“….like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:6)
Is there a life filled so full of good things that it overflows? Have you discovered God’s own guarantee of a life overflowing with love and joy, of effective service to God and others (John 15)? And the plan was not to provide this fulfillment for some special cadre of super saints, but for everyone who is “in Christ.” Yet how that life may be experienced seems to elude many.
But the Bible starts with bad news about you. In fact, it says that apart from Christ you are “like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15.6). This passage (Jn 15.2,6) causes us to ask, “ was this ‘branch’ in Christ and then got cut off?” Or “was this person safe in Christ but was merely disciplined?” Or “was he never in Christ at all?” I suggest that the passage is figurative, an allegory, and thus should not be treated as a literal doctrinal statement. To fit the vine-and-branch analogy Jesus was simply saying that people who do not live an authentic Christian life should not consider themselves joined to him, that people who do belong to him will give evidence of it in attitudes and action. It seems clear that those who are not “in Christ” are in bad trouble. And this is the consistent witness of Scripture.
But we don’t like this bad news. We like it so little we have re-written our hymns. We used to sing with the ex-slave trader, John Newton, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Now we sing of how it saved “someone like me.” We can’t even bring ourselves to identify with the self-pronounced wretched Paul. But the Bible is clear that without Christ I am a worm, a worthless wretch. Indeed, a withered branch fit for burning. We don’t like to hear it put that way. Oh, I am an image bearer of the glorious God, to be sure, spoiled and damaged though the likeness is. But the bad news I must confront first is that I am a hell deserving sinner.
The law always precedes the Gospel. Paul understood this. The most glorious description of our salvation, of what it means to be “in Christ” (Romans 3-8) follows hard after the very bad news of humankind’s moral rottenness and total lostness apart from Christ (Romans 1-3). First the bad news, then the good.
And the good news is good indeed. In fact, when God regenerates or re-creates a person, the transformation is so radical you could compare it to a birth (John 3). The transformation is so radical you could liken it to death (Romans 6). One other biblical expression used to identify this new being is to describe a person as now being “in Christ.” Thus, whoever is in Christ is a new creation, all is new (II Cor 5.17).
This is the first meaning of being “in Christ.” It describes the relationship into which one enters by faith at initial salvation, what takes place when God re-creates or does what is called regeneration. What Christ himself teaches us about abiding in him in John 15 includes regeneration, but his teaching goes far beyond that basic entry “into Christ.” There are three corollary teachings that spotlight, from different angles, the rich meaning of that initial salvation which Paul describes as being “in Christ.”
Twice he speaks of being “baptized into Christ” (Rom 6:3 and Gal 3:27). To be baptized into something (in the spiritual use of the term), is to be joined to, to become a part of; it is the initial uniting. So, one who is “in Christ” is one who has been united to him in a bonding relationship.
A second line of teaching is the idea that Christ is in us (2 Cor 13:5). Both the expressions “you in Christ” and “Christ in you” could have a literal or physical meaning. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit in some mysterious and special sense come into and “take up their abode” within us (Jn 14:15-24).
A third line of teaching that helps us understand some of the glorious implications of that relationship is the entire eighth chapter of Romans. It begins with the proclamation: “…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”- to be in him is to be safe in him (8:1). To be in Christ is to be free from the domineering authority of sin and resultant death (vs 2). To be in Christ is to have an infused power to think and live like him (vs 4-6). To be in Christ is to have peace with God (vs 6,7). To be in Christ is to have the Holy Spirit within (vs 9). It is to be alive- eternally alive (vs 10, 11). To be in Christ makes me a beloved child of God and, indeed, an heir (vs 15-17). To be in Christ means that God the Spirit, God the Son, and God the Father are active in my behalf, that they even work all the circumstances of life toward an assured destiny of likeness to him and that nothing- absolutely nothing- can ever separate me from God’s love (vs 24-39). All of this – and more – comes the moment I am united with him by faith.