Prayer and the Gospel
1. Important But Neglected
There is no question of the importance of prayer. Onwuchekwa puts it well in his book, “prayer is something essential to our existence” and “prayerlessness is spiritual suicide”.1 Yet, although most Christians agree in theory that prayer is essential, in practice it is often neglected. Frequently, our prayers are sparse and sporadic. Sometimes we pray to ease a guilty conscience, rather than because we feel it is truly effective. Many times, we pray when we’re in trouble or facing a big decision, but otherwise ignore it. The little time we give to prayer shows how little we value it. This can be true of us as individuals but also of our churches. Can we truly say that prayer is essential to our corporate gatherings? How is that reflected in the time given to it, or attendance at our prayer meetings (if we have one)?
The difficulty in addressing prayerlessness is that our immediate response is guilt. We know we can do better in prayer (me included!). But the thing is: guilt rarely motivates changed behavior. If it did, we would already pray more than we do. Like all changes in Christian living, we need our hearts changed by the gospel. It’s as we hear gospel truth, and the Spirit uses that gospel truth to change our hearts, that we begin to see change in our lives.
2. Prayer and the Gospel
Prayer is not just talking to God, or aligning our will with his, but “calling on God to come through on his promise”.2 It’s an appeal to God on the basis of his character in response to the gospel.
God our Father has called us into relationship with him, so that we can now approach him with confidence as our loving Father (Jn. 16:23-26; Lk. 11:1-11; Rom. 8:14-15; 1 John 3:1). We pray to a loving Father who is powerful, wise and good. He is sovereign enough to answer our prayer, and loving enough to want to. We pray to God with confidence because Jesus our Mediator has offered the perfect sacrifice for sin (Heb. 4:14-16; 7:25; 10:19-22; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; 1 Jn. 2:1-2) and has poured our his Spirit into our hearts (Rom. 8:14-17, 26-29; 1 Cor. 2:10-12; 12:2-3; 1 Jn. 4:2-3).
Therefore, prayer is motivated by and shaped by the gospel. Prayer is what Jenson & Payne calls “audible faith”.3 Because in prayer, we express our trust in Christ’s sacrifice and walk in step with the Spirit as we call on God our Father, and depend on him for all our needs. In faith, we respond to the gospel call, coming to God in praise, petition and thanksgiving. This also means true biblical prayer is Trinitarian in nature. Tim Chester writes:
True prayer is thoroughly Trinitarian and can only be Trinitarian. The Father invites us to call on him through the Son, by the Spirit. The relationship between God and mankind only works because God is at work on both sides of the relationship: both to accept prayer and to inspire prayer. The Father is the one to whom we pray and graciously hears our prayers. The Son is the one who mediates, giving us access to the Father. The Spirit is the one who enables us to pray, disposing us to pray to God when we were once hostile to him.4
In summary, true prayer is enabled by the gospel and shaped by the gospel. In prayer, we express faithful dependance upon God in response to his word and this is fundamental to the Christian life.
3. Redeeming a Weak Prayer Life
The gospel is thus the cure to a weak prayer life. The gospel reminds us of what a privilege prayer is. How truly wonderful it is that the Holy Almighty Creator of the Universe, sent his Son so that unworthy sinful people like us, might call on him as Father, anytime, anywhere! Prayer is not simply a duty to be fulfilled, but a blessing that God has bestowed.
The gospel also reminds us of the necessity of prayer. The gospel reminds us that we’re totally dependent on God’s sovereign provision, such that depending on our own efforts apart from him is utterly futile and doomed to fail.
Finally, the gospel assures us of the effectiveness of prayer. God delights to answer our prayers according to his will (1 John 5:14-15) not because of our morality or posture or how long we pray, but because he has graciously adopted us as his beloved children.
John Calvin writes in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“By the benefit of prayer we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father…Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable…. we invoke the presence of his providence….of his power…of his goodness…in short, it is by prayer that we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us”.5
If you feel convicted that you and your church need to pray more, then before you get to all the practical suggestions, come back to the gospel, and be reminded of the purpose and privilege of prayer.
4. The Way Forward
If we have grasped the privilege and importance of prayer, it will no longer be an “add-on” that we perform simply because we’re meant to. Our small groups, we won’t spend 1.5 hours studying the Bible and then end by saying, “we’ve run out of time, I suppose someone should pray”. In our private life, we won’t pray only in the difficult times, but delight to do so always.
In our sermon preparation, we won’t give 20 hours to study the Bible passage, but only five minutes to praying for our congregation. With hearts changed by the gospel, the privilege of prayer will make it a priority.
In this, the apostles were a model of prayerfulness. Faced with competing priorities they declared, “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables… but we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2, 4). So also Paul the great preacher and missionary began every letter reminding his readers of his unceasing prayers (Rom 1:9-10; Eph. 1:16; Phil. 1:3-4; Col. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:3). Like theirs, faithful gospel ministry will always be saturated with prayer. Because it is the gospel itself that will remind us of the privilege of prayer and move us pray.
So, why not take some time to ponder the gospel and pray?
Want to know more about the purpose and power of communal prayer? Check out The Greenhouse’s free video series on Effective Communal Prayer.
Why should Malaysian Christians pray for our country’s leaders? Read more here.
1 John Onwuchekwa, Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018).
2 J. G. Millar, Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer, New Studies in Biblical Theology 38 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 27.
3 Phillip D Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God: Listening to God’s Living Word Will Transform the Way You Pray (Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media, 2006), https://archive.org/details/prayervoiceofgod0000jens.
4 Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer: Approaching the Throne of Grace, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: In Two Volumes, ed. John Thomas MacNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics 20–21 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), §3.20.2.
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Originally from Australia, Tim Nicholls came to know Christ as a child, before maturing in his faith during his university years. Tim now lives in Malaysia and serves as a Pastor at St George’s Anglican Church in Georgetown, Penang. Tim is married to Siew Mun and they have four children. Tim loves Malaysian food, the hot tropical weather, and is learning to speak BM and Mandarin! But most of all he loves Jesus, and is passionate about seeing people from all nations and all stages of life come to know Christ as their Lord and Saviour and joyfully live for his glory.
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