by Al Maxey

Issue #580 ------- July 3, 2013
A clean heart is a free heart!
Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

Already You Are Clean
Reflective Study of John 15:3

In the "Readers' Reflections" section of my last Reflections, the final entry was from a reader in Georgia who asked a question about the significance of the fact that there is no mention in the NT writings of the original apostles (the Twelve, less Judas) having been baptized in water following Pentecost (or even before, for that matter). Some have wondered if they actually were "baptized into Christ," or if this was unnecessary for them, since they were a special group of men who had been with Him from the beginning of His earthly ministry. Others emphatically declare that these men HAD to have been immersed in water, for that, they insist, is the very means of one's eternal salvation. Thus, they maintain, the apostles would have been damned to "the fires of hell" had they NOT been baptized. Since the Bible is silent on whether or not they were baptized, it must be assumed, they say, that they were (quite the opposite view, by the way, from their standard position with respect to biblical silence, which they insist always prohibits or negates ... although apparently not in this particular case).

With regard to this question raised by the reader in Georgia, a reader from the state of Texas wrote, "This brings to mind what Jesus said to the Eleven in John 15:3, after Judas had left them that evening: He told them that they were 'already clean;' that they were already IN Him, and that they were, therefore, to remain in Him." This individual raises an interesting point, and one, by the way, that biblical scholars in this debate have proffered for centuries: if these men were already clean in the sight of the Lord, and already in Him, thus in a saved state, did they need to be baptized? Perhaps this declaration by Jesus as to the fact that in His sight they were already clean precluded their need for a future baptism, and therefore explains why no mention of such a baptism is to be found in the NT writings. This whole line of reasoning, of course, is based on a number of assumptions: water baptism is what cleanses one of sin; water baptism is what saves one from eternal destruction; water baptism is what places one in covenant relationship with deity; water baptism is a sacrament of the church; the apostles were suddenly "unclean" during the weeks between Jesus' passion and Pentecost, and thus in need of being cleansed anew; the apostles were suddenly no longer "in Him" during this time, and thus had to "get back into Him" via baptism; etc. A lot of assumptions here. Thus, it behooves us to examine carefully and prayerfully what Jesus said to the Eleven on that evening many years ago just prior to His arrest and crucifixion.

The scene is the upper room in the city of Jerusalem where Jesus and His disciples had just finished observing the final Passover He would share with them, and during which He took bread and wine and instituted what has come to be known today as the Lord's Supper (Communion, Eucharist). He had previously washed the feet of the disciples, including the feet of Judas Iscariot, who had now left the upper room to make his way to the Jewish leaders to betray Him. He had not yet arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:1), however there is some evidence He and the disciples may have left the upper room for that location (John 14:31b). During this time, as they may have been walking along, He had much to share with His devoted inner circle of disciples. It was during the course of this dialogue that He made the statement under consideration in this current Reflections. Using the analogy of a vine and its branches, Jesus informed the Eleven that He is the vine and they are the branches (John 15:5), and that apart from Him they would be unable to produce the kind of spiritual fruit the Father (who is the Gardener/Vinedresser -- John 15:1) seeks. Thus, just as a branch must be physically attached to the life-giving vine to bear fruit, so must a man be spiritually attached to Jesus to bear fruit for the Father. "No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:4b-5). In this context, Jesus gave these Eleven some fabulous, encouraging news. He informed them: "Already you are clean!" (John 15:3), and He then challenged them: "Remain in Me, and I will remain in you" (John 15:4a). Because of the relationship they had with Him, they were regarded as "clean." They are then called to remain in that relationship, which Scripture, history and tradition testifies they did for the remainder of their lives. Clearly, they were "already," so said Jesus, "abiding in Him," and thereby were regarded by deity as "clean" in His sight.

Obviously, this raises a serious challenge to the view that, following the Lord's departure, these men were considered impure, lost, and bound straight for hell until such time as they "got to the water" in order to get "into Christ" and be "cleansed" of their sins. Even though Jesus Himself stated that they "already" possessed both realities, some men will nevertheless still declare our Savior's assessment to be untrue; that such assurance would/could only come to them later upon their completion of the act of water baptism. Yet, the New Covenant record is utterly silent on any of these men having submitted to that baptism. A strange omission, it would seem, IF the precise split-second of their cleansing and incorporation into a relationship with Jesus occurred AT the point of immersion in water. NOT a strange omission, however, IF they were "already" regarded by the Lord as clean and in relationship with Him by virtue of their acceptance of Him and His Word by faith. Thus, again, John 15:3 is a critical passage in this whole debate about precisely at what point, and through what process, the Lord regards one as cleansed and in relationship with Him. As one might well imagine, some interesting and rather creative textual and interpretive manipulation and maneuvering has taken place over the centuries to try and reconcile this passage with personal and party perceptions and preferences.

First, there are some word plays in Greek that should not be overlooked here in this passage. In John 15:2 Jesus says that the Vinedresser (identified as being the Father -- vs. 1) "cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." The first term in Greek is airo, and the second term looks and sounds very similar: kathairo (indeed, it is the first word, but with the addition of the preposition kata as a prefix). The first term signifies that something is cut off completely, while the second term pictures a trimming back of something, but not a complete severing. The second term, therefore, could suggest a 'cleaning up" of a branch, while the first term indicates a "clearing away" of a branch. Thus, a branch is cleaned/pruned to bring about more productivity from an already functioning, fruit-bearing branch, while a branch is cut off/severed to forever dispose of a nonproductive branch. The difference is major, and is literally the difference between life and death.

The message is this: if we are not bearing spiritual fruit for the Lord, we are severed from the Vine (Jesus) and we are destroyed; if we are bearing spiritual fruit for the Lord, then the Vinedresser (God) trims and grooms us (through the operation of the Holy Spirit -- His "Pruning Shears") so that we might bear even more fruit (the fruit being the fruit of the Spirit, which is primarily LOVE, but also the many evidentiary aspects of that divine quality that He seeks to replicate in us). Larry Deason, in his commentary on John's gospel record, made this astute observation: "The 'fruit-bearing' of which Jesus speaks is the growth of love" [That You May Have Life: An In-Depth Study of the Gospel of John, p. 316]. This certainly fits the context, for after giving the "vine and branches" analogy, and speaking of "pruning" and "fruit-bearing," Jesus then immediately speaks of remaining in His love and showing forth His love to others. He then states that He chose them and appointed them "to go and bear fruit -- fruit that will last. ... This is My command: Love each other" (John 15:16-17). Yes, the fruit of the Spirit is LOVE -- a love that has many qualities and characteristics which may be evidenced daily in our interactions with others (Gal. 5:22-23; 1 Cor. 13:1-8a) to His glory and their edification. If we are true branches in the Vine (the Son), pruned by the Vinedresser (the Father) with His holy shears (the Spirit), we will be producing an abundance of refreshing fruit (LOVE) for those around us to enjoy.

There is another word play in this passage also. It is between the word translated "prune" (vs. 2) and the word translated "clean" (vs. 3). The word in John 15:2, as already noted, is kathairo, while the word used in John 15:3 is katharos. Indeed, the noted Greek scholar Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, in his classic work The Expositor's Greek Testament, opines that "the use of kathairo in vs. 2 was probably determined by the use of katharos in vs. 3" [vol. 1, p. 829]. John 15:3 reads: "Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you" [English Standard Version]. As Jesus looked lovingly upon the Eleven (Judas had already departed), He beheld a group of men He had groomed for three years with His influence and teaching: a group pruned by the Holy Spirit. He saw branches that were not perfect, but pruned and ready for the task that lay before them: bearing the fruit of divine love to a lost world! Thus, He declared them to be IN HIM (they were branches connected intimately to the Vine), and He declared them to be CLEAN, and He charged them to REMAIN IN HIM that they might continue to bear fruit for the Father. A few hours earlier, during the foot-washing event, Jesus had said, "You are clean, though not every one of you" (John 13:10). Why this qualification? Because Judas Iscariot was still present. By the time of the discourse in John 15, however, Judas is gone (some see this as an example of a "cut off" branch mentioned in John 15:2), and thus the previous qualifier is no longer needed. Now, as Jesus looks at the remaining apostles, He can declare, "You are clean." He did not say that one day in the near or distant future they would become clean, but rather that they were already clean! The Word and the Spirit had done their work; these men were ready. No, not perfect (none of us are), but they were pruned!! They were branches IN THE VINE (Jesus), and as such were alive and ready to be productive. No need for a future adding to the Vine -- they were already IN HIM; no need for a future cleansing -- they were declared CLEAN ALREADY.

The Greek word used in John 15:3, as noted above, is katharos. It appears 28 times within the pages of the New Covenant writings, and in most English versions it is translated in every instance by the words "clean" or "pure." It means "free from impure admixture, without blemish, spotless" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 1156]. "Clean, pure, unsoiled; guiltless, innocent; unfeigned, virtuous, void of evil" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 206]. It is the word Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, "Blessed are the pure in heart" (Matt. 5:8). It is the word Peter used when he wrote, "Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God" (1 Peter 1:22-23). Peter, like Jesus (perhaps he was remembering the Lord's statement), declared their "cleanness/purity" to be associated with and evidenced by LOVE, and to be in keeping with their union with the Vine through acceptance of the divine Word. JESUS is that "WORD become flesh" (John 1:14), who was in the beginning with God and who was God (John 1:1), and whenever and wherever we embrace Him by faith we become branches in the Vine in the vineyard of the eternal Vinedresser, pruned and prepared to produce the fruit of LOVE (which love is a reflection of the very essence of the nature of God the Father, and which has been perfectly patterned for us in the life and teaching of the Living Word: Jesus the Son).

A few biblical scholars, however, many of whom embrace sacramentalist theology (and thus regard baptism as one of the salvific sacraments of the Christian dispensation), are greatly disturbed by this statement of our Lord in John 15:3. To pronounce these men "clean" and "pure" in the sight of the Lord "already," and to indicate that they already abide IN HIM (charging them to remain in that state), goes against their view that one may only be "clean" and "pure" and "in Him" via the sacrament of water baptism. Compounding their consternation is the fact that the NT writings nowhere indicate these men were ever baptized in water for the purposes suggested by the sacramentalists. Yes, their theology dictates, even demands, that they assume the Eleven were, but there is absolutely no biblical evidence to substantiate that assumption and assertion. And then there is the "monkey wrench" of John 15:3. What are they to do with this "inconvenient truth"?! The "solution" has been to remove the Lord's statement from a discussion of personal/individual cleanness and relationship with Him, and to regard it as a simple statement pertaining to group cleanness and relationship with Him. In other words, the group was unclean as a result of the presence of Judas Iscariot in their midst (he was the leaven that polluted the group). With Judas now gone, Jesus pronounces the group "cleaned up" of the "dead branch," and thus now fit to go forth and produce good fruit for the kingdom. By making the whole passage a discussion primarily about Judas, this allows the sacramentalist to continue to insist that the apostles individually were still in an unsaved state (thus "unclean" and "outside" of Christ Jesus) until such time as they "got to a baptistery" following Pentecost. THEN, and only then, these sacramentalists claim, were the apostles regarded by the Lord as being IN HIM and "clean."

These two major perspectives have been the cause of heated debate for centuries. Those who believe we are saved as a gift by grace through faith, and not as a result of any act/work we ourselves may accomplish to achieve salvation, perceive our Lord's statement in John 15:3 to be a declaration as to the spiritual condition of each apostle: they were already clean and they had their abode "in Him." The other camp, however, believes Jesus was only commenting on the fact that the Twelve were "cleaned up" (pruned of the dead branch) by the cutting off of Judas Iscariot, but that they were still lost until they submitted to baptism following Pentecost. The first group of scholars find some validation for their view in the fact that nowhere does the biblical text indicate these men were ever baptized. The latter group, in the face of such silence, makes what they perceive to be the only "logical" assumption (given their theology) -- these men HAD to be immersed, or they would go to hell. Thus, they were baptized, whether the Bible ever says they were or not. An assumption of faith, therefore, trumps non-assertion of fact. Hardly a "sound" way to substantiate one's theology.

To try and support this sacramentalist view of the text, some versions have opted to translate katharos ("clean, pure") in verse 3 as "prune" (as if it were the same term used in the previous verse -- which, by the way, it is not). The Message, for example, reads, "You are already pruned back." The Complete Jewish Bible reads similarly, "Right now you are pruned." This is an attempt to divorce the Greek term from its primary meaning of "clean, pure," and make it appear that it has more to do with the pruning of Judas from the Twelve. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) wrote, "Their society was clean, now that Judas was expelled by that word of Christ - 'What thou doest, do quickly;' and till they were got clear of him they were not all clean" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) says much the same: "The 'now' seems to refer to the removal and taking away of that withered and unfruitful branch, Judas. Christ had told His disciples in John 13:10 that they 'were clean, but not all,' because the betrayer was among them; but he being discovered by Christ, and ordered by Him to be gone, went out from among them about his wicked design; and 'now' Christ could say of them all that they were clean" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. One of the obvious failings of this interpretation is that "the word" in this verse ("Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you") is said to have reference to the statement made by Jesus to Judas: "What thou doest, do quickly." Very few scholars believe this is the correct interpretation of "the word" by which they were made clean. Such a view of "the word" here is a rather large exegetical stretch. It also reduces the meaning of the word katharos, whose primary meaning is "clean, pure," to "prune" (the primary meaning of the word [kathairo] used in the previous verse), which also is a bit of exegetical manipulation that is unwarranted. And all of this so that they might have some wiggle room to perhaps give some degree of credibility to an assumption that the Eleven, because they were still "unclean" and NOT "in Him," HAD to have been baptized at some point either before, during or following Pentecost, even though the NT record nowhere declares such. Clearly, it is a theology with significant problems.

Brethren, the reality is (and this will rattle a few cages): we are saved by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9). Our spiritual cleansing is by faith. It is by faith we are united with Him. We demonstrate that reality and evidence our faith in baptism. It took Peter a while to grasp that point, but eventually he did. For example, when God was preparing him to go and share the Good News about the coming of Jesus the Messiah (that Greater Light from above) with Cornelius, God sent a vision to Peter in which He stated, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy" (Acts 10:15). What had God cleansed? It was Cornelius (and, by extension, the Gentiles). Indeed, the entire account (Acts 10-11) makes it clear this was a man beloved and accepted by God, and Peter was being sent to him in order that he might have knowledge of that "Greater Light" that had now come into the world (see Reflections #472 -- Cornelius and Balaam's Ass: Was this Godly Centurion as Damned as a Donkey prior to his Baptism?). Was Cornelius "clean" in the sight of God before his baptism? Yes, he was. Was he accepted by God before that immersion in water? Yes, he was. Was that immersion in water still important as an evidentiary act of faith? Yes, it was. Yet, Peter says of Cornelius and his household to the saints in Jerusalem, "God made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9). Peter continued, "We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are" (Acts 15:11). And how is that? By grace through faith! Cornelius and his household were "cleansed by faith," and thereby saved, just as Peter and his fellow apostles were -- a fact to which Jesus Himself attested in John 15:3. What was the message Peter preached to Cornelius that day? -- "Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins" (Acts 10:43). "And while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message" (vs. 44). They believed, and they were cleansed. God demonstrated this reality by pouring out His Spirit in a visible manner so that the Jews might accept these Gentile brethren, and Cornelius and his household demonstrated their acceptance of this reality of cleansing by submitting to the evidentiary act of water baptism ... just as those who are saved/cleansed by grace through faith still do today.

Were the apostles of Jesus baptized in water following the return of the Son to the Father? It is my personal opinion that they were. Not in order to be made clean or to be in relationship with Jesus. Our Lord had just a few weeks before declared, "Already you ARE." However, like unto the partaking of the elements of the Lord's Supper, Jesus has left His disciples a visible act whereby we may evidence the reality of our faith in what He has done for us. That act is a participatory rite in which we reenact the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and the benefits of His atoning work in the hearts and lives of each of us who embrace it by faith. Baptism is no more a salvific sacrament than is the Eucharist, but both are vital evidentiary, participatory aspects of our faith, not only for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of others. So, yes, I firmly believe the apostles at some point, probably sooner than later, evidenced their faith in the accomplished work of the Lord in their lives by being baptized; after all, they could hardly encourage others to be immersed if they themselves refused. Nevertheless, I am firmly convicted that they perceived the act of water baptism under this new covenant of grace as being something much different than the legalistic sacramentalists now perceive it to be. And therein lies the basis for the ongoing conflict between the two theological perspectives. I no longer teach sacramentalism, which fact has caused a number of people within my faith-heritage to regard me as an apostate. But, I must be true to God's Truth as best I understand it. The above is my understanding, and by it I shall stand, until it is shown by sound biblical exegesis to be false.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Missouri:

Wonderful, essential, foundational words!! There have been only a few times in my life that I have read something other than Scripture that I wished every believer on the planet could read and contemplate. Your Reflections article "Pondering the Royal Law" is one of those times!! Thank You, Al. Please, may I quote several sections of this for a talk I am giving?

From a Reader in California:

Al, I wonder if fellow Christians truly realize what a treasure you are! Sadly, we too often fail to express our appreciation for each other adequately until it's too late. Your Reflections on love and the royal law says it all -- love one another. Bravo, brother ... again!

From a New Reader in Texas:

I just want to say that I have enjoyed reading some of your Reflections on your web site today. I had not seen this body of work before! While I disagree with you on several points, your articles are enlightening and thought-provoking. I am currently in a bit of a struggle within myself about what I personally can do to plant seeds of unity in the midst of many of the church struggles that you mention. In a way, it helps to know that these struggles are nothing new, and that, as much as it may feel as though I am alone in my efforts, I will eventually find others who also desire the unity in the church that is described in the Bible. Thank you for your time and effort in preparing your Reflections, and for sharing them publicly. I look forward to reading future articles from you, and maybe even catching up on those you've already written. May God bless you in your efforts, and may you always turn to Him for guidance.

From a Reader in Texas:

Thanks, Al, for your article "Pondering the Royal Law." It's always a blessing to read your Reflections. One of the saddest things I've ever heard a patternist say was one night years ago in a revival meeting. He said, "If you were walking down this aisle to be baptized, and had a heart attack and died, you would go straight to hell." Many visitors never returned, and several members left as well. So sad!

From a Reader in Texas:

"Pondering the Royal Law" was another great article, Al. "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1) is also a good contrast between how love and legalism respond.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I really liked your article "Pondering the Royal Law." I believe your list -- "Love God and Love One Another" -- is spot on and totally consistent with Jesus' own admonition in Matthew 22:35-40. This "royal law" has been around since the very beginning (Lev. 19:18), and is the fundamental principle upon which ALL law, both secular and religious, is ultimately based. Hence, if one keeps the royal law, one implicitly keeps all other law. A key facet of the royal law is that it is decision-based, not emotion-based -- at least initially. Thus, a Christian is able to "love" (agapao) a total stranger (even an enemy) by choosing to treat them right, rather than wronging them. You did good, brother!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I had to shake my head as I was reading your latest Reflections ("Pondering the Royal Law"), thinking just how really easy and great the Good News of this Love Relationship with God really is, and how it took centuries of "church" to turn it into an uncertain path of rules which seem to change from generation to generation. "Love God -- Love One Another." Now, there is a great list! Blessings, my friend.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

I have probably said this to you before, but I completely agree with your position on water baptism. Since I am a former Southern Baptist, most people would reason that my Baptist background is why I can't accept water baptism as a sacramental requirement that must be met (or as being "the split-second of salvation," as you so skillfully phrase it). No, that is not the reason. Rather, it was years of study on the doctrine of salvation, with a specific view of what Christ accomplished for sinners by His saving work, that convinced me. I also reject the idea of "praying to receive Christ" on the same grounds. Salvation is by grace through faith, and whenever that time is reached in a sinner's heart, whenever he begins to trust Christ and His claims, then that once dead sinner is "made alive" spiritually. In a group of Church of Christ preachers I once stated that water baptism, although very important (and, as I understand it, essential) for all who know about it and are able to submit to it, it is still but one response to the Gospel. I was told that I should leave the Churches of Christ for having "rejected the Gospel." Brother, our work of publishing the saving work of Jesus is never done! Keep fighting the good fight, Al.

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