When I was six years old, my parents took my brothers and me to an amusement park for a special Christmas event called "Holiday in the Park." My dad's instructions were very basic, "stay with me." He knew that if we wandered off, we would not have a good time, and could get ourselves hurt. I stuck by my dad's side all day long, and even into the evening.
Once it got dark, the holiday lights came on, and it became much harder to stay with my dad. Not only was the park packed with people, but there was so much to look at with the park lit up like a Christmas tree.
My memory of how we got separated is vague, but I do recall standing near a park bench alone crying. I had not followed my father's instructions to "stay with me." Whether it was an accident or not, I don't remember, but one thing is for sure: I was lost, scared, and no longer having a good time. I could see my steamy breath rolling over my lips with each sob. I should have paid more attention and stayed with dad.
Jesus told those who believed in him a very similar thing when he said, "Abide in Me." The word 'abide' is often translated ‘remain' or 'stay.' What does it mean to 'abide in Christ'? In this chapter, we will study the difference between 'believe in Christ' and 'abide in Christ.'
Let’s take a quick look at what it means to believe in Christ. We’ve covered this already, but John 3:18 gives us another concise look at what happens for those who believe in Jesus.
“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.1
Jesus tells Nicodemus that if one desires to avoid condemnation, he must believe in Jesus. We laid out in previous chapters what it means to believe. If you believe Jesus can and will give you everlasting life, before you can even ask, you have it.
We knew that much, but John 3:18 raises the stakes. Jesus explains that for anyone who doesn’t believe, there is already condemnation waiting. There is virtually no way to overstate the severity of the situation. Judgment and punishment await the human race, and the only hope for escape is to believe in the Son of God, Jesus.
Now that we have established what it means to believe, let's look at 'abide.' There are a handful of places that Jesus tells believers to ‘abide.' What does it mean to abide, and how is that different from believing? Our first stop on our way to that answer is John 8:30.
As He spoke these words, many believed in Him.2
Jesus was giving a talk to a group of Jews. Part of the audience became believers while they were listening to Jesus. They didn't pray a prayer or walk an aisle. They just believed. Jesus Himself acknowledges that anyone who believes in Him has everlasting life. So these people who believed in Him got saved right there on the spot. In the next verse, Jesus addresses those new believers. He gives instructions to this group who just got born-again.
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”3
There is hardly a clearer verse in the Bible that demonstrates the division between salvation and discipleship. Jesus, in talking to a group of new believers, says clearly that there is a next step. Now that their salvation is in place, they need to ‘abide' in His word. This is not so different from my dad saying, "stay with me" at the theme park.
We’ve seen this ‘abide’ word before. In John chapter four Jesus was interacting with another group of new believers when it says,
So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days.4
I've highlighted the words 'stay' and 'stayed' in the verse above because they are the same Greek word that Jesus uses when he says "abide in my word." So Jesus is not using some religiously ambiguous word. When Jesus says, "abide in my word," he's saying, "stay with me," or, "keep doing what I teach," or maybe even, "don't wander off."
He then explains what the benefit of abiding in his word will be. He says,
“If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”5
The result of abiding in Jesus' word is discipleship. Not only is He offering genuine discipleship to those who abide, but he goes on to promise truth and freedom. From this verse, we see that abiding and discipleship are not automatic outcomes of salvation since Jesus has to tell them to do it. If discipleship were automatic, then Jesus would have just said, "you are my disciples now." However, we find that for them to be His disciples, indeed, they must abide, stay, or remain. Like a coach, He's telling these new believers to stick with it because there will be a great reward for those who do. At least two of the rewards of discipleship are truth and freedom.
The non-believing Jews who heard Him talking to the new believers chime in and claim that they don't need freedom. Jesus then defines freedom and explains what it means to abide in this way.
Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.6
He uses the analogy of a house to explain what he means by abiding. Slaves will often take any opportunity to run away. They are not likely to abide with a household where they are an unwilling servant. On the other hand, if someone is a son in a household, he stays. A son would be in line to inherit the house and would not consider himself a slave there. For that reason, a son will abide where a slave will not.
So who does the "son who stays" and "slave who leaves" represent? We don't have to guess because Jesus tells us. Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. So the slave who leaves is the one who can't stay with Jesus; he can't continually follow His teaching because sin has too strong of a hold on his life. Now, remember, He's talking about believers here, so a saved person has everlasting life, but if they don't work at abiding in Christ, then sin will drive them away from fellowship with Christ. He's not talking about a loss of salvation. He's talking about a loss of freedom, truth, and discipleship. So the slave, in the analogy, is the saved person who chooses not to be a disciple.
The son who stays, in the analogy, is the one who daily chooses to be a disciple. The one who abides fights off sin in his life as he stays in Christ. His salvation is not dependent on his ability to abide, but his reward in this life and the next is. Therefore, abiding in Christ is all about discipleship.
Jesus uses another parable to explain what it means 'to abide' in these words found in John 15:5.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.7
Many zealous Bible teachers have claimed that if you don't abide in Christ, you will lose your salvation. However, that's not what Jesus says here. He says that there is a consequence for the one who doesn't abide and it's like the branch that falls off the vine. There is a negative outcome for the one who does not choose discipleship, but it's not a loss of salvation. For the one who rejects or neglects discipleship, Jesus says,
for without Me you can do nothing.8
His salvation will be intact, but he will live a life accomplishing nothing of value for Jesus. Since this is the opposite of what the verse calls us to do, it means that the one who doesn't abide will bear no fruit. Are we saved because we bear fruit? No, we are not; we are saved by grace through faith.9 However, we abide if we want to bear fruit. Paul makes it clear that there are saved people who will not abide in Christ. These non-abiding Christians will do nothing of value. One day they will have to give an account before Jesus for the time and spiritual resources they wasted. Paul is talking about the non-abiding believer when he says,
he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.10
Evidently, a person can be saved apart from abiding in Christ. That's because we are not saved by works. However, if we want a better reception on the day we stand before Jesus, we need to abide which will allow us to produce fruit. We will be saved by grace, but rewarded for the fruit.
In case you’re still unclear on what it means to abide in Christ, John lays it out in very simple terms in 1 John 3:24. He says,
Now he who keeps His [Jesus] commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.11
Abiding in Christ is about works. It's about following the commandments of Jesus. If we intend to be disciples, we must abide in Christ. It's not just a dry command, but in fact, comes with some expectations. A quick read through John 15 reveals that there are many benefits and even some consequences of abiding in Christ.
Those who abide in Christ will:
become Jesus' friend.13
bear much fruit.14
have answered prayers.15
have the joy of Jesus.17
know the plans of God.18
be hated by the world.19
be persecuted by the world.20
The above benefits encourage us to take those steps of discipleship and abide in Christ. The consequences remind us why Jesus said we should count the cost before we engage. He's not promising that it will be easy, but He does promise that we will have His help.
To believe in Christ is salvation. To abide in Christ is discipleship. The clear distinction between these two ideas gives us an astounding confidence that those who believe are saved, but those who believe and abide are saved and rewarded. Salvation determines where you will spend eternity. Discipleship determines how you will spend eternity.
1 John 3:18.
2 John 8:30
3 John 8:30–32.
4 John 4:40.
5 John 8:30–32.
6 John 8:34–36.
7 John 15:5.
8 John 15:5.
9 Ephesians 2:8-9
10 1 Corinthians 3:14–15.
11 1 John 3:24.
12 John 15:8
13 John 15:14
14 John 15:5
15 John 15:7
16 John 15:8
17 John 15:11
18 John 15:15
19 John 15:18
20 John 15:20