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Prayer – The Progress of the New Testament

Prayers from Genesis to Malachi were offered up to God and answered by God. God’s will was sought through prayer and God implemented his will through the prayers of his people. But the prayers of the Old Testament show that the Bible reveals God through the Scriptures in a progressive manner. God does not change, but the manner in which he has revealed himself has deepened through the progression of the Scriptures. For example, Abraham was saved by faith in Christ, even though he didn’t know the name Jesus.

As Christ was revealed through the prophets and then the apostles, some of the aspects of how God’s people prayed changed. Since Abraham never knew the name of Christ, he could not have prayed in Jesus’ name. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1, 2). No prophet or Old Testament saint was able to ask for anything in Jesus’ name (Jn 16:23), but now, those who knew the Christ could pray in Jesus’ name. This changes the intimacy and the immediacy of prayer.

The work of Jesus as the Christ also progresses the assurance believers of the New Testament and beyond can have in their prayers. Jesus acts as a Mediator (1 Tim 2:5) on our behalf. He is the Advocate for us before the Father (1 John 2:1). So we know that our prayers are heard by the Father. This is not a fundamental change in prayer from the Old Testament time, for the Psalms repeatedly assure us that God hears our prayers (Pss 5:3, 17:6, 34:17, 66:19, et al.). God’s hearing our prayers has not changed, but as the person and work of Jesus Christ has been revealed we are able to understand and appreciate more clearly how God hears our prayers. The mechanism by which the Father hears our prayers has been revealed to be none other than the Son. And the Son assures us that, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13, 14).

A final advancement we see in the progression of prayer relates to the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer. The Old Testament Scriptures are largely silent on the role of the Spirit in prayer. As God does not change, it is not the case that the Spirit was inactive in prayer in the Old Testament, rather it is that the Spirit’s role was unsaid in the Old Testament. There was, however, an advancement in the Spirit’s role in believers’ lives. After the earthly ministry of Jesus was completed, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit into the lives of all those in Christ.

The 17th century Dutch Reformer Wilhemus À Brakel noted, “A true prayer proceeds from the Holy Spirit…. In order for anyone to pray aright, the Holy Spirit must grant the disposition, the desires, and the expressions.”[1] We are too weak to pray as we ought to pray. God, therefore, gives us the Spirit to empower us to prayer properly (Rom 8:26). The Spirit does not, however, make us slothful in our prayers, as if we were simply to blank our minds and allow the Spirit to take over. This is the way of Eastern meditation (as advocated and embodied in Eastern practices like yoga). This is neither faithful nor helpful. Instead, as John Calvin instructs, “the Spirit empowers us so to compose prayers as by no means to hinder or hold back our own effort, since in this matter God’s will is to test how effectually faith moves our hearts.”[2] The Holy Spirit empowers and moves those in Christ to pray as they ought. This is a blessing that those who are in Christ on this side of the cross enjoy.

Prayer is distinctively Trinitarian. While the Trinity is certainly seen in the Old Testament, it is somewhat veiled. BB Warfield describes the Trinity in the Old Testament as “a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted.” It is the Spirit who brings us to prayer, through Jesus Christ, to the Father. This is revealed in much greater detail through the progressive revelation of the New Testament. It hasn’t changed from the Old Testament, but has come into sharper and clearer focus in the New.

 

[1] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.452.

[2] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), III.xx.5.

Quarterly Missions Prayer March 19, 2017

Quarterly Prayer 3 19 2017

Prayer – The Prophets

The Prophets are full of examples of prayer. Isaiah’s prophecy is a hybrid of poetry and prose that uses exalted language to call the people back to God. His prophecy is littered with prayer. Jeremiah is full of the prayers of a man who weeps for the Lord. His prayers are seasoned with tears. These prayers are followed by the book of Lamentations. This book is five movements of lament in prayer. The Minor Prophets, too, have expressions of prayer that fit with every mood and situation. Jonah shows the answered prayers of heathens and the rejected prayer of the runaway prophet, the prayers of a repentant city and the prayer of an angry prophet. Habakkuk raises a prayer of complaint that is familiar to all believers, “Oh LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (Hab 1:1). But Habakkuk’s raw honesty is followed up with unrelenting faith, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the…, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:17, 18). The Prophets convey this emotion in a variety of circumstances and in a variety of forms prayer for the believer.

Perhaps the method of prayer among the Prophets is most clearly seen in the prayer life of Daniel. Few people show the determination to pray like Daniel. Often our prayer lives are stunted by the concerns of our day. Prayer takes a backseat to other priorities. Prayer is ignored because we don’t really see the value. Prayer is postponed because circumstances might make it awkward. Daniel would have none of this attitude.

Daniel was a prophet living in exile. The Babylonians had conquered Israel and taken all the best men back to Babylon. Daniel was one of these men. But he had resolved to not defile himself in exile. He committed to living a holy life and to continue worshiping the LORD. Three times a day, Daniel got down on his knees and gave thanks before his God (Dan 6:10). There was nothing in Daniel’s life that his enemies could point to as a pretext for his dismissal, except that Daniel was wholly devoted to the LORD. So the King’s satraps contrived to outlaw prayer. They knew this was the only way to get rid of Daniel. Would that the worst thing that could be said about our lives was that we were completely faithful in prayer. I fear that the faithfulness of the modern Christian’s prayer life would not often be cause for persecution.

Daniel’s life was preserved by the LORD. And Daniel continued to serve the King by answering the visions and riddles that befuddled all others. His visions foretold of God’s ultimate redemptive plan culminating in the Kingdom of God being inaugurated by his Messiah. As Daniel began to grasp the magnitude of this vision, it created in him a deep awareness of his sin before a holy God. Chapter 9 is Daniel’s prayer of personal and national confession. The people had rejected the LORD and been sent into exile. But God was not done with his covenant people.

Daniel’s prayer of confession is a great model for us today. It shows us that repentance requires honest confession, earnest contrition, and real change. Daniel’s confession is clear. He does not equivocate or make excuses. He owns up to the sin of the people. “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land” (Dan 9:5, 6). There is no blame-shifting or finger pointing in Daniel’s prayer. He confesses his sin. Our repentance should be marked by prayer that honestly confesses our sin.

Daniel’s heart is broken over his sin. When we truly understand the gravity of our sin, it should break us. “To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame” (Dan 9:7). “To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you” (Dan 9:8). The knowledge of God’s holiness and Daniel’s sinfulness was a source of shame. He shows an emotional understanding of his sin. Our repentance should be marked by prayer demonstrating earnest contrition.

Finally, Daniel’s life was changed. Repentance is not complete until there is a change. Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11 that she should, “Go…and sin no more.” The practical demonstration that repentance was genuine is a changed life. The rest of the book of Daniel confirms Daniel’s faithfulness. And Daniel is assured by a messenger for the Lord that he, “shall rest and stand in [his] allotted place at the end of the days” (Dan 12:12). Daniel shows a life fully committed to the Lord. Our repentance should be marked by prayer that really changes us.

The Prophets declared God’s Word to the people, calling them to repentance and faith. Their prayers were prayers that glorified God, expressed the cries of the heart, and pointed the people to God’s redemptive hope in the Messiah. Our love of God, heart for the lost, and vision of God’s love for us would only grow if we sought to pray like Daniel prayed.

Prayer – Psalms

A good athlete conditions and trains his body so that he doesn’t have to “think” in the moment. Instead, his body is so accustomed to the situation that it simply reacts. Every scenario has been drilled into him by repetition that muscles and reflexes simply do. But this doesn’t just happen. The athlete must spend hour after hour in the gym, taking jump shot after jump shot, or swing after swing, or repetition after repetition. Every possible scenario is practiced so that there are no surprises on the court or field or mat. Prayer often operates in the same way.

There are times where the circumstances of life strike us unprepared, and prayer in those moments is visceral and unrehearsed. God hears those prayers. But prayer is better and more effective in expressing our heart, changing our situation, and communicating our needs to a generous God when we are well prepared in the full range of emotions. It is for this reason that the Psalter is the greatest training tool on prayer in the Scriptures. While the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect instruction on the form of prayer. The Psalms are the perfect instruction on the content of prayer. In order to prayer effectively, we need to be conditioned, trained, and practiced in the scope of emotional life that is expressed through the Psalms. The 8th century English scholar, Alcuin, wrote:

As angels live in heaven, so men live on earth who rejoice in the praises of God, in the pure heart of psalmody. No mortal man can fully declare the virtue of the psalms. In them are the confession of sins, the tears of the penitent, sorrow of heart. Here is foretold all the dispensations of our redemption, the wondrous delights of heaven’s mirth. Here shall you find the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Word of God.[1]

The Psalms are the prayerbook of God which trains us in how to express our whole lives, dreams, hopes, fears, and pains to God.

The great prayers of the New Testament and the prayers of the saints throughout Church History are littered with references to the Psalms. A life of great prayer is nurtured on the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word. Eugene Peterson explains that God’s Word, specifically the Psalms, ought to be a tool for our prayers.

The Psalms are the best tools available for working the faith – one hundred and fifty carefully crafted prayers that deal with the great variety of operations that God carries on in us and attend to all the parts of our lives that are, at various times and in different ways, rebelling and trusting, hurting and praising. People of faith take possession of the Psalms with the same attitude and for the same reason that gardeners gather up rake and hoe on their way to the vegetable patch, and students carry paper and pencil as they enter a lecture hall. It is a simple matter of practicality – acquiring the tools for carrying out the human work at hand.[2]

It isn’t that we cannot pray without the Psalms. But an ignorance of their content or a rejection of their use in prayer will result in our attempting to grunt our way through the task with inferior tools.

Our weekly Lord’s Day worship seeks to make use of the Psalms for prayer. The reason we pray through the entire Psalter is because we believe the entire Psalter is instructive for our prayer life. Pastorally, I want the praying of the Psalms modeled for the congregation. The Christian needs to see the use of the Psalms as a normal and regular tool of her prayer life. Personally, we need to be regularly reading and meditating on the Psalms so that their language easily flows from our lips in our prayers. T.M. Moore’s little book God’s Prayer Program includes a topical index of the Psalms.[3] I recommend this full resource and share a sample of his index to help spur your use of the Psalms in your prayer.

For Confession of Sin – 6, 7, 32, 38, 39, 41, 51, 77, 78, 86, 130

For Pleading for Help – 3, 4, 30, 31, 42, 43, 64, 91, 120, 121, 123, 134

For Praise and Thanksgiving – 8, 18, 19, 22, 34, 92, 93, 95-100, 111-118, 144-150

For Pursuing Righteousness – 1, 5, 15, 23-28, 36, 50, 119, 139

[1] Quoted in, Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: An Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2010), 37.

[2] Eugene H Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 2–3.

[3] T. M Moore, God’s Prayer Program: Passionately Using the Psalms in Prayer (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005), 181.

Theological Discernment at the Movies

In early March the movie adaptation of best-selling book The Shack will hit theaters. It is the story of a grieving man, Mack, who receives a mysterious personal invitation to meet with God at “The Shack.” The book has sold approximately 20 million copies and that number will likely increase after the release of the film. It was deeply loved by many people because of the unconventional manner in which God is portrayed, the way the problem of suffering was handled, and its fresh perspective on faith. But the book was strongly criticized because of deeply troubling theological problems. The book’s portrayal of the Trinity is contrary to any branch of orthodox Christianity. The answer to suffering presented by the book offers little real Gospel solution to evil. Fresh perspectives on faith, as is the case with The Shack, are usually just re-warmed heresies for a new generation. Should Christians go see The Shack? Is there value in seeing it? How should a Christians discern whether or not to see a film like this?

Let me say from the outset, I understand the appeal of a book or movie like The Shack to the evangelical movement, overall. Many evangelical Christians long for popular affirmation of their faith. The broad evangelical church is pragmatic to its core. Results are validation of truth, and what speaks more clearly than 20 million copies and a major motion picture? Many Christians not only want this movie to succeed, but they need it to succeed. The success of “faith-based” films seems to offer a more solid rock on which to stand than the Scriptures and “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” can. The Shack will likely generate numbers that allow the modern evangelical to say, “I know this is true, look how successful it was.”

I also understand the appeal of the actual story. We’ve all had to deal with grief.  To see a ray of hope in the midst of grief is a powerful thing. We’ve all struggled with periods when our faith grows cold or stale. The visceral reality and passive nature of Mack’s encounter with God is desirable. And when you start to chip away at that attractive façade because of something so unexciting as orthodoxy, it runs the risk of returning the person to his spiritual doldrums. People don’t like that, and they will let you know. Despite all the theological problems with The Shack, millions of evangelical Christians will go see it. And those who warn other Christians about the problems will be called legalistic, Puritanical, angry, and overly dogmatic (at least, those are the things I’ve been called because of speaking out against the book).

So, instead of being the curmudgeonly old man, who rails about the new-fangled moving pictures while listing all the theological deficiencies and out-right falsehoods in the book, I’m going to instead offer some broad advice about theological discernment at the movies. This might be somewhat ironic, since I’m not an avid movie-goer, but there are important things to think through before consuming any entertainment. We must remind ourselves that the content we enjoy is never value neutral. Thus, I believe it is helpful for Christians to think through the quality, message, and theology of a movie in order to discern if it is worth your time and attention.

The quality of a movie is important. Is the story compelling? Is it well executed? Does it accurately portray the human condition? Will it appropriately move your emotions: humor, empathy, joy, love, fear? Or does it use cheap tricks to elicit a laugh, scream, or lust? The vast majority of movies today are utterly forgettable. Good stories are worth the investment to think through and engage. Cheap stories end up robbing us of time and attention.

What is the message of the film? What is the problem and how is it answered? Does this answer fit with what the Scriptures describe as the fallen human condition? A movie does not need to be explicitly Christian to pass this test. Some movies accurately depict the sinfulness of man or the emptiness and absurdity of sin. Some films accurately portray the value of sacrifice, service, and love. Is the message honorable and/or redemptive?

Finally, from the message will come the underlying theology of a film. What kind of God does this film portray? What answer does it give to the human condition? What is the hope of redemption? Rarely will a secular film explicitly point to Christ, but often it will present a redeemer-type hero. Because of the image of God imprinted on all people, there is often true truth lurking just under the surface. I would add, though, that when a film claims to be “faith-based,” it gets greater scrutiny as to its faithfulness to Scripture because it is targeted to an audience ready to accept its underlying theology.

On the points of quality, message, and theology, I find The Shack to be deeply lacking. The benefits that might come from this film would be gleaned with greater ease and less heresy from a number of better places. As a friend suggested, do yourself a favor and stick to the shacks that are preceded by “Shake.”

Prayer – Exodus

The prayers of the book of Exodus primarily focus on the prayers of Moses. There is an initial crying out of the people, but that cry is answered by God in the person of Moses as their Redeemer. This brief survey of prayers from the book of Exodus will highlight that prayer does in fact change things, but often the thing most profoundly changed is the person who prays.

At the end of Genesis, the people of Israel find themselves escaping famine by taking up refuge in land of Goshen in Egypt. As the book of Exodus opens, however, there is a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph (Ex 1:8). The Pharaoh feared the Israelites, so he oppressed and enslaved them. Their lives were made “bitter with hard service” (1:14). Pharaoh also sought to limit the births of the unwanted Hebrews, calling for infanticide of all the Hebrew males. The oppression and slavery of the people under the Egyptians was a heavy burden. Their response to the difficult circumstances was to “groan because of their slavery and cry for help” (2:23). The people’s simple prayer of anguish goes up to God. God hears their cry. He remembers the covenant. He sees the people. And God knew (2:24, 25).

God will ordain difficulties in our lives to draw us to himself. Just as God’s Word had explained through Joseph, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). The new Pharaoh in Egypt had forgotten about Joseph. But it seems that the Israelites had forgotten about God. The slavery and oppression in Egypt drove the people to remember and to cry out to the Lord.

How did the Lord answer the people’s cry for help in oppression? Did the Lord immediately whisk them out of hardship? Not even close. The Lord actually answered their cry by bringing heavier burdens on them. Their taskmasters reduced the straw, but the number of bricks remained. When productivity dipped, the beatings increased. Moses then prays to the Lord, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Ex 5:22, 23). God is answering the prayers of the people by doing something bigger and more important than fixing their immediate situation. The answer envisioned by the people is far too small.  God is preparing them for a redemption that is far greater than they can presently conceive.

God called to Moses from out of the burning bush. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6). God assures Moses that he is aware of the people’s suffering. And he will redeem them. But it will be according to God’s plan. One of the most amazing aspects of this scene is that Moses actually interacts and dialogues with God. Moses asks, “What shall I say to the people? Who should I tell them has sent me?” God responds, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (3:14). Herbert Lockyer comments that “true prayer is a two-way channel – we speak to God: God speaks to us.”[1] But how does God speak to us today? God does not speak today in burning bushes, but he speaks to us through the Scriptures. God’s Word made alive by the Holy Spirit will burn in our hearts and yet not consume us. We speak to God in prayer and he speaks his answer to us in his Word.

The Lord delivers his people through the plagues that are laid upon Egypt. After the final plague, the Passover, Pharaoh is broken and releases the people. But he quickly reneges on his release. He chases after the Israelites with his army, only to be finally defeated and drowned when the waters of the Red Sea crash down upon him. Then Moses and the people sang a victory song of thanksgiving to the Lord (Ex 15). God had delivered the people and they responded in thanksgiving. When the Lord responds to prayer the appropriate response of the people is prayer.

The people’s deliverance is not complete yet. They will still wander in the wilderness for a generation. And they will rebel against God’s good rule. In fact, their idolatry will bring them to edge of destruction. But Moses intercedes with the Lord on their behalf (Ex 32, 33). Moses’ prayer for the people is answered by God and the people are spared. But it wasn’t God who was changed by this prayer. Instead, in Exodus 34 we see that Moses is the one transfigured. His face shines with a reflection of the glory of God. And then the people are instructed in how to construct the temple so that God’s presence can dwell in the midst of the people. The answer to prayer was seldom an immediate fix to their circumstances. Instead, God changed the people so that they might better know him.

[1] Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 32.

Prayer – Genesis

There are hundreds and hundreds of prayers in the Bible. The Psalms comprise a prayer book of 150 prayers all on their own. Man was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26) and by nature looks to communicate with God. We see this communication in the opening chapters of Genesis through Adam’s dialogue with God. While there is no explicit prayer between Adam and God, we can infer that they likely conversed with one another in chapter 2 as Adam is tasked with naming the animals and then Eve is created. We also see Adam’s dialogue with God following his sin. The conversation between Adam and God in Genesis 3:8-13 seems to imply that God and Adam had had these conversations before. It seems likely that it was part of their daily routine to walk in the Garden and to talk. In shame Adam hid. But one of the first consequences of sin we see is that Adam is hesitant to communicate with God. Sin disrupts our communion with God.

After Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden, we next see man conversing with God when Cain answers God’s question about the location of his brother Abel. Again, as with Adam, the conversation with God is very colloquial and informal. And also, as with Adam, the result of sin prompted Cain to be evasive and to obfuscate the truth in his speaking to God. Sin disrupts our communion with God.

After this, Seth was born to Adam and Eve. And Seth had a son called Enosh. Then Moses records that, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:26). This is the beginning of what we would consider formal prayer in the Bible. Now, it is unlikely that man had not worshiped God in prayer prior to this point. But it seems that with the growth in human population, men now began to corporately worship with a structure and formality that had previously been absent. God’s name was revered in a manner that was novel to man.[1]

Enoch and Noah both “walked with God” (Gen 5:22; 6:9, respectively). Though the Hebrew is not explicit, it does imply that they had an abiding communion and fellowship with God in their walking. But the next development in prayer recorded in Scripture is with Abraham. Abraham is called by God to enter into a covenant with him. God made covenantal promises to Abraham and Abraham responded by worshiping and calling upon the name of the LORD at the altar (Gen 12:7, 8; 13:4). We then see Abraham praying for an heir (Gen 15:2, 3). Abraham offers up to God the desires of his heart, for things agreeable to the will of God (WSC 98). Abraham believed God by faith, and this was counted to him as righteousness (15:6). Abraham was declared righteous on account of faith and his communion with God was strengthened. Sin disrupts communion but righteousness strengthens it.

Though there are several other examples of prayer in Genesis, we will look here at only two more. First, Abraham prays for Sodom in Genesis 18 & 19. God, in his righteous wrath, is going to level the wicked city. Abraham intercedes on behalf of the people of Sodom, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:23). Abraham pleads, “if there are 50, will you spare it?” then “if there are 45…” and so on. Until finally Abraham sees that there are not ten who are righteous in that city. There came a point where Abraham’s intercession ceased. Why did Abraham stop asking for God’s mercy at this point? Matthew Henry answers, “Because Abraham [came to understand] that [Sodom] deserved to be destroyed if there were not so many as ten righteous.”[2] The barren tree must be cut down if it will never yield fruit (Luke 13:9). Abraham’s intercessory prayer was effective, but the effect was not to change God’s mind, but rather to change Abraham’s understanding and acceptance of God’s righteousness.

Last, we jump to the end of Genesis where Jacob prays a blessing for his sons (Gen 49). Jacob takes his final hours of life to offer up a prayer for his sons. Jacob was one who had personally wrestled with God (Gen. 32). He knew what it was to struggle in prayer. He knew what it was to see the mercy of God in prayer. So he lifts his eyes up and dies gazing heavenward while praying that others would find the fulfillment of the covenant promises of God. Jacob dies while praying that his people would experience sweet communion with God.

[1] Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 18.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 47.

Prayer

What is prayer? This is a crucial question for us to ask. It was a question the disciples had. It is a question that has been asked by faithful Christians in every generation. Understanding prayer and growth in prayer remains a need for all Christians today. I think prayer is kind of like eating well and exercising. We know we ought to do it. When we discipline ourselves to do it, we feel better. If we’re in the habit of doing it, we feel it when we don’t do it. But more often than not, it’s something we don’t do very well. We don’t do it because we either don’t know how, don’t know why, or don’t really believe it is necessary (at least not right now…maybe later). And like eating well and exercise, sometimes the only reason we get serious about it is because something drastic happens.

We are most likely to pray when the crises and difficulties of life fall upon us. I routinely get prayer requests from people when loved ones are suffering or major issues have intruded upon life. I think that is because in those moments of crisis, just like when a health scare leads us to change our diet or exercise, we become aware of our need for a change. With respect to prayer, it is a recognition that help is needed. We simply don’t have the resources necessary to change the dire situation. In truth our situation in crisis is not altogether different from our situation in regular times, but our perception of our need is more acute. The illusion that we can do this all on our own is shattered. This probably explains why I’ve never received a request for congregational prayer because someone’s spiritual life seems dry. That need is every bit as important as any other need, but it seems less so. And because it seems less so, our practice of prayer is often unhealthy and lazy.

The Scriptures are the primary source of teaching about prayer. And as those who have walked this pilgrim journey before have examined, studied, and explored the Scriptures, they have a lot to tell us about prayer. If we begin to understand how prayer works, why prayer works, and the necessity of prayer for even the mundane moments of the Christian life, then we will, Lord wiling, begin to change our habits regarding prayer. This series of reflections will attempt to work through some of the biblical passages about prayer, specifically the Lord’s instruction on prayer that we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer. This series will also look at how some of the great Fathers of the faith have addressed the issue of prayer in the Christian life. Hopefully, we will be able to apply this truth to our lives in order to see our practice of prayer more closely align with what you probably already think it ought to be like.

As we begin these reflections on prayer, perhaps we ought to begin with a prayer. The following prayer is taken from The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. This prayer is titled, The Prayer of Love[1].

Gracious Lord, thy name is Love, in love receive my prayer. My sins are more than the wide sea’s sand, but where sin abounds, there is grace more abundant. Look to the cross of thy beloved Son, and view the preciousness of his atoning blood; Listen to his never-failing intercession, and whisper to my heart, ‘Thy sins are forgiven, be of good cheer, lie down in peace.’

Grace cataracts from heaven and flows forever, and mercy never wearies in bestowing benefits. Grant me more and more to prize the privilege of prayer, to come to thee as a sin-soiled sinner, to find pardon in thee, to converse with thee; to know thee in prayer as the path in which my feet tread, the latch upon the door of my lips, the light that shines through my eyes, the music of my ears, the marrow of my understanding, the strength of my will, the power of my affection, the sweetness of my memory.

May the matter of my prayer be always wise, humble, submissive, obedient, scriptural, Christ-like. Give me unwavering faith that supplications are never in vain, that if I seem not to obtain my petitions I shall have larger, richer answers, surpassing all that I ask or think. Unsought, thou hast given me the greatest gift, the person of thy Son, and in him thou wilt give me all I need. Amen.

[1] Arthur Bennett, The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 270–71.

The Sacraments – Conclusion

We began this series on the sacraments (primarily the Lord’s Supper) by noting that our weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper is something of an anomaly in the PCA. While the weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper is a growing trend, it is still only observed in roughly 20% of PCA churches. The vast majority of PCA churches celebrate communion on a monthly basis. There is a myriad of good reasons why some practice monthly communion, but some of the reasons boil down to the fact that in our current evangelical Christian culture the sacraments are misunderstood and underappreciated.

The sacraments are one of the Means of Grace that God has provided for the church. By this phrase, Means of Grace, we mean those things that God has ordained for us to communicate his grace to us. He has given us his Word. He has also provided for us the sign and seal of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These means are the instruments by which the Holy Spirit works in our lives to apply salvation to us, seal us in Christ, and build us up in the faith. There are countless gimmicks and marketing strategies that can be used to gather people into a congregation. But only the Means of Grace as used by the Holy Spirit will build Christ’s Church.

The sacraments, therefore, are an invaluable instrument of God’s grace for the church. We ought to avail ourselves to the proper use of them. It is through these gifts that God signifies and seals His grace in us. These “sensible signs” represent Christ and “the benefits of the new covenant” to us (WSC 92). But the sacraments are more than just a sign. They are also seals. The sacraments also confer by faith God’s grace. Calvin noted that a sacrament is, “an outward sign by which the Lord seals to our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weaknesses of our faith; and we, in turn, attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels before men.”[1] Far more than the sacraments being something we do to declare our faith in God, the sacraments are something that God does to communicate the faith his is giving to us. There is a physical reality to the symbols of the sacraments, but their importance is that they confer a greater spiritual reality:

From the physical things set forth in the sacrament we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus when the bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps life in the body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven the soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.[2]

The sign is more than a physical remembrance. It is also a spiritual reality.

Since we view the sacraments as a Means of Grace instituted by Christ, we are bound by the constraints of God’s Word as to the number of sacraments. The only sacraments instituted by Christ in the New Testament are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Membership, ordination, marriage, and the like can be good things. But they are not sacraments. They do not represent the grace given by God to all who are in Christ. Only baptism and the Lord’s Supper signify the grace of regeneration in Christ through the giving of his body and shedding of his blood. The water, bread, and wine are the symbols used by Holy Spirit through faith that seal God’s grace in us.

Because the sacraments signify and seal the grace found in Christ, only those who are in Christ are to participate in the sacraments. This is one of the reasons why the Church must exercise discipline and “fence the Table.” This is also why only the Church, and not individual believers, can administer the sacraments. Only those in good standing with the Body of Christ can rightfully receive the symbols of being in Christ. To receive otherwise, would be a lie.

In sum the sacraments are a gracious gift to the Church. They are meant to build the church up. They are meant to strengthen and nourish your faith. They are meant to seal you in Christ. They are meant to communicate God’s grace to us in a physical and a spiritual way. The Reformer Theodore Beza helpfully explains the benefits of the sacraments:

Since the simple word only strikes one of our senses, while the sacraments involve in addition sight and other bodily senses, and also are distributed with very significant and distinct ceremonies, it is easy to recognize how necessary to us is the help of the sacraments to maintain our faith, since, in a manner of speaking, they cause us to touch with the finger and the eye, and as it were to already taste and actually feel the outcome of that which we await, as if we had it and possessed it already. For this reason, far from despising the holy sacraments, we confess that we cannot sufficiently magnify their dignity and legitimate use.

[1] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.14.1.

[2] ibid., 4.17.3.

The Sacraments – Why?

Often in discussions about the Lord’s Supper we ask the theological questions, “What and how?” Seldom, though, do we ask the practical question, “Why?” Why should we celebrate the Lord’s Supper today? What benefit is there for us today? The “Why” question will determine what the celebration of the Lord’s Supper looks like in our modern worship services.

When we discussed some of the historical differences regarding the Lord’s Supper, we mentioned the views of the Swiss Reformer Ulhrich Zwingli. Zwingli viewed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial, that is, in the sacrament we bring to remembrance what Christ did. Zwingli did not view anything mystical, mysterious, or even spiritual happening in the bread and wine. Christ is bodily “up there” but certainly in no way here with us. There is no grace in the sacrament, rather there is simply the remembrance of grace that has happened. There is no assuring seal of God’s forgiveness, but only the memory of its basis.

In Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, Christ’s body is seen as being tied to the bread and wine. In a sense, his body becomes ubiquitous. Wherever there is bread and wine that has been consecrated, Christ’s body is there or thereabouts. But this militates against the understanding that Jesus was and remains fully human with a real human body. This is where Calvin emphasized the bodily ascension of Christ and our union with Him through the Holy Spirit. Douglas Farrow says, “A Christ everywhere means a Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.” A Jesus of Nazareth nowhere robs us of the hope of the resurrection.

We need the balance of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper for today. We need something that is more than just a bare remembrance. But we also need a Christ who is still fully human and bodily present in heaven. Our modern Western world struggles with a dualism when it comes to the physical and the spiritual. We see this in the evangelical church today, who tends to overemphasize the physical in the here and now, while diminishing the physical in the life to come. The Austin Institute reports that only 75% of evangelical Protestants believe in a bodily resurrection. What is more common, in my experience, is the view that life after death is equated with a disembodied spirit in heaven. The evangelical church seems to be drifting toward a pagan Gnosticism that views the body as something to be shed so that we can be the spirits we really are. Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching labels this drift as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the church.

If I might illustrate, in the broadly evangelical church today, worship is typically dominated by praise and worship songs and a lesson from the Bible. The praise and worship is often music that is designed to be emotionally affective. The music is high energy at the beginning, building to a celebratory opening to worship. Then it descends into a more contemplative feel. A prayer might be offered at this point, calling the worshipper to reflect on his life and to thank God. A transition will be made to a lesson from Scripture. It might be a sermon or it might be more of a practical lesson gleaned from Scripture, e.g. 7 Principles for a Better Marriage, or 5 Habits of Effective Christians.

There is a strong pragmatic and bodily focus on worship. How does this worship music make me feel right now? How can God solve my problems? The focus tends to be on what I get out of worship. The danger is a very man-centered worship. To be fair, there is a hope in an eternity with Christ, but that eternity is often viewed as disembodied. The notion of a redeemed creation or a resurrected body and the implications for our life now is often missing.

So how does this relate to the Lord’s Supper? Let’s look at the “Why” question. Why do we celebrate this sacrament? We celebrate because it helps us hold the tension between the physical and the spiritual. It reminds us that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We too will die. But we will rise. The Supper nourishes us in the here and now. Instead of Christ’s presence coming down into the bread and wine, our hearts are lifted up by Holy Spirit to be united with Christ. In a crude manner, I sometimes picture the Lord’s Table as a snorkel that allows us to suck in celestial air while we swim around in the world here. So, why the Table? Because it nourishes our bodies and souls until Christ comes again. It reminds us that though we will die, we will be raised again with Christ. It delivers to us a real grace and communicates to us a hope in Christ.