I think we’ve all been there. We’ve been listening to the Pastor’s sermon or reading a book and we run into a command that sticks in our teeth. We’re inspired to do it! But we’re not quite sure what “it” is. Well, this happened to me during my Scripture reading recently.
I’ve begun reading the Bible out loud to myself, allowing multiple senses to encounter the Word of God. This semester, I did the same with Jesus’ Farewell Discourse and High Priestly Prayer as recounted by the Apostle John in chapters 14-17 of his Gospel. I was especially struck by the metaphor of the vine and branches used by Jesus in chapter 15. It became clearer to me than ever before that if a pastor desires to bear good spiritual fruit in ministry, she or he must first abide in Jesus Christ.
I’ve always thought of abiding in Christ as a static reality brought about by the electing power of Christ, an action performed by the Spirit in which the “branches” are wholly passive. After all, a branch does not cause itself to be grown or even aid in the growing process; it is grown by the vine.
Good Reformed theology concurs. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto” (IX.III). “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says (John 15:5). This is an indicative statement. We are branches, grown by the vine, empowered by the Helper, and cultivated by the Father. Our salvation, from justification through glorification, is wholly a work of the Triune God for his glory (WCF XVII.II).
And yet the command to abide in Christ is just that – a command! It requires action! We see this explicitly in verse 4: “Abide in me, and I in you.” The verb tense here is critical. The word for “abide” is what’s called an “aorist imperative.” This means the word is a command that has the whole act of “abiding” in view from the first moment of abiding until the last. We are commanded to abide and this command has attached to it the expectation of obedience in the hearer! Therefore, while we are grown as the result of divine action, we have the responsibility of actively abiding in Christ.
There is an implied verb in the second clause of this sentence, “and I in you.” The question is, in what tense is this implied verb? The structure of the sentence is a common one in Greek and gives us a clue. It’s basically a grammatical formula: “if you do X, I will do Y”. This means we should read 15:4 as saying “Abide in me, and if you do I will abide in you.” The inverse is obvious: if we do not abide in Christ he does not abide in us.
Does this command to abide mean that salvation is, in the final analysis, a human work only accomplished by the actions of a human being? After all, verse 2 says that the ones who don’t bear fruit will be cast into a fire (a clear allusion to eternal punishment in hell).
This simple answer is, no. The abiding here does not accomplish our salvation. Jesus is clear that belief (or as Paul would term it, “faith”) is what saves (John 14:12, cf. Eph 2:8-10). Instead, our abiding in Christ and his abiding in us is what proves our salvation to the world and to ourselves. How do we know this? Jesus says that abiding in him is necessary for the bearing of fruit (15:4). He then expands on this and says that the Father is glorified when “you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (15:8). We are commanded to abide in Christ as proof of our faith in Christ which was the vehicle used by Christ to dispense the grace of Christ which saves us in Christ. If we do not see this proof, therefore, we should seriously question whether or not we are actually abiding in Christ. If we are not, we are in danger of being gathered, taken away, and thrown in the fire.
So how do we know that we are abiding in Christ? Jesus continues in verses 9 and 10: “Abide in my love (synonymous with “Abide in me”). If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”
What does it mean for us to abide in Christ? We keep the commandments of Christ as he kept the commandments of the Father (15:10).
How do we know the commandments of Christ and thereby grow as a branch abiding in the vine? Through the prayerful study of the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-18).
It seems so simple: prayer and meditation on Scripture which leads to obedience. Yet the promise is if we abide in him we may ask whatever we wish and it will be done for us! What an incredible promise!
Incredible, but potentially confusing. Does this mean that if I abide in Christ I can ask for a mansion or fancy sports car and it will be done? Not at all. The logic follows like this:
We put our faith in Christ for salvation and abide in Christ by obeying his commandments. As we do so, we begin to bear fruit which brings glory to the Father. As we are bearing fruit, we are asking for whatever we would wish, which is more fruit that would bring glory to the Father. It’s all about him!
I’m coming to the end of my time in seminary and, Lord willing, there is a career of fruitful church work in my future. But what kind of fruit should I desire in my life? A fruitful ministry that is, as defined by Jesus, a faithful ministry.
I am training in seminary to become a pastor not an academic. While more work in the academy may be in my future, my heart is with the local church. I want to serve her and the people of God who are members of her. As I work through my final year of study, I find myself thinking about the everyday life of the pastor. And I’ve asked myself often, “Where is the place for meditation on Scripture in the life of a pastor?”
We have been warned time and again by seminary professors and visiting clergy not to allow our study of the Word of God to become academic but to be molded and shaped by it for the sake of the ministry and our souls. We are not to study the Bible only to preach it but to be transformed by it which will result in an even more powerful preaching ministry.
This means prayerful meditation on Scripture is key to the successful ministry of a pastor. Whether I will be pastoring 50 or 5,000 people, a large part of my time in ministry must be spent in the prayerful reading of God’s Word. This will be how I learn the commands of Christ and am able to obey them. This obedience is Spirit-empowered, making my time in Scripture even more important. The Spirit speaks through His Word and then applies it to the soft heart of the believer. If I am to be the pastor God has called me to be, I must first be the man of God that he has called me to be. I must abide in Christ so that I may bear fruit for him.
There are many who would say such obedience is superfluous in the Christian life. Jesus flatly denies this as true. The proof of one’s faith is in one’s abiding in Christ, an abiding that takes the form of contemplation and obedience. I pray that the Spirit would form this heart in me. I pray that the people I minister to would see me as a man transformed by the power of the Spirit and the teaching of the Word. Perhaps if they see such transformation in me they will be drawn to the Father who is the vinedresser, the Son who is the Vine, and the Spirit who brings about the growth.