Some Limitations of Prayer


A Sermon by B.H. Carroll

TEXT: If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it. – JOHN 14:14.

I received a letter yesterday from a pastor in the far West, stating how much his mind was troubled by this passage of Scripture. He did not know what to do with it. The promise looked to him to be too broad. He did not know to what extent he could check on it as a deposit placed in the bank of God’s grace to his credit.

In replying to his letter the thought came to me that a great many other people might be similarly troubled, and as the promise follows and connects with the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which we are to observe today in commemoration of his death, I thought it proper to select this passage of Scripture as a lesson and to expound it for the benefit of three classes.

The first class are pious people who, when they look at a promise as broad as this, “If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it,” fear that there are more limitations in it than there are, and hence the promise is to them of little practical utility.

The second class are foolish and fanatical people who take this promise in an absolute and limitless sense, and offer prayers under it that are vain and presumptuous, tempting God.

The third class are the skeptical people who take a broad promise like this and, first denying any limitation to it in the world, deny that there is any fulfilment of it, and hence any power in prayer based on it.

The first step toward exposition is to clear the text, that is, to ascertain just what our Lord said. When we know what he said we may proceed to inquire into its meaning. According to the Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts, the oldest two, and many others, the true text is this: “If ye shall ask me anything in my name, I will do it,” inserting the word “me” and thus making our Lord himself the person petitioned. It is probable that the transcribers of later manuscripts left out this word in copying, because of difficulties in their own minds based on internal grounds. At least, it is quite easy to see how they may have been much more influenced to omit it than to retain it.

These difficulties based on internal grounds are fourfold. 1. To insert “me” appears to make our text contradict a subsequent saying of our Lord in this same discourse, namely, “In that day ye shall ask me nothing” (John 16:23). 2. To make it further contradict that subsequent saying which specifies the “Father” as the one to whom petitions should be offered (John 16:23). 3. An impropriety is alleged against asking anything of Jesus “in his own name.” 4. Prayer should not be addressed to Jesus in heaven, but always to “our Father which art in heaven” and “in the name” of Jesus. These internal grounds of objection are formidable in appearance only, and disappear when carefully examined.

Let us consider them seriatim. First, there is no contradiction in the Greek, between our amended text: “If ye shall ask me anything,” and the first clause of John 16:23, “In that day ye shall ask me nothing.” Our translation makes the contradiction by making “ask” the rendering of two different words of distinct meanings. In the first is aitesete, meaning to pray to, in the second erotesete, meaning to ask a question. The context of the second (John l6:18-19) explains its limited sense. The disciples were very desirous to ask a question of Jesus, but were afraid. They wanted an explanation of his saying, “A little while, and ye shall not see me”; and again, “and a little while, and ye shall see me.” He answers their masked question, but reminds them of a time near at hand when they could ask him no questions, for he would be away in heaven, and hence they must carry such questions to the “other Paraclete,” the Holy Spirit, who would be present. When, therefore, he says, “In that day ye shall ask (erotesete) me nothing” (that is, no questions), there is no contradiction of “if ye shall ask (aitesete) me anything,” (that is, offer any petition to me in heaven).

Second, it is true that John 16:23 specifies the Father as the one to be addressed in prayer, in Christ’s name, and the Greek verb and pronoun implied correspond, to-wit, “He will give it you” (dosei). But just in the same way, in John 14:13, the Greek verb, agreeing with an implied pronoun of the first person, demands the insertion of the “me,” to-wit, “If ye ask me anything this will I do” (touto poieso). The verb, in each case, clearly shows the person addressed in prayer. If you ask the Father he will give it-if ye ask me, I will do it.

Third, there is no impropriety in praying to Jesus in his own name, when we consider the meaning of “in my name.” In this connection it invokes the virtue and merit of what he had done as the basis of prayer. That is, if ye ask me any. thing, basing your request upon my atoning, substitutionary sacrifice, I will do it. But if you ask me anything disregarding my vicarious suffering as the ground of petition, I will not do it. That would be to stultify myself. In his name” is equivalent to “for Christ’s sake” when connected with prayer; and “for Christ’s sake” means “for what Christ has done”; for example, “God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Fourth, to deny that prayers should be offered to Christ in heaven, is to deny that he is God and contradicts both Scripture and history. Dying Stephen offers two prayers directly to Jesus in heaven: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit – Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:59-60). Twice in the ninth chapter of Acts is stated the custom of the disciples to “call on the name of Jesus” (verses 14 and 21). Indeed, their praying to Jesus was the distinguishing mark of a disciple enabling their persecutors to identify them. With this established custom agree the following Scriptures: “Arise and be baptized calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16); “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

Nor will it do to limit these to initial invocations connected with baptism or the first confession. These prayers to Jesus distinguished the early Christians throughout their lives, as appears from Paul’s address: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.”

The history of the followers of Christ, from the close of the canon of Scripture down to the present, shows that they offered both prayer and praise to Christ. As I recall it from memory, there is some reference to this custom in the famous letter of Pliny, the Younger, to the Emperor Trajan.

Having thus settled the text, “If ye shall ask me anything in my name, I will do it,” let us expound it. You will observe that anything” is very broad. But it is not limitless. The context limits it. These limitations now demand attention. The first limitation is suggested by the connection with the twelfth verse, indicated by the conjunction “and.” Let us see what that conjunction is. “He that believeth on me, the works that I do he shall do also, and greater works than these shall he do,” and “If ye shall ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

Evidently the petitions here have a connection with the works that the believer is commanded and expected to do. It does not mean, if I shall ask the Lord anything about building a house, that he will make an answer to it. But here is a commission given me as a Christian and to Christ’s people as a church, to go out and do work, great work, greater works than he himself did, and in the performance of these works, if there rise up from their low standpoint of observation what seem to be insuperable difficulties, at such a juncture, what are they to do? He says, “Ask me. Any petition that you present to me, fairly relating to the performance of the work I have commanded you to do, I will answer it; I will do it.”

Let us illustrate this. We are commanded to carry the gospel to the whole world, and we find a certain section of the world in a certain period of the world barred against the reception of the gospel. A missionary tries to go to Japan, and when he gets to the shore of that country he is turned away. Here is a difficulty in doing the works that God commanded him to do. And Jesus says, “If you will ask me anything in my name about this work that I have commanded you to do, I will do it for you.” Then, Lord, let this barrier be removed, and let the light of the gospel shine into Japan.” And it was removed. And so it has been in hundreds of other instances.

The gospel is given to us to be delivered to the people for their salvation. I see a man toward whom my heart feels strangely drawn, and I want him to be converted. I want to talk to him about Jesus, but I have no opportunity to talk to him. If I call at his house, there the requirements that govern hospitality are such that I cannot readily get at the subject. If I go to his office, he is absorbed in his business and I cannot get to talk to him on the subject. But I want to present the subject to him, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I am commanded to present the gospel to him. In doing the work that the Master has commanded me to do, I find a difficulty, and this promise says to me: If you will ask anything in my name, to enable you to do anything touching the duty that I have laid upon you, I will do it.” Then I say, “Lord, open the way for me to get to that man.” Well, he will do it. The promise will be fulfilled. It is that limitation to which I wished to call your attention first.

I ask you to notice in the second place, that the help of Christ, the “I will do it,” is based upon his going to the Father. He says so. “Because I go to my Father.” He is discussing a stale of affairs when he is no longer in the world. He is showing how, after he leaves the world, he may be continually approached in prayer by people on the very ground that he is not in the world, but has gone to the Father.

What is the force of that ground? In going to the Father there is necessary a resurrection from the dead on his part. The resurrection demonstrates him to be the Son of God with power. There is necessary an ascension of his risen body into heaven, and when that risen body reaches heaven, it is taught directly and implied inferentially that there in the holy of holies he goes and sprinkles his own blood, presents his own obedience unto death as a substitute, as a vicarious offering, and that obedience is the ground, the merit, upon which petitions are presented. Not only so, but he is up there as King of kings and Lord of lords, and as an ever living High Priest he may be approached for his people.

“Now because I go to my Father through the glorious portals of the resurrection, through the glorification of my body, through my ascent into the highest heavens, through my enthronement there as King of kings and Lord of lords, through the atonement which I there make by offering the blood shed upon the altar of earth, and through my ever living as High Priest, I will do what you ask me.”

Don’t you see at once that this suggests another limitation? The help that is sought in prayer, the difficulty which we propose to have removed by petition, as the removal of it is accomplished by the power that arises from the resurrection, ascension of Jesus Christ and atonement which he makes in heaven, and his enthronement as King of kings and Lord of lords, and his intercession as High Priest at the very right hand of the Majesty on high, the very thing that our petition asks for must relate to those very things. It must not be anything incongruous with that. I have no right to call upon Jesus Christ to do a thing because he has gone to the Father; that is totally out of harmony with the merit upon which that petition is to be granted.

Notice in the next place, the prayer must be in the name of Jesus. If you want to have your mind confused very much as to the import of “in my name” in this connection, read what the commentators say, most of them. Evidently there can be but one ruling signification of that phrase in any given connection. “In the name of Jesus” here must mean by virtue of the merit accruing from what Jesus did.

To illustrate: I want to check upon a bank and I have no money myself in the bank, but I want to check in view of a deposit made by somebody else. You will see at once that if the check is drawn in the name of the other man, it must not go beyond what the other man has deposited, and it must be governed by the reasons which prompted that deposit.

If I deny that the Lord Jesus Christ made a sacrifice for men, if I deny his divinity, if I deny that he was my substitute, if I deny that on Calvary he was accursed for me, how then can I go to him and ask anything in his name? “In his name” refers back to the transactions performed here upon the earth, and the phrase covers the whole ground of the merit upon which the petition is based. Of course, that suggests a limitation: That if I am to avail myself of a promise, which promise cannot be more extensive than the predicate upon which the promise itself rests, therefore I must not ask for things out of harmony with what was done by the Lord Jesus Christ, certainly not in his name.

Notice another limitation: The text says, “That will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” The end to which everything points, the object had in view by the thing, measures the scope of it, and if I am to present a petition to the Lord Jesus Christ based upon that promise, there must be a connection between my petition and the end to be accomplished by the granting of the petition. Well, what is that end? That end is to glorify the Father in the Son. So when I come to offer a prayer under this promise, let me ask the question: If this prayer were granted, would it further that end? Would it bear in that direction?

Suppose I ask the Lord Jesus Christ to let me find money enough to build a marble front house, what relation is there between that marble front house and the glory of the Father in Jesus Christ? And if there be no relation between the thing asked and the end to be accomplished by the performance of the thing, the incongruity of it evidently suggests a limitation of the promise. As James puts it, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it on your lusts” (James 4:3). Hence I say that foolish persons, fanatical persons, will take a promise such as this, “If ye ask anything in my name, I will grant it,” and assume that it means that if I ask the Lord Jesus Christ to convert this wooden chair into an iron bedstead, under this promise he is bound to do it. Not at all. It is in no sense implied by the context, nor by the things which govern the intent of the Lord Jesus Christ when he makes the promise.

I go to him with the petition. I must ask my heart, “Will the granting of that petition glorify God in Jesus Christ? Suppose it be denied me, will it interfere in the least with the glory of the Father in Jesus Christ?” Suppose I ask him, “Open a door by which the church may preach the gospel in Thibet, a country hitherto closed in by impassable barriers.” I plead, Lord, you have said, If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.’ I understand that this applies to any. thing that will help to carry out the work that you have commanded us to do, and you have commanded us to carry this gospel into Thibet, and I find here a barrier in the way of carrying the gospel there.”

If that barrier is removed and the gospel is carried there and those people are saved, that will glorify the Father in the Son, the end had in view by the petition, by the promise, by the Word. Without any hesitation you may kneel down before those barriers, and with boldness lay the confident hand of faith upon the promise of God, and plead it, and claim it, and check on it, without the slightest doubt as to whether the draft will be honored.

Notice again the verse right after the text, the 15th: “If ye love me keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father and he shall give you another Comforter.” Now here are two limitations suggested. Go back for a moment: “If ye shall ask anything” “ye.” Who? Does that mean anybody? Go back a little further: “He that believeth on me, the works that I do he shall do also and greater works than these shall he do.” “If ye,” (ye believers), “if ye believers, having in you the spirit of obedience to my commandments, shall ask me anything.” “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”

Now let us apply that. I say to the Lord Jesus Christ, “I offer this distinct prayer, that you will remove the barriers to the reception of the gospel in Thibet”; but suppose that while praying I am not showing my faith by my works; I am not showing that I love the Lord Jesus Christ by attempting to do what he commands me to do; but lying inert, without a motion upon my part to do the things which he has commanded me to do, and offering a prayer not for divine help to do impossible things, but to cover my own idleness. Jesus Christ despises my petition.

But a prayer in the way of duty, a prayer when you are trying to do the thing that you are commanded to do, a prayer when the spirit of obedience is on you, and you have done all you can according to the best light before you, and you are baffled by more than mortal obstacles, why, that prayer is always answered.

But suppose I say, “I will make no sort of effort to carry the gospel to Thibet, none at all; I will just fold my arms and say that when the good time comes the Lord will open the door and the Lord will carry it there and the Lord’s people then can pray to him and he will open the door.” The Lord will not answer such a prayer, nor does this promise cover any such a petition. If ye love me, keep my commandments; and I will send you another Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.”

What a strange thing, the conception some people have of prayer It is just about the same as some people have about the church, that it is an ingenious contrivance prepared by the Lord Jesus Christ to prevent the accomplishment of his ends, and so they think that prayer is another device which God gives to encourage human idleness and to bring about a state of deadly moral inertia and that will be a premium upon sleep, and that will say to the man that shuns to do what God tells him to do, “Why, all you have to do is just to pray.” So the miser shuts his eyes when the box for mission contributions approaches him, but sings the louder, “Fly abroad, thou mighty gospel!

Now let us look at the other limitation suggested here: “And I will pray the Father and he will send you another Comforter.” “When you wanted to know what to do while I was with you, you asked me. After I go away, when you want know what to do, you ask him.” You come to a difficulty, and hard by the difficulty is a promise, and if the Lord Jesus Christ were present, you would say to Jesus, “Here is a difficulty and here is a promise. Would it be lawful to plead this promise in view of that difficulty?” But he says, “You cannot come to me with a question of that kind after I go away from here, but I will send you someone to whom you shall carry questions of that kind.”

And the fact of the presence of the Holy Spirit suggests the other limitation. What is it? Anything that you ask of me that is Spirit-prompted, I will do. Is that true? Listen! I will read you from the Book itself, the eighth chapter of Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helpeth our infirmities, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the heart knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”

Now, if the Lord Jesus Christ were present and I saw a great big promise held out, and I wanted to utilize that promise of God to get rid of a certain difficulty, I would step right up to him and ask him to say if this was a pertinent case.

Suppose I ask this: “Will it be according to the will of God?” Just as when the mother of Zebedee’s children came and said, “Lord, I want to ask you something. I have a petition to present to you.” Well, what is it?” “That my son James should have the place on thy right hand in thy kingdom.” He frankly tells her that it is not a case in point – that there is nothing particular in the doing of this thing, in the partiality shown to James or John, that will in any way glorify the Father in the Son, and therefore that petition does not legitimately come under the promise. He was there to explain.

Now he is away and I want to offer a prayer under this promise. I want the prayer to be according to the will of God; that is to say, the prayer must correspond to the end that is to be accomplished by its granting. The prayer must be correlative with the merit upon which it is obtained. There must be harmony between what I ask for and the basis upon which I obtain it. And I don’t know whether this prayer would fit that way or not and Jesus is not here for me to ask him, but the Holy Spirit is, and as I don’t know what to pray for, nor how to pray for it, and I want my prayer to be according to the will of God, I go to the Holy Spirit.

What then is meant by the saying that the Holy Spirit maketh intercession for the saints? That does not mean that the Holy Spirit acts as a mediator between us and Jesus Christ, but it means this, that the Holy Spirit is on earth here, our Teacher, in the place of the Teacher that is gone, and that as that Teacher, when he was here, taught his disciples how to pray and what to pray for, the Spirit now takes his place as the other Paraclete and teaches us what to pray for and how to pray for it.

How does he do this? He does this by impressions made on the mind, made on the heart, impressions that you feel. Do you know what that means? I have heard some of you say, “I feel like my prayers do not go any higher than my head.” And then I have heard you say at other times, “I felt as I prayed that my petition took hold of the throne of almighty God.” Why did you feel that way? There was One teaching you what to pray for and how to pray. There was an Instructor invisible to human sight and inaudible to human ears, but visible to faith, who had your heart under his omnipotent influence and who, with groanings unutterable, was directing your mind unto the things to be asked for that would be in accordance with the will of God.

Then perhaps somebody will say, “If this broad promise is limited that much it takes the whole of it away.” It does take it all away if what you want with prayer is simply to gratify your lust; if it is simply to minister unto your carnal desires; if it is simply to add to your selfish accretions. Then it does you no good. There is no promise to you in it.

I close with this illustration: The disciples observed Jesus praying. There was something in the manner of his praying, and there was something in the confidence with which he prayed, and there was something in his face that showed that he received what he prayed for, all of which impressed them that such praying as they had learned of the Jews was no praying at all; that it was only saying a prayer; that it was not praying. Hence they come right up and say, “Lord, teach us to pray,”

I took that lesson last night, the last thing that I did be fore I went to bed, and, getting down on my knees, I said, “O Holy Spirit, whose presence touches my very being, and whose presence is to guide me into all truth, just as Jesus would do if he were present here upon the earth, O Holy Spirit, impress upon my mind so that I will feel it and realize Christ’s lesson on prayer.” And I got up and took the lesson. You ask me to tell you how to pray. You ask me to teach you how to pray and what to pray for. Well, I will do it. Now listen: “Our Father.” You are going to ask for some desirable thing. What is it? “Hallowed be thy name.” Is that what you want? Yes, you want the name of God hallowed in reverence all over this earth; regarded not with profanity, but with reverence. Do you want that? Or do you want the Lord to give you a horse and buggy?

What else? Lord, teach me how to pray, “Father, thy kingdom come.” Now, that will glorify the Father in the Son, and “Whatsoever ye ask in my name, I will do it.” “Thy kingdom come.” But “the kingdom of God does not consist in meat and drink, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” “Thy kingdom come to the Japanese, to the inhabitants of Thibet, to China, to Alaska, to Labrador, to the jungles of darkest Africa and to the slums of England. Thy kingdom come to every destitute mission field in Texas. Lord, I want, I desire, I thirst for, I pray for the coming of thy kingdom.”

Well, let me see if you do: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” “I have told you to carry my gospel to them. Are you doing it? Is the spirit of obedience on you when you ask that my kingdom come, and are you working to that end? If not, how dare you, you idle, stingy, narrow, contracted, shriveled up, inert professors of religion, say ‘Thy kingdom come’?”

What else? “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Is that what you want, or do you just want the Lord to give you a dozen new dresses, or do you want that your hand may be on the neck of your enemy, or do you want to ask the Lord that you and yours shall receive temporal greatness, and other people should become the foundation upon which that greatness stands? Thy will be done upon earth as it is in heaven.” That harmonizes with all the conditions.

Well, it is a pretty solemn thing to raise questions about the things that I desire. Is not the hallowing of God’s name, is not the coming of God’s kingdom, is not the doing of the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven, a very great desideratum? And didn’t Christ die that these things might be done? Therefore there is a correspondence between the predicate of the prayer and the thing asked for. If these things be done, will they not glorify the Father in the Son? Therefore is there not correspondence? So I find out that I have been desiring a great many things that related simply to myself and that his promise did not touch.

Again, “Give me for today my daily bread.” “But, Lord, I have thought that I ought to have about six years’ rations laid up in advance.” The Lord may enable you to do that, but there is no use to pray for it. What you want to pray for is your present need. You do not today need bread for six years hence. “Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” You pray this: “Give me for today the bread for today.” What else? “Lead me not into temptation,” but “if ye love me keep my commandments.” The commandment was, “Go not in the way of sinners,” for if you go in the way of sinners, you are liable to fall into the errors of sinners. If you sit in the seat of the scornful, if you walk in the counsel of the ungodly, if you stand in the way of sinners, you are likely to fall into temptation. But do I say, “Lord, lead me not into temptation,” while not keeping his commandments? Do I go in the way of sinners, and put myself in danger, and thrust myself right into the lion’s jaw when there is no need for it, and then do I say, “O Lord, don’t let the lion bite me?” Deliver me from the evil one.”

As the Lord said to the devil, “I will turn Job over to you, but don’t you touch his life.” I will admit that the evil one cannot blot your name out of the Lamb’s book of life; but if you do violate God’s commandments, it may be necessary, as it was necessary in the case of that Corinthian, to turn you over to the buffetings of Satan for a while, that you may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. But now I pray, “Deliver me from the evil one. Lord, don’t let him buffet me.”

“Well, if you love me, keep my commandments, and I will send you the Holy Spirit. The evil one shall not triumph over you. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” But have you resisted him? Or have you gone into his haunts, and kept company with his people? Have you adopted their maxims of business? Have you loved card parties and theaters more than you have loved prayer meetings? And have you gone outside of the highway on which the Lord said no lion shall roar? And have you gone out here in the jungle which is the home of the lion, and now say, “O Lord, don’t let the lion roar at me?

I have tried, brethren, to set before you this promise. Oh, it is broad; it is mighty. It is broad enough to cover the whole earth. It is high enough to fill the whole earth, from its central cavity to the stars, with the glory of God. It is broad enough to fill the whole world, from the rivers to the ends of the earth, with the knowledge of God. It is broad enough to carry messages of life and salvation to all of the ignorant and the superstitious and the benighted and the perishing and the sick and the imprisoned. It is broad enough to carry comfort to every broken heart and to strike the chains off of every prisoner and to lift out from under the down-pressing foot of Satan the bursting hearts of his victims, and stand them up in the liberty of God, freed, and absolved from sin. It is broad enough for that, and for all of it.

Now, can we not claim it? Can we not lay aside the things that we selfishly want, and seek, according to the will of God, the outpouring of the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who this day stands over us, holding omnipotence in his right hand, his left hand holding omnipresence, and from his heart going out infinite love, and saying, “I will do anything whatsoever; I will do it. Ask me to do it.” Who can ask him? Who can present a petition in harmony with the end that will tend to glorify the Father in Jesus Christ? Let him, Spirit prompted, offer this day the prayer of faith.