This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments for Rev. McGeown, please post them in the comment section on the blog.
We have seen the beautiful affirmation of Christ’s love for us. We have heard Christ’s exhortation to abide or continue in his love. We now come to the most controversial aspect of the text, for Jesus connects our abiding in Christ’s love to the keeping of his commandments in verse 10—“If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love” (v. 10). On the face of it, Jesus seems to be teaching conditional salvation or (at the very least) conditional experience of salvation. Does Christ’s use of the word “if” indicate a condition that we must fulfill in order to abide in his love?
We must understand what a condition is. A condition is something we must do upon which the obtaining of something else depends. If Jesus meant that our abiding in his love is conditioned on our obedience, he would have said, “Your abiding in my love depends on your obedience to my commandments.” Furthermore, although the grammar of the sentence is in the form of a condition—“if”—the meaning of the sentence is not a condition. Sometimes, “if” is not conditional, but evidentiary or it serves to identify those to whom the promise pertains. In other words, “if” does not express a condition, but proves the evidence of something. How are those to be identified who abide in Christ’s love: they keep his commandments! They—and only they—abide in Christ’s love. The deliberately disobedient do not abide in Christ’s love. There are evidentiary “if sentences” in the Bible: “Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you” (v. 14). The thrust of these words is this: “You prove yourselves to be my friends by doing what I say” or “Your obedience is the proof that you are my friends, but not the condition for being, becoming, or remaining such.”
Therefore, an acceptable paraphrase of Christ’s words, which brings out the meaning, is this: “If you keep my commandments, you show you abide in my love.”
We know that the meaning is not conditional, but evidentiary, because of what Jesus says in verse 10b: “Even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” If our abiding in Christ’s love depends upon our keeping of Christ’s commandments, then Christ’s abiding in his Father’s love depended on Christ’s keeping of his Father’s commandments. But the Father’s love for Christ is not conditional. Therefore, Christ’s love for us is also not conditional. There is comfort: if you can imagine Christ not abiding in the Father’s love, then you might freely imagine a situation in which you, a believer, would not abide in Christ’s love or in which you might be separated from Christ’s love. Both ideas are absurd. And in case you have any lingering doubts, listen to Paul: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
And yet there is a connection between “abiding in Christ’s love” and “keeping Christ’s commandments.” We must not dismiss Christ’s words too quickly or lightly, but we must take them seriously and do justice to them. There is no enjoyment of Christ’s love while we walk in sin. God’s love is holy. Therefore, it is enjoyed only in the sphere of holiness. One who walks in disobedience will doubt and question Christ’s love, for his conscience will oppress him. One who walks in disobedience will not appreciate or enjoy the consciousness of Christ’s love, for God will chastise him by withdrawing the sense of his favor. One who walks in disobedience is not motivated by Christ’s love, but something else—such as pride, lust, selfishness, or some other sin—motivates and blinds him. There is a sphere in which we enjoy, experience, delight in, and are confident of, the love of Christ. It is the sphere of obedience or the sphere of holiness. There is also a sphere in which we are oppressed with doubts and not conscious of the love of Christ for us. It is the sphere of darkness and disobedience.
The Bible is clear: “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:5–7). Incidentally, John uses the word “if,” but like Christ’s words in John 15, the apostle does not express a condition that we must fulfill before we can have fellowship with God, as if our fellowship depended on our walking in the light. John identifies those who have fellowship with God as those—and only those—who walk in the light. One who does not walk in the light, but walks in darkness, does not have fellowship with God, no matter how orthodox he might claim to be.
When we do not walk in Christ’s commandments, we do not enjoy Christ’s love. Be careful—Christ does not cease to love us. Nevertheless, our enjoyment of Christ’s love is diminished and even interrupted. Take a teenage boy who rebels against his father. His father disciplines him with the result that he sulks in his room. Such a boy, as long as he remains in a sulking mood, does not enjoy the Father’s love. He does not believe it. He questions it and he doubts it; he does not know it, appreciate it or enjoy it; he does not dwell in the consciousness of it; and he is not motivated by it. And yet what parent makes his love dependent or conditional on the obedience of his children? The father’s love has not changed: his discipline is no manifestation of hatred. The father disciplines his son in love. If the father hated his son, he would permit him to go on in his sins. But the rebellious son does not interpret his father’s actions as love.
That is an illustration of a rebellious Christian—he does not keep Christ’s commandments and he does not abide in Christ’s love. As long as he is determined to walk in darkness, the Father withholds his approving smile. Nevertheless, the Father’s love has not changed. The manifestation of the Father’s love has changed—he shows his love in discipline. The creeds testify to this: “They lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them” (Canons 5.5). Do not make any mistake, therefore. God loves us too much to allow us to walk in sin; and God’s love is enjoyed only in the sphere of holiness, which manifests itself in a life of obedience to God’s commandments. God, explain the scriptures, chastises us “for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). Although God aims at our holiness, not our happiness, it is in holiness that we will find ultimate happiness.
Apply this to Jesus: “Even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (v. 10). Although it was impossible that it should be otherwise, Jesus enjoyed the smile of his Father’s love while he kept his Father’s commandments. Yet he says in John 10:17: “Therefore doth my Father love me because I lay down my life, that I might take it up again.” In the sphere of perfect obedience, obedience that led to the cross, Christ enjoyed the Father’s love. There is something deeply mysterious here. When Jesus suffered on the cross, and obeyed God to the uttermost, loving God while enduring under God’s wrath and curse for our sins, God still loved Jesus, although Jesus could not sense it; he did not sense it because he was made an offering for sin—for our sin. He did not sense God’s love so that we might enjoy it!
Jesus connects this abiding to joy: “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (v. 11). Jesus does not tell the disciples these beautiful truths for the sake of mere information. God does not reveal truth to us merely to inform us, but to motivate us to action. Abide in Christ’s love! Keep Christ’s commandments! Have joy! Have the fullness of joy! Or to quote Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again, I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).
Joy is a deep, spiritual gladness of heart or a profound cheerfulness of the soul. Joy is not the same as happiness, for happiness depends on circumstances (it contains the word “happen”), while joy transcends circumstances; we are happy when good things happen to us, and while we find it difficult to be happy in affliction, we always rejoice in God, in Christ, and in Christ’s love. Jesus commands his disciples to abide in his love in the way of keeping his commandments because he wishes to keep them from misery and to fulfill their joy. Jesus sees miserable times ahead for the disciples, about which he warns them extensively in chapter 16. Nevertheless, Jesus knows that the real source of misery is not persecution or tribulation, but sin. Every Reformed Christian who reads the Heidelberg Catechism knows that too: “our sins and miseries” (Q 2). Peter did not weep when he was beaten and imprisoned; in fact, he rejoiced (Acts 5:41), but he did weep bitterly when he fell into lamentable sin (Matt. 26:75).
There is a way to be miserable: it is to walk in disobedience, and not to abide in Christ’s love. David knew that. Samson knew that. Jonah knew that. And Peter knew that. Out of love Jesus warns his disciples not to walk in the way of misery, but he exhorts them to walk in the way of joy and peace: keep my commandments! Godly parents tell their children this too: son, daughter, keep my commandments in the home; obey me, and you will know my approval; break the rules of my house, disobey me, and you will be miserable until you repent and walk in obedience again.
Peter had to learn that the hard way: when he denied Jesus, he did not abide in the consciousness of Jesus’ love. Jesus loved Peter, but Peter had to weep bitterly with tears of repentance—which were the fruit of God’s grace—before he came to the renewed assurance of Jesus’ love for him.
For the Christian who abides in Christ’s love and keeps his commandments there is rich, blessed, abiding joy! What greater joy than to be loved by Jesus and to know it! Here is the way of joy: abide in Christ’s love; abide in his love in the sphere of holiness; and you will know—and continue to know—eternal, everlasting, joy. That joy cannot be taken from you, for it transcends all circumstances.
That joy is in Christ. Abide in him; abide in his love, and you shall have joy.