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A prayerless orthodoxy

1 January 2011 | by John Woolley

A prayerless orthodoxy

Jesus taught us that ‘men always ought to pray and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). The first sign of life is the baby’s cry; the first sign of spiritual life is ‘behold he is praying’ (Acts 9:11). Prayer lies at the heart of Christian living. This is why it is the first thing we forsake when spiritual declension sets in. Lethargy, spiritual stupor and deadness in prayer occur in the Christian life, even amongst the most orthodox. It is a rare Christian who has never thought, ‘If God is sovereign, knows all things and does as He pleases (Ps. 115:3) why do I need to pray?’ What is the point of asking God for what He already knows we need? Is there a more insidious rebuttal of Sprit-filled Christianity than this mind-set which can creep into the psyche of the most orthodox Christian?

Orthodoxy never enough

One orthodox Protestant saw this very clearly. John Calvin placed the exercise of prayer at the heart of Christian living. In the third book of his Institutes he deals with the grace available to us for Christian living. He devotes an entire chapter to prayer, the necessary response to grace. He specifically challenges the fatalistic attitude, so detrimental to healthy Christian living. For Calvin it was never superfluous to pray, for orthodoxy alone was not enough.

Jesus taught to pray

But ‘a faith unaccompanied by prayer to God cannot be genuine’ – Calvin gives a number of reasons why Christians should pray and not lose heart. Why should the Christian keep on praying? Quite simply Jesus taught us to pray and He did this not for His sake but for ours. Prayer is not optional for the Christian. Neither is it something God has given us to do just to while away the time on earth before we go to heaven. Rather, it is a response of faith to God, identifying who we are by defining what we are: a people who live reliant on the God who has called them.

A godly example

Calvin points out how the godly in Scripture never had this fatalistic apathy in prayer. Using 1 Kings 18 he reminds us how God’s people have always sought in prayer the things He promised to give. Elijah knew God was going to send rain yet seven times, on his knees, he earnestly beseeches God for rain. Prayer is about developing and enjoying a relationship of trust in our Father who is in heaven. How many parents know they are going to give good things to their children but delight to be asked?

Reasons to continue praying

Finally, Calvin gives four reasons why we need to keep praying and not lose heart. First, prayer is essential for maintaining our spiritual zeal. It keeps the heart warm and inflamed, ‘with serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving and serving him, while we accustom ourselves to have recourse to him as a sacred anchor in every necessity.’ Second, prayer is vital to our sanctification. It keeps the heart pure and focused on spiritual realities. As we bring all our needs to God in prayer we are ensuring that no thought that would make God ashamed of us enters our minds. In doing so ‘we learn to place all our wishes in his sight and thus pour out our heart before him.’ Third, prayer is necessary to sustain a thankful spirit. In prayer we recall where all our benefits come from. The apostolic call is to give thanks in everything (Phil. 4:6) and prayer is God’s chosen vehicle to prepare us to receive all God’s blessings with gratitude and thanksgiving. Fourthly, the exercise of prayer strengthens faith’s understanding of God’s providence. When God does not answer our prayers immediately it is not because He is asleep! God is near those who call upon Him (Ps. 145:18) and His ear is always open to their cry (Ps. 34:15). Can there be any greater proof of God’s love for us than His readiness to hear our prayer?

A prayerless orthodoxy for Calvin was no orthodoxy at all. He insisted that having been taught by faith all we need is supplied to us by God in Christ. He wrote: ‘It remains for us to seek and in prayer implore of him [God] what we have learned to be in him.’ Oh, for an orthodoxy set alight by vibrant prayer that does not lose heart!

John Woolley is the minister of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Cardiff.

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