A Transaction with Jesus
Jesus’s commands are for a lifetime. He does not command a once-for-all decision to repent or come or believe or love or listen. Rather he commands that we go on repenting, coming, believing, loving, and listening. The transformation of repentance continues. Coming to Jesus again and again continues. Believing in him hour by hour continues. Listening to his word as the daily source of spiritual life continues. Jesus commands the engagement of our minds and hearts every day of our lives.
A transaction with Jesus in the past that has no ongoing expression in our lives was a false transaction. When Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31), he meant that if we don’t abide, we are not truly his disciples. And the opposite of true disciples is false disciples. That’s what we are if we count on past experiences without ongoing devotion to Jesus.
A Lifelong Extension of Encountering Jesus
One way that Jesus taught the necessity of an ongoing devotion was to command, “Abide in me.” There is nothing uniquely religious about the word abide. In the language of the New Testament, it is the ordinary word for “stay” or “continue” or sometimes “dwell.” Jesus meant: “Stay in me. Continue in me. Keep me for your dwelling.” It is the lifelong extension of encountering Jesus.
The context of this command is the analogy of a vine and its branches. Jesus compares himself to the vine and us to branches:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5)
This picture helps us understand what Jesus meant by abiding in him. The main point of the analogy is that power to bear fruit—that is, power to live a fruitful life of Christ-like love (John 15:12)— flows from Jesus if we stay vitally connected to him. Then we are like a branch connected to the vine so that all the life-sustaining, fruit-producing sap can flow into it. Jesus is explicit in claiming to be the power that we need to live fruitful lives. He says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Abiding in Jesus means staying vitally connected to the life-giving, power-giving, fruit-producing branch, namely, Jesus.
The Moment-by-Moment Cause of Every Good Thing
In other words, Jesus commands that he be the moment-by-moment cause of every good thing in our lives. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Nothing! Really? Well, we could sin and stop bearing fruit and perish without him. But that’s not what he promises to produce. He means: “Without me you can do nothing truly good, truly Godhonoring and Christ-exalting and self-abasing and eternally helpful for others.” Abiding in Jesus means staying vitally connected, hour by hour, to the one who alone produces in our lives everything he commands.
If You Abide, You Bear Fruit
But practically, what does this mean in our experience? What is this “staying vitally connected”? How do we do this? One important part of the answer is to make clear that abiding in Jesus is not the same as bearing fruit or keeping his commandments. Fruit-bearing and commandment-keeping are the result of abiding. If we abide, we bear fruit.
Jesus does not contradict this when he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10). This does not mean keeping his commandments is abiding in his love. That would be like saying: fruit is being connected to the vine. No. Fruit is the result of our being connected to the vine. They are not the same thing. What Jesus means is that if you don’t keep the commandments, that is, if you don’t bear the fruit of love (for love is the sum of his commandments, John 15:12), you have ceased to abide in him. For the truth stands: “Whoever abides in me . . . bears much fruit” (John 15:5).
So the answer to our question, “How do we abide in Jesus?” is not “by bearing fruit” or “by keeping the commandments.” That misses the whole point. The point is to discover how to bear fruit. The answer is, by abiding in Jesus. And so the question becomes: How do we abide in Jesus? What does it mean in actual experience?
Practically, How Do We Abide in Jesus?
Jesus uses two other similar phrases that point to the answer. He refers to abiding in his love. And he refers to abiding in his word. Both of these point toward abiding as continual trust in the truth of Jesus’s words and in the certainty of his love.
Abiding Means Trusting in Jesus’s Love
Not to abide in Jesus’s love would mean that we stop believing that we are loved by Jesus. We look at our circumstances—perhaps persecution or disease or abandonment—and we conclude that we are not loved by Jesus anymore. That’s the opposite of abiding in the love of Jesus. So abiding in his love means continuing to believe, moment by moment, that we are loved.
Everything that comes into our lives under Jesus’s sovereign authority (Matt. 8:8) is part of his love for us. If it is pleasant, he says, “That’s how my Father cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; how much more you!” (cf. Matt. 6:26–30). And if it is painful, he says, “Fear not, the worst that can happen is death, and I have overcome death. I will be with you to the end. And you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (cf. Matt. 10:28; 28:20; John 11:25–26; Luke 14:14). Abiding in Jesus means trusting that this is true—and true for you. That is, it means living on this truth moment by moment. It flows to us like sap flows to a branch. We receive it and get our life from it every day.
Abiding Means Trusting in Jesus’s Word
Similarly, this is true with the phrase, “Abide in my word” (John 8:31). This cannot mean merely, “Keep my commandments.” Rather it means, “Keep on trusting my word. Keep on trusting what I have revealed to you about myself and my Father and my work.” The context of John 8:31–32 confirms this: “Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” The result of abiding in Jesus’s word is being set free. From what? From sin. That’s the slavery Jesus has in mind, as John 8:34 shows: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (RSV). So freedom from sin is the fruit of abiding in the word. “If you abide in my word . . . the truth will set you free.” Not sinning is the fruit, not the definition, of abiding in the word. So keeping the commandments of Jesus, which is another way of describing liberation from sin, is not the meaning of abiding in his word but the fruit of it.
We are not idle in the battle to abide in Jesus.
So we conclude that abiding in Jesus—in his love and in his word—is trusting that he really is loving us at every moment and that everything he has revealed about himself and his work for us and our future with him is true. Believing in Jesus as our living water means drinking the water—savoring it and being satisfied with it. So it is with the sap that flows from the vine to the branch. We receive it, drink it, savor it, and satisfy our souls with it. This daily ever-renewed satisfaction in Jesus is the key to bearing fruit.1 This is what it means to abide in Jesus.
Jesus Keeps Us Abiding
As easy as it seems to abide, to stay implanted, to drink, to rest in Jesus, the truth is that we are often tempted to find our life-giving sap from another plant. And besides our own sinful tendencies, the devil himself wants to snatch us out of the vine, and we must pray daily, Jesus said, that God would “deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). Therefore, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus does not leave us to ourselves. Even though he commands us to abide in him—and we are responsible to abide there, and guilty if we don’t abide—nevertheless he himself keeps us there. And we would not abide there without his crucial keeping.
Jesus showed us this in at least three ways. He said that no one can snatch his own sheep (that is, his own true branches) out of his hand.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27–29)
Then he prayed to his Father that God would cause us to keep on abiding in his name (that is, in Jesus). “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me. . . . While I was with them, I kept them in your name . . . and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:11–12). So it is God who does the decisive work in keeping us in the vine.
Then Jesus himself illustrated how he prays for his own disciples and preserves them from falling away. He predicted Simon Peter’s three denials on the night before his death. But then he spoke with sovereign authority to Simon in words that should encourage all of us. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus prayed for Simon’s keeping and knew it would happen. He said, “When you have turned” not “If you turn.” God’s answer to Jesus’s prayer was sovereignly decisive. Yes, Simon’s faith faltered, and he sinned by denying Jesus. But his faith did not fail utterly. He was not cut off from the vine. Jesus prayed for him. And there is no reason to think Jesus has ceased praying for us this way today.2
We are not idle in the battle to abide in Jesus. But in the end the battle is assured because it does not depend finally on us. Jesus wins. No one can snatch us out of his hand. He and his Father are greater than all. Therefore, his command that we abide in him is that we keep trusting the one who keeps us trusting.
- I have tried to explain this and give many practical examples of how this works in real life in the book Future Grace (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 1995).
- Some commentators on the Bible disagree that Jesus keeps his own by making sure that they keep abiding in him. They point, understandably, to John 15:1–2, 6: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. . . . If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Does this mean that we can be truly attached to the life-giving vine and then later be “taken away” and “thrown into the fire”? I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying, mainly because of the three reasons given above. Rather, I think Jesus means that there are those who appear to be truly in the vine but are not. They have a kind of attachment, but it is not real and life-giving. Judas is the clearest example in Jesus’s ministry. He was “attached” to Jesus for three years: there was a kind of influence flowing into him, and he received many blessings from Jesus. But he was not truly attached in a life-giving way. So eventually he was “taken away”—not away from true life, but away from the artificial attachment that looked real for a season but was not.
This article is adapted from All That Jesus Commanded: The Christian Life according to the Gospels by John Piper.
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