The Theology of Prayer: Means of Grace
So what exactly does prayer do? That’s the question I’m often asked. There are several wrong answers to this question. Some assume that prayer furnishes God with the information he lacks. God doesn’t view it that way. He not only knows what’s going on now, he knows what will be going on next week. Indeed, he even ordained what will be going on next week—the Bible speaks of “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11).
Neither is prayer an attempt to convince God to do what he wouldn’t otherwise do. He will grant our requests only insofar as they accord with his eternal purpose—his will. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 Jn 5:14-15).
And I hope we’ve dismissed the idea that prayer shows God how much we love him! It’s not a work, but a grace! But often we think that prayer is something we do to obligate God to bless us. This is the subtlest of errors, for it resembles the biblical teaching. Indeed, it is a caricature of the biblical picture of prayer. Grace-empowered, grace-motivated prayer does bring blessing, but prayer isn’t a work we do that obligates God to give blessing. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Prayer is a means of grace, not a work to merit grace.
Theologians have classically called prayer and Scripture (along with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) means of grace—highways along which the Holy Spirit tends to travel. The means of grace are the normal instruments God uses to accomplish his saving work in and through us. Does prayer change things? Yes, because God changes things, and prayer is an expression of our reliance upon him to accomplish his purposes.
I remember about six months ago calling upon God in prayer about my finances. Starting a not-for-profit teaching ministry is hard work, and church missions committees would often rather support a missionary doing evangelism than one who is training believers. One evening I called out to God with great urgency. After a year of support raising and teaching, I could still only afford to teach half-time while working another job, and even the funds that had enabled that year of half-teaching were almost all gone. “Father, this is your ministry, not mine. If you have raised me up for this, then something must change. I cannot go without food. I cannot fail to pay my rent. If you wish me to teach, you must grant the resources to do this. If you do not enable me to teach, I will not teach. Apart from you I can do nothing.”
Was I manipulating God by threatening to stop teaching? No. And being a sovereign God, he wouldn’t have been impressed. Rather, I was confessing to God my utter and total dependence on him to fund my work.
The next day, after eight months without any new support, a new friend took me out for coffee and told me he felt compelled to support me at $100/month. That same day, I received a note from an old friend in another part of the country pledging monthly financial support. When I checked my email, I had received a message from a member of my church who had since moved away, telling me a $1200 check was in the mail.
Did my prayer force God’s hand? No. All of this was already in the works long before I prayed. But when I confessed my neediness to God, he was pleased to provide for me. Prayer was the means of grace, not a work I offered for reward. And God was glorified in my weakness. God is faithful to hear our prayers, and he delights in answering them. Prayer is one of the basic freedoms Christians have, and freedoms aren’t given to leave us in bondage. There is a cure for Quiet Time Guilt. That cure is the gospel of Christ, in whom we have redemption. Gospel—our need and God’s provision—is the heart of biblical prayer. God will care for us. We belong to him.
Being a man who struggles with bringing my needs in prayer to God, I have greatly benefited from this on-going series by Greg Johnson. In his final exerpt, the distinction he makes between "Grace-empowered, grace-motivated prayer" bringing God's blessing against prayer used as a work to obligate God to giving us blessing is vital. One brings renewal through sanctification and the other breeds legalism, leaving a dry prayer life.
A number of Christians are afraid to petition God strongly in prayer. But look at the Psalmist's prayers which constantly direct God in remembering His promise's. The beginning of Psalm 102 says, "Hear my prayer, O Lord! And let my cry for help come to You. Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my distress; Incline your ear to me; In the day when I call answer me quickly."
Does this sound like your prayers before the Lord during suffering? Do not be afraid to honestly approach God with your frustration and neediness. He is just to provide and lavish upon us His gifts which He promised long before we even existed. The Lord hears the prayers of those whom He loves. One qualifier though in the manner which we beseech God; just because God gives us the freedom to lay out our tranquilities before Him, does not mean we are granted room for cursing Him in our anger.
The dilemma I often run into comes in the effectiveness of prayer. Do our prayers yield actual change in the world? If our prayer's go unanswered, is it because God needs a hearing-aid or do we not conform our petitions according to His redemptive will? Johnson answers these with much ease and assurance to the doubting Christian. "The means of grace are the normal instruments God uses to accomplish his saving work in and through us. Does prayer change things? Yes, because God changes things, and prayer is an expression of our reliance upon him to accomplish his purposes." Your prayers play a role in the redemption of mankind! What wonderful news is that for the cynic?!
Over the course of this series I hope you truly have noticed freedom from your quiet time guilt. The rare beauty of Weakness Christianity ignites the rejuvination of the soul through prayer. "Prayer is one of the basic freedoms Christians have, and freedoms aren’t given to leave us in bondage. There is a cure for Quiet Time Guilt. That cure is the gospel of Christ, in whom we have redemption. Gospel—our need and God’s provision—is the heart of biblical prayer. God will care for us. We belong to him."
Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi