The Christian life is about growth and change. Grace takes ordinary people just as they are and begins to bring about hopeful change. How does that happen? Change happens through our union with Christ, which Jesus explains through the metaphor of the vine and branches in John 15. If you ever feel stuck, read on. Learning to abide in Christ will give you fresh hope.
Let’s look at three simple questions about abiding in Christ that are answered in John 15:1-17.
1. What is abiding in Christ?
In John 15:1-5, Jesus uses a simple illustration. We are to abide in Christ as a branch abides in the vine. As we depend on Christ in this way, and draw upon his strength, our lives will bear fruit. We learn three practical things from this illustration.
- God the Father is the “vinedresser” who prunes the branches. (John 15:1-2) Pruning is painful in the short run, but is good in the long run. Is God pruning you in some way these days? Sometimes I think God prunes me by humbling me. I don’t get something I want, or I don’t get my way. It helps to remember that this is part of God’s good plan. The word for pruning is closely linked to cleansing. Change is hard, but I can respond simply confessing sin and embracing the cleansing and forgiveness that Christ won on the cross.
- The Christian life is a life of dependence. As a branch draws upon the life of the vine for growth and fruit, we need to draw upon the life of Christ. Apart from him, we can do nothing. (John 15:5)
- Union with Christ is good news! “Abide in me and I in you.” (John 15:4) We are in Christ, and we are clothed with his righteousness. The Bible elsewhere refers to this as “justification by faith.” But there’s more. Christ is in us, and he wants to work in us by his grace to change us. The Bible refers to this as “sanctification.”
2. Why abide in Christ?
Jesus wants us to know that good things happen as a result of abiding in Christ. Here are some of them.
- We will bear fruit. Fruit is the outward sign of a healthy branch. While in Germany visiting our family, we picked raspberries straight from the garden. They were…amazing. Gospel fruit is a good thing. Henry Scougal said it well: “The root of the divine life is faith; the chief branches are love to God, charity to man, purity, and humility.”
- We will see answers to prayer. John 15:7 appears to be a blank check, almost too good to be true. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Our prayer life changes when it is shaped by abiding in Christ.
- We will grow in our capacity to love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” As we internalize and experience God’s love for us, our hearts will shift and we will become more thoughtful, more loving, more giving, toward others. Dale Bruner describes this dynamic as inhaling and exhaling. First I need to inhale God’s love, then I can exhale in love for others.
3. How can we abide in Christ?
I used to think that abiding in Christ meant being passive, simply “resting in Christ.” That’s halfway true, since we are dependent on Christ and can’t change in our own strength. At the same time, we are commanded to abide in Christ. As Dallas Willard said, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”
The most important thing is to maintain fellowship with Christ, as a branch maintains connection to the vine. We maintain fellowship with Christ by preaching the gospel to ourselves. Though our relationship with Christ as his beloved children never changes, our experience of fellowship with Christ can change. That’s why 1 John 1:9 says that we need to confess our sins and experience his cleansing and forgiveness. We “preach the gospel to ourselves” by confessing our sins (repentance) and trusting freshly in what Christ did for us on the cross (faith).
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"Preaching the Gospel to Yourself"
As we maintain fellowship with Christ, we draw upon his grace and strength through the ordinary means of grace given to us by God for our growth and renewal. And here’s the rub. Each of these will require effort on your part. God wants us to participate in these means of grace, and engage them. Here they are:
The Word of God: Jesus said in John 15:7 that his words are to abide in us. We take in the Word through reading, reflection, and through the preaching of the Word during worship.
- Prayer: In prayer we “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) Prayer can be difficult, so it will take some sacrifice and effort. But it’s worth it. During August we are asking the LBC family to set aside some time, even a few minutes, each day to seek the Lord and to pray for the work of the church. Look for your heart to change as you spend time in fellowship with God through prayer.
- Fellowship: we often can more readily internalize the love of God when we love one another. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The Christ in (our) own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.” If you isolate yourself from the fellowship of the church, your spiritual life will wither. Take the time, make the effort.
- The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: In communion, we “commune” with Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the gospel is proclaimed to us afresh through the “visible words” of the cleansing water. The sacraments do not merely represent historical events. They strengthen us to live by faith in a fallen world.
These “means of grace” combine most strongly as we gather each Sunday for worship. We hear the voice of God in the call to worship. We hear the gospel afresh and see Christ’s beauty as we sing. We preach the gospel to ourselves in confession and the good news of assurance in Christ. We hear and receive the grace of God as the word of Christ is preached from the pulpit. The visible words are portrayed to our hearts through the sacraments. And we experience the grace of the Helper, the Holy Spirit, in the benediction.
Give it Time
In conclusion, give it time. It takes a lot of time to grow juicy raspberries. Don’t expect instant change, instant fruit, instant growth. When you are discouraged or experience setbacks, don’t give up. When the church or friends let you down, don’t give up. If Bible reading and prayer are difficult, don’t give up. If you fail, don’t give up. Stay engaged in the means of grace, however imperfectly, and give it time.
Let’s do this.
Mike is the Senior Pastor of Lake Baldwin Church. Along with preaching, pastoral care, and forward-thinking leadership, Mike loves to invest in developing leaders for the future. Since the beginning of LBC in 2006, Mike and Molly have worked to create a culture where people can grow and use their gifts.