Question: "Does the vine and branches passage in John 15 mean that salvation can be lost?"
Answer: In John 15 Jesus uses the relationship of branches to the vine to illustrate our relationship to Him: “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. . . . If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (verses 1–2, 6).
Many take the verses about the fruitless branches being taken away and burned as a proof-text that salvation can be lost. The teaching is that a person who was at one time in Christ might later cease to “abide in Christ” and become good for nothing; that person is then cut off and burned up. Now, if the parable of the vine and the branches were the only passage that addressed the issue of eternal security, then we might have good reason to fear that salvation could be lost. However, this is not the only passage in Scripture that addresses security and assurance, nor is it the only passage in John where these issues are addressed.
There are several passages in John where the security of the believer is clearly assured (John 3:16–17; 6:35–40; 10:27–29). This is an issue that we find throughout the Bible. There are passages that speak of the security of the believer in very explicit terms and others that would make one wonder if salvation cannot be lost after all. It is always best to interpret more obscure passages in light of clearer passages. Since John 15 is in the form of an allegory, it is best to let the clearer passages inform our understanding.
The background of Jesus’ words in John 15 is most likely the Old Testament imagery where Israel is called a vine or vineyard—although one that did not produce the expected fruit (see Isaiah 5:1–7). Jesus replaces Israel with Himself as the “true vine.” Unlike Israel, Jesus will not fail to produce fruit in all the branches that are connected to Him. The point of Jesus’ metaphor is that He will succeed where Israel failed. The disciples simply need to be connected to Him. According to John 15, it is unthinkable that any branch who is connected to Christ will fail to produce fruit. Yet, according to the illustration, some branches “in Him” will not produce fruit and be taken away. There seems to be a contradiction within the illustration itself that would warn us not to press the details too far.
The apparent problem is the same with all of the other passages in Scripture that warn Christians about falling away. If a true Christian cannot lose salvation, why warn about falling away? The best explanation is that these warnings are directed toward professing Christians who appear, at least outwardly, to be connected to the Vine. They are branches in the vicinity of the Vine, but there is a disconnect. Judas Iscariot is a good example of a false professor. The parable of the seed and the soils (Matthew 13) presents young plants that seem to start out well but then wither away. The book of Hebrews, with its many warning passages, seems to be directed at those who have made an initial positive response to Jesus but are considering turning back. They are like the children of Israel who left in the exodus with Moses but then refused to enter the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:16–19). They started out on the journey but didn’t complete it.
Based on outward appearances at any given moment, it may be difficult to tell genuine believers (connected in vital unity with the True Vine) from those who have merely attached themselves to some of the trappings of Christianity. However, time will tell the difference, because the genuine believer attached to the True Vine will bear fruit. A false professor appears to be attached but does not bear fruit, and it’s the lack of fruit that shows a branch is not receiving the fruit-bearing energy that comes from attachment to the Vine. Regardless of how attached this branch may appear to be on the surface, it is lacking the one absolute evidence of attachment—fruit! That “branch” should not console himself with false notions that he is attached, because his lack of fruit bears condemning evidence against him. In this case, the branch was never really attached in the first place. The metaphor (or allegory) of the vine and the branches can only be pressed so far.