«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) ...»
Abiding in Christ 39 To get around the above problem, advocates of the superficial faith position resort to challenging it on its cause, the observance of miracles. They assume that a faith based on miracles cannot be worthy of salvation and thus is neither adequate nor genuine “saving” faith. But this flies in the face of the clear statement of the author. When John articulated his purpose for writing the Gospel he states: “but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). To what does the “these” refer? This near demonstrative finds its antecedent in the plural noun of verse 30, “signs.” John clearly states that He has written of Jesus miracles for the express purpose of bringing people to a salvific knowledge of Jesus, so that they can believe that (pisteuw eis) Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Furthermore Jesus himself affirms that miracles and signs are a valid basis for saving faith.
But if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:38) Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me (pisteuw eis), the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. (John 14:11–12) To impugn the faith of those believers that first Passover because it was based on witnessing a miracle has no basis in the Scripture whatsoever. However, another argument is presented to document this alleged “superficial” faith.
It is further assumed that since Jesus did not “trust” the masses He discerned their superficial faith. This again begs the question. It also reflects a superficial and naïve view of salvation. Just because someone is a believer, especially a brand new believer, does not automatically make them a better, more trustCTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) worthy person, does not invest them with a higher integrity, or give them genuine virtue. This argument is based on the unrealistic assumption that believers are inherently trustworthy simply because they have been given a new nature. Jesus did not trust them, not because they were not genuinely saved, but because they were still operating on the false expectation that the Messiah had a political agenda and Jesus did not want to place himself at the disposal of the masses who were operating on a false understanding of His Messianic role.
Laney then cites as alternative evidence, John 7:31; 8:31, and 12:11. In John 7:31 the negative me suggests a negative answer. The crowd has believed because they do not think the Messiah would do more signs than Jesus. “He will not perform more signs than those which this man has, will He?” No, he will not do more. Clearly this is not a superficial faith. They expected the Messiah to do approximately the same amount of miracles as Jesus performed.
John 8:31ff, appears at first glance to indicate that those Jews who had believed Him, then verbally assaulted him. But a careful reading of the text suggests that “the Jews” who believed were a subgroup of the larger, hostile Pharisaical crowd.18 Finally, the events in John 12:11 occurred the day before the events in 12:37. The statement in verse 11 does not even refer to the same people as in verse 37 though Laney attempts unsuccessfully to make it seem so.
None of the passages cited can demonstrate that someone “believed in” Jesus and was not saved. Just because someone believes in Christ, does not mean they are no longer confused about His Messiahship, His purpose, His mission. To assume so betrays a naivete about the sin nature and human nature.
In Me “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away;
and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:2) That the branches of John 15 represent genuine believers is further substantiated by the qualifier “in Me.” There are two options when interpreting this phrase. The first is to take “in Me” as a Johannine synonym for the forensic, positional Pauline term “in Christ.” The second is to understand the term as a uniquely Johannine expression for intimate fellowship or communion.
If the first, then it refers to the instant of salvation when the believer is identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4), and entered into His body through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). If this is true, then Jesus is stating the reality of this branch being identified with Him. He does not say, every branch that “appears” to be in Me, every branch that is “grafted” in Me, but every branch that is in Me.
Smith recognizes that if “in Me” means “in Christ,” then the first branch must be a genuine Christian. Not able to accept this, he attempts a refutation.
Those who hold that the unfruitful branches represent Christians base their interpretation largely upon this phrase and allow it to determine their view of the rest of the passage. Most commentators, however, have felt that the rest of the passage is so clear that this one phrase should be carefully weighed in the light of the whole context…. The familiar technical usage of the phrase “in Christ,” as it is found in Paul’s prison epistles, was not until many years later. At the time when Jesus spoke these words no one was “in Christ” in this technical sense because the baptism of the Holy Spirit did not begin until Pentecost. When these words were spoken, to be “in Christ” was not different from beCTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) ing “in the kingdom.” Jesus’ parables about the kingdom being composed of wheat and tares, good and bad, fruitful and unfruitful, are very familiar.19 Though Smith correctly rejects the “in Christ” interpretation, he does so for inadequate reasons. His suggestion that it is synonymous with being in the kingdom is completely devoid of evidence. Laney correctly takes him to task on this: “However, John used the words ‘in Me’ elsewhere to refer to genuine salvation (6:56; 10:38; 14:10–12, 30; 17:21).”20 A brief examination of these passages is illuminating and reveals that Laney’s solution is similarly lacking in evidence.
But if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is i n Me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:38) Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me (pisteuw eis), the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. (John 14:10–12) “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) 19 Smith, “Unfruitful Branches,” 10. Here Smith fully articulates the Reformed assumption that the vine is analogous to corporate Israel including both believer and unbeliever. This is one of the most egregious examples example of a dispensationalist utilizing a nondispensational presupposition to interpret the passage.
20 Laney, “Abiding is Believing,” 63.
Abiding in Christ 43
A cursory glance calls into question Laney’s assertion that “in Me” is salvation oriented. Three of the five passages he cites (John 10:38; 14:10–12; 17:21) speak of the Father being in the Son. Clearly not a soteriological relationship, but an emphasis on the ongoing intimate communion between the Father and Son. In John 17:21 Jesus would not be praying for the disciples to be “in Us” if this meant salvation or forensic identification since the disciples were already saved, “you are clean” (John 13:10 with John 15:3).21 John 16:33 is not soteriological, but relates to the peace the already saved disciples can have if their intimate communion with the Son continues. And John 14:30 indicates the devil certainly has no communion with the Son.
In light of this consistent use, “in Me” describes fellowship or intimate communion. En emoi is used sixteen times in the New Testament; when the figure involves persons in the godhead, it always speaks of a true and genuine relationship (John 10:38; 14:10). So, when the subject involves a human, then it also must picture a genuine relationship with Christ and not merely a ‘professing’ relationship or judicial union such as “in Christ” suggests. In no passage outside of John 15 does the phrase indicate a general relationship or a professing relationship.
As Dillow points out, the “the preposition en is used ‘to designate a close personal relation.’ It refers to a sphere within which some action occurs. So to abide ‘in’ Christ means to remain in close relationship to Him.”22 Since it always means a specific relationship elsewhere, this would be the expected sense in this passage.
21 Dillow, “Abiding is Remaining in Fellowship,” 47.
22 Dillow, “Abiding is Remaining in Fellowship,”, 45.
44 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) Neither can this phrase suggest merely sphere as the Pauline phrase “in Christ” does. This would then imply that Jesus was inside the Father positionally and judicially and that God the Father was inside the Son positionally and judicially. This is nonsense.
The one difficult passage to assess is the meaning of “in Me” in John 6:56. Based on other uses it must be concluded that what Jesus is emphasizing here is not union at salvation, but ongoing communion. More will be said about this in the next section.
Therefore the use of “in Me” must be taken to indicate the fellowship intimacy that exists between the Vine and this first, non-fruitbearing branch. This is expressed by the verb this phrase is connected with in John 15, menw.
Menw: Does “Abide” mean salvation or Fellowship The meaning of menw in this passage has been the focus of much debate. Standard Reformed commentators understand menw to be a semantic equivalent of “believe.” Advocates of
Lordship Salvation consistently follow this interpretation. Inconsistent dispensationalists who adhere to the reformed interpretation of John 15 and 1 John concur:
But what is meant by “abiding” in Him? According to 1 John 4:15, the one who confesses that Jesus is the Son of God “abides” in God. Also according to 1 John 3:24, “he that keepeth his commandments (the chief of which is named in the preceding verse as believing on him) ‘abides’ in him.” Thus to “abide in Christ” is equivalent to “believe in Christ.” The relationship of abiding is initiated by saving faith and is continued by walking in faith.23
In this last statement the author displays some confusion;
abide cannot be both believing in Christ at salvation and at the same time be the faith that is the basis for spiritual growth. The objects of these two different faiths are different. Abide is either entry into the body of Christ or communion, it can’t be both.
In contrast, Free Grace gospel advocates uniformly understand menw to indicate communion or fellowship with Christ.
Both evidence from the lexicons and usage suggest the latter is correct and more consistently interprets the data. Since this type of analysis is readily available in the articles by Dillow and Derickson it will not be repeated here. Contextual arguments will be emphasized instead.
Within John 15, the phrase “en emoi” is used six times in the first seven verses. With the exception of the first occurrence (v. 2) it is always accompanied by the verb menw. Thus the phrase “abide in me” occurs five times. Since “in me” is a term of communion and fellowship, abide must also have the same connotation to maintain consistency. Further, it seems more than plausible that menw has been ellipsized for stylistic reasons from v. 2, which should then be read, “every branch [abiding] in me which does not bear fruit.” This would reinforce the communion interpretation, but is not crucial to establish it.
If abide is the semantic equivalent of believe, then simple word substitution should reinforce this as well as amplify the meaning of the text. Unfortunately, such a substitution yields confusion and absurdity. In verse 4 Jesus would be commanding the already saved disciples to once again “believe in Me and I believe in You.” No reason exists for Jesus to believe in them.
This would also reduce verse 6 to the absurdity that Jesus belief in the Christian is a prerequisite for fruit production. The next absurdity would occur in verse 7, “If you believe in Me and my words believe in you.” It should go without saying that words cannot believe. The greatest absurdity though would appear in verse 10: If you keep My commandments, you will believe in My 46 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and believe in His love.” To understand menw to be equivalent to believe not only produces a nonsensical translation of these verses, but would also mean that moral obedience to God is the precondition to belief—pure legalism!