In God's ways, we often learn a truth objectively (i.e. "this is a fact") before we learn it subjectively (i.e. in our experience). It might take us a very long time to go from the one to the other, but it is God's way that we believe what He has said before we experience it. The key is to accept what God has said is true, whether we experience it or not. As we accept God's assessment, we experience it.
This is true of our standing in Christ. We are accepted "in Christ" and only in Christ. This is objectively true. As we walk through this wicked world, we learn what that means.
Ephesians 1 and John 15 illustrate this. Ephesians 1:6 tells us we are "accepted in the Beloved" (KJV). That's an objective statement: it's a statement about how God sees us. God doesn't accept me as such, He accepts me as a man in Christ.
The idea of being "in Christ" pervades the New Testament, especially Paul's epistles. It reminds us that God has really only been pleased with one Man, but He is content to bundle us up together in the one Man, so that what God thinks about that one Man He thinks about me. Ephesians 2 takes it further: we are quickened "with Him", raised together "with Him", and seated "with Him" (Ephesians 2:1–7). This is God's view of things, and I could never see them outside of revelation.
John 15 approaches this from the standpoint of human experience. There it isn't what God sees, but what we experience. So where Ephesians 1:6 talks about us "in Christ", John 15:4 tells us the necessity of "abiding in" Him. Christ Himself says it's impossible for us to "bear fruit" unless we abide in Him (John 14:4–5).
Ephesians 1 tells us that my being "in Christ" is God's work, and God's work alone. I cannot somehow get myself into that position. And Ephesians 1:3–6 makes it clear that God marked me out for this blessing before the world began (v. 4), and there's no hint that I can do anything to end it. So Ephesians 1 approaches this from the perspective of God's sovereignty.
John 15 approaches this from the standpoint of human responsibility: here it's not an issue of God's eternal purpose, it's an issue of my practical walk through the wicked world. I am living down here, Christ is living up there: if I am to produce fruit for God down here, I must abide in Christ. Now, I cannot do anything to stop being "in Christ" in the Ephesians 1 sense – that was determined before the world began. But I can definitely fail to "abide in Christ" in the John 15 sense.
So how do I do this?
In the practical sense, abiding in Christ really comes down to accepting what God has already said. Philippians 3:8–11 gives us an view of what it means to be "in Christ" in practice:
- it means having no righteousness of my own (v. 9)
- it means knowing Him (v. 10)
- it means knowing the power of His resurrection (v. 10)
- it means having fellowship in His sufferings (v. 10)
- it means being conformed to His death (v. 10)
The key to abiding in Christ is being content to abide in Christ.
Romans 8 and Colossians 3 give us other views of the same truth. Romans 8:1–4 gives us an amazing summation of God's work in salvation: He has placed me "in Christ" where there is no condemnation (v. 1), He has set me free from the law of sin and death by His Spirit (v. 2), He has condemned the sin in my flesh (v. 3). This might remind us of Ephesians 1, where the work is entirely God's.
But there is human responsibility: we are no longer debtors to the flesh to live after it (v. 12), and if we choose to live according to the flesh, the end result is death (v. 13). This isn't an issue of God punishing us, it's the natural consequence of choosing a life according to what God has already condemned (compare v. 3 with v. 10).
But I stress again that the key here is not that I live right (remember Philippians 3:9!), the key is that I be content to have Christ as my only righteousness. And this is the single hardest thing we ever try to do. It's incredibly hard for us to accept God sees my "goodness" no more than He sees my "badness", when I am in Christ.
We need to learn this lesson: first we accept what God says is true (I am accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6)), then we can learn it in our experience (I can only please God "in Christ" (Romans 8:3–8)).