A Response to John 15 and Abiding

I read, or at least scan, a fair number of blogs on a regular basis. One of those blogs that I follow is God’s Pure Grace whose author, Dave, I interacted with a couple of years ago during a particularly nasty round of the Christian “blog wars” (I won’t go into any more detail than that). I have interacted with Dave both on his blog and via e-mail and have always found him to be reasonable and even tempered.

With a set-up like that it probably makes you all wonder what horrible thing is coming next. Well, hopefully nothing too horrible but I do have to disagree with Dave about his new post “John 15 and Abiding.” [NOTE: Dave may take the article down for editing. I will try and update the link when it reappears.] Dave has a bone to pick with both sides of the Lordship Salvation/Free Grace debate and accuses both of being legalistic. I want to tell everyone up front that I fall into what is often called the “Free Grace” camp. Until five years ago I had never heard the term “Free Grace” but it does appear that my beliefs are in agreement with most of those who call themselves Free Grace (there are always a variety of beliefs within every community and there are those who are Free Grace that I have serious disagreements with).

At this time and place in history, all of the pastors and theologians that I know of who hold to a Free Grace theology are dispensationalist (which I am also). I do not know of any other theological groups that are Free Grace proponents but there may be some somewhere. So, I really believe that Dave’s complaint is more with dispensationalism than with Free Grace per se.

The passage that Dave uses as the springboard for his post is John 15:1-8:

1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
2 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.
3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.

4  Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.

5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
6 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.
7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.
8 By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.

Dave interprets this passage to be speaking about the nation of Israel while most, if not all, dispensationalists interpret this passage to be speaking about individual believers. In fact, he doesn’t see why anyone would interpret this passage any other way:

I find it amazing that there are some that argue with me that verse one is NOT dealing with the nation of Israel. The vine in the OT was Israel (Ps. 80:8; Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21, 6:9; Ez. 15; 17:5-10; 19; 10-14; Hosea 10:1; 14:8. It was Israel that failed to bear fruit as talk about in Luke 13:7 that reads:

Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?

I agree that the vine can mean Israel but it does not always mean Israel. The John 15 passage is set on the way to Gethsemane so Christ is talking to the disciples only. The disciples are not the leaders of Israel and since Christ keeps using “you” (first person) instead of “they” (third person) it would certainly seem that He is speaking to the disciples as individuals. It seems very reasonable that instead of this passage being a metaphor (where the vine represents the nation Israel) it is actually a simile using common viticulture (grape growing) practices of that time to instruct the disciples (I discuss this below).

When reading through this post I went out to the online version of Strong’s Lexicon and looked up all occurrences of the Hebrew word “gephen” (Strong’s H1612) which is translated vine. The term is used 55 times in the Old Testament and it seems that it can be used in several different ways, only one of which is to represent Israel. Strong’s definition is:

1) vine, vine tree
*a) of Israel (fig.)
*b) of stars fading at Jehovah’s judgment (metaph.)
*c) of prosperity

If you look through the list of passages at the Strong’s Lexicon link that I provided, you will see that most often “gephen” just means vine. To paraphrase Freud: sometimes a vine is just a vine.

What if this passage is a simile where the vine is actually a vine? I remembered reading an article a couple of years ago about viticulture in ancient Israel. Fortunately, I was able to track it down (a review of “Viticulture’s Contribution to the Interpretation of John 15:1–6,” by Gary W. Derickson) and read through it but it turns out to be a short review of a much longer article which I don’t have access to. Nonetheless, there is some good information in the article including this paragraph:

The non-abiding branches of verse six are not the same as the unfruitful branches of verse two [my emphasis]. The two are contrasts at best with the sixth verse not describing the fate of the unfruitful branches. This is because verse six does not raise the issue of fruitfulness reflected in verse two and cannot be looking at the same time of year. The sprigs cleaned from the vines in the spring would be too small and succulent to do anything more than wither away. In order to build a fire from cuttings as is described in verse six, the vine-keeper must remove mature wood. This happens in the severe pruning that occurs at the beginning of the dormant season after the vine-keeper has harvested the fruit, and when all branches now look alike. The burning need not describe judgment, but simply be a part of the description of the process [my emphasis]; it is what happened to the pruned material. Their uselessness (which verse six emphasizes) not their destruction is in view. Finally, the interpreter must not read the “judgment” of verse six—however one views it—back into verse two [my emphasis].

The disciples grew up in an agricultural society and would have known how grapes were grown. Interpreting this passage as a simile is quite reasonable.

Dave also spends a fair amount of time discussing the Greek word “meno” which is translated abide in John 15:4,6 and 7. The argument he makes is that “meno” should be interpreted as a permanent abiding for the believer. I agree that once a believer is saved he is always saved. That being said, I looked up “meno” in Strong’s Lexicon (Strong’s G3306) and it can indeed mean to permanently abide but, once again, not always. According to Strong’s the definition of “meno” is:

1) to remain, abide
*a) in reference to place
**1) to sojourn, tarry
**2) not to depart
***a) to continue to be present
***b) to be held, kept, continually
*b) in reference to time
**1) to continue to be, not to perish, to last, endure
***a) of persons, to survive, live
*c) in reference to state or condition
**1) to remain as one, not to become another or different
2) to wait for, await one

I strongly believe that God permanently abides in whatever He does because His purpose is unchanging and He truly is patient and long suffering as the scriptures state. However, we imperfect humans can change directions quickly. I will make the point later that we believers can make mistakes (sin) and not keep abiding (temporarily losing fellowship) but that God always will abide with us (we never lose the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). Christ is challenging the disciples to “keep on keeping on.” In verse 7 when Christ says “if you abide in Me” is that not a conditional and therefore a matter of free will for the disciples? I know, if this passage is about the nation of Israel then this point is moot. I still cannot see how this dissertation by Christ is about Israel.

At this point you may ask: “Well then, if this passage is speaking about believers then what is getting burned here?” The typical answer by most dispensationalists has been either the believer’s human good (works done in the energy of the flesh) or the rewards that a believer would have received if they had followed God’s plan for their life. I was always taught that it was believers “human good” (as opposed to “Divine good”) but I won’t argue the point.

This argument over the role of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life goes back at least one century to the days of B.B. Warfield and L.S. Chafer. Around 1915 L.S. Chafer (a dispensationalist) wrote a book titled “He That is Spiritual” where he developed a detailed doctrine of how the Holy Spirit works in this world and in the life of the believer. He defined three different types of man: the Natural Man (unbeliever), the Carnal Man (the believer who is out of fellowship and not filled with the Holy Spirit), and the Spiritual Man (the believer in fellowship who is filled with the Holy Spirit). A believer can be either in or out of fellowship at any particular time. When the believer sins he falls out of fellowship and is controlled by the sin nature (the flesh). If a believer then confesses their sins to God the Father they will immediately have fellowship restored. Whether a believer is in, or out, of fellowship is an act of will on the believer’s part.

Chafer’s book was very influential but was not well received by everyone. Those who were Calvinist in their theology really hated the book. The most famous response to Chafer’s book was a review by Calvinist theologian B.B. Warfield titled “A Review of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s ‘He That Is Spiritual’.” You can follow the link and read what Warfield has to say (I found it to be condescending so I had a hard time reading it) about Chafer’s book. Since Warfield died in 1921 it is clear that this argument has been going on for quite a while now.

Warfield’s response could be expected by anyone familiar with Calvinism. Calvinist’s hold to a doctrine called the “absolute sovereignty” of God. Most Christians know that God is sovereign but “absolute sovereignty” may not be familiar to everyone. Basically what absolute sovereignty comes down to is that God decreed everything (and I mean everything) in eternity past. For a believer, or unbeliever, to make a decision that God didn’t decree (determine) in eternity past is the worst kind of heresy to pretty much every Calvinist I have ever met. For a believer to sin, or to confess that sin, of their free will (and apart from God’s coercion) is a denial of the doctrine of absolute sovereignty. I can’t really do justice to the topic but if any reader wants to learn about the topic in depth I strongly recommend checking out Daniel Gracely’s online book “Calvinism: A Closer Look.”

I am going to finish with a quote from each of two books (both available online) which provide the logic behind the doctrine of the filling of the Holy Spirit and the Christian way of life. I also want to emphasize that dispensationalists make a distinction between the filling of the Holy Spirit and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. A believer receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at salvation and never loses it (he cannot lose his salvation) but a believer can lose the filling of the Holy Spirit and be out of fellowship (but still saved). This is an important distinction!

Here is the first quote from “The Filling of the Holy Spirit” by Robert McLaughlin:

It all depends upon how we allow the Holy Spirit to operate in our lives. Every Christian has the same privilege and opportunity to succeed. Remember, though, that God has also given us free will; we all have the freedom to accept or reject His way of doing things. If it were up to Him, we would all advance to maturity. However, unfortunately, some will succeed, and some will fail; some will be winners, and some will be losers. It all depends on the filling of the Spirit.

It is taught in God’s revealed Word that it is His purpose for the Spirit to constantly minister to believers. In Ephesians 5:18 the Apostle Paul writes, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. The present passive imperative (tense, voice, and mood) form of the Greek verb “pleroo” in this passage indicates that it is the Christian’s responsibility to keep being filled by the Spirit [my emphasis]. We are never commanded to be indwelt or baptized or sealed by the Holy Spirit; these are already and forever accomplished by God at salvation. However, it is our responsibility to take advantage of God’s power and walk in the Spirit. A spiritual person, then, is one who experiences God’s purpose and plan in his life through the power of the filling of the Holy Spirit.

So, each believer must ask the question: “By which method am I going to live my daily life?” Two procedures are possible—dependence upon one’s own ability or dependence upon the power of the filling of the Holy Spirit. These two methods are mutually exclusive, wholly incompatible, and impossible to combine. At any given moment the believer is filled with the Holy Spirit or he is not. There is no partial filling; there is no fulfilling heavenly standards when depending upon human resources, even if one is motivated by the most sincere desires. There is only power in the Christian way of life, the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church-age believer must live his life filled by the Holy Spirit, in tune to the will of the Father, apart from human strength, living as he was saved, by grace through faith.

1Jo 2:6The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.

Col 2:6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him. His divine power has already given us everything that we need for completing the Christian life. Every believer has been given the power and ability to receive fantastic things from God.

Rom 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?

1Pet 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

God has provided through His grace for us to be alive today and has provided spiritually for us to execute His plan. By being filled with the Holy Spirit, we are enabled through the power of God, which provides us with the necessary divine energy to advance in His plan.

Christians are elected to royal privilege; God has created fantastic opportunities for them, and it is worthwhile to learn what they are. One of them is the filling of the Holy Spirit; it is the key that unlocks the doors to the best that God has already provided for His children.

The filling of the Holy Spirit compared with the
indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the filling of the Holy Spirit are two different functions of the third Person of the Trinity. It must be understood that the Holy Spirit indwells every believer from the moment of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not an emotional experience; it is not a second blessing; it is not something the believer must beg and “tarry” for. It is a fact of salvation and is the foundation upon which all other ministries to the Christian are based.

1Co 3:16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

1Co 6:19-20 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Joh 7:37-39 Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out saying, “If any man is thirsty let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Rom 8:9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.

Gal 3:4 Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain?

Gal 4:6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!”

1Jo 3:23 And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.

1Jo 4:13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.

Act 11:17If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

These passages, especially Peter’s statement in Acts 11, are a clear indication that the gift of the Holy Spirit is given the moment one believes in Christ Jesus. The objective of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is to break the sovereignty of the old sin nature’s rule over human life. The old sin nature is passed down genetically from Adam and resides in the body, where it seeks to control the soul. To offset this attack, God devised a plan whereby the Holy Spirit indwells every Church-age believer’s body to provide the power needed to conquer the old nature. There is a perpetual battle between the old sin nature and the Holy Spirit. Both adversaries are headquartered in the body, and the battleground is the soul of the believer.

Gal 5:17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit; and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.

Rom 7:15-17 For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin [the old nature] which dwells in me.

Rom 7:19-20 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

The believer’s free will volition determines which side wins in his life. It is here that we must separate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the filling of the Holy Spirit. The indwelling is simply His residing in the body, and is not dependent on our volitional decisions; the filling is His influence over the soul and is dependent on the believer’s decision to rebound. When the believer sins and operates without the Holy Spirit’s guidance, he allows the old sin nature to control his soul. These are called “grieving” and “quenching” the Holy Spirit and will be described fully later on in this book. It is important to recognize that we can lose the filling of the Spirit, but we never lose His indwelling presence, Romans 8:9. Therefore, we are commanded to be filled with the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 5:18, Galatians 5:16, but we are never commanded to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit; the indwelling Spirit is our permanent possession.

The Filling of the Holy Spirit
Robert McLaughlin
pp. 10-12

My second quote is from “Rebound and Keep Moving!” by R.B. Thieme, Jr.:

Does Carnality Shock You?

First Corinthians 3:1-3 confirms the reality of carnality among believers. Remember, the most wonderful people in the world are Christians, but some Christians can be despicable. How can this be? Carnality is the problem.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)

However, the Christian who habitually remains under the control of the sin nature, in carnality, commits destructive mental, verbal, and overt sins. If you do not acknowledge the existence of carnality among Christians, you will never understand the necessity for confession of sin. You will resemble the Corinthian believers who were unable to make spiritual progress.

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as spiritual men [filled with the Spirit], but as to men of flesh [carnal]; as to babies [nepios] in Christ. (1 Cor. 3:1)

These Corinthians are believers. “Brethren” refers to anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as savior and is born into the family of God (John 1:12). Although Paul reprimands them for their carnality, he declares their position “in Christ.”

Rebound and Keep Moving
R.B. Thieme, Jr.
p. 13

I think that this is as far as I am willing to go this week. I would like to close this stating that doing God’s work is not legalism and shouldn’t be confused with legalism. However, there can be a fine line. Work done outside of the filling of the Holy Spirit is indeed works and legalism but doing it God’s way never is. Of course Dave is right, there are no worthless believers. But there are worthless works and works done in the power of the flesh are worthless to God.


Additional Resources

I did a lot of research for this article that I did not use in the post. If anyone wants to do some more research on their own they may find these links useful.

Dr. Robert Dean, Jr. wrote a series of three articles in the Chafer Theological Seminary Journal which deals with all of the issues which Dave brought up in his post (John 15, abiding, what does the vine mean, etc.). These links are good information but each of the documents runs about 25 pages each so there is a lot of information here:

1. Abiding in Christ: A Dispensational Theology of the Spiritual Life (Part 1)

2. Abiding in Christ: A Dispensational Theology of the Spiritual Life (Part 2 of 3)

3. Abiding in Christ: A Dispensational Theology of the Spiritual Life (Part 3 of 3)

I also found a complete list of verses which use the Hebrew word “sheol” in the Old Testament. Sheol was where souls went after death and I wanted to see how many of these verses could be interpreted as involving fire like the John 15 passage. We Chrstians always want to equate any reference to fire with eternal punishment but I do not think that the ancient Jews would have and am not so sure that the disciples would have either. At any rate, heres the link:

4. Sheol and hell in the Old Testament

Explore posts in the same categories: General Interest

5 Comments on “A Response to John 15 and Abiding”

  1. Grace Says:

    As I was reading I thought about the fact that Jesus came to save the Jews but they rejected Him. His salvation message became a message for everyone who had ears to hear. So doesn’t it follow that His teachings would be for those who chose to believe in Jesus?

  2. Glenn Says:

    Hi Grace,

    I agree that Christ’s teaching, other than the Gospel itself, is for those who believe. The issue in this passage is and what is meant by the vine and branches.

    When I read the John 15:1-8 passage I see Christ speaking to the disciples as individuals and urging them to keep abiding. It’s not that the apostles can loose their salvation (Judas Iscariot was never saved) but that they can drift away from Christ’s teaching. If they drift they will not produce anything acceptable to the Father who will burn their unacceptable works. For me the central issue is whether or not God allows us to drift away.

    To Dave this is a nonsensical explanation. He believes that once a person is saved that they will be led by the Holy Spirit to produce works acceptable to the Father. So, if there really are no unacceptable works to be burned, this passage must be speaking about punishment for those (people and nations) who reject Christ.

    I also want to mention that Christ came to save the entire world. God’s approach prior to Israel’s rejection of the Messiah had been to use Israel as his messenger to spread the word. That did change when the majority of Israel rejected the Messiah. However not all Jews rejected the Messiah and, I strongly believe, Christ will restore Israel in the future.

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting!


  3. heavenbound Says:

    Glenn: Great read and its a lot to digest. But in regards to the Vine, vinedresser and all of that I submit that I believe its Israel and Israel alone. During the writing of the bible Gentiles, and I mean all Gentiles were labeled dogs. I believe its in Isaiah when he is on the cross, it talks about the dog being all around him.
    All of the references in the bible using the term dogs is referenced with the term gentiles.

  4. Glenn Says:

    Hi Heavenbound,

    I have seen articles and commentaries which interpret the vine as Israel and those who don’t. In verse 1 Christ states that “I am the true vine” which I suppose could be interpreted as “I am the true Israel”. To me it seems more natural for Christ to be saying that I am the source of all that is good, of all good production. But I will grant that the vine could be Israel (I am still not completely convinced).

    Dave’s belief is that the branches cut off of the vine and burned are unbelievers being condemned to the Lake of Fire. I really still don’t see that as being the interpretation. Are unbelievers ever part of the vine? I can see three interpretations:

    1. The branches being burned could be the nation Israel since, by this time, they had rejected the Messiah so He was rejecting them. Those who hold to Replacement Theology (that the Church has replaced Israel) do interpret this passage that way.

    2. The dead branches are persons who were once saved but have lost their faith and will be cut off and thrown into the Lake of Fire. This would mean that Christ was threatening the disciples not to lose their faith or else face eternal condemnation. Arminians do interpret the passage in this way. I do believe that a strong case can be made for once-saved-always-saved from other passages so I reject this interpretation.

    3. And the third interpretation would be the one that I do hold to and that is that works done in the power of the flesh will be burned.

    Of course you have to make up your own mind about this.

    Thank you for the comment.


  5. heavenbound Says:

    Glenn I think your right in your interpretation. Its obvious you have thought this out. As far as Christ is concerned he cursed the tree. I can’t remember if it was the olive tree or some other type. It is clear that Israel was cursed for what they did to their Messiah, and finally the rejection of the Holy Ghost. The culmination being the complete destruction of the Temple and the slaughter of Jews and taking away thousands as slaves to Rome. Suffering loss of rewards but not losing salvation is what I think the Bhema seat represents. This of course all being with the announcement of the Kingdom and Christ reigning in their sight. One thing is lost with most Christians and that is the offering of salvation to all mankind which I believe was God’s ultimate purpose hidden since the beginning of time.

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