A Walk of Intimacy

by Bob Bradley

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

In my last two letters I introduced the topic of abiding in Christ. In this letter I am going to continue the topic with an attempt to explain what is meant by that phrase. The Word itself does not spell out in detail how we are to abide in Christ. If it did, we would probably develop a program or a technology of "abiding," and thus miss the whole point. Using John chapters 6 and 14 through 17 as our guideline, abiding is a very personal, relational, spiritual behavior, and it just can't be reduced to a set of rules or procedures. And yet, as growing believers, we have a strong tendency to believe that we can do anything in our own strength, just so long as we have the rulebook. I strongly suspect that is why Jesus did not give us a clear definition of what He meant by abiding. Furthermore I even suspect that He wants to reveal to you, using Scripture as a guideline, specifically what steps you are to take to strengthen your abiding relationship with Him.

In my previous two letters I talked about the experiences of Hudson Taylor and F. J. Huegel in some detail. These two great missionaries came to a place where they knew they could not go on in their mission work unless God gave them the victory over their great vulnerability to unbelief and attitudinal sins. They described their discovery of the life of abiding in very different terms. But the net effect was the same. The men became joyful and fruitful, with a keen sense that Jesus actually lived in them. In other words, they made a transition from believing in the power of Jesus to forgive sins (which is the foundation of saving faith), to a place of experiencing Jesusí actual indwelling to give victory over the sin principle. We are not talking about sinless perfection but about consistent victory, particularly over the sins of the mind.

It occurs to me that at this point I need to make reference to one of the key Scriptures in the Pauline epistles, II Cor. 3: 18—"But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the spirit of the Lord." Paul is here laying down one of the foundational principles of the New Testament, namely that spiritual growth occurs as we behold Jesus in His glory. And what is "beholding" but intense looking? And what is looking, but the focus of the mind and heart? So Paul is saying that the more we look at Jesus, the more like Him we become. I can almost hear somebody objecting, "But don't we have to do something? Didn't Jesus say, 'If you love me, keep my commandments?'" To which I would respond, "Itís impossible to obey Jesus unless you love Him, and it's impossible to love Him without beholding Him." If we try to obey Jesus out of duty, we have got the cart before the horse, and it just doesn't work! We will fall on our faces as the cart lurches this way and that.

We live in an evangelical culture that is very works-oriented. We preach a gospel of grace, but when we begin to talk about the Christian life we often lapse into works righteousness. Admittedly, what we do for Jesus is very important, but the critical issue is motivation. You'll recall from Revelation Chapter 2 that Jesus was quite dissatisfied with the devotion of the Ephesian church, in spite of the fact that they were doing virtually everything right. That was the problem — they had mastered all the details of performance but they had abandoned their first love for Jesus. They no longer beheld Him in His glory, or loved Him with their whole heart. They were superbly orthodox, and zealous to expose error, but their motivation for their religious duty was woefully deficient. They were not serving Jesus with a "first love" intensity, and He sharply rebuked them for their lack. To put it in the context of this study, their abiding had become very shallow.

Our Lord wants us to be preoccupied with Him alone. He will direct our paths in the ways of righteousness. He will show us when we undertake something for primarily religious motivation, rather than undertaking something in obedience to His guidance. I suspect that much of the evangelical religious activity in our culture falls far short of the standard of Jesus and would not win His approval. We are inundated with doctors, apostles, and church planters, all of whom are expert in their fields. But one must look pretty hard to find a voice that calls us to repentance so that the clutter can be removed and we can behold His glory.

I must share with you a current event that has great promise. Dr. John Piper is probably the second best-known evangelical pastor in America, after Rick Warren. He is about 65 years old, and has pastored the same church in Minneapolis for over 30 years. He is a prolific author, and speaks and holds conferences around the world. About two months ago he stunned his church by informing them that he was going to take an eight-month sabbatical, during which he would do nothing that would be viewed as public religious activity. He would not write any books or articles. He would not preach, teach, or appear at conferences. He declared that God had impressed him with how much pride had infected everything he did, and that he needed a radical sabbatical to set his spiritual house in order. He specifically mentioned that he had neglected his family and he asked their forgiveness for his times of unavailability. He noted that there was not a whiff of unfaithfulness between him and his wife, but that he had been something of a "rock" rather than a tenderhearted companion, which his wife needed.

John Piper is known for the concept of "Christian Hedonism." Hedonism is an ancient Greek philosophy of pursuing pleasure. Piper says that Christians need to be people who delight themselves in God, and who take pleasure in Him. In an age when the drunk on the street and couples living together without benefit of marriage and older people who haven't been to church in 40 years all say that they believe in Jesus, we are using religious terminology that has lost its meaning. Piper would therefore have us talk about "delighting ourselves in the Lord." The true believer is one who has an active delight in God.

John Piper is obviously a man who abides in Christ, and who is dealing radically with his pride and other factors that have limited the strength of his abiding. Piper is very strongly Calvinistic, and I differ with him on some points of theology (on other points I strongly concur), but I absolutely admire the man, and am refreshed by the thought that he is dealing forthrightly with what might be called hindrances to abiding. Would that more pastors had his integrity!

The concept of abiding in Christ is implicit in much of the apostle Paul's writings. Remember that the book of John, from which we get the concept of abiding, was not written during Paul's lifetime. But look at Romans 7: 4. Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another, even to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.

Paul is saying that we are spiritually married to Christ. Married couples live in the same house, eat at the same table, and sleep in the same bed. Here Paul gives us a powerful analogy of abiding. In Galatians 2:20 he gives us another: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."It could readily be said that "Christ in me" is a phrase which captures the essence of Pauline theology. Again, in Galatians 4: 19 Paul underscores our union with Jesus. "My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you,..."

Paul's doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) is filled with allusions to our union with Christ. In Ephesians 1: 22, 23 he identifies the church as being "the fullness of Him who fills all in all." This is one of the most profound statements in all of Scripture. It is Christ, birthed in the heart of every believer, that makes it possible for the church to be the fullness of Christ. Paul makes an equally amazing statement in I Cor. 12:12— "For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ." Paul could have said so also are Christ and His body but rather he identifies Christ with His body in his statement, "so also is Christ." Christ's body, the church, is described as being in union with him. And John, the aged apostle, underscores these mysteries in first John 3:2— "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."

Although "abiding" is uniquely the language of John's Gospel, there are hints of it in the other three Gospels. In Matthew 11: 29 and 30, Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." These words of Jesus, which speak of learning to take his yoke and to share in his gentleness and lowliness, imply an intimate learning relationship with Him. Again, Matthew 16:24 contains Jesusí invitation to follow Him in cross-bearing, prefaced by His statement "If any man desires to come after me ..." a clear invitation to intimacy.

Let me here deal with an objection that is certain to arise. Someone might ask, "Isn't abiding in Christ simply continuing to confess correct doctrine about Christ? Cannot the man who fails to abide be typified as the man who slides into error or the man who actually denies Jesus and repudiates his faith?" As important as it is to maintain correct doctrine, the words of Jesus in John 14-17 do not support the above interpretation. Jesus there talks about intimacy, sacrificial love, and obedience to his commandments—in other words, he is talking about personal attachment at the deepest level. This is a far cry from maintaining correct doctrine, which can be done with a Pharisaical attitude. We must not forget that correct doctrine—as doctrine alone—cannot save anyone. What we believe about Jesus is very important, and if we do not believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, we cannot be saved. But it is Jesus alone who saves us when we believe in Him and love Him. And if our faith and love are real, our words and our actions will be radically changed.

Jesus gives us an important key to abiding in John 15: 7— "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you." It is clearly very important that we are quite familiar with what Jesus taught. It's also very important that we not put a doctrinal or conceptual overlay on top of Jesusí teachings. Let me give you an illustration. Some believers pay little heed to the Sermon on the Mount because they are strongly dispensational, and they believe that the Sermon on the Mount has little or no relevance for today's believers—it applies to those under a different dispensation. Let's not complicate the word of God with someone's interpretive scheme! We need to approach the word with a childlike simplicity, and a prayer that the Holy Spirit will help us to understand God's intention in His Word.

But it isn't enough to just know the teachings of Jesus well. We need the Holy Spirit to apply these teachings to our heart. It takes a humble and contrite heart to say to the Lord, "Lord, I believe I understand your commandment, but I just don't have what it takes to be fully obedient. Your servant needs help—come to my rescue and give me a heart to do it your way." Psalm 119 represents the heart cry of a man who loves God and his commandments, and yet finds within himself the root of self-will and disobedience. You should familiarize yourself with this wonderful Psalm. It is really a Psalm of grace, and as we reflect on it the Holy Spirit breathes upon us a participation in the contrite and humble spirit of the author.

There is much in the Old Testament and in the Psalms that is conducive to abiding, and we need to know those Scriptures that call us to dependence upon the Lord. I am thinking particularly of those many Psalms that call us to wait on God, for example Psalm 27: 14— "Wait on the Lord; be of good encourage, and he shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord." The man who waits on God is a man whose mind and emotions are fixed upon God, and although he may be preoccupied with the duties of life, his heart is expectant that God will meet his request. I believe there is also another aspect to waiting on God; that is, we are called to wait on God for a greater revelation of Himself to our hearts. It's not a matter of trying to get something from God, but rather a persistent hunger to know and understand more of Himself.

So I think we could say that abiding, in a major part, consists of meditating upon the word of God. I have found, as I'm sure you have, that it takes a while to get the clutter out of my mind when I come to the Word. Personally, I don't think it's possible to meaningfully abide in Christ with less than half an hour a day, preferably in the morning, given to prayer and meditation on the Word. And it seems that the better we get to know the Lord, the more time we need to spend with Him. The real key to abiding, though, seems to be found in our mental activity during the day. Here is where the battle for the mind takes place. We have to take the discipline of our morning hour and extend it to our mental activity during the day. We need to bring "every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ ..." (2 Corinthians 10:5). Our adversary will vigorously attempt to keep us locked into a carnal mindset, even when we know that Jesus is our Lord and when we are giving Him adequate time in the morning. Satan will do his best to inject impure, unbelieving, unforgiving, violent, and hostile thoughts into our minds, and will actively oppose us as we attempt to bring "every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." If he cannot succeed at the above level, he will attempt to inundate us with worry, self pity, doubts, fears, and generally negative feelings about ourselves and others. After all, he is supremely hostile to the life God has placed in our inner man, and he will press his advantage at every opportunity. It is not for nothing that he is known as the Adversary and Accuser.

However, dear brethren, I have good news! One has been given to us as a Helper, and He is infinitely stronger than the Accuser. One of His names is the Spirit of Grace. He continually serves weak believers, and washes us away their sins while he strengthens them for their next contest with the adversary. He carries all the authority of the Godhead, and He indwells believers with the confessed intention of bringing them to the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." He proceeds from the Father and the Son, and his ministry is to reveal and interpret the glory of Jesus to the hearts of individual believers. He never draws attention to himself, but he always exalts Jesus and makes the presence of Jesus tangibly real to believers. Speaking of the Spirit, Jesus explained in John 16, 14 and 15 that "He will glorify me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you." Think of it—all things that the Father has belong to Jesus, and the work of the Spirit is to declare the glory of Jesus to our hearts. That glory is nothing less than the full glory of the Godhead! It is no wonder that Jesus said in Matthew 11: 27, "All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and he to whom the Son wills to reveal Him."

One of the Holy Spirit's primary roles is that of Teacher. In John 16:12, 13 Jesus says "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth." In 2 Corinthians 1:22, and Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30 Paul refers to the "sealing" with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is given "as the down payment of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession" (Eph. 1: 19). In the church age, the Holy Spirit has many roles, including that of convincing the world of its sin. But I think we can safely say that the primary role of the Spirit is to lead believers into maturity, so that they may be "filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 4:19). Because abiding is so high on our Lordís list of priorities, we can rest assured that the Spirit of God will teach us how to grow in our abiding if we sincerely ask Him.

(All Scripture quotations in the above essay were taken from the New King James Version of the Bible.)

Learning with you to listen to the voice of the Teacher,

Pastor Bob

The Call to Abide in Christ
The Practice of Abiding

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