What Is Prayer?

Prayer consists in calling upon the true God, and arises from an acknowledgment and sense of our want, and from a desire of sharing in the divine bounty, in true conversion of heart and confidence in the promise of grace for the sake of Christ the mediator, asking at the hands of God such temporal and spiritual blessings as are necessary for us; or in giving thanks to God for the benefits received. The genus or general character of prayer consists in invocation or adoration. Adoration is often used in the sense of the whole worship of God, since we regard him as the true God, whom we worship. Prayer is a species or part of invocation, for to call upon the true God is to ask of him such things as are necessary both for soul and body, and to render thanks to him for benefits received. It is here used in the sense of the general character of pray. There are, therefore, two species or parts comprehended in prayer—petition and thanksgiving. Petition is a prayer asking of God those blessings necessary both for the soul and body. Thanksgiving is prayer acknowledging and magnifying the benefits received from God, and binding those who receive these gifts to such gratitude as is pleasing to God. Thankfulness in general consists in acknowledging and professing what and how great is the benefit received, and in binding those who are the recipients thereof to the performance of such duties as are mutual, possible and becoming. It comprehends, therefore, truth and justice.

The apostle Paul, in his first Epistle to Timothy, 2:1, enumerates four species of prayer, saying, “I exhort, therefore, that first of all supplication, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.” The first includes prayers against evil things; the second, petitions for good things; the third, intercession for others; and the fourth, thanksgiving for benefits received and evils warded off. This distinction is drawn from the end or design of prayer.

Prayer is also distinguished into public and private prayer, from the circumstances of person and place. Private prayer is the intercourse which a faithful soul has with God, asking, alone and apart from others, certain blessings for himself, or for others; or giving thanks for benefits received. This form of prayer is not restricted to any particular words or places, for oftentimes the heart, when burdened and distressed, gives utterance to nothing more than sighs and groans; and the Apostle commands “that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands.” (1 Tim. 2:8.) Public prayer is that which, by the use of certain words, is offered up to God by the whole church in the congregation, the minister leading, as it is right and proper that he should in the public gatherings of the church. Language, or the use of the tongue, is necessary for this form of prayer. Hence Christ said: When ye pray, say, Our Father, &c. It was also chiefly for this that the tongue was made, that God might be praised and magnified by it; and it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaketh. Lastly, by this others are also invited to praise and worship God.

Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, G. W. Williard (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 619–20.

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  1. So much more could be said, but why? Dr. Ursinus states his thesis clearly and concisely and leaves out nothing. Perhaps what should also be said is what prayer is not…..maybe a subject for another time.

  2. Just wondering… Why doesn’t anyone ever talk or write the way those men of old (always) did, anymore???

    We are at such a loss today when nobody is able to communicate so profoundly, anymore.

    My first thoughts at that quote was that it said too much… But I re-read it and maybe it says too little. People back then were very wordy. I don’t (i am not able to comprehend) understand why people can no longer communicate like that anymore? Can anyone help me why that is?

    • I think writing gives the illusion that people spoke the same as what they have written down for posterity. That the children from the streets of Heidelburg, for example, gave more eloquent utterances, than what the kids of today spit out from their mouths in our churches is not as accurate as we might think. But because we are led to believe folks from that time period must have communicated the same way that a major theologian of the Reformation had, we are at loss of words over how badly we attempt the English.

  3. Thank you for this great quote from Ursinus. I think that there is no better instruction on how to pray than Jesus’ instructions in the Lord’s Prayer. It starts with the tremendous address to our Father, such a wonderful assurance of God’s love for us. Then the confession of His exalted position in heaven over us, and His holiness, expressed in His name. We then pray for the expansion and completion of His Kingdom, according to His will, on earth even as it is in heaven. Then we ask God for all that we need, if it is according to His will. Then we ask for His forgiveness, accordingly as we forgive others and lastly for protection from the evil one. It is not something that we chant mindlessly, but a pattern that we should adapt to our own words. It expresses our understanding that Almighty God is our loving Father who wants us to communicate with Him about our needs and that it is His will to give us what is truly for our good. Matt. 7: 10-12 As loving sons we ask for the enlargement of our family interests through our lives, His forgiveness when we fail, and protection from evil. We ask in full confidence that, God as our Father will give us what is best for us because all things work according to His will. What a privilege we have to fellowship with God in prayer!

  4. Thanks for this great quote. After reading Ursinus, I can see where John Bunyan got his careful definition:
    “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart of soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the Church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”

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