For several weeks, my posts have revolved around the pursuit of holiness. We looked at several misunderstandings of the term “holiness” when we discussed self-help theology and legalism. Last week, we talked about how the Bible uses the term “holiness” and how we misapply it. Holiness is not something we achieve of our own merit. It is not some plane that we reach by doing everything right. Instead, it is a position we are granted, a position in close proximity to our Heavenly Father through Christ and his work on the cross. All who are in Christ are set apart, distinguished, and unique in position and purpose. We cannot earn holiness, for we are already made holy. As the people of Israel were set apart by God and made a holy people, so the church shares that same end. We are holy.
Yet, the Bible is clear that those made holy must also be holy. In other words, we have a responsibility granted us by our unique position in Christ, and that is one of walking as a set apart people. We know this. We know the Bible calls us to a holy life, but because of our misunderstanding or perhaps our internal need to earn salvation, we exhaust ourselves. We try to become something we already are. We put the emphasis on our actions as though it is through those that we gain this holiness. Then, because we can not, in our own power, live this holy life to which we have been called, we fail. We run ourselves ragged, only to end in defeat. We build up some steam, charge up the hill until we lose our momentum and crash down again, more hopeless than before. No self-help book study or intricately designed scarecrow will ever succeed.
The answer to this pursuit of holiness rests in one place alone.
In his gospel, John retells the words of Jesus on this issue. Jesus begins a discussion with his disciples where he informs them he is leaving. He is, of course, referring to his coming execution, death, and resurrection. However, he tells them not to worry, because he will prepare a place for them where he is going. Upon receiving this news, the disciples are confused and begin to ask questions. Thomas asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” I have to imagine Jesus thought to himself, “I’m glad you asked,” because his response is one of the most used verses in the Christian scripture. Christ simply states, “I am the way.”
Jesus continues with these words, “Truly, truly, I say to you whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do… If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Here, Jesus calls his disciples to live a life of holiness. Christ tells them that true love for him will result in doing the things he does and keeping his commandments.
But he does not stop there. The next verse details a helper in this task. Jesus says, “And I will ask my father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…” Jesus goes on to explain the role of this helper as a teacher and one who calls to remembrance the things Christ has taught them.
What comes next is one of the most beautiful metaphors in the Bible and the key to this holy life. He states the following:
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. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11, ESV, emphasis added)
In these words, Christ makes it clear that the secret to holiness is not in our actions or our merit. As a matter of fact, he reminds us here that we are already clean, because of the word he has spoken. Then, he plainly lays out the real pursuit of holiness. The answer is found in one simple word: abide.
Christ tells his disciples to abide in him. All of the work, all of the effort, all of the running around trying to find some way to become holy is simply a farce. Instead, holiness is found in the arms of Christ. It is found through abiding in him. However, as soon as we read this, we want to ask what that means. What does it mean to abide in Christ?
Of course, in his wisdom, he did not attempt an explanation in technical terms. Instead, he gave us this metaphor. He is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is our vinedresser. Three key roles that we must understand. First, like a vine, we must see Christ as the source of all power and sustenance in a life of holiness. A vine has its roots in the soil and receives water and nutrients, it is the wellspring for the entire plant. Its branches only receive what they need if they are still attached to the vine. No branch continues to grow apart from its vine.
Furthermore, the Father is our vinedresser. He, in his infinite wisdom, cuts off branches that produce no fruit, and prunes those who do, so that they will produce more. There is a whole lesson in this idea alone. God the Father, in his sovereignty, knows the branches, what they produce, and how to make them produce more. Often times, pruning is necessary to help a branch reach its full potential. Things must be clipped away to cause real growth.
Finally, we are the branches. We must understand our role as completely submissive to the pruning of the Father and completely dependent on our source, Jesus Christ. Our only responsibility in this process is abiding in the right relationship. We must cling to Christ as the source of all strength and nourishment. For, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit (holiness), for apart from me you can do nothing.” The alternative is not pretty. Those who do not abide, are thrown away and burned.
What could happen in our churches if we stopped focusing on earning holiness and started to really abide in Christ? What changes could be accomplished in our lives if we, both individually and corporately, put as much of our time into developing our relationship with God as we did trying to do lists of things we think make us better Christians? Our chief pursuit is not this misunderstanding of “holiness” that we have concocted. Instead, our chief goal, truly our only desire, should be knowing God more. It should be spending time with him, through prayer, through meditation on the Word he has given us, by extending thanksgiving and praise to him who has done so much in us already.
Truly, when someone begins to pursue real relationship with God through Christ, they begin to see the world differently. They see things in a new way, as a new creation. They see as God sees, and then, sin and fleshly struggle begin to fall away. They are pruned by our great vinedresser. Sometimes, it is painful, but always, it is sanctifying.
In the end, if we abide in Christ, we live as the holy people we are.