By John Morrow
Our conference theme is growing in Christ. The various ordinances which God has given in his word are necessary in order to promote this growth. We have all been in churches where the growth of a Christian is denoted in different ways. Some churches bring in an evangelist some two or three times a year to help the people grow in the Lord. Other, more liberal churches, get into all kinds of entertainment designed to help the church grow. But we, as Reformed Christians believe that God has given certain ordinances which advance us in His service and in holiness. The ordinance which we shall consider in this message is prayer.
When we think about prayer we might consider giving a definition of prayer. Perhaps if we took a survey of everyone here we would have many various opinions about what prayer is. A statement with which you should be very familiar comes from the Shorter Catechism.
Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
This statement gives us a biblical expression, defining prayer as a practical duty of each Christian. We believe that the statement is thoroughly Scriptural. Many of us may have memorized those words. Had I called upon some, you could have quoted from the Shorter Catechism.
But even though we may know and have memorized that definition, we may still be ignorant of what prayer really is. We may never really experience true prayer because it is more than just memorizing words. It is a personal experience with God. As we define prayer, one idea that stands out is that prayer is communication with God. We communicate with Him. Normally when we communicate with one another we are sensitive to that communication. We have some sort of experience in sharing with one another. We are aware that something is being said — that something is being communicated to us. Prayer is communicating our desires to God and God’s communicating His will to us; having the two things meet together and agree with one another. Not that God has to agree with what is on our hearts, but that we have to be brought to agree with what he reveals to us to be His will as we pray. Prayer is a divinely appointed means, designed by God, to bring us into fellowship with himself. We see what a great privilege it is to pray. We are actually able to speak to God and to hear Him respond to our petitions, respond to our prayers.
How many of us have prayed and have not found God answering our prayers? Or how often have we found something which seems to hinder our prayer life? I would suggest that one of the reasons why many times our prayers are ineffectual is because we do not take the proper time to prepare ourselves for prayer. Often when we think of prayer we want God to do something for us and right away. We hurriedly ask God to bless this and to bless that before we take time to consider to whom it is that we are speaking and how we ought to conduct ourselves before God. In light on this, we see how we ought to prepare ourselves for prayer.
We can see as we examine the various prayers in Scripture that there are two distinct parts of prayer: one, devotional, where one’s heart is prepared; the other petitionary, wherein we ask God for things agreeable to His will. In Ephesians 1:15-17 we find the apostle Paul praying for the saints at Ephesus. We believe, of course, that he was praying for all saints. “[I] cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers.” Paul is going to explain how he presented this petition on the behalf of the Ephesians before God. In verse 17 he says, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory.” He seems almost to pause there when he speaks of the “Father of glory.” We see him there perhaps in humble submission preparing himself and meditating upon the person of God. Paul understood the term “Father of Glory”. Paul was well acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures; he knew that the God of Glory appeared unto Abraham. He was musing there and preparing himself in thinking of how God had called Abraham out of heathen idolatry. Perhaps he was even thinking about the time he had met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus — when the Father of Glory appeared to him in the person of Christ and directed him to the ministry that he then had. He was worshipping God; he was adoring God. Before he dared to ask anything of God he gave him the devotion of his heart. That is a very important part of the ordinance of prayer. It is not that we are merely asking something of God, we are worshipping God in an awesome submission to His holy will. Even if we do not receive what we ask for in the petition, we are going to receive something from God as we worship him in Spirit and in Truth.
Looking further into Paul’s worshipful attitude in prayer we learn much about how to pray. Observe Paul reflecting upon the Father of glory. He is thinking of the covenant which God established with Abraham. He is thinking of how God, the Father of glory, brought Abraham to the place of service then how He brought His people out of the bondage of Egypt into the land of promise, subduing all the enemies of his people. If there were ever a day when we had enemies as Christians, today is that day. Right in this republic of which we are citizens, we find enemies on every hand. We find them in the courtrooms where they have been elected to fulfill various civil functions. We find enemies within the Church of Jesus Christ speaking against the Scriptures from the pulpits of the Church. These are the enemies of the Church of Jesus Christ. They are the enemies of the people of God. If we to prevail against them we must become a praying Church. We must become a praying people! We speak of a reformation and truly we yearn to see that, but the sixteenth century reformation was born in adversity with much earnest prayer. Certainly God is bringing great adversity on this nation and great adversity upon His church. We must learn to use this ordinance of prayer more effectively.
God delights to grant our petitions. But as we have considered, we ought not to rush into the presence of God. We ought rather to spend some time in preparing ourselves in a devotional way in prayer, waiting upon God and not using prayer as a hasty exercise which has little effect on our lives. God is our father; and as fathers, we know how are children can best get what they want from us. When they come obediently, when they come asking, not demanding, when they come recognizing our authority over them, certainly our hearts are touched. Surely God’s heart must be touched when we recognize Him to be the Father of glory. What does that mean to us? When we examine the beauty of the world about us we must marvel that God has created all this. What a glorious God we have and what a privilege it is to pray to him. How grateful we ought to be for the work of the Lord Jesus Christ which makes prayer possible, as well as to see God as he is. If our prayer life were more Scriptural, we would all realize greater growth in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, let us look at the other part of prayer, that is, asking God, petitioning God, for things agreeable to His will. Paul prays, “the Father of glory, may give unto you. . .” (He does not single out any individual but prays for the entire church in this instance.) “. . . may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” Notice he does not say, “Lord, I pray that they would all have a good time over in Ephesus today.” He is not concerned with their having a good time. Maybe they needed to go through, or were under, some great trial. He prays that they might have the knowledge of God, that they might know Him in a real way not just knowing that there is a god. Even the devil knows that there is a god. The type of knowledge about which he is talking is personal knowledge. One might say that he prayed that they might have an encounter with THE GOD (just as he is having an encounter with God in prayer). He prays they might by a personal, experimental experience know God, know exactly what God wants them to do and to know about Himself. We know that that knowledge came only through the Lord Jesus Christ, the counselor, the Holy Spirit, revealing wisdom to us in Scripture. This is the apostle’s first petition for the saints at Ephesus. It is a request that any Christian may present to God, to the end that the whole Church might have a true Scriptural knowledge of God the Father of glory.
What is it that God tells us about prayer? I Thessalonians 5:17-18 says, “Pray without ceasing: In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Do we give thanks that things are as they are in America today? We can all find reasons in each day for giving thanks, for safety in travel, for health, for preservation from evil. We can usually give thanks for those things can we not? But suppose one of your loved ones was dying from some fatal disease, could we give thanks to God? I do not think that naturally we can be thankful for such a thing. I do not think we can do it at all unless God enables us to do it. One of the most serious problems that we have as Christians is that we try to resolve things by ourselves before we go to God. We must perceive that we can not live that way. We are more or less driven to prayer rather than quickly going to prayer and praying without ceasing. When adversity comes, when trials come, when sickness comes, when death comes, these are the things that drive us to prayer! These are these things that God uses to communicate to us that “all things work together for the good of them that love Him.” The nation is in a terrible state. Yet these things are working for our good. We must petition God in prayer for the grace of thanksgiving — that we might give thanks in everything. Give thanks that through adversity the Church is being purged.
The will of God is for every Christian, to give thanks. Let us learn to be thankful. Let us not complain about what we do not have. We should be thankful that God has preserved a number of people pure unto Himself. We should thank God that he has allowed there to be unity among those who hold things in common in such areas as worship, even if we have much diversity of opinion in other things. Each of us can look back in our lives and remember many trials and difficulties, but we can be thankful that God has brought us to be at the point at which we are today. Without these many trials we would not have come to know the precious truths which we now believe, and love, and embrace, and desire to defend.
In prayer we want to find acceptance. We want to know that we are accepted by God. We look for assurance of God’s love — assurance that God is leading us, assurance that God is sovereignly controlling all things in our own personal lives and the lives of those with whom we have to deal in this world. We find many examples in Scripture where men have gone to God burdened down with their sins, seeking forgiveness and assurance of God’s love. David in Psalm 51 goes to God burdened with his sins, crying out to God that God would have mercy upon him. Psalm 51 opens with:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
We all need to go to God confessing our failures, confessing our sins, and unburdening our hearts, anticipating that God will cause us to find new assurance in our hearts. Sometimes a believer loses a sense of God. David had lost a sense of God in his life. For some time he had been harboring a sin in his heart until Nathan came and exposed his conscience to the power of God. Here in Psalm 51 he is convicted by God. He pleads with God that God would not remove his holy Spirit from him, that God would not remove him from the throne of Israel, that he would not take him from His service. He is presenting his petition to God by way of humble confession. We find, as the Psalm moves on, that David seems to anticipate that God is going to do something for him. We see in verse 17-18: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
David is a man who has come to the place where he found God in prayer. He had found assurance that God had covered his sins, that God would build up Jerusalem and that, as King of Israel, David would play a part in that building. If we have lost the sense of God, then through prayer God has designed that we may recover his presence. Another Scriptural example may be found in the life of Jacob. Jacob had the sense of God at Bethel, then this was lost to him. Later we find Jacob wrestling God, finding Him again as the power of his life. So in prayer a person gets an insight into his own heart and into his own ways. He also gets an insight into the ways of God. He sees the imbalance; he sees the perfection of God. He sees how imperfect his own way is. The godly man learns to plead with God, that God would make him all that God wants him to be. We learn in prayer that God speaks peace to His people in prayer. The psalmist says in Psalm 85:8 , “I will hear what God the Lord will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly.” God loves to speak peace to us in prayer. In prayer we receive forgiveness. In prayer we receive assurance from the Lord. In prayer we enjoy fellowship with God. As we find in I John 5:14-15: And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desire of him.
This is a wonderful verse to commit to memory. I challenge everyone to do so, moreover I challenge everyone to believe it. God hears us in prayer and God answers those prayers, giving us the assurance we need in the particular area that we need it. He also gives us direction in prayer. The foundation for growth in grace might well be said to be prayer as an ordinance from God. May the Lord indeed teach us how to use this ordinance more effectively in our lives for His praise and glory.
 This is a transcript of the keynote lecture given during a conference at Cape May, NJ (USA) in August 1991. Mr. Morrow is the pastor of the American Presbyterian Church, Westminster, MD.