July, 2017

Prayer – The Lord’s Prayer

In our survey of prayer, we have touched upon the variety of prayers throughout the Old Testament, from the earliest prayers in Genesis and Exodus to the prayers of the prophets, as well as the Psalms. We then looked at the importance of the church’s contribution to our understanding of prayer. Our reading of Scripture, however, never happens in a vacuum and is always informed by the historic and catholic reading of the Church. This prompted a dash through the writings of the Fathers of the church. From the early church, looking at Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine, to the creeds and confessions of the 16th and 17th century to the Puritans and even to 20th century writers, like CS Lewis, we looked at what the Church has historically said about prayer. With centuries of wisdom and reflection upon the Scriptures, the Church has consistently affirmed prayer to be a vital and necessary means of grace in the life of the Christian. Prayer takes many forms and shapes but is always a way in which we are able to “offer up our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (WSC #98).

One of the remarkable consistencies in looking through the history of the church’s writing on prayer is the special place of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). Nearly every work written on prayer ends up coming back to the Lord’s Prayer. The early church fathers wrote to define prayer, broadly, and then came back around to the Lord’s Prayer. The vast majority of Reformed Confessions, for example, explain prayer broadly and then give an exposition on the Lord’s Prayer. The general pattern in writing on prayer seems to be 1) explain what prayer is, 2) expound on the Lord’s Prayer. We will follow suit.

The Lord’s Prayer is the pattern of prayer given by Jesus for his disciples. Luke records that the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Apparently, the disciples had been watching Jesus pray. And they had been watching John’s disciples pray. And there was something that seemed to be lacking in their prayer practices. The noticed a certain deficiency. We have much to learn here if we are willing to see it. We should examine our prayer practices and see where we are deficient. I’ve never met a Christian who said their prayer life is more than it ought to be. I’ve never met a faithful Christian who says they pray too much, or too long, or with too much fervor. But I have met plenty of Christians who will quietly admit the opposite (and even more who won’t admit that, though it is true).

These disciples, after acknowledging their deficiencies, did what any Christian should do in a similar circumstance. They asked Jesus to help. Matthew Henry notes that this simple request “is itself a good prayer, and a very needful one, for it is a hard thing to pray well and it is Jesus Christ only that can teach us, by his word and Spirit, how to pray.”[1] What a comfort it should be to us that faithful saints like the disciples and Matthew Henry are no different from you and I in finding prayer difficult, and that Jesus Christ hears our pleas for help in prayer and answers them.

Jesus answers their request by telling them, “Pray then like this:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed by your name.

Your kingdom come,

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts,

As we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13, ESV).

This answer to the disciples’ question about prayer has become known as The Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps this form looks a little different than what you may have grown up with (assuming you grew up reciting the Lord’s Prayer in English). The 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is the most standard Protestant form, using “trespasses” instead of “debts,” and is identical to the Roman Catholic form, except the RC version excludes the final doxology. The differences in the wording is no major issue, though, because there are differences between how Matthew and Luke record this prayer. While it can be prayed verbatim, the Gospels seem to affirm that it is a pattern of prayer. We should not get tied up in words but rather understand the content. And that is what countless church fathers have done in expounding on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Over the next several weeks, we will go through the Lord’s Prayer petition by petition and examine the content of this prayer. My hope is that this will serve as an encouragement and a prompt in your personal prayers. Our prayers need help and Jesus has answered our need.

[1] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1860.

Prayer – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was a British writer, professor, and thinker. He is well known for his creative works The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and The Screwtape Letters. He is also well known for some of his non-fiction Christian writings, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Lewis is celebrated as one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century. Simply put, he was brilliant. But Lewis was not a pastor or a theologian, so he does not write like one. He is not bound by the same obligations and vows that would guide a minister, nor was he trained as a theologian. So his theology is somewhat disjointed. There is no underlying tradition that serves as a binder for all his writings. You will not find much exegetical work through the Biblical text; wrestling with the meaning of the Scriptures. Instead, you’ll find a brilliant man who carefully ponders the meaning and wonder of God. C.S. Lewis wrote between the two poles of cold rationalism and deep romanticism.[1] He managed to hold these two in a workable tension. As a consequence, there are times that he writes and I find myself thinking, “I don’t think anyone has ever said this more clearly.” And other times I find myself scratching my head wondering, “Where in the world did this come from?”

One of the last works of C.S. Lewis to be published was Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. This work is a collection of 22 letters written to a fictional friend named Malcolm. In Letters to Malcolm Lewis records half of a dialogue about prayer. He had always wanted to write a book on prayer, but felt ill-equipped to do so. So this letter format allowed him to record his reflections without the authority of a theologian. C.S. Lewis scholar Marjorie Lamp Mead highlights a few themes in the book:

…prayer is more than something we do. It is a relationship into which we are invited. We learn that what we say to God and how we say it are of only secondary importance. Prayer involves an unveiling. In prayer we let God see our true self as we make our deepest longings known to God. Further, through prayer, we are invited to participate with God as privileged partners in his divine work in the world.[2]

Though he will address primarily private prayer, the first letter addresses the nature of public worship and corporate prayers. Primarily, Lewis objects to the idea of novelty in public worship. It isn’t that Lewis believes there should be nothing new in public worship. But novelty requires constant change. Lewis would prefer to have one set form that he could get used to so that his attention is on God and not the form. Novelty “fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is different from worshiping…. A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant.” (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 4) He also notes in Letter 2 that “the more ‘up to date’ the book is (i.e. The Common Book of Prayer), the sooner it will be dated” (Lewis, p. 12). There is much wisdom in that.

Written prayers have great value, but for Lewis were secondary. Any words in prayer, whether written or spontaneous, are only “anchors.” The original author of the words is irrelevant because the one praying must actually mean the words prayed regardless of their source. We can mindlessly and thoughtlessly pray our own words every bit as much as the words of a printed prayer.

Lewis spends a good deal of the book trying to understand why we pray if God already knows everything. And why we are to make petitionary prayer if God is sovereign. The answer is that in prayer we are “unveiled” before God. Prayer is our making ourselves known to God. It isn’t that God could not see us before, but prayer is our assent to that intimacy. “The change is in us” (Lewis, p. 21). In Letter 10, Lewis notes that the remarkable aspect of petitionary prayer is not that God grants what we request. The remarkable aspect is that God considers or hears our request. The importance does not lay in the receiving but in the asking (Lewis, p. 52).

One final note about Lewis’ Letters, Lewis addresses the very real problem of the “irksomeness” of prayer. “Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome” (Lewis, p. 113). He is describing the universal reality that we often fail to pray. We are slow to begin, quick to stop, and delighted to finish. The problem, of course, is sin. We fail to grasp the transcendence of prayer and God. Our minds are too bound to the practical. We need to light our eyes up to Heaven and consider the joys therein. “Joy is the serious business of Heaven” (Lewis, p. 93). There is a place for duty, but our prayers should flow frequently from delight.

 

[1] “The Key to C.S. Lewis by Gene Edward Veith,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed July 20, 2017, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/key-cs-lewis/.

[2] Marjorie Lamp Mead, “Letters to Malcolm: Chielfly on Prayer, Study Guide” (The CS Lewis Institute, 2011), 1, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/2855.

Prayer – John Bunyan

John Bunyan was a Baptist Puritan pastor in 17th century England. He is most well-known as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. It being one of the most published books in all the English language. He was a nonconformist pastor, meaning he did not conform to the governance and practices of the Church of England, specifically the Book of Common Prayer. In fact, Bunyan rejected all fixed forms of prayers. He understood the Lord’s Prayer to only be a pattern that was to be followed but definitely not a form to be used. Bunyan’s work I Will Pray With the Spirit and With the Understanding Also was composed while in jail for being a nonconformist.

Bunyan had been imprisoned for not using the forms set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, so it is not surprising that this work expounds on the true nature of prayer and how it ought to be employed in the life of the believer. He particularly highlights that prayer is to be “in the Spirit,” by which Bunyan meant that it is to be extemporaneous. For Bunyan a prepared prayer was ipso facto not a heart-felt or spiritual prayer. It must be admitted that Bunyan’s views on prayer were profoundly shaped by his particular circumstances in 17th century England. But this view was not universal among Puritans or even nonconformists. The Westminster Divines, for example, note in Larger Catechism 187 that the Lord’s Prayer is a pattern “but may also be used as a prayer.” Nevertheless, Bunyan’s work on prayer clearly seeks to remain faithful to God’s Word as it explains how man is to speak with the Almighty God.[1]

Bunyan defines prayer as “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength or assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”[2] In this Bunyan lists seven things that are a part of prayer: 1) it is sincere, 2) it is sensible, 3) it is an affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, 4) it is by the strength or assistance of the Holy Spirit, 5) it is for such things as God has promised, 6) it is for the good of the church, and 7) it is with submission to the will of God.

Prayer is to be sincere. Jeremiah writes, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13). Sincerity is honesty and integrity before the Lord. It is being the same person in prayer as you are in public. It is not lip-service for men but the words of the heart before God.

Prayer is to be sensible. It is not a babbling or prating of meaningless noises. It is to express a sense of the want of mercy and a sense of the mercy received. It is an articulation of the feeling of the heart.

Prayer is to be affectionate. Prayer in Scripture is often painted in very vivid colors. “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps 42:1). “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2). Prayer is a pouring out of the heart and soul before the Lord.

Prayer is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our hearts are dead and rock-hard before the Spirit quickens them. Without the enlivening presence of the Spirit in our prayers, they are but a form of godliness without the content.

Prayer is for such things as God has promised. “Prayer is only true when it is within the compass of God’s Word; it is blasphemy, or at best vain babbling, when the petition is unrelated to the Book.”[3] The Spirit must enliven and guide the heart to pray, but that will always happen through the working of the Word.

Prayer is for the good of the church. By this Bunyan means that prayer is meant for the honor of God, the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the benefit of the people. “For God, and Christ, and his people are so linked together that if the good of the one be prayed for, the others must need be included.”[4]

Finally, prayer is to submit to God’s will. Jesus taught, “Thy will be done” (Matt 6:10). The people must approach the Almighty God in humility, trusting God’s goodness and kindness. But prayers that are put up in the Spirit and guided by God’s Word will be in accordance with God’s will.

[1] John Bunyan, John Bunyan, and John Bunyan, Prayer (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 5.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

Prayer – Matthew Henry

When the Old Testament Professor O. Palmer Robertson was teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, he began to become known for his deep and powerful public prayers. The students inquired of Dr. Robertson in how they could learn to pray like him. Beside the cultivation of a habit of regular private prayer, he recommended one book: Matthew Henry’s Method for Prayer.[1]

Matthew Henry was a Puritan who is best known for the well-used and highly regarded Commentary on the Whole Bible. He began writing his commentary in 1704 and it was left incomplete when he died in 1714. His colleagues and students completed the work based on his notes and writings. Henry spent the vast majority of his career as a pastor in Chester, England before spending his final two years at a church in London. In 1712, two months before he moved to London, Henry completed his book on prayer. It is the culmination of a full lifetime of preaching and teaching the Scriptures in the context of pastoral ministry. In this book Henry gives an outline of biblical prayer under six headings: Adoration, Confession, Petition, Thanksgiving, Intercession, and Conclusion. Each of these headings is followed by a pattern of prayer taken almost exclusively from Scripture.

Ligon Duncan notes in the forward to this book, “Resorting to a more Scriptural pattern of prayer may be a simple (but profound) answer to many problems in our practice of prayer. Praying Scripturally will teach us what prayer is, even while we do it.”[2] I don’t know that I’ve met a Christian who is completely satisfied with his prayer life. Learning and implementing Henry’s Method for Prayer would be a benefit to every Christian.

Henry notes in the preface to this book that “Prayer is a principal branch of religious worship, which we are moved to by the very light of nature, and obliged to by some of its fundamental laws.”[3] Everyone prays. Everyone gives homage and respect to whatever or whomever they view as god. “Those that live without prayer, live without God in the world.”[4] But this doesn’t define what prayer is. It merely acknowledges that everyone, in some shape, form, or fashion, prays. Henry continues, “Prayer is the solemn and religious offering up of devout acknowledgements and desires to God, or a sincere representation of holy affections, with a design to give unto God the glory due unto his Name thereby, and to obtain from him promised favors, and both through our Mediator.”[5] Prayer is offering up our desires to God, giving him the glory due him, and a means by which we obtain his promises to us. And all of this is accomplished through the one Mediator between God and men, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The headings in A Method for Prayer lead the Christian to pray in this manner. We are to offer up our praise and adoration of God. We confess our sin to him. We petition God and ask him to intercede in the events of our lives. And we give thanksgiving for all the things he has provided. And we are conclude our prayers with doxologies and acknowledgements of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his will through our prayers. In our prayers we bring all of ourselves to God. “It is desirable that our prayers should be copious and full; our burdens, cares, and wants are many, so are our sins and mercies. The promises are numerous and very rich, our God gives liberally, and has bid us open our mouths wide, and he will fill them, will satisfy them with good things.”[6]

The instruction that Henry gives through A Method for Prayer is that we should constantly and consistently turn to prayer as the guide for our prayers. “If the heart be full of its good matter, it may make the tongue as the pen of a ready Writer.”[7] God’s Word supplies us the whole range of emotion and the full spectrum of our needs and desires. Praying the Scriptures is simply being used by God as the instrument of his change in the world by proclaiming and declaring what he has already proclaimed and declared. Our prayers are one of the means by which God has chosen to make his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

[1] Matthew Henry and J. Ligon Duncan, A Method for Prayer. (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1994), 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 16.

Report on the 45th General Assembly of the PCA

The Forty-fifth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met June 12-15 in Greensboro, NC. Dr. David Talcott and I served as commissioners to the Assembly. The General Assembly is a denomination wide meeting where reports from the ten Assembly-level Committees and Agencies are heard and discussed. The Assembly also debated the report from the ad interim Committee on the Role of Women in the PCA and a few Overtures (requests from Presbyteries asking for the Assembly to act on specific issues).

There were 11 new PCA churches organized this year (total 1545). There were 20 new mission churches started this year (total 347). The total membership of the PCA increased by 1% to 374,161. While not much, this was in an age when nearly all mainline and evangelical denomination reported declining or plateaued growth.

Overture 2 was presented by Calvary Presbytery and would give full constitutional status to BCO chapter 59 on Marriage. Essentially, this Overture sought to make clear that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. While Westminster already addresses this, Overture 2 would provide greater legal cover for ministers, particularly chaplains. Overture 2 was deferred to the 46th General Assembly. The reason was to perfect the language before adoption. My hope is that this Overture is overwhelmingly adopted next year.

Some other Overtures dealt with the manner in which Overtures can be presented and ad interim Committees formed. These Overtures now require future Overtures and ad interim Committees to be called for exclusively from presbyteries. This keeps our denomination grassroots and prevents a top-down hierarchy from forming.

The Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records is an oversight committee that examines the minutes of each presbytery’s meetings to ensure that they are following proper procedure. During the review this year, it was noted that a presbytery had distributed a worship guide that had a picture of Jesus on the cover. The majority of RPR concluded that this was not problematic, but a minority report was presented. The PCA has always had a diversity of opinions regarding the use of images (particularly of Jesus) in teaching purposes (Sunday School, Bible Studies, picture books, etc.) but never in worship. The Larger Catechism 109 is clear that we cannot use images of any person of the Trinity in our worship. The debate on this topic was troubling in that many in the Assembly seem to have never thought through the implications of the 2nd Commandment. Some of the arguments in favor of the majority position were just plain silly. Thankfully, the minority report was approved by the Assembly and the presbytery was cited for an exception of substance.

The majority of the Assembly’s debate was related to the ad interim Study Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church. The underlying issue was to examine the nature of ordination and the role of deacons, specifically with respect to women. The Committee’s report did reaffirm that ordination is inherently authoritative. This is important because the issue of authority is why we do not ordain women to any office. The Committee was also clear that the spiritual leadership of the church has been given to men. In fact, it was stated by a woman on the Committee that if anyone does not support this position, then the PCA is not the right denomination for them.

The Assembly adopted the nine recommendations of the Committee with some amendments. The recommendations of the report, while not binding, provide instruction for future Overtures. One of the recommendations was that churches that don’t ordain anyone to the diaconate ought to. This is in response to churches that choose to ordain no one to the diaconate because they cannot ordain women. This was seen to be “poorly aligned with the spirit of the two offices outlined in the BCO.” Sadly, this particular wording was stricken from recommendation rendering it virtually impotent. Another recommendation called for the creation of a position of a “commissioned church worker.” Largely, this would give IRS benefits to those who work in full-time ministry for a church. But it seems to create a de facto third office in the church. At least, that is how the IRS would view it.

Overall, the Committee’s work reaffirmed biblical roles of men and women in the church, even if not as strongly as it ought. These views are increasingly seen as backward and demeaning to a culture that is bent on sexual anarchy and the erasure of any distinction between men and women. Our churches must proclaim with greater clarity the God-honoring distinction between man and woman. In reflecting on the Assembly as a whole, there were encouraging and discouraging aspects. But overall, I left the Assembly convinced that there is no denomination that does it better than the PCA.