Here we read that God, as the Vinedresser, lovingly “prunes” (v. 2), i.e., cleanses, purges, and purifies believers of whatever does not contribute to their spiritual maturity (“fruitfulness”). This might occur in any number of ways: discipline, teaching, testing, etc. The debate centers on what God does with the fruitless branches, and what the latter represent. There have generally been three views of this passage.
· The standard Arminian interpretation is that the “fruitless branches” are genuine Christians who, because of their fruitlessness, lose their salvation. Typical of those who embrace this view is Adam Clarke: “As the vinedresser will remove every unfruitful branch from the vine, so will my Father remove every unfruitful member from my mystical body, even those that have been in me by truth faith (for only such are branches)” (5:381).
· One variation of the Calvinistic position is that the “fruitless branches” are genuine Christians who, because of their fruitlessness, undergo divine discipline. Their “removal” and judgment is physical death, not spiritual death. They are and remain saved, but are prematurely taken to heaven as a disciplinary response to their failure to walk in obedience to Jesus.
· The other option for those who believe in eternal security is to understand the “fruitless branches” to be so-called “disciples” who experience only an external, superficial connection with Jesus. Although they “believe” and “follow” Jesus in one sense, their allegiance “is not matched by an internal, spiritual union by personal faith and regeneration” (J. Carl Laney, “Abiding is Believing: The Analogy of the Vine in John 15:1-6,” BibSac [January March, 1989], 61). Thus “the fruitless branches are lifeless branches---branches without Christ” (62).
I believe the third option is most consistent both with what we read in the gospel of John and in the rest of the NT. My reasons (7 of them) for adopting this view and rejecting the others are as follows.
First, the implausibility of the Arminian view is seen in that Jesus declared in John 10:28-29 that those to whom he gives eternal life shall never perish. More decisive still is the word used in 15:6. There Jesus says that the fruitless branches will be “cast out” (a form of the Greek verb ballo, “to cast,” “to throw,” together with the adverb exo, “outside” or “out”). But in John 6:37 Jesus uses virtually identical terminology and says, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (ekballo with exo). The Arminian view would require that what Jesus denied of the believer in 6:37 he affirms of the believer in 15:6. Surely neither our Lord in speaking, nor John in recording his words, is guilty of the most obvious of theological contradictions.
Second, a weakness in the second view above is that what Jesus says of the destiny of the fruitless branches reads more like eternal condemnation than temporal chastisement. The fruitless branch is “taken away” (v. 2). The fruitless branch is “cast into the fire” and “burned” (v. 6; cf. Matthew 3:12; 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7-8; Rev. 20:15).
Third, the view that the fruitless branches are unregenerate is supported by what John’s gospel says about unsaved “believers.” In other words, John often portrays people as “believing” in Jesus who are clearly not born again. There is a stage in the progress of belief in Jesus that “falls short of genuine or consummated belief resulting in salvation” (Laney, 63). See John 2:23-25 (where their “faith” or “belief” is clearly superficial in nature); 8:31,40,45-46 (where the Jews who “believed him” turn out to be slaves to sin [v. 34], indifferent to Jesus’ word [v. 37], children of the devil [v. 44], liars [v. 55], and guilty of mob tactics and attempted murder of the one they have professed to believe [v. 59]!). See also 7:31 and 12:11,37 where the same idea may be present. After Jesus’ teaching we read in 6:60 that “many of his disciples . . . said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’” These are the very “disciples” who Jesus says “do not believe” (v. 64). Carson explains:
“’Disciples’ must be distinguished from ‘the Twelve’ (cf. vv. 66-67). More importantly, just as there is faith and faith (2:23-25), so are there disciples and disciples. At the most elementary level, a disciple is someone who is at that point following Jesus, either literally by joining the group that pursued him from place to place, or metaphorically in regarding him as the authoritative teacher. Such a ‘disciple’ is not necessarily a ‘Christian’, someone who has savingly trusted Jesus and sworn allegiance to him, given by the Father to the Son, drawn by the Father and born again by the Spirit. Jesus will make it clear in due course that only those who continue in his word are truly his ‘disciples’ (8:31). The ‘disciples’ described here do not remain in his word” (300).
Jesus clearly recognizes what we might call “fickle faith” and distinguishes it from true, saving faith, based on whether one abides in Jesus and in his teaching. Perseverance is the mark or sign of true, saving faith. Such a person “remains” or “abides” (8:31) in Jesus’ “word”, that is to say, he/she “obeys it, seeks to understand it better, and finds it more precious, more controlling, precisely when other forces flatly oppose it. It is the one who continues in the teaching who has both the Father and the Son (2 Jn. 9; cf. Heb. 3:14; Rev. 2:26)” (Carson, 348).
There is in John’s gospel, therefore, a transitory, superficial, surface “faith” or “belief” that may be based solely on miracles seen but is not grounded in and the fruit of a saving understanding of and trust in who Jesus really is. Such people are in some sense connected or united to Jesus, enough that they may even be called “disciples,” yet they are not Christian disciples. The former, I believe, are the unfruitful branches of John 15:2,6.
Fourth, we must take note of the phrase “in Me” in v. 2. Does this not refer to genuine salvation? Perhaps. But it is possible that “in Me” modifies “bears fruit” rather than “every branch.” In other words, instead of rendering the verse “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit . . .” it should read “every branch not bearing fruit in Me . . .” The phrase “in Me” occurs five other times in 15:1-7 and in each instance it modifies the verb. Thus, it may well be that the phrase “in Me” emphasizes “not the place of the branch but the process of fruit-bearing” (Laney, 64).
Fifth, the contrast between v. 2 and v. 3 supports this view. For “having just spoken about the removal of fruitless branches, Jesus explained to the disciples that He did not have them in view (v. 3). They were already ‘clean’ . . . by virtue of their response to Christ’s Person and message (cf. 13:10-11). Jesus was giving His disciples instruction that did not represent their own spiritual situation, but had primary application to those to whom they would minister, those who would claim to be Christ’s but were not bearing fruit” (Laney, 64).
Sixth, this view makes the best sense of the relationship in John’s gospel and epistles of “believing” and “abiding”. True saving faith in Jesus establishes the relationship of abiding and, in John’s writings, becomes virtually synonymous with genuine belief. See especially John 6:40-54 and 56; 1 John 2:24; 3:23-24; 4:15. To abide in Christ is to believe in Christ.
Seventh, Carson points out that “the transparent purpose of the verse [v. 2] is to insist that there are no true Christians without some measure of fruit. Fruitfulness is an infallible mark of true Christianity; the alternative is dead wood, and the exigencies of the vine metaphor make it necessary that such wood be connected to the vine. (Dead branches from some other tree, lying around in the vineyard dirt, could scarcely make the point.) These have no life in them; they have never borne fruit, or else they would have been pruned, not cut off. Because Jesus is the true vine, in contradistinction to the vine of Israel that bore either no fruit or rotten fruit, it is impossible to think that any branch that bears no fruit can long be considered part of him: his own credentials as the true vine would be called in question as fundamentally as the credentials of Israel” (515). In this vein, see especially Matthew 7:15-23 and 1 John 2:19.
My conclusion, then, is that this passage does not teach that a true, born-again Christian can apostatize from the faith and lose his/her salvation. It does teach that it is impossible to bear fruit apart from a life-giving, saving union with Jesus (v. 4) and that it is impossible not to bear fruit when that connection with Jesus truly exists (v. 5). It also teaches that some (many?) who profess to be “united” with Jesus, who claim to “believe” him, and who even “follow” him as “disciples” will be revealed by their lack of fruit as spurious and thus subject to eternal judgment.