In the illustration in which the Lord Jesus Christ described himself as “the true vine,” he gives some important warnings to his disciples, which we must not fail to take seriously (John 15:1-8).
The Lord likens his disciples to “branches” who must “abide” in him, the true vine. This abiding is the only way we can draw whatever we need from him in order to “bear fruit” (as we have seen1, fruit-bearing is an often used metaphor for a Christ-honouring and God-pleasing life of faithfulness and good works). We cannot bear such fruit in our own strength (v.4).
A true Christian, evidently, is someone who continues to abide in Christ, the true vine—and in whom Christ himself abides (v.5). A false Christian is distinguished as one who does not abide in Christ, and who doesn’t have Christ within him (compare also Romans 8:9).
He appears to be abiding in Christ for a while—but is he really joined to him in the covenant of grace?
He is a “disciple” for a while—but is he indeed a saved disciple?
He adheres to the church for a while—but is he a true member of the church? (To put it another way: is he actually a member of the “invisible Church”2 ?)
Calvinists answer “no” to all these questions, whereas those who deny God’s preservation of his saints answer “yes.”
Christ’s in-grafted branches, his disciples, are they who learn his teachings (his “words”, v.7).
The truth is, some disciples of Christ fail to continue as his disciples. They are temporary disciples of Christ, but not true disciples. As Jesus says elsewhere, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31).
There are those who only seem for a while to be grafted into the true vine, but the graft fails to take, as gardeners and horticulturists say. They do not take spiritual sustenance from Christ—as is evidenced by their not bearing fruit. These sapless, fruitless ones are those whom God the Father (the “husbandman” in the illustration—the farmer who is committed to vine husbandry) “taketh away” and “casts forth” from Christ’s church.
In order to prove that Christ’s vine illustration teaches that true Christians can lose their salvation, deniers of God’s preservation of the saints must prove that Christ is here only talking about true, born-again Christian “disciples indeed”, and that he does not include in this illustration those people who merely attend church for a while or who study Christ’s teaching (i.e. are his disciples) for a while, but who never become true Christians.
How deep do the teachings of Christ go in your soul, reader? Do you abide in Christ and are you yet bearing spiritual fruit? Are you concerned about these things?
Be not highminded, but fear
We must now consider another challenging horticultural illustration, in Romans 11:16-24.
The apostle Paul describes Gentile converts to Christ as like branches of a wild olive tree (v.17) which have been grafted “contrary to nature” into the good olive tree (v.24)—the covenant family tree of God, namely the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (see Genesis 17:1-8; Ruth 1:16-17; John 6:25; Acts 7:38).
Paul explains that many of the natural branches of the good olive tree were broken off because of their unbelief in the Messiah (v.20; see also Romans 10:1-4). They are part of Israel’s physical family tree, but in their rejection of Christ they proved themselves not to be part of the spiritual Israel (see Matthew 3:9-10; John 8:31-59; Romans 2:28-29; 9:6).
Now, give your attention to Paul’s warning to those who are grafted into God’s covenanted people: “because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed that he also spare not thee” (vv.20-21).
Does this prove that true Christians can lose their salvation through losing their faith?
In order for this illustration of Paul to prove that true Christians are not always preserved by God in the state of salvation, it would need to be proved that when Paul spoke of “grafts” he only meant true, born-again Christians. But he surely knew that not all so-called believers in Christ are true believers. He knew that the faith of some people is merely tentative, temporary and “dead” and is never accompanied by good works and faithfulness (see Hebrews 6:9-10; James 2:14-26).
Although an olive tree is not a grape vine, the case is similar to Christ’s illustration in John chapter 15: not all grafts take.
And besides, it would mean that Paul’s warning in his olive tree illustration contradicted what he had said only a few chapters earlier, in his “golden chain of salvation”, where he affirmed that all those whom God foreknew, “he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son”; and that in order to so conform them he called them and justified them, and will inevitably glorify3 them in heaven (Romans 8:29-30).
The Calvinist does not need to artificially tone down the warning in these sobering verses in Romans chapter 11. We can readily see why the denier of the preservation of the saints stands in awe of them. We too stand in awe of them. A belief in the preservation of the saints does not prevent us from taking this warning seriously, to “Be not highminded, but fear” (v.20).
But let us understand the full verse, and its context. Against any proud Christians (or false Christians) who thought that many of the Jews were “broken off, that I might be grafted in” (v.19), Paul counters: “Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (vv.20-21).
So our standing in Christ is not—not!—anything that we can be proud of, as though we earned or were worthy of it. It is a totally undeserved privilege—it is the gift of God (see Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8). How many times do we need to be reminded, that it is “not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy [God our Saviour] saved us” and that is the entire reason why we are “justified by his grace” (Titus 3:4-7)? No, we “stand by faith”; and as we have already seen, true faith perseveres in the spiritual walk.
We also stand in awe of Paul’s words two verses later: “Behold therefore the goodness and the severity of God…to thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness…” (v.22). The Calvinist has no need to avoid the full weight of these verses, because they do not teach that the state of salvation is reversible or undoable.
True faith is characterised and evidenced by its continuing or abiding nature. But another distinguishing mark of true faith is that it humbly fears failure to so abide—even while believing that all the Lord’s people are fully secure in his hand. Such humility and fear is not incompatible with the exercise of faith, for true believers soon learn to mistrust even their best efforts—for we know that evil is still present with us (Romans 7:21-23).
Therefore we do fear failure in God’s ways. We can, and we must, have full confidence in God and no confidence in ourselves—both at the same time.
The New Testament has many warnings, exhortations and encouragements to the saints’ perseverance in the faith, but these are not inconsistent with God’s promises of the saints’ total preservation in the faith.
We must walk with Christ while giving heed to all the warnings, while responding to all the exhortations to godliness, and while trembling at the fate of those examples of apostasy and unbelief which we read about in the Bible, and which we sadly encounter for ourselves, from time to time.