I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. (John 15:1-2)
Whatever else one wants to say about these verses, I think we may reliably insist that they make hash of the Protestant view of sola fide. First we have branches which are in Jesus. There is no distinction here between branches that bear fruit and those that don’t. Both are clearly assumed to be in Jesus, and really if any doubt about this fact existed it would have far more to do with the branches that do bear fruit (because they are not explicitly declared to be “in Jesus”). What does it mean to be in Jesus? I would say that it obviously means that the person in question is a genuine believer. Does it make any sense on the Protestant’s terms to say that a person of any stripe could be in Jesus and yet go to hell? To ask the question is to answer it, isn’t it? So we really must say that all the branches in this passage are genuine Spirit-filled Christians.
Once that point is conceded (and I do not see how it can be reasonably avoided) the trouble begins for the Protestant, and especially for the Reformed Protestant. In the first place, a judgment is made about them based upon their fruitfulness. Those that are unfruitful get taken away. The implication seems pretty obvious from here: we are judged based on what we do. If we bear no fruit, God removes us from the True Vine. The consequences seem equally obvious for the Protestant’s sola fide: if we are judged based upon the fruit we produce then we are certainly not getting to heaven based solely on Luther and Calvin’s justification by faith alone. It isn’t possible.
Secondly, this passage drives a Mack truck through the Calvinist notion of “perseverance of the saints” (according to which “the Elect” are assured of going to heaven). There is no rational way, so far as I can tell or imagine, to say that the fruitless branches are in Christ in a way that differs from the fruitful ones in this passage. The only distinction made between the two has to do with their fruitfulness. Consequently it seems quite obvious here that any Christian could be pruned away for fruitlessness; any Christian could lose his salvation. But if this is so, then the Reformed doctrine of perseverance of the saints is just plain false.
Lastly, I think it is worth observing that even the fruitful branches get pruned. Even when we are doing good, and seeking to love God and neighbor just as we should, God trims us back in order to make us even more fruitful for Him and for His kingdom. In other words, we should expect to suffer in this life. This is just what Scripture teaches us in a variety of places; we will content ourselves with one or two examples:
Jesus said, ‘In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—and persecutions too—now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.’ (Mark 10:29-30; emphasis added)
My dear friends, do not be taken aback at the testing by fire which is taking place among you, as though something strange were happening to you; but in so far as you share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, so that you may enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for bearing Christ’s name, blessed are you, for on you rests the Spirit of God, the Spirit of glory. None of you should ever deserve to suffer for being a murderer, a thief, a criminal or an informer; but if any one of you should suffer for being a Christian, then there must be no shame but thanksgiving to God for bearing this name. (1 Peter 4:12-16; emphasis added)
Suffering is something that we should expect as Christians, as St. Peter hints in 1 Peter 4:18: “If it is hard for the upright to be saved, what will happen to the wicked and to sinners?” (emphasis added) And Hebrews 12:5b-6: “My son, do not scorn correction from the Lord, do not resent his training, for the Lord trains those he loves, and chastises every son he accepts.” This is the pruning of which Jesus speaks in John 15. When we are fruitful for God, we should not be surprised to experience suffering or pruning, permitted by our Lord so that we may be still more fruitful for Him.
Does this sound like fun? Well, not to me. It sounds downright intimidating, to be honest. But this is the nature of the Christian life. We are Christ’s Body, and He suffered horribly in His Body; we should not expect to be exempt. We can expect that God will reward our pains suffered in Christ, though (see Mark 10 above, for starters). May God grant us grace to suffer patiently as our Lord suffered patiently for us.