More on Abiding in Christ

by Bob Bradley

Bob Bradley Note: This is the last teaching that Bob Bradley composed especially for prisoners in the California penal system before his passing in April 2011. Others also received and were blessed by it, but it is fitting that his final message was prepared for the saints behind bars that he so loved and cared for. Also fitting was its subject: the importance of cultivating a deep, personal relationship with Christ. This was the dominant theme of Bob's life and ministry. The last line reads "We'll talk more about meditation and abiding another time!" We now know that that opportunity will come in eternity, when we'll have unlimited time to explore the things of God together.

Dear Brothers,

With this letter I resume my discussion of abiding in Christ. First, I want to deal with the glorious outcome of abiding. I must periodically emphasize that abiding in Christ is a tangible, intimate and daily experience and not just anther doctrine of applied theology. Above all other things, our God is a relational God. He is also holy, and we cannot know him in living experience unless we allow him to make us holy. There is a growing understanding among maturing believers that salvation is a process which begins at the new birth, and which finds its fulfillment when we are glorified. Paul states in First Corinthians 1:18 that "... the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." The Spirit of God convinces us of our sin and draws us to Jesus, in whom we find forgiveness of sins and a new relationship with God. Following our conversion, the Spirit of God begins to deal with us regarding our sanctification, which involves our conformity to the character of Christ. But all of this, as important as it is, is preliminary. What God is really after are people with whom He can fellowship.

Christian thinkers have pointed out that God is utterly self-sufficient because He exists as a Trinity. In other words, there is constant communication in the heart of God. In the depths of His Being, God has been engaged in a continual conversation since the days of eternity. God does not have to go outside of Himself to find fellowship. And yet (and this is the wonder of the Incarnation) He has called redeemed human beings into this conversation. Fully assuming human nature, He came and pitched his tent among us, and drew us into the divine conversation as adopted sons (John 1:12, John 15:15).

What is it that characterizes a truly happy and enduring marriage? It certainly isnít sex! Ask any couple thatís been married for 40 years or more, and they will tell you that the heart of their marriage is conversation. Some are more verbal than others, and sometimes the communication is nonverbal, but communication it is! When communication breaks down, the marriage is over. Intimate communication results when values and goals and ideals are shared, and if those values diverge, conversation is strangled and the marriage is headed for the rocks.

The New Testament invites us to use human marriage as an analogy for Godís work of redemption. As you know, the Church is called the Bride of Christ, and the next great event on Godís timetable, following the second coming, is the marriage supper of the Lamb. I want to suggest that the rest of eternity will be filled with conversations with our Lord—remembering that He transcends time and can individually manifest Himself, should He will to do so, to all of His people in the same moment. Do you realize what a radical concept this is?

We are being called into the secret counsels of God, into the very heart of the Trinitarian conversation. Jesus has not ceased to be the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, just because he assumed human nature. He is the Head, and we are the members of his body. Everywhere he goes, we shall go too. Paul alludes to these glorious realities in Ephesians 1:22, 23: " ... and he put all things under his feet and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." Because God is infinite and we are finite, there will always be more about His glory to discover. We shall spend all eternity learning more about Him, and a billion years from now shall have just begun to comprehend the Incarnation.

Is it any wonder then, that we are called to abide in him? Eternity shall be one great adventure of enjoying his presence, and talking with him about theology, astronomy, biochemistry, music, woodworking (a skill in which he has particular expertise) and any topic that is of interest to you. But I suspect that most of our conversations will center upon the mystery of His incarnation and the wonder of our union with Him. Our Lord is pretty adept at answering difficult questions, as he demonstrated in John chapters 14 through 17. He will be our Heavenly Tutor and there will always be more to learn and apprehend. Long after we perfectly understand the Big Bang and how the galaxies were formed, we will still be sitting at his feet learning how Maryís oldest son could be the Lord God Almighty. Heaven will be a place of never-ceasing wonder. Jesus will be the center of attraction, and we will discover that every good and desirable thing finds its source in Him.

The rationale for learning to abide in Him is urgent and obvious. My second point deals with the necessity of abiding. Those who fail to abide are going to be grossly unprepared for the life to come. In addition, theyíre going to be ineffective as channels of the ministry of Godís love to those about them. The apostle John deals with the possibility of deficient abiding in I John 2:28: " ... and now, little children, abide in him, that when he appears we may have confidence and not be ashamed before him at his coming." Continuing on with the theme of preparing for His coming, John says the following: "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. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure (I John 3:2,3)."

Probably the most important factor in learning to abide is simply to take the words of Jesus very seriously. Abiding is not an automatic consequence of being a believer. It is a commitment which we must choose to embrace. Jesus made it clear in John 15 that abiding is not optional. "Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away.; and every branch that bears fruit he prunes, that is may bear more fruit (John 12)." Jesus goes on to say, "Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me... If anyone does not abide in me he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned (John 15:4,6)."

Admittedly, these are difficult Scriptures. If you are a Calvinist, I think you will conclude that those who do not abide and are cast out as branches are the ones who make a profession of Christianity, but who never have been regenerated. Point number five of TULIP (the Five Points of Calvinism), the perseverance of the saints, requires this interpretation. That is, all truly regenerate persons will persevere in their faith. Those who do not persevere (abide) are not elect and will not endure. They will be burned as fruitless branches,. If you are an Arminian, you can embrace the possibility that the person who is burned as a fruitless branch was once a valid believer. This theological analysis is not meant to provoke disagreement, but rather to point out that the end result is the same in both positions—if you do not abide and bear fruit, you will not enter the kingdom of God. The first few verses of John 15 comprise one of those difficult passages that are usually dealt with very superficially. However, whether we are Calvinist or Arminian, we must face the implications of Jesusí statement.

Jesus articulated the same truths in John 6:56, when he said, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him." The necessity of abiding is underscored in verse 53: "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" How many believers have looked at their deficiencies and concluded that a life of abiding is beyond their ability? And they are correct! However, there is a wonderful principle that comes into play regarding the commands of our Lord. What our Lord commands, He give the grace to perform. There is almost always a period of discouragement as we attempt to keep the commandment or to abide in our own strength. But then He breaks through with the inner illumination that brings victory. So it is important for us to take the commandment seriously, even if it seems entirely beyond our reach.

Finally, I want to address the topic of how we abide in Christ. When I was a college student I tried to abide in Christ by imagining that Jesusí invisible presence was always with me. I tried this mental discipline for a couple of days, but it didnít work very well. Later the Lord led me to the book The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. In this wonderful little book Tozer describes the spiritual crises associated with spiritual growth. Iíll never forget the title of one of his chapters: The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing. I began to learn the principles that underlie an abiding walk with Jesus. Abiding does involve the use of our minds, but it is far more than just the exercise of imagination. I do not condemn myself for my mental exercise approach to abiding. The lord knew the sincerity of my heart, and he made allowance for my immaturity.

From A.W. Tozer I graduated to Andrew Murray, who wrote Abide in Christ. From Murray I learned that abiding in Christ involves understanding and meditating upon the many ways in which Jesus is our life. Atonement is the foundation of our relationship to him. But there is so much more. He is our access to the Father, and every spiritual blessing comes to us through Jesus. Colossians 1:19 says, "For it pleased the Father that in him all the fullness should dwell." I Corinthians 1:30 declares, "But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption."

About 100 years ago there was a Christian writer named Rufus Moseley. He was not satisfied with the sterile brand of Christianity which he found in his environment. For many years he hungered to really know God. At one point he got into the error of Christian Science, and for several years he dabbled in what we would call metaphysics (similar to New Age teaching). But the Spirit of God was faithful to him and finally he came to a place where his faith was anchored in Jesus. Moseley wrote a book entitled Perfect Everything. He used these words to describe the person of Jesus. To Moseley, Jesus was perfect everything. I skimmed the book a number of years ago, and Iím not prepared to vouch for Moseley or to say that everything he wrote was biblically sound. But I do know that Moseley had an inner vision of Jesus that was glorious, and was in line with what Paul wrote in Colossians 1:19, quoted above.

When I originally started to plan the series on abiding, I purposed to develop some material on the spiritual experience of certain persons in the Catholic tradition, including Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Madame Guyon (1648-1717). During the time of the Reformation, and for the next couple of centuries, there were a number of Catholics who had a deep love for Jesus and exhibited that love in self-sacrificing obedience. The list of Catholic believers includes Xavier, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Miguel de Molinos, Francis de Sales, Mme. Guyon, and Archbishop Fenelon. Most of these persons were severely persecuted by the Catholic hierarchy, which fact tends to validate their spiritual vitality. Some of these Catholics, who were known as mystics, taught a practical theology that was somewhat off-base. Their focus was on mental passivity (in prayer, blanking out every conscious thought, even of God and of Christ.) Guyon taught some of this questionable mystical theology, but she believed in the priority of grace over works and thus was acceptable to most of her Protestant contemporaries.

I have a little book printed over 170 years ago that contains the Ode of Xavier. It is a poem, originally written in Latin, which declares Xavierís love to his crucified Lord. It is one of the most powerful expressions of devotion to Jesus I have ever read. Let me quote it for you here:

Love to thee, O God I give —Not that I in heaven may live,
Nor because they, who deny Love to thee, forever die.
 
Thou, my Jesus, on the tree, Thou didst prove thy love for me;
Insult, shame, and anguish bear, Torturing nails, and cruel spear,—
Death itself, —they love to show, —And for me a sinner, too.
 
How, dear Jesus, can thy love Fail my love for thee to move?
Not eternal bliss to gain, Nor to Ďscape from endless pain,
Nor for ought that may accrue—All my love is but thy due.
 
As has been thy love to me, So Iíll love and honor thee,
And they praise proclaim abroad, For thou art my King and God.
 

Xavier was a friend of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. He became a missionary to Southeast Asia and Japan, and hundreds of thousands of conversions and many miracles are attributed to him. I am not endorsing the behavior of the Jesuits, but I am saying that Xavier himself was a wonderful godly man, and had an abiding relationship with Jesus.

Madame Guyon (1648-1717) lived during the corrupt and indulgent reign of Louis XIV, King of France. She was strikingly beautiful and brilliant in conversation, and had access to the highest social strata in France. At age 16 she was married to a wealthy nobleman more than 20 years her senior. The stresses of her marriage caused her to seek God, and the death of one of her children deeply affected her. Then, before her 20th birthday, she contracted smallpox, and it left her face terribly scarred. It seemed that God had taken from her every emotional crutch and everything that appealed to her pride. Her relationship with the Lord Jesus became very personal and after she recovered from the smallpox she began to give liberally to charity and to teach those who were spiritually hungry.

The uniqueness of her teaching had to do with the conviction that Jesus calls each of us to an intimate relationship with Himself. She wrote a number of books and in her middle age her teachings were condemned by the Pope. Her writings flooded Europe even though they were under the papal ban. Finally she was put in the Bastille, the notorious prison in Paris. After several years in prison she was released to live with her son under virtual house arrest, and continued writing poetry until her death. I am not recommending her books to you because in my judgment they rely a bit too much upon mental passivity (defined above). However, her teaching was a much-needed antidote to the superficial faith of most of her fellow Catholics. Her writings are still quite popular, and there is a measure of good to be found in them, in spite of the questionable content. (One sign of spiritual maturity is the ability to separate nuggets of truth from worthless gravel, or even that which is harmful.) Her best-known works are Experiencing God Through Prayer and Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said that if we abide in Him, and His words abide is us, we will be fruitful (John 15:7). As is so often the case, the truth that Jesus taught regarding abiding is prefigured in the Old Testament. Psalm 1 extols the blessedness of the man who takes delight in the law of the Lord. We do not do any violence to Scripture to suggest that the psalmist is talking about the whole gamut of Scripture as it existed up until that time period. His focus is not just on Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, but undoubtedly included Genesis and some of the historical books. The devotion depicted here is far more than a legalistic observance of the details of Jewish law and ritual. Note that the righteous man "delights" in the law of the Lord—so much so that he meditates upon it day and night.

He delights in the law of God because the heart of God is revealed to him through the law. I am reminded of the statement in Psalm 119:165: "Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble." The man who loves the word of God has an inner revelation of the character of God (and of Jesus) —of His mercy and righteousness. So he is not offended by anything that happens, because he knows that a loving God will overrule evil. Note that bearing fruit is the result of the meditation of the righteous man, just as the disciple of Jesus bears fruit. Weíll talk more about meditation and abiding another time! (All Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James version.)

Growing with you,

 
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