As I begin to write this I am painfully aware of the plethora of opinions concerning the correct interpretation of this passage. It has been used as support for views along a broad continuum. In my view, this is not true because Jesus lacked clarity in his teaching, but because there is a universal tendency to read one’s theology into biblical texts. I would not dare to suggest that I am immune to that tendency. With that consciousness, I would like to offer a few remarks about Jesus’ teaching in this passage.

In my view, one of the more important considerations in the interpretation of any passage concerns the issue the writer or speaker is discussing. If we fail to understand the question being discussed, it is almost inevitable that we will misinterpret the answer. For example, if we believe Jesus is answering the question, “How can I leap from the carnal Christian life to a life of fruit bearing?” we are going to understand the passage differently than we would if we believe he is showing it is possible for a believer to lose his salvation. Or, perhaps the issue is something else altogether.

It seems to me the key to understanding this passage is to understand Jesus’ “I am” statement with which the passage begins. To understand that statement it is crucial that we comprehend the way in which he and John used the words “true” and “truth” in the fourth Gospel. They did not use these terms in contrast to that which is false or in error but in contrast to that which is typical. For example, when John wrote “. . . the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), there is not the slightest suggestion that John means what Moses wrote was false or in error. Instead, John means Jesus brought the fulfillment of what Moses wrote. In the same way, Jesus said he was the true bread who came down from heaven. He was not suggesting the manna God gave Israel in the desert was not real bread. When he said I am the true bread, he meant he was the fulfillment of that of which the manna was but a fleeting and fading shadow. Just as Israel was sustained physically by feeding on manna, so believers are sustained spiritually as we go on feeding on Jesus by faith. When he says we must worship God in truth, Jesus does not mean we are to worship according to the Scriptures, though it should be clear to anyone that worship that is contrary to Scripture will not be acceptable to God. He means that the time has come when his people will no longer worship God according to the types and shadows of the Mosaic system. They must now worship God according to the reality of fulfillment.

Now the question is this. If Jesus is the true vine, who was the typical vine and what is his reason for introducing this teaching to his disciples? There are several passages in both Testaments that put the answer to the first question beyond doubt. Consider Isaiah 5; Psalm 80: 8ff; Matt. 21: 33; Luke 20: 9ff; Mark 12. It is clear the vine was the nation of Israel. God not only planted this chosen vine on a fruitful hill, but he clearly had a right to expect fruit from this vine. He built a wine press in his vineyard because he had a right to expect fruit from his vine. Yet, when the time of harvest arrived, the vine brought forth sour grapes.

What Jesus is saying is that he is the true Israel who, by his perfect obedience to God’s covenant, has produced the fruit God had the right to expect from Israel but did not receive. Additionally, he is saying that not only has he produced good grapes [the fruit of obedience] but also that in union with him his disciples would also produce fruit that is pleasing to God. They were not to trust their physical heritage to enable them to produce fruit. They, like Nicodemus, needed to be born again. They needed to be called into union [fellowship) with Jesus Christ. Only in union with the true vine would they be able to produce any fruit at all, much less “much fruit.”

Their duty was very simple. It was not that they were to try to produce fruit, but that, through faith, they were to remain in union with him. For most people “abiding” is a word they can only say in a hushed and holy tone. For them it is some sort of mystical, ethereal experience that is reserved for only the most holy. In reality, abiding [the word simply means to remain] must be the experience of every child of God. Jesus is teaching us there is never a time when it will be safe for us to give up our confident reliance on him. Genuine faith is persevering faith. There are those like Judas who have never had a vital union with Jesus. These are to be cast into the fire and burned.

Now, I have said all that to say this. The context is all about union with Christ. When Jesus says, “. . .for without me you can do nothing” (A.V.), he does not mean without my help you can do nothing, although that is certainly true. He means that just as a branch cannot produce any fruit if it is severed from the vine, you cannot bear fruit if severed from me. Apart from me you can do nothing. In other words, he is saying that the person who is not in union with him cannot produce a single work of obedience to God and is incapable of pleasing God in any way. I quote now from the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, Article 3, “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is).”

To me, that would mean that as long as a person is in union with Adam and not in union with Christ he has no ability to produce any obedience that is pleasing to God. That inability “to do anything that is truly good” would include the sinner’s inability to believe the gospel. Now, mind you, this is not the statement of a rabid Calvinist, but of the original Arminians.

Now my question is a simple one. When and under what circumstances does Jesus teach us we are able to produce fruit (including faith) that is pleasing to God? It seems to me the only answer one can give to this question is that we can only “do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is) if we are united to Christ.

Now the question remains, how does a person come into union with Christ? The Scriptures do not leave us to wonder about the answer to that question. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship [participation] of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). Throughout the chapter Paul writes about God’s call as that which distinguishes believers from unbelievers. It separates those who continue to view the message of Christ as foolishness and a stumbling block from those to whom Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God. Paul’s use of the word “call” cannot be a reference to the outward proclamation of the gospel—the universal call. Those Jews and Greeks who went on regarding the message of Christ as a stumbling block and folly are the very ones who had been called outwardly by the preaching of the gospel. It would make absolutely no sense to say “These who have heard the outward call of the gospel continue to consider this message as a stumbling block and foolishness, but to those who have heard the outward call of the gospel, Christ is the wisdom and power of God. Instead, there is a clear contrast in these verses between those who have heard the message of the gospel and those who have also been “called.” It is God’s call that distinguishes between those who believe and those who continue in their rebellion.

In agreement with this, Paul wrote in verses twenty-nine and thirty, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness, and sanctification and redemption,”

It must not escape our attention that Paul did not write that it is by your cooperation with the universal prevenient grace of God that you are in Christ. By your libertarian free will you have distinguished yourself from the rest of mankind who continue in unbelief though they have been given equal grace with you. Paul seems to have had no difficulty expressing himself. I am fairly certain he could have formed such a sentence had he wished to do so.

Charles Hodge wrote,

It is to be referred to him [God] alone that ye are in Christ. Your conversion or saving union with Christ is not due to yourselves; it is not because you are wiser, or better, or more diligent than others that you are thus distinguished. This which is the turning point in theology, and therefore in religion, is here most explicitly asserted. And it is not only asserted, but it is declared to be the purpose of God to make it apparent, and to force all men to acknowledge it. He so dispenses his grace as to make men see with regard to others, and to acknowledge with regard to themselves, that the fact that they are in Christ, or true Christians, is due to him and not to themselves.

Nothing but union with Christ delivers from sin’s bondage. Paul’s argument in Romans six is that believers are no longer under sin’s reign, because we have been united with Christ in both his death and resurrection. He wrote, “We know that our old self [all that we were in union with Adam] was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6). It doesn’t seem to me that bondage under the dominion of sin is a very good way to describe libertarian free will. In truth, it is not until God calls us into union with his Son that he breaks sin’s tyranny and enables us to receive Christ gladly and freely as he is offered in the gospel. “Apart from him, you can do nothing.”


6 Responses to “I AM THE TRUE VINE”

  1. February 14, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Most excellent presentation! So many get lost in their presuppositions, which inherently are based in human pride, that they cannot see the truth of a given passage of Scripture. Your comments about abiding in Christ and being in union with Christ are the central focus of this passage and the entire Christian life. I will have to check and see which book I read these points in, but they are a wonderful reminder no matter who first wrote them. Our Union with Christ provides these benefits.

    1. Found in Christ (Phil 3:9)
    2. Preserved in Christ (Rom 8:39)
    3. Saved and Sanctified in Christ (2 Tim 1:9, 1 Cor 1:30)
    4. Walk in Christ (Col 2:6)
    5. Labor in Christ (1 Cor 15:58)
    6. Obey in Christ (Eph 6:1)
    7. Die in Christ (Rev 14:13)
    8. Live in Christ (Gal 2:20)
    9. Conquer in Christ (Rom 8:37)

  2. 4 Peace and Grace
    February 16, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Paul Dohse’s latest tweet: Sunday after Sunday you listen to those who think the new birth makes you a blood-sucking parasite “resting and feeding” on Christ? Why?

    Outside of Reformed teaching is union in Christ understood?

    • February 16, 2015 at 5:04 pm

      Few offer such a splendid display of biblical ignorance as Dohse. The man has gone from bad to worse. If his ungodly remarks are not blasphemous, blasphemy doesn’t exist,

      Sent from my iPad


    • February 16, 2015 at 5:20 pm

      Randy Seiver (@newcovenanttheo)
      2/16/15, 11:16 AM
      @PaulMDohse “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, will also live because of me.” Jn. 6:57

      Sent from my iPad


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