Burning Branches

“If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

- John 15:6

Can true Christians lose their salvation? This question has sparked countless arguments, and both those who answer yes and those who answer no scour the Scriptures looking for evidence for their position.

It is an important question, and one naturally raised when people read John 15, particularly verse 6. However, we must note that this is not the question Jesus addresses in the parable of the vine. Simply put, our Savior is not giving a discourse on the permanency of salvation. If we were looking for such a discourse in John’s gospel, we should look to John 6, where Jesus explicitly affirms that all those who look to Him in faith will be raised on the last day (vv. 35–40). Those who believe will be saved; those who finally fall away never really believed in the first place (see 1 John 2:19).

So, what is Jesus’ concern in the parable of the vine? It is to make fruit-bearing definitional of true Christian faith and to explain how it is that believers are spiritually fruitful. To do this, Jesus borrows common horticultural imagery, but we are not to press every detail to make a point Jesus did not intend to make or to contradict what He says elsewhere in the same gospel. His warnings about what will happen to those who are unfruitful is not a declaration about whether one can lose one’s salvation; they are an encouragement to believers to test the genuineness of their faith by examining their fruit and asking God to do what is necessary to make them more fruitful.

Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary John that “a person can have a relationship with Christ that is merely external.” One can be a member of the visible church that professes the Christian faith and yet not be united invisibly to Christ by faith alone. John Calvin comments: “Many are supposed to be in the vine, according to the opinion of men, who actually have no root in the vine. Thus, in the writings of the prophets, the Lord calls the people of Israel His vine, because, by outward profession, they had the name of The Church.”

We do not want to be among those who make a false profession and end up in the fire. Thus, we seek to know that we possess genuine faith, and one way we do that is by looking to our lives for evidence of spiritual fruit. We will invariably be disappointed by what we see, given the abiding presence of sin, but even meager fruit is better than none. And we will also ask the Father to prune us, to do what it takes to make us more fruitful, so that our harvest increases.

Coram Deo

Although Jesus teaches that all who are in a state of salvation will persevere in faith to the end, that does not mean we should take the warning of John 15:6 lightly. Professing Christians who are not bearing spiritual fruit have no warrant to believe they are actually saved. True Christians desire to grow in love for God and neighbor and to put that love into practice.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 18
Psalm 37:38
Proverbs 2:20–22
Romans 11:11–24

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.