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Christian Prayer

N.S. Tjernagel

1942 Synod Convention Essay

(1) Christian Prayer presupposes a need on the part of the person who prays.

In the beginning God created the world and established the laws of nature. He set the sun, moon and stars in heaven to give light and to regulate the seasons. He created the germ of life in all living things, and into every living thing He placed the capacity to reproduce its own kind. Life was in perfect harmony with the forces of nature. Man lived with and under God in a perfect communion. He was perfectly supplied with all necessities. He had no unfulfilled desires. He was subject to no danger. He was haunted by no fear. Death was unknown and nonexistent.

But all that has been changed. Man disobeyed God very soon after creation and the establishment of a perfect order on earth. For their disobedience the Lord cursed His children, condemned them to a life of labor and pain on earth. He decreed that after their allotted time on earth their bodies should die and their souls descend to hell, there to suffer for all eternity. The earth and all its creatures came under the same condemnation. The perfect balance and order of things in nature came to an abrupt end.

The seasons continue their regular succession; but we have blistering heat and freezing cold; we have droughts and floods, destructive lightning and raging tornadoes. There are storms at sea and fires on land. Volcanoes and avalanches, earthquakes and tidal waves, and all the destructive phenomena of nature are a constant reminder of the curse of God and our own helplessness.

The Lord decreed that man should live by the sweat of his brow, taking his livelihood from the earth. And so we live subject to the hazards of early frost and untimely hail, of excessive or insufficient rainfall. Weeds, blights and moth, pests and vermin take their daily toll. At best, the earth yields her fruits grudgingly, exacting hard and endless labor from every one of us.

It was decreed that ail men must die in the Lord’s appointed time. And with that condemnation came a host of diseases and dangers to plague us and to leave us uncertain of the time and manner of death From very childbirth, we are exposed to the germs of disease and infection. Some of them strike instantly bringing sudden death; others may linger for years, leaving us maimed and crippled, infirm and suffering. Our frail bodies constantly run the hazards of violence and death from accident. All these things must impress us with our own helplessness. Hostile forces are all about us, and over most of them we have no control whatsoever.

But we have referred only to our helplessness in life and against the forces and evils of nature. We are spiritually helpless, too. We were conceived and born in sin. We are spiritually “dead in trespasses and sin,” as Scripture expresses it. Contrary to the opinion even of many Christians, we are utterly unable by our own works to merit salvation. We are unable of ourselves to believe in Jesus Christ our Savior so as to be saved thereby.

Out of all this helplessness in our daily lives and in our spiritual life arises a need for prayer. We need to turn to someone who can help us. We are helpless ourselves, and it is in our very nature to turn to some Being outside ourselves who might help us.

(2) Christian Prayer presupposes faith and confidence in God to whom prayers are addressed.

Everyone believes, in a vague sort of way, that there is a God. The evidence to support belief in the existence of a God is so overwhelming as to make real atheism an impossibility. But belief in the existence of a god by no means constitutes knowledge of the true God. Mere belief in the existence of a god is a far cry from faith in the one true God. Faith in the true God is begotten of the Holy Ghost by means of the revealed word. The Christian knows his God intimately, and out of that God-given knowledge arises confident faith.

The prayer of the person who merely believes that there is a god is as vague as his faith in an unknown divine existence. His prayer is uncertain, because he does not know on what terms he may pray. His usual prayer is an ill-founded plea for mercy. The phrase, “God have mercy on my soul,” becomes a blanket expression that is expected to cover any and all offences. God is looked upon simply as a benign being who tolerates evil and, in the end, forgives it. Though driven to prayer by a real feeling of need, his prayers are futile and ineffectual because the god to whom he prays is, in actuality, not a god at all. He is not the true and revealed God. Indeed, the prayers of such vague believers in an unknown deity are not even prayers. They are merely soliloquies (talking to oneself) which, however much they may produce renewed strength and courage out of the psychological experience of praying, do not at all find acceptance and response in the true God. Many persons receive an emotional uplift from playing a musical instrument. This uplift lies in the realm of aesthetic enjoyment. Equally in the realm of aesthetics lies the pleasurable feeling a man may get from his own or another person’s beautifully worded prayer to an imagined deity. It would be folly to regard the mere pleasurable experience of such prayer as a divine blessing and as a sufficient reason for prayer. Such prayers are but mental calisthenics and emotional exercises and are not real prayers at all.

The true Christian prays to a God in whom he believes. A real prayer is not possible without a true knowledge of God and faith in Him. Christians know their God because He has been revealed to them by God’s own Word. He has made Himself known to us as a Trinity in unity, as one God in three persons. He has made known to us His great works, creation, redemption, and sanctification. By that same Word He has made known to us our condition and has described in detail our relation to Him.

That Word tells us that, though we are physically helpless and spiritually lost, He loves us and would have us to he saved. It tells us how He made His Son the propitiation for all our sins and sent us His Holy Spirit to create a life of faith in us. It tells us that He invites us to pray and on what terms we may pray.

The terms on which we are invited to pray are these: that we acknowledge our sin and unworthiness and our inability to work out our own salvation; that we acknowledge Jesus Christ, God’s crucified and risen Son as our only Savior and the One for whose sake God answers prayer and forgives sin; and that we acknowledge the Spirit of God as our only guide into true faith and sanctification.

In short, the Christian not only knows to whom he prays, but also how to pray. He not only knows that God is Almighty, Omniscent, Omnipresent, Holy, Just, and Righteous; but also that only those prayers which are addressed to God in faith and in Jesus’ name are acceptable to Him. He not only knows that God is able to answer prayer, but that He is willing to answer our prayers for Jesus’ sake. We are induced to pray by our own need; we pray to God because He alone is able to hear and answer our prayers. We pray not to a God who may be in heaven; but to a God whom we know is in heaven, and who hears and responds to every proper prayer.

(3) Christian Prayer is an Evidence of the Sanctification of the Sinner.

Natural man is an enemy of God and the servant of Satan. He is both unwilling and unable to do that which is good. He is spiritually dead in trespasses and sins. He is totally depraved. But sinful man has been justified the atonement of Christ. The Savior was punished for all the sins of mankind, and mankind received the perfect righteousness of Christ as a free gift of God’s grace. God now looks upon man as though he had never sinned. To the sinner thus justified through Christ, the Holy Ghost comes with His gifts of to enable him to live a life of faith and true godliness. The of a sinner is his deliverance, as a result of justification, from the service of Satan to the service of God. This transformation of the justified sinner is effected by the Holy Ghost. The sanctified sinner: no longer the child of Satan, lives as a child of God. He not only believes in God and is obedient to Him; but he communes with Him. This communion with God is prayer. The communion of sanctified sinners with God through prayer is as integral a part of their spiritual life as the act of breathing is of their physical life. There can be no such thing as a non-praying Christian. If you had been saved from physical death, you would not let the person who saved you go unthanked nor cease thinking of him with gratitude for the rest of your life. And those Christians who know they have been saved from eternal death never cease thanking God, not only for their salvation, but also for their knowledge of it.

The Christian’s prayer, or his conversation with God, falls under four general headings: confession, thanksgiving, and petition.

The Christian is not approaching God in the proper attitude for prayer unless he at the very beginning, that he is a sinner who deserves no mercy, rather punishment at the hand of God; that he deserves the wrath of God rather than the for which he prays.

God with the attitude for prayer unless he gives the many gifts and he has already received and glorifies and his sovereign, Creator in the presence of Whom he is nothing but dust and ashes. We are too commonly inclined to think of prayer as a matter only of asking favors of God, as including petitions only. Important though petitions are, confession, thanksgiving and must not be forgotten. When all these things, as well as petitions, are included in our prayer, we show that we are truly sanctified and are truly the children of God.

What a Christian may pray for will not to be a difficult question if our thesis is kept in mind: namely, Christian prayer is an evidence of the sanctification of the sinner. We for the forgiveness of sins and for faith; for deliverance from and for a closer walk with God. All these spiritual gifts are, as Christian well knows, gifts which God had promised and which He bestows. All these things it is God’s divine will to give us.

With regard to those bodily gifts for which we pray, there may appear to be difficulty; but not if we remember that God’s bestowal or withholding of temporal gifts is governed wholly by His concern for our spiritual welfare. God does not give His children such things as may be harmful for their souls; nor does a Christian knowingly pray for such things. He may, in all sincerity, pray for things which might prove harmful; but always with his desire and will subservient to the will of God. Jesus promised: “All things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” In that promise we must emphasize the word “believing,” understanding that the Christian’s will according to the new man is in harmony with God, and that he offers no prayers which are deliberately contrary to the will of God. Where the matter is doubtful, in respect to prayers which we would offer for temporal gifts, our prayers are always conditioned by the words: “Nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” The importance of attaching that condition was indelibly impressed upon my own mind in childhood by the story of a mother who ignored the will of God as supreme and prayed imperiously and unconditionally for the recovery of her sick child. God answered her prayer and gave health to her little boy. But that mother lived to see her child grow up to a life of vice and godlessness, ending on the hangman’s scaffold, and to grieve over the day in which she had set her will against that of God Who would mercifully have taken her child away from her in his youth.

Since Christian prayer is the communion or fellowship of the sanctified sinner with his God, it is continuous and is not limited to specified times or places. Words out of the mouth are not necessary for the offering of prayer, since we may commune with God without speaking, anywhere and at any time. Therefore, the Christian prays even when he is not consciously aware of praying to God. It goes without saying that prayer is a part of our public and private worship, because worship and prayer are inseparable. The time and place for such prayers are not specified in Scripture, since prayer is the essence of the spiritual life of Christians which is to manifest itself at all times. When a sinner rejects Christ and falls from grace and ceases to remain in a state of sanctification, then his prayer also ceases.

(4) Christian Prayer is Heard and Answered.

We have two guarantees upon which we base the certain assertion that God responds to our prayer. The first is God’s promise. The Scriptures are full of God’s promises to answer the believer’s prayer. We quote only one: “Ask and it shall be given you.” We can have no less faith in His willingness and ability to answer prayer than we have in His person as revealed in Holy Scripture. A God who could be unreliable in so far as keeping the promise concerning prayer is concerned would also he unreliable as to His promise of salvation.

The second guarantee of God’s promise to answer our prayer is His justice. That divine justice demanded death as the punishment of sin. Jesus Christ was the Lamb of God who, innocent and sinless Himself, “was made sin for us” and is the propitiation for all our sins. God would be much less than just if He who has exacted the death penalty from Jesus were now to disregard our petitions, based on the sufferings and death of Christ. Indeed, God would be guilty of the grossest injustice of all time were Christ’s sacrifice to be unavailing for us now. Then God would have let His Son be slain in vain. Because God is just, He will and He must answer our prayers. No plea for forgiveness will or can go unheeded by our Heavenly Father.

In this connection, we must always bear in mind when we speak of God’s promise to answer our prayers that that promise is made to believers only. There can be no understanding of the subject of prayer apart from this essential fact.

It is because this fact is forgotten that prayer is so often discredited, even among Christians. One hears devout persons complaining that, though they pray much, they seem to get no answer to their prayers. So, they say, there seems to be little object in continuing in prayer. They forget that God grants the petitions of His children insofar as, and inasmuch as, the things they desire serve their true welfare. It is true that, in spite of our prayers, we suffer reverses, poverty, illness, griefs, and even death. Yet all of these afflictions are in God’s hands blessings. Woe betide us if God were to grant every prayer of His children! Every parent who has had to deny many of the pleas of his children will understand this.

The blessings that we receive from communing with God in prayer are far greater than can be measured by the earthly things which we actually receive as a result of our prayers. Because of this fact, we can say that a life of prayer has far greater value than any possible physical recompense of prayer.

And yet, God does wonderfully answer our prayers. Abraham prayed for more than twenty-five years for a son. And he was given that son in Isaac and manifold other blessings. Elizabeth’s prayers of a lifetime were bountifully answered in the birth of John the Baptist. Joseph’s prayers were apparently disregarded for many years; but finally they were answered in greater measure than he had ever dreamed. Many of Christ’s miracles were simply His response to the prayers of the maimed, blind, impotent, and suffering whom He healed. Surely God has no less power now than He had then. He still can and does work wonders for His children, which are both beyond our deserts and our under, standing.

Many regard prayers that apparently are answered as mere coincidences, saying that, whatever the gift may be, it would have been given without the prayer. Even if that were wholly true, as it may be in certain instances, the prayer is, nevertheless, not useless. By the act of prayer the Christian has acknowledged God as the bountiful giver of the gift, and has thereby been wonderfully blessed. The example is cited of one who prays for relief in financial distress and then receives a check that was mailed before the prayer was offered. Whoever denies that God answered that prayer denies the foreknowledge of God who knew that that prayer would be offered.

It is said that the processes of nature are not affected by prayer; that, for example, it is useless to pray for rain. Such contentions disregard the fact that God rules the forces of nature for the benefit of His children, and that, though a prayer for rain may not always be granted, God certainly can answer it if He will. Whether He answers it or not, the prayer itself is a blessing and a benefit to those who offer it. The forces of nature were very definitely affected by God for the welfare of His children when the waters of the Red Sea opened to let Israel pass, and when the sun stood still to give Joshua time for complete victory over his enemies. We have no right to demand such miracles now according to our own whims; but it is right for us to pray God to control the forces of nature so as to save us from their destructive effects and enable us to earn our living from the soil in accordance with God’s own command. Finally, let us remember that every gift and blessing which we receive in this life is given by God. That is true whether we have prayed for those blessings or not. The person who has prayed has acknowledged his dependence upon God. The things he receives, as a result of prayer, are a thousand times a blessing because his soul and his spiritual welfare have been served by his communion with God.

Perversions of Prayer

Our Explanation teaches that we may pray for ourselves and for others, but not for the dead. There is a perfectly good reason for this, which is manifest in God’s whole revealed plan of salvation. All of Christ’s warnings that we be prepared for the hour of death would be meaningless if it were possible to change the state of man’s soul after death. Those who pray for the dead are unmindful of the central doctrine of the Bible that salvation is by God’s grace and through faith in Christ Jesus. One either dies with faith in Christ or without it. No amount of prayer offered for the dead will alter the presence or lack of faith at the time of their death. It may be tempting enough to pray for one who has passed into eternity. But the thoughtful Christian will realize the uselessness of it.

Just as useless is prayer to the Virgin Mary and the saints. Such prayers are offered because of a false humility which contends that the sinner is unworthy to approach Christ directly. But that attitude is one which contradicts Christ’s own word which says: “Ask the Father in My name.” We are unworthy, indeed, but we only exclude ourselves from salvation by neglecting the direct avenue of approach to God, through Christ, in favor of an unauthorized approach of our own devising. The Scriptures describe our unworthiness in no uncertain terms. It is not necessary for us to go beyond that and forbid ourselves the blessing of direct prayer to the Father through the Son.

Reference has already been made to the futility of praying to anyone or anything other than the one true God. Peter says of Christ Jesus: “Neither is there salvation in any other.” Worship or prayer to any other deity is idolatry. It is no less idolatry when the Host, in Roman Catholic Communion, is venerated, worshipped and adored. We do assuredly receive Christ’s true body in Communion; but it is no God-pleasing prayer that is offered to the bread remaining after Communion, as though that unused Host were Christ. That becomes idolatry made worse by blasphemy.

Repetitious prayer is worthy of condemnation in the strongest terms because it makes a good work out of prayer. The underlying motive for such repetitiousness is that if one prayer is a good work, then its worth is magnified in direct relation to the number of times the prayer is offered. It is true that prayer is God-pleasing. But it is also true that no one becomes worthy of salvation or of any other divine gift simply because he has prayed. Prayer asks for the blessings of God’s love; it is not the purchase price of those gifts. You ask your grocer for an order of groceries. He does not give it to you because he enjoys hearing your voice, but because he knows you will pay the stipulated purchase price. You ask the Father for the forgiveness of your sin. He forgives you because Christ has paid the purchase price of your forgiveness; not because He attaches merit to your act of offering prayer.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer is a blessing indeed. To say it a hundred times in succession is no prayer at all. That is simply a vocal exercise as valuable as saying the alphabet a similar number of times. Jesus very distinctly brands the religion of those who repeat their prayers, parrotlike, in order to please their gods as heathenish. He says, Matt. 6:7. “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do; for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking.”

Akin to those who say their prayers on a string of beads, are those who pray in order to be seen and heard of men. This kind of praying derives from the same theological error that inspires repetitious prayer. It is that ageless error which Satan devised and still propagates that man must work out his own salvation, at least in part, by his good works, and that praying is one of the most praiseworthy and God-pleasing of good works.

Jesus gave that kind of prayer, too, its proper brand. He said: “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” Matt. 6:5.

Our thoughts turn to prayer- and revival-meetings when this kind of praying is considered. Obviously, there is nothing objectionable in the idea of prayer- and revival-meetings in themselves. We can readily see what great blessings might come from both. But, when a prayer meeting becomes a contest to determine who can deliver the most fervent or eloquent prayer, there is something very definitely wrong. Prayer is essentially a private and personal matter. Jesus says, “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet.” Exhibitions of manual skills or of musical aptitude or even eloquence are perfectly in order in their place. But exhibitionism in regard to prayer is a sacrilege, and Christ denounces it in no uncertain terms. Matt. 6:5–6.

It is quite logical when those who regard prayer as a good work ascribe to it the attributes of, and even call it, a means of Grace. The means of Grace are the Word and Sacraments. They possess the power of God and are able to create and maintain faith in the sinner. Prayer has no such power. Prayer is merely the means by which the converted sinner who has come to faith in Christ through the gracious work of the Holy Ghost communes with his God and Lord.

The command to pray is an express command. So is the command to perform the fruits of faith: good works. But neither faith nor prayer is a power of God unto salvation, nor the basis for a sinner’s salvation. Prayer is not a means of Grace. It is an avenue for the expression of faith and love toward God, a means of access to God, who through the means of Grace regenerates sinners and brings salvation to believers.

Prayer is important and blessed enough without adding to it a character which God never gave it. Remember what prayer is: Simply communion with God. That communion does not need the embellishments of oratory, nor the adulation of an audience to be effective. Humility, earnestness, and faith are the proper dress of prayer. The Lord’s command to pray is worded in a simplicity that might well be a model for prayer itself. He says, “Ask and it shall be given thee.” He wants us to do just that and nothing more.

If we condemn the teachings of those who would make prayer a means of Grace, we can be no less severe with those who hold prayer in such small esteem that they willingly pray with anyone, without regard to what his faith is. Prayer is a most intimate and sacred part of worship. In truth, it is difficult to distinguish prayer from worship. Our reasons for declining to pray with Christians who do not teach God’s Word in its truth and purity are the same as our reasons for declining to worship or to receive the Lord’s Supper with them.

In closing this discussion of Perversions of Prayer it is to be noted that perversions of prayer always are logically the result of perversions of Christian doctrine. Whoever has learned the Word correctly has learned to pray in a manner that is both pleasing and acceptable to God. If we, then, have learned how to pray, let us be sure that we do pray, remembering Christ’s injunction in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”