News

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.

Prayer – R. L. Dabney

Prayer – R. L. Dabney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 214.

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

[5] Ibid., 716.

[6] Ibid., 720.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer – Wilhemus À Brakel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., 3.446.

[3] Ibid., 456.

[4] Ibid., 471.

Prayer – John Calvin

The namesake of the theological movement known as Calvinism was the French-Reformer John Calvin. John Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509. At the age of 14, he began training for the Roman Catholic priesthood, but by 1527 Calvin had been influenced by the Reformation and left the Roman Catholic church. He began to study law, but eventually found his way back to theology. In 1536 John Calvin fled Catholic France and began to travel to Strasbourg, where he hoped to live a quiet life of study and writing. Due to war between Francis I and Charles V, Calvin detoured through the Swiss city of Geneva. In Geneva Calvin was approached by William Farel, who had heard that Calvin was in town. Farel asked, pleaded, and compelled Calvin to remain in Geneva to pastor the church. Calvin eventually agreed and remained in Geneva ministering alongside of Farel. In addition to lecturing, teaching, preaching, and other pastoral duties, Calvin wrote theological works. His Institutes of the Christian Religion were first published in 1536 and then revised in 1539 and 1543, with a final edition appearing in 1559. Calvin composed several catechisms (1537, 1538, & 1545) for the instruction of the people of Geneva. He also wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible.

Calvin’s Catechisms and his Institutes have much to say on the topic of prayer. The Catechisms each progress through the basics of the Christian faith, principally as laid out in the Apostles’ Creed. Through this basic faith, we are given hope. And hope leads us to prayer. “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things that faith believed to have been truly promised by God” (Calvin’s Catechism 1538). Prayer then is “the invocation of God in all one’s needs” (CC 1545). Faith, hope, and prayer are all linked. Hope begins with the realization that one’s current resources are insufficient. People do not hope for what they already possess, but they hope for what is not. Prayer is a vocalizing (inwardly or outwardly) of those needs to God. The first part of prayer, therefore, is neediness. Man should see how needy he is and then call out to God. “Prayer is a communication between God and us whereby we expound to him our desires, our joys, our sighs, in a word, all the thoughts of our hearts” (CC 1537). There are two things that then move us toward prayer. The first is God’s Word. We are instructed and commanded to pray. Second, there is the promise in which God assures us that we shall obtain everything we ask in accordance with his will. And this prayer is expressed in two types of prayer, either a request of God or a thanksgiving to God.

Calvin’s instruction in prayer is expanded in his 1545 Catechism, but that instruction is even further expanded in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes are a systematic theology covering God the Creator (Book 1), The Redeemer in Christ (Book 2), Grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit (Book 3), and the Church (Book 4). Book 3 chapter 20 is Calvin’s most extended treatment on prayer. In it Calvin explains the nature and value of prayer before giving four practical rules on how to pray. “Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many good ways the exercise of prayer is profitable. In prayer we invoke the presence of his providence, his power, and his goodness. It is by prayer we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us” (Institutes 3.20.2).

The first rule for prayer is that it must be approached with all due reverence. There should be a devout detachment from carnal and worldly concerns. Free up time and space so that you can pray undistracted. And ask God for things that are appropriate. It is imprudent to ask God for “whatever dreams have struck your fancy.” But because our wills are wholly unable to do this, we are to seek the Holy Spirit as an aide.

The second rule is that pray from a sincere sense of want, and with penitence. We must acknowledge that we are insufficient and need God’s provision. The primary need we have is of forgiveness for our sins. “Lawful prayer, therefore, demands repentance. Only sincere worshipers of God pray aright and are heard. Let each one, therefore, as he prepares to pray be displeased with his own evil deeds, and let him take the person and disposition of a beggar” (3.20.7).

The third rule is that we yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon. We come as humble suppliants for mercy. We must abandon all thoughts of our own glory and look to God alone. The plea for forgiveness is the most important part of prayer. We should expect nothing from God until we are reconciled to him.

The fourth rule is that we pray with a confident hope. Hope and faith overcome fear. We pray under two emotions, an anxious groaning under present concerns and worries and confident hope in the refuge of God. But by faith, we believe that God will give what is asked. We believe that God will actually answer prayer. “If we would pray fruitfully, we ought to grasp with both hands the assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins to his own voice, and all the saints teach by their example” (3.20.12). We are commanded to pray. We are promised great blessings if we pray. We would, therefore, be foolish not to pray.

 

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.”