Prayer As A Means Of Grace

Fix writes to ask about prayer as a means of grace.

I’ve thought quite a bit lately, about the question of prayer as a means of grace.

Question 1: When the Westminster Divines spoke of prayer as a means of grace, were they speaking of prayer as a means of God’s grace a) when one is prayed for (e.g., by an appointed minister on behalf of God’s people in worship) or b) when one is actually praying him or herself, whether in public or private?

Question 2: Monergism is by definition at the heart of any means of grace. Can that not be affirmed with regard to prayer, as something given by God (instituted for us by Christ), since Jesus himself taught us to pray, “Our Father in Heaven”?

Hi Fix,

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 14.1 says,

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

I do not agree entirely with Louis Berkhof’s sharp dichotomy between the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) on this. We have to say that prayer is one of the “ordinary means” by which God has promised to operate. As I argue in Recovering the Reformed Confession, the prayer envisioned here in the WCF is fairly understood to refer to public prayer.1 What I say below, however, applies equally to private prayer.

Even though we can and should say that prayer is a means of grace, there is a distinction between the way God operates in prayer and the way he operates in gospel and sacraments. In the latter, God comes to us and makes objective promises.

This distinction is present in WCF 14.1. Notice that the grace of faith, “whereby the elect are enabled to believe . . . is the work of the Spirit in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word” (emphasis added). It is “strengthened” by the administration of the sacraments and prayer. So, in WCF 14.1 there is a distinction between the way faith is created (see also HC 65) and the way it is strengthened. This is because there is a distinction in the nature of the things or the means themselves.

In its nature, the preaching of the Word is the medium through which the Spirit creates faith. He operates through the law to teach the greatness of sin and misery. He operates through the gospel (the good news of the incarnation of God the Son, his obedience, his resurrection, and his glorious ascension and certain return) to make sinners alive, to give them faith, and to unite them to Christ.

The sacraments serve as confirmations of the preached promises in the gospel. The Spirit does not ordinarily regenerate through the sacraments or create faith by them. Rather, they confirm and strengthen the preached promises. That is their function. That is their nature. The preaching of the gospel is one thing, the pouring of the gospel or the eating of the gospel is another.

The sovereign Spirit also operates through prayer; but he does not come to us in the same way to make the same promises. The Spirit is certainly helping us to pray, working through prayer, and enabling us to respond with gratitude and to live out of our Spirit-wrought union with Christ. But our sanctity—Spirit-wrought though it is—and the gospel are not the same thing. The gospel is not that we are sanctified. The gospel is that Christ was righteous for us. The gospel is outside of us. To be sure, we should agree with Calvin that if Christ remains outside of us, then he is of no benefit to us. We are justified in order that we might be sanctified (but we are not sanctified in order that we might have acceptance with God).

Our sanctity is, experientially considered, unsteady. Our assurance ebbs and flows. The gospel is not unsteady. The gospel does not ebb and flow.

So, inasmuch as there is a distinction between the things in themselves (gospel preached and gospel made visible in sacraments on the one hand, and prayer as a response to the gospel on the other), then I think it is helpful to distinguish between the way they function as means of grace.

I do not think it is helpful to argue that, because humans are involved in prayer and the administration of the gospel, they are essentially the same. God operates through human administration and the gospel does not fall out of the sky—true enough. But equating them thus ignores the intrinsic differences and the differing divine promises attached to each.

God hears our prayers and he always answers them, but he does not always answer them as we envision when we pray. Our Father knows the end from the beginning and understands us and our needs in a way that utterly transcends our own understanding.

In this case, however, when I pray for an “answer,” that answer may be one thing and the actual providence of God may be something entirely different!

That is not true with the gospel. What God promises in the gospel is what we believe: righteousness accomplished for and imputed to sinners and received freely through faith (knowledge, assent, and trust) in Christ alone.

Notes

  1. R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.


RESOURCES

Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
USA
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization


    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


12 comments

  1. but our sanctity, Spirit-wrought though it is, and the gospel. The gospel is outside of us. Our sanctity is, experientially considered, unsteady. Our assurance ebbs and flows. The gospel is not unsteady. The gospel does not ebb and flow.

    Your friendly sub-editor here. 😉 I know what you mean, but I think the first sentence is missing something. For style, the second sentence appears to be lacking a pair, and if the last five (six with the missing pair) are a group, then the order doesn’t quite feel right, too. Kind of goes (A’) A B’ C’ B C.

  2. Dr. VanDrunen also points out in class that the Westminster standards go on to flesh out Word and sacraments as a means of grace but not prayer, implying some kind of distinction between them.

    He also points to Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 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 ask them of him, and render thanks unto Him for them.”

    It seems that prayer functions in some way as a means of grace according to H.C. 116.

  3. Suffering is a means of grace.

    Pray works in suffering. We must pray for wisdom to count it all joy when we die, serve and suffer for the glory of God. Prayer related to this kind of suffering is the occasion for promises like, “whatever you ask in my name, this I will do…”. God will answer, guaranteed, if we ask in his name. The question is not, Will God give us anything at all, but What do dying people need and ask for?

    By his Grace, he uses prayer as an important means of extending the heavenly life on earth.

    Steve Rives

    • I’m curious if this idea of suffering as means of grace is compatible with Reformed confessions. I get the sense that, if we go to church to receive the means of grace (Word and Sacrament), that the church would also dispense suffering as well.

      Maybe this is a rough treatment of the concept, but where prayer is at least reasonable in light of Westminster Standards, suffering doesn’t feature similarly – it is a result of sin and the fallen world, not something God gives us in a redemptive sense.

      • Rob,

        I don’t think it’s helpful or true to speak of suffering as a “means of grace.” It’s complicated but possible to speak of prayer as a means of grace but it’s too far to make suffering a means of grace even though, in his wise providence, it is certainly true that the Lord uses suffering to sanctify us.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for the fuller post on this, though I’m not sure that my question/comment was worthy of front-page HB status. 🙂 I hope your further exposition was helpful to many. I agree fully with the important distinctions you make here, and am in no way interested in jettisoning them, or even in blurring them, so my apologies if my questions sounded confused and befuddled.

    Thanks also for the reminders from Van Drunen, Brian. It is specifically these points stated by Dr. DVD in class, upon which I have been reflecting for a few years. I don’t disagree with him, and very much appreciate his showing the harmony between the WCF and HC in their doctrine. After this post I went back to RRC and found the relevant sections, so the same material is available to all, thanks again to Dr. Clark!

    I wonder if in emphasizing the agreement between the WCF/WSC/WLC and the HC on the means of grace (which there is) we might downplay too much the biblical basis for the Westminster’s addition of prayer as a means of grace. As you say in RRC, (p 329-330), the Westminster Confession and Catechisms do at least seem internally consistent here, since prayer according to these confessional standards doesn’t seem to be as much a private exercise of thankfulness, but a public ministry of the church in worship.

    When considered as such, the similarities between prayer and the sacraments as means “whereby the Spirit of Christ increases and strengthens the grace of faith in the elect” begins to be evident. All are instituted by Christ in his church (“as you go, make disciples baptizing them…”; “do this in remembrance of me”; “pray like this…”). Is prayer not a means by which the promises of the Gospel are received in faith? “If you confess your sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”…”forgive us our trespasses.” As our prayer is in accord with God’s will, he hears and answers it (1 John 5:14-15), so since he gave us the Lord’s Prayer, we pray it knowing that the answer to it is sure because it is according to his will – he will hallow his name, his Kingdom will come, his will will be done, he will care for his people in providence (daily bread) and redemption (forgiveness of sins).

    Given the dialogical nature of worship, I do grant that while God does the speaking in Word and Sacrament, prayer seems to be our part of the dialogue back to him (and I am by no means trying to tweak the monergistic work of God in the Gospel by somehow blurring sanctification and justification). Yet as the Divines understood prayer (WSC 99) as directed and guided by God’s Word, is prayer in public worship not simply speaking back to God what he has already first spoken to us (again, thinking specifically of the Lord’s Prayer)? In that sense, is it not simply reminding him (and being reminded ourselves in the process) of his covenant promises in Christ, that as we have faith, he has acted and will act on our behalf?

    All this is to say, given the Westminster view of prayer, is it not appropriate to include it as a means of grace? Is this not a helpful biblically-driven development from what was in more of a seed form in the HC? And if this reading of the Westminster Divines is correct, ought this not challenge somewhat our (revivalistic, pietistic) view of prayer as a private exercise of personal piety, rather than one of the (FEW) public, corporate, and regular activities to which the church of Christ has been called? Maybe we ought to spend less time naming every sick person during pastoral prayers, and more time reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which he gave us and which is his will.

    • Fix,

      I appreciate this thoughtful and careful response. You have given me some things to think about, especially in light of the discussion we’ve been having about this topic under yesterday’s post of reviews and responses to RRC.

      • Thank you for getting these discussions going. I saw those comments in other places…I didn’t mean to take the other side, just delve a little deeper into this question, hopefully to elicit a richer response from our confessional perspective.

  5. Can we say that prayer is a means of grace in that our dialogical response to the word and sacrament(visible Word) in corporate worship is in itself prayer? God speaks. We respond. He will be our God and we will be his people. Perhaps Prayer is a means of grace where we are given access back through the Trinitarian Avenue/Conduit. Word and Sacrament coming from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Prayer by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.

Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.