The Practice of Abiding in Christ

by Bob Bradley

The second in a series of three messages delivered to inmates through Faith Community's Prison Ministry.
From February, 2010.

I want to continue to use the theme of abiding in Christ as the focus of my next few teachings. I need to express my indebtedness to Andrew Murray, the great preacher and writer of over 100 years ago. His first book (among dozens) was entitled Abide in Christ. In this marvelous book, Murray brings the mind of the reader into focus on a number of topics, dealing with the ways in which the Lord Jesus makes Himself available to those who love him and seek him. Jesus is truly the center of this book, and Murray simply expounds the various roles He plays in the life of each believer. However, perhaps the most important statement in the whole book is this: "In conclusion, I ask to be permitted to give one word of advice to my reader. It is this. It needs time to grow into Jesus the Vine: do not expect to abide in him unless you will give him the time." In other words Murray is saying that abiding in Christ is not a doctrine to be believed intellectually but that it is an experience which requires the focus of our inner being and which takes commitment and time.

I want to lay a foundation for this teaching by going back and briefly reviewing about 400 years of history in devotional writing. This is not a thorough academic discussion, but rather a summary of certain life-giving streams in the church of Jesus. A complete discussion would have to include the contributions of people like Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Catholic monk who wrote the beautiful hymn Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee. And I won't take the space to discuss Catholics like Brother Lawrence or Madam Guyon or Archbishop Fenelon or Thomas a Kempis, each of whom witnessed to the reality of fellowship with Jesus to their generation. I do, however, want to mention the Pietists, which is a loose term used to describe several trends within post-Reformation Protestantism. While the fathers of the Reformation focused on correct doctrine, the Pietists emphasized personal fellowship with Christ. For the most part, they had correct doctrine, but they strongly believed that doctrine alone is not sufficient for spiritual maturity. In other words, they were emphasizing the fact that correct doctrine is a necessary but not sufficient condition for true spirituality. The influence of Pietism was felt from Lutherís time onward and included groups like the Anabaptists, Moravians, and Mennonites.

I want to take us back to Civil War times and the emergence of what I would call deeper life teaching in the mainstream of gospel preaching churches. God raised up a woman named Hannah Whitall Smith to write The Christianís Secret of a Happy Life. The book sounds like something straight out of a seeker-sensitive church, but it was far from that. It was in actuality a manual of spiritual warfare without the label, and it spelled out how the believer can progress from defeat to spiritual maturity. It became a great spiritual classic, and its author went on to become one of the leaders in what might be called the deeper life movement. A century earlier, the Methodists had taught the doctrine of entire sanctification, which was a deeper-life emphasis but was taught in a way that suggested sinless perfection and was thus unacceptable to many believers. The Wesleys (the leaders of the Methodist movement) corrected this unbalanced emphasis in their later years, but the Wesleyan contribution to the deeper life movement was limited because of this imbalance. Charles Finney, the great American revivalist, avoided this controversy and wisely taught that Christ himself is our sanctification and that we learn to appropriate Him to meet all of our spiritual needs.

In other words, sanctification is not so much a second work of grace, but rather a more complete appropriation of who Christ is to us. Finneyís wisdom in this matter contributed to the spiritual atmosphere that gave birth to the teaching of Hannah Whitall Smith, who taught that the average Christian could experience consistent victory over sin and self. Her little book is a treasure-house of spiritual truth. Her genius was to avoid the labels of a second experience of grace or the baptism of the Holy Spirit but rather to teach those spiritual attitudes and disciplines that would draw one closer to the Lord Jesus. In so doing, she opened the door for deeper life teaching to many who would have reacted negatively to a Methodist exposition of entire sanctification.

By the end of the 19th century in America there was a strong emphasis on the victory over sin and self which is available to every true believer. The Baptists talked about the victorious life, the Methodists about sanctification and the Presbyterians and Congregationalists would use terms like the overcoming life or the "life hid with Christ in God."I want to suggest that, regardless of the terminology, they were talking about the same essential reality, that is, a life tangibly committed to the Lordship of Jesus and accompanied by satisfying communion with God. Often this commitment is generated in time of crisis, and so it has the characteristic of intensity and spiritual breakthrough. On the other hand, sometimes this life of victory is achieved step-by-step, as a believer yields progressively to the dealings the Lord. But whether suddenly or gradually, the content of the experience is essentially the same, and that is a life of consistent fellowship with Jesus and consistent overcoming of sin and disobedience.

Now back to Andrew Murray. His unique contribution, along with that of Hannah Whitall Smith, was to avoid the discussion of controversial doctrinal issues or the attachment of labels to personal spiritual experience. Rather, he faithfully points the reader to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and how we can love him with greater devotion as we reflect upon him. We need to remember that we are called to love Jesus intensely (1 Corinthians 16: 32; Revelation 2:4)), and that the biblical measure of love is obedience, not the strength of our feelings. Those who love Jesus are those who keep his commandments (John 14:23).

At this point Iím going to repeat a paragraph from my first letter on abiding dated September 2009:

We cannot respond to the commands of Scripture without the help of the Holy Spirit. Of course no man can be born again unless the Spirit of God moves upon his heart in power — the power to create the gift of a living faith (Ephesians 2: 8, 9). I would suggest that, as believers, we are unable to respond to any of the commands of Scripture without the gift of the Holy Spiritís enablement. So, when Jesus says, "abide in me," we shall soon discover that we in our own strength are unable to keep the commandment. Typically, after a period of wrestling with and acknowledging the weakness of our flesh, God begins by the Spirit to work a victory in us.

Before we discuss the actual experience of abiding in Christ, we need to look at some of the hindrances that can block our way. Perhaps the greatest potential hindrance is unbelief. If we subscribe to a theology that teaches that at conversion the believer receives the "whole package," it is going to be difficult to be honest with ourselves and to acknowledge that we need more of Christ than we are currently experiencing. I am not suggesting that we must believe in a so-called second experience of grace. I have no quarrel with the man who believes that Jesus is perfect in his fullness and that when we receive him we receive that fullness. But our theology must make room for the reality of Christian growth and maturity. Our Christian experience is all about growth. The Scriptures that would support this statement are too numerous to count. We just need a practical theology that embraces the reality of crisis experiences and the reality of steady growth, even though that growth may be achieved by two steps forward and one step backward. The critical factor is, of course, that our number of steps forward is greater than the number of steps backward.

One of the chief characteristics of unbelief is the phenomenon of watering down the clear statements of the word of God. For instance, if we say that abiding in Christ is only for the spiritually elite, and cannot be a reality for the average Christian, we are guilty of unbelief. For most of us, the unbelief takes a more subtle form. We simply believe that we are so weak the promise cannot apply to us. We believe the promise, and we believe that others experience the abiding presence of the Lord in their lives, but we have little hope that such experience could be ours. It is helpful to understand that one of the great missionaries of all time, Hudson Taylor, struggled intensely with this issue. As an experienced missionary, he discovered that he was constantly irritated and frustrated. He did not consistently have the peace of God in his heart, and he felt constantly defeated. He did all the regular things one should do: he read the Bible more, he prayed more, and he fasted more.

He knew that he trusted Jesus as his savior. He never doubted his redemption. But he seemed to be powerless in the face of his weakness. And to top it all off, he realized that his greatest sin was unbelief. He was preaching faith in Jesus to the Chinese, and doing so fairly effectively, but he had no victory in his own heart. He simply did not have the faith to believe that an experience of spiritual victory could be his. And then one day, in the midst of his despair, the Holy Spirit came to his rescue and helped him to believe that Jesus really lived in his heart. He was given a gift of faith to grasp the fact that Christ was really in him. His whole perspective changed, and he became joyful, lighthearted, and hopeful. His circumstances got more difficult, but Hudson Taylor never again lapsed into the spiritual defeat that had bound him for so long. This whole incident is discussed in detail in the little book Hudson Taylorís Spiritual Secret. And this experience was not just for an outstanding missionary. He was first made aware of the reality of abiding in Christ by the testimony of a fellow missionary, an average man who is only known to history because Hudson Taylor mentioned his name in his account of this experience.

We must not make the mistake of thinking that God will deal with us in exactly the way he dealt with Hudson Taylor. For you, abiding in Christ may have a different expression than the experience of someone else. The one common thread is the fact that Jesus will be at the center of your experience and your faith. F. J. Huegel, who was a very fruitful missionary to Mexico in the 1920s and 30s, encountered great spiritual oppression during his first year in Mexico. The darkness was so great that he feared for his sanity. After an intense struggle, the Holy Spirit revealed to him two things: 1) the absolute power of Jesusí victory on the cross, and 2) his actual spiritual union with Jesus. These two truths, which formerly had been only doctrine, became living, moment-by-moment realities in Huegelís inner man. He led thousands of Mexicans to Christ and authored several books, including Bone of His Bone, in which he develops the concept of union with Christ.

Another powerful influence which hinders abiding in Christ is half-heartedness. It is one thing to see the possibility of being closer to the Lord, but quite another to pay the price that must be paid in terms of letting go of hindrances. Spiritual advance is almost always preceded by spiritual discomfort. We are not motivated to seek more of Christ until we are ready to acknowledge to ourselves that we are dissatisfied with our current status. Again, if we have a theology that denies the creative reality of spiritual discomfort in a believer's life, we will be insulated against growth. If we are willing to take the risk of deeply feeling our dissatisfaction with the status quo, we can be assured that God will meet us. This is not just a one-shot experience (dissatisfaction followed by breakthrough) but rather it becomes a spiritual lifestyle.

Another related factor which comes into play to hinder spiritual growth is our desire for comfort. We may feel the need for closer fellowship with Jesus, but we are also aware that moving closer to Jesus will take us out of our comfort zone. It is not so much that the Lord asks us to do difficult things (such as pray more or fast more), but rather that he calls us to take a step of obedience that is uncomfortable. The key to overcoming this hindrance is honesty ("Lord, you know I want to be closer to you, but you also know that I am a coward and I'm afraid to leave my comfortable niche. Lord, I really need your help!") When we are honest with God, he doesn't slap us down but instead he reveals his patience and his grace to us. This new revelation of his love changes us, and enables us to go places with him that we formerly knew to be impossible. As we continue in this way of honesty and repentance we discover the truth of Jesusí statement that "my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

One final thought. If we have been tolerating behavior which the Word of God describes as sinful, we will not be able to draw near to the Lord without serious repentance. The life of abiding in Christ is a life of progressive growth in holiness, and holiness is not compatible with tolerated sin. Colossians 3:5-14 gives a comprehensive list of sins of the flesh and the more refined "sins of the soul." Verses 12 through 14 list the positive behaviors that are the foundation of abiding in Christ. For instance, if we fail to grow in meekness because of a "personality" that is stubbornly self-assertive, and we are not willing to be corrected in our assertiveness, we are sinning and defining ourselves as carnal Christians. The same analysis can be applied to any of the positive behaviors mentioned in these verses. Notice how the opposite values of the virtues listed in verses 12 through 14 almost perfectly describe the situation in Corinth, where Paul declared that the believers were carnal and not spiritual. Let's determine to be spiritual!

Your fellow disciple,

Pastor Bob

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