Abiding in Jesus’ word: The Evidence and Freedom of Discipleship | John 8:31-47
Brian Hedges | October 23, 2016
Let’s pray together one more time.
Father, we come to your word, and we come asking for you to speak to us from your word; to show us the face of our savior again, to subdue our sinful hearts. Give us submissive and obedient hearts, not coerced in any way to obedience but wooed and drawn by the beauty of your grace. We can’t do this by ourselves. So send your Spirit to do what we need. We pray that you would do so now. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Your relationship to God’s word is both a thermometer and a thermostat. Now you know the difference between the two: a thermometer is a measuring tool, right? It gives a measurement of the temperature in a room. If you look at a thermometer you can see what the temperature in a room is.
A thermostat actually controls the temperature. It can set the temperature. So if you go into a room that’s cold, as this room is this morning, assuming everything else is working properly, the solution to the cold room is to raise the temperature on the thermostat.
What I’m saying is that our relationship to God’s word does both of those things. First of all, it’s a thermometer. It reveals the spiritual temperature in your life. So if you show me your relationship to the word you’ll show me what your temperature spiritually is. If you’re in the word and the word is in you—if you’re reading it, if you’re meditating on it, if you’re delighting in it, if you’re obeying; then your heart is going to be warm towards Christ and his kingdom.
But on the other hand, if your heart is cold to the word, then your heart is cold to Jesus. Your relationship to the word of Christ reveals your relationship to the Christ of the word. But your relationship to the word is also a thermostat. The thermostat regulates and controls temperature.
So if you want to warm up your spiritual life, if you find yourself cold towards Jesus, one of the ways of changing the temperature is to go back to the word, because the word of Christ will affect you. The word of Christ will change you, and by going back to his word and immersing yourself in his word and abiding in his word—dwelling in his word—the word is going to change you, and it will raise that temperature in your heart.
I want us to think about our relationship to the word this morning as we continue in our series on discipleship.
As we’ve seen over the last several weeks, a disciple is another name for a believer or for a Christian in Scripture. Those terms are almost synonymous. But this word “disciple” carries a particular nuance—it emphasizes a particular aspect of our relationship to Jesus. For a disciple of Jesus is an apprentice to Jesus, like Daniel to Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. He was an apprentice; he was learning something from his master, from his teacher, and in a very similar way we learn something from Jesus.
We apprentice ourselves to Jesus in order to learn how to live authentic human lives—God-glorifying, full flourishing, kingdom-loving, and people-loving lives. That’s what it means to be an apprentice of Jesus.
We’ve also seen that being a disciple requires embracing a particular vision of the good life, and then intending from the depth of our hearts to follow Jesus, and then embracing the means that Jesus himself has given us for change. This is Dallas Willard’s model of VIM, the V-I-M—Vision, Intention, and Means. We looked at that a couple of weeks ago.
And then last week we talked about how character is formed for a disciple, and we said that this formation of character—spiritual formation—happens in the inner section of these three things: identity (our union with Christ), desires (that is, our devotion to Christ), and then habits (our actual imitation of Christ).
Well, this morning I want to zoom in on one particular dimension of discipleship, and it has mostly to do with this habits component, but relates to the others as well. I want to zoom in on the place of Christ’s word in our discipleship, the place of Christ’s word in our discipleship.
The passage I want to read is John 8:31-47. You can follow along in your Bible or read along on the screen. John 8:31-47. Hear God’s word:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.
This is God’s word.
Now, in one way this is a really sad passage. This passage begins with Jesus speaking to a group of people who have seemingly believed in him. Jesus has a conversation with these people as he presses home to their hearts the importance of fully embracing his teaching. If they want to be his disciples, he tells them, they must abide in his word. Those who abide in his word are truly his disciples, and if they do this they’ll know the truth, and the truth will set them free.
They respond by saying they’re children of Abraham; they’ve never been slaves. They’re completely missing the point. So Jesus presses it home even further. He says they are slaves, in fact: they are slaves to sin, and then he confronts their rejection of his teaching, essentially telling them that their refusal to hear his word is an indication of their spiritual condition. If they were children of Abraham they would embrace him; the reason they do not hear his word is because they are not children of God, they are children of the devil, the father of lies.
By the end of this chapter, if you keep reading, these same people who seemed to believe in Jesus at the beginning have called him a demon and take up stones and rocks, ready to kill him. Their attachment to Jesus proves to be short-lived; they’re not true believers; they’re not true disciples.
So it’s a sad story, because it’s a story about people rejecting Jesus rather than following Jesus. But Jesus’ words in this story, in this exchange, are very instructive, for right here Jesus says that the evidence of discipleship is found in what a person does with his word. This is the proof of discipleship, the true evidence of discipleship.
You see it in verses 31 and 32. I want you to look at these verses again. Let me read them to you in a couple of different translations, to help us just grasp what Jesus is saying.
Here it is in the English Standard Version. Jesus says, “If you abide in My word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Now listen to it from the NIV: “If you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Or the New English Translation: “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
So this much is clear: the proof of one’s discipleship is found in what a person does with Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says that if we continue in his word, if we follow his teaching, we’re truly disciples, and the result of that will be great freedom in our lives—what we might call the freedom of discipleship; freedom from sin. “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” That much is clear.
But what I want us to think about this morning is what this really means and what this looks like.
So to get our heads around it I want to ask three questions. I want to ask: What is Jesus’ word, what does it mean to abide in Jesus’ word, and how do we abide in Jesus’ word?
I. What is Jesus’ word?
Number one: what is Jesus’ word? Jesus says, “If you abide in my word you are truly my disciples,” but what is his word? What does he mean?
We need to ask this so that we’re really clear as to what Jesus is talking about. I’m going to give you three layers of answers.
But before I jump into that, let me nuance this a little bit. I think it’s important for us to really grasp what Jesus’ word is, because some people, I think, misunderstand. So some people might answer this question, “What is Jesus’ word?” they might say, “Well, the Bible.” And of course that’s true: the Bible is Jesus’ word. But you can give that answer and still not quite understand what Jesus is saying.
For example, some people are just kind of superstitious about the Bible. The Bible is, to them, a holy book, but it’s almost like a talisman or some superstitious, mystical artifact.
I saw a TV show recently where one of the characters was a Muslim, and there’s this scene where someone throws the Koran on the floor, and this character kind of freaks out because the Koran for Muslims is a holy book and it’s not to be placed on the floor; that’s a desecration of the book.
So later in this episode he takes the Koran and he wraps it and then he buries it in the ground—he kind of goes through this elaborate ritual of what a person does when the book has been desecrated.
I think some people have a similar attitude to the Bible. They think of the Bible as a holy book. They may not necessarily know what it says, but they’re going to reverence the book if they see the book. If they swear to tell the truth on the Bible, they’re going to tell the truth. They may tell lies the rest of the time, but they’re not going to violate the Bible.
That’s not at all what Jesus has in mind when he talks about abiding in his word. It’s not reverence for the leaves of paper bound in black leather. All right? So we have to understand that it means more than just reverence for the book itself; it has more to do with the content, the message, the teaching.
On the other hand, there are some people who are what you might call red-letter Christians. These are people who like Jesus, and, on a superficial level at least, they try to take Jesus’ actual words and teachings seriously, but they don’t care much for the Old Testament, and they sure don’t like the apostle Paul.
So they’ll look to things Jesus said, and if they can find it in the red letters, well maybe they’ll be okay with that, but they won’t follow the apostolic word, and they really have nothing to do with the Old Testament. Again, I think that’s a misunderstanding of what Jesus’ word is.
So what is it? What is Jesus’ word? Let me give it to you in three layers.
First of all, Jesus’ word is his message or his teaching. That includes, of course, his proclamation of the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, on one hand, as well as the practical things he taught his followers, on the other. So both his gospel and the commands.
Now the commands, of course, can only be obeyed by someone who’s already a citizen of the kingdom by grace. The commands are not laws for how to get into the kingdom; the commands are a way of life for people who are already in the kingdom. But both are included in Jesus’ teaching. The commands are given with Jesus’ authority; they tell us what to do, what not to do, and they are part of his word; they’re part of his teaching, part of his message. So the teaching of Jesus, or the message of Jesus, is what he means by abiding in his word.
This is evident in kind of a parallel passage in the second letter of John, 2 John 9, which says, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” That’s how the word of Jesus is the teaching of Jesus, the message of Jesus.
But secondly, Jesus’ word also includes his own reverence for, submission to, and interpretation of the Old Testament. So the word of Jesus does include the Old Testament. I won’t take time to show how Jesus regarded the Old Testament; suffice it to say that time and again Jesus demonstrates in the way he quotes the Old Testament, talks about the Old Testament, he demonstrates his own conviction that the Old Testament is the self-revelation of God and is a prophetic witness to Jesus himself.
One place you can just see that pretty clearly in this passage is here in John chapter 8, just a few verses down in verses 56 through 58. Jesus is addressing this claim that his hearers are making, that they are children of Abraham, and Jesus says, “‘Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to him, ‘You’re not yet 50 years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly I say to you; before Abraham was, I am.’”
Of course, that’s a very clear evoking of the name by which God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush. God told Moses, “When you go to Pharaoh, tell them I Am sent you; I Am who I Am.” Jesus is using that name for himself, and it’s very clear that people understand exactly what Jesus is saying, because they’re ready to kill him! They’re ready to kill him; they’re ready to stone him right after this.
But what you see Jesus doing here is claiming that the Old Testament is a prophetic witness to him. “Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Abraham was looking to promises that are fulfilled in Jesus. And Jesus is claiming that he himself is equal with God; he is the God who reveals himself in the Old Testament! So the Old Testament is the word of Jesus.
Then there’s a third layer. Here’s the third layer to the word of Jesus, and it is the apostolic word which was given to the church by the Spirit of Christ through the apostles, and which bore witness to Jesus’ words and deeds and his life, and then applied the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus to the life of the church. That’s what we have in the book of Acts and in the letters—and really the gospels themselves, the gospels that are written by the apostles and their delegates.
So the whole New Testament, even those places which give us the words of Jesus, the whole New Testament is given to us through the apostles, under the direction of the Spirit. Jesus himself said this would happen. John 16:13-14, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truths, for he will not speak of his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
The first and primary fulfillment of that was in the inspiration of the Spirit on the apostles. It says the Spirit gave the apostles the words now recorded in the New Testament.
So, the word of Jesus includes not only all that he himself said and taught but also the fullness of divine revelation in the Old and New Testaments.
But it’s not the apparatus of paper, ink, and leather that we abide in. That’s the means that gives us the message; it gives us the content. It’s the words of Jesus. Whether you hear them on your iPhone, or you read them on an app, or you see them on a screen, or you read them in a leather-bound book, or you have them memorized, committed to memory in your own mind and heart, it’s the content. It’s the words of Jesus as given to us in Scripture; his teaching itself, but also Old Testament revelation read through this “Jesus lens” as a witness to Christ and the apostolic word that tell us all that Jesus said and did and applies it to our lives.
So that’s the word.
II. What Does It Mean to Abide in It?
Now, what does it mean to abide in Jesus’ word? This word “abide” is used in the ESV, but other translations give us different words. “Continue in,” the King James, New American Standard; “continue to follow,” NET; “hold to,” NIV; or “remain faithful to,” New Living Translation. All of these are perfectly fine translations.
The Greek word is the word meno, which means “to remain,” or “to abide.” It’s the same word used in John 15, when Jesus says, “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.”
The picture there is especially helpful. The branch abides in the vine. The branch has to stay connected to the vine. The branch has to remain in the vine, and it’s only as the branch is connected to and remaining in the vine that it derives the sap from the vine and then can bear fruit.
So a very similar idea is at play here: abiding in Jesus’ word means remaining in Jesus’ word, staying connected to Jesus’ word, staying rooted in Jesus’ word, continuing in Jesus’ word.
Now this is a really important word in John’s writings. We’ve already seen an example from Second John, but he uses it over 40 times in the gospel of John and in his letters. It essentially carries this idea of persevering and remaining.
Here’s a quotation from New Testament scholar D.A. Carson. He says, “The verb rendered ‘hold’ is menō, to abide, to remain—a theme of critical importance that returns in a concentrated way in chapter 15. In short, perseverance is the mark of true faith, of real disciples. A genuine believer remains in Jesus’ ‘word’ (logos), his teaching… i.e. such a person obeys it, seeks to understand it better, and finds it more precious, more controlling, precisely when other forces flatly oppose it. It is the one who continues in the teaching who has both the Father and the Son.”
This is what it means to abide.
Now what does this look like? I want to try to do this quickly, but I want to fill this out by looking at the other things that Jesus says about the truth or about the word or his teaching right here in John chapter 8. As I was working on this this week and I read through this, this is what struck me, is how many different ways Jesus says it; how many different things he says about our relationship to his word. I think when you put all these together and mix and stir you get a pretty good idea of what it means to abide.
So let’s just go through these quickly. Look at the text with me, and I’m going to show you five things that fill this out, fill out this picture of what abiding, or remaining, in Jesus’ word and teaching involves.
First of all, abiding in his word involves knowing the truth, verses 31 and 32. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Now, as we’re going to see, knowing in the academic or intellectual sense, is not enough. Remember, in this context, Jesus is probably talking to Bible scholars. He’s talking to people who know their Old Testament, but they don’t rightly interpret it. You remember what Jesus said in John 5:39-40. He said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
It’s possible to know all kinds of facts about the Bible and not know Jesus. So, abiding is more than knowing, but it’s not less knowing. It’s not less than that. You do have to know something about the Bible. You do have to know something of the word of Jesus; you have to know the truth. That’s one crucial aspect.
Secondly, abiding in the word involves the word finding a place in you. Us abiding in the word and the word finding a place in us. Look at verse 37. Jesus confronts these people; he’s speaking to their unbelief. They want to kill him. He says, “I know that you are the offspring of Abraham, yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.” They’re not abiding in his word, and the word is not abiding in them.
These two things go hand-in-hand; if we abide in the word, the word abides in us. This is verified in some of the other uses of the word abide, in both Jesus’ teaching and in John’s writings. John 15:7, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.”
Or 1 John 2:14, “I write to, young men, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”
Here’s one more, 1 John 2:24: “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”
Now these passages show us that abiding in the teaching of Jesus, and his teaching abiding in us, is part of what it means for us to abide in Jesus himself. If his words abide in us, we abide in him. If we abide in his word, then his word abides in us. These things all go together.
Here’s the third thing: abiding in the word involves hearing the word; verses 42, 43, and 47. “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your father you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.’” Verse 47, “‘Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.’”
Of course, by ‘hearing’ Jesus doesn’t simply mean sound waves striking the eardrum, sending a signal to your brain; he means hearing with the heart. He means receiving. Hearing spiritually; receiving the word.
Fourthly, closely related to this, is believing Jesus’ teaching. Look at verses 45 and 46: “Because I tell you the truth,” he says, “you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell you the truth, why do you not believe me?”
Again, this is confrontational. Jesus is confronting them, but he’s confronting them for not abiding in the word. They’re not true disciples. And here’s one way that’s seen; it’s that they don’t believe him.
So the clear inference here is that to abide in the word is to believe his word.
There’s one more. Let’s keep reading; verses 48 through 52. “The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon, but I honor my father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word he will never see death.’ The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, “If anyone keeps my word he will never taste death.”’”
Keeping his word. Abiding in his word involves keeping his word, or obeying his word; that’s essentially what this word “keep” means. It’s the same word used in Matthew 28:20, in the Great Commission, where Jesus says we are to go and make disciples, teaching them to observe all that he commanded us. So observing, or obeying, or keeping his word.
Now you put these things together—knowing his word, his word dwelling in us or abiding in us, hearing it, believing it, keeping it, obeying it—you put those together, and what can see here is that abiding in his word embraces the whole of our human personality. It involves knowing with the mind, hearing and receiving and embracing with the heart, and then obeying it through a choice of the will, and then actually living it out. That’s what it means to abide in the word. It is the response of the whole heart, the whole person, mind, heart, will, and action, to the word of Jesus. Doing that is what proves you’re a disciple. Not doing that is a serious indication that you’re not a true disciple.
III. How Do We Abide in Jesus’ word?
So, a third, a final question: how do we do this? How do we do this?
This is where I want to get most practical. Now let me just warn you: I’m not going to say anything profound here. Okay? I’m not aiming at profundity; I’m aiming at clarity. What I’m trying to do this morning is not wow you, I just want to make clear, I want this to be clear to me, I want it to be clear to you. I just want it to be clear that you cannot be a disciple it you’re not living in the word of God. You just can’t.
Now I’m not trying to cause any Christian to doubt their salvation this morning. My guess is there’s a little conviction that comes with this, and I’m right there with you. I’m right there with you. I need to be in my Bible more; I know I do. I need to obey it better, more fully. I’m preaching to myself, I’m preaching to you, and what I want to do is just try to make this practical. What does it really mean? What does it look like? How do we do this? How do we abide in Jesus’ word?
I’m going to give you the answer in two parts. I want to talk about disciplines of the word, but I want to talk about outward forms and the inward grace that goes with it, because both of those things have to be there. The outward forms have to be there, but they’re not enough; there has to be inward grace in the use of these disciplines, of these practices of the word.
We’re talking now about habits. We’re talking about the kinds of spiritual disciplines that shape us and transform us and help us to follow Jesus as disciples.
So here they are. First of all, the outward forms of the disciplines of the word. These are the actual practices that we do with our bodies. No surprises here; just list them off.
First of all, reading the word. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We have to read the word. You’re not going to know it if you don’t read it. But it’s so easy for us to neglect. I just wonder—and please don’t raise your hand—but I just wonder how many of you are regularly in the word. I mean, three to five times a week, even better if it’s daily, but you’re regularly in the word—not just Our Daily Bread, not just a verse, but you’re reading books of the Bible. You’re reading them through. You’re studying it, you’re getting to know it better, you’re highlighting and underlining and starring, you’re taking notes; you’re trying to apply this book. You’re trying to learn this book and apply this to your life.
Now, my guess is that a lot of you are doing this. A lot of you are doing this. Surveys that came back, this discipleship survey we’ve done in the last few weeks, the vast majority of the surveys that came back indicated that you are in the word three to five times a week, and many in the word daily. Praise God for that! What I wonder is if a lot of us who maybe are not in the word didn’t fill out the survey, because who wants to actually write down where they’re not doing this well.
You know where you are; God knows where you where. If you need to be convicted and repent, then get convicted and repent. We need to read the word.
Secondly, meditation on the word. Not just reading, but meditating. A lot of people when they hear meditation they think of Rafiki in the Lion King. They think of eastern meditation. They think of emptying the mind and contemplating nothing.
That’s not Christian meditation. Christian meditation is not emptying the mind, it’s filling the mind. It’s thinking about what we’ve read, what we’ve learned; it’s thinking about the truths of Scripture in such a way as to lead to personal application and transformation and communion with God, so that we’re feasting on it. The Hebrew word for meditate is the word used of a lion growling over its prey as he’s eating the kill, and then digesting. He’s savoring, he’s tasting, and then he’s digesting the meat.
That’s the word for meditate. That’s the idea. It’s digesting the word; not just reading it. We all know it’s possible to read where the words—you know, you’re basically reading, and then when you get interrupted you look up, and you look down and you can’t remember where you were on the page. Maybe you have read three, four, or five paragraphs—or a whole page, and you haven’t even been thinking about what you’re reading. Your eyes have just been going over black marks. That’s not meditating. That’s just going through the motions. So the reading needs to be joined to meditation.
And then the third practice is hearing the word. This is the corporate, the public, corporate practice of the gathered body of Christ as we come together and we do what we’re doing right now. We listen to the teaching of the word and the reading of the word and the praying of the word.
I just love the way Wes prayed for us this morning, taking the word and praying it down into our hearts. Learn to pray doing that. If you don’t feel like you have a prayer life, learn to do that. Take a chapter of the Bible, or a verse, or a psalm, or something, take it and pray it in. Pray it back to the Lord.
So those are the practices. But we know that you can do these practices and just simply be going through the motions, right? We know that. My guess is that a lot of us kind of have an allergic reaction to being told that we need to have a devotional life, we need to have quiet times, we need to be Bible readers; that we have to do these things. We’re allergic to that. The reason is because of the negative side of fundamentalism and legalism; we don’t like rules, and we don’t want to be hypocrites; we don’t want to just go through the motions and feel anything.
So too often what some people do is they just throw the disciplines off altogether. That’s not the solution. The solution is not to throw off the practices altogether. I agree that we shouldn’t fake it, but what we need instead is what I’m calling inward grace. Inward grace to go with the outward forms.
Now what do I mean by that, by the inward grace? I mean the inward spiritual response of the heart to what is read or seen or heard in the word; these inward graces of faith and hope and love and delight and worship and humble submission of our whole hearts to God. That’s what is really needed. That’s what makes this effective for us. It’s when we don’t just read it, but we see a promise. We read the promise, and then we are prayerfully believing the promise. We’re prayerfully lifting up our hearts to God and asking him to do something in us through his word.
So how do we do that? I’m just going to end by giving you some advice from my spiritual director, spiritual mentor from the centuries, which is John Owen. I’ve never read anybody who’s better on this than Owen is, and so I’m going to give you a few application points from Owen. This is from volume seven of his works.
Owen said, “If, then, we would be established in the truth, if we would stand fast in the faith, if we would be preserved from the danger of that defection from the gospel which the world is prone, disposed, and inclined unto, it must be our principal endeavour to have a spiritual acquaintance with the things themselves that are declared in the doctrine of truth which we do profess, and to have an experience of their efficacy upon our own souls. Mere notions of truth, or the knowledge of the doctrines of it, enabling us to talk of them or dispute for them, will not preserve us.”
We need more! We need more! We need more than the outward form; we need inward grace. So how do we get that? Owen gives four directions. I’ll give some of these in his words; some of it I’ll just paraphrase.
Number one: “Pray earnestly for the Spirit of truth to lead us into all truth.” We need the Spirit. We need the Spirit. We pray for the Spirit’s work. This is why Jesus promised the Spirit. If you want models for this, look at Paul’s letters and his prayers, Ephesians chapter one, Ephesians chapter three, where he prays for the Spirit to do something. That’s what we need as well. Join your practices of the word, these external practices, reading the word, meditating on the word, hearing the word—join that with earnest prayer. Earnest prayer that the Holy Spirit would work through the word.
Owen said, “If we learn and receive the truths of the Gospel merely in the power and ability of our natural faculties, as we do other things, we shall not abide constant unto them in spiritual trials. What we learn of ourselves in spiritual things, we receive only in the outward form of it; what we are taught by the Spirit of God we receive in power.” We need the Holy Spirit.
Number two: Owen says, “Rest not in any notions of truth unless you find that you have learned it as it is in Jesus.”
This is so good! Owen is thinking of Ephesians chapter four, where Paul says, “This is not the way you learned Christ, assuming you have heard about him and were taught in him as the truth is in Jesus.” We have to learn the truth as it is in Jesus.
So here is Owen again: “This it is to learn the truth as it is in Jesus—namely, together with the knowledge of it, to have an experience of its power and efficacy in the mortification of sin, in the renovation of our nature, and transforming of the whole soul into the image of God in righteousness and the holiness of truth.”
Learning the truth as it is in Jesus means that we learn truth in such a way that we become more and more like Jesus, that we see something of the glory of Jesus in such a way that it changes us and we become more like Jesus, 2 Corinthians 3:18.
Number three: Owen said (and I’m paraphrasing here) he said we need to learn to value a little knowledge which shows itself in sanctifying, transforming effects; we value that over the greatest demonstrations of knowledge, skill, eloquence, and education that do not have these effects.
This could be really encouraging. You might hear a sermon like this and just feel like, “Well, I’m not a theologian, I don’t really enjoy reading that much, the Bible’s hard to understand; I’m never going to get there. I’m never going to be at that point, where I really understand the Bible.” It just feels really discouraging to think, “Well, I can’t be a disciple if I don’t know my Bible.” Let this encourage you.
What Owen is saying is that the smallest bit of knowledge of truth, really applied in a way that transforms your heart, is better than vast mountains of knowledge that remain theoretical and don’t really change you heart.
You know what that means? That means you can start really simple! You could start really simple. Start with the Sermon on the Mount. Start with the gospel of Mark. Start with the simple gospel word: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Meditate on that. Press that into your heart. Or, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Press that into your heart. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
I mean, you could take a simple gospel truth and prayerfully just knead that into your soul until it starts to change you; until the Spirit begins to change you through it. That, Owen says, is of more value than mastering a systematic theology and remaining a proud person; remaining an ungrateful person; remaining an unloving person. Go after application. Go after the application.
Then finally, number four: “Be not satisfied without a discovery of such goodness, excellency, and beauty in spiritual things as may attract your hearts unto them, and cause you to cleave unto them with unconquerable love and delight.”
That’s what we need. We need to see the beauty of truth. We need to be praying, “Open my eyes, that I might see wonderful, beautiful things out of your word.” None of us see it in its pristine, clear, purest beauty. We don’t see it as it is, because our eyes are clouded; our minds are clouded. None of us see it in the fullness of its beauty; all of us can see more. Pray and ask the Spirit to help you see more.
So we’ve seen, now, what Jesus’ word is—his message, his teaching, but it embraces the Old Testament, prophetic witness to Christ, and the apostolic word of the New Testament—we’ve seen what it means to abide in his word; it’s to embrace his word with the whole heart, our mind, our affections, and our will; knowing it, receiving it, and obeying it; and now we’ve seen how to do it. We do it through these disciplines of the word, both private disciplines, reading, meditating, and public disciplines, hearing it. But the inward grace going along with it as we exercise faith in Christ, love for God, hope in the promises of God.
So here’s the obvious question for each of us as we conclude this morning: are you abiding in Jesus’ word? I ask myself, “Am I abiding in Jesus’ word?” Are you? Am I? How are you doing this practically? What does it actually look like? Do you think you could grow in this? If so, what’s your new strategy?
I want you to get a strategy. Take some time; think about this. Write something down. It isn’t a legalistic thing. If you love Jesus, you want to be a disciple of Jesus, you believe this is good; make time for it, depending on the Holy Spirit, depending on God’s grace, but devise a plan, devise a strategy, of how you’re going to read, how you’re going to feed, how you’re going to press in to the secret place of knowing God, knowing Jesus, through his word.
Here’s the promise: if you abide in his word, you’re truly his disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. If the Son of Man sets you free through his truth, you will be free indeed.
Father, first of all we just ask you to forgive us for our neglect. Forgive us for our neglect of your word—for neglect of reading, for neglect of meditation, for neglect of corporate worship. Forgive us also for being content to just go through the motions. Sometimes we read without really feeding our souls. We hear these promises without exercising any faith. We hear the glories of Christ, and our hearts are not wooed; they’re not stirred.
So Lord, we stand in great need of your grace. We need forgiveness for our neglect, and we need the fresh, enlivening, empowering ministry of your Holy Spirit to make these words live in our hearts and to help us to live in your word, to abide in your word.
So would you work in us this morning? Do what is needed in our hearts, by your Holy Spirit.
As we come to your table, would you seal the promises of the Gospel to us? As we take the bread, as we take the juice, as we proclaim our Lord’s death until he comes, remind us once again of the great grace by which we’ve been saved through the self-sacrifice and the atoning death of our savior. Remind us of the hope to which we’ve been called, which we’ve been born again into through his resurrection from the dead, and seal the promises of the gospel to our hearts.
We pray it in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.