jesus helps us to see that “abiding” and “fruit bearing” is His intent rather than loss of salvation. In Matthew 5:13-16 (cf. Lk. 14:34) we find the exact same concept and result.
Salt represents flavor (or a preservative or life-saver). The Christian is the “flavor” of God to the world. The material reality for purpose of illustration is that salt without its taste is utterly useless and thrown away and good only to be trampled under foot by men. The spiritual intention is to show that in terms of the Christian’s “fruit” (here flavor), and their witness to the world, a worldly Christian is as useless to God as saltless salt is to men. The use of the parable is illustrative only, i.e., “You are like tasteless salt to Me when you live this way.”
We see in John 15:8 that the result of fruit bearing is glorifying God and proof of true discipleship. In Matthew 5:16 the same result is noted.
Finally the larger context of John 15 indicates loss of salvation is not intended. Why? In verse three, the believer is “already clean” because he is regenerate with all it implies: union, imputation, justification, adoption, etc.
Verse two had just referred to pruning (literally “cleaning, scrubbing”). Vines were regularly scrubbed to get rid of diseases, insect pests and predators, etc., so that they might “bear more fruit” (continue to bear fruit).
In a similar way, the believer who bears fruit is continually cleansed by God. Again the details must not be pressed—God does not literally cleanse His children from lice or blight. This cleansing refers to a believer’s walk, not position in Christ. How do we know this?
First, positionally we are already clean. Just two chapters earlier in John 13:10 Jesus referred to the believer as “completely clean,” noting that only the feet need washing. The believer is completely clean from the fact of his justification, etc.; yet as he walks through this world, his feet get dirty and need regular cleaning. The meaning is that even though our position in Christ is perfect we still get soiled in this life and need regular cleansing— confession (1 Jn. 1:9), restoration, discipline when necessary, etc.
Jesus’ reference to “not all of you” being clean again shows the intent. Judas was never a believer—he was not regenerate (Jn. 13:18; 6:64, 70; 12:6) hence he went to his own place (Acts 1:25; cf., Mt. 26:24). Hence to “be clean” refers to our position and all it implies. Thus, as a result of the great privileges of our position which Jesus implies in verse three, He says in effect, “as a result of this ‘abide in Me,’” i.e., keep the relationship intact, keep it alive and growing. (Note the phrase “And I in you.”)
Verse 11 is utterly incomprehensible if Jesus has just told the disciples that they are in real danger of hell-fire if they do not abide in Him. Does what He says here make sense at all if He is warning believers of an eternal hell? It is as if He said: “If you are not extremely careful to maintain your relationship to me you will go away into eternal hell-fire. I say this that your joy may be made full.”
Consider what Jesus is saying, that our relational abiding in Him will without fail:
- Produce “much fruit” (v. 5)
- Glorify God (v. 8)
- Prove our discipleship (v. 8)
- Allow us to know and feel and be assured of His love for us and the Father’s love for us (v. 9-10)
- Keep us from stumbling (16:1)
In light of this, verse 11 now makes sense: “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be made full.”
Finally, verse 16 is too reassuring to imply loss of salvation; for the one in hell has no fruit at all. All Christians will bear at least some fruit.
Hell is never even mentioned in this chapter: its supposition is unfounded.
In conclusion, the knowledge of the original languages and proper rules of hermeneutics will prove that the so-called problem passages can quite adequately be harmonized with the passages teaching the security of the believer. And even if there are some passages which we cannot yet adequately comprehend, simply because we don’t have sufficient information, this is certainly no reason to reject what has already been established.
The true believer in Christ is eternally secure. Glory to God!Eternal Security