A Sermon by William Wilson
John 15:7. If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you.
Here is a most precious and cheering promise, and no less sure than it is precious, for He who uttered it hath all power given to Him in heaven and in earth and is able without fail to accomplish whatever He hath purposed. He who uttered it is the faithful and true witness, in so much that heaven and earth shall pass away but one jot or tittle of His word shall not fall to the ground till all be fulfilled. He who uttered it is the same who hath proved His goodwill to men by evidence the most incontestible. He hath already given unto them a gift so infinitely great that the bestowal of whatever else can enter into the heart of man to conceive would be but small in comparison. He hath not withheld Himself, and consequently will not withhold His infinite fulness. “Ye shall ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you.” Here is a promise including all that the heart can desire, He who cannot lie giving a pledge that every wish shall be gratified for the asking. Here is no room for ungratified desire for the restless craving that cannot be satisfied. Let there be but the putting forth of the request and this shall be followed up by the putting forth of the Almighty arm to gratify it. The limitation is put, not on the divine will, but on the human. If a man will, it shall be done. God’s will is commensurate, in its outgoings of fulfilment towards man, with that man’s will; so that what he asks and desires shall be done, and what he does not ask or desire shall remain unaccomplished.
But here another truth is suggested which it is most important to consider. When we look to the nature of man as delineated in the Bible, it becomes perfectly certain that he would never – of his own unaided, undirected will – desire anything at all from God. And so, in point of fact, this promise, large and liberal as it is, is reduced to a nonentity, not from any defect in the power and the willingness of God to accomplish, but solely on account of a total lack of inclination on the part of man to desire and to ask. He is alienated in all his affections from God; he is not able to come nigh but must be brought nigh. His will is not to receive aught from God, but to remain widely separate from Him and to achieve his desires by his own energy. It is God who worketh in us to make us willing.
And observe, I pray you, that if we contemplate the depravity of man apart from the agency of the Spirit, the promise of the text is reduced to nothing. If we contemplate it in connection with this doctrine, the promise receives an infinite enlargement. Suppose man is not so depraved as all are by nature, that he is capable of some outgoings of desire to God, that his unaided will should teach his lips the language of prayer, how very small a thing this promise would amount to after all! Some half-formed wish might find its appropriate utterance, and then the accomplishment might come from God. But what a mass of ignorance would the will have to contend against, what contradictions there would be between the desire of yesterday and that of today! Man in this situation would be in a state of constant change without progress, of instant gratification of desire without happiness.
On the other hand, consider men as altogether without a will to seek help from God and, along with this, consider that it is God who worketh in us to will. Then these two most blessed truths come together into view, filling the heart with gratitude and peace and joy. In the first place comes the sweet assurance that the way in which God guides the will and gives form and substance and strength to its desires is just in the direction of His own infinitely wise and gracious purposes. Consequently, in the very expression of a will so divinely moved and directed, there is the faith that whatsoever we ask shall be done unto us. There can be no inconsistency between a will thus guided and the will of Him who directs it. Moreover, we have the confidence that, in the utterance of such divine wishes, we are becoming co-workers with God, putting forth the energies He gives us in the direction of His own secret purposes, and moving Him to perform what He most of all delights to do.
But in the second place, and more especially, this other truth comes into view: while the promise of the text is limited by man’s will, the fact that God worketh in him to will seems to remove the limitation altogether and to make the promise one of infinite reach and compass. The extent of blessing we receive from God is thus not made dependent on our limited, indeterminate, feeble conceptions and inclinations. God, indeed, promises to gratify and fulfil the very utmost reach of our desires. But it is not difficult, for example, to fill up the narrow round of an infant’s pleasures. Its desires are limited within a very narrow circle and it knows nothing, and has no will, about anything in the far ampler field of enjoyment which lies beyond the range of its knowledge, and consequently of its desires. So the desires of an adult in relation to God are inconceivably more limited than those desires of infancy. He speaks as child, he understands as a child, he thinks as a child. When God enlarges his will and converts him into a man, he puts away childish things. Herein is displayed the infinite largeness of the liberality of God.
He not only fills the vessel up to the full measure of its capacity, but He continually enlarges it that He may continually engage himself in supplying it. He not only satisfies the hungry soul, but He stimulates the appetite for more. He not only grants whatsoever we will, but He enlarges the heart so that we may come to Him with enlarged desires. As a stream of water from a living spring wears its channel deeper and broader the longer it flows, God makes us capable of so much the larger favours, the more liberally He does unto us what we will. But His is a fountain ever full and exhaustless, knowing no season of drought and barrenness, and however broad and deep the channel may be, it is kept ever full of that fertilizing water which flows forth from the throne of God.
But you will observe that the promise has other limitations beside that already noticed. It is not said to all men, Ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. The statement is bound by an if. If ye abide in Christ, and if His words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Let us now attend therefore, to the conditions of the promise.
And here I remark, first of all, and as introductory to what is to follow, that before any man can expect the fulfilment of the promise in his own experience, he must have some interest in Christ and have formed some bond of connection with Him. Man, as a condemned sinner, can obtain nothing from God on his own account. He lies under the curse of a broken law, exposed to everlasting perdition. God can be to him only a consuming fire. There is an impassible barrier between such a man and God. There can be no communication between the holy and the unclean. The prayers of the wicked are an abomination in the sight of God. He is surrounded with such an atmosphere of holiness that the breathings of an impure spirit cannot reach him. There is only one channel of communication between the sinner and God, and that is Christ. When God looks upon us, He can see nothing to approve. In his sight we are altogether as an unclean thing; even our righteousnesses are filthy rags. Our holiest services are polluted in His sight.
But there is a Daysman between us who is able to lay His hand upon us both. Our prayers cannot come up before God with acceptance unless the angel of His everlasting covenant stands before the throne with His golden vial. And as He, the everlasting intercessor, pours from it the prayers of the saints, He perfumes them with the sacred incense of His own holiness and they come up as a sweet savour before the Father. Thus it is that our prayers are all offered up for Christ’s sake, and it were well that we fully understood and deeply felt what is implied in the use of these most significant words.
There is reason to fear that many a prayer wafted heavenward remains unanswered because the grand condition of all acceptable prayer is not fully felt as it ought to be. Men pray as if they had a right to ask, and a title to expect, favours from God on their own independent footing. There is much trusting to His goodness and forbearance and mercy, forgetful all the while that God can only hear through the intercessor before the throne, and can only manifest His goodness through the one mediator, the man Christ Jesus. When we ask of God, for Christ’s sake, the bestowment of any blessing, it were well that there were blazoned before the eye of our inner consciousness the truth that we cannot be accepted save in the beloved, that if God looks directly at us we are condemned, that He can only be well pleased when He looks on us in the face of His Anointed – when He beholds in the Lamb that was slain justice fully satisfied, and beholds in the Lamb now alive for evermore the evidence of His own sealed and unbreakable covenant.
When we ask anything for Christ’s sake, we acknowledge that we are not worthy in ourselves to receive it. When we plead the name of Jesus, we acknowledge our own guilt and proclaim Him the sole ground of our hope. When we point to Him we entreat God not to look upon us, we renounce our own righteousness, we confess our own shame, we plead for a standing in Jesus, we claim an interest in His work, we profess to stand in His righteousness, to hope for mercy through His peace-speaking blood. The general outline then of the truth contained in the text is acknowledged, in words, by every professing Christian. Every man that has prayed to God for Christ’s sake has in words made the acknowledgment that, in order to obtain what he desires, it is absolutely necessary he should have some interest in Christ, some bond of connection with Him. This connection is formed and sustained by faith. It is formed by the very fact of leaning upon Christ – depending on His work for acceptance with God, and for the reception of every blessing we expect to obtain at His hands.
But, in the second place, to be more particular, there is a difference, perhaps more easily understood than stated, between being thus united to Christ in faith and abiding in Him continually. It is true that he who has really been joined to Christ has been united to Him by a tie which nothing in time or eternity can wrench asunder; yet at the same time it is possible that there may be an interruption in the free communication that such a union implies.
Thus, to adopt the figure employed by Jesus in the context, in which He represents Himself as a vine and His people as the branches, it is conceivable that some accident or disease could for a time impede the circulation of the juices from the stem to the branches so that they would become stunted in growth and comparatively lifeless and fruitless. Though it is the very property of the connection established between the trunk and the branches that the former should distribute its own sap and fatness to every twig and to the remotest point of the smallest leaf that depends upon it, it is possible that this relationship may be so interrupted that, while the branch is not severed and while it retains life derived from the stem, it may be ready to die and may require much care in the husbandman to preserve it alive. So the believer united to Christ may fall into temptation and a snare and become the prey of divers lusts, which are the diseases of the soul, and become like a bruised reed. Instead of exhibiting that healthy vigour which shows a firm union with Christ and the constant supply of the riches that are in Him, there may be a time of backsliding, of sore sickness of the soul and pining anguish – life not extinguished but its lamp burning very feebly.
To take another illustration, Christ is represented as a covert from the tempest. When a man believes, he has taken refuge under this covert from the hurricane of God’s avenging ire and, thus protected, it will sweep harmlessly past him. But it is the believer’s duty, as well as his privilege, not only to betake himself to this covert but to sit continually under its shadow. This is what is meant by abiding in Christ. He has been the dwelling place of His people in all generations. It is their privilege and honour and happiness to abide in Him, as in a sweet and peaceful home. The storms may rage without, but here they are secure, enjoying the communion of a father’s love and the counsels of a father’s wisdom. And if even in the homes of this world there is much to gratify the heart in the free circulation of those affections which emanate from parent to child and from brother to sister – each meeting with its refreshing reward in the return which it receives – how much more blessed is it, under that covert which He has provided, to receive sweet tokens of affection from our glorious and infinitely blessed Father, and to have all the longings of an affectionate heart gratified in the fulness of His everlasting love.
But we are ungrateful, wayward children. We do not choose always to abide in the covert; we will not sit under the shadow of Christ though there is great delight there – to our depraved tastes His fruit is not always sweet. We see some bright and tempting object outside and we make haste to seize it. We leave the security of our home, our only safe abiding place. We forget that only in Christ can men stand, and thus our desires are ungratified.
You will understand then how it is that a believer may often experience something like a shock of disappointment when he finds his prayers unanswered. They are so, not because God is unfaithful or even slack concerning His promise, but just because the conditions of that promise are not fulfilled. Though united to Christ, he is not abiding in Him. He is forgetful of his true position and he cannot be heard because he asks amiss. The Father hears us only when we are in our dwelling-place, when the voice of supplication ascends from that sanctuary which has been consecrated by the blood of Jesus. When we speak otherwise than through Christ, we cannot be heard. The only prayer which enters into the ear of God is the one which is wafted on the wings of faith, and becomes melodious from the meeting of mercy and truth, and the sweet harmony of righteousness and peace in the offering of Christ. Every desire, to be acceptable to God, must be breathed through Him who has been constituted the medium and the organ of communication between us and God.
But let us now, with the help of these illustrations, look a little more closely at the expression, “If ye abide in me”. The union of Christ with His people is often set forth in such language as this, conveying the idea of mutual incorporation. From the variety of figures adopted in the Bible to make this union level to our apprehension, as well as to give us some idea of the blessedness of which it is the perpetual and unfailing source, it would appear as if language alone were altogether incapable of conveying to us an adequate impression either of the nature or happiness of this union.
To show that it is a union of dependence in which, on the one hand, there is a constant outgoing of favour and, on the other, a constant reception, the figure of a vine and its branches is adopted. Again, when another view of this union is to be placed before us, the Apostle represents Christ as the head, and His people as the body and the members, showing that in this union Christ is the Governor and director, and His people are the obedient and eager servants of His will. Again, when the delights of this union are represented, everything pleasant to the eye and the ear – everything soothing and refreshing in nature – is employed as an emblem to shadow forth the beauty and desirableness of Christ. Every relationship of life, capable of ministering comfort to the soul, is adopted as an emblem to show the supreme blessedness of a union with Christ. He is the everlasting Father, the elder Brother, the Bridegroom.
Again, when the union of Christ with His people is set forth as most intimate as well as most endearing, He employs no existing relationship as an emblem at all fitted to represent it. He speaks of Himself being in us, and He speaks of us being in Him and abiding in Him. Now when we are spoken of as being in Christ and when He is represented as in us, it is not meant that there is a personal union between the believer and Him, but generally this: that He is their representative in the covenant – that it is through Him they have their title to life. As Adam in the first covenant stood forth as the representative and head of the whole human family – so that when he sinned and fell, they sinned in him and fell with him – even so Christ. In the second covenant He stood forth as the representative and head of those whom the Father had given unto Him – so that when He obeyed and suffered, they obeyed in Him and suffered with Him.
1. The first half of a sermon reprinted, with slight editing, from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 1. Wilson (1808-88) was at this time minister of Carmylie, near Arbroath. Click here for part 2.