With Heidelberg Catechism question 116 we begin the last section of the catechism on prayer and the exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. No act is more basic to the Christian life, to Christian worship, to piety, and to growth and yet prayer is also uniquely and strangely difficult. My experience and reading tells me that the struggle to pray is common to believers. I have not often heard or read people to say, “I just could not bring myself to eat for weeks at a time.” Yet I have heard and read Christians to say such things about prayer. Nevertheless, prayer is as basic to the Christian life as eating is to bodily life and just as we need to be taught what food is good for us (and what is not) so too we need to learn what prayer is and is not. Prayer is an essential element of our sanctification (the Spirit’s gradual, gracious work of conforming believers to the image of Christ). Just as we are learning daily what it means to die to sin and to live to Christ, so too we daily learn how imperfect and inconsistent our prayers are and what it means to pray as our Lord taught, in the Spirit, to the Father.
116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them (Heidelberg Catechism).
Prayer is the chief means, the principal instrument through which we express our gratitude to God for his favor (grace) merited for us by Christ and given freely to us, for his mercy so that we do not experience the consequences of sin generally and of our sins in particular, and for his general mercy and kindness to his creation and to his image bearers. That the catechism assigns prayer to thankfulness reminds us again of where we are in the catechism, that we have, as it were, confessed the greatness of our sin and misery, we have confessed the faith, we have been received into Christ’s church, and that we gather weekly with the Christ-confessing covenant community (the visible church) to receive the ministry of Word and sacrament. It is believers who have received God’s free grace in Christ. It is believers who have been saved. It is believers who have been justified. It is believers who are being gradually, graciously conformed to Christ (sanctification). It is believers who are thankful. Therefore it is believers who pray.
Almost as soon as the story of sin and redemption begins the we find a record of prayer. Genesis 4 begins and ends with worship. Abel brought an acceptable offering and Cain did not. The latter’s jealousy led him to murder—the first worship wars. At the end of the chapter (v. 26), with the announcement of the birth of Seth, Scripture reports: “At that time people began to call upon the name of Yahweh.” This seems like a reference to public worship but it is interesting that worship is characterized by the act of calling upon the name of the God of the covenant, Yahweh. Prayer begins with calling upon the name of God. The Lord’s prayer begins by invoking the name of the Father. We often begin “O Lord…” Prayer is in the vocative mood.
Repeatedly, in the history of Israel, the people sin and Moses prays for them, intercedes on their behalf with Yahweh and he relents (e.g., Num 11:2; 21:7,8; Deut 9:26–29. The entire Psalter (Psalms 1–150) is a collection of the prayers of God’s people. Every sort of prayer one might pray is given to us in the Psalms. One thinks of Solomon’s great prayer in 1 Kings 8 or of Daniel’s confession of sin on behalf of the exiled covenant community in Daniel 9. Our Lord Jesus instructed his disciples (and us) frequently on the importance and nature of prayer. Believers are not to pray as the (Pharisaic) hypocrites did (Matt 6:5–7) by calling attention to ourselves, in order that our piety might be recognized by others nor do we pray like pagans who seek to impress the gods with verbal diarrhea.
Those prayers are not the prayers of the grateful redeemed. Those are the prayers of the ones who are still seeking to impress. The believer knows that he no longer has to impress others or God, that Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, is our high priest, mediator, and substitute. The believer knows that he stands before God solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed, by grace alone (sola gratia), that Christ and all his benefits are received through faith alone (sola fide).
This gets to one part of the Christian’s struggle to pray faithfully. We are tempted to change the footing of our prayer from the covenant of grace to the covenant of works. When we seek to relate to God, to call upon his name, as if we were under works for acceptance (justification) and salvation (deliverance from the wrath to come) on the basis of our works (our performance) we must fail. Our prayers are always corrupted by sinful thoughts, desires, and choices. Just as we need to be sanctified so also do our prayers. Believers go to the Father only on the basis of what Christ has done. We pray with the Spirit helping us. We pray as redeemed sinners. We do not pray as those who have met the terms of the law (the covenant of works) but as needy sinners received by grace. The needy cry out freely to God because they know their need. Those who approach God on another basis will struggle. Those who seek to hide from God their sins and need, will struggle. One great struggle of prayer is the struggle to be honest before God about who and what we are, in ourselves.
Another aspect, and closely related, is our struggle with sin. As believers we continue to wrestle with sin (as Paul says in Romans 7) and to the degree we have yet to be sanctified, to that degree we are reluctant to humble ourselves before God and to acknowledge him as Lord and ourselves as needy sinners. Prayer is the chief way of dying to ourselves and living to Christ.
Here it is helpful to distinguish between the way that prayer is a means of grace and the way the Word and sacraments are means of grace. The latter two are objective. They come to us from outside of us. They are extra nos (outside us). The Christ and gospel they bring to us are received through sola fide. They are objective instruments. Prayer is our response. It is the instrument through which we reply from the heart, with thanks, to God for all he has done. Prayer is the first expression of the grateful believing heart. There is another difference. The Word and sacraments do not ebb and flow. They do not need to grow or to be sanctified. The Word and sacraments are holy and that does not change depending upon our sanctity. Our prayers, by contrast, do need to be sanctified and our Lord Jesus does that. He presents our prayers to the Father as our high priest (Heb 2:17, 3:1; 4:14, 15; 5:1,5,10; 6:20; 7:1, 26–28; 8:1–3; 9:7, 11, 25; 13;11). Before the Father they are as perfect as he is. In short, we pray as those who are in a covenant of grace because Christ has fulfilled for us the terms of the covenant of works.
Prayer is distinct from the Word and the sacraments insofar as it is in prayer that we ask for what is promised in them. That is why we say that God only gives his grace and Spirit to those who ask for them and who give thanks for them. Not everyone who hears the gospel or who receives the sacraments (the objective means) receives what they signify. Only believers receive what they signify and it is believers who pray for what is offered, for forgiveness, for righteousness, for sanctification, and for our daily necessities. Only believers give heartfelt thanks for what Christ has done for us and for what the Spirit is now doing in us, in union and communion with Christ.
Prayer, calling upon the name of the Lord, in faith, in confidence, in Christ, is the first act of the believer. It is the act of the grateful recipient of mercy and grace. It is the act of needy sinner. It is the act of one who is in the midst of a mighty struggle between what is to be and what presently is. It is the act of the believer, first corporately with God’s people in joyful solemn assembly and also daily, quietly, in one’s closet, as it were.
Thank you. Excellent discussion and very helpful. Especially the distinction between prayer and Word and sacraments as means of grace. It’s always worthwhile to be reminded of the basics.