The last two Lord’s Day evenings we have emphasized the nature of prayer as conversation with God, the same kind of conversation that we have with one another; “earnest and familiar talking with God,” as John Knox put it. There is so much more that we could consider regarding prayer. There is a sense in which prayer is a concentration of the entire Christian life. It is also the very nature of Christian worship. In fact, in several places in the Book of Acts the term “prayer” is used as a synonym for public worship. And even if we limited ourselves to the act of praying itself, there is so much more to say. We could talk about the types of prayer recommended to us in Holy Scripture – arrow prayers and deliberate prayers of various kinds – we could talk about the parts of prayer – praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition, and the like – we could talk about the prerequisites of an effective prayer – the Puritan Thomas Watson listed nine such prerequisites or “qualifications” of a true prayer (that is, to be a true prayer it should be offered “in Christ’s name”, according to God’s will, with right motives, and so on [Body of Divinity, 240-242]) – we could talk about bodily postures for prayer recommended or illustrated in Holy Scripture, and so on. But I don’t intend this series to continue to such length. So I want to finish with prayer this evening by considering the important fact that in the life of prayer we are explicitly in communion with, dealing with, and expressing our faith in the Triune God. Prayer is the practice of Christian faith in the nature of the one living and true God existing in three persons. Our doctrine of prayer and our practice of prayer, as it is taught in Holy Scripture, ought to be and will be Trinitarian.
I find this too to be a very encouraging part of the Bible’s teaching concerning prayer. Lest we underestimate its importance or its power Holy Scripture reminds us that our prayer, the prayers of such weaklings as ourselves involve the work, the attention, and the interest of all three persons of the triune God!
- In the first place, our prayer is to be offered to God the Father in the expectation of his hearing and answering.
We noted last time that in his teaching about prayer the Lord Jesus explicitly taught us to pray to God the Father. “Our Father, who is in heaven…” He, of course, prayed to his Father in heaven and we are to do as he did.
Now it needs to be said that this is not a fixed law in the Bible. Prayers are addressed to the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. They certainly were during the days of his public ministry. Think of those who came to him pleading for healing or the man who said to him, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.” Those are prayers and they were addressed to Jesus directly as one who could hear and answer. But even after his ascension to heaven Christians are found praying to the Lord Jesus. Think of Stephen as he was being stoned (Acts 7:59):
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And moments later, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Or think of the Apostle Paul and his prayer to be relieved from his “thorn in the flesh.”
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Cor. 12:8]
When Paul goes on in the next verse to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” it is made clear that by “Lord,” in the address of his prayer, Paul meant the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayers specifically addressed to the Lord Jesus serve as an impressive confession of the deity of Jesus Christ, because, in the Bible, prayers may be addressed to God alone. It is interesting, by the way, that there are no prayers specifically addressed to the Holy Spirit in the Bible. The church began to address prayers to the Holy Spirit as a practice justified by the fact that prayers were addressed both to the Father and the Son, and surely that is right; but it remains an interesting fact that there are no such prayers in the New Testament itself.
Ordinarily, in the New Testament prayers are addressed to God the Father or to God without reference to a person. And there is great comfort in that surely: that we are praying to our father, to one who loves us and cherishes us as our heavenly Father does and as the term “father” is meant to suggest. Remember the words of Psalm 103:13-14: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” When we lift our hearts and voices to God we can be assured that we are speaking to one who loves us far more than we really could ever understand and is far more devoted to our welfare than we are! That is the burden of the name he gave us with which to address him: “Father.”
But that we pray to our heavenly Father is, perhaps, the most obvious way in which our practice of prayer assumes and is built upon the triune nature of God. By saying, “Our Father,” we are addressing our prayers to the first person of the Triune God.
- In the second place, our prayer is to be in the name of Christ.
I notice, by the way, that we are sometimes careless in our public praying here at Faith.
A prayer will be addressed to God, presumably or explicitly to God the father, but will conclude with some formula such as “in your name, Amen.” But we are not praying in the Father’s name. We have been taught to pray in Jesus’ name. And it is important for us to remember what that means and why that concluding formula is so important.
In John 14:13 the Lord Jesus taught his disciples:
“…I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
It is interesting, by the way, to notice once more that the Lord Jesus here promises to answer his disciples’ prayers and in v. 14 he tells his disciples to ask him. “You may ask me for anything…” Here again we are taught to direct our prayers not only to the Father but also to the Lord Jesus. The Bible never reflects on why we might pray to the Father in one case or to the Son in another. It certainly never suggests that certain kinds of prayers should be addressed to one person while other kinds should be addressed to another. That remains a mystery. But, more to the point, twice we are told that we are to pray or to ask in Jesus’ name. Lest we miss the importance of this condition, it continues to be repeated in the Upper Room discourse.
- 15:16: “Then the father will give you whatever you ask in my name…”
- 16:23: “The father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”
- 16:24: “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name.” Ask and you will receive.
- 16:26: “In that day you will ask in my name…”
And then, we have this in Matthew 18:19-20:
“If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name there will I be among them.”
All of these assertions concern the confidence with which we should pray. They promise that we will receive what we ask for. But what is the significance of the phrase “in my name” in these promises of the Lord that he will hear our prayers?
I suppose many Christians think that to pray in Christ’s name means simply to offer our prayers through Christ; that is, to acknowledge that we have access to God only through Jesus Christ and that we are to confess that fact when we pray. Our Westminster Larger Catechism takes this view. In answer to the question: “Why are we to pray in the name of Christ? we have this:
“The sinfulness of man, and his distance from God by reason thereof, being so great, as that we can have no access into his presence without a mediator; and there being none in heaven or earth appointed to, or fit for, that glorious work but Christ alone, we are to pray in no other name but his only.”
Now that is, of course, absolutely and wonderfully true. But few commentators nowadays think that is really the burden of the phrase as Jesus uses it in teaching us about how we are to pray. The theme of the Upper Room teaching on prayer is not how we obtain access to God but how Christ is going to advance his work in the world upon his ascending to the Right Hand. Perhaps you noticed that purpose clause in the second half of John 14:13:
“And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”
As you know, a person’s name carried greater weight in the ancient world than it does in ours. There was understood to be a greater identity between a person and his name. We have not lost this entirely, of course. If you overhear your name being spoken in a conversation you suddenly become very interested in what is being said. You don’t think to yourself, “Oh, it’s only my name that they are mentioning; they are not speaking about me personally.” Absolutely you identify your name with yourself!
But in the ancient world there was thought to be a still greater connection between a person’s name and his or her character or nature or being. The Bible often trades on this understanding of a person’s name. Moses asks Yahweh in Exodus 3:13: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” Moses was not asking “who” God is but “what” God is and so he asked to know God’s name. And you remember God’s reply: “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you.” Yahweh’s name conveyed his nature as the eternal and faithful God.
This same connection between name and person or name and character explains why names are changed when there is a change in a person’s character, status, or calling. So Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel; Cephas becomes Peter and so on. It also explains why “name” is often substituted for the personal pronoun or the proper name itself. For example, in the same Upper Room discourse, in 15:21, the Lord Jesus said,
“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…. They will treat you this way because of my name.”
The Lord Jesus means that they will treat Christians harshly because of who he is, and what he claims to be, and because we are associated with him. The name stands for the person and who and what that person is. It is with all of this background in mind that doing something in someone’s name came to mean to do something as that person’s representative, to do something on that person’s behalf, or with that person’s authority. To do something in someone’s name is to connect one’s actions to another person and to another person’s interests and purposes.
- Exodus 5:23: “Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name…
- Deut. 18:19: “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name…”
- 1 Samuel 17:45: David says to Goliath, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty…whom you have defied.”
- 1 Kgs. 21:8: “So [Jezebel] wrote letters in Ahab’s name…”
- Jer. 14:15: “Therefore, this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them…”
The most simple, straightforward explanation of the phrase in my name with regard to prayer in the Upper Room discourse then is that we are to pray as representing Christ, or as acting on his behalf in his absence. That is why Christians will be persecuted; because they are allied with his cause; they are his representatives on the earth; and so they are subject to the reproach heaped on Christ himself. The world can’t get to Jesus so they go after those who represent him. And, in the Gospels this understanding of “in my name” is found in other contexts as well.
For example, in Luke 9:48-49 we have the phrase twice and in each case it has this sense of doing something as Christ’s agent or in his stead.
“Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me… ‘Master’ said John, ‘we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he is not one of us.’”
Clearly, in both cases, the phrase “in my name” or “in your name” means doing something on Jesus’ behalf, in his stead, as his representative and with his power or authority.
Still more to the point, in the same Upper Room discourse, the Lord, in 14:26, says that the Father will send the Holy Spirit “in my name” which certainly means that the Spirit will come as Christ’s agent, his representative, and that is what the entire context confirms. The Spirit will teach the truth Christ taught; he will make Christ known; he will bring Christ’s kingdom to pass, and so on.
So to pray in Christ’s name is not simply to end one’s prayers with the formula, “in Jesus’ name, Amen.” It is to pray for Christ’s sake, on Christ’s behalf, as his representatives on earth, with a view to advancing his interests in the world; to pray for what he would pray for were he with us still visibly in the world. To pray in Jesus’ name is to identify our prayers with him and with his cause. It is to pray, as we read in John 14:13, so that the Son will bring glory to his Father!
Now that changes our perspective doesn’t it. We are no longer praying only for ourselves but for the Lord. We are not asking simply for ourselves but for what Christ approves and what advances his name and God’s glory in our lives and the lives of others. We pray as his representatives, seeking to fulfill his purposes. To pray, really to pray in Jesus’ name is to make our prayers altogether higher, less selfish things. To pray in Jesus’ name purifies our motives, clarifies our purpose. We are praying in Jesus’ stead for what he wants done.
So, brothers and sisters, remember what you are saying when you conclude your prayers “in Jesus’ name, Amen.” And remember as you begin your prayer how you intend to conclude it. Pray in such a way that you know the Lord Christ would pray your prayer too, were he here in the flesh. Pray the prayer you know he would pray and pray it for him!
- Third, and finally, our prayer, offered to the Father in Jesus’ name must be prayed “in the Spirit.”
In Ephesians 6:18 Paul writes, concluding his great section on spiritual warfare,
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”
That “prayer in the Spirit” was a standard way of speaking about Christian prayer in apostolic Christianity is confirmed in Jude 20 where we have the same phrase employed.
“But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.”
But what does that phrase mean? How does one pray in the Spirit? Some have taken Paul in Ephesians 6:18 to mean “spirit” with a lower case “s”; that is, the human spirit. Prayer in the spirit would then be prayer that was inward or with the heart and not simply an outward act, a formality. But Jude uses the same phrase and makes it explicit that prayer in the Spirit is prayer in the Holy Spirit. Even Paul’s customary way of writing does not favor the view that “spirit” in Ephesians 6:18 should be taken as anything else than a reference to the Holy Spirit.
Others have taken Paul to mean that we should depend upon the Spirit for a special inspiration to pray. This interpretation has traveled widely in evangelical Christianity and is preserved in the jargon with which all who have grown up in the church are thoroughly familiar. Prayer meetings begin with the minister or the leader saying something like, "As many of you as are led to pray…" What lies behind that familiar way of speaking is the idea that we should expect the Spirit to direct the praying of Christians, inspiring them to pray for this or that at such and such a time.
But, first, Paul does not say this. This is reading an entire theory of Christian guidance into a single preposition. Nowhere else does the Bible teach us to expect to be led into our prayers by the direction of the Holy Spirit. Quite the contrary, even here, Paul’s emphasis seems rather to be on simple obedience to the summons to prayer: keep on praying, always and for everything. It seems doubtful that he would say these words if he meant, at the beginning of the verse, that the Spirit would himself decide for what and when individual Christians are to pray.
This theory has had both a sentimentalizing and a deadening effect on prayer, especially corporate prayer. I grew up in prayer meetings that were largely lifeless and quite uninteresting; they were predictable and so little animated by any sense of expectation that it was hard to believe anything more resulted from them than a sense of duty having been done by those few who attended. Our prayer meetings began with that jargon about being led to pray and, apparently, the Holy Spirit led only a few of the people to pray, led the same ones to pray every week, led them to pray long prayers, and then did not lead anyone else until an uncomfortably long silence had intervened.
I remember being liberated from this view of prayer by a remark of Dr. John Sanderson, a college professor of mine and a man of real biblical learning. Perhaps this has happened to you sometimes, a single remark causing you to look again at what you thought the Bible taught, what you had always been led to suppose the Bible taught, only to realize at once that it taught no such thing. Such is the power of spiritual culture. It can make it seem that the Bible teaches something that actually you can’t find anywhere in the Bible! Altar calls, the insistence that covenant children have a "conversion experience," the notion that God will guide his people directly by producing impressions in the soul, etc. are all the product of a particular spiritual culture, not the teaching of the Bible. Well, Dr. Sanderson said in my hearing that he wasn’t sure he had ever been "led to pray" in his life. Wonderful! I went and looked again and realized that my view of prayer was utterly without biblical warrant. God’s people in the Bible don’t wait for the Spirit to inspire them: they pray out of their need, out of their love, out of their duty, and they pray even when it might seem that God was little interested in what they were saying to him. We are commanded to pray, invited to pray, encouraged to pray, warned about prayerlessness, but we are never taught to wait to pray until led by the Spirit of God. Nor are we ever taught what that leading would feel like or how we would know that it was the Spirit leading us and not the Devil or our own flesh.
The last thing Paul means or Jude means by the phrase “pray in the Spirit” is that Christians are to wait until the Holy Spirit indicates to them that they are to begin to pray, or that the Spirit must activate or inspire each individual prayer by some kind of signal sent to the soul. He is commanding us to pray all the time and for all manner of things. "In the Spirit" clearly refers to "how we are to pray" not when we are to pray.
So, what does Paul mean when he tells us to "pray in the Spirit on all occasions"? Well, in the Bible, and in Paul there are two spheres of spiritual activity: the flesh and the Spirit, with Spirit spelled with a capital "S," and referring to the Holy Spirit. That is, any human activity may be of the flesh or it may be of the Holy Spirit.
If any activity is of the flesh, Paul says in many different places, it is self-motivated, self-empowered (or empowered as well by Satan), for selfish ends and purposes, and by entirely natural means. Prayer in the flesh, of which there is a great deal described in the Bible, and of which there is a great deal every day in the world, is prayer, therefore, that is prayed not to secure God’s interests but ours; with no sense of a need in that prayer for God’s enablement or accompaniment; with no true embrace of the promises of God; and
with no true submission to God. It is prayer that is prayed in hopes of securing some benefit from God while paying him no true reverence as Lord and Savior; prayer that is prayed not as earnest and familiar talking with God, but in order to perform some duty that God will reward with some benefit. It is prayer such as anyone can pray. Non-Christians pray such prayers. In fact, it is the only kind of prayers they ever pray.
Prayer in the Spirit, on the contrary, is prayer that is prayed in the realm or sphere of the Holy Spirit. That is, prayer that is prayed from a reborn heart, as an act of love, trust, confidence in and cheerful submission to a God who has been immeasurably gracious to us; prayer that is prayed in an active sense of our dependence upon the Spirit of God to help us pray aright, to pray with a right spirit, with true motives, with a genuine submission to the will of God, with faith, with confidence, with expectation, that God may have his glory in us and through us. That is prayer in the Spirit: prayer that is prayed by one who inhabits the realm of the Holy Spirit, by one who is deriving his life from the Holy Spirit.
"Lord I believe, help my unbelief" is praying in the Spirit.
"Not my will, but thine be done" is praying in the Spirit.
"Lord, teach us to pray" is praying in the Spirit.
"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer" is praying in the Spirit.
"I waited patiently for the Lord" is praying in the Spirit.
"How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord" is praying in the Spirit.
"Father, I am not worthy to be considered as one of your hired servants" is praying in the Spirit.
And all of these prayers and many others in the Bible express the condition of mind and heart that lies beneath all prayer in the Spirit, the condition of dependence, of love, and of faith. Jesus said, without me, you can do nothing. But Christ’s presence and active help and support are provided us by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who makes Christ known to us and applies Christ’s presence and power to our hearts and lives.
As the Lord says of his people in Zech. 12:10: "I will pour out on them the Spirit of grace and supplication!" And think in what different ways he does that:
1. He encourages us to pray: Ps. 27:8 (the more likely reading): "You said to me, ‘Seek my face,’ and my heart said, ‘Your face, O Lord, I will seek.’"
2. He encourages us to come to God confidently: "by him we call out ‘Abba, Father.’
3. His presence assures us of a hearing with God. So David in Ps. 51:11: "Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me."
4. He animates our hearts in prayer, in joy and in love. So he did for Jesus himself. Luke 10:21 "At that time, Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said ‘I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth…’"
And nothing is better calculated to keep that foundation for true prayer clearly in view that we might build our prayers on it and rest their weight on it, than Paul’s remark about the Spirit assisting our prayers.
Romans 8:26-27: "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will."
There is a realm of the Holy Spirit, and a kind of praying that belongs to that realm, and in that praying the prayer of the soul is accompanied and perfected by another prayer, alongside, prayed by the Holy Spirit himself! A perfect prayer is offered by the Spirit alongside our feeble, faulty, all too fleshly prayers.
This is the realm of the Spirit and what is involved in praying in the Spirit. Imagine yourself for a moment going to pray. You kneel down beside your bed or you raise your heart to God in your car, or wherever. But you know that the prayer you wish to pray to God, for content, for manner, for faith, for sincerity of heart, for love, for purity of purpose, you cannot pray alone and by yourself and in your own strength. "Lord I believe, help my unbelief." And so you look in every direction and there, not far away, you see a bright light, glory is what it is, the universal indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit. So, in your soul, you go over to that glory and kneel before it, and you find that it comes over you and surrounds you and covers you. And, when it does, you find your heart stirred, a strange warmth has come over you – now God is before you in your prayer in all his majesty and his grace and you cannot help but love and trust him. Now it becomes clear to you what you ought to say in both your worship and your petitions. Now there is a sense of joy and expectation because you are persuaded both that God will hear and answer and that whatever his will for you may be it is exactly what you most want for yourself and for others. The Holy Spirit has overcome you and changed everything and made your prayer what you know prayer should always be.
Now, our prayers are not usually like that — though most of us have had some, if only a few prayers in our lives that we could almost describe in that way. But, Paul says, that is what prayer is, actually, when any Christian seeks to pray in the Holy Spirit, whether he senses his prayer that way or not. And when he does not sense it so wonderfully and powerfully, does not feel the overshadowing of the Spirit, it is in just those prayers that the Spirit is praying hardest beside us to make up whatever is wanting so that the prayer God hears is such a prayer as he would have heard if the Spirit had poured himself into our consciousness as he does only sometimes.
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
And it is down there, where true prayer comes from, where the Holy Spirit is found, creating, prompting, purifying, instructing, inspiring, and praying himself.
Ponder this, brothers and sisters. In our every prayer we commune with all three persons of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are speaking to the Father, for the Son, and by or in the Spirit. You are giving glory to God in respect to all three persons. That makes prayer an amazing and wonderful thing and, surely, it makes it true that the more we pray the more of the living God there will be in our lives.