The way I see it, the most delicate balance of the Christian life is in maintaining a Cross-centered perspective and pursuing personal obedience. Push a little too hard on the one side, I fall into self-righteousness and legalism, thinking God’s acceptance of me is rooted in personal obedience. This is spiritual suicide. Or I fall on the other side in thinking the Cross demotes personal obedience to the status of “minor importance.” This too is wrong.
In John 15:1-17 Christ gives us a radical alternative. Here He teaches us that the high calling of personal obedience presses us into the Cross-centered life. Let me explain.
Obedience and comfort
I’ll begin with a hypothetical. What if you somehow discovered that your friend was going to endure, over the next week, the most horrible experience of their life? They will learn another close and beloved friend has experienced a ghastly and painful death. What words today would you leave with your friend to prepare them for the coming pain?
My guess is that we would speak only words of comfort. We would weep with those about to weep. God is faithful, we would say. He will be with you. He will not leave you even in the darkest times.
I think we would agree that – on this brink of tragedy – it would be odd and out of place to call our friend to pursue personal obedience.
Yet on the brink of the crucifixion this is exactly what Christ does. As the disciples are about to forsake the Son and see Him crucified, Christ prepares them by calling them to pursue obedience and fruitfulness (John 15:1-17).
‘Abide in my love’
“Abide in my love” Jesus tells the remaining 11 disciples (v. 9). The Cross will forever exhibit the greatest expression of love ever displayed (v. 13). It’s here, on the Cross, that Christ gives His Body to be murdered to bear the wrath of God’s judgement as the Substitute. He will bear our guilt. He will bear our sins. The wrath we deserve will be redirected into the perfect Son. This is the greatest love. So rest, delight, dwell, find your life, “abide” in this love.
This is to say the spiritual life of the Christian is sustained by the Cross. “Abide in my love” is Jesus’ call to live and breathe and find all nourishment and life in the Cross. Paul says it well, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is now sustained “by faith” in the Cross of Christ!
All my righteousness before God and all my spiritual vibrancy derive from this love, this Cross!
Fruit for the Father
In light of the Cross I think it is natural (though not accurate) to de-value personal obedience. Quite the opposite! By giving us the spiritual life necessary, the Cross actually strengthens the call of Christian obedience.
For the Christian (those with “new life”) only abiding in the life-giving Cross makes fruitfulness possible! Previously, the sinner outside the Christ was nothing more than a dead branch seeking to bear fruit but dehydrated from all spiritual life. Christ is our life.
Tucked in verse 8 we glimpse at the very heart of the Trinitarian motivations behind the Cross. Jesus says His Father is glorified when we bear fruit. The fruitfulness of the saint is a direct growth from the life and nourishment of the Cross. Think of it this way: We bear fruit by abiding in the Cross, the fruit of the branches is plucked by the Son and then carried to the Father in a bushel basket as an offering of glorification from the Son to the Father. Here we see the profound motives of Christ to glorify the Father.
In this cycle of the saints feeding off the Cross and bearing fruit, of the Son plucking the fruit and offering His Father the glory, we see Cross-centered thinking and diligent obedience come together. It’s important that we fight the tendency to emphasize works over the Cross and the tendency to think the Cross makes obedience an optional or secondary pursuit.
The calling to pursue diligent obedience and bear fruit came packaged with a stern warning that fruitless branches are thrown into the fire (v. 6). So why the hard demands of Jesus to bear fruit? How can He get away with such strong words? Here’s why: His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.
Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.
We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience.