Reviewed by Aimee Byrd
How does one abide in Christ? We read a passage like John 15:5, “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,” and our desire is to bear much fruit as one who abides in Christ.
While this is God’s will for every Christian, I am afraid that many have gotten the wrong idea about what that looks like. The popularity of the book Jesus Calling suggests that numerous Christians believe that our abiding involves receiving a special message from Jesus and feeling his presence, which leads to experiencing his peace. But is this what Scripture teaches?
I mention this because Stanley Gale’s book, A Vine-Ripened Life is a great book to recommend in place of Jesus Calling. Identifying bad doctrine is important, but we also need to be able to offer something better to people who are attracted to such books.
We have a pretty personal message from Jesus in John 15. And there is some good news here. Those who abide in Christ will bear much fruit. One of these fruits is the peace that many who read Jesus Calling are after. But Gale doesn’t need extra messages from Jesus to learn about abiding in him. He goes straight to the Word already given to us, and shares all of the rich teaching about the fruit that we will bear as we abide in Christ.
A Vine-Ripened Life is a pastoral book. Gale writes with a gentle tone, using personal examples and practical illustrations to accompany his teaching. The focus of each chapter isn’t primarily the fruits of the Christian life, but the Vine, Jesus Christ. In his first chapter Gale asserts, “If we come away from this study without a deeper knowledge of Christ and more profound dependence upon Him, we have missed the point” (6). And this is what he delivers.
Gale begins by discussing this fruit that we are to produce and how it is that we actually grow. The fruit of the Spirit that we find in Scripture is presented as both a noun and a verb. “For each of the nouns listed in Galatians 5:22-23, we can find corresponding verbs elsewhere: to love, to rejoice, to exercise peace, to be patient, and to be kind and forgiving” (8). And yet we cannot produce our own fruit. “’Fruit of the Spirit’ is shorthand for God’s handiwork of grace to conform us to Christ” (5). This business of living and walking “in the Spirit” is not about taking a stroll and receiving private messages from Jesus. But we do pursue Christ in his Word and in prayer, and as we abide in this way, fruit is cultivated in the community of God’s people.
My favorite chapter was the one on the fruit of patience. This is a fruit that I feel all too often that I’m lacking. I benefited greatly from Gale’s definition, which like the other chapters of fruit, pointed me straight to Christ: “The heart of patience is not tolerance, not even perseverance. It is just what we see in our Lord Jesus, who regarded others more important than Himself” (72). The fruit of patience is the Christ-like attribute of humility, “driven by love.” As I read Gale’s contrasts between patience and impatience, I was both seriously convicted of my own selfishness and happily encouraged for what I am becoming. I now have a much better biblical understanding of how I grow in patience. Gale leveled it out for me when he gave the bottom line that “the nature patience is a willingness to suffer” (74).
This chapter on “The Leaven of Patience” ends with a great Pink Panther illustration. Inspector Clouseau’s servant, Cato, delivered daily, ambush surprise attacks to keep his boss sharp and aware. Gale remarked, “our lives are filled of Cato-encounters, those events that spring up to test our patience”(78). Immediately, I thought of my most recent “Cato-encounter:” I came home to discover that my dog tangled herself in my laptop cord, flinging it from the bar it was sitting on to the hardwood floors. This random event totally blew my hard drive. A writer’s hard drive. A writer who isn’t technologically savvy enough to have back up to her back up. And a writer who is really bad at keeping track of the million different passwords she has.
But a funny thing happened. I was pretty calm about it, surprising even myself. I remember being in prayer later and thanking God for a new patience he had produced in me, one that trusted his providence and believed his ways are better than whatever I am cooking up on my own. It was very encouraging because I know that I still have a long road of growing in patience. But in his grace, God has revealed some of the fruit that he is producing. I have plenty of Cato-encounters that reveal my lack of patience, so this is one that I treasure. And thanks to Gale, I will be using the term “Cato-encounter” up and down and around town.
I share some of the dialogue I was having in my own mind while reading Gale’s book because this is a real strength in his writing. The chapters are biblical, Christ-glorifying, practical, and can easily be used as daily devotionals. My only critique is that although there were some lines interspersed throughout the book about how the fruit we bear benefits the whole church and that we do not abide as individuals, I would have loved a whole chapter dedicated to the importance of the context of the covenantal community of the church with emphasis on the preached Word and means of grace which are such an essential part of abiding in Christ and in which God produces spiritual fruit. It would have fit in well right after his excellent chapter, “My Father, the Gardener.”
The thing is, we don’t need to hear some vague, personal message from Christ to feel loved by him and abide in him. We need to be growing in the Word he has already revealed to us in Scripture. And he promises that we will bear much fruit if we abide in him. That’s why I suggest The Vine-Ripened Life as a much more rich and edifying alternative to a book like Jesus Calling.
Aimee Byrd is a wife and mother of three and the author of Housewife Theologian. She is also the “Residing Housewife Theologian” here at Books At a Glance.