Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How to Abide in Christ

Many years ago, when I was a student leader with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, at the University of Arizona, I was given an opportunity to speak to the group. This occasion was for our weekly meeting which met on the campus on a weeknight. I was both excited and frankly scared at this prospect. And this trepidation was not merely the usual nervous anticipation that is normal before doing public speaking. Rather, I was nervous because of prospect of talking about the topic that had prominently come to mind: Abiding in Christ.

I had by that time been studying Scripture for some years and in my own estimation I was knowledgeable about the content of Scripture. I also had an inclination that this was a very important topic to address—for multiple reasons. But when it came time to get up there and speak that night, even though I followed through presenting the content of my prepared notes on John 15, I felt as though I had actually not understood what I had set out teach my peers about “abiding in Christ.” I sensed that whatever I had said it had not really done justice to the depth of meaning of the Lord’s teaching and that the reason my words fell so far short was because I lacked in my own experience knowledge of how to abide in Christ.

What I recognize now, having studied, lived and reflected upon my own life with much more honest self-awareness, is that to abide in Christ requires one to practice faith fully and to be willing to obey him. Any carefully reader of these recorded words of the Lord in John 14-17 can easily find this statement confirmed in the actual words of the text. I had read them too but I had not acted upon them in many respects, even as I was serving within a Christian student group. Thus the full truth and power of spiritual life they describe and give guidance for receiving was not of much practical use for me. They were beautiful words that sounded in my mind too lofty and beyond me to experience. Yet, there I was standing before my fellow undergraduate college peers attempting to tell them how to abide in Christ!

Some years later, having read some of the writings of Andrew Murray, I began to get a better appreciation for what it requires to abide in Christ. I have yet to find a Christian writer who has been able to describe and give such helpful concrete teaching about abiding in Christ. In Abide in Christ, Murray notes this:

“They [the twelve disciples] doubtless have many questions to ask as to what that abiding in Him and His love is. He anticipates and meets their wishes, and gives them His OWN LIFE as the best exposition of His command. As example and rule for their abiding in His love, they have to look to His abiding in the Father’s love. In the light of His union with the Father, their union with Him will become clear. His life in the Father is the law of their life in Him.” (Andrew Murray, Abide in Christ, Twenty-Third Day, p.129; cited from The Andrew Murray Collection [Barbour]. Note: Capitalized words and italics in original.)

Murray’s clarification of this point is, of course, entirely correct. Yet this truth is also overlooked by so many Christians! Why is this? Perhaps we could lay responsibility at the feet of the pastors and teachers who do not explicitly teach the plain meaning of the Lord’s words from John’s gospel. I do think that this may indeed explain some of the phenomena but not all of it. For how many Christian people are there, who have had the opportunity to consistently read, study and hear the Scriptures taught accurately, yet still do not understand with their hearts the existential meaning of abiding? Far too many.

I think that the main reason more of those who profess faith in the Lord do not abide in him is because it defies what they think to be possible. Their conception of God, of faith and of actually relating to God does not allow for this kind of spiritual union. This is despite the fact that so many contemporary Christian people have heard teaching and preaching on the grace of God. But this resistance to and confusion about abiding in Christ is not rooted in intellectual knowledge but rather in a person’s willingness to submit to the deep and ongoing work of the Spirit within.

“We are naturally so prone to ground our salvation on our own works that, if we cannot make them procuring conditions and causes of our salvation by Christ, yet we shall endeavor at least to make them necessary preparatives to fit us for receiving Christ and His salvation by faith. And men are easily persuaded that this is not at all contrary to salvation by free grace, because all that is in this way ascribed to our works, or good qualifications, is only, ‘That they put us in a fit posture to receive a free gift. . . .” (Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification [Fig Press:2012], p.102)

The radical nature of the invitation to become a learner of the Lord Jesus is simply too much for many people. They seek to fit him and his teaching into their preconceived notions of spirituality. And those notions do not include intimate abiding; raw faith which requires one to trust the Lord for everything in life and to lean into him to receive everything from him. I think that this was the Lord’s point when he provoked his disciples by telling them that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood (see John 6:35, 47-58).

In the Lord Jesus we encounter God himself. And as all who come to meet God in Christ discover, no one can control or manipulate the living God. He is free to love and bestow grace and be merciful. And thus he is also able to be the most perfect Judge of all people because he knows people’s hearts and how they have responded to God’s love and mercy. It is far better to take the risk of raw faith in the Son of God and surrender all preconceived notions one holds about God. That is to say, to be genuinely open to learning the truth and putting into practice.