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About this series
How to be a Christian Without Being Religious
Is it possible to be a Christian without being religious? More than a list of activities, behaviors, and rules, this series will show you that the Christian life is, at its core, an ongoing relationship with the living God. You will discover how to live a life of faith; how to portray Christ's love and character in your everyday activities; how to know if you are growing spiritually; and how to develop a dynamic, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.More from this series
I’ll never forget my very first, deep experience, I will call it, with John 15. My earlier years I had a lot of drivenness in my personality and those of you who are thinking, Man, if that was in your earlier years, I wonder what happened now.
But I was. I was really passionate but I was passionate, but my zeal didn’t catch up with my knowledge. And so I was leading a campus ministry at the time, I was in graduate school, I was teaching graduate school, and doing a little coaching on the side. I tried to keep my life kind of full.
And I got to the point where I, literally, physically, emotionally just burned out. And I had one of those times where, we had these, we called them, “a rally,” and there was a campus across from a large, old Victorian home.
And the bricklayer who discipled me, we came to town, we walked around the campus, we claimed a passage out of Ezra, and we literally walked over the campus and prayed for all the buildings, we didn’t know a soul, and we went there, Fairmont State campus, and we said, Lord, we want You to develop a disciple making ministry on this campus.
I had come to Christ right before college and the third day where I went to school, this bricklayer introduced himself and he said, “Would you like to grow in Christ?” I was a brand-new Christian and I didn’t know any better so I said, “Well, yes!”
And so he says, “Well, why don’t you come to my house Thursday night and I’ll teach you what I know.” And he says, “We have a little get together.” And when he said, “Little get together,” he wasn’t exaggerating. There were three of us there: the full back on the football team, some girl that I didn’t know, and me.
Four years later, we had dug out the basement of his house, we had propped it up so that we could keep the structure up, and we built a room for about a hundred and fifty college students because that’s how many were meeting on Thursday night underneath his house.
We had two hundred and fifty to three hundred college students in Bible study and we saw people come to Christ every week.
I was a brand-new believer, I just thought this was normal. I thought that memorizing three verses a week, getting up and having a quiet time, talking with God, learning the Bible, and being a disciple and a disciple-maker was the norm. I didn’t grow up in a Bible-believing church. This was my first experience with Christianity.
And so when Dave the bricklayer said, “You know something? This is going great. Our dream is to have one of these on all sixteen state campuses.” And a fellow and his wife went to one campus, there was a group for this campus, so when I graduated, I moved down to Fairmont with Dave and we prayed for this campus and this was the dream.
Well, Dave was a pretty sharp cookie. And what he realized was that leaders don’t get developed unless they get rope. But you need enough rope so you grow but not enough to hang you. But there’s a real fine line.
And so, Dave, things got going and I went up on campus and started sharing Christ and we did all kinds of things like take a survey, “Are you interested in studying the Bible?” And I’d pass them out and talk with people, played basketball, did whatever I could where I found affinity groups.
And pretty soon, little by little, we’d have three, four, then ten, then fifteen, then pretty soon his living room was full. Then, after a while, we took the furniture out of his living room and we would pile, and we would sit like this on the living room floor.
And Dave gradually got out of the picture and so I did all the teaching there. I was coaching, teaching at the time, and then I did this on the side.
Well, I’m getting up early in the morning, I’m spending time with God, I’m teaching, I’m in graduate school, I’m leading this ministry, and it’s Thursday night, and it’s about five thirty. And all the college students are coming over at seven and I’m supposed to speak.
Now, those of you that have ever spoken or ever had spiritual responsibility and ever hit one of those walls, you have nothing to say. It is a terrifying feeling. It’s terrifying enough just getting up in front of people, but it’s a terrifying feeling when you think you have something to say and you really prepared, and you can’t wait to say it. It’s really terrifying when you got a blank.
And it’s five thirty and I don’t have anything to say and I don’t know what to do. And I’m crying out to God and I’m praying. You ever have one of those times where you pray and if there was a ceiling three inches over your head, you’re sure it’s hitting, and you’re going nowhere?
And I remember finding, literally, a closet or a corner and it was dark and I got a tiny, little light and I shut the door and I, literally, crawled in it, and I just said, God, something about how I’m living my life isn’t right.
I was doing a lot for God. I had a lot of energy going in multiple directions, but my emotional and spiritual battery were getting lower, and lower, and lower. And I remember just opening up the Bible and I don’t suggest this is how God speaks to you on a normal basis, okay? This is, you’ll end up, in Zephaniah and say, “…didn’t work for me, Chip.” This just happened to be one of those times.
And the pages opened to John 15. And I read through John 15 once and I thought, There’s something here, and then I read through John 15 again and I thought, There’s something here. And then I read it out loud and I listened to the words, and I imagined these early disciples and all the pressure, and all the stress, and all their fears, and realized this is the very last thing Jesus ever says to them. And then I read John 15 again.
And as you read through John 15, you find there’s some interesting imagery in it. It’s the image of a vineyard, and it’s the image of God the Father being the vinedresser or the gardener, and then you have the trellis and on the trellis then you really have the trunk, and then from the trunk you have the core vine where the life goes through, and then you have branches that hang down.
And those of you have ever been in a vineyard probably know much more about this than I do. But as you study carefully, what goes on in a vineyard, you realize that lots happens. If the branches get too close to the ground, they get dirty and they can’t get the sunlight. And, so, they need to be lifted up and they’ll often be lifted up and they’ll be tied.
At other times, they start growing and there’s leaves everywhere and you have to go in and prune just like you would a tree so that the energy and the life source doesn’t go to all the leaves but it goes to building up of the fruit.
And as I was sitting there in that closet, I was reading it over, reading it over and I realized that I was really missing the boat in the Christian life. See, it feels so much like love when you do “a lot for God,” and people give you a lot of strokes and they tell you how wonderful you are; that you can go on little sleep, you can get priorities out of line, and you can be busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, really busy, busy, busy Christians, that are not very fruitful.
Because the only way you can produce fruit that lasts, is when your heart, and your life, and your relationship, with Jesus is your first priority and He is producing supernatural fruit through you.
And as I read over John 15, probably another four or five times, I realized I didn’t have anything to say because I was not connected to the vine. Was I a Christian? Of course. Was I even reading the Bible? Of course. Was I praying as best I could? Yes, but at a superficial level. As soon as I had to get a little bit honest, as soon as it got really hard, I was so busy I never had time to pray deeply, to be still and know that He was God.
And I remember going to that rally that night and I taught on John 15 and it was more of a confession than it was a teaching. And I just shared my experience and we walked through the text, and that became the foundation for, literally, the next future of my life in ministry and I decided: I don’t know what I’m going to do but I don’t think getting busy for God is the goal. I think my relationship with Christ; my own personal, devotional life, my own heart has to be the number one priority if I’m going to bear much fruit.
And before we walk into the text we ought to ask ourselves, “What’s fruit? What do you mean by that?” Well, in Galatians 5, we know that the fruit of the Spirit, what the Spirit produces is love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control. We also know that Jesus uses the term, “fruit” when He talks about people coming to Christ and impact and the kingdom expanding.
And we know from this passage that when He talks about “fruit,” whatever “fruit” is, it’s what glorifies God. But if you pull it back from the theological realm, fruit, honestly, whether it’s on a branch or whether it’s on a tree or whether it’s on a plant that’s vegetables – fruit is the thing that the tree was designed to produce.
No one looks at an apple tree, and looks at huge limbs and it’s forty feet tall, and has absolutely no apples and says, “Now there’s a great apple tree!” The goal, if you’re a farmer, is what? The fruit!
And I want to remind you, as a fellow believer, God’s goal for your life is not your busyness, not your activity, not what you do for Him, but it’s fruit. It’s impact. It’s that your life, your heart, your character, is supernaturally transformed in such a way that people actually see Christ in you.
Remember, early in Acts? Peter and John are out preaching, Acts chapter 4, I think it’s about verse 13. And the religious leaders said they recognized these men as being with Jesus because even though they were uneducated and untrained, they had this power, and this boldness, and this wisdom.
See, God wants to produce in you what you don’t have in yourself. And the way it happens is abiding.
Open your Bibles or if you’re there, let’s walk through the text. But I want you to notice key words, even before I get there. No fruit, fruit, more fruit, much fruit is the progression. Key word, if you’re in the NIV, it’s, “remain, remain, remain, remain, remain.” If you’re in the New American Standard or King James, it’s “abide, abide, abide, abide, abide.”
And then as you come to the end, the goal, verse 8, is that you glorify God and it all begins with your relationship with Him. Let’s walk through the text and let’s talk about how you move from no fruit to much fruit.
“I am the 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 that it may bear more fruit.”
And then He says to His disciples, “You are already clean because of the Word, which I have spoken to you.” Put a little line under this phrase, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away.” Interesting Greek word: takes away.
Actually, the NIV says, “cuts off,” not a good translation. Dwight Pentecost does an extremely good job in his book talking about the life and words of Jesus.
And this word is used multiple times in the New Testament. It can mean, “take away,” but it’s not “take away” as in “chopping off.” It means “take away” as in “lifting up.”
Notice this is not – many people have used this passage to read like this: “I am the vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit,” in other words, you’re not making a difference for Christ, your life isn’t changing, “He cuts off,” or, “takes away.” He kicks you out of the family.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. What’s it say? It’s every branch “in Me.” He’s talking to who? Not the world. He’s talking to His closest disciples. And Judas has already left the room.
If you are a Christian and you are not bearing fruit; your life is not reflecting the life of Christ; God is not using you to impact His kingdom; you are caught up with you, we’ve all been there, right? Your priorities, your energy, your time – the fact of the matter is, you don’t read the Bible hardly at all, you don’t pray deeply at all, your morality does not line up with what you say you believe, you are not producing fruit. In fact, there would be little evidence to convict you if a courtroom said, “Are you a Christian?” Not a lot of evidence but you’re really in the family.
How does God respond? How does He produce fruit? He takes away. Literally, you’re one of those branches that’s down in the dirt. You’re one of those branches that’s not getting any sunlight.
And what would happen is the dust would cover the branch and it can’t produce any fruit. And so what Jesus is saying the vinedresser, that He is going to lift up the branch, they will either tie it, or pull it up and stick it, so it gets off the ground, and they’ll wipe off the leaves.
This is a picture of what God does for every child, at some time in your life. It’s called discipline. Jot down, next to this verse in your Bible: Hebrews chapter 12:5 through 11.
The Scripture says that when you’re a legitimate son or a legitimate daughter, there will be times in your life, because you’re like me and you’re like all of Israel, and you’re like the rest of the people in Scripture, that God will let you know, “This is what I want you to do,” and for whatever reason – fear, anxiety, unwillingness, flat out rebellion – you say, “No! I’m not going to do it. I’m going to live my own way! Hey, I know this relationship is wrong but I’m going to live this way. I know You want me to do this with my time but I’m going to do it this way. I know my money belongs over here but I’m going to do it this way. I know I need to step in and confront my child but it’s going to be too painful, I’m going to do it this way. I know I need to tell the truth on every sales transaction but I’m going to do it this way.”
When you know what’s right, and are not doing it, when you are not in the Scriptures, when you’re not praying from the heart, you’re not bearing fruit, God will lift you up. And what He’ll do is, He will bring circumstances, and people, and adversity into your life, to brush off the dust off your leaves, and He will do it lovingly, and He will lift you up, and then He’ll tie you in a place where you can get sunlight, so that you can begin to produce fruit.
And, if you study Hebrews 5 there, Hebrews 12:5 through 11, He says that every son who is legitimate will be disciplined. In fact, one of the evidences that you’re really in God’s family is when you get a little discipline.
But notice in that passage, if you’re there, it’s out of love. He summarizes it in verse 11. He says, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields a peaceful,” – ready for our word? “fruit of righteousness.”
Jesus is saying to His disciples just before He leaves: There are times in your life when you’re not going to bear fruit. And when you don’t bear fruit, I love you so much, I am going to come, tenderly, and I am going to lift you up. And that means you’re going to lie, and you may be cheating, and you may have misplaced priorities. I’m not just going to away and say, “Well, you know, forget you.
those who are genuine believers, He will begin to exert pressure in your life and in my life because He loves you so much until you cry, “uncle.” When there is no fruit, God will enter you into a school of discipline.
And He will do it through your finances, He will do it through your kids, He’ll do it in your marriage, He’ll do it through your relationships, He will do it through your work. And here’s what it says over, and over, and over. You might jot down 1 Corinthians 11. This isn’t something new. In the Early Church, it got so bad that there was a group of people who, they came and they had these agape or these love feasts, where they would celebrate the Lord’s Supper and have a big worship service.
People were actually getting drunk in the worship services, and some were coming early and they wouldn’t share their food with the people that were poor. The apostle Paul, at the end of that chapter will say, “Because of that lack of fruit, the lack of evidence, the lack of relationships, some are sick and some are even dying prematurely.”
See, God loves us and He’s telling His followers, “I’m committed to you producing fruit.” Love, peace, impact, and transformation. “If you don’t,” He says, “I’m going to lift you up.” Now, He says to these fellows, “You’re already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you. You are in vital relationship with Me right now.” Now He says, “Well, how do you continue that? Abide in Me – remain,” the word means “to hear God’s Word for the purpose of putting it into practice.” That’s all “abide” means.
I understand what it is, I’m going to act on it, and do what I know. My heart is His. I’m responsive to the Spirit’s prompting. I’m taking in spiritual nourishment, I’m giving back worship. I’m responding to what God shows me.
In my house, this is the way it works. There are times, I don’t even know what’s wrong, and I’ll just look at Theresa and I’ll say, “Um, you know, maybe it’s just body language or maybe I said something but what I can feel is we’re not really connected.”
To abide means you’re connected. It doesn’t mean everything is always going great, it doesn’t mean you have ooey-gooey feelings all the time, but it means you’re on the same page.
What He says here is, “Abide in Me, and I abide in you. As the branch,” here’s a fact, “cannot bear fruit of itself; unless you abide in Me, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” Then He says, “I am the vine;” I am the source, “you are the branches. He who abides in Me and I in him, he bears,” notice, “much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
As you study this carefully, we move from lifting up to a branch that’s bearing fruit, what’s He do? He prunes it.
Theresa will tell you that when I prune, man, I go nuts. We have a fruitless mulberry tree in our backyard. About every two years, Theresa will say something like, “You know, we really need to address this.” And, so, I say, “Okay.” And I get the saw out and when I get done it looks like it’s been butchered. In fact, it got so bad we had a pro come in a couple times and when he did it, it looked like we just had a stub with about four or five little things and I thought, “I thought I was bad. This guy must be nuts.” In three months, it was completely covered with greenery.
Pruning is God moving into your life and cutting away superficial priorities, and anything you’re trusting in other than Him, that is decreasing the level of relationship and abiding in your heart and life.