The Reign of the Servant Kings
By Joseph C. Dillow
Chapter 17—Conditional Security: The Gospels
Arminians have held as one of their main tenets, distinguishing them from Calvinists, that it is possible for a true Christian to lose his justification—a point of view, while more plausible exegetically than that of the Calvinists, is at odds with not only the major passages on the subject but with the whole thrust of the Gospel itself. The end result of the Arminian position is a salvation based on works that for its ultimate attainment depends on the Christian’s perseverance to the end of life.
Paradoxically, the Calvinists end up in the same situation. It makes no difference whether Calvin or Arminius says it. Those who do not persevere will not be saved. The only difference is the theoretical explanation behind man’s failure to persevere. The Calvinist says he was never born again to begin with, and the Arminian says he was saved but lost his salvation.
Numerous passages have been misconstrued to teach the conditional security of the believer. An attempt will be made here to consider some of those passages in the Gospels that in the history of the church have been thought to support the Arminian position.
Reviewer’s comment: This chapter covers a host of verses/passages within the Gospels that Arminians use to “prove” their position. The chapter is rather long and involved, taking under consideration Matthew 5:13; 7:16-19; 18:21-35; 24:13, 45-51; 25:1-13; Luke 8:11-15; John 8:51; 13:8; 15:1-8; 17:12. This review will share the treatment of John 15:1-8, the analogy of the vine and the branches. For the others, the reviewer suggests that the reader acquire the book.
Few passages have been quoted so often and incorrectly as this one. Calvinists have been particularly ingenious in their exegesis of this passage.
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 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 15:1, 2)
There is general agreement that the branches that bear fruit and are pruned represent true Christians. Yet Calvinists say that the branch “in Me” that does not bear fruit is not a true Christian, but only a professing Christian. Often justification for this interpretation is found by going outside John to the analogy of the vine in Isaiah. Here there were branches [people] in the tree that were not saved. Surely this is irrelevant to John 15. Isaiah speaks of a covenant people. All Jews (saved and unsaved) are in Israel, but not all professing Christians are in Christ! As will be demonstrated, it is extremely unlikely that “in Me” can refer to an “Israel within Israel” (i.e., the truly saved within the professing company). To be “in Me” is not equal to being within professing Israel.
There is the suggestion that the phrase “in Me” can either be taken adjectivally with the noun “branch” or adverbially with the verb “bearing.” If it is rendered adverbially, then the translation is, “Every branch not bearing fruit in Me He takes away.” The phrase “in Me” is then the sphere of enablement and fellowship in which fruit bearing can occur. The view is exegetically possible. This rendering seems intrinsically unlikely, however, because it would imply that there are branches not in Christ who bear fruit. Furthermore, it is simply too awkward to be believable even if it is syntactically possible. The majority of the commentators and all of the translations, as far as this writer is aware, translate the phrase as an adjective modifying “branch” so that it is a branch “in Me” that does not bear fruit.
The Meaning of “in Me”
The phrase “in Me” is used 16 times in John’s gospel (John 6:56; 10:38; 14:10, 11, 20, 30; 15:2, 4, 5, 6, 7; 16:33; 17:21, 23). In each case it refers to true fellowship with Christ. It is not possible then to take it as “in the sphere of profession.” A person “in Me” is always a true Christian. The preposition “in” (Gk. en) is often used to designate a close personal relationship. It refers to a sphere within which some action occurs. So to “abide in Me” is simply to remain in close relationship to Me. But what kind of relationship is meant? A review of the sixteen usages in John seems to suggest, that when He used this phrase, the Lord referred to a life of fellowship, a unity of purpose rather than organic connection. This usage is somewhat different from Paul’s use of it. While Paul did use the phrase “in Christ” (not “in Me”) in this way, he often used it in a forensic (legal) sense referring to our position in Christ or to our organic membership in His body (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:13). John never does this. For him, to be “in Him” is to be in communion with Him and not organically connected in union with Him.
For example, in John 10:38 it speaks of the fellowship between Christ and the Father:
If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; 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)
Christ evidently does not mean that the Father is inside of Him and He is inside of the Father. The figure is of a relationship between them. The works that He does enables them to understand the nature of the relationship. Certainly, observation of miracles does not prove to the observer that the Lord is of the same essence as the Father, organically connected with Him. If that were so, then whenever a disciple performed a miracle, it would show that the disciple was also of the same essence. The miracles prove that God is with Him. They prove that what God does, He does, and what He does, God does. They prove that the Son and the Father are like-minded and speak the same things. Therefore, we are to believe what the Son says because what He says is the same as what the Father says. So the “in Me” relationship speaks not of organic connection or commonality of essence but of commonality of purpose and commitment.
This distinctive usage in John’s gospel must be carefully noted or his particular contribution to the Christian’s walk with Christ will be obscured. John was first of all an apostle of love. He emphasized mystical relationship and oneness with his King. Paul, on the other hand, makes a different contribution for our understanding of the Christian life and walk.
Paul normally proceeds from a doctrinal base in which he sets forth the objective, legal, and positional basis of our relationship with Christ. John, however, proceeds from a more mystical and experiential base and from that make his doctrinal conclusions. While both Paul and John were Jews, no doubt Paul’s Hellenist background and higher education inclined him toward a more systematic and doctrinal method of presenting the Christian faith. This difference in background probably contributed to John’s conceptualization of the “in Christ” relationship in terms of fellowship instead of Paul’s organic union.
This is borne out in 14:30 where the Lord insists that the ruler of this world has nothing “in Me,” that is, he has no relationship or part with Me, no communion of purpose. He is not teaching that the ruler of this world has no part of His essence but that they are not like-minded. “In Me” does not refer to common essence or organic connection here either.
Book footnote: In 14:20 the Lord says that in “that day” they will know that He is in them and they are in Him. The sense seems to be, due to the preceding verse, that when they see Him in resurrection, they will know again the fellowship they have with Him now. This is confirmed by John 16:16 where He also speaks of the fact that in a little while they will no longer behold Him and then in a little while they will see Him, a reference to His appearance in resurrection. The meaning then is that, when they see Christ in resurrection, they will understand fully some things they do not understand fully now. At that time they will see clearly that Christ has been operating in complete unity of purpose with the Father and they are in complete unity of purpose with Him. Apparently seeing Christ in resurrection brought a flood of understanding concerning the Old Testament predictions, Christ’s unity of purpose and obedience to the Father, and solidified their commitment to Him. The resurrection forever removed doubts regarding His deity and resulted in a change that lasted the rest of their lives. That is when they knew the experience of unity and fellowship, “you in Me and I in you,” with their resurrected Lord.
That “in Me” means oneness of purpose and not organic connection is further brought out in 17:21. Here Christ prays for he same kind of oneness among the disciples that He enjoys with the Father, oneness of love and fellowship. He prays this for all His followers. If the “in Me” relationship referred to organic connection, He would not pray that organic connection be achieved; it already had been!
That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (John 17:21-23)
Again it is not a saving relationship that is portrayed by “in Me” but a life of communion, a oneness of purpose and not of organic union. In John 3:21 Jesus refers to the fact that His works have been done “in God,” meaning that His works were done in communion or fellowship (unity) with the Father.
In conclusion, then, the use of the phrase “in Me” in John’s writings does not require the sense of organic connection often found in Paul’s writings. To be “in Me” is simply to be in fellowship with Christ, living obediently. Therefore, it is possible for a true Christian not to be “in Me” in the Johannine sense. That this is true seems evident from the command to “abide in Christ.” They are to remain in fellowship with their Lord. If all Christians remain “in Me,” then why command them to remain in that relationship? It must be possible for them not to remain.
The Meaning of “Abide”
The lexicons seem to be unanimous in saying the Greek verb meno simply means “to remain.” It is used often in John and in every instance is simply means to remain, to stay, to continue, or to endure.
Book footnote: For example, Hauck says it means “to stay in a place.” Figuratively, “to remain in a sphere,” to stand against opposition, to endure, to hold fast” . . . . The word is used of the permanence of God in contrast to human mutability. God’s counsel “endures” (Romans 9:11), His Word “endures” (1 Peter 1:23, 25), the New Covenant “endures” (2 Corinthians 3:11), and faith, hope, and love “endure” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Paul uses meno of the perseverance of believers in the faith (1 Timothy 2:15; 2 Timothy 2:13, 15). If we “endure,” we will reign with Him. If we are faithless, He “remains” faithful.
In another translation the word is translated “remain.” Christ commands His disciples to remain in Him. It must be possible not to remain or endure in Christ or he would not command them to remain in that relationship. What does it mean to “abide” (remain) in Christ?” In John 6:56 it means to eat His flesh and drink His blood [a reference this reviewer believes refers to the consumption of the Word who became flesh—initially by faith in regeneration and continuously by faith in the consumption of Bible doctrine (vs. 63), i.e., sanctification].
The relationship of “remaining in Him” or “continuing in Him” of which it speaks is not a static gift of justification but of life and life abundant (10:10). When Jesus says that the man who believes in Christ remains in fellowship with Him, He is speaking a general maxim. He knows that there are Christians who will not continue to maintain their fellowship. The proof of this is that in John 15:4 He commands them to continue to abide and He puts the verb in the imperative mood instead of indicative present participle as found in John 6:56. If it is not possible for believers to terminate their disposition of remaining in fellowship with Christ, why would Christ warn them about this possible failure? It is nonsense to warn against a danger that no Christian will face or an action no Christian will commit.
So the first condition of abiding is to believe on Christ. Other conditions for remaining in fellowship with Christ are:
The rewards for meeting all of these conditions are great, i.e., first, being truly His disciples (John 8:31), but most of all, to be able to stand before Him with confidence when He returns (1 John 2:28).
God remains in fellowship with His children only if they love one another (1 John 4:12). A person becomes a Christian, however, by faith alone. It is through the experience of the Holy Spirit that Christians enjoy the fellowship of the Father and He with them (4:13). It is literally “out of” (Gk. ek) the Spirit that Christians enjoy this relationship. This precise wording occurs in the following:
Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. (1 John 3:24)
The condition of remaining in fellowship with Christ is obedience. The Christian knows of this fellowship “out of the Spirit” He has given. The Holy Spirit is the energizing source behind this obedience.
Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. (2 John 8, 9)
Because “abide” means “remain” or “continue,” it is evident that there are those who were once in the teaching of Christ who did not continue in that teaching. John is following up on his warning in the preceding verse about the danger of losing their rewards at the judgment seat of Christ. When he says such a believer does not “have God” when he falls into deviation from the teaching of Christ, he is not saying that he is not regenerate. He means that God was not involved in this defection from pure doctrine. There is no exegetical evidence of which this writer is aware that “having God” ever means “be saved” in Johannine literature. It is roughly equivalent to saying, “He has (a walk with) God” or “He has God with him in this.” It is functionally the same as having “eternal life remain in him,” which for John, means “having Jesus Christ remain in fellowship with him” (1 John 3:15).
It is simply not possible, therefore, to equate abiding with believing. Abiding involves all these works such as obedience, avoiding hatred, having love, confession of Christ, remaining strong in the faith, holding on to truth, and continuing in His Word. Whatever belief is, it is not conditioned upon works, nor does it consist of works (Galatians 3:5).
The Analogy of the Vine and the Branches
The analogy of the vine and the branches is therefore intended to signify some kind of relationship to Christ. The analogy signifies not an organic connection, but a dynamic fellowship. A branch “in Me” is not portraying an analogy of a branch organically connected to Christ as a literal branch is organically connected to a vine, rather it is portraying a branch deriving its sustenance from Christ and living in fellowship with Him (as a literal branch derives sustenance from a literal vine). This is proven by the fact that “in Me” means “in fellowship with Me.” The analogy is used to illustrate the “in Me” relationship. The consequence of being “taken away” (vs. 2) has been understood in at least four different ways:
Reviewer’s comment: The writer goes into detail on these four possibilities, but this review will cover only the first and the last.
1. The Greek word airo, which is translated “takes away,” is best rendered “lifts up” as it is ten times in John’s gospel. It was a common practice to lift fallen vines with meticulous care and allow them to heal. If that is the meaning, then a fruitless branch in fellowship with Christ is lifted up to put it into a position of fruit bearing. There is no contradiction with vs. 6. There a branch that does not abide is “cast out” (Gk. ekballo, a different word). This would suggest that the heavenly Vinedresser first encourages the branches and lifts them in the sense of loving care to enable them to bear fruit. If after this encouragement, they do not remain in fellowship with Him and bear fruit, they are then cast out. So vs. 6 and vs. 2 do not have to be parallel. We have in vs. 2 a divine promise that every unfruitful Christian who is not bearing fruit and yet is walking in fellowship will receive divine encouragement. It is possible for a Christian to be in fellowship with God and yet not be bearing fruit for an extended period of time. The Puritans called it “the dark night of the soul,” and their practical treatises on sanctification are full of discussions of how to trust God during this time.
4. The final possibility is that the destiny of these unfruitful branches is divine discipline in time, possible physical death, and loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ. This was the view propounded by Lewis Sperry Chafer and fits the context well. The consequences of the failure of a Christian to abide in Christ are now explicitly set forth:
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 Lord is saying that, if a Christian does not remain in fellowship with Him, he will be thrown away (Gk. ekballo, “cast out”). The reference is to the severance of a branch from the vine. As argued above, the point of the figure of the vine and the branches is not to portray organic connection but enablement and fellowship. This casting out, then, is not from salvation but from fellowship. The result is that these branches, the carnal Christians, are cast into the fire.
To what does the fire refer? Fire is a common symbol in the Bible for the judgment of God’s people in time (e.g., Isaiah 26:11). Only rarely and exceptionally is it associated with the fires of hell. They are therefore cast out of the fellowship with Christ and into divine judgment in time.
John 15:1-8 tells us that when a believer is in fellowship with Christ but is not bearing fruit due to immaturity of injury, our Lord lovingly lifts him up so that he can bear fruit. The believer who is in fellowship with Christ and who is bearing fruit is pruned so that he can bear more fruit. The analogy of the vine and the branches signifies fellowship with Christ, not organic connection with Him. The believer who does not remain in fellowship with Christ through disobedience is cast out in judgment, withers spiritually, and faces severe divine discipline in time and loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ. There is nothing in this passage that demands that he loses his salvation. Neither is there anything here to suggest that all believers will always bear fruit. It is only the believer who remains in fellowship who will bear fruit.