The Scottish Reformer John Knox said that he cast his first anchor in this seventeenth chapter of John. In this chapter we find what is truly the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, commonly called “the Lord’s prayer,” was not used as a prayer by Jesus himself, and could not have been, for it contains a petition for forgiveness and our Lord never needed forgiveness for anything. But the prayer recorded in John 17 was prayed by our Lord, and contains many statements that would have been blasphemies on the lips of any one but him. Note the entire absence of confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness in this chapter. Christ was conscious of no sin requiring forgiveness; he was wholly without sin.
This is an official, rather than a personal prayer of our Lord, It is an expression of the intercessory function of his High Priestly office, which he exercised while on earth, and still continues to exercise in the glory of heaven today. The prayer is taken up with matters involved in the salvation and welfare of his people, whose sins he would soon bear in his atoning work on the cross of Calvary.
The Background of the Prayer
The background of Christ prayer is a scene laid in eternity, when the eternal Son of God lived in glory with the Father, “before the world was,” verse 5. Even before the universe was created, when nothing existed except the Triune God, a plan was made. It was a very comprehensive plan, including the whole sweep of human history. In fact, it included every event that ever comes to pass, down to the fall of each individual sparrow and numbering of the hairs of each of God’s children. The decree or purpose to create the world, and the human race in it, were parts of this great plan.
Another part was the scheme of probation or testing of the human race which we call “The Covenant of Works.” Another part was the decree to permit evil to enter the world, and permit the human race to min itself by falling into sin and apostasy from God. And most important of all was God’s great Plan of Salvation, the plan to bring lost and sinful humanity out of the estate of sin into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This Plan of Salvation took the form or a covenant, which is commonly called “The Covenant of Grace.” If we wish to consider it accurately, we must divide it into two parts, called “The Covenant of Redemption” and “The Covenant of Grace,” God the Father and God the Son covenanted together before the world was created, the Father covenanted to bestow eternal life and glory upon an innumerable multitude of human beings, elected or chosen from the total number of the human race. The Son covenanted to take himself a human nature, being born as a little child, to live a perfect life as a man, to fulfill all the righteousness of the law of God to pay the full penalty due to the justice of God for the sins of the elect, and to purchase for the elect the blessings of the Holy Spirit to apply this salvation to each of them in due time. This, in brief, was the Covenant of Redemption. .Built on this firm foundation was the Covenant of Grace, by which all the blessings of salvation are promised and applied to God’s elect people through the work of the Holy Spirit and the various means of grace (the Word, Sacraments and Prayer). All through this seventeenth chapter of John we see allusions to the Covenant of Redemption. We might even say that the theme of the chapter is our Savior’s report to the Father on how he had fulfilled his promises and obligations in that Covenant. Of course Christ had not yet been crucified; the great work of the Atonement had not yet taken place. Yet it is spoken of in this chapter as an accomplished fact (verse 4, compare chapter 19, verse 30) because it would be accomplished very soon, and in the divine decree was absolutely certain to be accomplished.
The Scope of the Prayer
The whole Plan of Salvation hangs together as a self-consistent whole. God the Father’s decree of election, God the Son’s work of redemption, and God the Holy Spirit’s work of application, are all particular, not universal: they all provide for the infallible salvation of certain particular persons, not of mankind in general; and they provide not a mere “chance of salvation” but the absolute, unfailing certainty of it.
Recently I saw a little tract calculated to explain the doctrine of Election away. It said that God votes for you, Satan votes against you, and you cast the deciding vote. That is just like saying “God elects those that elect themselves.” That is a popular doctrine today, but you will not find it in the Word of God. It is popular today to say that in saving men, God does not distinguish between one and another, but does everything that he does for any, to all alike. This idea is called a “Whosoever Gospel” by its advocates; but according to this teaching, Christ did not come to accomplish our salvation, but only to make it possible and give everyone a “chance” to be saved. Very different is the teaching of God’s Word. The saving operations of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not directed toward the possible salvation of all men in general, but are directed toward the certain salvation of particular persons, as Paul showed when he wrote in Galatians 2:20 “of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Now note how John seventeen represents the whole Plan of Salvation as particular, not general. Christ came to give eternal life, not to all, but to as many as the Father gave him (verse 2). These persons were given to Christ from out of the world (verse 6) . Christ prayed for these persons given to him by the Father, but he did not pray for all men in general (verse 9). The elect, for whom Christ prayed, included not merely believers in Christ, but people of future generations, who had not even been born or done anything at the time of Christ’s prayer (verse 20). Those whom the Father has given to Christ are to be with him to behold his heavenly glory (verse 24) . And these same persons are the recipients of a special experience of the divine love (verse 26).
Note, too, that the doctrine of Election, and the plan for salvation of particular persons of which it is a part, are not. as sometimes alleged limited to the Epistles of Paul. These truths are taught throughout the Bible, and nowhere more clearly and strongly than in the words of Jesus Christ himself.
For whom, then, did Christ pray? What is the scope of his prayer? He prayed for the elect, those given to him by the Father, those for whom he was about to lay down his life as a substitute on Calvary.
The Efficacy of Christ’s Intercession
No wonder John Knox found he could cast his anchor in this chapter. No wonder he found that that anchor held firm, regardless of the storms and billows of life. For it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one of Christ’s petitions to fail of its perfect fulfillment. His prayer is addressed to the Father. He was the beloved Son in whom the Father was well pleased. To this Son the Father had given power over all flesh, to guarantee eternal life to the elect (verse 2). The Son had glorified the father during his sojourn on this earth, by perfectly finishing the work given Him to do (verse 4). The terms and conditions of the Covenant had all been fulfilled. Because of this, the petitions of Christ, intercessory prayer are certain of fulfillment. Have we cast our anchor in this chapter? Do we have an interest in Christ’s intercession? Are we “of the world,” or are we of those whom the father has given to the Son, for whom Christ prayed? There is only one way to find out—to believe on Christ and continue with the means of grace until we attain to assurance of our personal salvation. We can never attain this by speculating about whether or not we are among the elect. We may think of salvation as a house, having both a foundation and a door. Election is the foundation, a very substantial one. But Christ is the door. If we try to enter through the foundation we will only harm ourselves in the attempt. But if we enter through the door, by faith in Christ, we may in due time attain assurance that we are indeed on the inside. And then it is a very comforting thought to realize that the foundation is a strong, stable one the decree of the omnipotent God.
The doctrine of God’s eternal predestination is so necessary to the Church of God that without the same faith cannot either be truly taught or surely established; man can never be brought to true humility and knowledge of himself, neither can he be ravished in admiration of God’s eternal goodness and so moved to praise him as he ought.
For first, there is no way more proper to build and establish faith than when we hear and believe that our election, which the Spirit of God seals in our hearts, consists not in ourselves, but in the eternal and unchangeable good pleasure of God. And that in such firmness that it cannot be overthrown, either by the ravaging storms of the world, nor by the assaults of Satan, neither yet by the wavering and weakness of our own flesh. Then only is our salvation in assurance, when we find the cause of the same in the bosom and counsel of God.
In Jesus Christ do we find liberty and life, and in the promises of his gospel is founded the stability of our salvation. But yet we have a joy which far surpasses this. For although we should feel that our hearts were somewhat moved to believe, yet only as the very cause of our faith be known can our comfort and joy be full. For if we shall think that we believe and have embraced Christ Jesus preached because our brains are better than the brains of others, and because we have a better inclination and are by nature more tractable than the common sort of men, Satan, I say, can easily overthrow all comfort built on so weak a ground. For it may be that those who today are tractable and obedient and have some zeal for godliness may shortly after sin and be left so barren that they rather tremble at the sight of God’s judgments than rejoice in the free adoption of his children. Therefore I say that except our comfort is grounded upon that foundation that never can be moved, it is not perfect. And that ground is this—when we understand that we now believe in Christ Jesus because we were ordained before the beginning of all times to believe in him, as in him we were elected to the society of eternal life (Romans 8:28-34; Eph. 1; II Thess. 2:13; et al). Then is our faith assuredly grounded, and that because the gifts and calling of God are without repentance, and he is faithful that called us. For however we are changeable, yet is God in his counsel (purpose) stable and unchangeable. The comfort of this none feel except the chosen children of God.
Therefore as faith springs from election, so is it established by the true knowledge of that doctrine only which this day is most furiously fought against by those who do not understand it. – JOHN KNOX