From Sermons by
Hugh Ross Mackintosh (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1938).
ABIDING IN CHRIST
"Abide in Me, and I in You." —St. John 15:4
IT is not going too far to say that in these few verses at the beginning of this chapter we have the deepest secret of the Christian life, as understood and enjoyed by the men and women who have made Christian history. Ever since Jesus Christ was here there has been a new kind of human character in the world, a new sort of personality. We have its explanation in these words. Perhaps in times when doctrines come in for a good deal of critical debate, it is well to be quite clear that there is only one thing that really matters. From the nature of the case there cannot well be more. If a man is united to God in Christ by faith, he may commit many mistakes and cherish all sorts of error, but however important it may be that we should avoid his mistakes it is very much more important that we should learn his secret. I ask your attention then to the thought of abiding in Christ.
1. The first point to note is this: Personal religion is a continuous life. The word "abide" indicates not a point but a process. Of course process has a beginning, but what we ought specially to note is that it proceeds. Mathematicians tell us that what we call a line is really a continuous series of points, so that what looks like an indivisible whole can be broken up by thought into an infinite multitude of parts each exactly like the first. That is in a very real degree a symbol of personal religion. Rabbi Duncan, a Scottish spiritual genius of more than half a century ago, once, when asked whether he believed in a second conversion, said, "Yes, and in a fifty-second." The Christian life is a number of new beginnings, each of which resembles the first in character—whether or not we can remember the first—though of course the latest differs from the first in being higher in the scale and possessing growth and progress behind it. In other words, it is quite impossible to represent personal Christianity as an isolated event or clean-cut experience which arrives, lingers a moment, and then is gone. Actually it is an experience which must repeat and reproduce itself in our life every day. We have not merely to come to Christ, we have to abide and stay on in the refuge and source of power, to which in our need we have resorted.
How often that requires to be emphasised for us all! I hope no one thinks I am speaking to a certain class of people; we all need to accentuate this day by day. Some time ago I read a book by Mr. Watts Ditchfield, then one of the best English missioners, in which he told of a visit he paid to a woman who was very much in need of religion. When he called, she was at the washing tub. He said something to her about the higher kind of life, and she replied: "Yes, I know all about that; I was converted in Manchester twenty years ago." Immediately after he said, "I am surprised to see you washing these clothes again, because it is only a week or two since they were cleaned." "Well," she said, "if I did not wash them over and over again they would soon be past wearing." He replied, "What must your heart be like if it has not been washed for twenty years?"
There is no temptation which comes to us Christians more continuously than this temptation to rest upon the past. I remember how, forty years ago, an American told me that in his country there were people still enjoying a war-pension because in 1861, when the Civil War was going on, they stood in their back garden and cheered a regiment as it marched past to the front. That was only his genial hyperbole, but it does represent the temptation that comes to you and me; and the question really is: "What did our relation to Christ mean for us not so-and-so many years ago but this morning, or in yesterday's temptation, or in last week's trouble?" If we have to say, "Very little," then the sooner we overhaul our relationship to Christ the better it will be with us. The talent of a beginning has been committed to us. Have we profited by its use—have we got any gain out of it? is the capital bearing interest? The word "convert" in the New Testament simply means to turn round. "Turning round" is imperative, naturally; it is an essential precondition of getting anywhere. But no one ever reached his destination merely by turning. In order to enjoy harvest you must have the summer's growth. In order to arrive you must have movement. So when we turn to God, as I trust we all have done, it means a new existence which has been inaugurated by His love. It is not a long-past experience on which we have been subsisting ever since it happened, but the initiation of a fresh career, the launching out on an infinite voyage. It is a seed out of which a wholesome and fruitful discipleship is meant to spring. We have slowly to pick our way after Christ's footprints if we are to rise to the higher lessons in His school.
I am sure we feel the necessity to clear our minds of the haunting suggestion that any kind of Christian discipleship will do, that any kind of attachment to or connection with Christ is sufficient, no matter how flimsy or unsubstantial. Some people are fond of discussing how little will take a man into the kingdom of heaven, but that consideration of the bare minimum is not usually very profitable. What we are concerned with is the kind of life to which Christ has called us, the purpose that is in His mind. We can be quite certain that He is not content with any species of adhesion to Himself and His cause. He would have us grow into Him and strike the roots of our being deep into His life. Just as the ingrafted branch is always becoming by the yearly accretion of fibre more and more at one with the tree, so faith, hope, and love can be making us Christ's more inseparably and more essentially. Nothing will satisfy Him who died for us short of the complete fusion of His being with ours, so that we may be able to say not in metaphor merely but in fact, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." Would not that make a difference to us in the deepest of all senses? Surely it would. People, I think, might not untruly be divided into two classes: those who at the centre of their being are isolated and lonely; and those who know that they will never be lonely any more because an unseen Friend and they have got united in a bond nothing can ever break, and they are thus made one with Him and with their fellows. Outwardly, the first class may not seem lonely. They may have troops of friends; they may have a multitude of interests, and great family happiness. And yet, at the heart of life, they are solitary, like the island in the salt estranging sea lonely with a kind of loneliness that no amount of good-fellowship can banish and every now and then the thing comes home to them. They have to fight out their temptations unaided; they have to shoulder the whole weight of every loss, every disappointment, every call for sympathy. Well, to meet life by oneself—its storms, its deprivations, all the numberless calls to help other strugglers—that is a good deal less than the best, when we remember that all the time a Divine Comrade is waiting who would never leave us to fight or labour single-handed, and whose presence would cheer the darkest night. There is a voice that says: "Abide in Me, and I in you."
2. Secondly: How do we abide in Christ? We feel that it is mysterious. At the same time let us try to put some recognisable definite meaning into it, because while mystery is good in the right place, in the wrong place it is very harmful. There is mystery here just as there is mystery in the problem of how the body and the soul are united in a single personality, or how the food we eat builds up our organism. These things are mysterious in the sense that there is something about every one of them that we do not understand, and probably will never completely understand. Now in regard to all these questions, what does the wise man say? He says: "The method, the rationale I don't comprehend, but I accept the fact. I am not able to tell exactly how the causes work, but I know quite well what the causes are." Well, just so there is no special recondite explanation of union with Christ, but we know that in the main we can fix the sustaining factors for personal religion.
For instance, we abide in Christ by ever-repeated faith. Have you noticed how comparatively little is said in the New Testament about our love to Christ? There is a great deal said about His love of us, but comparatively little about our love of Him. It is our faith that is more dwelt on. A writer pointed out the other day in an interesting article that in the whole of the New Testament there is not a single term of endearment applied to the Lord Jesus Christ. That is significant; what does it mean? It means at least this, that the men who wrote the New Testament were very conscious that our relation to Christ is one of reverential receiving. You may love an equal, but in the apostolic sense of the word you cannot have faith in an equal. To have faith—saving faith—in some one, he must be infinitely above us. Not much—although something—is said about love, but an immense amount is said about faith. Believing in Christ is the secret of abiding.
What do we mean by believing? We mean occupying our mind with a subject, and fixing our attention on it and identifying ourselves personally with it. Therefore each day we must turn an open and receptive mind towards Jesus, trying to catch a new and true and worthy impression of what He is and what He has done for us, resting upon Him. A great deal of the Christian life would be much easier if we thought a little more about Jesus Christ. We could put right a good many things in our lives simply by thinking about Him. Grant if you like, and as you must, that this our capacity for faith must sometimes be off work, disengaged, dormant. As we fling ourselves into daily business, whatever it be, teaching a class, adding up figures in a ledger, or watching a sick child, we cannot be consciously believing in Christ all the time. If an engine-driver is taking a train through a difficult junction at night and picking up the signals one by one, he cannot think of Christ all that time. If a surgeon is making the critical incision during an operation, his mind must not wander for a single instant, not even to the subject of Christ. God knows that better than we do; yes, but just because thus so constantly we have to turn away our thoughts and fix them upon absolutely essential duty which our Father has given us to do, there is all the more reason that each day we should bring ourselves by conscious act into the presence of Christ in order to feed upon Him, to find in Him the meat and drink of our souls, and to receive from Him what will go to build up manhood and character. And the Christian who does not each day place himself in this way before Christ very soon finds that the desire to do it is growing fainter, and that the capacity to do it effectively is gradually becoming atrophied by sheer disuse. You cannot try to hold any object long without the muscles slackening, and you have consciously and deliberately to tighten them. So, and not otherwise, we have to lead ourselves intentionally into the presence of the Master and look at Him, and look again until we have received what He has to give.
Then again we abide in Christ by daily obedience. How clear it is that the chief difficulties of the Christian life are not in theory but in practice. We cannot get any single lucid crystal phrase that will settle for us the problems of being a Christian. There is no magic formula that will do it. I do not know whether we have ever taken quite seriously this matter of obedience to Christ. Probably we all have some particular field we have not yet christianised—our reading, our expenditure, our temper, our imagination, our habit of criticising other people. But let us recollect that it is obedience which keeps open the channels by which Divine grace—which is just the personal influence of God—comes to our heart. Christ cannot dwell in our lives unless we bring Him in, for like all limited things these hearts of ours have power to contain only a certain amount, and the more they possess of self and mere worldliness the less there will be of Jesus Christ. Every disobedience makes the gate narrower, and each act of unselfishness and victory over perversity makes the gate wider.
All in all, then, abiding in Christ need be no such discouraging mystery. God has supplied the means for it and given us the corresponding faculties of thought and desire and obedience. Bring means and faculties together, like flint and steel, and, whether or not we understand how it happens, the result unfailingly takes place. Turn to Christ, trust Him, think of Him, look at Him, love Him, obey Him, and that is the abiding of which He speaks.
3. The next point is that as regards abiding in Christ we are responsible. Our text may be taken as either an appeal or an injunction. In either case, it casts upon us the duty, which may be neglected, of cultivating the great connection.
There is no metaphor that could be used which does not break down somewhere, and here the metaphor of the vine and the branches breaks down. You do not need to tell the branch to abide in the vine; it does that naturally and unconsciously. On the other hand, we men and women have to be reminded of the obligation. The mere fact that to abide in Christ costs effort has often before now been thought sufficient reason for paying it very little attention. Abiding means effort, and effort is always or often irksome.
For example, we cannot abide in Christ without prayer. And to find solitude and leisure for prayer is sometimes anything but easy. The only thing we can say is that where there is a will there is a way, and that often the most difficult circumstances are triumphed over by those eager to meet with Christ. The world is moving rapidly, progress is reported in every morning's newspaper, people are discovering all sorts of things; but nobody has yet discovered how to sustain the body without food, and nobody has discovered either, how to nourish the soul without prayer. The Christian centuries are there to teach us that the union of man with Jesus Christ cannot be maintained apart from definitely contrived means, and especially that of prayer.
Brethren, it is no business of mine to "redd the marches" between God's part and ours in this work of personal Christianity; but every honest man knows that he might live nearer to Christ if he chose; and, founding upon that conviction, let me inquire whether we are doing all that might be done, by steadfastly keeping open the gate of a willing heart. This chapter is full of wonderful statements, describing wonderful realities; but how do the statements profit or the realities enrich us unless we exert our will to lay hold of them? Books by the score may be upon a man's shelves, but unless he takes them down, or if he dislikes reading them, he will gain from their contents no more than if they were in the next parish. So, if we fail to clear away obstacles that impede the vital influences streaming from Christ to men, religion, for us, is bound to turn out more than half a disappointment. " He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also to walk even as He walked."
4. Finally, there is Christ's undertaking to abide in us. In this business of personal religion we are not groping in the dark for One who is trying to evade us; He is more eager to break in upon us than we are to have Him—"I will abide in you." This is a promise and unless we can both start and finish up with a promise always, we never get to the heart of the Gospel. Mere injunctions leave us cold and hopeless, staring at the far-off mark; but when we can get our hand round a promise, then we are strong. "Give what Thou commandest," said Augustine, "and command what Thou wilt."
are a Christian, you are constantly called upon to live two lives. You
live a private life
of relation to God, and you live a public life
Him in the world. Frequently we feel with concern
that we are very badly equipped for this second
duty, and that Christ is going to have very little
from our discipleship. But do His own words leave
us any ground for this fear? No promise could
be more explicit than this one of perpetual nearness
and comradeship and possession. And behind the
is Himself. Let us learn the secret of a wonderful
simplicity, but perfectly satisfying: "Abide
in Me, and I in you." Then all our life, with
its monotony, its difficulties, perhaps its desolation,
will vibrate throughout with the assurance that
Jesus Christ, who overcame the world, is within
around us and over us, and that His power and His
love are all our own.