June, 2017

Prayer – R. L. Dabney

Prayer – R. L. Dabney

Robert Lewis Dabney was one of the most prolific and respected theologians of the Southern Presbyterian tradition. The Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield once wrote of Dabney, “Dr. Dabney was not only an influential statesman and a powerful ecclesiastical force, not only an acute philosopher and a profound theologian, but also a devoted Christian – which is best of all.”[1] Dabney was the chair of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Later, he would go on to found Austin Theological Seminary in Texas. His Systematic Theology was a helpful and novel text, perhaps, because it lacked any novelty. It included solid summaries of Calvin, Turretin, and above all the Westminster Confession on the gamut of theological topics accompanied with sound biblical exegesis.

And yet Dabney’s theological works are rarely read in the Presbyterian church today. Often Dabney is looked upon with suspicion and scorn. Toward the end of his life, Dabney himself would remark, “I have no audience.”[2] Regrettably, Dabney’s great works in theology is regularly dismissed because of his support for his native Virginia in the US Civil War and his support for the institution of slavery in America. Dabney wrote a piece defending his beloved Virginia and the South as a whole in its right to reject a growing secularized, centralized federal democracy that would trample the rights of the local and state powers. Had he stopped there, his point might have been well received. In his partisan fervor, Dabney wrote with a willful ignorance of the moral problems of slavery. His biblical defense of slavery is often pointed to as an example of how Biblicism fails in the real world, that the ethics of the Bible simply don’t work. But Dabney’s problem wasn’t that he was too biblical, it was that he was not biblical enough. Unfortunately, though, as Dr. Douglas Kelly points out, “Like all other fallen men, including theologians, he had blind spots where his devotion to the culture made it difficult for him to interpret the will of God.”[3] Ultimately, it is disappointing that the greatness of Dabney’s theological work is diminished because of his failure to properly see the sin in his own culture. It would be much better if we could simply begin by directing people to Dabney’s Systematic Theology instead of spending numerous words acknowledging that Dabney seriously and grievously missed the mark in some very important areas.

With the above preface, Dabney’s treatment on prayer in his Lectures in Theology is wonderful. Dabney’s lectures began with a series of questions and readings from a variety of theological works from which his students were to come to the lecture prepared to answer the questions. His lecture on prayer is essentially an unpacking of the Shorter Catechism question 98. “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

The proper object of prayer is God and God alone. God alone is the object of our prayers because only God is omniscient, all-wise, omnipresent, infinitely good, and almighty. No creature is able to satisfy these attributes, so no creature should receive our prayers. To do so would be to ascribe what is due only to God to a creature, which is idolatry.

Dabney notes that it is natural for man to want to pray. “Wherever there is religion, true or false, there is prayer. Even the speculative atheist, when pressed by danger, has been known to belie his pretended creed, by calling in anguish upon the God whom he has denied. This natural instinct of prayer reposes for its ground on God’s perfections, and man’s dependence and wants. And so long as these two facts remain what they are, man must be a prayer creature.”[4] And for the Christian, prayer springs forth from the wellspring of a relationship with the holy God. It is for the person who knows God and fears him as both our Father and our King.

Prayer is bringing our desires to God, but prayer does not change God. “Prayer is not intended to produce a change in God, but in us.”[5] As such it is a means of grace. God will use our prayers to effect his change in our world. Dabney likens it to a small skiff connected by a rope to a large ship. The person in the skiff can pull on the rope, but it doesn’t bring the large ship to the skiff. Instead, it brings the skiff to the large ship. Prayer is the rope. God has appointed prayer as an instrument of his spiritual influence in our lives.

Lastly, Dabney makes clear that the rule of prayer is the whole Word of God. “There is no part of Scripture which may not minister to the guidance of the Christian’s prayers.”[6] Prayer is homage to God, and God alone will determine what our worship is to look like. And he has spoken this to us through His Word. All of Scripture is to inform our prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer is the most immediate model.

[1] Quoted in David F. Wells, ed., Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 208.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 214.

[4] Robert Lewis Dabney, Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology (St Louis: Presbyterian Pub. Co. of St. Louis, 1878), 715.

[5] Ibid., 716.

[6] Ibid., 720.

Prayer – Thirty-Two Reasons for the Christian to Give Thanks

The English pastor and Bible commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714) completed a book on prayer just two years before his death. His work, A Method for Prayer, is the result of a life of meditating upon and praying through the Scriptures. Henry’s method for prayer was an outline that walked the Christian through prayers of Adoration, Confession, Petition, Thanksgiving, Intercession, and a Conclusion. Throughout each of these headings, he provides the content of the prayers from the Scriptures itself, because he hoped to give “an instance of the sufficiency of the scripture to furnish for us for every good work.”[1] Henry encourages the Christian to use God’s own words as the primary vocabulary for our words back to Him.

Under the heading for the Thanksgiving, Henry explains that we are to give thanks to God for all his goodness to us. He then lists 32 things different reasons for thanksgiving. Thinking through this list gives us ample reason to offer up prayers of thanksgiving to our generous God. I have listed a number of Henry’s reasons:

When man was lost and undone, God redeemed and saved him. “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly though Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:3-6).

For the eternal purposes and counsel of God concerning man’s redemption. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless in before him” (Eph 1:3, 4).

For the Redeemer. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

For the promises from the beginning that God would redeem man. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15).

For the incarnation of the son of God and his coming into the world. “The eternal Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).

For the full satisfaction of Christ’s redemption. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).

For the resurrection on the third day. “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom 14:9).

For the Holy Spirit. You “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph 1:13, 14).

For the Covenant of Grace. In Christ God has made “with you and everlasting covenant” (Is 55:3).

For the preserving of the church. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church (Mt 16:18).

For the work of the Holy Spirit in purifying your conscience. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom 2:15).

For salvation wrought in us by the work of God.  “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13, 14).

For the remission of sin and peace of conscience. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps 103:2-5).

For answer to prayer. “Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!” (Ps 66:20).

For support in adversity. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor 1:3-5).

[1] Matthew Henry and J. Ligon Duncan, A Method for Prayer. (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1994), 14.

Prayer – Wilhemus À Brakel

Wilhemus À Brakel (1635-1711) was a Dutch Reformed minister. During his final pastorate in Rotterdam, he published The Christian’s Reasonable Service, a systematic theology that expresses what is required of man in order to serve God in Spirit and truth. It works through each of the major Christian doctrines in a way that shows them all centering in the person and work of Jesus Christ. After explaining many of the Christian graces, he enters into a discussion on prayer and then an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer.

À Brakel begins, “The acknowledgment of all God’s perfections, and the exercise of all virtues toward God coalesce in prayer – that necessary, profitable, holy, and sanctifying duty of a Christian. Consequently, the exercise of religion is comprehensively expressed as prayer and calling upon God: ‘Then began men to call upon the name of the LORD’ (Gen 4:26).” [1] Prayer is one of the chief manners in which religion is practiced. He then lists the variety of forms prayer takes: worship, invocation, supplication, groaning, public, private, intercessory, imprecatory, and thanksgiving. Each of these prayers are appropriate for any type of situation.

Prayer is simply “the expression of holy desires to God in the name of Jesus Christ, which, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, proceed from a regenerated heart, along with the request for the fulfillment of these desires.”[2] Each part of this definition is important. Prayer is the expression of holy desires. The expression of holy desires means three things. The person praying is looking to himself and his deficiency. The person praying is looking to God to supply his needs. And the person praying is looking for that which is lacking. The intermingling of these three is the expression of holy desires. This is done in the name of Jesus Christ and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is, therefore, thoroughly Trinitarian in its exercise.

Our prayer is to be characterized by humility, in Spirit and truth, with earnestness and fervency, with perseverance, and in faith. Humility is “the sensible, humble disposition of the supplicant, resulting from a view of the majesty of God, and of his own sinfulness, unworthiness, and impotence either to supply his deficiency or to have it fulfilled by God.”[3] Praying in Spirit and truth means to pray with understanding as an exercise of the will. This is not rote repetition. Earnestness and fervency means to pray with intense and strong desire with understanding and thoughtfulness. Praying with perseverance means to pray “without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). And prayer in faith means that the one praying is a Christian, he uses God’s Word as a guide, he trusts in God’s providence, ordination, and power to answer prayer, and he believes that prayer works.

Wilhelmus À Brakel then explains several reasons to pray. It glorifies God. It pleases God. God hears your prayers. The Christian is allowed to enter into the throne room of God Almighty in prayer. Prayer is a means of sanctification in the life of the Christian. And prayer truly is a means by which God will execute his will and fulfill your holy desires.

He then explains a variety of obstacles that we all experience in prayer. We all face these obstacles from time to time. There is a reason it is far more common for people not to pray than to be consistent in prayer. And those reasons have not changed much from the 18th century to the 21st. If God already knows my needs, anxieties, and desires, then why pray? It is not for you to inform God, but rather for you to acknowledge your need and God’s gracious supply. If God has already decreed whatsoever is to happen, then why pray? The secret things are for the Lord, but the revealed things are for us. God has bound us to means and He wills that we believe and rely upon His promises through the means given. À Brakel adds, “God has also decreed already how long you will live. Do you therefore desist from eating and drinking?”[4] If I sin again and again, how could I ever come to God in prayer? I’m not worthy. This is true. You aren’t worthy. But you come to God in prayer through Christ’s righteousness. Don’t let sin keep you from prayer, instead let it drive you all the more to trust in God’s forgiveness and strength.

Finally, À Brakel gives very practical advice in prayer. Find time alone and free of distractions. Humble yourself before God. Focus on Him and his glory. Lift your heart up to him. If you need to, repent of sin and trust in Christ’s forgiveness. Don’t fall into a rut of using the same words over and over, but pray from the heart. Take your time and persevere even if your prayer time seems dark or dull. Finally, remember that God does, indeed, hear your prayer and he will answer them.

[1] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.443.

[2] Ibid., 3.446.

[3] Ibid., 456.

[4] Ibid., 471.