Does John 15 Say Christians Can Lose Their Salvation?

I had a great conversation a little while ago with a friend about Jesus’ words in John chapter 15. We were discussing if that particular passage teaches that Christians can lose their salvation. It is easy to see why that question would come to mind. Jesus says, in part…

[1] I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. [2] Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [3] Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. [4] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. [5] I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [6] 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.

In particular, the phrase “in me” that is used twice is the part that suggests a loss of salvation. The branches that do not bear fruit (signs of salvation, the work of the Spirit) are gathered and “thrown into the fire”, a clear symbol of eternal judgment. The question is, since these hell-bound branches were originally “in” Jesus, does that mean they were true believers who lost their salvation?

I would suggest that the answer is no. There are a few reasons why I feel this is the right conclusion to come to.

1. Metaphors are only meant to go so far. Jesus here is speaking in parable. He is using an illustration to make a point. As with any illustration or parable, one can take it too far. In his wisdom, Jesus uses an everyday image (especially for ancient Easterners) to make a spiritual point. The image of vines and branches and gardening would be a reference the common man could understand. The whole thrust of John 15 is to prove the point that Jesus is the source of spiritual life. This is clear since the punch-line is that bearing fruit only comes from abiding in Jesus. Just as a branch that is separated from the vine will wither and die, so too will people who are separated from Christ. Perhaps the summary statement of Jesus’ teaching is verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

A parable is not meant for every single detail to correspond to some sort of spiritual reality. It is, rather, meant to make a single, major point. The fact that the branches were already “in” Jesus to begin with is not the central point, so it’s not good to build a doctrine base on a secondary point or limited metaphor.

2. The branches didn’t require attachment first. If one was to take the phrase “in me” literally to refer to someone who is already saved, then it creates another problem with the metaphor: how did the branches get attached to Jesus in the first place? If the branches represent people, and if attachment to the vine symbolizes salvation, then the branches should first be separate from the vine at the beginning of the metaphor, since everyone is born apart from Christ and needs to put their faith in him before salvation.

Let me give you an example to clarify. Imagine Randy is 25 years old when he believes on Jesus as his Saviour. Using Jesus’ imagery, Randy was a dead and shrivelled branch for 25 years before being connected with the vine. Yet Jesus’ image completely  glosses over any branches needing to be attached to begin with. If we take the removal of fruitless branches to be a loss of salvation, then we must also notice that every branch started already attached to Jesus. This means that everyone is already saved, unless they depart from Jesus later on. Yet this is clearly not what Scripture teaches. Instead, the Bible says that everyone begins apart from Christ and must be united to him by faith. The reason this reality is not illustrated in Jesus’ metaphor in John 15 is because Jesus wasn’t trying to make that point. Neither should we jam meaning into every detail of this illustration in ways that betray the basic intended meaning.

3. It doesn’t jive with the rest of Scripture. If Jesus means to teach in John 15 that Christians can lose their salvation, then we have a problem, because other Scripture seems to say the exact opposite. Perhaps the clearest text in the whole Bible on this issue is 1 John 2:19, which says…

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

John clearly teaches that those who profess to be Christians but eventually walk away from their faith reveal that they never were saved to begin with.

Jesus himself confirms this truth, when he says the following in John 10:28-29, in reference to believers…

[28] I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. [29] My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

In other words – once a Christian, always a Christian. These two passages, and others, teach this truth clear-as-day.

Conclusion: A Rule of Thumb to Live By

When seeking to interpret the Bible, we should always aim to interpret less-clear passages (such as parables) in light of more-clear passages. In this case, John 15 should be interpreted in light of other passages that address that subject more directly, and without the complication of a metaphor. Parables can teach beautiful truths clearly, but only when peripheral details aren’t taken too literally. Always allow the whole of Scripture to guide your thinking and let the clarity of the Bible come to view by cross-referencing passages that speak to the same issue. In that way, we can avoid making mistakes and causing the Bible to say something it actually doesn’t.

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One Comment on “Does John 15 Say Christians Can Lose Their Salvation?

  1. Not quite right here; we were grafted in, per Romans 11 so we do have to be added and we can be removed. Furthermore, it is the once saved always saved doctrine that does not align with the majority of scripture.

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