I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you. 8 By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.
The reason prayer has such great potential for changing things is God. And the reason prayer is surrounded by such difficult problems is God. If it weren't for the power of God over natural process and over the human will, there would be no hope in praying for change in the world or in people. And it is that very same power and prerogative of God that creates the problems we stumble over in prayer.
Two of the biggest problems are: 1) that our prayers, even those we have prayed for a thousand times, are sometimes not answered as we ask; and 2) why pray anyway, because if God is sovereign and controls and plans all things, what's the point in praying?
If God is Sovereign, why pray?
Take the last question first: if God is sovereign and governs the world by his providence, why pray? This question was asked me in Atlanta a few months ago before about 2,000 people after I had spoken on the Providence of God. I gave an answer, and since then have found the answer expressed so well by one better than I that I prefer to read you the answer of Charles Spurgeon, which is exactly what I believe. This is from a sermon he preached on Luke 11:9, "Ask and it will be given you."
It is our full belief that God has foreknown and predestinated everything that happeneth in heaven above or in the earth beneath, and that the foreknown station of a reed by the river is as fixed as the station of a king, and "the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses." Predestination embraceth the great and the little, and reacheth unto all things; the question is, wherefore pray? Might it not as logically be asked wherefore breathe, eat, move, or do anything? We have an answer which satisfies us, namely, that our prayers are in the predestination, and that God has as much ordained His people's prayers as anything else, and when we pray we are producing links in the chain of ordained facts. Destiny decrees that I should pray—I pray; destiny decrees that I shall be answered, and the answer comes to me.1
This is my faith, and it is rooted in the repeated testimony of God in Scripture that he governs all things in the world—from the dominion of kings in Saudi Arabia to the roll of the dice in Las Vegas. Proverbs 16:33 says, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD." And Daniel 2:21 says, "He removes kings and establishes kings." So from the dominion of kings to the roll of the dice, God governs the universe by his wisdom and power—including the prayers of his people. Our kneeling to pray is no less God's gracious work than the regenerating of our souls: he writes his will on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10) and works in us what is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21), and we do it—we pray—freely from our own wills.
Why Aren't my Prayers Answered?
But what about the other problem with prayer—that we pray and the answer we long for does not come? The Bible has several possible answers.
It says we may not be praying according to God's will; 1 John 5:14, "If we ask anything according to His will, He hears us."
Or it could be we have cherished sin that we will not let go from our lives; Psalm 66:18, "If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear."
It could be that we have man-centered and not God-centered motives; James 4:3, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures."
Or it may be that we do not believe that God will do it; Mark 11:24, "All things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you."
Or it could be that God wants you to persevere, and is testing your obedience to his command in Luke 18:1, "At all times [you] ought to pray and not to lose heart."
Or it might be that God is, in fact, doing far more every time you pray than you can imagine and is daily putting in place a part of the mosaic that will in good time be the full answer to your prayer (as in Daniel 10:2,12).
"Praying for All His Purposes, Meditating on All His Word"
Or could it be that there is a dynamic to prayer that we have not yet learned? Could it be that this matter of praying is so mysterious and so wonderful that there is a deeper, fuller way of relating to God in prayer that we have not experienced? Could it be that we are like children who have been told something by our Father, but we just don't get it yet? And in his wisdom and patience he goes on loving us and teaching us. Could it be that 1997 would be the year when we get it?
Here is one of my goals for 1997 for Bethlehem. In our Mission Statement booklet, two of our values are expressed like this: We value a "growing frequency, freedom, depth and power in corporate, family and private prayer." We value "making prayer the visible engine of all our efforts in ministry and worship" (page 5). One of my goals for us in 1997 is that we as a church discover corporately how the Word of God and prayer work together in powerful, life-changing, fruit-bearing ministry.
In our Mission Statement booklet, the spiritual dynamic behind all our ministry goes like this:
We join God the Father in magnifying the supremacy of his glory
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
in the power of the Holy Spirit by
treasuring all that God is,
loving all whom he loves,
praying for all his purposes,
meditating on all his Word,
sustained by all his grace.
My prayer is that in 1997 Bethlehem will learn from study and experience how those two lines work together—praying for all his purposes, meditating on all his Word. What's the connection? How do they function together to make us a transformed, fruit-bearing people?
The reason this is so crucial for us is given in our text today, especially John 15:7, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you." Do you see the connection between the Word of God and prayer? "If my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you." Here is a great goal for us in 1997: what does that mean? What does it mean in experience, not just in talk, but in action and life? That is what I want us to learn together.
I put it as a question because I am not at all sure I know what this text means—at least not in its fullness. I have the suspicion that there is a potential here that few, if any, are tapping into. I don't think I have arrived—perhaps I have barely begun to experience this dynamic of the Word abiding in me and releasing sure answers to prayer. Do I really know—have I really experienced—what Jesus means by the Word abiding in me? Do I experience—do you experience—day in and day out the dynamic relationship between the indwelling Word and answers to prayer? Do you know from experience what this is?
In Prayer Week of 1987 we did a survey at Bethlehem and asked, for example, How much time per week do you spend reading the Bible? 255 people took the survey. 21% said fewer than 15 minutes (a week!). Another 25% said 15-30 minutes a week. So 46% of our people in 1987 were spending fewer than five minutes a day reading God's Word. When asked about time spent in focused prayer, 62% said they spent fewer than 30 minutes in prayer each week—fewer than five minutes a day.
I doubt that the statistics are very different today. And I would venture to say that many of these people harbor some deep resentments toward God for not answering their prayers. So the question arises: is there anything in their lives—or in my life—that corresponds to John 15:7—"If the Word of God abides in you . . ." Is reading the Word of God five minutes a day what Jesus was referring to when he said, "If my words abide in you"? My own suspicion is that Jesus had something in mind vastly more extensive and more life-shaping than the quick glances that forty percent of our people give to the Word of God each day.
Is This Legalistic?
I know that at this point some people are already throwing up defenses in the name of freedom, and are ready to say that all such talk is infected with legalism and a performance mentality. Well, I plead with you to look at the words of Jesus here in John 15:7 and struggle with me over this. This is not legalism. We are not talking about doing x-number of minutes of Bible reading to earn x-number of answered prayers. We are talking about living out what we value.
For example, suppose a coach prepares a steak dinner for his football team every day and spreads it before them freely, without cost, and says to them: eat and enjoy this rich meal every day and you will have strength to win the championship. And suppose that half the team instead goes to the candy store and the bakery, and week after week eats sweets and pastries. They start to lose games and the coach finds out they are not eating his free steak dinners and rebukes them. Some of them become indignant and say, "Hey we don't want a legalistic relationship with you. We want to relate to you in freedom and do what comes more naturally for our appetites."
Now that coach would be justified in saying, "It is not legalism to accept a free gift from me and to trust me that it is better for you than candy and pie." And so it is with Jesus. It is not legalism to welcome his free gift and infinitely valuable word. It is not legalism to savor it and revel in its preciousness. It is not legalism to believe that without it we get weaker and weaker and more and more worldly.
There are some of you who have built up strong resistance to receiving the Word of God and letting it abide in you, as Psalm 1 says, day and night. And I plead with you to let 1997 be the year you trust God to change that. There is something here for us that we are not getting. And I believe that if you would just reach out and taste a fraction of it, you would take heart that there are possibilities in your life and prayer that you never dreamed.
If His Word Were Abiding in us,
How Might that Yield Answers to Prayer?
What might John 15:7 mean? Jesus says, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you." What are the possibilities of how the Word abiding in us might yield sure answers to prayer?
1. It may be that the Word abiding in us functions to guide our prayers. In other words, 1 John 5:14 says, "If we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." Perhaps it is the abiding of the Word of Christ in our lives that directs us to what God's will is in prayer. Then we pray according to God's will and the answer comes.
2. Or it may be that the Word abiding in us functions to build our faith, which then lays hold on answers to prayer. Romans 10:17 says, "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." And in Mark 11:24 Jesus says, "All things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you." So if faith is essential for answered prayer, and if the Word abiding within sustains faith, then maybe that is what Jesus means when he says that if his words abide in us we will have answers to our prayers.
3. Or it may be that the Word abiding in us functions to transform us morally and spiritually so that we are walking in the path of love where God answers prayer, rather than in the path of selfishness where he doesn't. We know from Psalm 66:18 and James 4:3 that intentionally cherishing or walking in sin cuts us off from answered prayer. And we know from John 8:32 that the Word of God sets us free from sin: "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." And we know from John 17:17 that the word of God sanctifies: "Sanctify them in the truth [Jesus prays to the Father], your Word is truth." So maybe it's the transforming, sanctifying power of the Word that leads to holiness and love and then to answered prayer.
Bearing Fruit for God's Glory is the Main Aim
What's plain from the context of John 15:1-8 is that bearing fruit for God's glory is the main concern—and it probably means both the fruit of love and joy as well as the fruit of conversions. Verse 2: "Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit." Verse 4: "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me." Verse 5: "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit." Verse 8: "By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit."
So the aim of this passage is more fruit for God's glory, and the path to that fruit-bearing is our abiding in Christ, and his word abiding in us. And prayer, according to verse 7, is an essential part of that abiding in Christ and having his Word abide in us, so that we can bear fruit for God's glory.
How this prayer and this Word abiding in us work together is what I want us to discover together this year. The very least that it means is that we make it our aim to pray from the fullness of God's word. Effective prayer is the overflow of the fullness of the Word of God abiding in us. What does that mean in experience? That is our quest in 1997.
Prayer week begins the quest. The churchwide Bible memory challenge, that starts next Sunday, continues the quest. I hope you join in new patterns of prayer this week, devote a night to prayer on Friday, and come back next week and think with me about the practical challenge of letting the Word of God abide in us. The text will be, "Thy word have I treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against thee," from Psalm 119:11.
Pray with me now that God would go with us into this great investigation of praying from the fullness of the Word.
Charles Spurgeon, Twelve Sermons on Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1971), 77. ↩