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Obedience, Abiding, and Answered Prayer

Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). John said something similar in his first epistle: “and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22). Clearly, both Jesus and John want us to understand that obedience is fundamental to effective prayer. But what exactly is the relationship between piety and prayer? The answer is found in a closer look at 1 John 3:21-22.

Confidence that God receives us warmly to himself is essential to a vibrant and vigorous prayer life. “We can have no more faith that our prayers are heard,” wrote John Owen, “than we have faith that our persons are accepted” (“Several Practical Cases of Conscience Resolved: Discourse VII,” The Works of John Owen, IX:380). As long as there are doubts and misgivings in our hearts, prayer will prove difficult, if not impossible. It is the assurance of our acceptance with God that generates a confident and therefore fruitful approach to him in prayer. John had this in view when he wrote, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:21). And the blessing that flows from a conscience at ease before God is answered prayer from God (and “whatever we ask we receive from him”).

John is not saying that God hears and answers our prayers merely because we have a clear conscience or because we lack feelings of guilt. “There is an objective, moral reason, namely ‘because we keep his commandments, and,’ more generally, ‘do those things that are pleasing in his sight’” (John Stott, Epistles of John, 149). Does this mean that obedience is the meritorious cause of answered prayer? Was John suggesting that prayer operates on the basis of a quid pro quo (“this for that” or “something for something”) in which we do this for God (obey) and he does that for us (answer prayers)? No.

The solution begins with the reminder that on several occasions, in both his Gospel and his First Epistle, John linked abiding (or “remaining”) in Christ with obedience to Christ (some would say he identifies them). We see this in John 15 as well as in 1 John 2:3-6, 10, 24, 27-29; 3:6, 9, and especially 3:24 (“whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him”). John obviously has in mind a deeply intimate and harmonious relationship between the believer and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In this sort of relationship, our will is one with his. We want what he wants. This unity of our wills with his is manifest outwardly in that we live the way God wants us to live. If we persist in disobedience to his commands, clearly there is a conflict between his will and ours. On the other hand, if we are pursuing and practicing those things that we know are pleasing to him, it can only be because our will is, in a sense, indistinguishable from his. This is the key to what John and Jesus are saying.

The reason John is able to promise answered prayer to those who obey is because obedience is the visible evidence of an invisible harmony between God’s will and our own. The believer who wants what God wants, lives the life God loves, and therefore prays the prayer that God will answer.

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