1947 Synod Convention Essay
The subject of Prayer lies close to the heart of every Christian, for prayer is his very breath. It concerns us all, for without it we could not live the Christian life. It is precious, for God has added His blessing to Christian prayer in the words: “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” — Matt. 21,22. Prayer is as the flower of Christian faith, fragrant, beautiful, spreading happiness as it also receives unto itself the dewy gladness from above. Prayer is the adornment of a Christian, revealing the inner beauty of his heart: humble penitence, loving trust, firm confidence — it is John leaning on the bosom of his Lord. Prayer is that voice of a child of God which can not be stilled. In adversity it cries for help; in happiness it thanks God; in success it asks the blessing of God; in sorrow it asks for comfort, in sin for forgiveness, in difficulty for guidance and wisdom, in perils of mind or body for deliverance, and in the lonely hours for the sympathy and understanding of God. Prayer is the music of the heart, reflecting all its moods, speaking all its needs, a calm and quiet pastoral when the days are untroubled, but as a raging storm, troubled, impassioned, loudly crying and anguished when the storms of temptation or doubt or suffering or misunderstanding and persecution rage high. Some prayers would not be heard if the Spirit of God did not translate even secret moanings and groanings and sighings into prayers understood and known by God. Some prayers would bring a curse, if the Spirit were not quick to change our ignorant and unwise, even thoughtless or childish demands into requests that please God and into prayers for such things that He knows would be for our good and bring a blessing to us and others with and through us.
To some, prayer is a means of grace, actually conveying the grace of God to man without the Word and Sacraments. To others it is a sort of emotional privilege, an indefinable manner of communication with a Higher Being, whoever that may be, which in the end, if analyzed carefully, is nothing else than an appeal to self to do your best. Others find in what they call prayer a quite satisfactory means of fulfilling spiritual obligations, and they recite their rosary or other prayer-formulas by the hundreds or by the hour, assured that they have now performed their religious duties for the day. Men pray to unknown gods today as they did in ancient Athens, wondering all the while why their nameless and meaningless gods do not answer — like the priests of Baal on ancient Carmel. They pray in the form of vile curses and oaths, and they do not consider that their blasphemy has effectively shut the door of the heart of God to these prayers, as well as to those which in the hour of need arise so frantically from these same cursing lips. What perversion of prayer God in heaven must hear to weary Him who hates all falsehood and deceit and hypocrisy!
Prayer is not a means of grace. It is not and must not be a mere matter of form — as when men of all religious faiths and sects gather at baccalaureate services, Memorial Day exercises and the like, to add dignity to their rites by so-called invocations and benedictions. Prayer is not a work by which we help save ourselves as by a good deed well done. Prayer is not a mere emotional uplift by which we are encouraged to put forth the better effort. It is not as a stray message sent out into space for some stray god to pick up at his convenience. It is not simply a jumble of words, sung or spoken or thought, as when many, disagreed among themselves as to their actual intent, put on a show of agreement in prayer in order to please their own vanity or that of others. Prayer is not an opportunity to boast of one’s own religious fervor and to decry the attitude of others — the old Pharisee and the new pietist. Prayer is not what men would make of it but what God has ordained.
II. “What, then, is Prayer? The Scriptures do not leave us in doubt.
a) Prayer is, above all, an ACTIVITY OF FAITH. It is not the only activity, for Scripture mentions others such as love, trust, confidence. But these are all intimately associated with each other and connected with faith.
When a man is in need of companionship, of advice, of help, of sympathy and understanding, of comfort, he will naturally turn to a friend whom he trusts. He will ask him for such help, if he has the confidence that this friend can help and that his friend loves him enough to him the help he needs. Prayer to a Christian is the expression of this need, this trust and confidence. This is what we call the activity of faith. One who does not ask his friend for help has thereby confessed, at least to himself, that he does not quite trust his friend as much as he thought. And a Christian who does not ask God for help, who does not communicate with God in prayer, has thereby proved, again at least to himself, that his loving trust, i.e. his faith, in God was not real and living. It was merely pretended.
If you would know that prayer is an activity and not a dead form or ritual, study the scenes we know from the life of Christ: in Gethsemane, on the Cross, in the night hours in the lonely desert or on a lofty mountain, when He like Jacob of old struggled with God in prayer, when He wrought His miracles of healing or when He prayed the intercessory prayer (John 17) for His own. Or consider an Eliezer when he prayed for the success of his mission (Gen. 24,12–14), a Jacob before he met Esau (Gen. 32,9–12), a Moses (Exod. 32,11–13; 33,12f.; Ps. 90), a David in his psalms, a Jonah in the belly of the fish (Jon. 2,2–9), an Elijah on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18,36.37.). When Paul prayed, or the publican or the malefactor or the Syrophenician woman or the centurion or blind Bartimaeus, they showed by their very asking that they believed, i.e. trusted and had faith in Him to whom they prayed, and thus their faith was active by this turning to Christ in prayer. And the Christians down through the centuries and those whom we have known? We admit that there has been much formalism, much hypocrisy and much so-called dead Christianity in the church; but we can not dismiss the prayers of the sainted martyrs, of such teachers of the church as Polykarp, Athanasius, Augustin, Luther, Walther, or of our beloved fathers and mothers with this cruel remark. These lived in faith and in prayer, they labored with a prayer on their lips, they slept in faith having folded their hands in prayer. And today God finds this activity of faith in prayer to be not altogether lost. The very fact that our church is living today, nay, that the world still stands, is proof that our Christians are active in prayer.
b). This prayer-life of a Christian is commanded by God, and that by innumerable passages of Scripture, of which we have selected some:
2 Chron. 7,14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Is. 55,6: “Seek ye the Lord while he may he found, call ye upon him while he is near.”
Joel 2,32: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered.”
Matt. 26,41: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.”
Luk. 18,1: “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”
Eph. 6,18: “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.”
Phil. 4,6: “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”
1 Thess. 5,17: “Pray without ceasing.”
1 Tim. 2,1: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.”
1 Tim. 2,8: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.”
Ps. 50,15: “And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”
c) We need not be in doubt, then, that God wants us to pray. By using the imperative or commanding form of the verb, as Scripture does in so many of these passages, God makes prayer an urgent thing. In so far there is no difference between this command to pray and the other spoken from Sinai: Thou shalt, thou shalt not! Even those commandments from Sinai we too often read and hear as if they speak to us out of thunder and lightning as from an angry God, filled with wrath and dire threatenings against a people whom He hates. We then forget that they, too, are spoken by a loving God to a people whom He loved and which He in love has redeemed unto loving service of Him. And when the same God here seems to command, let us not forget that His commandment is spoken in love to those who love Him. His command then becomes as the command of a king to a subject he would honor and to whom he would accord a great privilege. The Word of God has spread before the children of God a vast store of good things: spiritual good things which Christ purchased and prepared for us by His life, His death and resurrection; earthly and bodily good things prepared for us by the almighty hand of God in creation. Now He says: “Come, for all things are now ready.” “Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” Joh. 16,24. To understand this correctly we call this an invitation to the honored members of the household of God. These members are commanded to pray, to ask, to demand even, for they have rights to maintain, they have an ownership to claim, they have privileges to enjoy. When Christians do not heed this invitation, it must be because they think they do not need what God offers, or that they do not believe the promise, or trust that these good things are for them — in which case they do not actually believe and their Christianity is mere hypocrisy, a worthless and inactive thing, dead or dying. These commands of God to a Christian to pray can not be a new burden and another heavy work to do. They instead lift the eyes of a Christian to see his new glory and estate, for he is a son and heir with the privileges of such a son and heir. The kingdom of the Father, with all that this kingdom owns, is his for the asking. Let him ask, then, believing, for the Word of God is this: “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive,” Matt. 21,22.
d) prayer is carefully described in Scripture.
That we may not err in the carrying out of this command of God, He describes prayer more in detail. In the passage just quoted we note the words ask, believing. We may ask for any thing for which we may ask in faith. Furthermore, the command is addressed to the disciples, i.e. to those who have accepted Christ as their Saviour and Lord. This involves that fundamental thing, redemption from sin with its dread consequences. He who is invited to pray is accordingly he who, having seen the misery of his own sinfulness, has found forgiveness, life and salvation in Christ’s atoning blood. This is basic in all Christian prayer. Thus this matter of prayer, too, is made to center about the great basic doctrine of justification, and without the gospel of justification there could be no Christian prayer. Again, Jesus invites us to pray in His name: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it” — Joh. 14,13.14. “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me” — Joh. 14,6.
From these passages it is clear that there is only one way to the Father’s heart, through faith in Christ. Only one name will count in prayer, the name of Jesus Christ. We may heap up all the names of heathen gods, of Mary and the innumerable saints of the Catholic church, the names of pious forefathers and families and church denominations, of this lodge god or that, of pious YOU and pious ME — all counts as nothing, for the words stand in all eternity: “Whatsoever ye” (believers in Me) “shall ask in my name” (none other), “that will I do”, and “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” We need spend no time here on the negative. A Christian believes these words of Christ as he believes in Christ Himself, and he turns in abhorrence from every other name to Him Who alone can fulfill the promise.
Then let us in gratitude recognize the privilege of this expression “In His Name”. That includes faith and trust in His name. It means that we may and shall use this name as we approach the Father’s throne of grace, as if we say: “This, O heavenly Father, is that for which Thy Son has paid with His blood, which He has told me that I may ask for with full confidence. It is because I am assured that I am asking only that which pleases Him that I dare to come, and His name on this request is a pledge and guarantee of good faith in making the request as well as of a God-pleasing content of the request. I ask as though Thy dear Son asks by and through me. Thou canst not refuse a prayer that comes from Thy dear Son.” In this manner we may ask for the greatest and best things, for we know that Jesus wants us to have them, since He died to give them to us: forgiveness of sin, life, salvation, the truth of God, the love and mercy of God, the strengthening of our faith, the victory of faith, heaven. In this same spirit we may ask for laborers in the vineyard, the extension of God ‘s kingdom, for comfort against sin and despair. Since the Saviour has told us that we may ask for all of this, then we may also ask for them in His name.
He has not told me as definitely and clearly that He wants me to be rich in earthly goods, to be healthy in body, to have a nice home, or that I may have success in this or that venture, even if this concerns the church in some outward way. It may rather be God ‘s good pleasure that some seeming accident befall me or my immediate family, that our church be kept poor, or that we meet with other apparent difficulties. These texts therefore warn us that we do not arrogate to ourselves the use of Christ’s name in these earthly things in the same way as when we ask for spiritual and heavenly things. There we would far rather do as the example of Christ Himself impels us to do, that we in all earthly things let God’s wisdom be our wisdom and choice, let His decision prevail over our folly and ignorance, so that we pray: O heavenly Father I ask Thee graciously that this child recover speedily from the sickness which has brought it to the brink of death, — that I may be given riches to help the needy and the church, — that I may become an orator to present Thy truth with greater power and success, — however, I do not know but that this child for whom I pray so heroically, if he become well, may not later on fall away in sin and unbelief, — whether, if I become rich, my riches may not become only another temptation for the flesh and for the church, — whether oratory, too, may not become a stumbling block to faith and to the kind of suecess that Thy gospel should gain — therefore grant these things, O all-wise and ever-gracious God, only according to Thy good pleasure and the glory of Thy most holy Name. Thy will be done.” Such a prayer we also pray in the name of Christ, for it is based on His work and promise, and we dare to approach the Father only as those who are children of God through faith in His Son. Let this difference between the certain and the uncertain, the spiritual and the material, between the heavenly and the earthly always he felt. As if this makes the one prayer more uncertain than the other? Not in this sense that God may hear the one and not the other. And yet, in the one case we may name the very things for which we ask, knowing by the definite promise of God that He will give just that: forgiveness of sin, strengthening of faith, knowledge of His truth, and the like; in the other, the bodily good things, we may also name and with the full assurance that God in heaven hears our prayer for Christ’s sake, but fully assured, too, that God will grant that which He in His infinite wisdom knows to be far better than our best judgment or wish. In His divine hands we safely entrust our fondest wish and our greatest need. It is in this sense our Saviour has said (Matt. 21,21): “Verily I say unto you, if ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the figtree, but also if ye shall say to this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.” If we can pray such a prayer fully assured that the moving of that mountain is something entirely necessary for the Kingdom and for the glory of God, and that this very thing is the will of Christ, then we may pray for this in the name of Christ. This the apostles could do, for they had the direct revelation of God, and they healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on the water, and Moses struck the waters of the Red Sea and they parted so that the Israelites passed through on dry land. Let us rather leave these heroic and miraculous powers in His hands Who knows the hour of their need better than we.
To the Biblical concept of prayer belongs more than the privilege of asking God for spiritual and bodily good things. If we turn again to the prayers of Christ, to the model prayer taught by Christ, to the book of prayers of the Old Testament, and to the prayers of the prophets and apostles, we shall find that these include much that we can not classify as requests. The Lord’s Prayer rises to a mighty climax: “for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen.” This doxology is rightly treated by Luther as a part of the prayer itself. The Highpriestly prayer (Joh. 17) includes such statements as these: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” “I have glorified thee on the earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” “I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word.” Many other verses in this remarkable prayer similarly. In His prayer at the grave of Lazarus Jesus says: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always; but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.” Joh. 11,41.42. In His prayer on the Cross ,Jesus cried: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” Mark 15,34. And again: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Luk. 23,46. In eleven verses of the ninetieth psalm, called “A Prayer of Moses, the Man of God”, Moses pours out his heart to God, enumerating blessings, calling to mind the vanity of human life and earthly good things, confessing sins, — all as a fitting background for the petitions which follow. The psalms generally, classed as prayers, follow the same pattern and give the believer the occasion to speak out of a sick and sorrowful heart, a happy heart overflowing with gratitude, a heart that looks up to God with holy awe and then again with childlike love and confidence, a heart that praises God in His heavenly majesty, acknowledges His faithful shepherding, exalts Him as his one Redeemer, looks to Him as the only Comforter against sin and every affliction. Prayer is there seen to he a sacred opportunity, in the silent night or in the brightness of the day, to communicate most intimately with a loving Father in heaven, to lay before Him the innermost thoughts of the heart, concealing nothing. There, at the foot of the Cross, the believer has found the one spot where he may be truly honest and be as he is. There he may uncover the whole sordid mess, which is his own heart, and know that He Who “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebr. 4,15) will understand and extend the hand of sympathy. There he will be welcomed by the loving arms of His Saviour in every temptation and distress as Peter was, in every confession of sin and remorse over sin as David was; there, too, he will be received when in victory over sin he can rejoice, when he has experienced anew the faithful help of God and has come to give thanks, when he has been convinced again of the glory of His Redeemer and comes to bring his faltering praise. There the Christian is granted the heavenly privilege of being alone with his God without fear, be rebuked by that eye which saw Peter’s sin and knows ours, but be invited back to a full forgiveness by Him Who proved His love by His death in the sinner’s place. Prayer means all of this, and more, ever more. The more it is used, the greater will become its intimate companionship. The Psalms are well worth our exhaustive study from this point of view alone, that we may learn to realize better the full meaning and significance of this personal association with God in prayer. For that is what it is, an associating with God whereby we confide to Him all things — our innermost thoughts and needs, our thanksgiving and praise, our confession, our joy and happiness, our loneliness, our griefs and disappointments, our expectation of help and salvation.
The church as the communion of believers has learned this and it has brought its response. Thus we have recorded from the prayer-life of Christians down through the centuries hymns of prayer, supplication, praise, giving of thanks, of confession of sin, of faith in the forgiveness of sin. These hymns and prayers record the Christian’s temptations and battles and victories through Christ. There are hymns and prayers to be used at significant occasions in our life: baptism, instruction, confirmation, marriage, anniversaries, celebration of Holy Communion, burial. Blessed is he who has learned them well, that he may turn also to these as he stands before the throne of grace and lacks words of his own by which he may approach his God.
The prayer-life of the individual Christian is largely a secret thing between him and his God. Let it be so according to the words of our Saviour: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly”. Matt. 6,6. There is no such thing as mass Christianity, mass conversion, mass faith. So God deals always with the individual. So prayer, love, and the other fruits of faith are always an individual thing. God furthermore knows the peculiar temptations and weaknesses of the human heart, even after it has learned to believe in Christ. That heart is a proud and selfish thing in so far as the old Adam is still there. It loves the praise of men. It is brave when it parades before men but very cowardly when facing God alone. Thus the Pharisees would prefer the street-corner for their praying exercises, while the Publican stood alone. But it is the Publican-sort God loves, and so He sends us into the closet where all sham and pretense flees, where pride cannot stand, but only humility in the knowledge that God is there and deceit is of no avail. Let him who prays go into the closet alone with God!
And yet, God invites to and urges public prayer and fellowship with other Christians in prayer. The Third Commandment includes the invitation to assemble about the word of God and to join in worship by hearing the Word read and expounded, by confessing the name of God, by praying, giving thanks and praising God. The Old Testament church thus worshipped together publicly, and so many of the Psalms bear record to this that joint prayer was an essential part of these services. The church of the New Testament likewise. Of the first Christians after the resurrection of Christ we read: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” Acts 1,14. And again we read: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2,41.42. Acts 12,12: “And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.” Acts 16,13: “And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.” Acts 20,36: “And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all.” Acts 13,3: “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
It is evidently of such joint worship and joint prayer the Epistle to the Hebrews admonishes that we must not forsake “the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” — Hebr. 10,25; for the promise is there (Matt. 18,20): “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” We note again how the name of Christ enters in also in connection with joint and public prayer. Fellow-believers are here joined together most intimately as those who kneel before the same altar, acknowledge one faith in Jesus their Saviour and now voice their agreement before God and men. As it is a beautiful confession when it is said of Paul, “Behold, he prayeth”, thus it is a beautiful thing also when it can he said of two or three, Behold, they pray together. But joint prayer presupposes agreement in prayer as Christ says: “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven” — Matt. 18,19. On this basis of a common faith in Christ and of agreement in those things for which we ask, our Saviour invites us to join hands and hearts in praying the most glorious prayer of all: “Our Father who art in heaven …” By this address we are joined with all those who in spirit are agreed in matters of faith. In this most intimate circle of believers we go on to pray together for those great things that the name of our common God be hallowed by the preaching of His most holy truth and by our holy living in accordance with that truth; that His glorious Kingdom, where we are sheltered together under His wings, loving Him and beloved by Him, be extended here and abroad; that His holy and gracious will, perfect, glorious, heavenly, may be reflected and find expression in this sacred communion, His church; that we together may feed our bodies with the bounties of His creation, not forgetting that we do this, too, together and owe one another the love of a common faith also in material things; that we together may be forgiven by God in Christ, even as we, too, come before Him as forgiving children of His; that He, our mighty and faithful Saviour and Shepherd be near us in the hour of temptation and danger and battle to bring us back from every wayward path and deliver us from every evil, even this evil world itself, from death and hell. And together we cry in triumphant faith: Lord, our heavenly Father, Thou alone wilt hear and grant this joint prayer of ours, for Thine is the Kingdom and we are those subjects of Thine whom Thou hast loved and for whom Thy Son hath died; Thou canst hear and grant our prayer, for Thine is the power, almighty and ready to save; Thou must hear and grant our joint prayer, for Thine is the glory only when Thou keepest Thy sacred promises, spoken long since by those whom Thou hast sent. In this spirit Christians come together for joint worship, singing hymns, praying, confessing as with one mouth their common faith and their common needs and their common requests; for they believe the same, hope the same, love the same God and Saviour, nay even experience the same temptations and sorrows and weaknesses. They are a fellowship in the real sense, for God has bound them together into one holy communion with Christ. How we should cherish joint prayer with our brethren in the faith and fervently pray God together also for this that nothing and no one may be allowed to corrupt and disrupt it!
c) the manner of prayer.
The manner of prayer may seem unimportant, and it is, if we consider how one may fold the hands, another bow the knees, a third stand downcast, smiting himself on the breast like the Publican, a fourth look up confidently into heaven whence cometh his help. One may cross himself, another may be too feeble to move hands or lips. One may use an eloquent language, another be dependent on the Holy Spirit to translate his anguish of heart into prayer. One may cry out in impassioned speech, another remain calm and even cheerful in his quiet faith. But in all of this God looks upon the heart (I Sam. 16,7). There is beauty in prayer. For look again on the true Christian when he prays: in the face of his sin and guilt he is humble (Ps. 51). As a believer he is trustful (Ps. 2:3.4ff), loving (Ps. 84), unselfish so that be continually prays also for others, especially his fellow-believers (Ps. 85). In his faith he is persistent and like Jacob he will not let his Saviour go until He bless him (Ps. 80. Eph. 6,18). He studies the will of God and prays in accordance with that will (Ps. 119; 1 Joh. 5,14). He prays with a forgiving spirit even as God has forgiven him (Mark 11,25.26; Matt. 6,14; Col. 3,13). He prays everywhere (1 Tim. 2,8) and continues instant in prayer (Rom. 12,12). He remembers that “God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth His will, him he heareth” (Joh. 8,31) and that “the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Prov. 15,8.29). When necessary the believer will devote himself to prayer, will “fast and pray” (Matt. 17,21; Mark 9,29; Acts 13,3; Luk. 2,37). Altogether, the Christian is happy in prayer, rejoicing in the privilege of this sacred communion with Him for Whom his whole being longs and Whose Gospel of forgiveness and salvation has given life and hope. To a Christian, prayer thus becomes as holy incense which is wafted as a loving sacrifice (“and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment” — Joh. 12,3), proclaiming to all men the loving gratitude and trusting dependence of the Christian toward his God.
f) Christian prayer is blessed by God.
This individual and joint prayer, commanded by God, has the blessing of God. We mark these passages:
Matt. 6,6: “And thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Matt. 7,7.8: “Ask, and it shall he given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”
Matt. 21,22: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” See Mark 11,24.
Luk. 11,13: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”
Joh. 11,40: (in the very presence of death): “Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?”
Joh. 14,13.14: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.”
Joh. 15,7: “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”
Luk. 22,32: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”
Luk. 1,13: “Fear not, Zacharias; for thy prayer is heard.”
Acts 10,30.31: “And, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard.”
James 5,16.17.18: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.”
James 5,13–15: “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
1 Pet. 3,12: “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers.”
1 Joh. 5,14.15: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.”
James 1,5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”
Ps. 2,8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance.”
Jer. 29, 12.13: “Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”
Gen. 20,17: “So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid servants.”
Numb. 11,2: “And when Moses prayed unto the Lord, the fire was quenched.”
I Sam. 1,26.27: “And she said, Oh my Lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him.”
In other words, prayer is not mere wishful thinking or vain chatter. God Himself has added His word of promise to true Christian prayer. He has blessed it with His heavenly blessing. He has in one clear instance after the other fulfilled His promises, granting earthly good things and spiritual good things, to the individual and to the church.
As a result of prayer God has reached down from heaven to halt the laws of nature or to use them in a special way to do His bidding; He has rescued from bodily danger and harm, has protected and blessed and extended His kingdom; He has healed the sick, comforted and strengthened and guided clergy and lay, learned and unlearned, parents and children. He has established peace by the forgiveness of sin; He has preserved in faith, raised the fallen, cheered the faint. He has healed the mother crying for her child, the pastor pleading for his parishioners, the father for his family, the king for his subjects. The whole church is as one great praying hand, holding aloft the promises of God and receiving at God’s hands the blessings God has attached to Christian prayer, thus enriching the church, nay the whole world with these blessings of God, these answers to Christian prayer. Eternity alone will reveal what prayers have wrought.
g) The doctrine of prayer is to be classed with the other clear teachings of Scripture.
When we now, as in retrospect, consider again the many passages of Scripture which deal with the subject of prayer, the careful definition and description of prayer, the things for which we may pray, how we should pray, to Whom our prayers should be directed, we must say that those err greatly who would claim that this is not doctrine. Whatever God teaches in Scripture is doctrine, no matter whether this appears in the form of the mere presentation of truth or truths, or it is brought by way of a command or invitation or exhortation in admonition, in the way of comfort or Gospel news or blessing. God does not deal in the abstract as if He sets before us a teaching with no reference to God Himself as the Saviour or us sinners as those who are to be saved. It is true, we seem to teach and to learn so much apparently in the abstract, as so much learning, and yet no physician, no scientist, no musician can separate what he knows about these various fields from the living body with which he deals, the chemical compound which is actually there before him, the piece of music which he is composing or analyzing and studying. There has too often been a studying and teaching of the Biblical truths which unconsciously forgets that theology and doctrine are, after all, concerned with God as He is, with man as he is, with faith and truth, sin, death, hell, heaven, prayer and all the rest as something that is there not only theoretically and in the abstract, but actually, really, as living realities. And if we remember that prayer was defined as an activity of faith, then that does not merely mean an abstract doctrine or idea, but it is something which is real, which acts, does.
This doctrine regarding prayer furthermore does not stand alone. It leans on other doctrines in such a way that it can not be separated from them. They form the basis, give the incentive, provide the proper motive, grant hope and boldness, even point to the content and ultimate goal. Above all, they direct us to the One Source of every good thing for which we would pray. Thus it is not our feelings and emotions that drive us to pray, but the teachings of God about our innate sinfulness and helplessness in all things material and spiritual. It is the Holy Spirit which creates that faith in our hearts which is the mother of prayer. It is the loving invitation and command of God that gives us courage. It is faith, created in our hearts by God Himself, that seizes upon this invitation and acts in prayer. It is Christ Who has forgiven our sins and clothed us in His righteousness to Whom faith looks as the Mediator with the Father also in prayer. It is the Gospel message which, as a means of God’s grace, brings and seals the word of forgiveness and promise to us, so that we believe in the promises of God also with regard to prayer. And thus we might go on to list the one teaching of the Bible after the other as teachings directly or indirectly related to the doctrine of prayer. What would be left if we should remove all of this? The simple answer would be this: then we would have the prayer of the pietist, for whom prayer is largely an emotional experience. Or we should have the prayer of the Catholic, who does not believe Scripture when it says: “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Joh. 2,1) — and he prays instead to Mary and the innumerable saints. Then we would pray as the lodgeman, to whom every god is the same god. Or as the unionist, to whom doctrines definite teachings about prayer or anything else are an abomination, and this becomes his doctrine against which he tolerates no gain-saying, so that he will bring Jew and Catholic and Protestant and even pagan into a prayer that is addressed to no god in particular, says nothing and accomplishes nothing. Then we would fall into the similar trap of the fanatic, to whom neither the content nor the fulfilment are as important as the fever-pitch of excitement which prayer effects. Then our prayer, finally, would be as that of the unbeliever, who scoffs at prayer until he is caught in an extremity of danger or of despair, and then blindly reaches out into the dread unknown, calling frantically upon some god to help whom he does not know, whom he has despised in his life and now hopes against hope will be at hand to save — but He is gone, and the darkness of eternity gathers round as the dread reality it is. Pity the man who when he dies, must die alone!
III. What Endangers Prayer
a) in our own personal life.
We are faced in one own personal life with the temptation to make light of those things of which Scripture has warned us that they endanger Christian prayer. When the Saviour taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, He uncovered the one danger when He added these significant words: “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” — Matt. 6,14.15. See Mark 11,25. In other words, an unforgiving spirit on our part will effectively block the way to the Father-heart of God, even as it has shut our own heart to the reception of the very thing for which we should pray the most fervently, the forgiveness of our own many sins. Again, when the Saviour bids us to pray “believing” (Matt. 21,22), He means just that; for to pray without faith, i.e. trust in the promises of God, is mere hypocrisy, and to such Pharisees Jesus cries “Woe unto you.” (Matt. 28,14) and says “They have their reward” and may expect no other answer to their prayer (Matt. 6,5). — There is a further danger in letting prayer become a thoughtless habit as in the church services, in the “recitation” of memorized prayers at certain stated times of the day or night, and the like. And yet, far rather the good habit of memorized prayers than the bad habit of no prayer at all. May God in mercy stir up our hearts that our prayers become the living expression of our faith that they should be. And may He also in merey keep us from that fear of making prayer a habit, which in the end too often becomes the excuse of a lazy and indifferent Christianity which, because it does not pray, robs the person himself, his fellow-Christians and the world in general of the many blessings God has stored up in prayer.
We endanger prayer, furthermore, by unwillingness to give up the very sin against which God wants us to pray. Let us say, a man has a special weakness toward the use of intoxicating liquors, and as a Christian he prays for strength to overcome this temptation. God points him clearly to the Word and to prayer. The Word directs him to the avoidance of certain companions, to greater persistence in prayer, to continued use of the Word in public and private worship — for the Word is the very power of God — but the man insists on his evil companionship, begins gradually to neglect the Word and prayer. Then he need not wonder that the effect of prayer does not seem to come. It is as necessary for us today as it was for Jacob of old to struggle with God in prayer, lest He do not bless us. In this case it is not the failure of prayer that is to be recorded but the overpowering love of sin and the refusal of this man to give up the pleasures of sin that he might receive the answer to prayer that God is offering. Thus when these pray, they do not actually believe, and they do not actually want those things for which they pray — their prayers are not offered in faith.
h) Again, we may endanger prayer by not distinguishing carefully between prayer for and prayer with others. The expression “to pray with” others is apparently used very seldom in Scripture. See Acts 20,36. It is implied in such references which were quoted in an earlier section of this paper dealing with joint prayer, but we note here again the definite limitations mentioned there: agreement in faith and in the things for which we ask. On the other hand. the Bible again and again, by almost innumerable passages urges us to pray for each other, for the church, for the government, for those who sin and err, for the sick and sorrowful, for the sending out of laborers into the vineyard of the church, for our enemies. In other words, when the believer stands alone, there is nothing for which he may not pray and there is no limit or bounds to the wide prerogative of his prayer, so long as it is offered in Christ’s name with all that this implies. But in the case of joint prayer, whether that be in private or in public, agreement is and must be presupposed. We can not pray the second petition, for example, of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come”, with a Catholic, because he there is praying for the extension of the Catholic Church. We can not pray the first petition of the same prayer, “Hallowed be Thy name”, with one who differs with us in doctrine, and that, any doctrine, however small that he may be advocating; for he prays for the perpetuation of this doctrine, I for its destruction. We can not pray the fourth petition, “Give us this clay our daily bread”, with one who does not believe that our livelihood is given us freely by a gracious Father in heaven, but earned and paid for by the toil and sweat of our own efforts. We can not pray the fifth petition, “Forgive us our trespasses”, with one who believes, as the synergist does, that we must earn this forgiveness at least in part or that forgiveness is dependent to some extent on the degree of our worthiness, the earnestness of our prayer, the seriousness of our contrition, the piety of our lives. Whether the words, the form, the manner of prayer is the same is immaterial; but there can be no joint prayer unless we pray to the same Christ, for the same thing, being one with each other in spirit and in truth.
Since this particular hindrance to the proper exercise of prayer is rapidly becoming more acute among us, it is well to treat the subject more fully. Men argue in favor of a more promiscuous use of joint prayer and of fellowship in prayer. It should be sufficient, they say, to recognize the other party as a fellow-believer in Christ, in order that we may join hands with him in prayer. But we forget so easily that we who can not read the heart can judge of a person’s Christianity only by his outward confession, his attitude of loyalty to the Word which Christ has spoken. If he then refuses to accept the plain word of Scripture in this or that doctrine, what of his faith in Christ?
Some would distinguish between joint prayer and fellowship in prayer, as if joint prayer were only a temporary and occasional thing, where two or more individuals or groups, facing some special emergency and recognizing each other as Christians, undertake to join in a prayer for some special good thing upon which they are apparently agreed: it might be at a time of shipwreck, asking for God’s blessing when eating in each others’ houses, for the direction of the Holy Spirit when discussing teachings of God’s Word. Fellowship in prayer would then have to do with such joint prayer where the two or more parties have mutually recognized each other as thoroughly agreed in matters of confession, so that they may at any time and in any cause pray together publicly as full brethren who mean the same and speak the same. The one, joint prayer, is more casual, the other of a regularly established sort; the one implies that the two recognize each other as Christians, admitting at the same time that they may differ in certain points of doctrine, while the other is dependent upon full recognition as brethren in all matters of confession.
It must be said that this is a distinction without a difference and plainly one which the Scriptures do not allow. When the Scriptures speak of prayer, they speak as to the individual Christian in the overwhelming number of passages. In other words, the concern of Scripture in this particular doctrine is the Christian alone with his God, and thus the whole question of joint prayer and of fellowship in prayer does not assume the prominent place that some would insist that it has. Even in ease of emergency it is Jesus Who prays for His disciples, not with them (Joh. 17), and Paul who prays alone, not with those among whom he was shipwrecked (Acts 27). Let those who are so quick to urge joint prayer on such occasion remember this! Where joint prayer is mentioned and urged, Scripture takes for granted that there is spiritual agreement among those who pray together — thus in the church of the Old Testament as evidenced in the Psalms and in such passages of the New Testament as Matt. 18,19.20. and Acts 1,14. To pray only the one petition of the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed be Thy Name”, with a false teacher will make us partakers in his sin (2 Joh. 10.11). Hear the passages again:
Matt. 18,19.20: “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of mv Father which is in heaven. For here two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Acts 1,14: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.”
2 Joh. 10.11: “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.”
If we would study the propriety of joint prayer or of prayer-fellowship with those who err in any point from the teachings of our Lord as revealed in the sacred Scriptures, we must consider this question in connection with the whole subject of joint worship, for joint prayer is evidently classified with joint worship, as in Acts 2.42: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Thus pulpit and altar fellowship are placed side by side with joint prayer or fellowship in prayer.
Let him who professes to believe in Christ heed His Word, which by plain and definite passages enjoins on us all that we flee all error — Matt. 7,15; avoid those who teach otherwise than the Word of God teaches — Rom. 16,17 and show our faithful allegiance to Him Who loved us by faithful allegiance to His Word — Matt. 10.32.33: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”
To claim to love the Saviour and His Word (Joh.14.23: “Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words”) and then to make light of that which is opposed to that Word and which some would teach as the Word of God though it is not, is tempting God, offending the chnrch (Matt. 18, 7), becoming guilty of hypocrisy and calling down the woe from heaven which God speaks against those who add to or take from the Word of God (Rev. 22,18.19). To put error on a par with truth is that great sin of which Paul wants us in 2 Cor. 6: “What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? … Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the” (literally, an) “unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” To claim to love the brethren and then go with them on their way of error, praying with them and worshipping with them despite their error, is not true love but a hypocritical love which will only encourage them to continue undisturbed on their mistaken and fateful course. Let us remember also that refusal to pray with an adherent of false doctrine is not a judging of the heart, which God has reserved unto Himself, but a judging of error which God enjoins. In these matters, too, we are not dealing as with weak Christians whom we must be careful not to offend, but as with a pestilence against which we must guard and defend the church of God, not by embracing those who have become afflicted by it, but by heeding the Lord’s stern command to avoid them. This, however, in no wise hinders us from doing that other bidding of the same Lord of praying for them and testifying to them. We should love the person and show this love by praying for him; but we should hate the error and refuse to pray with him who holds it. In this there is no contradiction, for thus we show love to God and His Word and His church, and thus, too, we show true love to him who needs the admonition that God gives and the loving prayer of a true friend who would bring the erring one back to the fellowship of the saints and the household of God.
May God in mercy preserve our church from that poisonous contagion which threatens us today by a false teaching of fellowship in prayer where God forbids such fellowship, that the pestilence of unionism may not make a pesthouse out of that temple which God has called a house of prayer, a communion of saints (Ps. 149,1), the body of Christ (Eph. 1,23), the building of God (1 Cor. 3,9), the bride of Christ (Rev. 21,2). These are sacred names not to be defiled, even as the church of Christ is a heavenly creation not to be disturbed or defaced by the reasonings and perverse notions of men. Let us by sound doctrine and holy practice preserve the gracious blessing of true Christian prayer among us, and let us in true Christian loyalty and love heed those admonitions against error also on this front by which the Lord of the church protects His Zion against the floods of pietistic and Pharisaic unfaithfulness.
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The whole subject of prayer causes us to look up, not down. Though sin oppress as in the case of the Publican, and the unworthiness of our life and whole being moves us to stare in dismay at its enormity of filth and guilt, the grace of God in Christ draws us to a wondering contemplation of a love that is beyond comprehension, a glory that is beyond compare — and as Paul, lost in that wonder born of faith, prayed, so we pray and thank God for the untold privilege. When the 103rd Psalm closes with that mighty climax, calling upon the saints and angels to bless the Lord and then adds: “bless the Lord, O my soul”, it is as an invitation from heaven to join those heavenly hosts in a heavenly experience. Together with them we lift hands and hearts cleansed by the blood of Christ, in prayer and adoration, in thanksgiving and praise — a sacred privilege accorded only to the children of God.
Then let us on bended knee thank God also for this very gift of prayer and not only for the great things we receive through prayer. Let us use it diligently, for just as faith becomes the more precious and the stronger and the richer the more it is used, so prayer, for it is an activity of faith which God loves. Let us be instant in prayer and let our life be as an incense of prayer for a sweet-smelling savor to God. When prayer is threatened by errorists, by fanatics and unbelievers, let us guard and defend it with the weapons which God gives. But let us bear this in mind, too, that the greatest enemy of prayer is found in our own heart: laziness, neglect, temptations to doubt, unbelief. Here there is no excuse, for there is no Christian, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, young or old, sick or well, who can not pray. Then let ours be a praying life, a praying house, a praying church, that God may be honored and our church and our individual lives be blessed by prayer.