THE MEANS OF GRACE; PRAYER.
SHORTER CATECHISM, 98-107; LARGER CATECHISM, 178-196; CONFESSION OF FAITH, XXI., 3, 4.
Prayer is the third and last branch of the means of grace specially mentioned in the Standards, and it is a very important practical matter. In the Confession there is no formal discussion or statement of the doctrine of prayer. Only two brief sections in the chapter on religious worship are devoted to it, and there the nature and duty of prayer are simply assumed without formal exposition. In the Catechisms, however, large space is devoted to the explanation of prayer as a means of grace. In the Shorter Catechism ten questions, and in the Larger no fewer than eighteen, are devoted to this subject. In these questions the general doctrine of prayer is stated in a formal way, and then the Lord's prayer is expounded at length as the rule of prayer. The result is, that in the Standards there is the most complete statement of the doctrine of prayer to be found in any of the great creeds. In the exposition of this chapter the Catechisms will be followed quite closely, and their statements will be condensed wherever the limits of a single chapter upon a great subject make it necessary.
It is proper to add that no discussion of the reality of prayer, or of the objections which are made against the efficacy of prayer, will be entered on. As just mentioned, the Standards simply assume that prayer is a precious reality, and that it has a real and powerful efficacy. This is precisely the same position that the Scriptures take in regard to this matter, so that the Standards follow a very good example in this, as they do in regard to the existence of God, the religious nature of man, and the reality of divine revelation. This plan will be followed in the explanations of this chapter.
I. The Nature of Prayer will be Defined at the Outset.
Both Catechisms define prayer, the definition of the Shorter being briefer than that of the Larger. Combining the two, a very excellent definition of prayer is secured, and it is as follows: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, by the help of the Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of all his mercies. At a glance, it will be seen that this is an exceedingly complete description of the matter of prayer, and it needs but little explanation, for every part of it is simple and clear. It rightly signalizes the place which the desires of the heart have in true prayer, and thus indicates that prayer need not be audible. It may be the silent converse and communion of the soul with God. The presentation of our desires to God, silently or vocally, is prayer. We are also to pray always with submission to the will of God, and be ever ready to say, Thy will, O God, be done! And all acceptable prayer is to be offered up through the mediation of Christ, and by the aid of the Holy Spirit. Then, in addition to the offering up of our desires to God, the confession of sin and the giving of thanks are to have a place in prayer as very important factors. In what will be said under subsequent topics some of these points will be enlarged on, so that nothing more need now be added in regard to them.
II. The Personal Object to Whom Prayer is to be Offered is Next Considered.
The Larger Catechism says that we are to pray to God alone, and to none other. Hence, prayer to many gods is forbidden, as also prayer to saints and angels in any way. This Catechism also suggests the reasons which properly lead us to pray to God alone. He only is able to search ourhearts and know what we really desire, and he knows best whether we really need the things which we desire. Then, God only can hear and answer prayer, for he is the Creator, and all other objects of prayer must be creatures and of finite ability. And, again, since God alone can pardon our sins and fulfil our desires, he alone should be prayed to for all these things. Then, too, since God only is to be believed in and worshipped as God, and since prayer is a part of worship, to God alone should prayer be made.
III. The Medium of Prayer is an Important Factor in it. How are We to Come to God in Prayer?
This for sinful man is an all-important inquiry, for while a sinless creature might come directly into the presence of the Creator, yet a sinful creature cannot so come. Hence, the Larger Catechism, with the utmost propriety, and in accordance with the Scriptures, says that the sinfulness of man and his distance from God is so great by reason thereof that he can have no access into the divine presence without a mediator. And, since there is none in heaven or earth fit for or appointed to that glorious work but Christ alone, we are to pray in his name only, and in no other. In the name of, and for the sake of, Christ must all our prayers be offered at the throne of grace, which is the footstool of God. To thus pray in the name of Christ is in accordance with his command, and in confidence in his promises to ask for mercy for his sake. This is to be rightly done, not merely by the formal mention of his name, but by finding our encouragement to pray, and also by obtaining our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer, from Christ and his mediation. He is to be our way to the Father in prayer, and the Father's way to us with the answer. The mediation of Christ, and especially the intercessory work at the Father's right hand, gives us access to God and confidence in prayer when we come, assured that we have such an advocate with the Father.
IV. The Agent Who Aids us in Prayer is the Next Topic in Connection with Prayer.
Because of our sinfulness we are not only far away from God and in need of a mediator, but our hearts are not naturally disposed, or, as a matter of fact, qualified, for the exercise of prayer. In this case we need a helper within us, as well as an advocate for us. The Holy Spirit is revealed and offered as that helper. Since we know not how to pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit helps our infirmities. In doing so, he enables us to understand for what and for whom we ought to pray. He also instructs us as to how prayer should be offered, so that having a proper frame of mind we may be enabled to pray with the understanding. This the Spirit does by working in, and quickening in our hearts those apprehensions, affections, and graces which are required for the right performance of the duty of prayer. It is added, that this quickening of the Spirit is not in all persons, nor at all times in the same measure, for God sends the Spirit through the Son as he pleases. The Spirit is thus the advocate within us who helps our infirmities and teaches us how to pray and what to pray for as we ought. Hence, with an advocate in heaven and one on earth, we may have confidence in prayer, and ability to draw near to God in the full assurance of faith.
V. The Next Question Relates to what it is our Duty and Privilege to Pray for.
This is a wide subject, and includes both the persons and the things for which we ought to offer our prayers. The Standards assume that we are to pray for both temporal and spiritual things, so that the view of those who forbid prayer for anything but spiritual blessings is to be set aside. As to the persons for whom we are to pray, the Larger Catechism tells us, first of all, that we are to pray for the whole church of Christ upon earth. This expresses the broad catholic spirit which breathes all through the Standards. Then weare to pray for magistrates, which includes all who hold civil authority, and who exercise rule or execute law in the state. We are also to pray for ministers of the gospel everywhere, that their lives may be holy, and their labors blessed. We are next to pray for ourselves and our brethren in the flesh; and we are to make supplication before God on behalf of our brethren in the Lord, that God would in his mercy bless and save them. And we are not to forget to pray for our enemies, and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter in the world. Hence, our petitions are not to be restrained, but are to extend far and wide. For the church universal and for its officers and members, for nations and earthly rulers, for ourselves and our brethren, for our enemies and for men yet unborn, and then for all sorts of men, even the outcast and neglected of the human race, we are to pray, and give them a place in our supplications and intercessions. Then, with curious caution, the Standards tell us that we are not to pray for the dead, as Eome would have us do; nor are our prayers to be offered for those who are known to have sinned the sin unto death. This is the same remark as was explained some time ago from the Confession in another chapter, where religious worship is described. In making this statement, the Scriptures are followed closely. But we should not hastily conclude that any particular person has committed that awful sin for which there is no place of pardon here or hereafter.
VI. The Proper Spirit or Temper of Prayer Requires a few Words of Explanation.
This raises the question: How should we pray ? In what frame of mind, and what should be our disposition of heart when we pray? Here reverence is set down first, for the Larger Catechism says that we should pray with an awful apprehension of the majesty of God. We are to remember that God is in heaven and that we are upon the earth. We should also have a deep sense of our own unworthiness, mindful that God is perfectly holy, and that we are sinful in his sight. In like manner, we are to be sensible of our necessities, and, above all, of the need of the pardon of our sins, and so come with penitent, thankful and enlarged hearts to his footstool. Our approach to God in prayer is also to be marked by understanding our need; by faith in Christ, and in the promises which are sure in him; by sincerity, knowing that if we regard iniquity in our hearts God will not hear us; by fervency, showing that we are in earnest in our desires; by love to God for all his love to us; and by perseverance, which will lead to a patient importunity. And, finally, we are to wait on God in prayer with humble submission to his will, resigned to leave the answer to his holy and gracious purpose, as he deems best to give or withhold, to bless or restrain the blessing.
VII. The Parts or Elements of Prayer are now to be Explained.
These, though not formally expressed in the Standards, are, nevertheless, implied, and may now be set down in a sentence or two, before the Lord's prayer as the rule to guide us in prayer is explained at some length.
Adoration stands first, whereby we praise and magnify God and his majesty, for what he is and does in creation, providence, and grace. Next in order, we may set down confession of sin, for we are sinful in the sight of God, and our sins must be removed before we can come acceptably to God. Then follows thanksgiving, for it is fitting that we should render grateful thanks for past mercies before we beg for their continuance or renewal. Then come petitions of all sorts for ourselves and others, as already described. And, lastly, stands intercession, or special pleading for any definite cases or causes. These are the main elements of prayer. Of course, we may not find it necessary to include all these factors at any one time in our prayers, still, in offering public, domestic, or private prayer, it may be well to keep this general outline in view. It will give order to our prayers, and save us from confusion and repetition. In almost every case adoration, confession, and giving of thanks should have a place.
VIII. The Rule or Pattern of Prayer is the Last Topic to be Explained from the Standards.
Much importance is evidently attached to this topic in the Catechisms, and the remainder of this chapter must be devoted to its exposition in only brief outline. The Larger Catechism says that the whole word of God is of use in directing us in the duty of praying; but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which our Lord taught his disciples, and which is commonly called the Lord's prayer. This prayer is to be used, not only for directing us in prayer, but as a pattern according to which we are to make other prayers. There is here sketched only a general outline. At the same time, it is added that this prayer may be used as a prayer, so long as it is done with understanding, faith, reverence, and the other graces necessary to the right performance of the duty of prayer. This is an important statement, not only in regard to this prayer, but in respect to all prayer, and it contains a warning and an exhortation of great moment in regard to the use of liturgies, or the reading of prayers in public or private worship.
In making an analysis of the Lord's prayer, there are three parts to be considered. These are the preface, the petitions, and the conclusion. The first and the last are briefly considered, while the second is explained at length in the Standards. Each is now expounded in a simple way.
1. The preface requires only a few lines. It is, "Our Father which art in heaven." This teaches us that when we pray we are to draw near to God with confidence in his fatherly goodness, and our interest in that goodness. We are also taught to come with reverence, and with all other suitable, childlike dispositions and heavenly affections. In this way we are to come with the true filial spirit, and say, Abba, Father; and at the same time we are to seek to cherish due apprehensions of his sovereign power, his transcendent majesty, and his gracious condescension. We are also exhorted to pray with and for others when we are taught to say, Our Father. This preface thus forms a suitable prelude to this remarkable prayer.
2. The petitions are now to be considered in order. These petitions are six in number. The Shorter Catechism gives a brief exposition of each, which the Larger expands considerably. In the present exposition an attempt will be made to combine these, and to offer some comments as the explanation proceeds.
The first petition is, "Hallowed be thy name." This teaches us to pray that God would enable us and others to glorify him in all that whereby he makes himself known, and that he would dispose all things for his glory. Here we confess our inability and our indisposition of ourselves to honor God aright, and we ask for grace to enable us to know and highly esteem him, and all those things by which he makes himself known to us, and to glorify him in thought, word, and deed. We are also taught here to pray that God would destroy atheism, idolatry, and everything which dishonors him, and that he would dispose all things for his own glory.
The second petition is, "Thy kingdom come." By this petition we pray that Satan's kingdom may be destroyed, and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves brought into it and kept in it, and the kingdom of glory hastened. Here we acknowledge that we are all by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, and we pray for deliverance, that the gospel may be spread throughout the world, that the Jews may be called into the kingdom, and that the fulness of the Gentiles may be brought in. We likewise here pray that the church may be kept pure in allrespects, and that the rulers of the earth may not oppose the gospel. We also pray that by the ordinances of the church sinners may be converted and saints be confirmed, that Christ may rule in the hearts of men here, and that the time of his second coming may be hastened.
The third petition is, "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." This teaches us to pray that God would, by his grace, make us able and willing to know, obey, and submit to his will in all things, as the angels do in heaven. Here we also confess our proneness to rebel against God's word and providence, and we pray that God would take away our blindness and perverseness, and make us, with humility and cheerfulness, to do, and submit to, the will of God in all things. The fourth petition is, "Give us this day our daily bread." Here we pray that God would, of his free gift, grant us a competent portion of the things of this life, and that we may enjoy his blessing with them. Here, too, we confess that we deserve none of these outward blessings of this life, and are prone to use them unlawfully, and we pray for ourselves and others that, waiting on God's providence in the use of lawful means, we may receive a competent portion of God's temporal gifts, and be contented in the lawful use of the same.
The fifth petition is, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Here we pray that God would, for Christ's sake, freely pardon our sins, and that we may be able from the heart to forgive others. Here we also confess that we are guilty sinners before God, and hopeless debtors to the divine justice, and we pray that, through the satisfaction of Christ applied by faith, God would pardon and acquit us, and continue to do so, filling us with peace and joy, and prompting and enabling us to forgive our fellowmen.
The sixth petition is, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," or, as some would translate, "from the evil one." Here we pray that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin, or support us when we are tempted. Here we also confess our own weakness and proneness to go astray, and we pray that God would so subdue and restrain us, and order all things about us, that we may be saved from temptation, or so succored in it that we do not fall into sin, or if we do happen to fall, that we may speedily repent, and be recovered and restored.
3. The conclusion remains for a word or two. It is as follows: "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen." This teaches us to ascribe all praise and glory to God alone, in our prayers and adoration before him, who is King of kings, and whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. The word Amen, with which the prayer closes, expresses our solemn assurance that we earnestly desire to be heard, and our willingness to submit to the divine will in the answer, whatever it may be, to our prayers.
Such is an imperfect outline of the subject of prayer as a means of grace. The order of the petitions is worthy of notice. Petitions which relate to God come first, next those which pertain to his kingdom, and last those which refer to ourselves. The Larger Catechism expounds confession and petition in each of the parts of the Lord's prayer, and has a very detailed exposition of the whole prayer.