«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) ...»
Confusing the sense of abide with belief creates confusion in other passages as well. The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 is also a notoriously difficult passage to interpret because of the use of symbols and metaphor. Jesus uses the word “abide” in John 6:56, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” At first blush it appears that Jesus is explaining salvation in terms of an eating or drinking metaphor. Just as eating and drinking are non-meritorious activities available to any human being, so too is faith. These are the options: either eating and drinking refer to the initial belief in Christ at salvation, or eating and drinking describe the postsalvation nourishment of the believer on the doctrines of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the first option is taken, then “eats my flesh and drinks My blood” is metaphorical language for “accepting Me as Messiah/Savior.” In this case, abide taken as a synonym for belief would be redundant. The sense of the passage would then be, “He who accepts me or believes in Me, believes in Me and I believe in Him.” The second option is to understand eating and drinking in this verse as describing the process of spiritual nourishment.
This makes sense if abiding is taken as communion or fellowship. Thus the sense is, “He who continues to be spiritually nourished by Me has fellowship with Me and I with Him,” a clear description of the vital connection between learning and assimilating doctrine in the soul as the basis of spiritual nourishment and growth and fellowship with the Lord. This point is not lost on Peter who later wrote: “but grow in [by means of] the Abiding in Christ 47 grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18).
Either option renders menw as belief insupportable.
Airw: “Lifted up” or “Carried away” Airw is a second word around which controversy has swirled. Kittel lists three meaning: “to lift from the ground, to lift in order to carry” and “to carry off.”24 The most common option is to take airw to mean to take away in judgment, thus interpreting verse 2 by verse 6, a questionable procedure. If this is true, in light of the meanings already established for “abide” and “in Me,” such a meaning would indicate loss of salvation. No wonder commentaries attempt to insert some qualifier that negates the reality of “in Me!” The second option fits the context of John better and also fits the historical context. Airw is used 10 times in John’s gospel where it means to lift up. Not only is this a common meaning for John, but John’s style reveals a very particular use of vocabulary.
His contrasts are clear and undebatable: light and darkness, eimi and ginomai (John 1:1–4); agapaw and f i l e w (John 21:15–17); oida and ginwskw (John 21:15–17). He also uses a number of double entendres and paranomasias to bring out subtle points.25 This passage is no exception. Three times in two verses John uses a cognate. In verse 2a he uses the verb airw in relation to the first nonfruiting branch, in verse 2b, he uses kaqairw, to describe the pruning of the branch that bears fruit, then in verse 3 24 Joachim Jeremias, “Airw,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,
ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1964–74), I:185–186.
25 Brown suggests both of these words are a bit out of place and “were chosen not because of their suitability for describing vineyard practices, but for their applicability to Jesus and His followers.” Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), 660. Derickson confirms that airo was not attested as an agricultural term but kaqairw was the standard word for pruning. Thus our attention is drawn to ask why John uses these cognates?
48 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001)
he uses the adjective cognate kaqaros to describe the disciplesas saved.
Such a use by John should grab our attention. If John were contrasting these branches, unbeliever versus believer, he would have made this clear by using distinct words. By using cognates he draws the readers attention to the commonality of the statements. They are all believers. The first nonfruiting branch is a young believer, abiding in Christ, who has not yet matured enough to produce fruit. The second branch is the mature believer who is in fellowship with Christ and bearing fruit. It is only the third branch, who is not in fellowship and removed.
Viticultural practices of the first century confirm this. The standard procedure in vineyard production propped up a branch
that was weak, or falling to the ground.26 Pliny states:
Thus there are two kinds of main branches; the shoot which comes out of the hard timber and promises wood for the next year is called a leafy shoot or else when it is above the scar [caused by tying the branch to the trellis] a fruit–bearing shoot, whereas the other kind of shoot that springs from a year–old branch is always a fruit–bearer. There is also left underneath the cross–bar a shoot called the keeper—this is a young branch, not longer than three buds, which will provide wood next year if the vine’s luxurious growth has used itself up—and another shoot next to it, the size of a wart, called the pilferer is also left, in case the keeper-shoot should fail27 Thus the first century attestation is that there were two prunings a year. The first kept young nonfruiting branches on the vine, so they could be nourished and nurtured to produce fruit the following year, and a second pruning in the fall which removed all unwanted material from the vine including branches that ei
ther never had, or never would produce fruit.28 Thus literary and historical contexts combine to confirm the interpretation of the first branch being lifted up to prepare it for fruit production in the future.
This question has already been partially answered. Yes, there are three distinct branches mentioned in the analogy. Since the context mitigates against a believer/unbeliever contrast, Jesus must be teaching his disciples something new related to the new spiritual life which will come with the advent of the Holy Spirit (14:14, 16, 26). Together the three branches begin to describe for us God’s work in the believer’s sanctification.
The first branch represents the young believer. Remember, the analogy is from a plant. Young seedlings and plants do not produce fruit, only maturing plants produce fruit. As stem growth and leaf development precedes fruit production in a plant, so spiritual growth and advance in “the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” must precede fruit production. So God the Father, the vinedresser, encourages and nourishes the young, weak, “seedling” believer. As the believer enters his “second season” the Father begins to “prune” the believer through tests of adversity to provide opportunity to apply doctrine he has learned.
The result is three levels of maturity: fruit, more fruit, and much fruit.
But the believer who fails to stay in fellowship by not abiding will be disciplined. Eventually he will suffer temporal
judgment. This is the third branch of verse 6, of whom the apostle Paul speaks, describing one who:
28 Derickson, “Viticulture,” 47–48.
50 CTS Journal 7 (January–March 2001) you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? (Rom. 6:13, 16) As with Paul, John sees the real possibility of failure in the Christian life. The result is misery, self-destruction, and divine discipline, what Paul calls death in Romans 6:16 and 23. The nonabiding branches are removed, a possible reference to the burning of 1 Cor. 3 at the judgment seat of Christ. However, it is not necessary to take every mention of burning to be of the Lake of Fire or the Judgment Seat of Christ. It seems more likely that the real description of the burning of the useless branches from the vine merely illustrates the believer who fails to advance and to maintain fellowship in Christ. He faces divine discipline in time and removal because of his failure to live according to God’s sanctification plan and glorify God.
This paper has emphasized that the predominant way of interpreting John 15 is to understand abiding as believing. This is especially common to Reformed theology and and its offspring, Lordship Salvation. These two approaches share a hidden and often unrealized presupposition that the vine of John 15 is like the vine in the Old Testament, comprised of both believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers are removed and believers are indicated by fruit production. In the Reformed view of regeneration the believer is so transformed that fruit becomes inevitable.
This presupposition which uses an identification of Israel and the Church as a means of interpreting John 15 violates one of the three distinctives of dispensationalism, the consistent distinction between Israel and the Church. In light of this, an interpretation of John 15 which rejects fellowship as the subject is inconsistent with dispensational theology. From this starting Abiding in Christ 51 point we can then see that there is a basis for a theology of the spiritual life that is more consistent with dispensationalism.
Free Grace advocates reject the vine imagery of Israel as the hermeneutical backdrop to John 15. This approach is more consistent with the dispensational distinction between Israel and the Church. As such, a consistent dispensationalist must then reject the idea that fruit is the necessary and inevitable result of salvation. Instead fruit production belongs to the realm of experiential sanctification. Fruit should not be identified as simply spiritual growth or morality. Fruit is produced not because of salvation, but because the already saved person abides in Christ. This emphasis on abiding in Christ as the basis for spiritual growth becomes a distinct element in a dispensational theology of the spiritual life. From this starting point we must then determine how abiding in Christ relates to the Pauline concept of walking by the Spirit. This will be the subject of the next installment.
Robert Dean, Jr., earned a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is Pastor-Teacher of Preston City Bible Church, Preston, CT, and visiting Professor at Faith Evangelical Seminary, Tacoma, WA. He also serves on the board of advisors for Chafer Theological Seminary. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org