Posted by: reformedmusings | July 7, 2007

John 15:2 – The Same Sap?

One of the core areas where the Federal Vision heads off the track is assurance and apostasy. Many of the erroneous Federal Vision doctrines point back to the idea that real saving blessings can be lost. Thus their view of baptism confers justification, adoption, and sanctification but not perseverance for everyone baptized into the visible church. The orthodox Reformed view holds that only those elect before the foundation of the world receive ANY saving benefits, and that the elect receive them ALL (Romans 8:28-30).

Green Baggins posted an excellent discussion at John 15 and the Federal Vision. His introduction of the issue is far superior to what I was going to write, so please go read his post before continuing here.

Also before I go any further, let me introduce another classic Reformed reference work: the Self-Interpreting Bible by John Brown of Haddington (4 vols, 1914 ed.). John Brown (1722-1787) was a Reformed leader in 18th Century Scotland. He originally published The Self-Interpreting Bible in 1778, with his comments based upon the analogy of faith–Scripture interpreting Scripture. That his work continued to be updated and published through the 20th Century testifies to its strong contribution to Reformed families over the centuries.

Turning to our text, John 15:1-8 reads in the ESV:

1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch of mine 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 See he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

First, in line with historical-grammatico hermaneutics which we’ve done in earlier posts on Paul’s letters, let’s look at the context of these verses. To whom is Jesus talking in John 15? Here Jesus is in the upper room with his apostles before His crucifixion. Judas Iscariot already left in John 13:3 to betray Jesus. The only ones present are, without any doubt, elect in the eternal decree of God. We can safely conclude that any promises and blessings mentioned here apply only to those present and their spiritual descendants–those elect from before the foundation of the world.

The Westminster Annotations on John 15:1 agree:

By true vine, he meaneth here, the most excellent, that which beareth fruit for the elect of the whole World, at all seasons, in all ages.

Looking further at John 15:1, Calvin makes some preliminary remarks in his commentary:

First, let him remember the rule which ought to be observed in all parables; that we ought not to examine minutely every property of the vine, but only to take a general view of the object to which Christ applies that comparison. Now, there are three principal parts; first, that we have no power of doing good but what comes from himself; secondly, that we, having a root in him, are dressed and pruned by the Father; thirdly, that he removes the unfruitful branches, that they may be thrown into the fire and burned.

This is a wise warning which shall come home to roost, as it were, shortly. Calvin next critiques the Federal Vision viewpoint of the visible church’s “universal sap” 400 years before they wrote about it:

There is scarcely any one who is ashamed to acknowledge that every thing good which he possesses comes from God; but, after making this acknowledgment, they imagine that universal grace has been given to them, as if it had been implanted in them by nature. But Christ dwells principally on this, that the vital sap — that is, all life and strength — proceeds from himself alone. Hence it follows, that the nature of man is unfruitful and destitute of everything good; because no man has the nature of a vine, till he be implanted in him. But this is given to the elect alone by special grace. So then, the Father is the first Author of all blessings, who plants us with his hand; but the commencement of life is in Christ, since we begin to take root in him. (my emphasis)

John Brown observes in relation to Christ:

Such members of the church as are united to me only in profession and appearance, without bringing forth the fruits of holiness, he, in his righteous judgment, cuts off as unprofitable and injurious. Such, as being spiritually and vitally united to me by my Spirit and faith, bring forth the fruits of righteousness, he, by various methods of his Word, ordinances, influences, and rods, purges from their remaining corruption, that they may abound more in good works, and have their end everlasting life. (my emphasis)

Note the contrasting descriptions in the emphasized words. The 1599 Geneva Bible notes also draw the distinction in the elect:

We are by nature dry and fit for nothing but the fire. Therefore, in order that we may live and be fruitful, we must first be grafted into Christ, as it were into a vine, by the Father’s hand: and then be daily moulded with a continual meditation of the word, and the cross: otherwise it will not avail any man at all to have been grafted unless he cleaves fast to the vine, and so draws juice out of it. (my emphasis)

Here the early Reformers clearly stated that only the elect “draws juice out” of the vine. They held no illusions that everyone in the visible church partook of the same sap. Quite the contrary.

This comes home to roost in verse 2, where the branches that don’t produce fruit are taken away. Here Calvin observes:

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit As some men corrupt the grace of God, others suppress it maliciously, and others choke it by carelessness, Christ intends by these words to awaken anxious inquiry, by declaring that all the branches which shall be unfruitful will be cut off from the vine But here comes a question. Can any one who is engrafted into Christ be without fruit? I answer, 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. (italics in the original, bold mine)

Note his comment that the unfruitful had “no root in the vine”. In other words, they did not partake of the same grace as the fruitful branches and they never were fruitful branches. They were “outward professors” only. Here the Westminster Annotations note:

every branch in me that beareth not fruit] Everyone in my church, (into which they are implanted by baptism), that beareth not good fruit, he pruneth off, an unprofitable and dead branch, to show that the regenerate have need of continual assistance and culture without which they can do no good

In other words, the unregenerate in the church–those who profess salvation but do not possess it–are cut off to show the regenerate they must rely only and always on Christ for sustainment. Note this orthodox Reformed reason for the warnings and contrast it with the Federal Vision constructions. Again, the unregenerate were part of the visible church due to their baptism but never produced the fruit that comes with salvation and therefore partake of none of the saving benefits of Christ reserved for the invisible church.

It is worth noting here the difference between cutting off and pruning in the Greek. The Greek word underlying “takes away”, airo, means literally to remove or cut away. The word translated as “prune”, kathairo, means to clean and purify. The treatment and destiny of the fruitful and non-fruitful could not be more different. The airo branches (professors of saving grace) go into the fire to be burned, the kathairo branches (possessors of saving grace) are sanctified to be conformed to the image of Christ. This contrast comes out clearly in another classic reference: Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (1871).

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit … every branch that beareth fruit—As in a fruit tree, some branches may be fruitful, others quite barren, according as there is a vital connection between the branch and the stock, or no vital connection; so the disciples of Christ may be spiritually fruitful or the reverse, according as they are vitally and spiritually connected with Christ, or but externally and mechanically attached to Him. The fruitless He “taketh away” (see on Jn 15:6); the fruitful He “purgeth” (cleanseth, pruneth)—stripping it, as the husbandman does, of what is rank (Mk 4:19), “that it may bring forth more fruit”; a process often painful, but no less needful and beneficial than in the natural husbandry.

Moving on to verse 3, we see the deal clinched. This emphasis on the elect is further borne out here where Jesus says that: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” Clearly the non-regenerate in the visible church (or anywhere else) could not be clean in this sense. The Westminster Annotations note:

now ye] lest they should be terrified by any fear, in the apprehension of their own infirmities and failings in tentations, as if they therefore were to be reputed unfruitful branches appointed to be cut off and cast into the fire, he comforteth them with the assurance of their being cleansed from their sins, ye are already clean

are clean] Sanctified by my Spirit

word which I have spoken unto you] Being accompanied by the power of my Spirit, he meaneth the word of the Gospel, which they all believed, Judas excepted, chap 13.11

Clearly only the elect from the foundation of the world are in view here, and Christ is providing them absolute assurance of their salvation. The Word made effectual through the Spirit enabled them ALL to believe, except Judas. John Brown says:

Now therefore, Judas being gone, ye are all my living and fruitful members, partakers of my Spirit, and inwardly purified by faith in my Word, which works truly in you

Calvin explains this at a bit greater length:

You are already clean, on account of the word. He reminds them that they have already experienced in themselves what he had said; that they have been planted in him, and have also been cleansed or pruned He points out the means of pruning, namely, doctrine; and there can be no doubt that he speaks of outward preaching, for he expressly mentions the word, which they had heard from his mouth. Not that the word proceeding from the mouth of a man has so great efficacy, but, so far as Christ works in the heart by the Spirit, the word itself is the instrument of cleansing Yet Christ does not mean that the apostles are pure from all sin, but he holds out to them their experience, that they may learn from it that the continuance of grace is absolutely necessary. Besides, he commends to them the doctrine of the gospel from the fruit which it produces, that they may be more powerfully excited to meditate on it continually, since it resembles the vine-dresser’s knife to take away what is useless.

All the rest of John 15, and indeed the entire upper room discourse through to the end of Chapter 17, must be read in this light. Only the elect by the eternal decree of God draw the sap from the Vine. The unregenerate in the visible church have no part in the sap or the saving graces that flow from this sap. John Brown seals this in his comment on verses 6 and 7:

Such church members, as do not thus adhere to me by faith and love, shall quickly be stripped of all relation to me or my church; and their gifts, profession, and specious appearances shall wither and die; and they shall be gathered together at the last day as fit fuel for divine wrath, and cast into everlasting remorse. But they who steadfastly cleave to me, and have me and my Word dwelling in their heart by faith, to guide, govern, quicken, and establish them, shall have everything which they request of God, for his glory and their own edification and fruitfulness, granted them to the utmost of their desires and wants.

On this verse, Calvin writes:

He is cast out, and withered, like a branch. Those who are cut off from Christ are said to wither like a dead branch; because, as the commencement of strength is from him, so also is its uninterrupted continuance. Not that it ever happens that any one of the elect is dried up, but because there are many hypocrites who, in outward appearance, flourish and are green for a time, but who afterwards, when they ought to yield fruit, show the very opposite of that which the Lord expects and demands from his people.

On verse 8, the Westminster Annotations bring all this into sharp focus:

but they were not of us] Of us true believers, who cannot fall away, Matt 24:24; John 6:37 & 10:28,29,38,39; 2 Tim 2:19. Marvel not, nor be not troubled, that many forsake God’s Church. If they had been found members, they would never have done so. They were in the Church in body only, not in Spirit; and the Church loseth nothing by their departure, as corn loseth nothing when the chaff is gone (but is the purer,) nor the body, when bad humours are worn away.

Nowhere have we seen reference to a “covenentally elect” group justified, adopted, and sanctified by virtue of their membership in the visible church by baptism under an “objective covenant” as taught under the Federal Vision. Instead, we see the elect persevering in the sap of which only they partake, and the reprobate burning in the fire which is their just due. In John 15, we clearly see Christ preaching sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, sola Deo gloria!



  1. […] wrote a post to refute the Federal Vision misinterpretation of these verses here. It deals with Jn 15:1-3 pretty heavily, then hits the highlights up through Jn 15:8. Although I […]

  2. […] first point about parables is one that I made some time ago from Calvin relative to John 15:2 and the vine. Lane also wrote on John 15 and Federal Vision. Federal Visionists turn that passage into a botany […]


%d bloggers like this: