What is the most urgent need in the church of the Western world today? That’s the question that Don Carson poses at the beginning of his new book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation. It’s a good question to pose at the beginning of the New Year.
Is it the need for purity in sexual matters, he asks, in a culture obsessed with sex at almost every turn? Is it integrity and generosity in the financial arena where the “raw worship of Mammon has become so bold, so outrageous, so pervasive in the Western world during the last ten years that many of us are willing to do almost anything — including sacrificing our children — provided we can buy more” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 13)?
Is the most urgent need more evangelism and church growth — when careful studies show that perhaps four percent of those who make decisions at major crusades are persevering with Christ five years later, and when the increase of church attendance is accompanied by no increase in holiness?
Is the most urgent need disciplined, biblical thinking and strong biblical scholarship, when many students and faculty in seminaries and colleges and universities have an extraordinarily shallow knowledge of God, in spite of all their academic work?
Carson does not belittle any of these needs, but says, “There is a sense in which these urgent needs are merely symptomatic of a far more serious lack. The one thing we most urgently need in Western Christendom is a deeper knowledge of God. We need to know God better” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 15).
Prayer as a Foundational Step in Knowing God
Then he says that prayer is one of the foundational steps in knowing God — “spiritual, persistent, biblically-minded prayer.”
He thinks that we have become so good at other things that we have forgotten how to pray: “We have learned how to organize, build institutions, publish books, insert ourselves into the media, develop evangelistic strategies, and administer discipleship programs, but we have forgotten how to pray” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 16).
Several years ago at a North American Seminary, fifty students planning to go overseas in ministry for the summer were interviewed for their suitability. Only three — six percent — could testify to regular quiet times of reading the Bible and devoting themselves to prayer. We assume that our pastors and missionaries are the models — we would be shocked I am afraid.
J.I. Packer wrote about his own pilgrimage in prayer and commented, “I believe that prayer is the measure of the man, spiritually, in a way that nothing else is, so that how we pray is as important a question as we can ever face” (My Path of Prayer, 56).
The Reforming Power of the Word
Carson’s aim in his book is to see our prayer life transformed and, through that, our experiential knowledge of God deepened. He realizes that the main reforming power is the word of God, and so he designs his book as a meditation on the prayers of Paul.
There is good biblical reason for this approach. It’s the same biblical reason that I have chosen the two sermons for Prayer Week to be based on John 15:7. Jesus said to his disciples,
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.
The text has two halves, one for this Sunday and one for next Sunday. The first half is, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you.” And the second half is, “ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” The first half is the condition for the second half. There is an “if-then” connection. If you abide in me and my words abide in you . . . then ask and it will be done.” The condition for powerful praying is that we abide in Jesus and his words abide in us.
“Without personal communion with God in prayer we will not really know him, but only know about him.”
So this week I want to talk about the condition, the if clause — especially the words of Jesus abiding in us — and next week about the result, the then clause — praying with powerful effect.
I think Carson is right that the great need of the hour is to know God more deeply and personally and more biblically. And I agree that study and thinking is crucial, but that without personal communion with God in prayer we will not really know him, but only know about him.
My Desire and God’s Desire for the Church
And so I want Bethlehem to be utterly devoted to prayer — private prayer, small group prayer, congregational prayer, extraordinary times of prayer, prayer and fasting, adoring prayer, repenting prayer, requesting prayer, prevailing prayer, healing prayer, authentic prayer. If this is the soil in which biblical truth is continually preached and taught, then we will know God — not just know about God.
And this is not just my desire for Bethlehem. It is God’s desire. I felt this afresh a couple weeks ago when I read these words of God in Isaiah 56:7:
[The foreigners] I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
God means for the house of his dwelling to be a house of prayer for all peoples. And he means to make his people — including foreigners who trust him — joyful in his house of prayer. He means for prayer to be mainly a joyful business.
So on top of everything else that comes with a deeper life of prayer, you can add joy — “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.”
What Does It Mean for Jesus’s Words to Abide in Us?
According to our text, John 15:7, if we are to become what God wants us to be in our praying, we must let the words of Jesus abide in us. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.”
The words of Jesus must abide in us if our prayers are to be effective. What then does this mean, and how are we to do it? What should your plan for 1993 include if you want your prayers to be what Jesus describes in John 15:7?
Letting Jesus Abide in Us Through His Words
The best way to see what it means for the words of Jesus to abide in us is to look at verses 4 and 5 in this chapter. In verse 4 Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you.” The result will be that you bear fruit. In verse 5 Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in me, and I in him, he bears much fruit.” Again we see the pair: Abide in me and I in you. We abide in Jesus and he abides in us. Both are connected to fruit-bearing.
Then in verse 7, instead of using the pair, “If you abide in me and I in you,” Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you.” I think the point of this change is to let us see practically how we let Jesus abide in us, namely, by letting his words abide in us. “If you abide in me, and I abide in you,” is explained partly by, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you.” We let Jesus abide in us, as we let his words abide in us.
Letting Jesus Abide in Us Speaking
But this also sheds light on what it means for the words of Jesus to abide in us. Letting the words of Jesus abide in us means letting Jesus abide in us speaking. It means that we welcome Jesus into our lives and make room for him to live, not as a silent guest with no opinions or commands, but as an authoritative guest whose opinions matter more to us than anyone else’s and whose commands are the law of our life.
Christ abiding in us is interchangeable with his words abiding in us because Christ never comes without his authoritative views on things. To have him abiding is to have all his views abiding in us. If he abides, his views abide. If he abides, his priorities abide. If he abides, his principles abide. If he abides, his promises abide. If he abides, his commandments abide. In short, if/when Christ abides in us, his words abide in us.
Seeking the Words of Jesus as Living Words
What that means for letting the words of Jesus abide in us is that we do not just read the Bible, and do not just memorize and meditate on the Bible, and do not just listen to preaching and teaching from the Bible. It means that we seek the words of Jesus as living words — words that come not in the abstract but come from the heart and on the lips of a living Person whom we love more than any other person in the world.
Letting the words of Jesus abide in us is not like memorizing axioms and theorems in geometry. It’s not even like mulling over wise saying from ancient teachers. It is not like that because Jesus is alive today, and he does not mean for thinking about his words to replace fellowship with him. He means for musing on his words to be fellowship with him.
And so letting the words of Jesus abide in you means taking whatever steps are necessary to keep the living voice of Jesus speaking with you through the words that he spoke in Scripture. It is a spiritually intentional act of relating to a living person when you take his words into your mind. It is meditating on a saying like, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” and thanking Jesus for coming and praising him as a life giver, and believing that his intention for you is abundant life, and asking him to fulfill his good will in you.
When the words of Jesus abide in us, we hear them and respond to them as living words from the mouth of a living God to whom we must respond in faith or unbelief, and obedience or disobedience. When Jesus says, “If my words abide in you,” he means, “If I abide in you speaking all my will.” He means, “If my words are received and remembered and believed and pondered as the living words of a living and present Lord in your life.”
Eight Practical Ways for Jesus’s Word to Abide in You
How then do you do this? What practical steps can you take to let the word of Jesus abide in you? Let me suggest eight ideas.
Prepare a way to remind yourself repeatedly of the reasons that meditating on the Scriptures is good for you.
Jesus said in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy might be full.” Letting the words of Jesus abide in you will make your joy full. Remembering this will give needed incentive to do what needs to be done.
A couple other ways to remind yourself of the reasons that it is good for you would be to tear out the part of the worship folder that quotes Psalm 19:7–11 and put it in your wallet. Also read pages 119–125 in Desiring God for the reasons collected there.
Plan a place and a time when you will read the Bible and think about it each day. Put it on the calendar as an appointment. It is a meeting with a Person just as much as any other appointment you might make.
Carson gives as the first reason we do not pray as we ought this one: “Much praying is not done because we do not plan to pray. We do not drift into spiritual life . . . We will not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray. That means self-consciously setting aside time to do nothing but pray” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 19).
Decide ahead of time how you will read the Bible. Coming to the appointed time and having no idea where to dip into the word often makes us feel weak and unreal. Take up a plan like one of the two that we are offering you at the prayer table and decide to use it or to use something else.
Memorize verses or paragraphs or chapters. Memorizing is hard work. But it gives the greatest satisfaction and the greatest power and the greatest comfort. It also will have the greatest effect on your prayers, helping you pray according to the will and Spirit of God.
“Memorizing Scripture is one of the surest routes to going deep with God and having power in prayer.”
When you memorize, the word of God is not just there in the crisis when you need it, it is there again and again shaping your thinking and your will. Ask yourself, of all the spiritually minded people who seem to walk most consistently with God and be in tune with God’s Spirit, are they not all oozing Scripture? This is no coincidence. Memorizing Scripture is one of the surest routes to going deep with God and having power in prayer.
Take periodic retreats and saturate yourself with the Bible until you feel that you are lifted into the presence of the Lord in a remarkable way so that your prayers are uncluttered by worldly thinking.
Wesley Duewel says that sometimes he takes retreats and seeks to quiet his heart completely until he senses only the presence and will of God. To do that he says, “I have at times read as many as fifty chapters from God’s word before I was completely alone with God. But on some of those occasions I received such unexpected guidance that my life has been greatly benefited” (Let God Guide You Daily, 77).
Keep a journal and write out your thoughts as you meditate on the Scripture. Writing is a way of seeing that is deeper and sharper than most other ways. We see more when we write than when we just read.
I know not how the light is shed,
nor understand this lens.
I only know that there are eyes
In pencils and in pens.
You don’t have to use the journal every time or every day. But do it sometimes and you will soon see the fruit, so that I won’t need to convince you.
Read great Christian writers who know God deeply and saturate their writing with the Bible and take you deep into its spirit. They are like reading the Bible through the mind and heart of great knowers and lovers of God. Don’t let long books daunt you. Finishing the book does not matter. Growing by it matters. But finishing is not as hard as you might think.
Suppose you read slowly like I do — about the same speed as you speak — 200 words a minute. If you read fifteen minutes a day for one year (just fifteen minutes, say just before supper, or just before bed), you will read 5,475 minutes in the year. Multiply that by 200 words a minute and you get 1,095,000 words that you would read in a year. Now the average book has about 360 words per page (that’s what Carson’s book has). So you would have read 360 words into 1,095,000, or 3,041 pages in one year. That’s thirteen books the size of Carson’s book, or reading his in 21 days. All that in fifteen minutes a day.
The point is: the words of Jesus will abide in you more deeply and more powerfully if you give yourself to some serious reading of great books that are saturated with Scripture.
Finally, keep the living Person of Jesus before you as you read the Bible, and consciously remind yourself repeatedly that these are the words not of a dead teacher, but of the living Christ, who is as near as your own breathing and who is infinitely powerful.
As you enter Prayer Week 1993, remember the words of Jesus: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you.”