Abiding in the Vine

I am one of those who have always been in church. My parents took me to church as an infant; I grew up in church, and now that I am over a half century in age I am still in church. By God’s grace I was adopted by Christian parents, and God has given my family and me grace upon grace ever since. However, recognizing that I am who I am by God’s grace has been a bit of a challenge. I grew up with performance-based Christianity. I heard things like

  • Live a victorious Christian life
  • Be a sold (or souled) out Christian
  • Totally surrender (or yield) to Christ
  • Do your best for Jesus
  • Live for Jesus

And we have all seen signs in front of churches that promote our activity.

  • Jesus gave his all, are you giving your all?
  • When you have done all you can, God will do the rest

Every time (which was often) that I heard one of these I would think to myself, “Yes, I do need to live victoriously, be sold out, really surrender, do my best, and live for Jesus.” So my focus was on how to really live for Christ. What do I need to do differently, better, more? If I were living for Christ I would read my Bible more, pray more, and, of course, witness more. Living for Jesus meant being busy with “Jesus” stuff. You do good things for God and he’ll do good things for you.

The Bible, though, does not present a performance-based Christianity. It shows us that our focus should be on what Christ has done for us, not what we do for Christ. This is certainly not to say that what we do is unimportant. We just remember that what we do should flow from what Christ has done. In other words our activity should be gospel driven. Given this, my goal was to determine what the New Testament says about living for Jesus. What I found is that, particularly in the Pauline epistles, the focus is much more on living in Christ rather than living for Christ.

As a part of this I did a very unscientific survey of the New Testament. Using the computer I searched Romans through Revelation for the phrases “for Christ,” “for Jesus,” “for him,” “for the Lord,” and “for God.” I searched the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV) in order to check both a word for word translation (ESV) and a dynamic equivalence translation (NIV). Excluding verses in which “for” did not mean “on behalf of” there were approximately 10 verses in each version that used these phrases. For example, from the ESV (emphasis added):

  • Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
  • For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles. (Ephesians 3:1)
  • For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Corinthians 4:5)
  • Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Romans 7:4)
  • and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)
  • For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Philippians 1:29)
  • Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. (Colossians 3:23)

I also searched for the phrases “in Christ,” “in Jesus,” “in him,” “in the Lord,” and “in God.” These phrases yielded approximately 200 verses in each version of the Bible. Again, a few examples from the ESV (emphasis added):

  • So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1)
  • There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
  • Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus (Romans 16:3).
  • Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? (1 Corinthians 9:1)
  • In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:11-13)
  • For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
  • Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 4:1)
  • And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20)

I was encouraged to find in places where I might expect to find the word “for” I found the word “in.” For example, in Romans 16:3 Paul calls Prisca and Aquila his fellow workers in Christ Jesus, not his fellow workers for Christ Jesus. Also, in Philippians 4:1 Paul says we should stand firm in the Lord, not stand firm for the Lord. Clearly, when we are in Christ we will work on behalf of Christ and stand firm for the Lord, but all that we are, have, and do, comes from the fact that we are in Christ Jesus, that is, we are united to him. Consider some of the benefits Paul gives of being in Christ.

  • Redemption (Romans 3:24)
  • Eternal life (Romans 6:23)
  • No condemnation (Romans 8:1)
  • Free from sin and death (Romans 8:2)
  • No separation from the love of God (Romans 8:39)
  • One body (Romans 12:5)
  • Grace (1 Corinthians 1:4)
  • A new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • Freedom (Galatians 2:4)
  • Sons of God (Galatians 3:26)
  • Spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1:3)
  • In the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6)
  • Good works (Ephesians 2:10)
  • Brought near (Ephesians 2:13)
  • Forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Encouragement (Philippians 2:1)
  • Humility (Philippians 2:5)
  • Peace (Philippians 4:6, 7)
  • Holy calling (2 Timothy 1:9)
  • Promises of God (2 Corinthians 1:20)
  • Righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21)
  • Chosen (Ephesians 1:4)
  • Inheritance (Ephesians 1:11)
  • Dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:22)

Not just Paul, but Jesus also points out the need for being “in Christ.” In John 15:1-17 Jesus uses the picture of the vine and the branches to describe the union between himself and his people. This portion of Scripture is so helpful in reminding us of what it means to be in Christ. What does the branch do for the vine? Nothing! The branches are completely dependent on the vine, but the vine does not need any specific branch. Nothing flows from the branches to the vine. Over and over Jesus uses the term “abide” to describe a branch’s relationship to the vine. Abide has the idea of remaining stable or fixed in a state. Just as the branch abides in the vine we are to abide in Christ. How do we abide, though? Is that a work we need to accomplish? If we do not abide are we lost? The relationship of a branch to the vine shows that abiding cannot be a work. A branch abides in the vine because the branch receives life from the vine; however, because the branch receives life from the vine a result naturally occurs: the branch produces fruit. What we do to abide flows from the fact that we are abiding. Note that in verse 5 Jesus says that apart from him we can do nothing (including abide in him).

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. (John 15:5, ESV)

Jesus is not saying that apart from his help we can do nothing. He is saying that apart from being vitally united to him we can do nothing. That is, our doing flows from abiding. We do not work to abide. The branches that are receiving life from the vine produce fruit. Those branches that do not produce fruit show that no life is flowing from the vine. There is no true union. Abiding (union with Christ) brings joy and is the source of our love for each other. Jesus emphasizes in verse 16 that everything starts with him, is accomplished through him, and perseveres through him.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15:16, ESV)

Finally in verse 17 Jesus says, “These things I command you, so that you will love one another” (ESV). Notice that Jesus is not issuing a command. He is saying these things (verses 1 through 16) about abiding so that we will love each other. Jesus is telling us what produces love. Unfortunately, the NIV translates it as a command.

This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:17, NIV)

The NIV translation misses the point. (I recommend you also compare the New King James Version, New American Standard Version, and New Revised Standard Version translation of this verse.) Unlike in verse 12 where Jesus gives a command to love, in verse 17 Jesus is simply pointing out our love for each other flows from our union with him. Verse 17 is focused on our loving each other, but all of the Christian life is based on being united to Christ (abiding in Christ). Again, this is why Jesus said in verse 5 that apart from him we can do nothing. Also, this is why John in his letters emphasizes abiding. The one that is abiding (is truly in Christ)

  • Walks as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6)
  • Loves his brother (1 John 2:10)
  • Overcomes the evil one (1 John 2:14)
  • Has confidence when Jesus appears (1 John 2:28)
  • Does not continue to sin (1 John 3:6, 9)
  • Is obedient (1 John 3:24)
  • Has the Spirit (1 John 4:13)
  • Maintains sound doctrine (2 John 1:9)

Jesus wants us focused on the fact that we are in him. Our very life flows from him. My activity does not increase the flow of life but is evidence of life.

Remember Matthew 25:31-46. In that passage Jesus tells of his return and the judgment that will follow. He will separate the sheep from the goats placing the sheep (believers) on his right and the goats (unbelievers) on his left. Note what he says to those on his right and their response.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40, ESV)

The sheep did not keep a spiritual journal of their service for the King. As they lived their lives their actions flowed from their union with Jesus. Just as a branch naturally produces fruit because it is in the vine, these believers naturally (or supernaturally) produced fruit because they were in Christ. Contrast the sheep in Matthew 25 with the people Jesus describes in Matthew 7.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV)

Notice that these standing before Jesus list all the things they did for Jesus. This is the epitome of performance-based Christianity. They were keeping track of all the “good” things they had done. Jesus, however, says he never knew them. (By the way, this follows Jesus discussing a tree and its fruit in Matthew 7:15-20.)

The problem is we are tempted to complete in the flesh what was begun by the Spirit (Galatians 3:3). What a joy to know that because I am in Christ, he will bring to completion the good work that he has started (Philippians 1:6). My desire for him, my desire to know him better, and the good things I do are a result of being united to Jesus, and I am united to Jesus because he sovereignly grafted me into him (Romans 11). Jesus is not measuring my performance, he is producing it. As Michael Horton says,

It is not by following Christ’s example but by actually being inserted into Christ, clothed with Christ, united to Christ – as the Spirit creates faith through the gospel – that we are not only justified but sanctified as well.[1]

I know what many of you are thinking because I am thinking it myself, “If people are not constantly told to live for Jesus they will not be busy with kingdom activity.” It is true that one way God motivates us is through the encouragement (not guilt tripping) of others (Hebrews 10:24); however, the command to encourage one another in verse 24 follows the reminder of what Christ has done (Hebrews 10:19-23). By the work of the Word, the Spirit, and the body of Christ it is no longer what I have to do for Jesus, but what I must do for Jesus. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:9 (ESV), “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul’s abiding in the True Vine produced the fruit of preaching the gospel.

God will leave nothing left undone. Let us rejoice in our union with Christ continually reminding ourselves of what Christ accomplished. Even though there at times is struggle, because we are united to Christ, we have the power to walk in the good works he prepared beforehand for us (Ephesians 2:10).

[1] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 125.

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