Every branch in me (εν έμοι ) that beareth not fruit, he taketh it away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he [the Father, v1] cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:2, ASV)

Some reformed like James White say that once someone is “in Christ” [1] they are eternally saved. But Jesus said that some branches in him that don't bear fruit will be removed from him and burned. (15:5)

How do reformed theologians reconcile John 15:2 with the doctrine of “once saved always saved"?

[1] 3) the phrase en Christo (in Christ) or its equivalent in Him, is central to Paul’s thought. All of salvation takes place only “in Christ.” (https://reformedspirit.blogspot.com/2015/08/god-is-redeeming-for-himself-people-and.html?m=1)

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    I'd suggest 'disprove' be changed to 'contradict'. – Adam Heeg Jan 28 at 2:42
  • @KorvinStarmast Done – Thomas Pearne Jan 28 at 19:53

Within that sentence are two statements. The first is that the Father (who is the vine-dresser) will take away the branch that does not bear fruit. The second is that the Father will prune the branch that does bear fruit so that it may bear more fruit.

If this parable was the only place in the New Testament to address the issue of eternal security, then there would be every reason to fear that a lack of “fruit” would result in the loss of salvation. But it isn’t. Please read John 6:39-40:

“And this is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Given that John 15 is a metaphor or an allegory, then we do well to consider it in the light of other passages that speak clearly about the assurance of salvation given to those who have come to saving faith in Christ Jesus. It would be foolish to take three verses alone to support a view, one way or the other.

Isaiah 5:1-7 is a striking Old Testament image of Israel being likened to an unproductive vineyard that is rejected by God and made into a wasteland. Here, God is rejecting his people because they have rejected his law. No doubt, Jesus’ audience were familiar with the illustration. But God has never entirely abandoned his people, and even in the future, all of Israel will be reconciled to God. Yes, there is a dire warning against any person who claims to belong to God yet proves by their actions (or lack of actions) they have only an outward profession of faith.

In Matthew 13 Jesus gave a parable about seed that fell into different types of soil. Some plants start to grow but then wither away. Does that mean the person who has been adopted into God's family has no security, that they must constantly strive to do good works? No. If a branch is not receiving the life-giving nourishment it needs from the roots, then it will not produce fruit. If a person is not genuinely abiding in Christ and living their life to the glory of God but is simply pretending to be a Christian, then they too will wither away like the seed that fell onto stony ground. Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you.” If a person does not obey Jesus then they are not a part of the one, true vine.

You ask, does John 15:2 disprove “once saved always saved?” Frankly, that expression is so misleading I reject it because it gives entirely the wrong idea about the grace of God and the doctrine of salvation. I put it to you that John 15:2 neither proves nor disproves any false assumption that a person can make a claim to be a Christian without producing evidence of a transformed life, a life that produces the fruit of the Spirit. Only those who are indwelt by the Spirit will mature and grow in their Christian walk, producing the fruit that brings honour to our Lord and Saviour. All I can say is it’s a good job Jesus knows who belong to him.

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  • I agree Jesus knows who belong to him which is why he says some who are really "in" him will be cut off the vine. – Thomas Pearne Jan 27 at 16:33
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    Jesus does not say that some who are really 'in' him will be cut off. He says in vs 4 that "No branch can bear fruit by itself: it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." Then he assures them that they will bear much fruit. Clearly, those who do not bear fruit are not 'in' Christ at all, otherwise, they would bear fruit. You clearly interpret those verses differently but given all the other words Jesus said on the subject, Christians can depend on Philippians 1:6 applying to them. – Anne Jan 27 at 16:42
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    @Thomas Pearne When you carry on reading to verse 4 you learn from Jesus that some 'branches' are not remaining 'in' the vine - Himself. That is why they don't bear fruit. They are NOT 'in' the vine. They don't belong in the vine. They may give the appearance of being in the vine but the Father knows they are not and lops them off. Just as proof of being a false prophet is false prophecy, proof of not being 'in' Jesus the vine is, no fruit. – Anne Jan 28 at 11:09
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    @Anne Exactly. For them to not remain in the vine (Jesus said "in me" ) they were once in it and were removed. That's exactly the point I am making. – Thomas Pearne Jan 28 at 12:23
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    @Thomas Pearne I am not making your point at all, but if that's the way you see it then nothing I, or the scriptures says, will change your mind. I suppose that, given your track record of trying to get the last word in, you will add a further comment to bolster your conviction that you are right and that points I make agree with you, even though I do not. – Anne Jan 28 at 18:35

The whole vine analogy loses a lot when separated by centuries of non-agricultural life. This is not primarily a scientific description of salvation but a spiritual description of the kingdom of heaven. A vine has branches that bud and bear not just leaves but fruit also and it has other branches that bear leaves only. These are colloquially called 'suckers' nowadays and they are routinely pruned off not just because they do not produce fruit but because they use up energy that is more profitably sent to the fruit bearing branches and also because they provide to the fruit bearing branches an overabundance of shade from the life-giving sun.

The impact of excessive shading

Many vine training systems are designed to avoid excessive shading of the fruit by the leafy growth (the "canopy"). While some shading is beneficial, especially in very hot and sunny climates, to prevent heat stress, excessive amounts of shading can have negative impact on grape development. As a photosynthetic plant, grapevines need access to sunlight in order to complete their physiological processes.[5] Through photosynthesis, less than 10% of the full sunlight received by a leaf is converted into energy which makes obstacles such as shading even more detrimental to the plant. Even if the leaves at the top of the canopy are receiving plenty of sunlight, the young buds, grape clusters and leaves below will still experience some negative impact. During the annual growth cycle of the grapevine, excessive shading can reduce the success rate of bud formation, budbreak, fruit set as well as the size and quantity of grape berries on a cluster.2

The grape clusters receive some benefit from receiving direct sunlight through enhanced ripening of various phenolic compounds that can contribute to a wine's aroma and quality. In addition to having decreased physiological ripeness, excessive shade will negatively impact a grape's quality by causing increases in the levels of potassium, malic acid and pH in the grapes while decreasing the amount of sugar, tartaric acid and color producing anthocyanins. Beyond a lack of sunlight, excessive shading limits the amount of air circulation that can take place within a vine's canopy. In wet, humid climates poor air circulation can promote the development of various grape diseases such as powdery mildew and grey rot.2

The suckers are in the vine physically in the same way that unbelievers can be within the visible church and partake of some benefit thereby while at the same time sapping it's resources and energy. They are in the vine metaphorically in the same way that the Tares are among the Wheat. And yet they have no part in the true vine (Christ) spiritually in much the same way that

not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel - Romans 9:6

Our primary (and very difficult) responsibility is examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith and then to allow metaphor, analogy, correlation, statement and parable to simply be what they are without over or under spiritualizing everything and to ensure that our conclusions harmonize with the overall testimony of Scripture.

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  • I've learned something new today, for which I thank you. "A spiritual description of the kingdom of heaven" - well put. – Lesley Feb 8 at 10:16
  • @Lesley So did I as I considered adding an answer here:) Ain't God good? – Mike Borden Feb 9 at 0:32

Just the idea of remaining should clarify that a person can be once there on the vine but be pruned off, because they themselves rejected what they formerly had and didn't produce fruit.

Matthew 7:22-23 seems to say clearly that even people who call Jesus Lord Lord, and who cast out demons in his name and do miracles in his name are not recognized as being "saved."

22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

This scripture insinuates that they were never saved in the first place, but it strongly seems to say that they were believers in Jesus and believed they were saved and called on his name to cast out demons which fogs up a bit "Whoever believeth and is baptized shall be saved."

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  • Welcome Kim. I added the citation you refer to in order to better support the point that you are making. If you'll do the same for "whosoever believeth and is baptized shall be saved" that would be great. Please take the tour and visit the help center for more guidance on how SE sites work. Support for any answer is called for. – KorvinStarmast Jan 28 at 19:47

There are understood to be two different ways of being "in the vine," and only one is a reference to true salvation.

The illustration in question clearly describes (in addition to branches which are fully a living part of the tree) branches which are outwardly, visibly attached to the tree, but which do not inwardly share in the life of the tree. They're still dead.

Reformed theologians understand that entire breadth of concept to carry over to the spiritual things it's illustrating. There are those who are outwardly a part of the Church (the "Body of Christ" in 1 Corinthians 12), but who have never experienced the inward change that produces spiritual life. They look saved, but they never really were.

This warning, then, like the warning in Hebrews 6, is really a warning to the visible church to be sure they're really saved and not just playing a part.

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  • Thanks. Does this mean one can say they are "in Christ" if they are in the visible church but not really in him? Because at 15:2 he says they are in him. – Thomas Pearne Feb 6 at 16:32
  • Maybe you could make reference to he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit in your answer. My answer is basically the same as yours apart from this central point – ig-dev Feb 8 at 15:13
  • @ThomasPearne Depends what you want to communicate. If you call people "in Christ" they are likely to assume that you are referring to saving faith, not only to the visible Church, so you'd have to qualify what you are talking about. I'd be careful with that phrase, and use clearer wording for either case. For example, "they are part of the Church" would be clearer. – ig-dev Feb 8 at 15:17

Reformed Christians believe that fruit ("good works") are an inevitable consequence of faith. One consequence of faith is salvation. The other, fruit. There is no such thing as a "believer" that does not bear fruit. The statement is redundant, as stated by Jesus in verse 5 of the same passage:

he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit

The ones that are in Him will not be cut off, because they bear fruit, because of the work of God in them who is the author and finisher of our faith.

When Jesus speaks about branches "in Him" that do not bear fruit, he must be talking about "in Him" in a different sense than the way that he guarantees to bear fruit, otherwise he would be contradicting Himself.

This other, unfruitful way to be in Christ is generally believed to be part of the Church outwardly, but not have saving faith. The ones that are in Christ in truth, by faith, will bear fruit - which is not a condition of salvation, but a consequence.

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  • It appears that you use "abide" (an archaic word) in a sense that it does not signify. It does not mean merely to "reside" but to "remain." etymonline.com/word/abide#etymonline_v_38. If you use a modern word the meaning is clear. – Thomas Pearne Feb 8 at 15:48
  • @ThomasPearne That's NASB's translation (i.e. modern English). I can't really change the translation of my Bible of choice to fit my intended meaning – ig-dev Feb 8 at 15:51
  • 'must be talking about in him in a different sense' is far too vague and conjectural. Either you can support this statement, or you cannot. – Nigel J Feb 8 at 16:03
  • @ig-dev In could have been clearer. The sense of "abide" as merely to "reside" is an archaic sense -> yourdictionary.com/abide More importantly the Greek word μένω means to "remain." If you remain in Antartica you will be cold, but if you go to Florida you will warm up. The Greek word does not mean "reside." – Thomas Pearne Feb 8 at 16:24
  • @NigelJ I don't know what you mean with Either you can support this statement, or you cannot. – ig-dev Feb 8 at 16:32

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