John 15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 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.”
Over the past few decades I have had the honor of travelling the nation and globe to preach. On one trip, I was pretty heartbroken. A young pastor’s son sat down with me in private after my sermon and said that the whole reason he flew me out was to ask me one question. With tears in his eyes, he asked me if he had lost his salvation and would be cut off and sent to burn in hell. The source of his concern was John 15.
John 15:2 is one of the most difficult New Testament verses to interpret and has caused a great deal of controversy among biblical scholars. Most translations read that God the Father “cuts off” every branch in Jesus that does not bear fruit. Literally, this would mean that every Christian who is not doing enough works to satisfy the Father’s standard of perfection would lose their salvation and be forever cut off from Jesus and sent into the fires of hell (John 15:6).
This sort of teaching has been used to instill fear in Christians that they are in continual danger of losing Gods’ loving grace if they do not do enough for Jesus. Churches teaching this doctrine often resort to legalism and excessive demands upon their people, instructing them that they must earn God’s love and favor by working for it. Subsequently, people instructed under such abusive teaching suffer from a maligned view of God and relationship with Him motivated by fear and disdain rather than love and joy. Such an interpretation of John 15:2, however, runs counter to the rest of Scripture and Jesus’ own teaching throughout John. He often says that he gives us “eternal life”, which denotes it cannot be taken away. Furthermore, He instructs that the people of God rest safely in God’s hand and should never fear losing such security in Him (John 10:28-29).
What then does John 15:2 mean? The word translated “cut off” is used twenty-three times in John’s gospel. On eight occasions, it means “to lift up” (5:8, 9, 10, 12; 8:59; 10:18, 24). On thirteen occasions, it means “take away” or “remove” (11:39, 41, 48; 16:22; 17:15; 19:15, 31, 38; 10:1, 2, 13, 15). In light of context it seems best to translate John 15:2 as “He [God the Father] lifts up every branch in me [Jesus] that bears no fruit…” Therefore, Jesus is not teaching that Christians who fail to do enough works to please God the Father will be cut off and thrown into the fires of hell, but instead Christians failing to bear fruit in their lives are lifted up by the Father so that they will begin to strengthen and bear fruit. In this way, God is a master gardener who wisely cares for fruitless vines and tends to them so they will become healthy and fruitful through such things as instruction, discipline, encouragement etc. Concluding John 15:2, Jesus also tells us that God prunes His people so that nourishment will not be wasted but instead directed for health and life. In this way, the trials and discipline we encounter in our lives are means of God’s love tending to our health.