«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) ...»
12 The assimilation and syncretism of the Canaanite fertility cults does not necessarily imply there were no believers. During the darkest days of the theocracy, the period of the Judges, even deliverers like Gideon, Jephthah, and Samuel, later included in Heb. 11 for their remarkable faith, showed evidence of profound religious compromise and assimilation of the paganism of the surrounding culture. See Daniel I Block, Judges, Ruth; The New American Commentary, vol. 6, ed. Kenneth A. Mathews, gen. ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999).
32 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) Strip away her branches, For they are not the LORD’S.
“For the house of Israel and the house of Judah Have dealt very treacherously with Me,” declares the LORD.
(Jer 5:10–11) The vine again represents the nation Israel composed of believers and unbelievers. But the soteriological condition of the branches is not in view. The vine is to be destroyed, but not annihilated (God’s plan for Israel was postponed not ended). The stripped away branches represent individual Jews taken away in the deportation, many of whom were killed, but not all. Of those who were killed we can assume some were saved, some were not. Of those who survived, the impoverished, unskilled class was left in the land and the skilled classes were removed to Babylon by the Chaldeans. These survivors were composed of unbelievers, and believers represented by Daniel and his three friends.
“Many shepherds have ruined My vineyard, They have trampled down My field;
They have made My pleasant field A desolate wilderness.
“It has been made a desolation, Desolate, it mourns before Me;
The whole land has been made desolate, Because no man lays it to heart. (Jer. 12:10–11) The third use of the analogy by Jeremiah reflects upon how false leaders, “shepherds,” led the nation away from God and into idolatry thus ruining the vineyard. Again, the nation is viewed as a whole, and the saved condition of the individuals is not in view.
Ezekiel also uses this vine analogy (Ezek. 15:1–8; 17:1–24) in a similar way. In Ezekiel 15 he compares the impending judgment on Judah to the burning of the stems of the vine. Before burning, the vine is useless for anything except grape production; after it has been charred, it is even more useless. The point of the analogy has nothing to do with salvation or the spiritual life, but emphasizes the soon to be judgment of God on the nation Israel composed of both believers and unbelievers.
Abiding in Christ 33 In Ezekiel 17 the relationship of the vine imagery has even less to do with the themes of John 15, for in this passage the vine does not even represent Israel or Judah, but the kings Jehoiakim and Zedekiah and their judgment in God’s plan.
The most extensive development of the vine analogy is found in the fifth chapter of Isaiah. The analogy of the vineyard is described in the first six verses. The interpretation is then revealed in verses seven and eight. Here we again understand that the issue is not soteriological. Just as the vineyard is planted to produce good grapes it none the less produced worthless ones. In this metaphor Israel is the vineyard (not a vine) that produced bloodshed and distress instead of justice and righteousness.
Examination of these passages reveals only a casual similarity with the broad themes of John 15. Contention that the vine represents Israel as composed of both believer and unbeliever lacks even more support as a soteriological distinction is clearly lacking from these Old Testament passages. However, Reformed commentators understand these passages to describe judgment on the unbelievers in Israel, not believers.
If this is the presupposition of the interpreter, then it automatically follows that an interpreter with a replacement theology framework would also understand the vine in John 15 to be composed of believers and unbelievers. But this presupposition should be untenable since these Old Testament passages themselves relate to corporate Israel as the adopted, redeemed priest nation failing to fulfilling her covenant purpose. The issue is not salvation, i.e., the “redemption” of the nation which occurred typologically at the Exodus, but the post-salvation life of the nation.
Dispensationalists should note that the notion of a “professing” believer being removed from the vine is more consistent with the Reformed understanding of Israel as a typological “professing” believer, due to her lack of fruit, who is removed from 34 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) the vineyard and replaced by the Church. It seems a consistent dispensationalist would understand that if the nation is viewed corporately as redeemed, then the judgment announced by the prophets on Israel would be analogous to divine discipline on the Church Age believer for post-salvation failure. This then is consistent with the dispensational understanding that Israel is not permanently removed from God’s plan but merely temporarily set aside. The Free Grace interpretation of the first and third branches as believers undergoing divine discipline is much more consistent with a dispensational understanding of the distinction between Israel and the Church, and a future for Israel since Israel is a redeemed nation. As a covenant nation Israel should never viewed as being merely a “professing” redeemed nation.
Are there Professing but not Saved Believers in the Gospel of John?
To validate the believer vs. unbeliever interpretation, commentators have introduced the idea of professing believer versus genuine believer to explain the first branch which does not bear fruit (John 15:2). To evaluate this conclusion the terms “professing believer” and “genuine faith” must be first examined in light of Johannine usage.
By way of definition Reformed Baptist theologian John Gill
though it is not to be thought that every person in these churches was truly and savingly in him. 13 Here Gill makes a common mistake which in effect is a verbal slight of hand. He states, “they are such who only profess to believe in him” and cites the episode of Acts 8 with Simon the magician. Yet nowhere does the text state that his belief was shallow, superficial, or insincere, only that after salvation he was dominated by sin nature power lust for which he was rebuked.
There is quite a semantic difference between “x professes or claims to believe” and, “x believed.” In the former the person does not truly believe, but only claims to, in the latter the person does believe. This same eisegesis commonly occurs in these alleged “professing” passages.
In raising this issue, I am not questioning the existence of those who claim to be Christians based on external identification with a local church, engaging in rituals such as baptism, living in a “Christian” nation, living a moral life, or some other unbiblical basis. What is questioned is the validity of this “professing believer” as a category in the Gospel of John.
What does it mean to have professed faith? Webster’s dictionary suggests the following definitions for ‘profession’: an act of openly declaring or publicly claiming a belief, faith, or opinion; an avowed religious faith. These definitions fit most closely with the theological context of the professed but not genuine believer, i.e., ‘to declare in words or appearances only, to pretend, or to claim.’ Thus someone may outwardly claim to be a Christian without having truly believed in the Gospel.
We should ask if any of the passages offered for support of the “professed believer” view provide evidence that the belief 13 John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1960), I:740.
36 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) mentioned was merely superficial, or is this something simply read into the passage to make the passage fit a preconceived idea.
Since Scripture states clearly the sole condition of salvation is faith alone in Christ alone, it would seem that a false profession belongs to someone who either believes too little or too much. If too little, that could mean he has not believed Christ died for his sins, perhaps he has only believed in the existence of God, or only believed the Bible says Christ died for his sins (Gill’s “historical faith”), or believed some other proposition.14 But these fall short of the necessary object of faith as stated in the Scriptures: believing that Christ alone died on my behalf, for my sins (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Or perhaps he has believed too much; faith plus baptism, faith plus good works, faith plus the sacraments, faith plus the Church or any of the myriad systems which add extraneous objects to faith.15 In conclusion a false professor is someone who claims to be a Christian but has never placed his faith alone in Christ alone. A false profession cannot apply to someone who believed Christ 14 To believe that the Bible says Christ died for my sins is quite different from saying I believe Christ died for my sins. I can believe Darwin said that I evolved from lower primates without believing that I evolved from lower primates.
15 Following his lengthy historical, philosophical, and exegetical analysis of ‘faith’ Clark writes, “There are, he [Berkhof] says, other instances of the verb believe where ‘the deeper meaning of the word, that of firm trustful reliance, comes to its full rights.’ But Berkhof, like others, fails to show how this ‘deeper meaning’ differs from the straightforward literal meaning. Among the many instances of the verb believe, there is, to repeat, a difference of objects.
One may believe that two and two are four and this is arithmetic; one may also believe that asparagus belongs to the lily family, and this is botany. Botany is not mathematics, of course; but the psychology or linguistics of believe is identical in all cases. Therefore, one should not confuse an analysis of belief with an analysis of numbers or plants. Christ’s promises of salvation are vastly different from the propositions of botany; but believing is always thinking that a proposition is true.” [emphasis added] For a more detailed analysis of the meaning of faith see Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1983), 105–106.
Abiding in Christ 37 died on the cross as a substitute for his sins. If he has truly believed that proposition, he is saved; if he has not believed, then he remains condemned (John 3:18).16 In contrast to this we find many statements similar to the following by Laney.
The Gospel of John speaks of people who had a “belief” that was not genuine belief. In the progress of belief there is a stage that falls short of genuine or consummated belief resulting in salvation.
This alleged belief that was not genuine is first seen in John 2:23. Many Jews who attended the Passover Feast “believed” as a result of Christ’s signs; yet He did not “believe” (trust) them (2:23–25). That is, He discerned that their faith was superficial, based only on the miracles they had seen. Later during the Feast of Tabernacles many of the multitude “believed in Him,” but apparently not as the Messiah (7:31). Jesus spoke to the Jews “who had believed Him” and accused them of seeking to kill Him (8:31, 40). He later accused the same Jews of unbelief (8:45–46). Evidence of this supposed “belief” also appears in John 12 where John reported that many Jews were “believing in Jesus” (12:11), yet he observed a few verses later, “But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him” (12:37).
Tenney refers to this belief that falls short of genuine faith as “superficial.” Morris calls it “transitory belief” which is not saving faith. It is based merely on outward profession. The problem with this belief is its object. It seems to have been based primarily on miracles and was not rooted in a clear understanding of the Person of Christ as the Messiah and the Son of God.
16 It is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze the logical inconsistencies in the notion that there can be a faith in Christ that is nonsaving. Saving faith is so not because it is a certain kind of faith, but because it has as its object the finished substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross for the person believing. His work saves, not our faith. We are saved “through faith” not “because of faith” (Eph. 2:8–9). To do otherwise as is common in Reformed discussions puts the locus of salvation on the kind of faith the believer has, not the work of Christ. See Clark, Faith and Saving Faith.
38 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) Many were inclined to believe something about Jesus but were unwilling to yield their allegiance to Him, trusting Him as their personal Sin-bearer.17 These arguments for the existence of a “professing” or “alleged” faith must be examined. Does the Gospel of John clearly affirm the existence of a faith in Christ [pisteuw eis] which is non-salvific? The answer is a resounding no! But let’s examine the evidence.
The primary passage offered to substantiate the concept of non-saving faith in Jesus is John 2:24. These events occurred at the first Passover feast not long after the performance of Jesus’ first sign miracle in Cana of Galilee. Shortly after the wedding, Jesus and his disciples made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to observe Passover. There Jesus began to reveal himself and to authenticate His claims through the performance of miracles.
Many, we are told, responded and “believed in His name.” Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in [pisteuo eis] His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men (John 2:23–24) First, we must recognize that the Greek phrase pisteuw eis is used thirty-four times by John, and it always, without exception, refers to the sole and necessary condition of eternal life. So to be consistent with Johannine usage, we must interpret this as a clear statement of the sole condition of salvation. John does not say they “professed” to believe on His name, that they “claimed” to believe on His name, nor does he use any other qualifier to suggest that somehow their faith was lacking some crucial element such as an inadequate understanding of who Jesus claimed to be or what He intended to do.
17 Laney, “Abiding is Believing,” 63.