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«ABIDING IN CHRIST: A DISPENSATIONAL THEOLOGY OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE (Part 1 of 3) by Robert Dean, Jr. Jesus’ discourse on the vine (John 15:1–6) ...»

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(Part 1 of 3)


Robert Dean, Jr.

Jesus’ discourse on the vine (John 15:1–6) has been a per-

ennial theological battlefield. Calvinists and Arminians tradition-

ally debate whether or not the removal of the unfruitful branches

indicates the loss of eternal salvation.1 Within the Reformed tra- dition itself other skirmishes have been fought over the herme- neutical framework: Does the discourse address salvation and thus the consequent and necessary bearing of fruit by the genuine believer, or does the discourse address the believer’s necessity of maintaining fellowship with Christ in order to produce fruit in the spiritual life?2 The majority of Reformed commentators have adopted the view that this passage addresses the inevitability of fruit bearing in the genuinely saved believer, thus making ‘abid- ing’ a semantic equivalent of ‘believe’ and fruit production a necessary evidence of genuine saving faith. This is also the po- sition of Lordship salvation advocates who follow the Reformed position. These issues are paramount because they become a watershed for key soteriological and sanctification models.

The purpose of this paper is to present the ‘abiding is fel- lowship’ view as the most consistent with a literal interpretation of the passage, a distinction between Israel and the Church, and 1 It is not within the scope of this paper to interact with the Arminian position.


J. Carl Laney, “Abiding is Believing,” BibSac 146 (January–March 1989):

56–66; Joseph Dillow, “Abiding Is Remaining in Fellowship: Another Look at John 15:1–6,” BibSac 147 (January–March 1990): 44–53; Gary W. Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1–6,” BibSac 153 (January–March 1990): 34–52;

Charles R. Smith, “The Unfruitful Branches in John 15,” Grace Journal, 9 (Spring, 1968): 3–23; James E. Rosscup, Abiding in Christ: Studies in John 15 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973).

26 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) the glory of God as the overall purpose of Scripture and the be- liever’s life. Since these three distinctives comprise the sine qua non of dispensationalism, it follows that this interpretation is most consistent with a dispensational theology.3 Before any application from John 15:1–6 can be made sev- eral key questions must first be addressed to insure a proper in- terpretation. Is the vine imagery for the nation Israel in the Old Testament the background for interpreting the vine analogy?

What do these key terms mean: “In Him,” “abide,” “taken away?” Are the branches all believers? Are the fruit bearing branches the only believers? Are there two types of branches or three? Is the fire of verse 6 a statement of judgment, and if so, does this refer toa judgment in time, the judgment seat of Christ, or the Great White Throne judgment? What is fruit, overt quantifiable activity or internal character transformation? How is fruit produced, is this a direct goal of the branch or the indirect and unavoidable consequence of abiding (meaning either salvation or fellowship)? Finally, what are the theological implications? If the analogy refers to believer verses unbeliever, the thrust of the passage is soteriological and related to assurance and fruit as the necessary evidence of justification. If the analogy describes three types of believers, then the subject is the sole and necessary condition for growth in the spiritual life and spiritual production.

Is the vine imagery for the nation Israel in the Old Testament the background for interpreting the vine analogy?

After perusing several commentaries and journal articles I observed that among those who held to eternal security of the believer, there were two distinct interpretations of the vine analogy. Those who interpreted the purpose of John 15 and the first epistle of John to distinguish between genuine believers and “professing” believers also held to a ‘Lordship Salvation’. Those who interpreted these same passages as distinguishing between 3 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 38–40.

Abiding in Christ 27 types of believers, carnal Christians and spiritual Christians, also uniformly held to a free grace gospel. Upon further investigation, it appeared that Free Grace advocates were also dispensational in orientation, while Lordship advocates echoed an interpretation common to reformed theologians who hold to some form of replacement theology or Covenant Theology.4 This seems like more than coincidence. Since all Free Grace advocates were dispensational, but not all dispensationalists were Free Grace, could this be a factor? Since theological systems endeavor to be internally consistent, the question arose, what unstated theological presuppositions affect the interpreter of this passage such that he is predisposed to interpret these passages in certain ways?

Attempts to isolate and identify such assumptions are extremely difficult. Unstated presuppositions are notoriously slippery. Yet birds of a feather do not flock together for no reason at all. The Covenant interpretation is a subgroup of the larger system of Replacement Theology.5 These systems, including Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Wesleyanism, and various other theological systems except dispensationalism, understand the New Testament Church to be a replacement for the failed Israel of the Old Testament. For them, Israel is the Church in the Old Testament and the Church is the Israel in the New Testament and heir to all the divine promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a 4 This is not to suggest that all Covenant Theologians take the same view (Arthur Pink was one exception) or that all dispensationalists agree with the “Free Grace” position, but to determine if these interpretive positions are the most internally consistent with their theological system’s presuppositions.

Some of the proponents of Lordship salvation cited in this paper are indeed dispensationalists. But they clearly expound an interpretation of John 15 no different from their Replacement Theology counterparts.

5 By ‘Replacement Theology’ I mean all theological systems which see the Church replacing Israel in God’s plan. Dispensationalists see Israel as God’s permanent people, set aside temporarily in the Church Age, but restored to a position of blessing and fruitfulness in the Millennial Kingdom. Since all theological systems except for dispensationalists understand the Church to be replacing Israel, it is to be expected that the vast majority of commentaries will take a similar approach.

28 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) ‘spiritual’ form. In the Old Testament the vine was an image of national or corporate Israel, comprised of both believer and unbeliever. The thesis here is that a replacement theology presupposition underlies the interpretation of the vine of John 15 as a corporate image which, like Israel, includes believers and unbelievers (expressed as ‘professing’ believers) and that the pruned branches are those who never were genuine believers.

One Reformed writer makes the parallel between corporate

Israel and the vine in John 15 clear:

As they [the disciples] are not a collection of individuals, but a corporate society, the new Israel of God—it is natural that Jesus should frame His allegory in language that had been used to describe the people of God under the old dispensation.6 Here Tasker makes the analogy of Israel as a corporate body in the Old Testament to the Church as a corporate body in the New Testament. This is consistent with the replacement theology motif, that the Church replaces Israel in God’s plan and is now the “new Israel of God.” Tasker then goes on to explain this in light of Jesus as the new vine.

Jesus’ description of Himself as the true, or ‘genuine’ vine, implies that Israel had been an imperfect foreshadowing of what was found to perfection in Himself. He is what God had called Israel to be, but what Israel in fact had never become. With Him therefore a new Israel emerges, the members of which draw their spiritual sustenance from Him alone.7 This is consistent with reformed presuppositions that there is no discontinuity in God’s program for Israel and the Church.

The Church is simply the post-Golgotha replacement of unrepentant Israel in the divine program. Since corporate Israel was

–  –  –

composed of believers and unbelievers, the new corporate Israel of John 15 must also be composed of believers and unbelievers.

Could it be that those who interpret John 15 as referring to believer versus unbeliever, even among dispensationalists, are unaware that these slippery assumptions of replacement theology undergird this interpretation and they unwittingly follow conclusions based on theological presuppositions inconsistent with dispensational theology? This is clearly seen from the following

comment from a dispensationalist:

Just as there were those in Israel (the old unproductive vine) who were not really “of Israel, that is, who were not true believers, there were also some who, outwardly at least, appeared to be “of Christ,” but who were not inwardly united with Christ. These were in the “Jesus movement” just as the Sadducees were in the “Jewish movement.”8 Prior to making this statement, Smith quotes a series of Reformed, non-dispensational commentators to establish the believer-unbeliever interpretation. He then concludes that the vine must be like the vine of Israel and likewise composed of both believers and unbelievers. At the very least a prima facie case exists that the assumptions of replacement theology shape the Reformed and Lordship Salvation interpretation of John 15.9 That the vine and vinedresser were familiar images in the Old Testament is not lost on many commentators.10 A brief peSmith, “Unfruitful Branches,” 12.

9 Though many who interpret John 15 as relating to believers and ‘professed’ believers might not have considered the connection with Israel to be their own presupposition, and many commentaries do not make this connection explicit, these quotes here demonstrate that an identification of Israel and the Church is indeed the presupposition of the Reformed and Lordship interpretation of John 15.

10 Even those Free Grace dispensationalists who reject the “salvation” model for a “fellowship” model mention the Old Testament analogy, they just do not draw the same implications from it that Tasker and Smith do. See John G.

Mitchell, An Everlasting Love: A Devotional Study of the Gospel of John (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1982), 285ff.

30 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) rusal of the literature indicates that most commentators at least

reference this ancient imagery as a possible backdrop for interpreting John 15. Laney observes:

Many commentators have suggested that Jesus appropriated the figure of the vine from vineyards located along the way from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is more likely that Old Testament imagery rather than external stimulus determined Jesus’ use of the figure. The vine is a familiar symbol of Israel in the Psalms and the prophets (Ps 80:8–16; Isa 5:1–7; Jer 2:21; 5:10 ; 12:10 ; Ezek 15:1–8; 17:1–24 ; Hos 10:1).

This biblical symbol was so well recognized that during the Maccabean period the image of a vine was stamped on the coins minted by the Jewish nation. The Old Testament vine imagery included among other ideas fruitlessness, degeneracy, removal of branches, burning, and destruction. These are the very themes Jesus appropriated in John 15:1–6.11 This writer does not dispute Laney’s observation of the ubiquity of the vine symbolism, but questions its bearing on the interpretation of John 15. Specifically we must determine if the themes in these Old Testament passages bear more than a passing resemblance to John 15. Do these passages cited by Tasker and Smith truly suggest that the unbeliever-believer issue is valid even for the Reformed model?

The Vine in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament analogies God is the vinedresser and Israel the vine. Psalm 80 presents the nation Israel, composed of believers and unbelievers, as the vine first removed from Egypt and then planted in Canaan. But because of the vine’s rebellion it [Israel] was attacked and its produce eaten by those who passed by. Here the fruit clearly represents the production of the land.

When the nation rejected God and gave their devotion to idols

–  –  –

and false gods, foreign invaders pillaged the land, stole its grain and wine, and emptied its storehouses.

A second use of the vine is in Jeremiah 2:21 where Yahweh

confronts the southern kingdom of Judah:

“Yet I planted you a choice vine, A completely faithful seed.

How then have you turned yourself before Me Into the degenerate shoots of a foreign vine?

Here again the vine represents the nation Israel as God’s covenant people. At the time of their “planting,” i.e., entrance into the land, they were characterized as corporately faithful.

This cannot mean “believers” since that would imply a universal regeneration in Israel which cannot be assumed or demonstrated.

However, a contrast is drawn between the nation’s former faithfulness as a whole to the Mosaic Covenant and their current unfaithfulness by immersing themselves into the Baal and Canaanite fertility religions they had been mandated to annihilate. They began to worship foreign gods and adopted pagan value systems. They no longer lived according to the divine purpose to which the nation was called.12 In Jeremiah’s second use of the vine analogy a similar meaning is discovered, but in this context judgment is introduced.

“Go up through her vine rows and destroy, But do not execute a complete destruction;

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