Posted By Andrew Webb
In a recent reply to me entitled “The Demands of the System” Doug Wilson once again shows the FV tendency to attempt to set the Reformed Confessions against scripture, alleging that those opposed to the ever-developing Federal Vision theology use them as a “Procrustean bed for Bible verses” where “Verses are stretched or lopped off in order to fit their idea of the system.”
He then produces bible verses he believes prove that I and my crusty old confessions are wrong and that some reprobates are genuinely united to Christ and saved “in some sense” and then later cut off. Presumably Wilson believes that I, and the Confessions, were unaware of these verses or that I simply chose to “chop them off” in order to make them fit my preconceived notions about salvation. I want to assure Pastor Wilson that both I and the men who composed the Reformed Confessions I was referring to had encountered those verses before. In fact, I’ve even had them produced triumphantly to prove that I am wrong to believe that all who are genuinely united to Christ and Justified will persevere in the faith. The only difference being that in the past the people producing them to prove that the “perseverance of the saints” was baloney did not for a moment claim to be Reformed, they were either Arminians or Roman Catholics (not that Arminians have never claimed to be Reformed, Arminius did not call himself an Arminian, he called himself Reformed, and he pastored Reformed churches and taught in a Reformed seminary.) I should be grateful to Pastor Wilson in that he didn’t produce other verses I’m used to seeing like Ezekiel 18:24-29 and Hebrews 6:4-6.
In any event, because Wilson isn’t impressed with Reformed Confessions which are supposed to express the agreement of Reformed believers regarding the teaching of scripture, nor is he impressed much with what Reformed theologians like Calvin and Owen have to say about the verses he brings out, I’m forced to go the same route one does when defending the the teaching of the scriptures to those outside the Reformed faith, i.e. a re-exegeting and explanation of the scriptures. I don’t mind doing that even though I don’t really have the time because I love the Word of God, but the sad fact is that nothing is likely to be gained from this, as I have no doubt Wilson will be no more likely to agree with my exegesis of the main scripture he refers to (John 15:1-2, 6) than that of Owen, Calvin, or the Westminster divines. Incidentally, I didn’t originally come to the conclusion that those truly united to Christ persevere from reading the Westminster Confession or from Calvin, I got it from reading the bible where I rejoiced in the assurance given by scriptures like Romans 8:29-39, John 10:27-30, and Phil. 1:6 For that matter I wasn’t raised in the Reformed faith, or the church at all, nor was I nurtured under the teachings of the Confession, but can honestly answer that although it was Sproul who first pointed out to me that what I was coming to believe about the teaching of the bible was Reformed, like Whitefield I got my Calvinism not from Calvin but from the Bible.
This parable gives us the last of Christ’s many “I am” statements which include “the bread of life”, “the light of the world”, “the door”, “the good shepherd”, “the resurrection and the life”, “the way the truth and the life,” and finally here “the true vine.” Not to be forgotten in this list however, is Christ’s definitive statement from John 8:58 that He is the I AM (ego eimi), a clear statement of His Divinity hearkening back to God’s self-revelation of Himself to Moses in Exodus 3. Each of these statements couples Christ’s declaration of His divinity with a great truth about Himself and His mission. There is always a great danger of forgetting, however, that these statements are allegories and usually couched in parables, so in interpreting them we must ever keep his central point in view and not try to squeeze teachings out of the lesser details that Christ did not intend and which would contradict His teachings elsewhere. The great rule we must always apply is that scripture interprets scripture, and where a doctrine is uncertain in one portion of scripture, we should go to other areas where it that doctrine is more clearly taught on. Above all, we should strive not to atomistically interpret a verse so that it contradicts other clearer verses.
In these verses Christ declares that He is the True Vine, the emphasis on “true” almost certainly pointing us back to the fact that Israel in the Old Testament was frequently pictured as a Vine (Is. 5:1-7, etc.) and the father as the Vinedresser. A quick review of the vine texts in the OT however, reveals that the vine God planted and had hoped would be fruitful usually turned out to be faithless and fruitless, but now Christ the true Vine that Israel foreshadowed has come, and those truly in Him will never prove to be fruitless for they are vitally united to Him and He is the source of their fruitfulness. [Interestingly, the source of this union with Christ, is nowhere identified in the parable as baptism, rather if any explanation is to be had for its inauguration we would find it identified by Christ in verse 3 as being “because of the word which I have spoken to you.” And indeed in the gospel of John, union with Christ (being in Him) is always effected via regeneration (being born again from above) and faith, not baptism.] However, some of the branches in the parable are devoid of this power and therefore fruitless, there is no vital union between them and Christ, they are only externally in the vine but not part of it, they are “dead branches” that the Divine Vinedresser removes.
At this point, no doubt Pastor Wilson and the other FV men will insist that I cannot assert that these branches that were cut off never had a vital, or living union with Christ, because he says they were “in me.” After perusing no less than 12 Reformed commentaries on the passage dating from the 16th century to the 21st, I have found that they all essentially answer the objection by stating what should be obvious; namely that this is a parable, that it is clearly addressing the issue from the “man’s eye perspective,” that all true believers bear good fruit (John 15:16, Luke 6:43, etc.), that this would contradict clearer passages, and so on. But since it clearly isn’t obvious to Doug Wilson, I’ll go ahead and quote one of the many able commentators, D.A. Carson, on the subject:
“But the latter view, that these dead branches are apostate Christians, must confront the strong evidence within John that true disciples are preserved to the end (e.g. notes on 6:37-40; 10:28). It is more satisfactory to recognize that asking the in me language to settle such disputes is to push the vine imagery too far. The transparent purpose of the verse is to insist that there are no true Christians without some measure of fruit. Fruitfulness is an infallible mark of true Christianity; the alternative is dead wood, and the exigencies of the vine metaphor make it necessary that such wood be connected to the vine.”
[D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 1991, p.515]
Now, while I was unable to find any Reformed commentators who agreed with Doug Wilson’s take on these verses, that is not to say that there aren’t any commentators who don’t agree with him. For instance, this commentator appears to track perfectly with Wilson’s exegesis:
“Every branch in Me, &c., i.e., every Christian who by faith and baptism has been as it were a vine-branch grafted into Me, if he bear not the fruit of good works, God the Father will take him away, i.e., will cut off from the Vine the unfruitful and worthless branch. This He does both by secretly severing him from the communication of the Spirit and grace of Christ, and also by publicly separating him from Christ by means of excommunication, or by permitting him to fall into heresy. And thus in death He separates him from the company of Christ and His saints.” – CORNELIUS À LAPIDE
Even Arminian commentators like Wesley, while agreeing that the branches were once truly united to Christ, do not point to the sacrament of baptism as the means by which they were truly united to Him. To find that kind of agreement one must go back to the Roman Catholic commentators.
Apart from being able to counter the notion that John 15:1-2, 6 teaches that those truly united to Christ and enjoying the benefits of his redemption may be cut off with verses like the much clearer John 6:37 “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” or John 10:27-29 one can also appeal to Christ’s own words from Matthew 7:23 to church members who although they did many works in his name never bore good fruits (and that would be precisely those branches that are cut off in the parable) “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” Is Pastor Wilson really ready to support the notion although they were supposedly “really united to Christ” and thus “His Sheep” via their baptism and membership in the church, they were none-the-less NEVER KNOWN BY HIM? What then do we make of John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.”
I could go on to note all the problems inherent in assuming that those for whom Christ died might someday be lost, for as John Owen reminds us “No person, therefore, whatever, who hath not been made partaker of the washing of regeneration and the renovation of the Holy Ghost, can possibly have any union with Christ.” and how those united and cut off would have a right to cry out “For what are we condemned? Was not the blood of Christ that cleansed us sufficient to atone for all our sins?” But I’ll leave that for another post.
Instead, let me leave with a comment from a genuinely Reformed commentator on the subject of apostates who makes a simple point that anyone who understands and affirms the true nature of Union with Christ can probably immediately grasp:
“There are myriads of professing Christians in every Church whose union with Christ is only outward and formal. Some of them are joined to Christ by baptism and Church-membership. Some of them go even further than this, and are regular communicants and loud talkers about religion. But they all lack the one thing needful. Notwithstanding services, and sermons, and sacrament, they have no grace in their hearts, no faith, no inward work of the Holy Spirit. They are not one with Christ, and Christ in them. Their union with Him is only nominal, and not real. They have “a name to live,” but in the sight of God they are dead.” – J.C. Ryle