The following sermon was preached at Sandy Cove Ministries on January 8, 2023. It concluded the Capital Presbyterian Family’s Young Adult Retreat, which focused on the spiritual discipline of praying Scripture. You can listen to a recording of the sermon by clicking here or by clicking the picture above. The text for this message is John 17:1-26, included below.
1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
This morning, we’re going to be sticking with the theme of spiritual disciplines. We’ve spent this weekend focusing in on one particular spiritual discipline, and one particular way to practice it—praying Scripture. That’s a beautiful thing we’d all do well to grow in. It can be easy to get wrapped up in practice/technique or in responsibility that we lose sight of the heart of spiritual discipline. And of course, for the Christian, at the heart of spiritual discipline is the person of Christ. Jesus is the perfect model of spiritual discipline (and the perfect model of praying Scripture) but he’s also far more than that. As we cry out to God using his word, let’s also see the way Christ calls out about us—the ways that Jesus prays for you.
What I want to focus on today is Christ’s heart for you and how that changes our approach to spiritual discipline. Here’s the main point this morning: Spiritual discipline is not persuasive, it’s responsive. First, we’ll look at what it means for spiritual discipline to be persuasive and why that’s not the right approach. Then we’ll look at what it means for spiritual discipline to be responsive and why that matters for us.
The Persuasive Approach
Let’s first start with the persuasive approach, and this is the one I think we’re all naturally inclined to take. Here’s what I mean by that: I think that if I can crush it at my spiritual disciplines then that will persuade God to love me. That’s self-evidently wrong; if you’re a Christian, that should set off some red flags. It might also sound familiar, like the traditional description of “works-based salvation” but it’s actually a little different. I think at its heart it’s less a works-based salvation and more a works-based assurance. Let’s talk about “works-based salvation” for a minute because I think it can illustrate the danger of the persuasive approach.
One of the common ways Christians through the centuries have illustrated salvation by grace is by describing themselves as beggars—homeless, poor, needy, but adopted by a glorious and loving king. That analogy gives us a beautiful picture of salvation by grace alone, but works-based salvation looks ludicrous when we think of ourselves as beggars. Let me give you an illustration.
Imagine a homeless person who’s got no education, no family, and not a dollar to their name, but they’ve got a dream. This person desperately wants to be a prince or princess, so they make it their life’s goal to persuade the king he should adopt them. Whether it’s flattery with endless compliments or demonstration of one’s qualifications and loyalty, this beggar desperately attempts to capture the attention of the king. But of course, the beggar looks utterly ridiculous. There’s no way this person has what it takes to be a prince or princess, and in fact, it’s a category error. Becoming a prince or a princess isn’t a matter of qualification, it’s a matter of affection.
The picture we get from salvation by grace is very different. A king goes out into the world, finds a beggar, and out of the love in his heart for this person brings them into his family. It’s not a picture of wild ambition from the bottom up, it’s a picture of radical love from the top down. That’s salvation by grace alone—that is the gospel. But even if you’re fully on board with salvation by grace alone, you still might implicitly fall into the trap of works-based assurance.
Let’s go back to the beggar illustration. Assume the salvation by grace picture, the king adopts the beggar out of his radical love. Now let’s focus on the beggar. This man or woman is probably shocked at the insane blessing they’ve just received—“I just went from being homeless on the street with no food or clothing to being one of the most wealthy and powerful people in the whole world.” In that moment, their heart can go one of two directions. Either A) They think, “Wow, I’ve got the most marvelous king in the world.” Or B) They think, “Wow, this king must have really seen something in me. I need to step up my game!” If their heart turns to the latter, they run headlong into the persuasive approach.
Here’s what that looks like. They start studying every book they can find in the king’s library, they wanna know the family history front and back. They hire a tutor to teach them proper grammar and new vocabulary so they can sound like the rest of the king’s family. They start practicing table manners so they fit in at the table. And on and on. They’re doing all this work as desperately and as quickly as possible in an attempt to prove they were worthy of their adoption.
This is what the persuasive approach to spiritual discipline looks like. It’s using spiritual disciplines and religious fervor in an attempt to persuade God he made the right decision in saving you. Or maybe, you’re not trying to persuade God—maybe you’re trying to persuade your friends or your family or your church that you really are a good Christian. OR, maybe you’re really trying to persuade yourself—that God actually loves you, that you have the Holy Spirit in your heart, that you’re not going to hell, that you really are a child of God.
Friends, if this feels familiar, if you find yourself wondering these same things or pursuing spiritual disciplines for the same reasons, let me ask you: Who are you trying to convince? Who are you trying to prove your faith to? Because the reality is, God doesn’t need convincing. God doesn’t need to be persuaded he made the right choice in adopting you. He knows he did. And it’s not because you deserved it. It’s because he loves you. He simply, perfectly loves you. How do we know that’s true? You might be sitting there thinking, “Patrick I’ve heard this before, I’ve been told I don’t need to prove myself to God, but it really feels like I do. How can I know God still loves me, even after all these years of being a Christian who still struggles with sin?” The answer is simple but profound: look at Jesus.
Jesus Praying for Us
Not just “Look to Jesus—for salvation, for forgiveness, for grace.” Of course, do that, because he’s the endless fountain of grace. But what I’m saying is look at Jesus, look at how he loves you. That’s why our passage this morning is John 17; we get to look at Jesus in the final moment of his earthly life. And what do we see him doing? Praying for us. In his final moments of peace in quiet before all the insanity of his passion, Jesus was praying for you, Christian. Look at the text with me.
This is at the end of what’s called the “Upper Room Discourse” when Jesus lays out everything that’s about to happen. He’s prepping the disciples for the insanity of the next three days and also for the apostolic age, when they’re sent to the ends of the world with the gospel message. Jesus is making sure they’re crystal clear on what that gospel is. And just as everything clicks for them, Jesus offers up this prayer. In 1-5 he tells it like it is: “The hour is come, Father. The time for me to earn salvation for all the people we love is here.” In verse 5, Jesus prays for the Father to glorify him in his presence as he returns to heaven victorious over death. That’s the only prayer he offers for himself; the rest of the chapter is Jesus offering up prayers for his disciples.
From 6-19 his focus shifts to his disciples, including the eleven apostles and his other followers like Mary and Martha. Then he expands his focus to include all believers including us; we’re all down the pipeline of these disciples’ message. Notice two things here: what he prays and how he prays. First, consider what he prays. Simply, he prays we might be secure as sons and daughters of God. For the disciples he prays three things: “Keep them in your name” (11) “Don’t take them out of the world, but keep them from the evil one” (15) “sanctify them in the truth” (17). He’s praying for their protection—that they might not fall away, but hold fast to the eternal life that he’s won for them. And for their sanctification—that they might grow more like Jesus, more united to God and each other. For us Jesus prays “that they may all be one” and “that they may be in us” (21) “that they may be with me where I am” (24). He’s praying for unity with each other and with God—all bounded together in perfect love. And for our eternal reunion—that one day we will truly, physically, locally be with God forever.
Those are beautiful prayers, but see also how he prays. You could find a lot of qualities, but I was drawn to these three. First, Jesus prays with confidence—he knows the Father loves him and so he brings his requests boldly. Next, he prays with expectation—Jesus can’t wait for his Father to answer these prayers. Finally, Jesus prays with great affection—Jesus could have prayed this silently, but he offers it in their hearing “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (17:13). He wants them to know how much he loves them.
Friends, this is why I want us to look at Jesus. Because when we fix our eyes on Christ, we realize that we’re actually making eye contact with him—he’s looking right at us. We don’t have to fight for his attention, we don’t have to make a spectacle of ourselves to hold his audience. We realize that even before we started looking at him, his eyes were locked on us with an intense love.
Have you ever had that moment where you’re walking into a crowded room and you’re looking for one person and you keep scanning the room trying to figure out where they are, and when you finally see the person you’ve been looking for, they’re already looking right at you. They’re probably waving at you because they saw you walk in the room and they’ve just been staring you down until you noticed. That’s the faintest shadow of our Lord’s heart for you—that’s what defines our whole relationship with God. When we meet Jesus in worship, he’s already singing over us with his own joyous love song (Zeph 3, Song of Songs). As we come to him in repentance, he’s already advocating for our innocence before the Father (Hebrews 4). As we cry out to him in prayer, we find him already praying on our behalf (John 17, Luke 22:31). He sees you. And he loves you.
And lest you think this was just a one-time thing here in John 17, look at the last verse. Jesus makes a promise: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus isn’t just saying this with reference to the cross. He’s never stopped continuing to make the Father’s name known to us. Hebrews 7:25 says “he always lives to make intercession for them.” Romans 8:34 says “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding (present tense, continuous, ongoing interceding) for us.” Jesus is still looking at you and his heart is still overflowing with delight. This is what serves as the foundation for the responsive approach to spiritual disciplines.
The Responsive Approach
So what is the responsive approach? The responsive approach is growing in spiritual disciplines because God loves you and you love him. It’s resting in the knowledge that you have nothing to prove to God. When you sit down to have a quiet time, or when you pray for your friends, or when you’re listening to worship music, you’re not being graded. Instead, your pursuit of the spiritual disciplines are in response to the radical love our king showed in adopting you. And let’s remember exactly what this love looked like: The king’s high prince himself became a beggar, so that we beggars could become princes. The Father sent his only begotten Son Jesus so that you and I could become sons and daughters.
Christian, hear me: you have been adopted. You are a child of God. The king has given you a new name, Jesus made known to you the Father’s name, and will continue to make it known. And the thought of disowning you has never once crossed his mind. The persuasive approach comes out of a beggar’s heart—even though they’ve already been adopted, they can’t believe they’re actually secure, and so they try to guarantee their status as a child of God through their works. The responsive approach comes out of a child’s heart—even though I still might look like a beggar and act like a beggar and maybe even smell like a beggar, I know for sure I’ve been adopted by the king. And so spiritual disciplines aren’t about proving anything, they’re about learning our new family culture, growing in our new family traditions, learning how to be a child of God by imitating our oldest brother Jesus.
Locking eyes with Jesus
When we come to application, fortunately we’ve just spent a whole weekend on learning how to pray the Scriptures. So let’s keep running with that. Two things for you to consider, just like how we broke down John 17: what you can pray and how you can pray.
What can you pray? The Scripture! Try out John 17 today when you get home, and try praying through Mark as we continue our series.
How can you pray? Like Jesus. If spiritual discipline is all about becoming more like Christ, let’s follow his example from John 17. First, with confidence—do you come to God as a beggar trying to earn the right to be heard or as a child adopted out of love? Second, with expectation—Jesus tells us our Heavenly Father delights in giving good gifts to his children. When you ask for a fish, do you expect a snake? Do you anticipate God ignoring your prayers? What might it look like to pray with expectation like Jesus? And finally, with great affection—you’ve been adopted by the most magnificent, wonderful king in the world. Reflect that love back to him!
One closing note: If you’re struggling to feel Christ’s heart for you, check out Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund. This book more than any other book I’ve ever read has helped me understand the heart of Christ for me. That’s what will transform your approach to spiritual disciplines: looking at Jesus and seeing him look right back at you with love. Let’s go to him now in prayer.
* * *
Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund