Reforming Prayer: Martin Luther and the Heart of the Reformation

We often think of the Reformation as being primarily theological in nature, as a rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ summed up in the five solas. Certainly this is true, as far as it goes, but we can forget that the Reformers were just as concerned with the reformation of piety, that is the practice and discipline of godliness. In reality, I think that it is doubtful whether the Reformers would have made much distinction at all between the head and the heart, between a theologically-formed mind and a piety-formed life. William R. Russell, in fact, goes so far as to say that the heart of Luther’s reforming program was the reformation of prayer which the reformation of theology was meant to assist. Russell writes:

[T]this heart of the Lutheran Reformation beats with two chambers. In addition to the informational dimension of the Lutheran reform of catechesis, there is a second, intimately related aspect of Luther’s reform strategy. This aspect of Luther’s work has likewise been neglected or devalued by common interpretations of Luther’s life and work. In addition to the educational content of Lutheran catechesis, there is an experiential and practical aspect. This other chamber of the heart in Luther’s theology cannot be separated from the informational dimension of the catechism. The second chamber is the emphasis on the interplay between theology and practice, between ideas and ritual. Specifically, Luther sought to reform how the church prays. For Luther, the act of Christian prayer “enacts” doctrine, just as doctrine “informs” prayer. They are inseparable in Luther’s understanding of catechesis. Indeed, for 116174745_martinluthertischgebet_34041_2235223_epdneetz_i01Luther, informed prayer is the goal or purpose of catechesis.

From his earliest public statements and writings onward, Luther makes a strategic move to integrate instruction in the basics of Christian doctrine with the basics of Christian prayer. There is an early and sustained theological connection between catechesis and prayer in Luther’s reformation program. For example, already in October of 1516, fully a year before he posted the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther preached on the Lord’s Prayer and published both a Latin and German exposition of it. The reformer returned to this theme again five months later, when he preached a series on the Lord’s Prayer during Lent of 1517….

Beyond these early works, three writings in particular emerge as programmatic in Luther’s mission to use catechesis to reform the prayer life of the church: the 1522 Personal Prayer Book, the 1529 catechism, and the 1535 treatise, A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend. When these three additional documents are interpreted together as part of Luther’s overall reformation strategy, catechesis and prayer can be seen as the “heart” in Luther’s theology….

In A Simple Way to Pray, Luther uses the catechism of 1529, as he turns the various parts into prayers. For Luther, the content of catechesis is also the content of Christian prayer. Ultimately, then, the primary goal of catechesis is to instruct Christians in the basics of prayer. From Luther’s perspective, prayer is the response of the faithful to the relationship initiated by God in Jesus Christ. This relational dimension of Luther’s understanding of prayer is evident in the metaphors the reformer uses to describe prayer, the majority of which are personal in character. For example: God is the physician, the believer is the patient; God is the King, the believer is the subject; God is the groom, the believer is the bride; and, preeminently, God is Heavenly Father, the believer is child. With this in mind, Luther apparently sought to reach at least two interrelated goals with respect to his catechetical emphasis on prayer. His first goal was to teach believers about the one to whom they were to pray. This goal would involve a proper theological understanding of the basics of Christian theology, summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, Luther taught believers what and how to pray. He therefore chose a catechetical strategy that delineated the basics of theology in a manner that could be grasped by what he called “the simple laity”—and had informed prayer as its end result. This emphasis, evident throughout Luther’s life and career, led him to develop a catechetical approach that stressed a vital interplay between theology and piety. For Luther, catechetical instruction was intended to communicate more than mere intellectual knowledge or right information about God. He also sought to assist the student with the practice of prayer as a fundamental feature of the Christian life. This emphasis on prayer in the context of Lutheran catechetical instruction is the heart of Luther’s reformation theology.

For Martin Luther, the reformation was about how the church prays. And in this connection, the primary goal of catechesis was to teach believers to pray. Luther sought to instruct parishioners regarding the one to whom they were to pray, to know what to pray, and to know how to pray. In order to attain this goal, he developed a rather unique educational strategy. Both this goal and the strategy used by Luther to reach it are at the theological core of the Lutheran Reformation. Indeed, a, if not the, distinctive feature of the Lutheran Reformation program is its consistent emphasis on reforming the way Christians pray. [William R. Russell, “Luther, Prayer, and the Reformation” in Word & World 22, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 50-51, 53-54]

My conclusion from this is simple: if we truly want to honor the legacy of Martin Luther, let us dedicate ourselves now more than ever to the practice, privilege, and power of prayer!

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Psalm 6: When Weeping is Praying (Psalm of the Day, 8/365)

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Psalm 6:1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer. 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

This psalm is a desperate plea for deliverance offered in the midst of much and varied forms of suffering: physical illness, weakness, danger from enemies. David’s transparency and honesty are stunning; no attempt is made to hide or sugarcoat the truth about his true condition. Why should there be? All is known by the Lord.

In such circumstances, prayer should not be a forced or faked positivity but a brutal, violent outpouring of the soul. David’s anguish has brought him to the place where he realizes that only God can save. At the end of verse 3, as he reaches the point where his words begin to fail, David finds that he cannot rely even on his own praying. 

It is interesting to note that much of this prayer is not supplication but complaint and weeping. Yet even here, God hears and will respond. As he who knows what we need before we ask, God answers the prayers not only offered in the form of praise and request, but also in the form of tears and silence.

As he moves to the conclusion of the psalm, David commands his enemies to depart and declares that they shall be put to shame. The fact that David speaks in the future tense, however, reveals that he is still in the same condition as before. At the end of the psalm, deliverance has not yet come. His circumstances have not yet changed, so what has? Only this — the Lord has heard.

For David, the fear and doubt and pain of the previous verses are outmatched by the simple knowledge that God has heard, even though his prayer was tainted by doubt and full of complaint. That is to say, the fact of God’s hearing is more sure than the fact of our asking. His answer does not meet us in proportion to our faithfulness, but in proportion to his own. As the apostle Paul would later put it, we do not live by relying on our own faith, but by relying on the faith of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).

This, and not any obvious change of circumstances, is the basis of David’s (and our!) strength.

Psalm 5: Ever Singing for Joy (Psalm of the Day, 7/365)

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Psalm 5:1 Give ear to my words, O Lordconsider my groaning.
Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O Lordyou cover him with favor as with a shield.

Whereas Psalm 4 is a song for the evening, Psalm 5 is a prayer for the morning. Though the psalmist has slept in confidence and peace (3:5), he awakes in turmoil and groaning. Such is often the experience of the faithful whose faith is often prone to faltering. In a fallen world where sin, pride, and falsehood abound, it is necessary that faith be attended to and renewed each day and every morning. We cannot presume on the presence of faith when the evil and corruption that threatens us from the world without also threatens us from our own hearts within.

Thus, the psalmist must turn his cry every morning to the only One whose faithfulness never fails, the King and God whose unwavering fidelity to his people does not fluctuate in accordance with their own wavering trust. How is it, then, that the psalmist can confidently declare that he will walk in faithfulness this day, even when surrounded by boastful, bloodthirsty, and deceitful people? Only on account of the faithful love of the Lord. Only God’s steadfast love—his covenantal, indefatigable, merciful, compassionate, and relentless affection for us—can sustain us in such a world.

Hence the need for assiduous daily prayer! The lies and flattery, the dangers and diversions, all of these demand that we continually beseech the Lord to make his righteous way plain and straight before us. We will always be tempted to “walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1), and thus God’s constant guidance is our daily bread.

The psalmist concludes his prayer on a characteristic note of hope. Falsehood will not speak the final word! Those who find refuge in God and his Word will be ever glad and singing for joy. Note well: God’s truth is indeed the victory over this world, but truth wedded to joy! God’s Word should always make our tongues sing and our hearts rejoice, especially when from the fullness of that Word—the Word clothed in flesh and dwelling among us—we receive grace upon grace upon grace (Jn. 1:16)! Indeed, when compared to the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus”, all other joys should appear as shadows and dust (Phil. 3:8). It was, after all, the desire of this Word that our joy be complete in him (Jn. 15:11).

Psalm 4: Our Only Good (Psalm of the Day, 6/365)

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Psalm 4:1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
    How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
    the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?”
    Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!
You have put more joy in my heart
    than they have when their grain and wine abound.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
    for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Intended as an evening prayer, Psalm 4 begins and ends with the request for and confession of confidence in the Lord’s presence and protection. It is God’s proven faithfulness in the past (Ps. 3) and the certainty of his covenant righteousness for the future that permit the psalmist — the Davidic King — to lie down in peace. 

In contrast with the “many” who (once again) seek after vanity and lies (Cf. Ps. 1:2, because in such things they find their delight rather than in God’s Word), the King responds with the promise and truth of God’s election and favor (2:6), on the basis of which he knows that God will always hear and answer his prayer. As in Psalm 1, loving vanity and seeking lies will ultimately prove self-destructive. Those who delight in such things “have forsaken [the Lord], the fountain of living waters” and have “hewn out for themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Yet they wonder why they can find no good thing. Is this not sheer absurdity?

In reality, as the King attests, there is no good apart from the Lord and the light of his face. Even the greatest pleasures that the world can offer — here represented by the finest wine and the richest food — are loss and rubbish compared with the surpassing joy of knowing the King Jesus (Phil. 3:8). Yet we come to know this only when illuminated by the light of the face of Christ, for it is in his face, and his face alone, that we behold “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6) that causes all else to appear as mere shadow.

Thus, it is the Lord Jesus Christ “alone” who is everything that we need. He is our joy, he is our peace, he is our rest, he is our safety.

Psalm 3: From God’s Holy Hill (Psalm of the Day, 5/365)

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O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lordand he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O LordSave me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the Lordyour blessing be on your people! Selah

In reflecting on Psalms 1-2, we discovered that the interpretive key for the psalms, especially those of David, is that they are ultimately the songs and prayers of David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ. Whatever comfort or encouragement we may personally find in the psalms, we must always keep central this all-important fact.

Psalm 3 begins by describing the setting in which the king of Psalm 2 — the anointed one, the Christ — finds himself: surrounded by numerous foes who mock him because the victory of their plots against him seems sure. Their taunt that “there is no salvation for him in God” anticipates what Christ’s adversaries will say as they look upon his crucifixion in Matthew 27:43: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.”

Yet despite the overwhelming foes arrayed against him, the king is able to lay down and sleep — the most vulnerable position thinkable! — because of his confident faith in God’s protection, presence, and power to answer his prayer. The Lord will indeed answer from his “holy hill”, the very hill upon which he has firmly established his Christ (Ps. 2:6). Paradoxically, that holy hill will be revealed as a hill of death, a hill of crucifixion, and it will be upon a rugged cross planted there that Christ will ascend to claim his throne and inaugurate his kingdom.

The cross will not be the end, however, as Christ prays for deliverance, which inescapably will involve judgment. Indeed, Scripture everywhere testifies that salvation is only ever through judgment. The good news is that Christ has endured that judgment for the sake of all his enemies, yet those who continue to oppose him will be struck down by teeth-smashing blows.

Yet the final word of this psalm is not judgment but salvation. The king is the representative of his people, and so his salvation means their salvation. It was for this reason that Christ endured the hostility of his foes, that in his deliverance we might gain his blessing. Included in his blessing is this: that we can take upon our lips Christ’s words in Psalm 3 (as well as in all the other psalms) and use his prayer as our own. As for the king, so for his people. It is thus through the mouth of Christ that we are given to pray to his Father.

The Answer is More Certain than Our Prayer: Encouragement to Pray from Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism (with commentary by Karl Barth)

Heidelberg Catechism 129

Q. What does the word “Amen” signify?

A. “Amen” signifies, it shall truly and certainly be: for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God, than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of him

[W]e must begin with the end, that is, we must first consider the answer to prayer. We may be surprised at this, for, from a logical standpoint, we should ask first, “What is prayer?” And only afterward, “Do we receive an answer when we pray?” Now for the Reformers the basic and vital point is this certitude: God does answer prayer. That is the first thing we must know. Calvin says it explicitly: We obtain what we request. Prayer is grounded upon this assurance. Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God prayeranswers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray for not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word “answer” means.

In Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism it is stated that the answer to our prayer is more certain than our awareness of the things that we request. It seems there is nothing more sure than the feeling of our desires, but this Catechism says that God’s answer is still more certain. We too must have this inward assurance. Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers our weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray….

Let our prayer not be offered according to our good pleasure; otherwise there would be then on our part inordinate desires. Let it be patterned after the rule [the Lord’s prayer] given by the One who knows our needs better than we ourselves. God has directed us first to submit ourselves to him in order that we may present our requests. So that we may conform to this order, we must eliminate in our prayers all questions like this: Does God listen to us? On this point Calvin is categorical: “Such a prayer is not a prayer.” Doubt is not permitted, for it goes without saying that we shall be heard. Even before we pray we must assume the attitude of someone who has been heart….

“Amen.” It is enough to recall what Luther and the Heidelberg Catechism tell us about this. Luther affirms that it is a good thing to say “Amen”! In other words, it is a good thing to learn not to doubt when we pray, but to believe, because “Amen” means, “So be it.” Prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a trip into the blue. It must end as it has begun, with conviction: Yes, may it be so! On its side, the Heidelberg Catechism declares that “Amen” means that the certainty of the divine response is greater than the certainty we feel within ourselves of our needs and desires. The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.

[Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002). 13, 19-20, 65-66.]

“We Only Have God”: Learning about the Hell-Storming Power of Prayer from the Church in China (Reformission Monday)

The following post is excerpted from David Wang, “Lessons from the Prayer Habits of the Church in China,” in Teach Us To Pray, ed. D.A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 247-254.

The phenomenal growth of the church in China is nothing short of a sovereign move of God. How else can one explain the fact that China, which turned Communist in 1949, now has perhaps the highest number of Christians in any one country? By conservative estimates, there are about fifty million Christians in China today. These are not Christians by birth or by tradition, for there is no Christian tradition in China as in Europe or America. These are people who have made a personal decision to follow Christ, and they are fully aware off the price they may have to pay….

[A]lmost every person who has made contact with China’s Christians is impressed with their sincerity, enthusiasm and simplicity of faith. These traits are seen most clearly in their prayer lives. The following observations on the prayer patterns of China’s believers are derived through personal contacts, correspondence from China, and interviews with itinerant evangelists and pastors of China’s house church movement…. [S]ince the Christian population of China is around fifty million and still growing, my observation of China’s church is but a glimpse of the total picture. The glimpse does reveal, however, chinathat there are certain patterns in the prayer lives in China’s believers … from which we can learn.

I. They pray at great length

A pastor from Hong Kong took several Christian youths to visit China. They enjoyed fellowship with a rural house church for four days. The services were lengthy, continuing from early morning till late evening. But what the Hong Kong pastor remembered most vividly was the time they spent in prayer. He later wrote that the participants felt the forceful leading of the Holy Spirit as the prayers continued at great length. On a couple of days, the prayers lasted three to four hours….

‘The lengthiness of our prayers is a consequence of our persecution’, an itinerant evangelist/pastor in China explained to me. ‘For so many years we had no pastors or Bibles or even songbooks. Therefore when we gathered together we could only pray. It became the major focus of our meetings. In fact it was only God’s omnipotence and the believers’ prayers that sustained our church.’…

II. They pray with intensity

‘They are storming the gates of hell and shaking the Throne of Grace,’ said a co-worker, describing her impression of the prayers of believers in China. ‘Even when they pray in dialects that I don’t understand, I can sense the earnestness of their prayers. I hear it in the urgent, pleading tone of their voices.’ She said she has yet to hear a prayer in China that sounds bland or insipid. Several years ago, elderly Pastor Wang Mingdao, a saint of the church in China, explained to me, ‘We have nothing — no pastors, no churches, no Bibles … nothing! We only have God. Therefore we go to him in desperation.’…

III. They pray with one accord

The Chinese Christians love the opportunity to pray together. First of all, they value the presence of other Christians. Christians may number fifty million in China, but they are still a minority among one billion Chinese. They live in an atheistic, unsympathetic environment. Hence the presence and fellowship of other believers are very precious and encouraging. When Christians get together, the most natural thing is to pray….

IV. They pray with the language of Scripture

[F]or 30 years Bibles have been in extremely short supply. For many of China’s believers, the Word of God consists of what they have memorised from a borrowed Bible, or a Scripture portion copied by hand. Scripture memorisation comes naturally to them, partly due to practice and necessity, but also due to a love of the Word. ‘Often they pray through their entire theology,’ a scholar of a leading Chinese Christian research centre commented. ‘They pray in Scripture language, not only as a reinforcement of what they have memorised, but also as a verbalisation of their theology — the way some of us recite the Apostles’ Creed. But their repetition of Scripture is personal and relevant to their current situation. We outsiders sometimes think that the person leading in prayer is trying to sermonise. This may not be the case, for often believers pray through their theology in their private prayers as well.’

Praying in Scripture language is actually being taught in a mushrooming house church movement in Henan province. I read in its handcopied ‘Pastoral Care Manual’ that using Scriptures in prayer is one certain way of praying according to the will of God. Our co-workers who have close contact with China’s believers all feel we should learn this lesson — that praying in the language of God’s Word brings God-glorifying results.

V. They pray on all occasions

… I believe this is so because in the lives of Chinese believers, so many occasions arise which necessitate prayer. Living under the Communist system, people constantly encounter obstacles and practical difficulties. Goods and services which we take for granted are often hard to come by because of the bureaucratic maze, apathy of service personnel, lack of efficiency, and simple lack of supplies. A rampant ‘back door’ system which is facilitated by gifts or personal ‘connections’ forces the most ethical and conservative Christians of China to turn to God on every occasion. They must acknowledge and rely on him in all things….

One of my co-workers who has regular contact with the Christians in rural China explains: ‘In most parts of rural China, poverty, disasters — both natural and man-made — and the lack of all kinds of resources, drive the Christians to total dependence on God. He is not their last resort. He is the first and only resort.’… In living out Ephesians 6:18, China’s Christians view prayer as an all-powerful means because it reaches the all-powerful God. From experience they know that they can survive without Bibles, churches, pastors and many other things as long as they have a ‘hotline to heaven’. And this they have fully used to move mountains. Answered prayer is probably the most common cause of new conversions in China.

VI. They pray with empathy

My associate who has enjoyed fellowship with thousands of Chinese Christians during his 200-plus visits explained to me why the believers always cry during their prayers. It is not just a sign of their earnestness and desperation, or that the Chinese are more emotional; it demonstrates empathy…. For instance, on more than one occasion I have witnessed China’s Christians crying for the prevailing apathy of the church in Hong Kong. ‘Oh Lord, we are piercing your heart and nailing you to the cross again’, is a common lament. Perhaps because of their close communion with God, they tend to identify more sensitively with the grief and suffering of Christ (Phil. 3:10)….

[T]hey identify with those who are lost without Christ. I have listened to a tape of spontaneous prayer meeting when about fifteen pastors met in Canton … One by one they wept and interceded for the salvation of people in each province of China as well as for the world. One cannot but be moved by their earnestness in interceding for the lost. ‘Have mercy on us, Lord God, have mercy on us!’ they cried out to God for hours. And they repented that they had not done enough to reach the world, even though almost to a man they had been imprisoned for their faith and zeal. This type of prayer is common among ordinary believers as well, and even among new babes in Christ.

VII. They pray with thanksgiving

… One of our co-workers was taken to a house church prayer meeting in Swatow. The room was small, dimly lit and packed with people. There were a few rickety benches for people to sit on. Others were sitting on the bed which was just a board laid across two benches. Children and young people were even crouching underneath the bed! The room was stuffy because there was only one tiny window. To our co-worker, the place was anything but pleasant, and the believers there had few earthly possessions. But when they prayed, sounds of ‘Thank you, Father!’ filled the room. They prayed as though they were in heaven, totally oblivious of their surroundings. This thankful attitude is carried over into other aspects of life. It is quite obvious that as a whole, the Christians in China have ‘… learned to be content whatever the circumstances’ (Phil. 4:11)….

Dr James Hudson Taylor III, a great-grandson of Hudson Taylor and currently General Director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, likens China’s Christians to the believers in the book of Acts. They were known as ‘those who call on the name of the Lord’. They were a people of prayer. And Dr Taylor asks, ‘I wonder if we (the Christians of the free world) would be described as such? Or have we lost something of that life of prayer?’

“Strive Together With Me”: The Central Role of Prayer in the Apostolic Mission of Paul (Reformission Monday)

To build on last week’s post on the central role of prayer in driving forward the mission of Christ and the church throughout the narratives of Luke and Acts, I commend to you the following excerpt from David G. Peterson’s excellent essay (from the same volume) on the same theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. To elucidate Paul’s understanding of prayer vis-à-vis the progress of his mission, Peterson hones in on Romans 15:30-32:

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

[The following excerpt comes from David G. Peterson, “Prayer in Paul’s Writings,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 99-100]

Paul’s request for prayer-support comes in the context of declaring his travel plans (15:22-9) and as a sequel to the report of his own prayers in this connection (1:8-15). The importance of this passage is indicated by several factors: his use of the verb parakaleo (‘exhort’, cf. 12:1), his address to the Roman Christians as ‘brothers’, his 001appeal to the authority of their common Lord and the love by which the Spirit binds together … (15:30) and his use of the extraordinary verb sunagonisasthai (‘strive together’, NIV ‘to join me in my struggle’, cf. Col. 4:12) to emphasise the earnestness, urgency and persistence with which they must join him in praying to God….

Paul uses the agon terminology to describe his own costly apostolic mission, understood as a striving for the gospel — a continual contest against opposition in the eschatological age (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-7; Col. 1:29; 2:1). The believers at Philippi are said to be involved in the same struggle for the gospel as Paul (Phil. 1:30). It may be, therefore, that in Rom. 15:30 Paul is saying that the Romans can share in the struggle of his own apostolic ministry as they unite in prayer for him.

It seems likely that Paul had multiple motivations for writing Romans but that his missionary plans lie at the heart of his concern. Rom. 15:23-29 indicates that he had firmly in mind three important journeys: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Spain. ‘Each of these trips is directly connected with his work as an apostle to the nations/Gentiles, and each one, in its own way, is related to the occasion and purpose of Romans’. Paul’s request for prayer-support in regard to these journeys (15:30-2) is thus essential to his purpose in writing.

The argument of the epistle reaches its climax with this appeal: the apostle hopes that the addressees will be ‘moved to begin united prayer for him, and that by their continuing supplications they themselves may be given that responsible maturity about which he himself has been praying’ (15:5-6, 13). Furthermore, as they unite in praying for him, they will be ready to receive him, to refresh him, and to facilitate his journey to Spain (v.24). Indeed, it appears that the apostle’s aim was to establish a base of operation and support in Rome for his new sphere of ministry in the west of the Empire….

Although the appropriateness of intercessory prayer is sometimes questioned by contemporary writers, the apostle expresses no doubts about its efficacy and its significance in the saving purpose of God. He clearly believed that God was in total control of people and events and that he could overrule the hostility of every opponent, unite disputing Christians, open the way for the gospel to be preached in new lands and grant the gift of faith in response to gospel preaching. Knowing God’s intention that the gospel should be heard in every place (cf. Rom. 1:5-6; 15:18-21), he made his plans to preach Christ where he had not already been named and submitted those plans boldly and directly to the sovereign will of God in prayer. Paul knew that God in his wisdom had decreed that his people should pray for his will to be done.

Thus believers were urged to pray that God would ‘open a door’ for the gospel, providing the apostle with a field in which to work, enabling him to ‘proclaim the mystery of Christ’, and to make it known as he ought (Col. 4:3-4, cf. Eph. 6:18-20). They were encouraged to pray that the word of the Lord might ‘spread rapidly and be honoured’ in other places as it did in their midst and that the apostolic team might be ‘delivered from wicked and evil men’ (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Such prayers were not merely an expression of commitment to the work of the gospel but a genuine calling upon God to act to fulfil his purposes in the ways outlined. Thus there is no escaping the centrality of intercessory prayer to Paul’s theology of mission.

Turning the Points of History: The Decisive Role of Prayer in Luke and Acts (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to seek to be “schooled in prayer” (as it is sometimes said), specifically as it relates to the work of Christian mission and ministry, I have learned much that has put fire and (what I hope is) power into my praying. I am currently reading through a collection of essays, edited by D.A. Carson, entitled Teach Us To Pray. One of the essays, written by M.M.B. Turner, examines the role of prayer in the Gospels (particularly Luke who emphasizes this theme) and Acts. Turner’s survey of the relevant passages regarding the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the apostles provides a view of prayer that is both fascinating and challenging as we think about what it means (for all Christians!) to be engaged in the spread of the gospel to all the nations:

Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers out into his harvest field (10:2) … expresses in teaching a theme … highlighted by [Luke’s] narrative: God’s sovereignty in bringing salvation and (simultaneously) man’s responsibility to pray concerning it. His special interest in this theme comes to relatively clear focus in the observation that Luke has a tendency specifically to mention human engagement in prayer at, or just before, what are quite clearly turning points in redemptive history. Thus it is while the whole people are praying (1:10; cf. 1:13) that the great announcement of the dawn of salvation is made to Zechariah; it is while Jesus is praying that the Spirit which empowers the proclamation of the good news descends upon him (3:21); it is after he prays that he chooses the twelve who were to become the core or foundation of the Israel of fulfilment (6:12); again, it is after he prays that they make the all-important confession of his messiahship (9:18); [it is] actually while he is praying that the disciples are afforded a glimpse of his End-time glory (9:28ff), and he prepares to 10 Pentecostestread the path towards Jerusalem and death; and it is after prayer in Gethsemane that he faces the ordeal of the cross. We shall notice that this theme is developed even more strongly in Acts.

The church in Acts is a church of prayer. To that extent, at the very least, the example of Jesus’ prayer-life is seen to have had its effect. Thus the church begins its post-resurrection life in prayer (1:14 [cf. 1:24]), and the first summary underscores the church as a praying community (2:42). The church naturally continues to offer God thanks over bread, as Jesus did, at the beginning of a meal (27:35), and its apostles attend the temple at the hours of prayer (3:1; cf. also 22:17 and 21:27ff). Prayer had become typical too in conversion-initiation, which can thus be described in the language of Joel 3:5 as ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’ (2:21; cf. 9:14,21; 15:17; 22:16). Mediatorial prayer, associated with laying on of hands, is also not uncommon. It is associated with this initial turning to God, especially in praying for Spirit-reception (8:15,17; 19:6); but it is also found in different types of commissioning (6:6; 13:3; 14;23), and in healing (9:11; 28:8)…. Prayer is not regarded merely as important, but as an apostolic priority; the seven are chosen so that the apostles will not be distracted from their prayer and their ‘service of the word’ (6:2-4)….

[P]erhaps the most commented-upon aspect of the prayer-motif in Luke-Acts appears in a more global overview of his handling of the them. What is striking is that at almost every important turning point in the narrative of God’s redemptive action we find a mention of prayer. Thus the choice of Matthias to replace Judas in the twelve, the foundation of the Israel of fulfilment, is preceded by prayer (1:24); it is while the 120 are gathered together in prayer (1:14) that the promise of the Spirit is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost; the martyrdom of Stephen which leads to the scattering of the church and the consequent spread of the Gospel (8:1,4; 11:19) was attended by prayer; Peter and John must pray before the Samaritans (the first converts outside the nation of Israel proper) can receive the Spirit as a seal of their acceptance of the Gospel proclaimed by Philip to them (8:14-17); immediately prior to his healing and baptism at the hands of Ananias, and thus at the beginning of his great God-given task, Paul is described as praying and receiving a fresh vision (9:11f.) — and a visionary experience in prayer in the temple later confirms his calling especially to the Gentiles (related at 22:17); Cornelius, the first Gentile to be converted in Luke’s account, receives, while he is praying, an angelic vision commanding him to send for Peter (10:30 — and in response to his earlier prayers [10:4]); and it is while Peter is praying that he receives the epochal vision of clean and unclean animals that opens the path for him to go to this and subsequent Gentiles with the Gospel (10:9f.; cf. 10:34f.). Similarly it is while the Antioch church is worshipping God in prayer and fasting that the Spirit indicates they should set aside Paul and Barnabas for what proves to be a decisive mission to Galatia (13:2-3), after which the Gentiles will form a major part in the church. The two missionaries are then commissioned with prayer (13:3). The theme is pursued with more restraint in the chapters which follow, but it remains clear.

Luke-Acts thus presents us with a bold double canvas of the early church in which the most significant redemptive-historical acts of God are portrayed as taking place in a context of prayer, revealed in advance to someone praying, or — in roughly half the instances — actually cast as the Lord’s response to his people’s prayer. This portrayal is never in danger of suggesting that the true initiative in salvation-history lies in believers, in their determination to pray for specific events to come to pass. God is only fulfilling what he long before promised. Such decisive acts of God as (e.g.) the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, on the disciples at Pentecost, and at Cornelius’s home, take place in a context of prayer, but not obviously as an immediate response to a specific request for the same.

Nevertheless, without answering questions of cause and effect, the whole tableau gives a unified picture of the close relationship between prayer and God’s decisive acts of salvation, right up to the parousia (Lk. 18:1ff.). Luke-Acts as a whole thus constitutes a powerful encouragement and prophetic call to the church to be a church of prayer: not just to pray for its own perseverance as the people of God under pressure in this age, and for salvation at the end … but for continual faithfulness in witness to the gospel now, and for fresh inbreakings of God’s grace and power now, such as point to the mercy, glory, and power of the ascended Lord until he comes. [M.M.B. Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 71-72, 74-75.]

If seeing how Luke portrays the significance of prayer in the world-altering events that he recounts does not provide us with a massive incentive to pray, I honestly do not know what else will! It is truly stunning to consider how God has determined to use the prayers of the saints to accomplish his redemptive purposes for the world. Although we may be left with questions as to how all of this works (divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility), Luke gives us no other option than to conclude that the prayers of the church are an integral, if not the central, component in the fulfilment of the Great Commission and the salvific plan of God.

I used to think of prayer as more of a preparation for the work of ministry and mission. Now I have come to realize that prayer is itself the work. To be sure, our work is not limited only to prayer, but it certainly cannot be carried out apart from prayer. When we are talking to God about people, we are not doing less than if we were talking to people about God. To the contrary: if only God can save, then what better use of our time can there be than in devoted, constant, passionate, and prevailing prayer on behalf of the world? In the sovereignty of God, the prayers of the saints constitute the turning points of history. May the Spirit grant to the church a renewed vigor in and commitment to the indispensable work of prayer for the sake of the nations and the glory of God!

“The Mouth By Whom We Speak to God”: John Knox on Praying on the Basis of Christ Alone

John Knox, from his “Treatise on Prayer” [The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 12-16]

[G]odly prayer requireth … the perfect knowledge of the advocate, intercessor, and mediator; for, seeing no man is himself worthy to compear, or appear in God’s presence, by reason that in all men continually resteth sin, which, by itself, doth offend the majesty of God, raising also debate, strife, hatred, and division betwixt his inviolable justice and55380_john_knox_lg us, for the which, unless satisfaction be made by another than by ourselves, so little hope resteth that any thing from him we can attain, that no surety may we have with him at all.

To [release] us from this horrible confusion, our most merciful Father, knowing that our frail minds should hereby have been continually dejected, hath given unto us his only beloved Son, to be unto us righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and holiness. If in him we faithfully believe, we are so clad that we may with boldness compear and appear before the throne of God’s mercy, doubting nothing, but that whatsoever we ask through our mediator, that same we shall obtain most assuredly. Here, is most diligently to be observed, that without our mediator, forespeaker, and peace-maker, we enter not into prayer; for the incallings of such as pray without Jesus Christ are not only vain, but also, they are odious and abominable before God….

For he who honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father. For as the law is a statue that we shall call upon God, and as the promise is made that he shall hear us, so are we commanded only to call through Jesus Christ, by whom alone our petitions we obtain; for in him alone are all the promises of God confirmed and complete. Whereof, without all controversy, it is plain, that such as have called, or call presently unto God by any other mean than by Jesus Christ alone, do nothing regard God’s will, but obstinately prevaricate, and do against his commandments; and therefore, obtain they not their petitions, neither have entrance to his mercy; ‘for no man cometh to the Father’, saith Jesus Christ, ‘but by me.’ He is our leader, whom, unless we follow, we shall walk in darkness; and he alone is our captain, without whom, neither praise nor victory ever shall we obtain….

Who, then, shall here be found the peace-maker? Surely the infinite goodness and mercy of God might not suffer the perpetual loss and repudiation of his creatures; and therefore his eternal wisdom provided such a mediator, having wherewith to satisfy the justice of God — differing also from the Godhead: — his only Son, clad in the nature of manhood, who interposed himself a mediator; not as man only; for the pure humanity of Christ of itself might neither make intercession nor satisfaction for us; but God and man. In that he is God he might complete the will of the Father; and in that he is man, pure and clean, without spot or sin, he might offer sacrifice for the purgation of our sins, and satisfaction of God’s justice. For unless saints have these two, Godhead equal with the Father, and humanity without sin, the office of mediators saints may not usurp….

Mark well these words. John saith, ‘we have presently a sufficient advocate; whom Paul affirmeth to sit at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8): and to be the only mediator between God and man; for he alone, saith Ambrose, is our mouth, by whom we speak to God: he is our eyes, by whom we see God; and also our right hand, by whom we offer any thing unto the Father; who, unless he make intercession, neither we, neither any of the saints, may have any society or fellowship with God. What creature may say to God the Father, ‘Let mankind be received into they favour; for the pain of his transgression, that I have sustained in my own body; for his cause was I encompassed with all infirmities, and so became the most contemned and despised of all men, and yet, in my mouth was found no guile nor deceit; but always obedient to thy will, suffering most grievous death for mankind. And therefore, behold not the sinner, but me, who by my infinite righteousness have perfectly satisfied for his offences’? — May any other, Jesus Christ except, in these words make intercession for sinners?…

Some say, we will use but one mediator, Jesus Christ, to God the Father; but we must have saints, and chiefly the Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ, to pray for us unto him…. Alas! whosoever is so minded, showeth himself plainly to know nothing of Jesus Christ rightly. Is he who descended from heaven, and vouchsafed to be conversant with sinners, commanding all sore vexed and sick to come unto him (Matt. 11), who, hanging upon the cross, prayed first for his enemies, become now so untractable, that he will not hear us, without a person to be a mean? O Lord open the eyes of such, that they may clearly perceive thy infinite kindness, gentleness, and love towards mankind.