Learning to Abide in Christ
I hear the words “abide in Christ” mentioned a lot by women as a way to express rest. At least I think that’s what they mean. The truth is, I’ve never had it defined for me clearly, even though I’ve heard it shared often. In order to gain more understanding, I started digging into God’s word to see what he says about abiding in Christ.
The True Vine
Beginning in John 13, Jesus gives a series of farewell addresses that continue until chapter 17. He knows that he will soon be lifeless on a tree — the crucified King. And in the middle of it all, he graciously reminds us that to be his means to bear fruit and we bear fruit by abiding in him.
In John 15, Jesus describes himself as the true vine and his Father as the vinedresser. The true vine was a way to contrast Jesus with Old Testament Israel. The hearers would understand that he was saying that he was the Messiah and the fulfillment of the covenant because of the Old Testament references to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–7; 27:2–6).
Jesus explains that the branches that do not bear fruit are taken away, but the branches that bear fruit are pruned to bear more fruit. To bear fruit simply means to grow in character — to become more like Christ and reflect the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). And this is where we come to his command to abide: “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” (John 15:4).
The dictionary defines abiding as to accept or act in accordance with a rule, decision, or recommendation. Synonyms include: obey, observe, follow, uphold, heed, and accept. This definition isn’t far off from what Jesus is telling us to do here in John 15. But before he gets to the meaning, he gives us a picture of what it looks like not to abide in him. “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” (John 15:6).
I guess I am what you would call a plant killer. I purchase plants and try to care for them, but I often fail miserably. I forget to water the plant, choking it from its needed nourishment. And then one day, I turn around and there it is, withered away. This didn’t happen overnight. It happened after a series of neglect. So one by one, the branches fall off from the vine.
This, I think, is what Jesus is explaining to us in John 15:4–6. He explains that by not abiding in him we are like my pitiful plants — we will soon fall off the vine — our roots where we receive nourishment were never truly planted. The fruit of the vine is proof of our faith. Not perfection — but fruit, even if a small bud.
It really isn’t until John 15:10 that we get a picture of what it looks like to abide in Jesus. “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.” To abide in Jesus means to keep his commandments and to keep his commandments means to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37–39). One way that we display our love for God is through our trust, prayer, and devotion to him. We abide through relationship. We pursue in love. We pray in love. We obey in love.
And here is the good news: We love Jesus because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We didn’t choose him; he chose us and he chose us to walk out our faith in obedience to him (John 15:16). Apart from Christ, we cannot do anything (John 15:5). This is also good news to the weary person who thinks he must muster up strength to pursue and know Christ (and to love his neighbor — a fruit Jesus emphasizes). He provides the grace and the strength.
The fruit that Jesus speaks of is simply evidence of a relationship with him. It is a relationship that he initiates through and by his sovereign love. In the chapter, Jesus reminds us that there is no greater love than someone laying down his life for his friends. He then says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13).
Jesus tells us that we are his friends (let that soak in for a minute) if we obey his command to love, and that command is fulfilled through abiding. As we abide in him we will bear the fruit of righteousness. This does not add to our salvation by grace alone through faith alone, yet it confirms our transformed heart. And the offer to be Jesus’s friend — the author and perfecter of our faith, the Alpha and Omega, the Beautiful One, the one who bore our sins and transgression — the offer to be his friend is irresistible for the Christian.
Abide in him, and he will abide in you. He who began a good work in you will complete it (Philippians 1:6). He who called you is faithful; he will surely do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
More on abiding in Christ:
Glorifying God by Bearing Fruit in Union with Christ (message by John Piper)
If You Abide in My Word, You Are Truly My Disciples (sermon by John Piper)
What to Do When Faith Dies (post by Steve Fuller)