News

Prayer – Reformed Confessions – 2

The Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries are a treasure trove for studying the development of various Reformed doctrines. One should note, however, that the Reformed faith as it was developing in those centuries was not monolithic. The Reformers were bumping up against a variety of issues that were specific to their particular time and place in history. Yet in their various circumstances there are consistent threads that run throughout. The issues of sola Scriptura and the authority of the church were consistently addressed in the Reformed Confessions. These matters have a direct bearing on the third and fourth questions we will address as we look at the Reformed Confessions and prayer. To whom are we to pray? And for what are we to pray?

To whom are we to pray? The Tetrapolitan Confession, the first truly Reformed confession, stated that prayer is “a lifting up of the mind to God, and such conversation with him that no other thing so greatly inflames man with heavenly affections and more mightily conforms the mind to God’s will.” Prayer is to be made to God and only to God. William Farel’s Summary of Christian Doctrine expresses a similar sentiment. “It is necessary then that our heart address itself to God as our good Father, and that one prays to Him alone. For prayer is the true sacrifice of praise: by which one gives honor and glory to God, to Him alone we have cried for help.” Farel follows this with an admonition that prayer must be made only to God and not to any other. “It is then great idolatry and very displeasing to God if one resorts to another than to Him. For that arises from defiance of His infinite goodness and mercy (as if there were others better and more merciful than He), or from His power and wisdom, as if it were possible or as if He could not know to help us.” The Reformers were addressing an abuse of authority in the Roman Church that arose in the Middle Ages. The idea arose that Saints were those who merited salvation by their faithfulness and had finished their race with an excess of grace and merit, which was returned to the “Treasury of Merit” that could then be dispensed to others. Therefore, the Roman Church encouraged Christians to pray to these Saints that they would dispense their excesses on believers and to intercede on their behalf to God.

This prayer to the departed Saints on behalf of the living was roundly rejected in the Reformation as unbiblical and idolatrous. The Scriptures do not speak of praying to the dead or asking for anyone other than Christ to serve as a Mediator or Intercessor. The Ten Theses of Bern, written in 1528 by Berthold Haller and Franz Kolb and edited by Ulhrich Zwingli, addressed this. The sixth thesis clearly stakes out the Reformed position, “Just as Christ alone has died for us, so He ought to be called upon as sole Mediator and Advocate between God the Father and us believers. Thus all other mediators and advocates who are called upon beyond the bounds of this world and above the foundations of the Word of God, are renounced.”

Prayer is not to be made to the deceased Saints (nor to anyone living) but it is to be made only in the name of Christ. The Emden Catechism #198 instructs that prayers are to be made in the name of Christ because “this is as if you should speak according to the command of Christ, praying through him. For the Father grants nothing to us except though Christ, and for his purpose. Thus, only true believers and those who have been actually converted to Christ can pray in Christ’s name, and who naturally would never desire or ask anything contrary to the honor of God.” Likewise, Theodore Beza wrote in 1560, “among all the fruits that faith brings forth universally in all Christians, we think that calling on the name of God through Jesus Christ is the chief. This we call prayer.”

For what are we to pray? The Emden Catechism #198 flows right from the object of our prayers to the subject of our prayers. We should only pray for those things that are in accord with “the honor of God.” Several of the Confessions point to this same idea. Referring again to Beza, a colleague of John Calvin, “Following the rule of Holy Scripture and the authority of the good ancient fathers, we esteem and allow true prayers to be the most agreeable things that Christians may offer to God among those commandments of the first table.” God’s Word is the pattern for our prayers. So, for what does Scripture call us to pray? The Hungarian Confession (1562), which was strongly influenced by Beza, instructed that Christians are to pray for all things necessary for spirit and body. The spiritual things belong to faith, hope, and love. The body needs “quiet, peace, pious & just princes, the produce of the earth, property, health, an honest life, favorable success, and a loving marriage and children.” The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) echoes this in question #118 by teaching that we are to pray for “all things necessary for body and soul.”

Prayer was and continues to be deeply important in a Reformed understanding of the Christian life. God has called us to pray and to lift up our desire to him. The manner in which and the desires for which we pray are guided and bound by God’s Word. Our prayers are directed by Scripture alone.

Prayer – Reformed Confessions -1

Much more could be said about the development of the Church’s understanding of prayer in the Middle Ages. It was during this time that many scholars were rising up in order to engage with the Biblical on a whole host of issues. It is important to note that the Middle Ages were in no way the “Dark Ages.” Remember, it was during this time that Greek philosophy was rediscovered in Europe, universities began to be formed, and much of the scientific, philosophical, and theological groundwork was laid for the Renaissance and the Reformation.

But our attention will now turn to the period of the Reformation. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a great deal of advancement and refinement in the Church’s understanding of prayer. The dual emphases of ad fontes and sola Scriptura reopened the eyes of the Church in order to evaluate the practice and tradition of the church in light of God’s Word. Beginning with Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to the door of the chapel at Wittenburg, everything in the church began to be examined through the lens of Scripture.

The topic of prayer was examined by a number of the Reformers as they sought to bring all things under the Word of God. The Reformers addressed a number of matters relating to prayer, but they might be summarized under four general categories: 1) What is prayer? 2) How are we to pray? 3) To whom are we to pray? 4) For what are we to pray? This week we will look at the first two matters.

What is prayer? William Farel was a fiery, red-headed reformer Frenchman who came to Protestantism through a thorough study of the Scriptures. After studying under or tussling with a “who’s who” of 16th century theologians, Farel landed in Geneva. In 1535 Farel was able to convince (or coerce) John Calvin to come and be the minister in Geneva. Their attempts to thoroughly reform the city met insurmountable opposition in 1538 when Calvin and Farel were given three days to leave Geneva. William Farel’s Summary, written in 1529, is one of the earliest confessions of the Reformed faith. In it Farel states that prayer is “an ardent talk with God.” Prayer is “the true sacrifice of praise: by which one gives honor and glory to God, and to Him alone we have cried for help.”

A few years later, the various Protestant groups faced persecution from the Roman Catholic church in the form of the Counter-Reformation. With the rise of Charles V as the Holy Roman Emperor, they sensed an opportunity to have the civil government protect them, if they could present to the emperor a reasonable defense for their beliefs at the Diet of Augsburg (1530). Martin Bucer on behalf of four cities (Strasbourg, Constance, Memmingen, and Lindau) composed the Tetrapolitan Confession. This was truly the first “Reformed Confession” but was ultimately adopted by no one because it failed to assuage the specific concerns of the various Protestant factions (primarily the Lutheran versus Reformed views on the Lord’s Supper). In regard to prayer, Bucer wrote, “Prayer is a lifting up of the mind to God, and such conversation with him that no other thing so greatly inflames man with heavenly affections and more mightily conforms the mind to God’s will.” Prayer is a means by which man’s mind is conformed to God’s will.

How are we to pray? As noted by Augustine, the matter of the heart’s attitude toward God is a primary concern in prayer. Ulhrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer of Zurich, wrote his 67 Articles as one of the earliest broadsides against the abuses of the Roman Church. In it Zwingli notes that “true worshipers call on God in spirit and in truth, without clamoring before people.” Also he says hypocrites will be seen by the people and that is their reward. So prayer with “chanting and loud clamor, without true devotion and done for money only” will not be honored by God. Instead, the Reformers emphasized that the one praying must acknowledge his sin before a holy God and rely upon God’s grace in prayer. The Waldensian Confession (1560) arose out of the Reformed church in the NW corner of Italy, bordering on France and Switzerland. This confession placed its instruction on prayer between its discussion of justification and the discussion of righteousness by faith alone. The placement here seems to point to the work of the cross being a prerequisite for man to enter into prayer with God.

This sentiment is echoed in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Frederick III ordered that a new catechism be written for his kingdom. The task was given to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg. Tradition holds that Caspar Oliveanus and Zacharius Ursinius were the principal authors. It continues to be a confessional document in the Dutch Reformed churches. Question 117 instructs that prayer should be made “with our whole heart…thoroughly knowing our need and misery, so as to humble ourselves in the presence of Divine majesty…firmly assured He will hear our prayer.”

Prayer – Augustine-1

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. With respect to Western theology, the same might be said of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine of Hippo was a 4th century church father from North Africa. His writings have dominated the thought of the Western Church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the last 1600 years. Yet in all of Augustine’s voluminous works, there is only one substantial treatment on the subject of prayer. Letter 130 is the first of two letters to a young widow named Proba. This letter is a response to a request by Proba for instruction on how to pray. Augustine responds with a few thoughts on prayer.

Before Augustine began to address the question of how to pray, he answered the more important underlying question, “What manner of person should you be to pray?” Often these underlying issues are never addressed in our rush to answers. But before we can ever learn how to pray, we need to look inwardly to our own hearts. The form of our prayers is completely meaningless if the form of our hearts is not shaped to Christ. So what type of person ought we to be in order to pray? “It becomes you, therefore, out of love to this true life, to account yourself ‘desolate’ in this world, however great the prosperity of your lot may be.”[1] The rich, Augustine argued, cannot pray unless they count themselves desolate. Your station, rank, or wealth in this life will not bring satisfaction. “Men are not made good by possessing these so-called good things…Therefore true comfort is to be found not in them.”[2] Proba came from a good family. She had wealth, children, and status. She was a widow, but her material place in life was comfortable. But Augustine instructed her that when it comes to prayer, she must find herself desolate and greatly desirous of the life found in God. Only the needy can truly pray.

After addressing the inward heart issue, Augustine then instructed Proba on the how and what of prayer. She had become “disturbed” by Paul’s words, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom 8:26). Her concern was that she might do more harm than good if she prayed wrongly. So she didn’t pray at all. Augustine provided an answer, “A short solution of your difficulty may be given thus: ‘Pray for a happy life.’”[3] A “happy life,” Augustine explained, is one who “has all that he wishes to have and wishes to have nothing which he ought not to wish.”[4] The happy life is a life that has health, health for one’s children, and things necessary for life. But beyond this, the truly happy life is one that desires God. “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life” (Ps 27:4). The happy life is primarily marked by a desire for and love of God. And if this is true, then all the other desires of one’s life will be properly ordered.

He illustrated this by going to the very words we often use in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the model prayer given to us by Jesus. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” or when we pray for needful things, our desires should be ordered by the wisdom of Proverbs 30:8, “give me neither poverty nor riches.” It is good, and leads to a happy life, to ask for what is needful. But it is a misunderstanding of prayer to ask for riches, wealth, or honor in order to be greater than this or that man. Augustine noted, “[He] who asks merely from a desire for these things, and not in order through them to benefit men agreeably to God’s will, I do not think that he will find any part of the Lord’s Prayer in connection with which he could fit in these requests.”[5] Again, our heart must be re-oriented toward God before we ask for what we want. Our prayers are to ask God for neither too much nor too little.

Augustine finished the letter by noting that Paul’s words in Romans 8:26, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” linger. Mystery will remain for us because we will never fully understand the depths of God’s will. But prayer, when rightly order, teaches us to submit to God. It also teaches us patience. And we learn that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for [his] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). “If you seek and relish the things that are above, you desire things everlasting and sure.”[6]

[1] Augustine, The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J.G. Cunningham, vol. Vol. 1, Nicene and Post-Nicene Father of the Christian Church (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 460, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf101.i.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 462.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 466.

[6] Ibid., 469.

Prayer – Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa was an early Church Father during the 4th century. He is often known as one of the three Cappadocian Fathers along with his brother, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory of Nyssa is the least well-known of the three. He suffered the double ignominy of being neither the best theologian in his family (behind his brother) nor the best “Gregory” among the three. Sometimes life is rough that way.

Gregory of Nyssa did make important contributions to the development of Trinitatian thought in the 4th century. He was an influential member of the Council of Constantinople (381) that solidified many of the Christological and Pneumatological matters that remained after the Council of Nicea (325).

Gregory’s Homily 1 “The Nature of Prayer” was a sermon that explained not just how one ought to prayer but the necessity for prayer in all things. He explains, “The present gathering needs to learn not only how to pray but that we must, by all means, pray. Perhaps this has not yet been understood by many. For many in daily life have neglected and passed over this sacred and divine work of prayer.”[1] The Christian is to persevere in prayer (Rom 12:12) and also to listen to the “Divine Voice” (i.e. Scripture) which teaches how to pray.

A common problem in our prayer lives is simply that we don’t take the time to pray. The concerns and worries and obligations of modern life seem to constantly crowd out our time to pray. But we should realize that this is not a problem isolated to our modern times. This has always been the case. Gregory, preaching in the 4th century, keys in on a problem that resonates with us today.

All seem to act the same way — the craftsman, the orator, the one who files a lawsuit, as well as the one who happens to be the judge. Each devotes his whole self to what is at hand and forgets the work of prayer. He considers engagement with God a harm compared to the work before him. For whoever practices a craft thinks God’s alliance is useless and unprofitable for one’s current business. He therefore forsakes prayer, putting all hope in his own hands and forgetting Him who has given us hands.[2]

Gregory’s point is that we get distracted with the busyness of life and forget to pray to the One who gave us life. It continues to be a problem in our prayer lives that we undervalue the power of prayer.

There are great benefits to us when we pray. Gregory argues that “if prayer precedes labors, sin will not find entrance into the soul.”[3] Gregory is a bit ambitious in this statement, but there is great truth in it. We must not look at prayer as some work we can do to ward off sin. Instead, we must view prayer as our dependence upon the grace of God given through Jesus Christ. By faith we depend on God through Christ to provide for our whole lives. In this sense our labors are transformed by prayer. In this vein Gregory goes on to define prayer with great oratorical skill:

Prayer guards prudence, moderates temper, restrains vanity, cleanses from rancor, removes envy, destroys injustice, and corrects impiety. Prayer is the strength of the body, the prosperity of the household, the good order of the city, the might of the kingdom, the victory in war, the security in peace, the unity of those divided, the constancy of those united. Prayer is the seal of virginity, the fidelity of marriage, the weapon of travelers, the guardian of those sleeping, the courage of those awake, the abundance of farmers, the safety of sailors. Prayer is advocate to litigants, comfort to prisoners, rest to the weary, solace to the sorrowful, delight to the joyful, consolation to mourners, wedding crown to spouses, festival to those celebrating birthdays, shroud to those who die. Prayer is to speak with God, to behold invisible realities, to satisfy spiritual yearning. Prayer is equality with angels, progress in good things, overthrowing of evil, correction of sinners, enjoyment of present gifts, assurance of future blessings.[4]

Prayer provides innumerable benefits to the one who prays. In sum, Gregory adds that our prayers keep us eternally minded. God is not deaf to the small and simple requests in our lives, but he does so in order to turn our attention to the greater things of his grace. The blessings of “childish toys” (i.e. material wealth) is so that we’ll look to the Father for greater and more perfect gifts. With a focus on God’s glory, our prayers will not descend into babble or nonsense. Our prayer will turn our eyes to the eternal hope we have in Christ.

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, “Homily 1 on Lord’s Prayer,” trans. Theodore Stylianopoulos, 2003, http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily1%20Lords%20Prayer.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Prayer – Tertullian

Tertullian was one of the Ante-Nicene Church Father (Ante-Nicene means before the Council of Nicea, 325AD) from the city of Carthage in North Africa (modern Tunisia). He wrote at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd centuries and is often considered one of the most prolific Latin Christian writers. During his time the dominant language for literature began to shift from Greek to Latin. Tertullian is known for an ability to craft sharp and memorable turns of phrases that have endured through the centuries. Perhaps even in recent weeks you have heard his phrase “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Apology 50), or “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Prescription against Heretics 7). His phrasing was also foundational for some important but non-biblical terminology, such as “original sin,” the distinction of “person” and “nature” in the Trinity, sacrament, merit, and others.[1]

Later in Tertullian’s life, he was drawn into the sect of Montanism. Montanism appeared in Phyrgia (modern Turkey) around 150AD. It was an unorthodox sect that revolved around prophecies that Montanus and two female prophetesses received from the Paraclete (Jn 14) which focused on ascetic and legalistic practices. On the whole the sect was mostly orthodox in their beliefs, but the emphasis tended to focus more on the fantastic than on the biblical.

Tertullians treatise On Prayer was likely written around 192AD and predates his entry in to Montanism. Tertullian begins by explaining a new form of prayer that has come to us through the instruction of Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Prayer in its words, spirit, and brevity serve as the “epitome of the Gospel.”[2] He finishes his explanation of the seven clauses of the Lord’s Prayer with a Trinitarian flourish of praise to the God who would condescend in order to teach his people how to pray, “What wonder? God alone could teach how he wished Himself prayed to. The religious rite of prayer therefore, ordained by Himself, and animated, even at the moment when it was issuing out of the Divine mouth, by His own Spirit, ascends, by its own prerogative, into heaven, commending to the Father what the Son has taught.”[3] Tertullian then begins to explain some of the practical aspects of prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is very brief in its language. Tertullian explains that there are circumstances in the individual’s life that might call for other language, more petitions, or different prayers. This is acceptable, “yet with remembrance of the Master’s precepts.”[4] This gives the Christian great freedom in her prayers while maintaining appropriate boundaries. Prayer is more than a mechanical recitation of mere words, but it is an offering up of the desires of the heart for things agreeable to the will of God (WSC 98). The practice in the broader church of reciting a formulaic or set prayer without thought or heart did not develop from Scripture or during the time of the early Church. Tertullian rejected the “mantra” type of prayer.

The rest of Tertullian’s instruction on prayer deals primarily with freedom and humility. The Christian entering into prayer needs to be free. He should be free of anger with his brother. If you are odds with a brother or sister, reconcile, then come to pray (Matt 5:22, 23). The Christian should be free from mental angst (Eph 4:30). The Christian should have “clean hands.” By this Tertullian explains that he does not mean physically washed, but rather free of the stain of sin through confession and repentance. And the Christian should pray at times that have been freed up for that purpose. Again, this is not a slavish obligation to pray at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, but rather at a regular time set aside for prayer. “Albeit these practices stand simply without any precept for their observance, still it may be a good thing to establish some definite presumption, which may both add stringency to the admonition to pray, and may, as it were by a law, tear us out from our businesses unto such a duty.”[5]

Tertullian also encourages the Christian to pray with humility. He addresses the posture of the person in prayer. Some say you should kneel in prayer; others suggest raising hands toward the sky. Tertullian argues that the posture is far less important than having humility in one’s heart. The Pharisee raised his hands to heaven, but it was the publican who beat his chest and looked downward in humility (Luke 18:9-14). And in humility, the Christian should expect God to respond to our prayers. If Daniel prayed powerfully, how much more will God answer prayers brought before him by the intercession of His Son, Jesus Christ. Our prayers matter.

 

[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2005), 127.

[2] Tertullian, On Prayer, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. III, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classis Ethereal Library), 681, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.vi.iv.i.html.

[3] Ibid., III:684.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., III:690.

Prayer – Origen

In Tim Keller’s book Making Sense of God, Keller argues that it is a relatively recent phenomenon to believe that finite man has the capacity to sit in judgment over an infinite God. “Ancient people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment on how an infinite God was disposing of things.”[1] Keller’s understanding of the ancient mind is affirmed in Origen’s work On Prayer. Origen explains that prayer is a way in which humans can know and have discourse with God. When one realizes that he is entering into conversation with the Almighty, he quickly realizes this is no small feat. Origen explains the significance of prayer. He then explains the language and the disposition of prayer. Right prayer is prayer that is done for the right purpose and in the right manner.

Origen opened his treatise of prayer by placing man in proper perspective to God. The Almighty is so far above the thoughts of man that is an impossibility to consider that man could speak with God. The body is corruptible and the soul is weighed down by sin. The things of heaven are “impossible for man to trace out.” But God makes a way possible by his grace. Through Christ man is able to come to God. “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but, I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Origen places the accent, though, on the fact that man can only know this on account of God’s gift. God is great and incomprehensible but God condescends to man that he might know him.

Origen then answers the question that might be in your mind, “What does this have to do with prayer?” We must accurately understand the greatness of God and our inability to come before God apart from his grace so that we’ll understand why we must only approach God in prayer with the right purpose and in the right manner. “It is necessary not merely to pray but also to pray as we ought and to pray what we ought. For even though we are enabled to understand what we ought to pray, that is not adequate if we do not add to it the right manner also.”[2] Origen explains what he means by “as we ought” and “what we ought.” By the former he means the “disposition” of prayer. By the latter he means the “language” of prayer.

The disposition of prayer is illustrated by Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2. “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim 2:8). He also refers to Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23, 24). These passages point out the attitude one is to have when engaging in prayer. Beyond the words, the attitude and actions of the one praying is important. This is our disposition in prayer, or as Origen said the “as we ought” of prayer.

The language of prayer is illustrated by Jesus’ teaching to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:38). “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt 26:41). And “when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matt 6:7). These passages point out that there is a proper content to prayer. We are to pray for a number of different types of things, asking for the kingdom of God, righteousness, for the growth of the kingdom, for deliverance from temptation, and that we should use humble words. This is the language of prayer, or as Origen said the “what we ought” of prayer.

In all of his instruction on the language and disposition of prayer, Origen keeps in mind the inescapable reality of God’s unfathomable transcendence. Our words and our hearts in prayer must be guided by the greatness of God. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pray for the seemingly smaller things in life. We just need to do with the proper perspective. “We should therefore pray for the principal and truly great and heavenly things, and as for those concerned with the shadows accompanying the principal, commit them to God who knows before we ask Him what things, by reason of our perishable body, we have need.”[3]

Contrary to modern conception of God, we must come to God with an acknowledgment that he is so supremely great and above man than our finite minds can grasp. And yet, God in his great grace has condescended to us in Christ that we might approach him in prayer. As we balance the transcendence and immanence of God in prayer, we allow God’s Word to help us understand the proper language and disposition in prayer. We must honor God with right prayer done for the right purpose and in the right manner.

[1] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York, New York: Viking, 2016), 37.

[2] Origen, On Prayer, trans. William A. Curtis (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classis Ethereal Library, n.d.), 3, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/origen/prayer#.

[3] Ibid., 34.

Prayer – The Tradition of the Church

Having looked at several examples of prayer in the Old Testament and the transition in prayer from the Old to the New Testament, it might be natural to then look at various prayers in the New Testament. We are, however, going to take a detour and first examine the writings on prayer from a variety of Church Fathers. Beginning with some early Church Fathers and leading up through a number of Reformed and Puritan theologians, we’ll take a quick survey through church history before we return to the New Testament and focus in on the Lord’s Prayer to conclude our study on prayer.

This detour through church history is meant to ground our understanding of prayer in Scripture as it has been handed to us through the church. The Reformed principle of sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, is often misunderstood to mean that we look only at Scripture. The misconception is that the Reformation not only gives license, but instructs it adherents to read the Scriptures in a vacuum, completely devoid of any influence from ecclesiastical tradition. Not only is this impossible, it was never the intention of the Reformers.

Michael Allen makes the strong case in Reformed Catholicity that this abuse of sola Scriptura is more the result of modern rationalism and individualism than the intention of the Reformers. “Indeed, sola Scriptura has served for some moderns as a banner for private judgment and against catholicity. In so doing, however, churches and Christians have turned from sola Scriptura to solo Scriptura, a bastard child nursed at the breast of modern rationalism and individualism.”[1]

The Reformed faith at its best does look back to the tradition of the church. Reading Luther, Calvin, and others shows that they were well acquainted with the works of the early Church Fathers. The looked at the history of the church to influence and guide their interpretations of Scripture. The Ten Theses of Bern (1528), an early Swiss Reformed Confession, makes mention of the “traditions of men,” but it gives no value judgment on them (Ten Theses of Bern, 2). It simply argues that these traditions must be held up to the ultimate standard of Scripture. The Scots Confession instructs to neither “rashly damn” nor “without just examination…receive” the work of general councils (Scots Confession, ch. xx). Allen points out that Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, argued in his commentary on the catechism that there are three methods of teaching and learning the doctrine of the church. First is the catechetical instruction. The learning of the broad scope and sweep of Christian doctrine. Second is the lengthier and more developed theologies of the church. Primarily in mind here are the Patristic writings. Third is the highest method, Scripture itself. “The Bible is the ‘highest method in the study of the doctrine of the church,’ precisely because it contains the oracles of God; yet it is not to be engaged apart from the teaching instruments of Christ’s church.”[2]

So it is wise for us to look at prayer through the work of the early church and the Reformation. And we do this before we return to the New Testament because what we will find in the work of the Church is that they consistently look to the Lord’s Prayer as the divinely given model for prayer. After listening to the voices of the universal Church, we will look at Jesus’ instruction for prayer. So over the next several weeks we are going to look at some of the key writings on prayer from the giants of the church. We will examine some early Church Fathers like Origen, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. We will also look at some of the Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries on prayer. We’ll hear the voice of some of the Reformers and Puritans, like John Calvin, Wilhelmus À Brakel, Francis Turretin, Thomas Watson, and Matthew Henry. By looking at what some of the great minds of the church have taught about prayer, we’ll then refocus our attention on the Lord’s instruction in the Lord’s Prayer.

 

[1] Michael Allen, Scott R. Swain, and J. Todd Billings, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015), 85.

[2] Ibid., 68.

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.