Don West reflects on the essentials of prayer as established for us in the gospel of Christ. Don is the Principal of Trinity Theological College, Perth
To draw near to God in prayer, to express our wonder and to bring our concerns to him, is a joy and privilege. I know this. What’s more, Holy Scripture is filled with examples and teaching on prayer in all its facets and applications. I know this too. But it is not the knowing about prayer that is my challenge, it is the doing of it. In preparing and writing up this article, I have prayed that I will be moved to pray more regularly and more freely. I have come to see that this prayer will be answered by God the Father as his Spirit moves my heart before the meekness and majesty of Jesus Christ as he is presented to me in the gospel.
Prayer is Grounded in the Gospel
Prayer is the means by which we turn to Christ at our conversion:
9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)
Note the outer and inner aspects of prayer involved in receiving the salvation offered by God in Christ: declaring (or confessing) with the mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believing in him with the heart. Note too that ‘calling’ upon the name of the Lord (Jesus) implies both confessing his status (i.e., praising him) and crying out for his salvation (i.e., petitioning him; asking for help).
Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord—the faith that is expressed through prayer and that saves us from God’s just condemnation—arises from the proclamation of the gospel:
14How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-16)
In short, from the beginning of the Christian life until its end, prayer is a work of the Spirit whereby we ‘dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon’ (John Calvin, Institutes 3.20.2).
Do you remember the day you turned to Christ? Do you remember when you prayed for the first time and knew that God was listening to you? Have you been with another person when they ‘prayed the prayer’? Do you remember the wonder, the relief, the joy of knowing that your sins were completely wiped away at the cross, that you had been transferred from darkness to light, from being condemned to being justified? True prayer never leaves this spot.
The Spirit Enables Us to Call God ‘Father’
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:14-16)
Here Paul draws upon the imagery of the redemption of God’s ‘son’ Israel out of Egypt. The psalmists apply the same image when they ‘cry out’ to God to rescue them from the hands of his enemies. When we cry out to God the Spirit moves us to call him ‘Father,’ following the pattern of his one and only Son (see Mark 14:36). Moreover, when we call upon God as our Father, the Spirit of adoption moves us to do so from the deepest part of our person. In prayer we express our new identity as God’s children.
Our understanding and expectation of intimacy is heavily influenced by our experience of relationships as broken, flawed people in a world that seeks things that do not last. We find it hard to imagine what real closeness should be like. To be able to address God as our Father is to be given the privilege of coming before him with boldness, knowing his readiness to hear us and grant our requests out of his lavish generosity.
The Son Gives Us Permanent Access to the Father
In prayer we bring our concerns into God’s very presence.
14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
In the Old Testament, God’s presence or glory was associated with the tabernacle and temple—this is where his ‘name’ dwelt. Access was available to ordinary Israelites only by sacrifices offered by appointed priests. It is here that Moses talked with God ‘face to face’ (Exodus 33:11) and David sought God’s ‘face’ in prayer (e.g., Psalm 27). In 1 Kings 8, Solomon asks God that the temple be the place towards which the Israelites could pray with confidence of being heard when in distress. Although God could be approached in prayer at the place where he dwelt, distance had to be maintained.
According to the writer of Hebrews, because Jesus has ‘ascended into heaven’—and so ‘always lives to make intercession for us’ (Hebrews 7:27), and because he is fully able to ‘empathize with our weaknesses,’ we don’t have to hold back before God. Moses’ ‘face to face’ conversation with God at the tabernacle in the wilderness was a mere shadow of what we may enjoy.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples repeatedly that whatever they ask in his ‘name’ will be granted to them (John 14:13, 14; 15:16; 16:23, 24, 26). His name guarantees our being heard by the Father because it stands for his complete obedience to the Father, ultimately seen on the cross.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [tabernacled] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Where to from here?
In this brief article I have been laying down the main foundations of Christian prayer. When I teach these truths to myself, or am reminded of them, God often moves my mouth and heart toward himself. I begin to thank and praise him for who he is and all that he has provided for me in the Lord Jesus; I become more confident to bring my concerns and fears to him, knowing again his tremendous love for me. The only remedy I know of for a lack of prayer is to start to pray.