"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened Unto you; For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."
Matthew 7:7, 8
Verses 7 to 11 contain the eighth division of our Lord's Sermon. Every commentator we have consulted thereon regards the passage as dealing solely with the subject of prayer: personally we deem such a view to be an undue narrowing of its scope. While the supplicating of God be undoubtedly the principal duty enjoined therein, it is not the only one. It seems to us that its theme is the seeking supplies of grace to enable the believer to live a spiritual and supernatural life in this world, and though such enablement is to be sought from the throne of grace, yet that does not render needless or exempt the Christian from diligently employing the other means of grace which God has appointed for the blessing of His people. Prayer must not be allowed to induce lethargy in other directions or become a lazy substitute for the putting forth of our energies in other duties. We are called upon to watch as well as pray, to deny self, strive against sin, take unto us the whole armor of God, and fight the good fight of faith.
What has been suggested above concerning the scope of our present passage will be the more apparent by viewing it in relation to its whole context. From 5:20, onwards, Christ had presented a standard of moral excellence which is utterly unattainable by mere flesh and blood. He had inculcated one requirement after another, which it lies not in the power of fallen human nature to meet. He had forbidden an opprobrious word, a malignant wish, an impure desire, a revengeful thought. He had enjoined the most unsparing mortification of our dearest members (5:29, 30). He had commanded the loving of our enemies, the blessing of those who curse us, the doing good unto those who hate us, and the praying for those who despitefully use and persecute us (5:44). In view of which the Christian may well exclaim, "Who is sufficient for these things?" Such demands of holiness are beyond my feeble strength: yet the Lord has made them—what then am I to do?
Coming nearer still to our passage we find that in the opening verses of chapter vii Christ gave two apparently contradictory commands. First, He says, "Judge not, that ye be not judged": abstain from forming harsh estimates and passing censorious censures on your fellows. Second, "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs": discriminate sharply between the clean and the unclean, that you may not be guilty of obliterating the line which God has drawn between the righteous and the wicked. But to steer safely between such rocks as these requires not only spiritual strength but spiritual wisdom, such wisdom as the natural man possesses not. What then is the poor believer to do? The Lord here anticipates this difficulty and meets this perplexity. He is well aware that, in our own wisdom and strength, we are incapable of keeping His commands, but He at once reminds us that the things which are ordinarily impossible to men can be made possible to them by God.
Divine assistance is imperative if we are to meet the Divine requirements. The Divine assistance is to be sought prayerfully, believingly, diligently and persistently, and if it be thus sought it will not be sought in vain. It was then for the obtaining of supplies of Divine grace and heavenly strength that our Lord now exhorted and encouraged His disciples. "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (7:7). In the foregoing chapter Christ had touched upon the subject of prayer in a way of warning, but here He refers to it as the appointed channel for obtaining supplies of grace to obey those precepts which are so contrary to flesh and blood. First He had given instructions concerning the duty of prayer, but now He supplies gracious encouragements for the exercise of it. Nevertheless, it is clear from the general tenor of scripture that every other legitimate means must be employed if we are to obtain the strength and help we so much need.
"Ask, and it shall be given you." Few texts have been more grossly perverted than this one. Many have regarded it as a sort of blank cheque which anybody, no matter what his state of soul or manner of walk may be, can fill in just as he pleases, and he has only to present the same before the throne of grace and God stands pledged to honour it. Such a travesty of the Truth would not deserve refutation were it not trumpeted about so extensively. James 4:3, expressly affirms, "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss."Such are those who seek this world first and then hope to make sure of the world to come. Such are those who beg for mercy but refuse to forsake their sins (Prov. 28:9), who seek salvation in a way of their own devising—by a more flesh-pleasing method than that of the holy Gospel; or who come in their own name in contempt of the appointed Mediator. They "ask amiss" and receive not who make request for what God has not promised, or who seek formally and hypocritically without any deep-felt need of what they ask for.
Thus our text provides the minister of the Gospel with an admirable opportunity for heeding the exhortation of the previous verse and seeing to it that, in his interpretation and application, he refrains from giving that which is holy unto the dogs or casting pearls before swine. "Ask, and it shall be given you" is very far from affording carte blanche to all and sundry. It is a supplicating supplies of Divine grace which is here in view, and, moreover, there must be a right asking (and not an asking "amiss ") if such are to be obtained; but this right asking is impossible for the unregenerate, for not only are they totally incapable of asking in faith, but to seek for Divine grace is diametrically opposed to their very nature and disposition. Grace is the antithesis of sin, a holy principle, and since the natural man is wholly in love with sin, it is impossible that he should have any love for or desire after that which is radically opposed to sin. The thistle cannot bear grapes, nor can a heart at enmity with God pant after conformity to Him.
It needs then to be made unmistakably clear that right seeking after grace presupposes right desires for it, but the unregenerate are, in the habitual temper of their heart, strangers to all spiritual aspirations. To have genuine desires after the thing and an entire contrariety to it in the whole soul and at the same time is a direct contradiction. To that it may be rejoined, How then will you explain the anomaly of some worldlings having at times an apparently hearty desire after grace, so that they even persuade themselves they sincerely and earnestly long for it? Easily: it is because they are ignorant of the true nature of grace, unaware that it is a holy principle, and therefore they have framed a false image of it in their fancies, and for this fictitious "grace"—which makes light of sin, which grants an indulgence for the lusts of the flesh—they have a relish, for it is thoroughly in accord with their corrupt nature.
Many who sit under antinomian preaching are led to believe that God is willing to save sinners without them forsaking their idols, throwing down the weapons of their warfare against Him; without repentance. They know not that salvation is not only a passport to heaven, but that it is a first deliverance from the love and dominion of sin, that the grace of God which brings salvation is a holy principle that effectually teaches its subjects to "deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world" (Titus 23:11, 12). Did these deluded people but distinctly apprehend the true character of grace, then their native contrariety thereto would be no longer hid from them. Did not the Pharisees verily believe they loved God and revered His Law? Yet they hated the Son of God, who was the express image of the Father, and came into the world to honour His Law; they must therefore have held erroneous notions of God and His Law, as many now do of His grace.
But if we plainly announce that no unregenerate person can lay claim to the promise of our text, will not such teaching take from the poor sinner all motive to pray unto God and do anything else? Such a question betrays either a woeful ignorance or else a declination to face the facts of the case. So long as the sinner remains in his natural condition he cares not one jot for God, nor will he engage in any religious duty except for what he thinks he will gain thereby. Let such a creature have a hundred motives to pray (excruciating pain of body, the suffering of a loved one, the approach of death, or pleadings of friends who assure him he has merely to ask God for mercy and he will receive it) and he will only serve self and not God at all. To tell the ungodly that such a promise as Matthew 7:7, 8, belongs to them is to throw dust into their blind eyes, hiding from them the desperateness of their plight, glossing over the solemn truth that while they are wedded to their lusts they are the objects of God's holy abhorrence and can have no access to Him.
Alas, where shall a faithful physician of souls be found today? The vast majority of those who occupy the modern pulpit, instead of using the lancet and knife and the Divine Law, please their unregenerate hearers with soothing syrup or anesthetics, preaching smooth things to them and crying "Peace, peace" when there is none. What encouragement can the thrice holy God, consistently with His honour, give to those who live solely for the pleasing of themselves? At most this: "Repent, and pray God . . if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee" (Acts 8:22). The wickedness of man's heart is such as no human language can depict, and unless man sincerely repents of the same there is no hope for him. The business of God's servants is not to bestow false comfort, but to slay false confidence: not to persuade those who lie under the wrath of God that they may be delivered therefrom by betaking themselves to prayer, but faithfully and honestly to let their unsaved hearers know the worst of their case.
It is not without good reason that we find Matthew 7:6, 7, in juxtaposition. The Saviour with His Divine omniscience foresaw the misuse which would be made of this precious promise, "Ask and it shall be given you," and therefore He placed this emphatic warning immediately before it: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine." Thus they are without excuse who have so sadly perverted this blessed promise of God's Word. That which needs to be pressed upon promiscuous congregations today is the very same as Christ proclaimed in the hearing of "the multitudes" (5:1; 7:28), namely the spirituality of Gods Law, the searching nature of its requirements, the breadth and depth of its holy demands as set forth in Matthew 5:17—7:5. Not until the hearer is humbled beneath the mighty hand of God, not until he sees how completely he has failed to meet the Divine requirements, not until he feels he is both "without excuse" and "without strength," is he a fit subject for the comfort of our text.
And now we must address ourselves to the genuine Christian, the one in whom a miracle of Divine mercy and power has been wrought, the one whose self-complacency and self-sufficiency have been shattered, the one who has been given "repentance unto life." Such a one has had his eyes opened to see that the Law of God is "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12), that though it condemns and curses him yet it is righteous and excellent. Such a one has had communicated to him a love for that Law (Ps. 119:174) and therefore a longing to live in full conformity thereto. Yet such a one still finds himself utterly unable to measure up to the exalted standard set before him. Nay, he discovers to his grief that there is still a principle within him which is directly opposed to the Law, that when he would do good evil is present to prevent him. He finds to his perplexity and sorrow that indwelling corruption is stronger than all his resolutions not to yield thereto, that his lusts rage more fiercely than ever, that iniquities prevail over him. He is bewildered, staggered.
It is to such a one as we have just described, and to none other, that Christ says, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. You need Divine power to subdue your raging lusts, you need Divine quickening to animate your feeble graces, you need Divine wisdom to solve your perplexities, you need Divine ointment for your wounds, so address yourself to "your Father which is in heaven" (v. 11), spread before Him your need, acquaint Him with the longings of your soul, beg Him to relieve your wants, and you will not supplicate Him in vain. Ah, this is what genuine prayer, real prayer, is, my reader. It is not merely the formal or mechanical performance of a religious exercise; it is not simply the stringing together of pious expressions couched in eloquent language: rather is it looking outside of ourselves and seeking help from above. True prayer is artless, spontaneous, the irrepressible cry of a soul in need. Prayer is the voicing of urgent longing of soul; it is the heart turning to the Author of those longings for the satisfying of them.
"Ask." How Divinely simple! Ask, as the hungry child does for its mother's breast. Ask, as the starving beggar does for a crust of bread. Ask, as the lost traveler does the first one whom he meets. "Ask, and it shall be given you." How Divinely encouraging! Ask of God, for He "giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not." Ask, for He "is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Eph. 3:20). But "let him ask in faith, nothing wavering: for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. Let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord" (Jas. 1:6, 7). To "ask in faith" is to ask with confidence in God, with reliance upon His veracity, laying hold of His promise, pleading it before Him and expecting an answer of peace. To "ask in faith" is to say humbly but boldly unto the Lord, Thou hast promised Thy child, "Ask, and it shall be given you": I beg to remind Thee of that promise, now "do as Thou hast said" (2 Sam. 7:25).
But we hear more than one of our readers saying, I have asked, yet, alas, I have not received. Yea, my case is worse than it was before. So far from having more grace I have less; so far from increased strength I am weaker; so far from being granted victory over my lusts I am more frequently and woefully defeated than ever. Be it so, is that proof your prayers have not been heard? You prayed for more grace, may not the answer have been given in the form of increased light, so that instead of your case being worse now than it was formerly you perceive your sinfulness more clearly? And if that be so. is it not something to be thankful for? You prayed for overcoming grace, but possibly God saw you were in far greater need of humbling grace, and if He has granted you a measure of the latter so that you are farther out of love with yourself and brought more into the dust before Him, surely that is proof that your asking has not been in vain!
Yes, says the reader, that may be true, and God forbid that I should despise small mercies, but surely you would not have me rest content with such a Christ-dishonoring experience. Answer, you must not look upon humility and mourning over your corruptions as "small mercies": they are distinguishing favors which mark you as belonging to another family than the self-righteous Pharisees and self-satisfied Laodiceans. It is much to be thankful for if God hides pride from you and keeps you low before Him. And what do you mean by your "Christ-dishonoring experience"? Are you aware that there is still a spirit within you which lusts after independence and self-sufficiency? Would you, if you could, attain to some experience wherein you would feel less deeply your dire need of Christ? They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick! Christ is most honored when we prize most highly His sacrifice, when we avail ourselves most gladly of His cleansing blood, when we come to Him for healing and strength.
But is not Christ able to impart spiritual health as well as bestow spiritual healing? Assuredly He is. Then is it not my privilege to ask Him for spiritual health? Certainly, yet in subordination to His sovereign pleasure, for He knows the degree of health which will be best for you. But observe the terms of our text: something more than "asking" is required of thee—"seek, and ye shall find." That word "seek" may be regarded two ways. First, as a higher degree of the former, an intensification of the "asking." There must be an earnest and fervent asking if we are to obtain: "ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13). Second, it enlarges its scope: seeking is more extensive than praying. He who sincerely longs for grace to equip for spiritual duties must leave no stone unturned. The Word must be read, studied, memorized, meditated upon. The Word must be heard if a faithful minister be accessible. The writings of godly men of the past are often a great help. "While I was musing the fire burned."
"Knock, and it shall be opened unto you." The thought suggested to us by this clause is that grace is not to be come at easily. It is as though the earnest asker and diligent seeker is now confronted by a closed door. Even so, says Christ, be not discouraged and dismayed, continue your quest, "knock." There are times when it seems as though God turns away from us, hides Himself, and we have no access to Him. This is to test our sincerity, to try our earnestness, to put us to the proof as to whether we long for His grace as much as we imagine. If we do, discouragements will only serve to redouble our efforts. When the four men who bore one sick of the palsy could not come near Christ because of the press, they broke through the roof and let down the bed whereon the man lay, and so far from Christ being displeased with their importunity, when He "saw their faith" He said unto the sick of the palsy "Son, thy sins be forgiven thee" (Mark 2:4, 5). Faith refuses to be deterred and continues asking, seeking, knocking until its requests be granted.