The Most Important Spiritual Principle of the Christian Faith

By Pastor Bill Klein

            I have been involved in ministry for more than forty years and have always been motivated by the conviction that an extensive study of the Bible is necessary in order to properly present the Word of God; yet even as I started my quest to find truth and insight into the complexities of Scripture, I sensed I was missing something—something that applied to everything I studied.  It was an elusive truth that I was unable to grasp or even define, and the Lord was not revealing it to me. Finally, after many years of research and teaching, this spiritual principle was made clear to me.  It has since shaped my understanding and brought the teachings of Scripture into proper focus.

            The Gospel of John presents five chapters (13-17) of the Lord’s discourse with His disciples during the Passover week in which He was crucified: Jesus teaches His disciples about the coming of God’s Spirit after His ascension; He reflects on the various circumstances He has led them through; and then, in John 15, He reveals the most important spiritual principle of the Christian faith, so called because the meanings of all other biblical teachings are anchored in this simple truth.    

            John 15 records the Lord’s teaching on the vine and the branches.  In it He makes three points applying to disciples and their relationship with Him: The branch must abide in the vine in order for the branch to produce fruit (v4); The branch that is abiding in the vine “is producing fruit” (v5a-presented in the original language as a factual statement); “Separate from me, you are unable to do one thing.”  This last point is the essential truth I had been seeking.

            This truth—that separate from the Lord, we are unable to do one thing— is the foundational lesson the Lord is revealing to His disciples prior to His crucifixion and resurrection.  He puts them in circumstances designed for God’s Spirit to accomplish something through them, not for the disciples to accomplish anything in their own efforts.  Their three year journey with Jesus is a revelation that, separate from Him, they are not able to do even one spiritual thing.  However, without understanding the spiritual purpose behind His tests, the disciples give their best efforts to meet the challenges the Lord gives them.

            A good example of this is the feeding of the 5,000. (John 6:5-14)  Jesus, His disciples, and a crowd of hungry people are on a mountainside.  Jesus says to Philip, “From where shall we buy bread, in order that these might eat?” (v5).  The next verse tells us, “But this He was saying testing him; for He Himself knew what He was about to do.”  After the disciples run out of human resources to handle the situation, they come back and explain to the Lord that they do not have enough money or food to feed the people.  The Lord then tells them to have the people sit down and proceeds to use the disciples as vessels to distribute His provision for the situation.  This is a teaching session that one day would serve to form their approach to life—that they must acknowledge their own inability to do God’s work for Him, and must instead submit themselves and their circumstances to the Lord for Him to work His will through them.

            One of the greatest examples of this involves Peter’s confession that he will not deny the Lord and will die with Him if necessary.  Peter proclaims this in spite of the fact that Jesus has told Peter that he will deny Him three times.  It is evident that the Lord’s statement is one of fact and that He is not chiding Peter for his lack of faith, because Jesus then says, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  (Luke 22:32)  The Lord knows this test will humble and break Peter, better preparing him as His vessel. That is exactly what happens, because after Peter denies the Lord three times, he looks into the eyes of Jesus and weeps bitterly.  (Luke 22:62) 

            Peter is a broken man, but broken people are those the Lord is able use.  After He is raised from the dead, Jesus appears to the disciples and reinstates Peter with the encouragement to, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21)  The evidence that Peter has learned the most important lesson of his life is recorded in Acts 3:12.   Peter says to the crowds (on Solomon’s porch in the temple, after the lame man has been healed), “Men, Israelites, why do you marvel over this?  Or why do you look intently to us as if by our own power or godliness this man has been made to walk?”  Peter has definitely learned that separate from the Lord, he is not able to do one spiritual thing for the Lord.

            This is not a new principle in God’s kingdom.  God was bringing this message to His people back in the days of Isaiah, Zechariah, and Solomon.  Isaiah 64:6 records the confession of God’s people, “And we all have become as one unclean, and all our righteousness as a filthy rag, and we all wither as a leaf and our iniquities carry us away like the wind.”  This confession, that their righteousness is as a filthy rag, is the foundation of many of Paul’s teachings.  When Zerubbabel is sent back to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, God gives him a message through Zechariah as to how God’s temple work is to be done: “This is the word of Yahweh to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by strength and not by power but rather by My Spirit,’ Yahweh of hosts has said.” (Zechariah 4:6)  God’s message is clear; His work is to be done by His Spirit and not by the strength and power of man.  In Psalm 127:1, Solomon declares, “If Yahweh does not build a house, its builders labor on it in vain; If Yahweh does not guard a city, the watchman keeps watch in vain.”  This makes it clear that unless the Lord does the work, people labor in vain.

            This principle is carried over into the New Testament, as seen in the discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus. (John 3:1-13)  Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is necessary for a person to be born anew in order to see the kingdom of heaven.  Looking for confirmation that Jesus is not talking about experiencing a second physical birth, Nicodemus replies, “How is a man able to be born being old?  He is not able to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (v4)  Jesus then says, “That which has been born from out of the flesh is flesh; and that which has been born from out of the Spirit is spirit.” (v6).  Jesus is confirming that God’s Spirit alone can bring about a spiritual birth and that the most a human being can produce is flesh.  Therefore, even if a person’s human effort is an attempt to do the work of the Lord, its result is still fleshly and not of the Spirit.

            This is reinforced by three commands the Lord presents regarding those desiring to be His disciples: “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)  The Greek word used for deny is aparneomai (Strong’s #533), which means “to deny, to disown, to reject.”  After receiving Christ, a believer’s flesh still functions with its feelings and desires; but the Lord states that the believer must deny or reject his/her flesh in order to follow Him.  The believer must also take up his cross, the death that Jesus died for him/her, and follow behind the Lord.

            As stated earlier, Paul understands this principle and uses it when he explains the struggle he is having in his efforts to obey the Law of God. (Romans 7)  His conclusion is, “For I know that there is not dwelling in me (my flesh) any good thing; for to will is present with me, but how to work out that which is right I do not find.” (v18)  He concludes saying, “And the ones being in the flesh are not able to please God.” (Romans 8:8)  Paul’s conclusion is that there is not any good thing in his flesh and that with the flesh it is impossible to please God.  He also uses this understanding to minister to some of the churches wherein believing Jews are teaching that believing Gentiles must follow the Law.  He says, “This only I wish to learn from you, did you receive the Spirit from out of the works of the Law, or from out of the hearing of faith?  Thus are you senseless?  After having begun in Spirit, are you now being perfected in flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3)  He says again, “As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Him.” (Colossians 2:6)  Paul is teaching that since we receive the Spirit of God by faith, our walk with God’s Spirit is not made complete by the flesh.  

            Since the Word of God clearly establishes that flesh cannot produce the spiritual things of God, what then is the believer’s response and responsibility?  It is expressed in one concept, decision making.  This starts at salvation with repentance.  The word repentance in Scripture is the translation of the Greek word metanoeo (Strong’s #334), which means “to make a decision for change.”  The meaning also carries with it the acknowledgment that the one making the decision for change cannot change him/herself.  Therefore, repentance means that a person arrives at a point in life when he/she makes a decision to change, but it is the Spirit who makes the actual change and produces a new creation.  (II Corinthians 5:17) 

            After receiving the Spirit of Christ, a believer is to serve the Lord.  Paul writes, “Therefore I appeal to you, brothers, through the compassions of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, well-pleasing to God, whom you serve with your reasoning process.”  (Romans 12:1)  The word translated reasonable or spiritual in most English translations is from the Greek word logizomai (Strong’s #3049), which represents a person’s reasoning process, those things passing through a believer’s mind as he/she is thinking things through.  Therefore, Paul is describing the process of a believer who reasons things out, then subsequently comes to a decision to present his/her body as a living sacrifice, in every situation of life.  This is why, in verse 2, Paul uses the present passive imperative to convey the understanding that a believer should not be being conformed by this world, but should be being transformed by the renewing of his/her mind, in order to prove what the will of the Lord is. 

            In summary, spiritual maturity is represented by two words: ADMIT and SUBMIT— admit your inability to do any spiritual thing for Christ; and then submit life and body to Him for His Spirit to use for His glory.  Perhaps envisioning your life as a boat (a prop that Jesus often used) will enhance an understanding of this concept.  Any person can direct his/her boat by using its motor, whether against the current, into the wind, to the east, to the west, etc.  But things must change when one comes face to face with Christ—because He asks that you shut down the motor and hoist the sail, in order that the wind of God’s Spirit can take you where He wants you to go and do with you what He wants to do.  In my own life, there have been many times when I have been cruising along, motor off, sail up, only to see a storm gathering on the horizon.  Seeking to get away, I have lowered the sail and started the engine; but then found myself fighting against God—because there are definitely times when He sends His people into storms.  Now I keep a small sailboat perched above my computer as a reminder to keep the engine off and the sail up

            This truth does not appeal to Christians who are following how-to-do-it books or those being taught to serve the Lord with their best efforts, laboring under the teaching that Jesus has ascended into heaven and left us to do His work for Him until He comes back.  This false philosophy is spreading through the Body of Christ like never before, being propagated by ministers who see the Lord as having challenged the disciples to produce spiritual fruit, something that scripture clearly contradicts.  However, the sad fact is that many contemporary churches and ministries are praying for and expecting revival while bringing worldly ideas and programs into the church.  This may make logical sense to us, given the culture in which we live, but the Word of God teaches differently.  Revival will not happen until we stop trying in the flesh to bring it about.  Consider the Book of Acts. The disciples of the early Church do not know anything except dependence upon the Lord.  Jesus tells them who they will be, what they will do, and where they will go after the Holy Spirit comes upon them. (Acts 1:8)  In submission, they go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do: They wait in Jerusalem and receive the Holy Spirit; The Holy Spirit, working miracles through them according to the sovereignty of God, testifies to the truth of their witness; They begin in Jerusalem and eventually are scattered to the farthest places of the earth.  The Lord’s every word is accomplished by the power of the Spirit; nothing is attributed to the efforts of any disciple.  This is His work, not ours.  We have only to be His surrendered servants.                                       

Please note that all Biblical quotes are from The Literal English Translation of the Bible produced by BTE Ministries – The Bible Translation and Exegesis Institute of America.