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.