If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.
In this section of the Upper Room Discourse (15:1-8), Jesus illustrates discipleship using the metaphor of growing grapes. Jesus presents Himself as the true vine (v 1). Believers are likened to the branches on the vine. God the Father is compared to the one who cultivates the branches so that they produce much fruit.
Abiding in Christ results in bearing spiritual fruit (v 5). There is no such thing as one who abides in Him who doesn’t bear fruit. And, there is no way to bear fruit without abiding in Him.
The language of v 6 is indeed frightening. The non-abiding person is “cast out as a branch,” and then gathered and “thrown into the fire, and…burned”!
Three of the main interpretations of this verse are: (1) Unfruitful believers lose their salvation and they spend eternity in hell. (2) Unfruitful believers prove that they are merely professing believers and not true believers and they spend eternity in hell. (3) Unfruitful believers experience temporal judgment.
The Loss of Salvation View
The loss of salvation view contradicts John 10:27-29, Rom 8:38-39, and many other passages which teach that believers cannot lose their salvation. It is thus an impossible view.
The Lack of Salvation View
While the lack of salvation view does not contradict eternal security—at least not explicitly—it does not match up with the particulars of the passage. For one thing, there were no unbelievers present to hear what Jesus was saying (cf. 13:30). He was talking only to believers, to those whom He had just said were clean (v 4; cf. 13:10).
In addition, only believers are commanded (or able) to abide in Christ (v 4). Unbelievers do not have that which is necessary to abide: spiritual life.
Finally, the second view is also contradicted by other passages which assert that failure is possible in the Christian life (cf. 1 Cor 3:3; 11:30; Gal 6:1ff.; James 5:19-20). The idea that genuine Christians always abide in Christ is something foreign to Scripture.
The Temporal Judgment View
The temporal judgment view fits the particulars of the passage, is consistent with the rest of Scripture, and upholds the doctrine of eternal security.
Jesus was speaking to and about believers, ones who are clean (v 4). It is such people who are commanded to abide and yet may fail to do so.
Fire is a common metaphorin Scripture for both temporal and eternal judgment. Of course, since genuine believers are in view as we have seen, then temporal judgment must be meant here. Believers have passed from death to life and will never come into judgment (John 5:24; cf. John 3:18).
That fire can refer to the temporal judgment of genuine believers is beyond question (cf. Lev 10:2; 1 Cor 3:10-15; Heb 6:7-8; 10:27; Jude 23). In fact, even some Lordship Salvation advocates take this interpretation of our verse. James Montgomery Boice writes, “Burning is not always used of hell, as the passage in 1 Corinthians about works [1 Cor 3:10-15] proves. And it is its association with the destruction of useless works rather than with the loss of salvation that is most appropriate in this passage” (The Gospel of John, 5 vols, vol 4, p. 238).
A common practice of viticulture then and now is the pruning and burning of unproductive branches. Its application to unproductive believers can be easily seen. God chastens those believers who persist in willful disobedience. There are many biblical examples of this very thing (Lev 10:1-7; Ps 32:3-5; Acts 5:111; 1 Cor 11:30; see also, Heb 12:3-11; James 5:20).
It is probably wrong to conclude that the expression “they are burned” refers specifically to physical death. That expression is a translation of the last word in the Greek sentence, kaietai. Had the Lord unequivocally meant that unfruitful believers experience premature physical death, a related Greek verb could easily have been employed by John. If the text had read katakaietai, the meaning would have been, “they are burned up.” Since John chose the softer verb, it is probable that the Lord was referring generally to temporal judgment (which could ultimately result in premature physical death).
We must remember, of course, that not all suffering is because one is under God’s chastening hand. There are many reasons, including persecution as in the case of our Lord and the Apostles, character-production (cf. James 1:2-12), testimony to the unsaved, and revelation of the glory of God (John 9:1-2ff).
There is no biblical formula telling us how to determine if we are under God’s chastening hand or not. However, a good rule to follow is this: if you are suffering, and you are aware of unconfessed sin in your life, then confess and forsake it immediately. On the other hand, if you are unaware of any such sin in your life and you are, to the best of your knowledge, walking with Christ, then pray and ask the Lord to show you if you are overlooking something. Unless something comes to your attention, you can reasonably conclude that your difficulties are not due to some sin in your life.
The grace of God is not a license to sin. Rather, it is a powerful motivation to please God by bearing much fruit. Believers who play with fire will get burned. Sin is fire. Fiery judgment awaits the unfruitful, non-abiding believer.