The Vine, the Branches, and Catholic Justification

Today’s Gospel is John 15:1-8:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

I think this succinctly captures the Catholic view on justification. We can do nothing apart from God’s grace. We can’t even turn to God to ask for His grace without first having His grace. Any refutation of this premise leads you right into at least Semi-Pelagianism. So God must make the first move. I highlighted in blue the parts of the passage which I thought supported that part. In this, Catholics and Calvinists are in total agreement, while differing (perhaps) from certain other Protestants, as I understand it.

The other part to justification, where Calvinists and Catholics diverge, is the ability of the saved to become un-saved. In one sense, once saved always saved is true: your name either is, or isn’t, in the Book of Life, and an omniscient and omnipotent God doesn’t need an eraser. When He needs to erase something, it’s our sins, and He does it with the blood of Christ. But in another senes, a person can genuinely be on the right track, and fall off or deviate. The parts in red highlight this.

Christ is describing those who were truly branches, but who got cut off and tossed into Hell because of their fruitlessness. In the James 2 discussion, I’ve heard more than one Calvinist say that faith without works isn’t really faith, so it doesn’t contradict sola fide. That seems like a “No True Scotsman” argument if ever there was one. It seems to me at times that you might as well say that one is saved by being saved.

Plus, it cuts against the way the term faith is used in the Bible. All of those who write on the role of faith, including Paul, acknowledge that faith can exist by itself, but that it’s insufficient.

  • St. Paul says, “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). He doesn’t say, “if I have not love, I don’t have true faith.” He acknowleges a genuine faith to move mountains can exist. It just isn’t enough by itself.
  • Likewise, St. James says, “just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). A dead body is still a body.
  • And I think that what Jesus is saying in the red portions comports with this. There are those who were truly members of the vine, who get sheared away: once saved, now damned.

Finally, I think the part in green explains the why. A lot of monergists are opposed to synergism because it makes it seem as if God needs our help. It’s easy to look at our track record, and at God’s, and say, “Wait… You want me to do this?? Are you sure you don’t just want to do this Yourself?” But I think that the part in green is His reassuring us that our bearing fruit glorifies God. Some day, we’ll get to enjoy full union with God in Heaven. Until then, He’s called disciples for a reason.

1 Comment

  1. I need clarification on this because I think I’m misunderstanding you. You write, “We can do nothing apart from God’s grace. We can’t even turn to God to ask for His grace without first having His grace…….It seems to me at times that you might as well say that one is saved by being saved.” I’m totally on board with this. The joke of course is – One Point Calvinism – God Saves Sinners. But then you go onto to say, “Christ is describing those who were truly branches, but who got cut off and tossed into Hell because of their fruitlessness.” Here you, I believe, are referring back to the notion of “the ability of the saved to become un-saved.”

    This doesn’t make sense to me logically. How is it that I (as a free agent) cannot initiate my own salvation but require God to do so…yet, I (as a free agent) DO have the power to undo that salvation?

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I actually don’t think your are saying one can be “unsaved.” Nor do I think you’re saying that Jesus was referring to “those who were truly branches” as actually being saved and then made “unsaved.” Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what you might be saying is that being a branch is more akin to being “in the family” or “in the church,” but that being in community doesn’t make one saved. Additionally, I think you’re also saying that no one actually ever loses their salvation, but that some falsely lay claim to it at one point in their lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *