Heidelberg 117: Who Defines True Prayer?

old-man-prayingOne of the themes that we have been exploring through the exposition of the catechism, which is really an exposition of the Scriptures and the Christian faith as understood and confessed by the Reformed Churches, is the relationship between the objective, that which apart from us, and the subjective, our personal experience. In our age the subjective tends to dominate. People identify themselves in ways contrary to their biology and demand that others accept this self-identification. This is nothing but radical subjectivism. It rests on the belief that all norms are really nothing more than contrivances, conventions, constructions that may be deconstructed at will. Fundamentally, subjectivism is a rejection not only of objective reality but of the God who spoke creation into being and who ordered reality as we know it. Where Modernity asked “has God really said?” our late-modern subjectivist age says “You will not surely die.” It declares that reality is subjectively determined, that what we will (in contrast to God’s will) is determinative. Of course, to make this so, we must reverse the design that God has instituted and we do so, e.g., with sex-change operations so that Bruce can identify as Caitlyn but if reality really is subjectively determined then why was surgery necessary in the first place? This is the hoax of subjectivism. We talk as if our speech, our will was determinative but we live in a world that was ordered for us. Much of what we seek to deconstruct constructed for us not by human conventions but by the Creator God.

There are few places in religion where subjectivism dominates more clearly than in the matter of prayer. Just try to tell someone that their prayers are not proper and see what happens. One will be met with “who are you to tell me?” and the like. Who indeed? Were the norms of prayer a mere human construct the critic might have a point but she does not because those norms are not mere human opinion or will. God has revealed how we may approach him in worship and in prayer. Once again we are back to what confessional Reformed and Presbyterian Christians call “the regulative principle” (see Heidelberg 96–98).

Our Lord Jesus was not subjectivist. He consistently appealed to divinely revealed norms, to God’s holy law. He said that he had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. He was not an antinomian. He did not teach that the moral law only existed for Israel but has now been abolished.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:16–20; ESV).

According to Christ the fulfilling the law does not destroy it. Yes, the civil and ceremonial laws or aspects of law have been fulfilled and have expired with the national state of Israel as constituted at Sinai. The moral law however, was not invented at Sinai. It was not invented at all. It is a reflection of God’s holy and righteous character. It was revealed in creation, re-stated at Sinai in temporary and typological (forward-looking) terms and fulfilled by Christ’s actively suffering obedience.

When he met the woman at the well, she questioned him about worship. She tried to throw dust in the air, as it were, suggesting that no one really knows how to worship God truly. Jesus replied:

You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:22–24; ESV)

This is a fascinating and central passage in understanding how God will be worshipped. For a more extensive exposition see the relevant section in Recovering the Reformed Confession Clearly, according to Jesus, there are divinely revealed, objective norms by which God must be approached. Not everything that we want to do in worship or say in prayer is approved by God.

Our confidence in prayer is that “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14). Again, it is God’s will not ours that is final. The truth is, as Paul says, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Paul says “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26; ESV).

Thus, we confess:

117. What belongs to such prayer which is acceptable to God and which He will hear?

First, that with our whole heart we call only upon the one true God, who has revealed Himself to us in His Word, for all that He has commanded us to ask of Him; secondly, that we thoroughly know our need and misery, so as to humble ourselves in the presence of His divine Majesty; thirdly, that we be firmly assured, that notwithstanding our unworthiness, He will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word (Heidelberg Catechism).

We do not have choose between the heart and truth. True prayer contains both. We pray with all our heart and we pray to the one true, Triune God who has revealed himself to us in holy Scripture.

There are three rules for prayer:

  1. God’s Word
  2. Our Need
  3. His Assurance

Recently I had a long conversation with a believer who spoke for 53 minutes (digital telephones keep track of everything) about words she had received from the Lord. When I quoted holy Scripture, however, she brushed it aside. This is the spirit of subjectivism, not the Spirit of whom Jesus spoke in John 4. True prayer is filled with Scripture and is controlled by Scripture. We are to ask what God has commanded we ask of him. When our prayers begin with Scripture, are filled with Scripture, and end with Scripture, we may be sure that what we are praying is what God would have us ask of him.

We pray not to the God of our imagination, God “as we understood him” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous (steps 3, 11). That is the essence of idolatry. We do not pray to false gods such as the god of Islam or to the god of the Mormons or to any other God than the Triune God who has revealed himself in Scripture, in Christ, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no other God (Deut 6:4).

The same Scripture that reveals to us the Triune God also reveals to us the greatness of our sin and misery, our need. After the fall God said to Adam (and to us): “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17; ESV). True prayer is conditioned by the knowledge of our profound need and our unworthiness to come to him in our own capacity. This is why, however intimate prayer may be, we do not come before God casually. Believers are sinners (Rom 3:23) redeemed by Christ. As we shall see, we do come to God our Father, in Christ, but we come reverently and with appropriate “reverence and awe because our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28–29).

True prayer comes in true faith, in confidence grounded not in our personal performance but in Christ’s obedience for us. This is what it truly means to pray in the name of Christ. When we say “in Christ’s name” or “in Jesus’ name” that is not a magic talisman or a secret code that requires God to hear our prayers. Rather, we praying in Christ’s name is something we do more than something we say. We are able to approach God our Father because Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us. He is interceding for us (Rom 8:34). He is our high priest.

True prayer is not a self-esteem building exercise. Our confidence is not in ourselves. It is in Christ, the Word of God (John 1:1–3). It is in God’s promises to us in Christ. It is in his finished work for us. It takes comfort in Christ’s high priestly work even know and the Spirit’s work in us helping us to make known those needs that we cannot find the words to articulate.

Prayer is the antithesis of subjectivism. It is a dying to self and a heartfelt acknowledgement of who and what God is, who Christ is for us and to us, what we are, and God has said.

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