“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 8:1)
What takes place the moment one moves from outside a relationship with God to inside? Is there a life filled so full of good things that it overflows? We discover 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 most people.
Part of the problem is that many start at the wrong place in their search for fulfillment. One must begin, not with discovering something about God, but something about oneself. The Bible and the dominant counseling theories agree that fulfillment must begin with self-discovery. But there the agreement ends. The counseling theories start with good news about you, the Bible starts with bad. The counselor affirms you, assures you that you are OK, that someone has messed you up by denying that you are OK or even by putting you on a guilt trip. 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” (John 15:6).
The passage in John 15:2,6 has become a battleground for Arminian-Calvinist dispute: 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? Explanations abound, each seeking to come to terms with a broader theology. 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. But even if one insists on bending this picture language to conform to a doctrine of eternal security or lack thereof, whatever the interpretation, it seems clear that those who are not “in Christ” are in bad trouble. And this is the consistent witness of Scripture. By nature, I am a sinner headed for eternal judgement.
But we don’t like the 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! Isaac Watts wrote, “Alas and did my Savior bleed and did my sovereign die, would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” He may have gotten that expression from what God called Jacob. But we have corrected the grandest of hymnists so that now it reads, “…for sinners such as I.” There was a day when we sang, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus two wonders I confess, the wonders of his glorious love and my own worthlessness.” No longer. It sounds better to sing, “..my unworthiness.” 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 of all is that I am hell deserving.
James R. Graham heard of revival fires sweeping the interior of China. His renowned missionary career was just beginning, but evidence of it was visible already. Still, he longed for a fuller measure of God’s blessing. Graham hesitated to travel the great distance into the interior to discover the secret of such spiritual power because the igniter of those revival fires was a woman, a diminutive Norwegian at that, and Graham did not believe in women preachers. Finally, to assuage his thirst for all there was of God, he humbled himself and went to sit at her feet. The first night of the public meetings she spoke on the Ten Commandments. Fair enough. But when she continued with messages on the law a second and third night, Graham began to lose patience. Following the service he confronted her. A giant of a man, James R. Graham towered over the little lady and demanded, “Why do you not leave the somber legalisms of the Old Testament to the ancient people to whom they were addressed and nourish us with the grace of Calvary?” “Dr. Graham,” she responded with gentle firmness, “until the ears of the heart are opened with the thunders of Sinai one cannot even hear the sweet grace notes of Calvary.”
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.
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.
But that is just the beginning. To “abide in Christ” is something more. Much more. Have you experienced that initial entering into Christ but find yourself not so new after all? Perhaps you are very like the old you, not such wonderful new capabilities for coping with life, not truly fulfilled. Has the new relationship grown a bit stale and routine, not bringing much joy to Jesus or you? Perhaps you need to explore what Jesus meant when he said we must “abide.” Take some time and decide are you united with him by faith? Do you regularly abide in Him? Do you have an infused power to think and live like him? What choices must you make?