My daughter was pregnant with her third child, past her due date, and feeling very uncomfortable. She had her first child through C-section but her second by regular birth. For a variety of reasons, she desperately wanted to give birth regularly this time around.
So she asked us to pray that she would not have a C-section. We did pray, earnestly, diligently. Two days later she delivered a healthy, beautiful baby boy — by C-section. Praise God! But it begs the question: Did our prayers make the slightest bit of difference in when and how that baby was to be born? Wouldn’t Asher have made his entrance into this world in the manner already ordained by God? Why do we pray?
Different theological perspectives may answer that question differently. Some insist that Reformed theology diminishes prayer. After all, if God has decreed all that comes to pass, what is the urgency in prayer?
However, a Reformed understanding of prayer actually makes prayer more significant, more necessary, and more robust, not less. Such an understanding will enlarge our view of God and enhance the wonder of prayer in our eyes, and in our hands.
Definition of Prayer
I’d like to suggest a definition that I believe succinctly captures the breadth of God’s design for prayer. Prayer is the divinely appointed means through which we commune with the living God and advance His kingdom. Let’s unpack this definition a bit.
Prayer is “divinely appointed.” That means we are not creative in our understanding of prayer but receptive. We understand prayer from what God tells us about it in His Word. God is the One who ordains and orders prayer.
Is this a new definition of prayer?
Yes. There are many helpful definitions of prayer out there. Prayer can be defined as simply as talking to God. I’m not sure any definition captures it fully. However, I see the Bible giving prayer a two-pronged emphasis, for relationship with God and for the work of His kingdom. This definition looks to embrace both of these emphases.
Did you learn anything in writing about prayer?
What struck me most, as I was renewed in God’s wisdom in prayer, was how much I need to grow in my own prayer life. Also, as I look how immature and ineffective Christ’s church today is, it became apparent that is due in large part to our anemic prayer lives as God’s people.
Prayer is a “means.” Prayer is not an end in itself. It carries the design of God and accomplishes His purposes.
This definition suggests a two-pronged emphasis in God’s intention for prayer. On one hand, we fellowship with God through prayer. He has reconciled us to Himself. To call Him the living God is shorthand for the true, personal, and only God, in contrast to idols (e.g., Jeremiah 10:10; 1 Thessalonians 1:9).
The second aspect of the definition refers to prayer as a means through which God strengthens and enlarges His redemptive kingdom in this world. That means is placed in our hands, along with the responsibility to exercise it.
We can bring to bear a variety of considerations under the two headings of this definition. We look first to prayer and communion with God.
Prayer and Communion with God
The Westminster Shorter Catechism instructs us that our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Prayer is the primary means by which we cultivate that enjoyment in intimate fellowship with our God. We can note four features that enable and enliven our prayers in reconciled relationship with the living and true God.
Praying in Jesus’ Name. In Jesus’ Upper Room discourse, He speaks repeatedly of praying in His name. “Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do” (John 14:13). But what does that mean? Sometimes prayer in Jesus’ name seems merely a prelude to an amen, like pressing the “send” button to launch an email into cyberspace.
But the name of Jesus speaks to our status, our focus, and our service. Bearing the name of our Lord qualifies our entire lives in newness of life as children of the living God and servants of the Most High.
To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray as ones belonging to Christ and for the sake of Christ. His name is the governor of all we pray. It is to pray through Christ, for Christ, and in Christ. He alone is our mediator. For prayer with the living God, we do need to pray in Jesus’ name, but we do not need to pray “in Jesus’ name.”
“God has ordained our freely offered, honestly expressed petitions as His appointed means to the accomplishment of His eternal purposes.”
Prayer and Faith. How does faith relate to prayer? Is there a prayer of faith different from regular prayer? Does the strength of one’s faith increase the probability of an affirmative answer to our prayer?
Faith is the animating feature of prayer. Prayer is not just words that operate automatically by articulation. Prayer is an interaction of faith. In the knowledge of the living God, this Spirit-given ability rests, receives, believes, submits, trusts, waits, and defers. Praying in faith carries the conviction of God’s hearing, the expectation of God’s answering, and the confidence that God is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or think. Through faith we believe in God, and we believe God.
Faith infuses prayer with great expectancy. It expects God to work and so looks for His working, accepting of His answers, in submission to His purposes. Faith is a gift of God by which the Holy Spirit grants us spiritual sense and sensibilities. It is the opposite of wishful thinking, apprehending unseen realities.
Praying in the Spirit. The Apostle Paul urges us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions” (Ephesians 6:18). What does it mean to pray in the Spirit? Are we being informed of the need to enter some sort of prophetic trance and pray with ecstatic utterance?
Praying in the Spirit is a simple reminder to us of the ground and character of our prayer. Prayer is spiritual activity. We pray as ones indwelt and invigorated by the Spirit. We pray in communion and cooperation with the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit enlivens our prayer. He works to prompt, remind, comfort, lead, encourage, convict, and bring to bear, and so helps in all respects. We pray in ignorance, earnestness, and frailty, knowing the Spirit helps us in our infirmities. In halting speech, we lay our hearts before our God, assured the Spirit stands with us as a conveyer of our prayers in conformity to the will of our Father (cf. Romans 8:26–27).
Prayer as Dialogue. We tend to think of prayer as being one-sided. In the Bible, God speaks to us. In prayer, we speak to God. However, dialogue in prayer interacts with our God, entering into conversation with Him. As with the psalmist, we review His attributes, rehearse His mercies, wrestle with our doubts, and remind ourselves of His truth. The Spirit brings to mind the things of Christ, and we respond to God. Prayer becomes the digestive juices by which we absorb God’s Word. We chew on it, savor it, and so assimilate it for our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
Sometimes our prayer can resemble a business meeting. We lay the docket of our prayer list before God and adjourn to the rest of our day. But prayer offers more than that. Prayer is more than asking God for things, more than texting Him with a “need this” or “thanks for that.” It is communion with our God in the splendor of His glory and the expression of His care. One of our goals in prayer is to grow to know our God, to reflect on His revelation in His Word, in His creation, in His providence, and in His Son.
Prayer and Kingdom Advancement
The second part of our definition highlights prayer as a means by which we advance God’s kingdom. Praying for the advancement of God’s kingdom involves seeking God for its redemptive expression and its extension, in our own lives and the lives of others. It looks to promote the gospel of the kingdom. It brings Christ’s lordship and the character of His kingdom to bear, with its values, ethics, priorities, and goals.
Under this heading we can address four areas that explain where prayer finds its power in God’s design.
Prayer as Means. James tells us: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 5:17–18)
Here prayer is depicted as a means by which God acted. God could have just withheld the rain in Elijah’s day. He could have opened the skies when He was good and ready. But God used prayer as the catalyst to His answer and conduit to His actions — actions, we might add, that He had ordained from eternity. James spotlights the agency of prayer, and that through someone just like us.
How do our prayers relate to God’s eternal plan? The answer is that God has ordained our freely offered, honestly expressed petitions as His appointed means to the accomplishment of His eternal purposes. Prayer is an avenue by which God enfolds us into the outworking of His eternal plan.
To suggest God waits on our prayers does not make God smaller. It makes Him bigger than we could ever possibly fathom. Who is like God, governing means and ends, including the acts and prayers of His creatures, without violating their free agency and still maintaining their responsibility and culpability? Our prayers are not intruders to God’s plan but instruments in that plan.
The Power of Prayer. This helps us to understand where prayer finds its power. The effectiveness of prayer is not found in numbers, frequency, or fervency of those praying. Ultimately, prayer finds its potency in the hidden will of God, His perfect plan that governs all things for His own glory. The power of prayer is not resident in the prayer itself or in those praying, but in the eternal purpose of God that incorporates our prayer for His ends.
Prayer does work, not as an outside influence but in purposed congruence in God’s eternal plan. Edmund Clowney puts it this way: “Prayer is not made pointless by the sovereign power of God. Our prayers, no less than their answers, are part of God’s design. It is God’s will and promise: prayer changes things in His world.” The words of God to Hezekiah compel us: “because you have prayed … ” (Isaiah 37:21).
Prayer and the Kingdom Cause. In one respect, all prayer is kingdom prayer. Prayer is a privilege of the kingdom. It is a right of a child of the King. We have access to the throne of grace. Kingdom prayer, however, looks not to context but to content, not to right of access but to what we pray for and whose ends we seek.
What does kingdom prayer look like? How does it relate to the prayer list of health needs and other personal matters that burden our hearts? Kingdom prayer does not replace these personal requests but qualifies them.
For example, let’s say a friend has just been diagnosed with cancer and has asked us to pray. What might we pray? Certainly, we would petition God for healing, for strength to endure. We would request that God grant wisdom and skill to the oncologist.
But what else might we pray for those in need? The Scriptures inform us that peace is a hallmark of the kingdom of God. Jesus assures us of a peace that He gives us that the world does not know. So our prayer would be that the peace of God which surpasses all understanding would guard their hearts and minds in Christ.
We might pray that they would have a keen awareness of God’s presence with them, knowing He has taken them for His very own. We pray that Christ might be formed in them and that the joy of the Lord would be their strength. We pray for protection against the efforts of the evil one to distance them from their Father in heaven and even prompt them to revile God.
And we pray not only for the growth of kingdom character and allegiance in their own lives, we pray also that God might grow His kingdom as others see the evidence of God’s grace in their lives, that others might see Christ in them.
Corporate Prayer. God’s Word directs us to pray privately, in our prayer closets and in our hearts, along the path of daily life lived in fellowship with Him and in dependence on Him at every point. But we also find corporate prayer illustrated for us in Scripture, believers praying not only for one another, but also with one another.
In Matthew 18 our Lord Jesus seems to lend special prominence to corporate prayer, which He defines as “where two or three are gathered in [His] name” (v. 20). Here, our Lord brings to bear a general principle for union in prayer to the specific situation of the exercise of church discipline.
What is our Lord telling us about corporate prayer as a general principle? The scope of Matthew 18 illustrates the Lord’s concern for the kingdom, its character, and its subjects. The kingdom is most visible in the church, those who claim to have bowed the knee before the King. Church discipline addresses allegiance to Jesus Christ in the application of the given charter of the kingdom, the Word of God.
The gathering of two or more looks to a holy convocation of Christ’s subjects under the charter of that kingdom in service to the King. Jesus promises His presence with them in that gathering, for the sake of the kingdom. With them for what? With them for the work inherent in making disciples and building His church.
The “agreement” between two or more in verse 20 relates to the revealed will of God and reflects divine wisdom promised to Christ’s church in the exercise of her responsibilities in service to His kingdom. Agreement in prayer does not bind God to our will but to His Word, which we seek to employ and honor.
For prayer, believers assembling for a common cause enjoy the assurance that they are not on their own, but that their Lord is with them for the building of His church. He promises to guide and provide in response to their prayers. In His wisdom and design, the always-present Jesus is not just with the individual believer, but also emphatically among those assembled to seek Him.
An Adventure of Communion with the Eternal God
Though we parse prayer in all its parts, it will always carry mystery because it taps into the mind of God, serves His eternal decree, and waits on the Lord in dynamic exchange. Just as being an expert in oceanography differs from exploring the ocean in its vastness and experiencing its variations, prayer holds for us an adventure of communion with the eternal God and completion of His unfolding purpose.
Prayer is the divinely appointed means through which we commune with the living God and advance His kingdom. Through prayer we have fellowship with our God in redeemed relationship, delighting in His love for us in Christ. Through prayer we further the building of the church and the redemptive rule of the risen Christ in the power of the gospel, manifest in our lives, in the church, and in the world.
Stanley D. Gale serves as senior minister of the Reformed Presyterian Church in West Chester, Pa. He has authored a number of works on spiritual warfare, including Warfare Witness: Contending with Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism.