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.
This intimate and incorporating union with Christ is suggestive of other views. Thus it will be observed that generally, and in some cases so specifically as not to be mistaken, when Christ is spoken of as being in us, He is represented as the living spirit. He moulds our wills and brings them into conformity with His own, originating and giving form and direction to all our desires, presiding within us in the character, as it were, of a sovereign and creative agent. He so subordinates all our affections to His own, and so forms and strengthens them, that whatever we do or say in fulfilment of, and to give shape and development to, the dispositions within us, has been so far the product of His will, and the operation of His divine Spirit, that they cannot be recognised as our own deeds and sayings. They are, rather, seen to be the words and actions of Him by whose Spirit we are animated. This truth is set forth abstractly in the injunction, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven”.
Now, from the statement here given regarding the anticipated result of a display of good works – that men should not be led to glorify the visible doer of them, but to glorify their invisible originator – it is manifest that the good works were to be of such a character that men should see in them, and acknowledge, the hand of God; and that the light should be discerned as a light not underived but reflected. And it is brought out even more plainly – because it is in connection with the acknowledged union with Christ as the source of all holy deeds and aspirations – when the Apostle declares of himself: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me”.
Here is an acknowledgment that the Apostle had no life and power in himself – that, great as were the energies he displayed, the unconquerable will, the unwearied labour, the tireless zeal, the wisdom and surpassing love which directed and animated all his toils – these were not his own, not exhibited for his own praise. It was not really he, it was Christ living in him, that produced such fair and plentiful fruits to the praise of the glory of His own grace. In himself, and animated by his own spirit, Paul would have been but a narrow-minded bigoted Pharisee, a persecutor of the brethren. It was not his own spirit, but the Spirit of Christ in him that expanded his soul so as to embrace the Gentiles in its large affections, which converted him into a citizen of the world, made every soul precious to him and sent him through perils of every kind with yearning and quenchless love, seeking how he might do them good. It was the Spirit of Christ living in him, and acting through him, that made him, who once breathed out slaughter and threatenings, gentle among all men, even as a nurse cherisheth her children.
In every duty he was called upon to discharge, in every trial he had to endure, he had the patience and fortitude of Christ living in him. It was not he that suffered and acted, and that spoke with such matchless wisdom. He had a derived heavenly nature within him, a spirit which had laid hold of all his faculties and desires, sanctified them and made them its own. It was no longer he that preached and laboured and prayed and fought; it was Christ living in him. And so it is with all in whom Christ abides. His divine Spirit subordinates and changes the will, gives to all the faculties a new direction and employs them upon new objects, so enlarges and purifies all the affections that it becomes manifest that it is not man, but God, who is working. Not the might or wisdom of a human agent, but the strength and intelligence of Christ Himself. Thus by Christ dwelling in us, men take knowledge of us that we have been with Him.
You will perceive then that, when Christ is spoken of as being in us and living in us, we are represented as living and acting among men, discharging those duties to which providence calls us, and sustained in them all by an ever-living invincible spirit, who gives us the victory, and whose is all the glory – because we act not by our own power but by Him that lives in us.
On the other hand, when the converse expression is employed, as in the text, when we are represented as being in Christ, we are viewed, not in our relation to our fellow men, but in our relation to God; not as engaged in the discharge of active duty, but in gathering strength for the performance of it; not as overcoming difficulties in an active conflict, but as cherishing our souls with holy contemplations. When we are in Christ, we are engaged in uttering those desires which reach up to heaven and stretch through eternity in cherishing the glorious hope of immortality, in praying for a larger heart and clearer conceptions in trusting and loving God.
While thus engaged, Christ waits, as it were, to execute our purposes, to fulfill the desires of the inner spirit. We are in Him and, even with that alacrity with which the members of the body act in accordance with the will, so is Christ ready to accomplish our desires. This is what the condition of the text means: “If ye abide in Me”. If ye remain within Me continually, then that relationship which God has established between the body and the soul is not more intimate than that which exists between Me and thee. You form in your heart a purpose, and you find your bodily members willing to execute it. Even so, if ye abide in Me there is no purpose of your soul but shall meet with prompt fulfilment. You cannot in this position form and express a wish but there is an omnipotent arm ready to execute it. Boundless and exulting hope cannot range so far that my hand may not reach its objects and convert them into present realities.
Rejoice then, O soul, in Christ, abiding in Him; not only are you shielded from all danger, but you may be filled at every moment to the fullest measure of your capacity with the sweetest enjoyment. Never was a cup presented to the very lips of men, so full, so overcharged with blessing, as when Jesus said, “If ye abide in Me . . . ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you”. The condition complied with, it shall be done. Here is the assurance: Christ in us giving form to our thoughts, enlarging and directing our desires, sanctifying and elevating our wills, till everything within us is in harmony with His will; and then Christ overshadows and defends us, His arm is ready to execute our requests, to pour into our souls rivers of pleasures, to make all the universe minister to our gratification, and to bend every event to operate for our good. Heaven and earth and hell are subject to His sway, and it is His will that our desires, so sanctified and directed, should be gratified in all their longings. The will has been brought into harmony with that of Christ and, in carrying into effect what it purposes, He is just accomplishing His own everlasting, all-wise and most bountiful designs. Whenever we desire to have what it is not equally His desire to bestow, this is an evidence that we are not abiding in Him, and consequently we cannot expect, we have no promise, that such desires shall be fulfilled.
Observe, however, in the last place that there is another condition attached to the promise, “If my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you”. This expression at once suggests two truths:
First, it seems designed to indicate more fully than had been done in the preceding clause how necessary it is, in order to the fulfilment of the promise, that there should be a perfect identity of will between us and Christ. It is not possible to find a more complete evidence of two souls brought into perfect harmony than that which is furnished by their thoughts being uniformly clothed in the same language. Language is the embodiment of thought and desire, and the differences which obtain between the methods in which any two men would express the same views indicate a corresponding difference in mental constitution. The thoughts take their form and shape from the co-operation of all the various faculties and affections of the mind. Could we find any two individuals who, without any laboured imitation, would naturally and easily adopt the same language, we would be certain of a complete identity of mental constitution. And, in similar circumstances, the two individuals would desire the same things and act in the same way. It is even so with him in whom Christ dwells and who himself abides in Christ. An entire conformity of nature is produced, a conformity more perfect than obtains between any two men. Not only are the thoughts directed to the same objects, not only would the wishes compass the same events, but the whole nature is so moulded into the express image of Jesus that the wishes have the same hue and complexion and are clothed in the same language.
So it will be with all the saints in heaven. But it is not always so with the most matured of the saints on earth, and thus the answer to prayer so often disappoints expectation. The words of Christ do not abide in us, and we send up to the throne on high the words of human passion and human infirmity. There is no promise that such words will meet their fulfilment. The conditions of the promise have not been complied with on our part, and God would belie His own word were He in such a case to answer prayer. But there are, not infrequently, seasons when the soul, even of the feeblest and least experienced believer, is enlarged and quickened by the indwelling Spirit – when great freedom and boldness of access is given, even in the very exercise of prayer. Then there is a felt experience of nearness to God and there is, even instantaneously, the sweet conviction, not so much that prayer will be answered, as that it has been already answered and that God has given us what we willed – that while we have been speaking, God has heard us.
But, secondly, I remark that the condition, “If My words abide in you”, implies that the words with which God has furnished us are to be our guide and directory in prayer. It is His promises we are to plead, the truths of His Word that we are to found our hopes upon, His declared purposes that are to guide our desires, His representation of our condition that is to regulate and give form to our confessions. It is not meant strictly that all our prayers should be moulded in the very language of Scripture, but rather that the Bible should show us what we are to ask for, should limit and define our desires and keep them within the compass of God’s purposes and promises. This indeed is our sure directory. We might be easily deceived by the inner working of our spirits and conceive that a flash of excitement and enthusiasm was an emanation from God and we might thus be led to expect an answer to our own passions. But we have a more sure word of prophecy. We have the revelation of God’s will in our hands, and if our spirits are in harmony – if our spirits bear witness along with His – we have the evidence of their mutual consent in the sayings of this book. Whenever our desires go beyond this range, whenever our wills are contrary to the express declaration of the mind of God, we may be assured that we cannot be heard, that the promise cannot be verified in our experience, because we have not fulfilled its conditions.
Such views as these will remove a difficulty which has often been felt, and which may be thus stated: if believers have thus the whole universe, as it were, at their command, how does it happen that they are often oppressed and overborne, subject to manifold afflictions, distresses and privations? Surely these do not come upon them in fulfilment of their desires. They do not pray for sore calamities to come upon them. These come, do they not, in spite of strong entreaty to the contrary? I am not sure that they do. When I read these words of Paul: “We glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”, I am not sure but the saints of God in every age might even long to know and experience the sweet uses of adversity. At all events, I am certain of this: that when these two, the cross and the crown, are placed before them, as invariable concomitants, their prayer will ever be: Give me the cross with the crown; give me the suffering with the glory that is to be revealed. And there could be no stronger evidence of a soul unvisited, unrefreshed, unenlightened by the Spirit of God, utterly destitute of faith and hope, than the ever-prevalent desire of ease, rest, quietness and carnal comfort, even though the graces of the divine life should be entirely withered in the hot sunshine of this world’s favours, and the glories of eternity cease to be an object of hope. The plants of the Lord’s garden, which are most fresh and beautiful and which emit the sweetest fragrance, are those that have been planted in the valley of humiliation and watered with many tears.
Neither is it to be objected to the faithfulness of the promise in the text that God does not at once fulfill all the desires that are uttered in Christ. Much less is it to be pleaded that God belies His promise if He does not fulfill it in the way of the believer’s hopes and desires. God’s wisdom is not bounded by our conceptions of what is best, and the believer must be satisfied that the methods which He takes to fulfill His purposes and promises will be consistent with His faithfulness and His purposes of infinite mercy. Hence the believer will not prescribe to God the methods by which He is to accomplish His promises. While he may earnestly desire deliverance from present overwhelming calamities, his request will always be: “Not my will but Thine be done”. Moreover, while the prayers of the faithful will contain many petitions, they will all be subordinated to this, as the pre-eminent one: that their souls may be more and more transformed into the likeness of the Divine Redeemer.
Therefore, whatever method God may adopt to accomplish the grand object of the believing soul, it will contain within itself the fulfilment of all a believer’s petitions. Though every hope should be blighted and every cherished desire thwarted by God in His dealings with His people, if it shall turn out in the end that such a course was the best for effecting the moral transformation of their souls and for changing them from glory to glory into the same image with God, they will acknowledge that God has accomplished in them all that He has promised in the text. The great aim of believers and of God harmonise in this: that this new creation must be perfected by whatever means. And they desire other blessings only as the enjoyment of them may be conducive to this great end. So, beyond question, in the accomplishment of that end, God does unto them what they willed, and all that they willed. God’s method of working out this transformation may not harmonise with ours, but His, we are constrained to believe, is not only the best, but the only method by which the object could be accomplished. To effect this object, two things may be necessary from the very nature of the case.
First, it may be necessary that, instead of instantly gratifying all our holy desires, God should keep us waiting and oblige us to exercise ourselves in cherishing and uttering them. Jacob did not instantly obtain the blessing which he sought and was obliged both to wait and wrestle for it, even till the breaking of the day. But he acquired from thence a new name because as a prince he had power with God and prevailed. In the very exercise of wrestling he became a prince, and in this we have the emblem and example of that elevation and strength which is derived from the habitual exercise of the soul in prayer. Nor is it difficult to perceive how God may at once display the highest wisdom and the most boundless love in keeping his people waiting, watching, cherishing the soul-refreshing desires of prayer. And by this method they may maintain more continuous and direct communion with Himself than if at once He answered every request. All petitions are, in fact, more than answered by such sustained communion, for thus we are made more largely partakers of the divine nature; we have more of His grace infused into us and become more fitted for speaking the language and enjoying the society of the heavenly places.
Second, it may be necessary, in order to the accomplishment of God’s grand purpose and of the believer’s chief desire in the salvation of the soul, that we should sustain the conflict with our spiritual adversaries. We must bear about with us a body of death, even till death takes it away. We have to sustain a long and hard conflict, not only with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, with the rulers of the darkness of this world, with spiritual wickedness in high places. However ardently we may long for it, our emancipation does not come till the battle is over and the crown has been won. Nor would it be wise were it otherwise. The children of Israel did not get to the rest and enjoyment of the land flowing with milk and honey till they had been 40 years in the wilderness. But they reached it as soon as they were prepared to take possession of it. They had been in slavery in Egypt, and it was long before they were prepared to enjoy the privileges of free men. Nor did they obtain quiet possession of the whole land even after they had faith to enter it. It was God’s plan to drive out their enemies little by little before them. It was needful that they should be taught their dependence on the arm of the Almighty and that their souls should be fortified by a long continued conflict.
And so it is with God’s people now. It were not well that He should so shelter them that the cold blasts and storms of the world should never reach them. Exercised by temptations, exposed to trials and enduring a manifold fight of afflictions, they learn hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. They do not become like weak and sickly plants, but grow up like the cedars of Lebanon, stately and strong and beautiful in their strengths. The power, gracefulness and beauty of the saint cannot be perfected in any other way than by placing him in circumstances where he shall be constrained to diligent and strenuous effort. But if, through the agency of this warfare, the believer’s great object is in the way of being perfected – if by such means he is attaining a greater likeness to God – all his desire is accomplished. And God does not leave His people to fight the battle alone. He provides them with suitable armour; His voice animates them in the conflict; He assures them of a glorious triumph; He refreshes them when they are faint and weary and points them to the time when, with palms in their hands and the victor’s crown upon their brow, they shall not only enjoy their rest, but become partakers of immortal glory.
1. The concluding part of a sermon which has been reprinted, with some editing, from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 1. Wilson (1808-1888) was at this time minister of Carmylie, near Arbroath. In the first part of this sermon, the preacher was emphasising union with Christ as the foundation for the fulfilment of the promise in the text.