A close walk with Jesus

Sometimes we can be surprised by the kind of things theologians say that seem to resonate with us. We might expect them to be profound insights into a particular doctrine; but, more often than not, it is because of a different kind of profundity. One example is the story of Karl Barth’s being asked during a conference Q&A Session what the deepest truth he had learned in all his study of theology had been. To which he replied, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so…’

I well remember a similar instance when we invited Prof Donald Macleod to deliver a series of theological lectures in my first church in Ireland. He gave us many wonderful insights into the topics he covered that week; but the one comment that stood out and stuck with many of us was this: ‘There is no substitute for a close walk with Jesus!’

At face value it sounds like one of those axioms that is too obvious to have to state; but like so many such truths, it needs to be flagged up repeatedly because we forget it so easily. And, even though it may sound like a statement that is more about experience than biblical dogma, we know from Scripture that genuine Christian experience is intimately bound up with the truths that shape and direct it.

Indeed, it is something that is especially relevant to those whose calling is bound up with the study and dissemination of doctrine. Because, as many of us know only too well, we can easily fall into the trap of handling these great truths in a way that is dry and clinical. We treat them with academic detachment and fail to be thrilled to the core of our being by the sheer glory of what has been entrusted to us.

So, what did Prof Macleod mean when he spoke of ‘a close walk with Jesus’? It certainly echoes the language of the first Psalm where David speaks of life as one of two ‘walks’ through life – in ‘the way of the wicked’ or ‘the way of the righteous’. Jesus picks up on this language when he spoke of the broad and narrow roads as the only two alternatives as to the route we follow and fellowship we embrace on life’s journey. Two roads that are ultimately defined by their point of entry – the wide or narrow gate – and the very different destinations to which they lead. But even more telling is the fact that Jesus identifies himself as the ‘gate’ that opens into the narrow road that leads to life. And, to press home the point that he is our perfect travelling companion along the way, he assures his disciples, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (He 13.5).

The imagery is evocative. It immediately challenges our innate fear of the loneliness in the Christian life – especially through the dark valleys and painful experiences that so often seem to obstruct our path. However, there is far more to this than simply knowing that Christ is near. It points to the depth and intimacy of our communion with Christ as the key to our growth in grace and usefulness along the way.

Jesus uses what seems like a completely different metaphor to press home what this looks like and where it leads. In the Upper Room discourse, when he spoke of himself as being ‘the true vine’ and his disciples as its branches (Jn 15.1-2), he went on to speak about the vital importance of their ‘abiding in him’ (Jn 15.3-5) – rounding off with the words, ‘for apart from me you can do nothing.’

He is pressing home to his followers the fact that union and communion with Christ go hand in hand. To be joined to him in saving union by faith and through his Spirit entitles us to every spiritual blessing that God the Father has promised. But it is only through our communion with Christ that we begin to enter into those blessings and experience them in ever-increasing fulness through our fellowship with him. That is, as we grow in the knowledge and love of our Saviour and we learn to lean more fully upon him, we discover that he is the One who strengthens and enables us for each step of the way. And even when the road seems fraught with difficulties and we feel as though our progress is slow, we look back and realise he has sustained us and helped us to grow through the pain and frustration.

Jesus also shows us how we cultivate this communion in practice. Abiding in Christ is bound up with our abiding in his word and in his love revealed in his word (Jn 15.3, 7-10). And it was this that Donald Macleod very much had in mind when he spoke of there being no substitute for ‘a close walk with Jesus’. We draw near to him and enjoy his presence and help day by day, not through some kind of mystical experience; but through savouring his word. As we are exposed to it each Lord’s Day when it is read in public and proclaimed when the church gathers for worship, it is Christ himself who engages with us by his Spirit. Likewise, as we cultivate the daily discipline of Scripture reading and prayer, so Christ uses these means to commune with us and equip us for the journey.

Time and effort invested in these God-given means of grace are actually an investment in Christ himself. We cannot afford to neglect the privilege and blessing this entails.

Mark Johnston