by Mark Horne
Shortly after the Last Supper and before his final arrest, Jesus said these words to his remaining eleven faithful disciples:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
Some things stand out clearly in this text.
I don’t see how the above three items can be seriously disputed. However, there is one other point to this text that is also obvious and inescapable and yet is commonly disputed: it is also clear that it is possible to be the object of the love of Jesus in this way, to have been cleansed by his word, and yet to be disinherited from joy at the Last Day, and instead to earn eternal condemnation: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
There are many in the American Evangelical milieu who twist this text in all sorts of ways in order to deny what Jesus plainly says with this analogy. But how could Jesus not issue such a warning? Jesus’ entire ministry to Israel would be rendered a hypocritical sham if he did not warn his disciples of the possibility of judgment. After all, he had warned the Israelites, God’s covenant people, that “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8.12).
My own tradition, the Evangelical Presbyterian or Reformed tradition, produces many who want to somehow make Jesus say something other than what he says. My tradition places a great deal of weight on the Biblical doctrine of predestination–that God ultimately chooses who will be saved. This passage becomes a “problem passage” in some eyes because it makes it sound like it is up to us as to who receives life and who merits condemnation.
But it is an abuse of the doctrine of predestination to set it against the plain meaning of these words. Yes, saving faith is a gift from God. But saving faith is not some sort of mystical enlightenment or special mental state; it simply refers to trusting God through Jesus as he is revealed in the gospel. If one believes Jesus when he speaks these words then one will respond to both the threat and the promise by abiding in Christ-and thus one will prove to be Jesus’ disciple by his predestinating grace.
After all, we can’t live according to God’s secret decree but by what he has revealed. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29.29). We are not God, eternal and sovereign who can know history in terms of eternal decrees. We are creatures, finite, fallible, time-bound beings, who also struggle with sin and are supposed to live a life of continual repentance. The fact is, by denuding this passage of force, we are guilty of putting up stumbling blocks in front of struggling believers and making it more difficult to exercise saving faith in Jesus. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states in its definition of saving faith:
By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.
Saving faith is not a perpetual state of “spiritual” euphoria, but rather a confidence in Jesus and everything he did and says he will do. This includes a confidence that you will indeed be cut off and burned if you do not remain in Christ.
Jesus’ words during his ministry on earth are entirely consistent with his own character both before his incarnation and after his ascension into heaven. Jesus spoke by Moses and then Moses preached for Jesus saying,
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today (Deuteronomy 7.7-11).
Everything in John 15.1-11 is in this passage of Deuteronomy: there is an initial grace, a declaration of love, the promise of a future and the warning of judgment.
So also, when Paul warned the Corinthians of making Jesus jealous he made a direct appeal to what happened to Israel in the wilderness.
I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (First Corinthians 10.1-22)
Again, notice that Paul does not say that some of the Corinthians have received spiritual blessings and some only think they have. He does not say that some are Christians and some are not. Rather, he tells them that not all Christians continue in faith to inherit the promise of eternal life but instead they provoke the Lord (Jesus!) to jealousy and are destroyed. In fact, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians begins by assuring them that
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge–even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (First Corinthians 1.4-9).
And then later he again tells them
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit…
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (First Corinthians 12.12, 13, 27).
Charles Hodges comments on this warning in First Corinthians 10 is quite astute:
Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
…There is perpetual danger of falling. No degree of progress we may have already made, no amount of privileges which we may have enjoyed, can justify the want of caution. Let him that thinketh he standeth, that is, let him who thinks himself secure. This may refer either to security of salvation, or against the power of temptation. The two are very different, and rest generally on different grounds. False security of salvation commonly rests on the ground of our belonging to a privileged body (the church), or to a privileged class (the elect). Both are equally fallacious. Neither the members of the church nor the elect can be saved unless they persevere in holiness; and they cannot persevere in holiness without continual watchfulness and effort. False security as to our power to resist temptation rests on an overweening self-confidence in our own strength. None are so liable to fall as they who, thinking themselves strong, heedlessly run into temptation (p. 181).
Now there is no doubt in my mind that Jesus and Paul and John all believed that those who persevered did so only and infallibly because of God’s sovereign gift of saving faith which could not fail to motivate them to persevere to the end (c.f. Matthew 10.22; 24.13; Mark 13.13; Hebrews 6.11, 12; 10.35-12.3; etc). Nevertheless, it is quite clear that this did not keep them from both assuring all professing Christians of God’s promises and warning all professing Christians of God’s threats. These warnings are not somehow incompatible with grace, nor is Jesus somehow a new happy-clappy god who replaces the god of the Old Testament. I would be hard pressed to say how these words of the resurrected and ascended Jesus are any less fearsome than what we find in the Old Testament:
I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve (Revelation 2.21-23).
The fact is, Jesus’ love is more passionate that we can imagine and for that very reason his jealousy is more fearful than anything else in the universe.
As I’ve already mentioned, the final issue is whether or not you believe and trust Jesus. If you don’t really think he is all that trustworthy, then you won’t take seriously his promises or his threats. And because people act on what they believe you will eventually stop following Christ. You will no longer abide in him because either you don’t think Jesus really loves you (disbelieving his promise) or you presume he will side with you no matter what (disbelieving his threat).
The way of faith is the way of life.