• Rachel Tenney

Abiding in Christ

Have you ever wondered if there’s more to the Christian life than what you’re experiencing? For most of my life, I have looked at older, more mature Christians and I saw a joy, a steadiness, a peace, a vibrant relationship with Jesus that I knew I wasn’t experiencing. They would talk so familiarly about Jesus. I felt like a fraud. I knew a lot of true things about Him, and I had seasons of feeling close to Him, but I couldn’t honestly say that my day-to-day life was marked by a real and vibrant relationship with Him. I felt like I do about celebrities I like. I had an affection for him and knew a lot about him, but I didn’t feel like we had a two-way relationship.

Eventually, I asked one of those Christians what I was missing, and they answered by taking me to John 15, the passage about abiding in Christ, like a branch connected to a vine. Since then, I have spent the last three years wrestling with John 15. In fact, this article has been in my drafts folder for over a year. I was torn, because there seemed to be a mixed message in the passage that I just couldn’t resolve. What does it mean to abide? Is abiding active or passive?

Truthfully, I wanted to answer that abiding was sweetly passive. I had grown up with a legalistic understanding of Christianity, which had taught me to read this passage as, “If you do good works (keep commandments) then you may be able to finally reach the upper level of ‘extra mature Christian’ where you feel connected to Christ at all times.” But in God’s kindness, He has led me out of that kind of merit-based and shame-oriented understanding of the Christian life. While I had always trusted in grace for my justification, I had come to learn that the gospel wasn’t just for getting saved, but for all of life, including my sanctification.

We don’t start the Christian life in faith and finish by our own merit. It’s all of faith, it’s all the Holy Spirit working in us. As Paul says to the Galatian Christians,

“Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” Galatians 3:3

I knew that John 15 must be understood in light of the gospel of grace. So I wanted to see Jesus saying that abiding was simply passive. All of grace, all something He does for me, nothing for me to do here. But that’s just not what Jesus says. There was an active element to abiding that I couldn’t ignore. While it made me extremely uncomfortable, I knew that resolving that tension would help me to grasp what my Christian life was missing.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John 15:1-11

Union with Christ

One of the things that kept bothering me about John 15 is that the passage begins with all these verses about branches that don’t bear fruit being cut off and burned. I knew from my reading elsewhere in the Bible that this is referring to people who profess Christ but are not truly saved. Those who are given to Christ by God He never loses (John 6:37,39). So what is the connection between real and false Christians, and abiding? As I prayed over the passage, I asked Jesus to help me understand the connection. And then it hit me. The connection is our Union with Christ.

The doctrine of our Union with Christ is how we sum up the many passages of Scripture which say that Christians are “in Christ”. The idea is that when we are saved, we are inextricably linked (or united) to Jesus. Michael Reeves explains this doctrine helpfully from the Song of Solomon as a marriage between an ordinary woman and a king. [1] He calls it “the great marriage swap”. In a wedding service, the bride says, “all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.” And the groom pledges the same thing to his bride. In our union with Christ, all that we give to Christ is our sin, our weakness, and our inability, while He gives to us all the riches of His kingship. His marriage to us transforms us into His bride, the queen. We receive his righteousness, glory, life, and salvation. “Becoming a Christian means Christ wears your crown, a crown of thorns, and you wear Christ’s crown, a crown of glory.” [2] We see this beautiful analogy of marriage pointing to our relationship with Christ in other texts as well, such as Ephesians 5.

In John 15, Jesus is drawing a contrast between those who are united to Him in salvation, and those who are not. Many believe that verse 3 refers to Judas having been removed from the disciples. So Jesus is contrasting those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. So how does this connect to abiding?

Union and Communion

Jesus wanted his disciples to be assured of their union in Him. But He also wanted them to live in light of that union through communion with Him. In a marriage, it is the marriage ceremony that makes a couple married; but the couple has to learn to live in light of that reality. A couple that spends time together and grows their intimacy over years is no more married than they were on their wedding day. But their felt “oneness”, their knowledge of one another, is something that they will feel more deeply after 60 years together. At the same time, a couple who does not invest time and effort in their relationship will still be married, but their felt enjoyment and experience of marriage will not be as rich. Jesus has made the church His bride through salvation, and He wants us to cultivate that loving relationship to Him through the enjoyment of Him. I believe that what Jesus is describing when he says “abiding” is our daily “living out” of our union, our felt experience of our relationship to Him.

This helps us understand how abiding can be active, while also being understood in the context of grace. Our union never changes, but our communion, or felt experience of the unchanging reality of our union can change.

Active or Passive?

So is abiding active or passive? I believe it is both.

“[Jesus’] word for this dynamic is ‘abide’, which even in English captures the sense. On the one hand, the word suggests resting and staying, like a child leaning on his mother’s embrace. It’s a posture of reliance for care and even survival, like branches depend on a vine, which is exactly the context in which Jesus uses the word. ‘Abide in me… as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me’ (John 15:4). This is a relationship of utter dependency. As Jesus says, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’ (v. 5). On the other hand, abiding is an action. Here is something you must choose to do. Jesus commands us, ‘Abide in me.’ He commands us to rest in him. Like a dog commanded to stay, we must exert ourselves not to become distracted or move away from our Master. And Jesus makes it clear that the amount of fruit that comes out of our lives will be a direct result of how much (John 15:5) or how little (v.6) we heed his commandments. In fact, he goes on to say, ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love’ (v.10).” [3]

What scared me about Jesus’ words about abiding actively, was that I was afraid of falling back into a mentality of thinking I was earning favor with God through my obedience. I think this quote gives a helpful explanation…

“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Dallas Willard, The Great Omission

We can see this beautiful interplay of our works and God’s grace in Paul’s words to the Philippians…

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you…” Philippians 2:12-13

We do works as a response to the free grace of the gospel, and we see that it is God who enables us, even in that response.

In the Morning When I Rise

So what does this daily abiding actually look like? Practically, what do I do? I think the temptation here is to answer “Just read your Bible and pray every day”. But that answer doesn’t really get to the heart of abiding. Let’s think again about the marriage portrayed in the Song of Solomon,

“My beloved is mine, and I am his.” Song of Solomon 2:16

What was the goal of the bride’s marriage to the king? Did she marry him just so she could enjoy the benefits of being a queen? We see from this verse and the rest of Song of Solomon, that her desire was for her husband. She was in love. She wanted to be with him. The benefits of being queen were a far second to her desire to be one with Him.

The goal of our salvation is not the benefits we experience; Jesus is not a nice enhancement to bring personal peace to our lives. God saves us to Himself. The biggest benefit of salvation is that we get Jesus.

This is what heaven is all about. Heaven is going to be great because Jesus will be there.

What I began to realize over the last few years is that the goal of each day is to behold the glory and beauty of Jesus just a little bit more.

Every morning when I get up, my heart is oriented to worshipping myself. When I groan and roll out of bed to head into another day, my heart has reverted to viewing God as distant, harsh, or irrelevent. Each morning, I have to work at reorienting my heart to see Jesus as worthy, to see Jesus as beautiful and good, to see him as relevent to my minute-by-minute experience.

How can I learn more about Jesus? Where can I go to see more of my Savior? The Bible. Going to the Bible with the main goal of seeing something of Jesus’ beauty has completely changed my experience of Him. My mantra has become, “I just need to see Jesus, today.” We see this in verse 7, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you“. We go to the Sciptures as a means of grace, a means to see Jesus a little more clearly. And that’s how I read the Bible now. I don’t read it primarily to learn theology or history. I don’t read it so that I can have the answers. I don’t read it for self-improvement. I read it to see Jesus. And that is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he talked about abiding. He wanted to draw us into the kind of relationship with Himself that He enjoyed with His Father. We see this in verse 9…

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” John 15:9-11

The same love that God has for Jesus, Jesus has for us. That’s mind-bending. I can’t even fathom the magnitude and depth of the love God has for Jesus. And yet Jesus feels that way toward me. Jesus wants us to regularly press into that reality by working to connect our daily lives to Him. Just as He lived a life of dependence on the Father, He wants us to live lives of dependence on Him. I love this quote from Michael Reeves…

“If God was a single, independent person, independence would be the godly thing. That would be how to be ‘like Him’.” Michael Reeves, Enjoy Your Prayer Life

That’s exactly where the rubber meets the road for me. In my flesh, I’m content to go about my life, independent of God. But the very nature of God is that He is trinity, three in one. That means that part of His very nature is that He has community, dependence, and relationship within Himself. God created humans out of the overflow of abundance, joy and relationship He already had, and His desire for us now is to join Him in that relationship. As verse 11 says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Jesus isn’t asking us to do something He hasn’t already done.

Where Your Heart Calls Home

All of this theology has been so helpful for me to think through, to give me categories, but a simple way of describing abiding is asking where our hearts find their rest. When my heart gets anxious, where does it run for comfort? Abiding is finding our soul’s rest in Christ. When my heart needs to escape the pressures and sadness and overwhelm of life, where does it turn? Does it run to food, netflix, shopping, sex, friends, music? As I have learned to abide, I have found my heart to be less comforted by the things my heart used to call “home”. This is what the puritans called the “expulsive power of a greater affection”. Our hearts can only worship one thing in a given moment. When your heart learns to rest in Jesus, other idols start to look less attractive.

Why do we not abide?

Abiding sounds like such an amazing way to live. Always being connected to Jesus, living life with His constant companionship, and enjoying the sweetness of His presence. So why do we not abide more? I think there are two main causes in my life. Protecting my sin, and distrust of God.

Verse 10 says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” We know that living in a real relationship with Jesus means that we will have to forsake our sin. There have been some sins (especially hidden sin) that I have tried to hide, and therefore, openness with God was not attractive to me in those seasons. The second reason is distrust of God.

“In our walk with God, faith always comes first because unless you are sure that you are safe with God and certain that God is not be disappointed in you, you will never seek His face.” [4]

We think that God will respond to us as other people do. But God isn’t like other people. He’s like the father in the story of the prodigal son, who picks up his robe and runs with abandon to welcome his child. He doesn’t ask the son to prove himself or work his way back into favor. Because we are in Christ, God sees us as he sees His own son. Our sins have already been paid for, we have nothing to prove.

Conclusion

God likes to teach us His ways through unexpected means and in His own timing. And that’s what He did with John 15. He didn’t reveal its meaning to me that day, or even that year. He used the tension I felt to teach me not merely a theological explanation, but through desperation, to learn how to abide experientially. These are the baby steps I’ve learned over the last three years about abiding in Christ. Even though I know that ten years from now I will know so much more about abiding in Christ, I wanted to share what I have learned so far, that perhaps I can encourage someone else. As Paul says,

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Philippians 3:12

I pray that your relationship with Jesus is greatly enriched as you continue to learn how to abide in Him.

Want Support in Learning to Abide?

If this has sparked in you a desire to press in more to understanding how to abide in Christ, these resources have been the ones I’ve found most helpful over the last three years.

  1. Beholding and Becoming by Ruth Chou Simons

  2. Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves

  3. Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund

  4. Michael Reeves on Union with Christ (see embed below)



Footnotes

[1] Michael Reeves, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRH_E2u5cGY [2] Ibid., (6:09) [2] Rankin Wilbourne*, Union with Christ, pg 214 [3] Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ, pg 219 *It has come to my attention that Rankin Wilbourne has been defrocked by the PCA for patterns of anger, bullying, domineering, lying, and deceitful speech. It appears that his admitting to these charges was his way of shielding himself from having to account for many allegations of abuse. You can read more about that here. Unfortunately, we as Christians are put in the position of sometimes finding help and clarity in the true things that abusive pastors have said, even when those pastors do not have the character necessary for the position. I am quoting him here because his book was extremely helpful to me in giving me the language I was looking for to describe what I was learning from John 15. I am grieved to find that his character did not prove to be Christ-like, but I have not found any other resources that explained this succinctly. I do not endorse or support Rankin Wilbourne.

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