Abiding in Christ

For most of my adult life, I was not a practicing Christian. I have made no secret of that. From my early teens into my thirties, I was a cult chaser, a new-ager, a rebel against the faith of my fathers. When I became a father, I returned to Christianity – but I still wasn’t very active in the faith. It was 25 years ago when the news of the day finally drove me to read the Bible, cover to cover. My life was never the same. This is that Bible – a simple King James Version, $10 brand new.

Now, I know that the King James is not the favorite translation of many people in this church. The language is dusty, the translation sketchy, and the motivation of the translators was to justify the Anglican Church status quo. But it does contain the unvarnished Gospel, and that is what changed my life.

So I beg your indulgence as I use this Bible for today’s message. My scripture is John 15:1-5. I invite you to read along in your favorite translation:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

Your New International Version reads a bit differently. I’m not talking about the ye’s and the –eth’s. Today, I want to focus on the word “abide.” In the NIV and other translations, it’s “remain”. NIV is a great translation, the one I usually use. But “remain” implies an effort, something I hold onto, as when we remain steadfast. “Abide”, on the other hand, sounds like resting, remaining still. It’s a subtle difference, and it might be all in my head, but “remain” or “stay” sounds like something I do, whereas “abide” feels like somewhere I am, or something God lets me do.

The faith is confusing is you take scripture in bits and pieces. Paul says it’s faith, not works, that save us, while James says that faith without works is dead. It sounds like a conflict, but it isn’t. I think that Paul would agree that true faith is active and alive, motivating us to do God’s will. I also think James would agree that we are saved not by works, but by faith in Christ. I think we need both perspectives to understand what Jesus was about.

We all know about the many times Jesus told His disciples what to do. He instructed them, and us, to take action in order to demonstrate our love for one another. But here, we see where Paul got his doctrine of faith not works. Here, the apostle John remembers that Jesus said we should simply abide in Him.

The branches do not try to bear fruit, and nobody asks for pruning. We don’t do the work of bearing fruit. Rather, it is the natural result of being well connected to the vine. Paul obviously knew these sayings of Jesus because he talked about our being grafted into the vine.

Abiding in Christ means staying connected, resting in Him, and letting Jesus do His work in our lives. Jesus said the work of God was to believe in Christ, and here, He says that we will bear fruit by simply abiding in Him.

This was the Gospel that saved my soul. I was a workaholic, all about performance, always trying to get better, to do more, and never satisfied with myself. I thought I could never be good enough to enter heaven. I kept looking for that narrow road. But when I finally read the Bible for myself, I found that narrow road. It is Jesus, plain and simple. It is abiding in Him, plain and simple. It is loving Jesus, learning Jesus, and being satisfied with Jesus. The Gospel is simple. Jesus is the Gospel. He called himself the gate to the sheepfold. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” I had been fighting to find another way, when all along, Jesus was saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Can it be more obvious than that? Jesus Christ, the One we call Savior and Lord, the Son of God, says, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14) But He also says it is an easy yoke and a light burden. Few find the narrow way not because it is difficult, but because it is narrow.

I stuggled to have faith, and I could not force it on myself. I let go and let God, abiding in Christ, and my faith began to grow. I worked to please God and found no peace; I settled into God’s arms and found acceptance and joy. I discovered that Jesus told the truth, and that Paul understood it. The key to bearing fruit is remaining attached to the vine. The key to the Christian life is abiding in Christ.

Obvious, we in the West are hooked on performance. We set high standards for ourselves and hold others to high standards as well. Sometimes, intentionally or not, we preach that salvation comes through effort, through good works, or even through the hard work of holding specific doctrines and beliefs. When we do, we are wrong. It is not about performance; it is about love. It is not about generating activity; it is about bearing fruit, and that only comes from abiding in Christ.

I appreciate that some people reject Christianity outright. I believe that it is usually because of those who are miserable in the faith, holding others up to standards that they themselves can’t live up to, either. Jesus knew that we can’t save one another by judging one another. In fact, we can’t save one another at all. All we can do is abide in Christ, and share the joy of that experience with others.

So to those who are working so hard to please God, I say give up. God’s will is that you fall in love with God’s son, because Jesus reminds us that God is love; God wants our love; and God wants to share God’s love with us as we share that love with one another.

You think it can’t be that simple? It really is that simple. If you don’t believe it, read the book for yourself, and remember that the cornerstone is not Moses, or Paul, or Abraham. The cornerstone is Jesus. It won’t make sense until and unless you abide in Jesus.

May you simply abide in Christ.

Regarding Scripture Translations

I love the King James Version of the Holy Bible. I also love the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Good News Translation, the New Living Translation, and The Message. But I first read the King James Version, and I love antiques, to the KJV has a special place in my heart.

Some say the KJV is the Gold Standard of scripture, and others say it is the only legitimate English translation. Still others say it is a deeply flawed and outdated translation that has no place in the church today. I think we can benefit from knowing a variety of translations, but the KJV is foundational to our language and our culture. There is much to recommend the KJV. But we have to accept that, in addition to its arcane language, the KJV also has an intentional bias imposed by King James VI – that it should better support the Church of England’s structure and its restriction of authority to ordained male clergy.

Many in the KJV-Only crowd say that modern translations have softened the message, tending to deny the Deity of Christ or the specific church doctrines surrounding His birth, ministry and resurrection. I do not believe this has been done intentionally, if at all. More to the point, I think that all subsequent translations have so honored the KJV as to promulgate its misogyny and other flaws that are not so prevalent in the original languages.

However, as evidence that the NIV has not intentionally softened anything, I note a passage in which the NIV has “hardened” church doctrine while remaining faithful to the historic manuscripts.

According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the Greek word “archegos” can be translated “prince”, “author”, or “captain”. In Hebrews 12:2, both the KJV and the NIV translate the word as “author”, as in Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. In Hebrews 2:10, the word becomes “captain” in the KJV but “pioneer” in NIV. In that verse, the KJV says that Jesus is the Captain of our salvation, thus being in charge of it. The NIV is saying that Jesus is the Pioneer of our salvation, as in the first to discover it. That is the kind of softening that leads the KJV-Only crowd to reject the NIV.

However, at Acts 3:15, the KJV translates “archegos” to say that Peter called Jesus is “the Prince of Life.” In this instance, the NIV translates it as “Author.” Thus Peter called Jesus “the Author of Life,” indicating that Peter already agreed with John 1:3 – “Through him all things were made(NIV)/All things were made by him(KJV).”

For all the complaints about the NIV (from the KJV crowd), I’ve never heard a complaint about this passage. I think it is because the NIV translation is more supportive of the Deity of Christ than is the KJV translation. Even so, I see nothing in these various passages to indicate which meaning – prince, captain, author, perfecter – best represents the intent of the original speaker or writer. If we take their shared meaning, which I might translate as “primary driver”, we lose the royalty of Prince, the authority of Captain, the pre-eminence of Author and the immediacy of Perfecter.

It is a shame that we cannot have all these meanings without having to select one for English translation. In the original language, there is no requirement to narrow it down. All of these possible meanings are existent in the word “archegos”. Sometimes a word represents a feeling or sentiment in one language that simply has no equivalent in another language. Language is a synthesis of the shared history, mythology, art and education of a given culture. We don’t share those things with ancient Greeks, Romans or Hebrews, so the best we can hope for from many words is an educated guess.

This essay will probably have readers who insist that the KJV is a perfect translation, and others who think that it is outdated and seriously flawed. The truth, I believe, lies somewhere between those two opinions. I think we should accept that the shortcomings of modern translators were probably shared by KJV translators as well.

I am grateful that God has enabled so many translations of scripture to exist, by inspiring people of goodwill to take on the task of translation. But in doing so, I think God has also revealed the imperfection of all people, in every generation. In this digital age, we have every resource we need to consider various translations, the original languages, the cultures and sects that generated each translation, and the hazards of expecting one language to replace another, whether of a different culture or of a different time.

Rather than elevate or vilify any translation, we should consider more than one and pray for insight to find the truth. More importantly, we should accept our own flawed view of God’s Word and that of others as well. We are encouraged to have mercy and to love one another – and that’s a message common to every translation.