Video: Midwestern Seminary Fall 2013 Convocation: "Abide in Christ: Priority One for Every Gospel Minister"

As we would think about the semester before us and that to which Christ has called us, I want to draw our attention to John 15:1–11. I have entitled this sermon, “Abide in Christ: Priority One for Every Gospel Minister.”

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are alreadyclean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.


Convocation unmistakably symbolizes a new day for a seminary. There is something special about an event such as this. This is something special for us who are here. The formality of the service, the academic regalia, historic references, and the full institutional attention on this chapel service, on this place and time, reminds us that there is something unique about this day. Academic convocations are rooted in the medieval university. It is a sign of marking the beginning of an academic year or academic event. It is a sign of consecration, of dedication to that which the Lord is calling us. It is to formally ask the Lord’s blessing.

Perhaps more than anything else, convocation is an academic expression. It is an academic reminder that we intend to love the Lord our God with our minds, to renew our minds, to give our best intellectual efforts to glorify God. It is an academic event first and foremost, and this is an academic day. It starts an academic semester, and we know that theological education is first and foremost an academic endeavor. Yet, if you think about it, there is a certain inequality in what we do. There is a certain inequality in the ministry to which this seminary has been called, and a certain inequality in that we invest in you, the students, because the seminary is primarily of the mind, of reading, of learning, of memorizing, of equipping oneself to speak, of preaching and instructing, of counseling, of instilling the word of truth in others. Though this season is primarily of the mind, the ministry seems to be primarily of the heart. You give your life to the people of God and to the lost. Your affections are given to Christ, and you are to serve him with all that you are. The inequity is this: virtually every metric a seminary has to gauge your progress and grade your growth is academic, intellectual; whereas, the primary measurement of ministry faithfulness is the heart, the motive, the life, the affection, the spirit.

Now I do not want to create this great chasm of distinction between the two because that is not true, and we know it not to be. Our growth in Christ begins with the mind and penetrates to the heart, so I do not want to set up this vast dichotomy between the two. I do want to remind us and charge us this morning that we must be careful to tend our hearts day-by-day as we are here, all the while also tending our minds. The world is littered by former pastors, former ministers, former missionaries, former teachers of God’s Word who no longer serve in that capacity. Rarely are they formerly ministers, formerly missionaries, formerly pastors because of doctrinal drift, though that happens too often. Often they leave the ministerial ranks because of some scandalous sin that brings reproach on the name of Christ and harms the church of Christ. But most of those who forsake their call to ministry and find themselves no longer serving the church and the gospel do so not because they have embraced theological liberalism, and not because they have committed some scandalous sin; most do that because they simply wither away. They have failed to tend their own hearts, failed to tender afresh the call of God on their lives, failed to engage in the spiritual disciplines, failed to fill their souls and nourish their spirits, and their hearts grew cold because they failed to abide in Christ.

My charge to you this morning is of course an academic charge: that you do your very best in the semester ahead, class-by-class, day-by-day to glorify Christ with your mind and to honor him by working hard. And I pray that you make “A’s” in a lot of them. But my super-abundant prayer is this: if you leave this place and have to choose between an “A” in your head and an “A” in your heart, that any day of the week you choose an “A” in your heart. My prayer is that you leave here more mature in Christ, more committed to following Christ, more committed to serving his gospel from the overflow of your heart, and that you be careful stewards thereof. As we celebrate academic convocation and we mark a new semester, let us give our minds to the academic task of theological education; but let us here, in this time and place, renew our commitments to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts as well as all of our minds.

I want to call us this morning to John 15:1–11. I want to remind us this morning of the stewardship we have over our spirits, over our hearts, and that priority number one of a faithful gospel minister is to abide in Christ. Now you may recall where we are—in the middle of this Upper Room Discourse in the Gospel of John. And those of you who know your New Testament and this gospel well, know that there are seven great “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John. In John 6, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.” In John 10, he declared, “I am the good shepherd.” In John 10, he declared, “I am the door of the sheep.” In John 11, Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In John 12, he declared, “I am the light of the world.” In John 14, he declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And now the seventh and final “I Am” statement is John 15: “I am the true vine.” As Jesus utters these statements in the gospel, they are not veiled, subtle references to his deity. Every Jewish girl and every Jewish boy from childhood had been told of the great story of Moses facing the burning bush. And where the Lord spoke to Moses through that burning bush and commanded him to go to Pharaoh and command Pharaoh to let his people go. Moses asks, “Who do I tell Pharaoh that I have been sent by?” And the Lord told him, “You tell him that I Am who I Am sent you.” So Jesus adopts this title for himself in the Gospel of John throughout his earthly ministry, and every time he does so, his Jewish hearers get bug-eyed because they know exactly what he is doing. He is equating himself with the Father, taking the form, taking the title, of deity.

The theme in the passage before us in John 15 is clearly fruit-bearing and abiding in Christ to bear fruit. We see it in verses two, four, five, eight, and 11. All of this culminates in joy: joy for the believer, joy for the disciple. And so the summary of these verses is that as we abide in Christ, we bear much fruit, and as we bear much fruit in Christ our joy is completed. But I want us to think about this not merely as a devotional exercise, but as a ministerial evaluation. See these verses with me.

Notice first in verses 1–3 that the Father’s purpose is for you to bear fruit. This is not reserved for some other person in some other place. It is not reserved for you post-seminary degree when you think you will have more time. You will not. Trust me. It is not reserved for you in some other stage of life after your kids are grown or out of the house, or your baby is our of diapers, or some other position in life. No. Life gets busier. Ministry gets busier, and if you do not root yourself in abiding in Christ during this season, have no assurance that you will in some other season. Note the Father’s purpose is for you to bear fruit. Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” Not the nation of Israel, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser.” The viticulturist, we might say. “And every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he takes away. And every branch that bears fruit, he prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” Jesus states so very pointedly his and the Father’s role. There is a collective trinitarian concern and enterprise of seeing disciples of Christ grow and bear fruit—Jesus being the vine, the Father being the vinedresser who actively engages in pruning through the ministry, and the work of the Holy Spirit so that we might bear more fruit. Verse 2 tells us he “takes away,” which I take to mean that he lifts up. He prunes. He disciplines. A part of your season in seminary is to be pruned and is to be disciplined. Please hear me this morning: the point is not that you push to the sidelines of your life your academic commitments. No, the point is that as you give the best of your minds to them, there is enough self-discipline in Christ to push to the very center of your attention and to the center of your concerns that you first and foremost abide in Christ and bear fruit.

How does our Father do this? How does he prune us? Well, you know how. You know your New Testament. In Hebrews 12, we are reminded. The author of Hebrews tells us beginning in verse 5:

And have you forgotten the extortion which addressed to you as sons? My son do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by him. For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline. But if you are without discipline of which all have become partakers, when you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we have earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much rather be subjected to the Father of spirits and live? For they discipline us for a short time, as seems best to them. But he disciplines us for our good, so that we may share his holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful. Yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

What am I saying? I am saying this: the Lord’s preeminent concern for you is not registered on your transcript. It is registered in your character, in your life and in the faithfulness thereof, and in the way you rightly reflect and bring honor and glory to his holiness and his ministry as evidenced through you. The Father’s purpose for you is to bear fruit.

Notice secondly, in verses 4–5 that the Son’s power enables you to bear fruit. Jesus says, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” I love the personalization of this call in verse 4. Jesus is saying, “Abide in me and I in you.” When we are converted, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives. We are in Christ, established in him formally, legally in a sense, and before him made right. But also I love the tenor of verse 4, the personability of this, “You abide in me, and I in you.” The metaphor he offers is that the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me. Get that. Your ministry, your Christian life—the faithfulness of your ministry and the fruitfulness of your ministry—is tethered to your abiding in Christ.

I did not say the success of your ministry. I said the faithfulness of your ministry and the fruitfulness of your ministry because those are the two biblical metrics that ultimately matter. Are we faithful to the Lord and to his word? And are we fruitful in that effort as he so blesses? Jesus says we cannot be unless we abide in him. To abide means to grow in Christ, to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, devotion, and to find our joy in Christ, our hope in Christ, and our growth in Christ. There is a certain built-in challenge to all of this, we confess, because as those who are in ministry in the year 2013 and the years going forward, you will have a to-do list longer than your day most any day of your life in ministry. You have sermons to prepare; you have counseling sessions to undertake; you have meetings to attend; you have fires to put out; you have things that must be done; you have urgencies imposed on you by others that you have no control over.

There is a sense in which it sounds as though I am speaking out of both sides of my mouth because we want to give ourselves and expend ourselves to the great call, to the needs of the church, to live and labor for the church, but the irony is that that very ministry can preclude us from abiding in Christ. The irony is that there is a troubling barrenness in a life of ministerial busyness. Jesus would speak of this so very clearly, and so very poetically in Luke 10, when we are told of this encounter between Mary and Martha:

Now as they were traveling along, he entered a village and a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home. She had a sister called Mary who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to his word. But Martha was distracted with all of her preparations, and she came up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all of the serving alone? Tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. For Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

If we all were to drink a vile of truth serum, we all would confess to having moments—and perhaps even patterns—of being “Marthas.” The troubling reality is that virtually all of the measures in the contemporary church that evaluate ministerial effectiveness require one to be a Martha to attain it. As you undertake your ministry, now in seminary and as you seek to serve Christ throughout the duration of your life, you will have to combat that day after day after day because not only does the world and our flesh press in on us to be Marthas, but the requirements of the church and the call of the ministry seem to as well. If we are not careful, we could build an institution that cultivates and graduates class after class after class of ministerial Marthas preparing for class after class after class, preparing for Bible study after Bible study after Bible study, sermon after sermon, attending ministerial event after event, facilitating, fostering, cultivating, creating a whole generation of ministerial Marthas. I am a man of activity. I will certainly confess that. I love productivity. I love doing things where I can see progress. That is how I’m wired. So I know this temptation as well as any of us. The point is not to become irresponsible or negligent or to excuse laziness under the auspices of the Bible. No, the point is to press to the very front of our life’s to-do list and our life concerns to be first and foremost rooted and growing in Christ; to first and foremost engage in those disciplines that produce eternal fruit—that bring about growth in Christ and that whatever we do—we do not let our studies nor our ministries keep us from the one we are ostensibly serving—Jesus Christ.

Notice with me thirdly verses 6–11. Your passion should be to bear fruit, and we are given here several references as to why. First, notice that verse 6 evidences our eternal security: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” Now, to be quite frank, verse 6 is something of an unclear verse, and many people have many interpretations. One of the basic rules you will learn in your hermeneutics courses here is that when you come to a knotty verse that is difficult to interpret, interpret the less clear verses in the Bible by the clearest verses. We know from other places like John 10, Romans 8, and 100 other places that one cannot lose his or her salvation. At the same time, though, we know that as we grow in Christ, and as we evidence the marks of conversion, as we see the fruit of the Spirit exude from us, we gain further confidence in our eternal security. We do not earn it, but we demonstrate it. So I say to you this morning, if you truck through life and through ministry as one would define it without seeing the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of Christ in your life, do not think because you have a seminary degree that you know for certain that you are going to heaven when your time on this earth is done.

Notice also in verse 7 that our passion should be to bear fruit because of a vibrant prayer life: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Of course this is not some promissory note, but it is a realization that as our hearts are Christ’s and Christ’s heart is ours, then our minds are tuned to Scripture; our minds are tuned to Christ. As we think like Christ, we desire like Christ, and our ambitions are like Christ, then there is a harmony of our will and a harmony of our desires.

But notice verse 8. This is a big verse to me. I have thought about this much as we would think about our time together this morning as we abide in Christ and we bear fruit: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” Each one of us in the room today is a steward of the glory of God. The president of this seminary is. Everything I do and do not do, say and do not say, preach and do not preach, and live and do not live reflects to a greater or lesser degree, and to a more or less helpful degree, the glory of God. But take no refuge in my bearing that burden because you bear it, too. Everything you do or do not do, teach or do not teach, instruct or do not instruct, learn or do not learn, live or do not live, bear by way of fruit, or do not bear, you are a steward of the glory of God, and you best glorify God in your life and in your ministry as you abide in him and reflect that fruitfulness. Do you realize that your ministry is first and foremost dependent upon your character? First Timothy 3:1–7 lists the qualification of the office of an elder or pastor. It is a rundown in character traits up to which your life should measure. It is not a one-time threshold to be passed. It is an ongoing accountability to be maintained with Scripture. Not only that, though. As you glorify God and as you bear the fruit of abiding in Christ, and as you draw near to him, you will have the personal capital and credibility to lead others spiritually. Your life will radiate the joy of Christ and the love of Christ, and so others will want to follow your spiritual leadership. Not only that, I dare say that the success of your ministry will be dependent upon, first and foremost, the character that you have cultivated through abiding in Christ.

Robert Murray McCheyne would famously say, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” As God has a minister who is holy and entirely set apart to him, it is an awful weapon in the eyes of Satan. Most urgently, the glory of God is at stake, as verse 8 reminds us. Your ministry, your time here, your life in Jesus is a little repository of the glory of God. The church is plagued by hypocrites who rob God of his glory and slip in the little things like forsaking John 15 and the call therein. Slippage in the little things often leads to calamitous falls. The glory of God is at stake. Moreover, as you abide in Christ, you will be able to avoid what the New Testament presents to us a Pharisaism. Jesus would rebuke the Pharisees as being whitewashed tombs, being appropriately clean on the outside, but dead and rotten and stenchy on the inside. The ministry is well populated with such people. Let us not add to their number in this place.

I would say, finally, as we think about the glory of Christ in these things, there is a stewardship that rests on you—not only in the lofty ways of the glory of Christ, and not only in the personal ways, as pastors and missionaries have invested in you and to you—but I would say currently, as you are here, you are seated in seats that others could be seated in. There are 16 million Southern Baptists around this country and around this world who have paid the bulk of your expenses to be here. Not only this day, but have been doing so for decades and have been building an infrastructure and a system and all that we have here. They have invested so that people like yourselves could learn and graduate as quickly as possible to go take the gospel to the nations and go and minister for the church. So in a very real way I bear, and you bear, a stewardship to all of these many millions of Southern Baptists from times past and times present who have made all of this possible. So honor them through your testimony being represented in Christ. Jesus says in verse 8, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”

Notice also though, as we abide in him and as our passion is to bear fruit, we also will enjoy the love of the Father and the Son. Notice verses 9 and 10: “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” The point is not one of legalism, that to the degree that we abide in him we are moving in and out of the domain of his love. No. I think Martyn Lloyd-Jones helps us to understand this. He would talk of the analogy of a father walking on the beach with his child, or walking down a road with his child. There is always proximity there. He is holding the child’s hand and expressing affection to the child, but there are particular seasons of sweetness where the father may lift up the child and carry him. The father may lift up the child and love on him as they walked. I think that is what we are getting at in verses 9 and 10. Not that one moves in some formal way in or out of the love of the Father. No, we are protected and loved by him for all of eternity if we are in him. But the sweetness and the rightness and the full sense of that love we know as we draw close to him. So much so, that in verse 11 Jesus tells us that as we abide, our joy may be made full: “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be made full.” Be a happy minister. Let the joy of Christ overflow from your life. We are too privileged a people not to be. As we reflect upon what we have through Christ—what we gain through him, the double call upon our lives—we have been too richly blessed not to be a happy people. We need happy warriors who are happy combatants. As you serve the cause of Christ and fight the forces of darkness—as you do so with courage, with bravery, and with conviction and as you are willing speak prophetic words that are unwelcome to a culture declining into further darkness—be able to do it with the joy of Christ in your heart. As you abide in Christ, you absolutely can.

My great concern this morning is not so much that we graduate students who do not have it right theologically. Of course, that can always happen. Some people can pass through here and study for years but still leave crooked theologically. But by-and-large, we can control that because we have a confessional conviction. I know what our faculty signs and what they teach. So, my great concern is not that you would graduate from here not being rightly trained in sound doctrine. I am concerned that some of you will flame out in a scandalous way in ministry and bring reproach on the name of Christ, and on your church, and to some extent, this school. But my most pressing concern this morning, and the one that has been dogging me in recent weeks as I think of you and think of the school is this: that just as you are here, you will learn a little and do a little, and serve a little, and do a whole lot of little things, but you would leave here less like Christ than when you came; and that instead of flaming out in ministry, you would just sort of fizzle out of ministry, and you would wake up one day so far removed from what initially drew you to ministry that you do not hardly recognize yourself.

Many years ago when I was wresting with a call to ministry in college, I had several friends—about seven or eight of us—who were similarly wresting with and seeking that call. And all of us disembarked at the same time, going to different schools and different seminaries—some Southern Baptist, and some not Southern Baptist—and then some not going at all, thinking, “I’ll go next year” or “I’ll go the next year.” And even thinking back to that group of nine or ten guys, now some fifteen or so years removed, three or four of us—depending on how you define ministry—are still in ministry, but about half are not. None of those guys have left their wives. None of those guys have committed some scandalous act that brought obvious reproach on the name of Christ. They just sort of drifted away. What once was a burning passion to serve Christ became incrementally displaced by other concerns, other cares, other things, until they just woke up one day from being in ministry, to sort of being in ministry, to kind of not being in ministry, to now being so far from it that they do not even think of themselves in their self-identification as a minister. Let that not be true of us. Let us hold a standard high of ministry and hold a standard high of preparing for ministry. And as we train our minds and give them to the glory of Christ, let us know we lead this with our hearts—hearts warmed by Christ, moved by his word, filled by his Spirit, submitted to his Lordship, overflowing with joy because of his salvation and his call.


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