I continue with what I hope is a helpful series exposing the anti-Reformed polemics of pseudo-Calvinist Paul Owen of Montreat College. We have seen how Owen has manhandled the text of John 6, ignoring its own context and flow, inserting a-contextual concepts here and there and coming up with his eisegetical conclusions. We move on to his next section on that favorite section of those who seek to insist that one can truly be in Christ, a disciple, joined to Him, truly “of” Him, and yet be lost and thrown away, John 15, and the parable of the vine. It surely should strike the careful reader as odd that clear didactic passages like John 6 can be so completely mishandled, as Owen has been shown to have done, while such “clarity” is derived from a parable. Let us hear what Dr. Owen has to say:
2. It may be helpful to make a few more comments about John 15:1-6. When Jesus identifies himself as the “true vine” in 15:1-2, he is identifying himself as the true Israel (Psalm 80; Isa. 5:1-7). When believers are incorporated into him they can said to be “in the vine” and so members of the new Israel. But there are different kinds of branches in the vine. There are fruitful branches, and branches without fruit. Any branch which lacks fruit is cut off and thrown into the fire (15:6). Now it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the failure to bear fruit proves that you were never actually “in” the vine. Any person who has seen a vine knows that it can have both kinds of branches. Not bearing fruit does not prove that you are not a branch, it proves that you are a branch in the vine which has died (and so does not bear fruit). This is the whole basis of Jesus’ warning–make sure that you do not become a dead branch which fails to produce fruit. If you do, you will be destroyed. Those who fail to “abide” in the vine will not produce fruit (15:4), and will be burned in the fire. Failing to abide in the vine leads to loss of life, which leads to failure to produce fruit, which leads to eternal destruction.
Do not miss the agenda here: you can have life, and lose it. You must abide. I.e., the non-elect can have life and lose that life. Of course, one could ask, “Could a non-elect person abide?” And while a discussion of Augustine’s views on this topic might be interesting, it has little to do with the reality of the the teaching of John 15.
I have provided my viewpoint on this text elsewhere. In commenting on Owen, we note the tendency to once again ignore the immediate context in favor of verbal allusions and the like (very popular in the academy). Jesus’ point is not that He is the “true Israel” but that He is the source of all spiritual life and that apart from Him we can do absolutely nothing. Jesus’ own application is lost in Owen’s search for parabolic means of making the New Covenant a mixed covenant and God’s salvation a mixed work (it is hard to avoid seeing strong elements of synergism in Owen’s comments). Note the statement, “when believers are incorporated into him.” Is it not odd that when Jesus specifically speaks of how the elect were given to Him in eternity past and He will lose none of those thusly given in direct teaching in John 6:39, this promise is dismissed as wishful thinking; but when a parabolic example is used (vine/branches), Owen can find sufficient clarity to know that the illustration is telling us about the “incorporation” of “believers” who, evidently, are not disciples (i.e., only disciples produce fruit). Remember that Owen would likewise say this incorporation is done, normally, by infant baptism. Further, all of these branches are “members of the new Israel” and hence members of the covenant in the blood of Christ. So though there is no fruit, no discipleship, no flow of life from the vine to the branches that are cut off, yet we are told that these are true members of the New Covenant.
Now note how viewing Scripture with God-centered eyes or man-centered eyes impacts everything you end up seeing: if one reads this text in light of Jesus’ perfect work as Savior, in light of His power, His ability, His capacity to fulfill the Father’s will in saving all those entrusted to Him, you “see” Jesus saying “apart from Me you can do nothing.” Jesus is the source of divine life. Jesus supports the branches, the Father prunes and accomplishes His will in the vine. But if you look with man-centered eyes, synergistic concepts of fulfilling works of covenant faithfulness, vague promises without particular fulfillment, you see branches in the vine that have died (yet, were once alive, seemingly). The vine does its best—but it is really not the vine, let alone the vine-dresser, who is in charge. The branches are the ones who, in the ultimate sense, determine the outcome. The vine does its best, as does the vine-dresser, but its the branches who determine if they will, or will not, bear fruit. Further, there is no evidence at all that one can bear fruit and then stop bearing fruit: bearing fruit demonstrates divine life; not bearing fruit shows one has no such life. For Owen, it is not the contrast Jesus draws between fruitless/fruit bearing that determines his views. His theology is man-centered, hence, without any reason in the text to do so, he assumes that a branch that bears fruit could become fruitless and hence thrown away. But this is the exact opposite conclusion one comes to in reading Jesus’ own words: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit [not, that bears fruit and stops doing so], He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit [though, according to man-centered Paul Owen, it may stop bearing fruit, despite the Father’s best efforts]” (v. 2), and “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples [though, you can be a disciple and bear fruit, but then stop bearing fruit, so while you were once truly of us, you stopped being of us—contra the same writer in 1 John 2]” (v. 6).
There is something else to note in this passage. Jesus said to the disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (v. 2). Now follow the pronouns and the person of address from that point onward. Jesus never says, “You are clean…but can become unclean.” He never says “You bore fruit but stopped bearing fruit.” Follow the terms. He does not say “If you do not abide in me you will be thrown away as a branch” but instead uses the indefinite pronoun (and didn’t someone remind us recently about how important Greek pronouns are?). The fruit-bearing disciples were clean, not by fruit bearing, but because of the word spoken to them: and the Vine was not going to fail to bring them to completion, to the glory of the Father.
Because Baptists (and those many Presbyterians who think like Baptists) do not understand what the Bible teaches about the covenant, passages like this make no sense to them. They think that this all means that people who only pretend to be in the vine will not be able to produce fruit, and so will be destroyed. But verse 2 says, “Every branch in me” (the true Israel), not “Every branch claiming to be in me.” Anyways, how on earth can a branch which is not in the vine, fail to “abide in” the vine? The command to “abide in” the vine presupposes that one really is “in” the vine, otherwise people are being warned to stay in a state which they have never entered in the first place (which is balderdash)! This contorted explanation also ignores the fact that this warning is addressed to the disciples who are “already clean” (v. 3). It is those who are already clean who are being warned to abide in the vine to avoid destruction, not merely pretenders who “claim” they are already clean.
By refusing the biblical teaching on the superiority of the New Covenant and the perfection of Christ’s work, Owen is left with a “God tries, but man accomplishes” salvation plan. As a result, he cannot speak as John does in reference to those who have gone out from us because they were not of us. No such people exist in Owen’s theology. If they were baptized (and surely all referenced in 1 John 2 had been baptized and hence, in Owen’s view, were united with Christ) then they really were of us, but have now been cut off for non-fruit bearing. If that is “Baptist” thinking, then John the Apostle was a Baptist. And I’ll accept that conclusion, if Owen wants to offer it. It is Owen who is allowing his traditions to over-ride the text when he asks how a branch cannot “abide” who is not “truly” in the vine. If he would just open his eyes to the fact that the Vine is divine, the sap which flows is divine life, and only the elect ever experience regeneration and true spiritual life, his confusion would evaporate. The “balderdash” is the common error made by Owen and all proponents of man-centered salvation that commands (and warnings) are useless if, in fact. salvation is totally the work of God (i.e., the view of those strange folks called monergists). The elect need guidance as to how to live their lives in a way that is glorifying to God. Disciples throughout the centuries have understood Jesus’ point here: we can do nothing outside of Christ. It is His life, His Spirit, that animates every God-honoring action. It is not that my “abiding” determines the success of Christ’s work as Savior: it is that I abide only by Christ’s power. Once again, reading the text with God-centered eyes is so very different than reading it as Owen and his kind who read it with the blinders of man-made tradition. How sad that for Owen and those deceived by him and his kind of teaching a glorious guide to God-glorifying living (“abide in Me”) becomes a warning on how to avoid destruction! No wonder Owen defends Rome’s gospel—his is so very much like it!