Abiding in Christ: More than Sentiment
by Derek Thomas
The slippery, imperceptible slide into mysticism is always a danger. The Bible itself warns of an anti-propositional Christianity, embodied in the slogan no creed but the Bible: “Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle” (Ps. 32:9). John Stott’s Your Mind Matters opens with a statement that, in effect, prioritizes the role of the mind in Christianity. Many others have added similar expressions of concern about modern evangelicalism’s capitulation into sentimentality—the “Hallmarkization” of the church, perhaps.
And nowhere is this sentimentality more apparent than in discussing (a cerebral process, by the way) what Jesus meant when he said, “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4, see v. 6).
What does “abide” (Greek menō) mean in this context? Greek and English dictionaries suggest these synonyms: continue, dwell, endure, be present, remain, stand, tarry (for). The relationship we enjoy with Christ in the gospel is entirely of grace. God initiates it. But once it is initiated, we do not then become passive in that relationship. There is a response on our part. True, the response is one that requires the energy of the Holy Spirit: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). This God-directed and -sustained synergistic cooperation on our part in our sanctification (Paul calls it “obedience” in v. 12) is something both the Holy Spirit and we do. We dare not lose sight of the emphasis on our effortful involvement.
The context in which Jesus exhorts us to abide suggests some more focused ideas of what it means to abide.
First, abiding in Christ has something to do with the way Scripture dwells in our hearts: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you” (John 15:7). To abide in Christ is to be immersed in Scripture: to read it, study it, ingest it. “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).
Second, abiding in Christ suggests categories of obedience, responsive behavior, and holiness. The goal of having God’s Word in our hearts is that it might refashion us to become more like Christ. Abiding in Christ is a measure of our conformity to what God asks us to do in response to His grace to us in the gospel.
Third, abiding in Christ suggests a passionate, increasing, enduring love of Christ: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10). Our love for Christ must grow and flourish. I need to be able to say that I love him more today than yesterday.
Fourth, abiding in Christ will shape our praying, enabling us to pray in a manner that conforms to His will. Walking in God’s law will mean less selfish praying —“ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).