Perhaps one of the most quoted verses by those who teach believers are not eternally safe is John 15:6. Jesus said, “If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” What is Jesus teaching here? To whom is He speaking? What does it mean to “abide in Him”? And what does it mean to be “burned”?
“Forbidden fruit” is spoken of in Genesis 2:17 when God said, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” There, the eating of the fruit was forbidden; in this text, the production of fruit is forbidden. Not that God did not grant sufficient opportunity for fruitfulness. After all, this is the Vinedresser’s desire. But after persistent refusal to abide in Christ, is it possible that a believer can reach a point where fruit can no longer be expected? We will work through this interpretation of an admittedly difficult text after first examining a few necessary details.
Thankfully, Jesus tells us who the branches are. He says, “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (v5). The branches are true followers of Christ, not mere professors. Judas was not here (he left in 13:30). The 11 to whom He was speaking were genuine believers in the Lord Jesus. In verse 3, He tells them they are clean, without adding, “but not all” (since Judas was not present; 13:30).
What does it mean to “abide in Him”? Some teach that all true believers will abide in Christ, proving their genuineness. If that is so, why would Jesus exhort His true followers to do something they would do anyway? The implication is that a follower of Christ can fail to abide in Him. In 1 John 3:24 it says, “he that keepeth His commandments dwelleth (same word as “abideth”) in Him.” Thus, to abide in Christ means to obey His commandments. Obedience is a subject within our text (15:10,12,14,17). If abiding in Christ means obeying Him, then it is clear that a believer can fail to abide in Christ.
The Lord Jesus said “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away” (v2). This is also a difficult statement to interpret. The phrase “in me,” used 16 times in John’s gospel, refers in each case to true fellowship with Christ, not mere professed fellowship. Jesus does not say that the branch only appears to be “in me.”
Also, the word “beareth” (v2) is a present participle and can be translated “not bearing” (Darby, YLT) or “is not bearing.” The text does not say the branch never bore fruit.
The word translated “taketh away” is airo (used 26 times in this gospel) and is translated “to lift or take up” (5:8-9, 11-12; 8:59). R. K. Harrison notes in the New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia that it was a common practice to lift with meticulous care vine branches that had fallen to allow them to heal and eventually produce fruit. Admittedly, there are more occasions when airo is translated “to take away or remove.” But considering the context here, what is the need of the day for Christ’s disciples? He had just told them in 14:28 that He was leaving them to go to the Father. Within days, they would lose their leader and their world would be turned upside down. Their need was encouragement, not threats of condemnation.
What kind of encouragement was He giving them? The promise to them was that the Father, the Vinedresser, would lift up (encourage) any non-fruit bearing disciple in order to give further opportunity to bear fruit. Jesus said He does this for “every branch in me” (v2). What sort of vinedresser would remove every single branch that is lacking fruit? Is it not more likely knowing the character of our Father that, instead of removing every branch, He would first lift them up to encourage fruitfulness? Over the next few weeks, the disciples would certainly be discouraged, but encouragement was coming. They would see their risen Lord and fruit in their lives would then abound!
The most difficult text is verse 6. The branch here is specifically said to be a branch that does not “abide in me.” I believe Christ is contrasting this to the branch of verse 2 which was a “branch in me.” He is speaking of two different branches with two different outcomes. The branch of verse 2 was one in fellowship with Christ, but not necessarily producing fruit at the time. Encouragement would be given in order to grant further opportunity for fruit production. The branch of verse 6 is a believer who is not living in fellowship with Christ and is “cast forth” and “burned” as opposed to being “lifted up.” The first branch is given further opportunity to produce fruit, while the last branch is now losing that opportunity.
If abiding in Christ means obedient fellowship, failing to abide in Him (the branch of v6) means disobedience and lack of fellowship with Him. What is clearly implied by this graphic imagery is that a disobedient believer can reach a point in life where opportunity to produce fruit for the Father is forfeited. Only our Vinedresser, who knows the branches better than anyone, knows when this occurs.
This interpretation fits the purpose of the overall vine. If our Vinedresser sees branches continually lacking in fruit, wasting the nutrients fed to them, it would make sense to remove these branches to allow those same nutrients to travel to branches that are being productive. The net result would be that the Vinedresser would receive even more fruit. A branch not abiding in Christ is fruitless and useless to the Vinedresser.
The statement that these branches are “burned” sounds, on the surface, like these believers are being cast into hell. However, the subject in the text is sanctification, not salvation. So why does He refer to the branches being “burned”? A broken, discarded branch, one “cast forth,” could still be grafted back in and possibly bear fruit, but a branch thrown into the fire and burned would mean that opportunity for fruit-bearing was lost. How this is accomplished in a believer’s life is not specifically stated. Our Father may take us home by death (1Cor 11:30) or He may allow us to live unproductive, self-centered lives for the rest of our days. This interpretation may also make sense of true believers we have known that gave definite evidence of conversion, resisted God’s chastening hand, and afterwards lived among the unconverted with little or no distinction. It is unconvincing to state in each of these cases that these individuals were never saved to begin with. Fruit bearing is not just our Father’s desire, but a privilege that perhaps can be lost.
May our desire match that of our Lord Jesus: “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples” (John 15:8).