Happy Friday to everyone. Today’s question comes from Kasey in Oregon. “Dear Pastor John, I have been a Christian, a Bible student, and a Bible teacher for many years. But I sometimes find myself a little puzzled and — if I’m honest — a bit disquieted by John’s teaching on ‘abiding.’ In particular, I think of the opening of John 15 and much of the material in the letter of 1 John. It provokes many questions for me. For example: How does this relate to the doctrine of perseverance? And does this mean that, in some sense, it is up to ME to keep me in God’s family? Could you give a brief, APJ-length overview of John’s theology of abiding in Christ?”
This is huge. I mean the challenge to give a theology of abiding in ten minutes. Let’s see what we can do. I’m going to sum it up from John 15. Let’s just go there with six points.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 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. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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 15:1–4)
First, I think the essential meaning of our active abiding is the act of receiving and trusting all that God is for us in Christ. If a branch remains or abides attached to the vine in such a way that it is receiving all that the branch has to give, then that is a picture of what John means by believing or trusting Jesus. He says in John 1:12, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Believing is a receiving of Christ into the soul, welcoming him, trusting him, as it were, drinking and eating and savoring him. This is what he says in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Believing is an attachment to — a coming to — Jesus, and a receiving from Jesus. It is trusting in Jesus, remaining in fellowship with Jesus, connecting to Jesus so that all that God is for us in him is flowing like a life-giving sap into our lives. That’s number one: abiding is believing, trusting, savoring, resting, receiving.
Cherishing His Words
Second, Jesus gets very specific about what is flowing between the vine and the branch. He mentions words — his words — his love, and his joy. John 15:7 says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” And John 15:9 states, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” Also, John 15:11 says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
“If we are not united to the vine, nothing of any lasting value will come from us.”
Abiding in the vine means receiving and believing and trusting in the words of Jesus. It means receiving the love of Jesus for the Father and for his people and the joy that Jesus has in the Father and in us. It means sharing the joy, the love, the words with Jesus. This is very similar to Paul in Galatians 3 and 5 saying the fruit of the Spirit is love and joy as we hear and trust the promises of Christ (Galatians 3:2; 5:22–23).
Third, nothing of any spiritual, eternal significance is possible apart from this abiding in the vine. John says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
In other words, we are not dealing here with something marginal or optional. If we are not united to the vine so that Christ’s life is flowing into us, then his words, his love, his joy will be utterly and totally barren. Nothing of any lasting value will come from us.
Our Fruit Confirms Us
Fouth, abiding proves whether the attachment to the vine is coursing with life or is merely artificial and external. Here’s John 15:8: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Fruitfully abiding with life, love, and joy coursing into us through the connection between us and the vine proves we are disciples (John 15:7–8). That is, abiding and fruit-bearing confirm us.
The negative is also true. John 15:6 says, “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.” Earlier (in John 15:1–2), John says if anyone doesn’t bear fruit, he’s taken away.
Can We Lose Our Salvation?
Now this is what provokes Casey’s question about perseverance or eternal security. Can we be born of God — can we be authentically, in a living way, united to Christ and truly Christian — and lose our salvation? Now, In John’s understanding of abiding, the answer is no. No we can’t. I say this for two reasons.
“The essential meaning of our active abiding is receiving and trusting all that God is for us in Christ.”
First, in John 10:28–29, he says, quoting Jesus, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” He is bending over backwards to say, “When I choose someone for myself and they hear my voice and I take them to be my sheep and my children, that never changes.”
Here’s the second reason I think John means this, and it’s the answer to what in the world is going on with broken-off branches. I think 1 John 2:19 is a description in the church of what it means that certain branches are broken off. It says, “But they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued” — that is, remained or abided — “with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
I think John provides us with the category for understanding a kind of superficial, external attachment to Jesus that is not a saving attachment. This can result in a fruitless, empty life where there’s no sap coursing, and they are broken off — that is, fall away from the church — but they never were of us.
Fifth, the branches are being cared for both internally by the life of Christ flowing into us and externally by the vinedresser who prunes us. This is amazing. I didn’t see this until just a few years ago, when I preached on this at one of the conferences. Jesus says in John 15:1–2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 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.”
“When God chooses someone and they hear his voice and he takes them to be his children, that never changes.”
Now pruning means cut. The branches are being cared for (to make them maximally fruitful) both by internal life flowing to us from the vine and by a vinedresser, who with his very painful scissors or saw cuts us and hurts us, so that by these painful providences in life we experience the fullest possible impact of the inner life of Christ.
We are being cared for both internally by Christ’s life coursing into us by the Spirit and externally by the providences of a loving Father who knows how to discipline his children to make them very, very holy.
The Glory of God
Finally, the goal of abiding is the glory of God. John 15:8 says, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” The whole design of our not being the vine, but being utterly dependent branches grafted into the vine, is to give glory to God.
The whole design of depending on a vinedresser to manage the outward shape of our vine structure and our branch structure is so that God gets the glory for bringing it all about. The bottom line is, hour by hour, let us receive and rest in and trust and savor and enjoy Christ’s word and love and joy while we submit externally to the merciful providences of God.