Today’s question is from a listener named Jon. Jon writes, “Hello, Pastor John. Recently, out of curiosity, I read a ‘name it and claim it’ book. In it, John 15:7 resurfaced over and over again. It’s the place where Jesus tells his followers, ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’ It’s a bold and open-ended promise. Based on this promise, the book said Christians should not be timid but boldly name and claim ‘whatever you wish,’ and it will be done for those who ask in faith. Is such a worldview theologically sound? Is it biblical? How do you respond to the ‘name it and claim it’ theology? And how should we understand Jesus’s promise?”
My guess is that Christians who blow off such promises — like “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” — have an uneasy conscience that they’re not really taking Jesus seriously; something is amiss. And my guess is that those who build their whole approach to prayer and life around that promise, as if any failure to get what we wish is owing to a failure of obedience on our part, also have an uneasy conscience that they really are taking seriously other parts of the Bible that call such a view into question.
So, I don’t want to treat Jesus’s words as though they were not a radical call to go beyond where I, or we, presently are in our experience of prayer. I want to get closer into the heart of Christ than I’ve ever been. And I don’t want to treat the totality of Scripture — not just that verse, but the totality of Scripture — as though this were the only verse, and a few like it, a handful of verses like that, which inform the way I think about answers to prayer.
When His Words Abide
Let’s look more closely, just for a moment, at John 15:7 and see how unqualified it is.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
So, the big condition is this: Do Jesus’s words abide in you? What words in particular of Jesus, by abiding in us, would shape our prayer life — how we pray and what we expect when we pray? What’s he talking about? What do you mean your words abide in us and thus become the condition of the answer to this prayer?
“If Jesus’s words abide in you, then they will govern how you formulate your wishes.”
Take, for example — this is probably the most urgent one for most of us — praying for lost people to be saved: family members or friends. Jesus said in John 6:37 (these are his words; “if . . . my words abide in you”), “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” And then in John 17:6, Jesus says, “Yours they were, and you gave them to me.” In other words, according to the words of Jesus that are to abide in us and become the shaping and the governing of our praying, God the Father has chosen a people for himself. They belong to him before they come to Jesus. Then the Father sovereignly gives them to Jesus:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65).
They hear his voice when the gospel is preached, and they come to Jesus. No one comes apart from the Father’s drawing, because they already belong to the Father, and he brings his own sheep to the Shepherd. So, we don’t ultimately decide who will be saved by our wishing. God decides; God ultimately decides who will believe and be saved, and who will not. That is really clear in the Gospel of John.
God Has a Sovereign Plan
Nevertheless, we are called to go and bear fruit in evangelism. That’s the context in John 15. And we’re to do it by prayer: prayer has to do with fruit-bearing in John 15:7. But now we know that the words of Jesus, abiding in us, inform us and shape us so that we do not pretend to be God, as though we can dictate, by our wishes, who will be saved and who will not be saved (“ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”), by wishing that people be saved and then asking that people be saved, as though we had the final and ultimate say.
God decides ultimately who will be saved — not ultimately our wishing. And it’s Jesus himself — not John Piper, not any theologian, but Jesus himself — in his own words abiding in us, who prevents us from thinking that way about prayer. So, this seemingly unqualified promise is not unqualified, because it says that if Jesus’s words abide in you, then they will govern how you formulate your wishes as to who will come to God in prayer, through prayer.
In Gethsemane, Jesus, because God’s word was abiding in him, formulated his prayers like this: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). God’s words were abiding in Jesus. He knew from the Father that God had a sovereign plan. And so, he submitted his will to God’s will in his praying. That’s what happens when the word of Jesus abides in us: it governs our thinking about praying, and it keeps us from thinking that we are God and that we have the final say about how to run the universe by our wishes, or that we determine who will be ultimately saved by our wishes.
At the Appointed Time
So, let me point to just a few other texts that confirm that we need to be very careful not to treat “whatever you wish . . . will be done for you” without qualifying it with the words of Jesus abiding in us.
For example, Paul’s prayers for his kinsmen in Romans 10:1: He wished that his kinsmen would be saved. He’d be willing to lay down his eternal life for them in Romans 9:2–3. And then it says in 10:1 that he prays for them that they would be saved — even though most of them are, in fact, not saved and not going to be saved, because he says “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
Or consider 1 John 5:14–15: “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” God’s sovereign will shapes how we pray.
Or consider the ministry of Jesus and how few people he raised from the dead: three. And we read again and again how many he healed, but he didn’t heal all. Did he not want people to be raised from the dead? Did he not want all people to be healed? Well, in a sense he did. He is a God of love; he doesn’t enjoy seeing people suffer. But he didn’t heal everybody and didn’t raise everybody. Why? Because God’s words abided in him so that he knew this was not the time for the general resurrection from the dead. There’s a certain timing for when things will happen, and it isn’t now.
“Keep on asking, keep on trusting that God is at work doing great things.”
Or consider the difference between the faith that all of us have who are Christians, and the gift of faith in 1 Corinthians 12:9. The gift of faith, gift of miracles, gift of healings, these all imply that some people are able to ask for things and receive them in a special way, a more effective way, a more consistent way, than the rest of us. Otherwise the gift would make no sense. We’d all have it — if you took John 15:7 that way. And there are many, many other passages in the Bible that we could point to like this.
Keep on Asking
Perhaps the bottom-line counsel for us would be this (I’m quoting William Carey): “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” — and submit everything to God.
Keep on asking, keep on trusting that he is at work doing great things, good things for you, in this world, whether you can see it fully or not. And that it is owing significantly to your praying. Jon Bloom wrote an article on this. He says, “Jesus really means for us to move mountains (Mark 11:23). But we are meant to move the mountains God wants moved.”