A Theology of Biblical Prayer
We can talk with the Triune God of all creation.
Prayer is a means through which God acts. It has been established in Scripture that prayers, which conform to the will of God, are used by God to accomplish the most important thing all creation serves––the will of God.
When prayer is understood in the context of the glories of our great God, it becomes that much more integral to the Christian life. We can sometimes undermine prayer, and fail to take it seriously, for what it actually is. I myself have done this. It’s easy to undermine the significance of God’s willingness to hear our prayers.
THE LORD’S PRAYER
“For you, O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house.’ Therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you.”
— 2 Samuel 7:27 (ESV)
One of the most important examples of prayer, for the church, is found in Matthew 6 where Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray. The apostle records our Lord’s words as follows:
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
Primarily, this prayer is important because everything revealed in Scripture is important––all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). Secondarily, this text is important because it’s extremely applicable to the lives of every Christian.
It’s not likely Jesus meant for Christians to pray this verbatim every time they pray. Rather, ‘houto(s)’ (οὕτω) means “in this manner.” Thus, it’s likely this prayer lays a foundation for all other prayers. Some have found the acronym A.C.T.S. helpful.
The (A) stands for adoration, the (C) stands for confession, the (T) stands for thanksgiving, and the (S) stands for supplication. This is the outline the Lord’s prayer provides for us, and our prayer life ought to be inclusive of every one of them. I will briefly discuss each heading below:
- Adoration: “Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the recognition of the holiness of our great God. When we adore God we stand in awe of His majesty, His glory. God’s revelation, either in Scripture or nature, often prompts us to stand in awe of God––to adore Him. Psalm 8 is an example of a prayer of adoration.
- Confession: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Confessing our sin to God (and to one another) is a biblical principle. Is this because we need more forgiveness in addition to the grace we received when we first trusted in Christ? Absolutely not! Confession of sin is an act of humility, and a prompter of humbleness, before God. Psalm 41is an example of confession.
- Thanksgiving: this principle is more implied than explicit in the Lord’s prayer. However, Scripture is full of examples which encourage thanksgiving in our prayers. Why would we not thank the God who saved us from our sins? His deeds are wonderful (Ps 9).
- Supplication: “Give us this day our daily bread… and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Supplication is the part of our prayer where we demonstrate our trust in His promise to sustain His people. We are nothing without God, thus asking the Lord in supplication for the things we need is an act of humility, an admission that we cannot move without the sustaining power of our God. We are prone to think in terms of wants, or desires, when pondering supplication, and though those things aren’t necessarily wrong, the point of supplication is that God alone gives us “our daily bread.” Psalm 119:116 is an instance of where the Psalmist demonstrates trust in God to uphold, or sustain, him.
There is really no cookie-cutter way to assemble all of these principles. Scripture never mandates an exact order of our prayer, although examples of godly prayer in Scripture abound. We shouldn’t be lost when it comes to instruction on how to pray.
Some prayers may only touch on one or two of these principles at a time, but a healthy prayer life, according to Scripture, seems to include all of these, in some way, throughout one’s communication with their Lord.
THE HIGH PRIESTLY PRAYER
Few prayers in Scripture contain the weight of theological truth this one does. In John 17:1-26, Jesus prays to the Father. In this prayer, we learn that Jesus shared in the same glory as the Father “before the world existed (v. 5).” We also learn that those God has chosen unto salvation are those for whom Christ intercedes for (v. 9).
Further, we learn that Judas fell away so the Scriptures would be fulfilled (v. 12). This reveals God’s providence in accomplishing His will. A full treatment of this passage is beyond the scope of this article, but another principle is brought forth in our consideration of John 17––doctrine.
Some of the richest doctrine in the Bible is in this very passage. If we can look to Christ as the chief example of how to pray, we can surely take away the fact that doctrine is, and should be, inherent in our prayer life. Moreover, one’s doctrine will determine the depth of their prayers, and the way they see prayer in the first place.
The theology we adopt no doubt drives and influences our prayer lives. If our theology is inaccurate, our prayers will be also. If our theology is pure, our prayers should be pure also.
DIVINE RESPONSE TO OUR PRAYERS
One of the toughest, yet most assuring, facts about our prayers is that God answers them. This is tough for many since, just as it entails God answering in a favorable fashion it also entails Him answering in a negative fashion. Our first response to a negative answer from God, especially in light of terrifying situations, is to question God’s morality or His reasons for doing what He did.
Part of the trouble resides in the fact that many of us maintain a skewed, or incomplete, view of prayer. As I mentioned above, we tend to make supplication central in our prayers. We want things from God, and this is especially prevalent in our 21st century western context. Now, it’s certainly not wrong to want certain things from God.
We want, for instance, forgiveness; we want strength for the days ahead; we want our unsaved friends and family to be converted; and we want sick loved ones to be healed. These are all good things to want from God, but we have largely trivialized prayer. It’s common for people to ask God for things as though God’s sole purpose is to ensure our temporal happiness.
When God doesn’t answer positively to our requests, we become disappointed because our expectations have been foiled. We often expect that which God never promised to give us. Scripture never makes promises for our temporary happiness in this life.
Scripture promises we can have joy in Christ, but this joy transcends any type of fleeting emotion. Happiness fades, joy in Christ, for the Christian, never goes away. Our awareness of that joy may become clouded because of our sin or life’s hardships, but biblical joy never really dissipates.
When considering how God responds to our prayers, we must understand and ponder God’s will. God is chiefly concerned with the accomplishment of His will (Jn 9:31). It is by His grace, and His grace alone, that Christians have been included in this will (Eph 2:8, 9). God is not concerned with appeasing our sinful wills. Unless our prayers coincide with His revealed will, God will not move on our behalf.
The prayers of Christians consistent with God’s will, in the scheme of God’s sovereignty, have been ordained before the world existed (Is 46:10). These prayers, through which God determined to work, were in God’s mind before creation existed (Is 40:13), and were incorporated into God’s eternal decree in eternity past.
PRAYER AND PRACTICE
The biblical doctrine of prayer is not just a teaching concerning a religious act. Prayer is surely a religious action, but it’s not only a religious action. Prayer shouldn’t be seen as a burden, or merely a ritual which takes up time. It’s easy for many of us today to feel like this about prayer.
Unfortunately, our distracting environments steal precious time away which may otherwise be used for prayer. Prayer is, most basically, communication from people to God. Many religions have prayer, but only when prayer is considered in its rightful context of the Christian worldview does it show forth mysterious beauty.
Prayer is a privilege we have in Jesus Christ. Without Christ our prayers mean nothing. We are saved in Him, preserved and kept. He is the Mediator between God and man. Without Him, prayers fall flat. We can see, in talking about God’s sovereignty and Christ’s mediatorial role, that doctrine also plays heavily into our understanding of prayer. Our theology determines the depth of our prayers before God.
We do not pray to a god that may or may not be able to do that which we pray for, we pray to the Triune God of Scripture, who has power of all creation and who is covenantally, intimately, related to His people. The Christian has no good reason not to pray. Idolaters pray more than many Christians, yet Christians have an absolutely sovereign God who controls all that comes to pass, who has the power to really, truly answer our prayers.
We have a sovereign God.