Communion or fellowship with a holy God begins with his initiative in summoning us to his side. Our response is to trust, draw close, and live in his presence (cf. James 4:7-8). We are called by the Lord Jesus himself to “abide in him,” and in this life-giving context, to produce fruit pleasing to the Gardener (John 15:1-11).
Jesus’ apostles marveled as they meditated on the calling of all Christians. At times, their words are bridges barely strong enough to carry the weight of God’s truth. Their authoritative writings for the church make the claim that Christians have been personally and individually chosen by grace to know the person that is “personality” with a capital P. While we wandered in our self-made darkness and misery, he shone his light in our hearts and we became, as it were, dumbstruck by the love so freely flowing from his wounded hands, side, and feet. “Come, and see,” he invited them. “Come and see,” he invites us!
Thus, our calling in Christ is first and foremost to a person, not to an event, task, or duty. To be sure, all such activities are wrapped up in the calling, but at its heart, “the calling” is a summons to the Lord himself, to embrace him and more importantly, to be passionately embraced by him. He wants to be our God (Lev 26:12; 2 Cor 6:16-18)! He has justified us, once for all, and has called us into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:9). Never lose sight of this personal reality; never let it get buried under the rubble of activities and services you’re providing in Jesus’ name. Never let the good become the enemy of the best (Luke 10:38-42; Phil 1:9-11). Choose what is best! Choose to abide in him (John 15:7-8).
But how do we abide in Christ? How do we enjoy his friendship and give thought while in his presence to our new life with him. The answer, though there are several important elements, is relatively simple: we must live faithfully, rely on God's presence and power (Zech 4:6).
The conviction and experience of relying on God’s power deepens in us the more we recognize two related facts: (1) our own spiritual bankruptcy and moral helplessness, and (2) the beauty of his presence and the overwhelming storehouse of His graciously offered, cross-won, provisions and spiritual supplies. In the heart of the obedient Christian, these two realities are always found together, like a couple deeply in love. Spiritually minded Christians are always conscious of their sinfulness, on the one hand, and His joy and strength, on the other. Unfortunately, however, many Christians today often fail to realize their desperate need and so they live scripturally uninformed and powerless lives. Our culture has done its very best to redirect our attention from the true root of our neediness, i.e., our sinfulness before God and our finiteness as his creatures. It has done its very best to either block out any sense of need or to completely redefine what it means to be needy and how one is to go about the process of meeting those needs. In short, the world cites a different problem for our thirst, and prescribes a different fountain for our refreshment. But as Jeremiah said, their therapeutic cisterns are broken and they simply can’t hold the water they promise.
But let the world be as it may; it neither sees Him nor knows Him. The church, however, has always made the claim to both. Yet, in order for the church to really know something of His power, to experience “real abiding in the vine,” she must come to terms with her own depravity, for sin estranges us from God, clouds our judgment, weakens our heart, and ensnares our will. Nonetheless, it often appears that many Christians are not truly abreast of their condition before a holy God and some even speak against the idea of depravity (for an ancient example of this modern problem, cf. Rev 3:15-19). They claim that it is disparaging to speak of Christians in such a negative manner. But to deny the reality and presence of indwelling sin’s assaults on the Christian soul is to also say something about our lack of need for God’s presence and life giving nourishment. This, of course, is to involve us in error in two crucial, biblical ideas. What I mean is, we err by judging (1) ourselves too highly/the problem too lightly, and (2) God’s solution, in some sense, trivial.
First, let us sober up and get it straight with respect to our own native spiritual abilities: we have none, and if it weren’t for the Spirit of God, Paul says we wouldn’t even care (Rom 3:9-20; Eph 3:1-3). Why do such stark statements shock our sensibilities when the pages of Scripture are crammed with this idea? Are we really and truly that ignorant of God’s word? Let us examine ourselves, then, to see whether we have judged ourselves more competent than we, in fact, are. Jesus said that “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Therefore our need for him is not partial, it is total. Jeremiah said that the human heart on its own is “desperately wicked and incurable” (Jer 17:9). Another text says that “every inclination of our hearts is only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5). Now this is where I think a lot of contemporary American Christians go wrong. They just don’t realize the extent of their depravity and they consciously or unconsciously miscalculate their own spiritual abilities and needs. They would probably mouth better, but they live as if Christ were simply a self-help, band aid, and not the resurrected, exalted Savior/Deliverer that He is. In short, we are not the spiritual giants we should be and our sin problem is much worse than we probably ever imagined. This leads us to the second point.
The second point worth mentioning is this: since we judge ourselves more spiritually and morally competent than we in truth are, and since we judge the problem much lighter than in truth it is, we therefore judge God’s solution—the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord—trivial. It is very difficult for energetic, corporate minded people to comprehend the ideological, spiritual, and moral weight, enduring greatness, and sheer power of the cross when in their own personal gallop polls they fare so well. But, if we would only stop for a moment, humbly and prayerfully reckon afresh the calling we have received as Christians, i.e., to be just like Christ inside and out, we might realize that God’s demand in this call is hilariously impossible apart from the cross and His “power-to-liberate-and-transform.” It is impossible apart from abiding in the vine. As Karl Barth said, “If Jesus took my place on the cross, then I guess I know what my place is.” How can it be much plainer than that?
To put it simply, because the North American church is, in large measure, out of touch with her depravity and worldliness, she parades the square of public opinion with a puny god, lives at half throttle, and convinces few people of her claims to true life, liberty, and happiness. A high view of ourselves has ushered in a low view of God; the One who hovered sovereignly over the waters at creation rests inconsequentially upon his new creation, the church. There are many people in the evangelical church today who have been driven to God in prayer over the weak and sickly state of their Master’s body. Praise God for them, yet the church as a whole remains largely “in ruins.” Many of us are weeping over her mountain’s worth of resources, yet her molehill’s worth of strength, holiness, intellectual vigor, and love for others. Where are Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul when you need them?
So why spend so much time discussing depravity? Certainly, I run the risk of discouraging some by hammering away on this point. But discouragement is not my goal or intention. In that case perhaps it would have been better not to have talked about it. Surely it’s not just so that we can all feel bad! The real answer is: because we need to see the problem for what it really is, if we are going to appreciate what it means to abide in the vine, to experience God's deliverance. We simply will not commune with Christ if we do not see him as attractive and beautiful, and his attractiveness diminishes when false and lofty ideas about our spiritual competencies attach themselves to our hearts. The law of God, while completely unable to do anything about our condition, is nonetheless designed by God and applied by his Spirit, to show us like an x-ray where the broken parts are. We dare not trust ourselves to figure this out on our own. Sin is deceitful. God’s word, illumined by His Spirit, received in humility, and lived out in the community, is our only sure guide. Let us turn to the Lord and cry out for understanding. As the Psalmist says: “Reveal your light and your faithfulness! They will lead me; they will escort me back to your holy hill and to the place where you live” (Ps 43:3). My friends, let’s go home.
So then, since we see our need for him, let us foster that dependence by prayerfully reading scripture daily, listening vigilantly for his voice through the voice of his spokespeople. Let us meditate on Scripture, humbly ready to receive, digest, and act on what we’re shown (James 1:19-27). Then we will abide in the vine. Obedience to his word leads to answered prayer, deeper abiding, and increasing fruitfulness (John 15:7). When we abide in the vine, energized by His power and strengthened by him to remain there, godly wisdom will begin to supplant carnal thinking, gentleness, harshness, desires to glorify Christ, self-seeking. To abide in the vine means two things: (1) to relinquish and turn from all private as well as overt attachments to sin—sin as defined by the holy law of God; and (2) to turn to Christ in faith—loving him by obeying his commandments, which in their underlying direction and fulfillment entail love for others (John 15:10; Rom 13:8-10).
The fruit of close communion with Christ begins, first of all, with joy—a rich, Spirit-inspired emotion of peace and exultation. It is the very joy that God has in himself! As the Chronicler says: “majestic splendor emanates from him, he is the source of strength and joy” (1 Chron 16:27). Indeed, there is great joy in God’s presence and he loves to give it to us (Psalm 21:6; 30:11). The joy of the Lord comes with repentant, worshipful reading of His Word and leads to strength for joyful and invigorating obedience. This is Nehemiah’s point when he asks the people to rejoice as Ezra reads the Law (cf. Neh 8). There is an integral link between real progress in the Christian life and our experience of joy as we move along (see Phil 1:25).
Second, and closely related, communion with Christ leads to the experience of God’s “power-to-liberate-and-transform,” what Peter refers to as divine power (2 Peter 1:3-4). As we daily renounce sin, turning instead to the Lord and His Word, we experience God’s almighty presence-to-us in strengthening grace, that is, grace to continually abide in his presence (where there is life), to overcome sin and death, to work Christ-like righteousness in our hearts and lives (even in the face of opposition), and to draw even closer to him in worship, love, and godly obedience (Titus 2:11-12). God is working in us what is pleasing in his sight (Heb 13:20-21). Since he is for us, who can be against us (Rom 8:31)? His divine power, which we experience in faithful communion with him, gives us everything we need for life and godliness and is in keeping with the power he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead (Eph 1:19-20).
But, there are certain misconceptions floating around regarding the meaning of God’s power. So let me take a minute to explain further what Scripture means when it refers to God’s power in connection with the Christian life. The power of God is not, as many suppose, some uncontrollable, ecstatic explosion of divine dynamite. Though we get our English word “dynamite” from the Greek word for “power,” please do not, on that basis, make the silly (yet common) linguistic mistake of equating God’s power with a stick of TNT! Not to mention the error of semantic anachronism, God’s power simply does not function like that, for his power is his uncontested ability to think and act in certain wise, loving, and holy ways. This is true whether we are talking about his power in creating, sustaining, redeeming, or judging. Further, it is always his power we are talking about, not just power itself. It is always the power of a Person, not a thing; it is an attribute of a holy, wise, and loving God, not a thing to be manipulated. His power comes with him and not by itself. And further, it comes in the seasons he wishes to grace us with his presence-in-power. To long for your King, that is, to desire him and his presence, is to simultaneously invite his strength and power for his purposes.
So then, God has a specific purpose or goal in the bestowal of his power upon the elect. That purpose involves godliness and witness. It is not simply an erratic explosion of mystical might. Positively, God exercises his sanctifying power in us in order to lovingly and with much tenderness draw us close to his heart. At the same time he is fostering holy virtues in us, i.e., his power, operative according to his grand design in our salvation (see Romans 8:29), transforming us into the image of Christ so that we in turn might share in his holiness and happiness (Heb 12:14). Negatively, he uses his power daily, as a concerned father often does, to discipline, thwart, chasten, and frustrate us when we walk in sin and disobedience. There are even times when He exercises his power by permitting us to walk in the bitterness of our sins for a season so that we might learn that life in Canaan, though not without its conflicts and battles, is far superior to hopeless drudgery in Egypt (cf. Jer 2:19).
God also works powerfully through us in the preaching of the gospel. The early disciples and we too, were promised power when the Holy Spirit came so that we might carry the good news of our Savior to the end of the earth (Acts1:8). It is through him and relying on his power that we can faithfully share the gospel to those who do not yet know God’s great offer.
The bottom line is that we need to think of God’s power in connection with his purpose of transforming us into the image of Christ. To relegate it solely or even mostly to mystical experiences, dreams, visions, and the like, is reductionistic and unhelpful. Though God may give us dreams and visions (with no canonical status intended), these are generally few and far between and are not regularly to be sought after. In many quarters our curiosity with them has honestly become a great distraction, leading us away from clear biblical commands to pursue godliness (cf. 2 Cor 7:1; 1 Peter 1:15-16). To think of his power, then, in any way apart from holiness, beyond holiness, or in contradiction to holiness (as defined by Christlikeness and Christ-like service and witness), is to miss the mark. The Father chose us, the Son died for us, and the Spirit applied the benefits of the Son’s death to us for the purpose of our reconciliation to God and the recreation of the image of Christ within us (Rom 8:29-30; Col 3:9-10). Having justified us, and placed our feet on a solid rock, our Trinitarian God continues to powerfully and with enormous patience and love work his plan of redemption in and through us.