Prayer is a feature of all world religions and also those of a more homespun variety. This is because human beings are made in the image of God and have some awareness of being indebted and accountable to some higher being or power. Pagan petitions for aid and thanksgiving for help are recorded in the Old Testament; for example, the Philistines (Judg. 16:23-24), the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:25-26), and the sailors on Jonah’s ship (Jon. 1:5). But this does not mean that our religiously pluralistic society is correct in regarding all prayer as being much the same. It is not! Christian prayer is unique, and Christians should make that clear by the manner in which they pray.
The Lord Jesus spoke about prayer in a discriminating and authoritative way. He discouraged followers from praying as the Jewish leaders and the Gentiles did (see Matt. 6:5-7), because God is neither deceived by masks nor pressured by mantras. Instead, he told them that prayer was “asking the Father in [his] name” and added that this was something they had not yet done (John 15:16; 16:23, 24). This is striking because they were to some extent familiar with the Old Testament and synagogue worship, and he had also taught them what to say in prayer and how to say it (Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14). “Asking the Father in [his] name” was neither the same as the religious practices of the day nor the prayers of godly Jews like the father of John the Baptist and others (Luke 1:67-79). It was certainly not the same as asking him questions (John 14-16).
Jesus explained what was special about it in the Upper Room, using the expressions “until now,” “a little while,” and “that day or hour.” These references point to that unrepeatable occasion when the death and resurrection of Jesus would mark the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all believers. “In that day” harkens back to the Old Testament prophets’ predictions of the “Day of the Lord,” of his personal intervention to judge his foes and save his people. Jesus also described this as “the hour” (v. 25), which refers to his death on the cross and the exaltation as bound up with it (7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; and 17:1;), or the consequences deriving from it (5:28-29). The last hour on God’s clock would shortly strike. The “end” would begin’and it would renovate prayer.
A New Day of Prayer
This new day was not only bound up with the accomplishment of redemption by the Son, but it also brought in an era of greater revelation by the Spirit. Jesus guaranteed this to his disciples with the words, “You will ask in my name” on “that day,” when he would no longer speak to them in parables but “tell them plainly about the Father” (v. 26). At Pentecost a greater light began to shine for the disciples on Jesus’ past teaching (see 14:26) and what he had not been able to teach them before (see 16:13-15). This clearer and fuller revelation of God as Father would lead them to think of God as revealed in his Son Jesus, and to pray to him in that light. The Holy Spirit would enlarge their understanding, remove their sadness, deepen their peace, and heighten their joy.
Christian prayer is therefore praying to God as Father in the name of Jesus. “Name” is equivalent to the Lord God being present and active to save. Jesus is the sent one of the Father, his Christ, because he came in his Father’s name and not his own (see John 5:43). So to pray to the Father in his name is to crown him as Prophet, Priest, and King, and to serve him by way of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. John Calvin connects prayer with faith in Christ the mediator and also the aid of the Holy Spirit as promised in the gospel:
Whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God, and in our Lord Jesus Christ in whom the Father willed all the fullness of his bounty to abide (Col. 1:19; John 1:16) so that we may all draw from it as from an overflowing spring ‘¦[and] just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name (Rom.10:14-17). And’¦ the Spirit of adoption, who seals the witness of the gospel in our hearts (Rom. 8:16) raises up our spirits to dare to show forth to God their desires, to stir up unspeakable groaning (Rom. 8:26) and confidently cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15).
Groaning in the Spirit
Christian prayer, then, is “draw[ing] from [Christ] an overflowing spring” and having our “spirit raised” by the Holy Spirit as we come to God as our heavenly Father. This is what marks out Christian prayer. It is the consequence of the distinct but complementary ministries of two advocates, one before the throne of God in heaven for the believer guaranteeing access to God as Father (see 1 John 2:1, 2), and the other in the believer assuring him that he is a child and heir of God (Rom. 8:15-28). The mediation of the Son and the ministry of the Spirit were under a veil in the Old Testament, but they are the hallmark of the new covenant that emboldens the believer as he tells his heavenly Father everything with words and sighs.
There are times when such thoughts will lie too deep for words and will only find vent in sighs and even tears occasioned by the sufferings of this present time as they affect the believer, the church, and the world. The Spirit understands this nonverbal language, and he translates it to the Father through the Son. Calvin says that the Spirit “arouses in us assurance, desires and sighs, to conceive which our natural powers would scarcely suffice.” According to the English Puritan John Owen, this is what is meant in the New Testament by “praying in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18).
Praying as He Taught Us
The Lord’s Prayer can be regarded as a distillation of all prayers in the Old Testament and the mold for New Testament prayers’and all prayers until Christ returns. A word, then, about how the Lord’s Prayer should be regarded and used is appropriate. Rightfully, it has an important place in Christian thinking, and the exposition of it in the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms is of immense value, as are the studies of Reformed writers such as Herman Witsius and Thomas Watson. Discussion about the propriety of its use in public worship will doubtless continue, but there can be no doubt it should be used by Christians as a guide to all their praying. Calvin’s comment is well worth remembering:
This prayer is in all respects so perfect that any extraneous or alien thing added to it, which cannot be related to it, is impious and unworthy to be approved by God. For in this summary he has set forth what is worthy of him, acceptable to him, necessary for us’in effect, what he would willingly grant.
It should not be forgotten, however, that Calvin does not restrict true and acceptable prayer to its words as a form. He acknowledges that there are many other prayers in the Bible whose words are “far different from it ‘¦ yet composed by the same Spirit, the use of which is very profitable to us.” What is more, Calvin adds, “many prayers are suggested to believers by the same Spirit, which bear little similarity [to it] in wording.” The all-important factor is that the “sense does not vary” though “the words are utterly different.”
Praying in the Spirit
Three areas of this “praying in the Spirit” must be mentioned in conclusion. It is important to note that Christian prayer is: (1) Trinitarian in shape; (2) universal in scope; and (3) childlike in spirit. While the Old Testament is not silent on any of these, they can be seen to better advantage in the New Testament Scriptures from Acts to Revelation. They are incipiently present in the prayer of the church at Jerusalem recorded in Acts 4:22-30, which shows that Christian prayer looks just like Old Testament prayer, filtered, and filled out by new covenant realities and language.
1. Trinitarian in Shape
When we say that our prayers are “Trinitarian in shape,” we mean that the doxologies, benedictions, wishes, and recorded prayers of the New Testament are structured in such a way as to lead to later creedal formulation. In these prayers, primacy is given to the Father to whom we pray, through the Son, and with mention of the Spirit’s work, because it is by him that we are empowered to pray. This is standard in the writings of the apostles Peter, John, and especially Paul. The latter generally addresses the Father and the Son and does so by the Spirit, even laying down the declaration, “Through him [Jesus Christ] we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2: 18); and it announces the benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). This is an explanation of the divine name “Lord” (the one who hears in heaven, comes down to save his people, and leads out of bondage into a land flowing with milk and honey), but it had to await the “hour and the day” before it could be made explicit.
2. Universal in Scope
It goes without saying that Christians pray for churches and fellow believers. The prayers recorded in the New Testament Epistles are proof of this. Even John’s words, “I do not say that one should pray for that” (see 1 John 5:16), occur in the context of encouraging prayer for fellow Christians who sin. But the world is also to be included in such intercession. The Old Testament does not confine God’s goodness and grace to Israel alone: “The Lord is good to all and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9). All people should pray to him, but even when they do not “he is kind to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35); Job and Rahab, the widow of Zarephath, and the Ninevites are all examples of this. But in Anno Domini, this is even plainer. God loves his enemies (Matt. 5:44-45). He sent his son to die for a bad world of perishing human beings (John 3:16). His benevolent concern and activity are not limited to the church. Paul therefore urges a great diversity of prayers for all sorts of people in keeping with his desire that the gospel should be made known to all the nations. The gospel is to be freely preached to all, far and wide, and a ministry of “neighborly” intercession supports such proclamation. “This is good and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior [benefactor] who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (see 1 Tim. 2:1-7).
3. Childlike in Spirit
One feature of Christian prayer that distinguishes it from all others is that God is addressed as “Father.” Old Testament believers were humble and trusting, but God was only “Father” to the king and to the nation (Exod. 4:22 and Isa. 63:16). By contrast Jesus gives each believer the right to call his Father theirs (Luke 11:2 and John 20:17), and his Spirit enables them to do so (Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4: 6). He also gives them the sure promise that God will hear and answer their prayers’always! He can no more turn a deaf ear to his children than he can to their Elder Brother who is at his right hand in heaven. The Father sent his Son to gather his estranged children and bring them home. He therefore delights to hear them call on his name in faith and love (whatever words they use and in whatever language) and to respond positively to them.
They pray according to his Word; he replies according to his will. These two are not diverse because he has expressed his will in his Word so his children may know what pleases him. They can therefore in so many cases be sure that they are asking the Father for what he wants to give them and that he will do so. They know that he has made abundant provision for all their needs and that he knows best what to give and when. They can trust because they know they will never be orphaned and one day they will be amazed at how their unworthy prayers have been answered.