In parts one and two of this series, I dealt with the human problem of sin and the divine solution given to us in the person of Jesus Christ. If you are anything like me, however, vague generalities about abiding in the Vine aren’t very helpful when faced with everyday temptations. Real life needs practical answers.
As I mentioned in my first post, for a number of years I was stuck in a loop of success and failure. All of this came to a point of crisis when I was forced to recognize the complete helplessness of the human condition. Recognizing my need for a Savior was only half the equation of course. The other half was discovering what the Savior has done for me and how the gospel can transform me when my best efforts are insufficient.
Abiding in the Vine
In John’s Gospel, Jesus explains the life of a Christian by using the analogy of a branch abiding in the vine. What seems to be missing is how the Christian is supposed to make that happen. We are not literal branches and Jesus is not a literal vine. Just how is the Christian supposed to abide in Christ?
A deeper analysis of John’s Gospel and his first epistle reveal the development of this concept beyond the discourse in John Chapter 15. In fact, most of the biblical references to the word ‘abide’ are used by John and are connected to a very specific truth. Although we don’t have time in this article to explore the use of ‘abide’ in the writings of John, a careful analysis will demonstrate that John’s Gospel connects the act of abiding with the act of believing in Jesus as the Messiah.
The clearest connection between believing and abiding however, comes from John’s first epistle. “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God,” (4:15) the apostle proclaims before concluding in the next chapter, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…. Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (5:1, 4-5).
The progression in thought is obvious. Anyone who believes in Jesus as the Son of God has been born again and ‘abides’ in God. Once this has occurred, the believer is able to overcome.
Perhaps you are thinking that this is all too simple. There must be more to salvation than belief in Jesus. As James points out elsewhere, “even demons believe – and shudder” (James 2:19) And yet the biblical record is clear. “Abraham believed God, and It was counted to him as righteousness” (James 2:23). The irony is that the Greek word used to describe Abraham’s belief is the same word used to describe demonic belief (πιστεύω). What’s the difference? How do we cross over from an intellectual assent (like demons have) to a faith that transforms our lives and saves us?
Faith that Works
I think the reason faith is so difficult to understand is that all of us tend towards one extreme or another. Either we find ourselves assuming we have faith because we do certain things, or we have many positive feelings about what Christ has done for us but our lives haven’t actually changed to reflect that. Thankfully, James explained the difference between saving faith and the kind of mental assent that simply makes demons shudder.
“What good is it, my brothers,” James questions, “if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” And then he concludes by asserting, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14,26).1
Indeed, when we turn to the great honor roll of faith recorded in Hebrews 11 we quickly discover that people who have faith also act in ways that reflects their faith. Noah had faith and built an ark. Abraham had faith and went on a journey to an unknown destination. Then, he later offered up his promised son. Moses had faith and rejected the greatest worldly opportunities that existed at that time and instead chose to identify and suffer with a marginalized people group. The author concludes his list by asserting that all of these people “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises…. Put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33-34).
Faith, in other words, is undeniably active and full of gumption.
Faith is neither a simple acknowledgment that Jesus is our savior nor is it a laborious journey up a steep and treacherous mountain. Instead, faith is believing in the gift of divine power and then doing something with it that would otherwise be impossible for us in our helpless human state. Thus, Hebrews asserts, the Christian race is accomplished by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
If the concept of looking to Jesus sounds familiar, then you are likely thinking of one of the following stories.
Look and Live
During the 40 years that the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness (as a direct result of lack of faith), there was a period of time when they began to suffer from an infestation of poisonous snakes. In response to the many deaths that occurred, God directed Moses to create the image of a snake lifted up on a pole so that anyone who was dying would be able to look at the snake and live. While looking seems like a passive action it really wasn’t. Looking required getting up from the location that person was in and coming near enough to the pole to be able to see it. And then it required concentrated focus that could not be distracted by present circumstances. It required acknowledgment of need and then doing something about that need.
This is the kind of active faith that Jesus referenced in John 3:16 which he prefaced by saying, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Thousands of years after the Israelites defeated snakes with faith, Peter and the other disciples were fighting for their lives in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. It was late at night and there was a violent storm that they were all focused on trying to survive. Suddenly, the disciples were startled by the presence of a figure that they thought was a ghost but, as it turned out, was actually Jesus. What followed was an incredible account of Peter walking on water. Peter, like the ancient Israelites, accomplished this unbelievable act through faith. He looked to Jesus and he believed that what Jesus said was possible. His belief was so strong and so assured that he threw himself overboard without considering what would happen if everything went wrong. But the moment his faith faltered and he turned away from Jesus he immediately began to sink beneath the waves. Thus Jesus rebuked him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt” (Matthew 14:31)?
The inherent lesson in both these stories is straightforward. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Bringing it All Together
It should be evident at this point that it is necessary for faith to act and that this faith enables us to “look and live” or “abide in the vine.” But even active faith can appear to be an abstract concept. How can faith be broken down into practical steps without devolving into legalism? I will now attempt to bring everything together with four basic steps that have completely revolutionized my spiritual experience. These steps might not look like faith to you, but they are because faith is the belief that Jesus is our redeemer and is made active by drawing near to him.
Step one: recognize our need
I highlighted this step in part one. Recognizing that sin goes far beyond simple actions and choices is crucial to understanding our great need for a Savior. If the Israelites had not sensed their need they would not have looked at the snake on the pole. The moment Peter felt self-assured in his ability to walk on water he ceased to rely on and believe in Jesus and he fell, helpless, into the sea. There was never a moment in Peter’s experience when he was capable of walking on water and neither is there a moment in our experience when we are capable of doing good in a way that is acceptable to God. Our best efforts are filthy rags. It was only when Peter sensed his need that he cried, “Lord, save me.” In the same way, it is only when we sense our inability to save ourselves that we rely fully on Christ.
Step two: repent
Recognizing our need also requires a change of heart. We readily recognize the sinfulness of a serial killer or child molester, but we often do not feel repulsed by our garden-variety sins. Pride, vanity, jealousy, self-reliance, impatience, self-pity, and lack of love for those who aren’t important to us are not just acceptable to most of us. We encourage these sins and actively feed them to the point that our feelings appear right to us. In our own ways, we are like the Pharisee who prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11). And yet, the only person who was justified that day – the only one who was made holy by God – was the tax collector. The guy who, “standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven,” but said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13)!
Step three: confess
Recognition of our need and a change of heart are incomplete without confession. Why? Because this is the point at which we stop making excuses and take responsibility for our condition. When Adam and Eve were tried for their sins before God in the garden of Eden, they both sought to evade responsibility. Both of them recognized that they were wrong in what they had done and regretted their actions. But they struggled to take responsibility for their sin. First, they hid themselves hoping that God would somehow not know what happened. Then they cast blame on one another, and finally on the serpent. Like Adam and Eve, we struggle acknowledging to God and to ourselves that we are bad people and have done bad things.
John, understanding human resistance to confession, wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). Sin creates shame within us. But confession of our particular faults and sinfulness cleanses and frees us so that we are capable, at long last, of doing what we needed to do all along.
Step four: surrender
We can recognize our need, repent, and confess, but none of those things have value if we continue to remain kings of our own lives. A military coup that refuses to surrender all territory to the rightful government still remains a military coup. If there is one area that we are not giving over to the sovereignty of Jesus, then we are still in a state of rebellion against God. Jesus wants all or nothing.
Surrender is, essentially, the message from Jesus to the church at Laodicea. “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:14).
Turning over full control of ourselves to God is so important that Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple…. Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, 33).
What does it look like?
These four steps may be clear enough but how can faith and surrender be distilled into everyday life? Here are what these four steps look like when put into action.
- I feel a strong desire which I recognize as sinful. This recognition is evidence the Holy Spirit is speaking to me (John 16:8)
- I come to Jesus and ask him to give me true sorrow and repulsion for my sinfulness (Acts 5:31)
- I confess my desires and actions (if any) and the sinfulness of my heart (Jeremiah 17:1, 9)
- I ask him to take control of my thoughts and my feelings and to change my heart so that I can overcome. Then I take practical steps to begin obeying as God convicts me. (Ezekiel 36:25-29; Zechariah 4)
Ultimately, as Ellen White expresses so eloquently, the entire Christian experience is only achieved through complete dependence on Christ. We are unable to see our condition or even give ourselves to God without his miraculous work in our lives. At every point in the journey our prayer must be:
“Lord, take my heart; for I cannot give it. It is Thy property. Keep it pure, for I cannot keep it for Thee. Save me in spite of myself, my weak, unchristlike self. Mold me, fashion me, raise me into a pure and holy atmosphere, where the rich current of Thy love can flow through my life.”Christ’s Object Lessons, Page 159
- Note Romans 14:23 “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This demonstrates that works without faith are unacceptable to God.