In this second section of our paper on the Puritan teaching on prayer, we enquire: What are the properties of that prayer which is acceptable to God?
1. Acceptable prayer flows from a saving knowledge of God. If prayer is the address of a rational spirit to God, a living spiritual Being, then it must be characterised by spiritual knowledge. We find this principle exemplified in Abraham, and well illustrated in the contrasting persons: the Publican and the Pharisee, Moses and the unbelieving Hebrews.
The Pharisee and the Publican both had a form of prayer, but there was a great difference between them. One had a saving knowledge of God in Christ and the other had not. There was great spiritual darkness in the soul of the Pharisee when he addressed the Most High at the temple. There was great spiritual light, by comparison, in the soul of the Publican as he prayed. They both addressed God but they did not have the same understanding of God. “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). (The Greek word ilaskomai is translated in our Bible be merciful and make reconciliation – that is, by a sacrifice (Heb 2:17) and the meaning is: to be propitious, to be gracious, to be merciful, to expiate, to make propitiation for, etc – and so this verse might be translated: “God be propitiated (by a sacrifice) to me a sinner”.)
Again the Hebrews at Sinai had such an intimation of God’s glorious majesty as caused them to fear terribly and wish to flee from His presence – rather than to draw near to Him in humble, adoring and confident prayer. Moses, on the other hand, at another time, obtained views of God’s glory which had a different effect. Put in the cleft of a rock, he obtained a view of God’s glorious grace, with the result that “Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped” (Ex 34:8). Mallery says that this rent rock illustrates Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and that it is those who are hid in Christ who have a right apprehension of God. With Moses they make haste, bow their heads and worship God.
A view of God’s glory speaking from Mount Sinai fills us, as sinners, with terror. A view by faith of God’s glory shining from Calvary, savingly apprehended, draws us irresistibly to Himself. The holiness of God speaking in the law is allied to His justice against sin and, once it is apprehended by the conscience, makes God most dreadful to sinners. The holiness of God speaking in the gospel is allied to His mercy to sinners, and makes the name of God most sweet to a sinner once it is apprehended by faith. Sibbes says that it is only in God in Christ that we see, not only the beams of divine majesty, but the bowels of divine mercy. Mallery argues that it was such an apprehension of God that Abraham had – a view by faith of both His majesty and His mercy – when he said in prayer: “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). Mallery adds, “In creation, God speaks but as a God that is above us. In the law God speaks but as a God that is against us. In Christ only, we hear God speak as God with us and God for us.”
2. Acceptable prayer flows from saving, or justifying, faith. “Until men have faith in Christ”, Brooks points out, “their best services are but glorious sins.” Faith is essential for prayer. Saving faith is the gift of God; it does not proceed from the ordinary faculties of men. Prayer, or intercourse with God, is the chief exercise of faith. Says Gurnall, “To pray without faith in exercise is to miscarry in prayer. When a person is savingly enlightened in the knowledge of God in Christ, there is the grace of faith or the habit of faith in the soul. It is there because God gave it and the Spirit implanted it in the soul. And it will never die. But we need to have faith in exercise, or active, when we pray. Prayer without faith is a bow without its arrow.”
The Puritans speak of three ways in which faith is exercised in connection with our prayers: in believing and pleading (1) the promises of God, (2) His providence, (3) His perfections, or attributes.
(1) Faith with regard to the promises of God. There are two kinds of promises in the Bible. A conditional promise is a promise to which some condition is prefixed. An absolute promise is one without a condition.
Absolute Promises: William Gouge explains: “The manner of expressing the promises of the new covenant is absolute, so as God undertaketh to perform them all, thus: ‘I will put My laws into their mind . . . and I will be to them a God . . . for all shall know Me . . . . I will be merciful to their unrighteousness’ (Heb 8:10-12).” “Hereby it is manifested,” Gouge goes on, “the privileges of the new covenant are absolutely promised to be performed on God’s part.”
If we ask this Puritan divine, Why does God make absolute promises? he answers: “Man’s vanity and folly, in forfeiting the first covenant, when they had the power and ability to keep it, moveth God in His tender respect to man not to leave the receiving of the benefit of the new covenant in man’s power and will, but to undertake the whole work Himself, and absolutely to promise both means and end and all.” He goes on, “Sanctification is absolutely promised to believers, and the parts thereof. Concerning mortification it is said, ‘Sin shall not have dominion over you’. Concerning perseverance it is said, ‘Christ shall confirm you unto the end’. And for the blessed end of them all, Christ says, ‘It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ (Luke 12:32). . . . Receiving these absolute promises, we ought to believe that they shall all be accomplished; so it shall assuredly be according to our faith.”
Conditional promises. Gurnall warns, “An absolute faith on a conditional promise without immediate revelation, which must not be looked for, is fancy and not faith”. What then is the faith which we are to exercise in connection with the conditional promises? Faith must go no further than the promise; if the promise is conditional so must the faith. Preston says in his work on prayer: “When a man prays to be guided in such a business, to have such an enterprise brought to pass, to have a deliverance from such a trouble – such a sickness, such a calamity as he lies under – he finds no particular promise. For all he knows, it shall never be granted. How can he pray in faith?” And the answer which he gives is: “It is enough for faith to believe that God is a Father and, as a Father, that He is ready to hear; and not only that He is ready to hear, but that He is ready in the exercise of His infinite power to do that which is best for me in such a particular. To believe these things in connection with temporal things is to pray and believe as far as the promise permits.” In brief compass: it is enough for faith to rest upon the goodness of God: “Yea, what is good the Lord shall give” (Ps 85:12).
(2) Faith with regard to the providence of God. This faith, relying on God’s power, trusts in God as One who is able to do all things. “I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause, which doeth great things and unsearchable” (Job 5:8,9). “This”, says Gurnall, referring to faith in God’s power in providence and grace, “is the first stone faith lays. O how unbecoming to have a great God and little faith in Him! Away with the questions that greet the ears of the Almighty: Can He help? Can He pardon? Can He purge? Can He deliver? Can He heal? ‘Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?’ (Ps 78:19). What cannot He do that can do all things as He will? Will God not bring to pass what is for the good of those that trust in Him, and for His own glory?”
(3) Faith with regard to the perfections of God. These perfections, or attributes, are for the consolation of believers. We are instructed to use them as arguments. The prayers of the Bible are often expressed in a way of pleading. Faith distils the promises, the providence and the perfections of God into arguments. For example, when Asa prayed for divine aid, it is said, “And Asa cried unto the Lord his God, and said, Lord it is nothing with Thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power” (2 Chr 14:11). Here Asa turned the infinite power of God into a plea, he strengthened his soul by considering God’s power, as if he said, “What cannot the Almighty God of Israel do?” When Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, he said, “O Lord God of Israel, which dwelleth between the cherubims, Thou art the God, even Thou alone of all the kingdoms of the earth, Thou hast made heaven and earth”. Here Hezekiah is distilling the perfection of divine mercy into prayer, pleading the mercy of God, and the dominion of God over all, and so strengthened his faith in prayer to God. This is a rule which the Puritans teach: that this pleading and arguing in the prayers of Scripture is given us for our instruction in prayer. Thus we are to manage our requests: to our petitions we should add pleas based upon the divine perfections, as well as upon the divine promises.
3. Acceptable prayer flows from true repentance and confession of sin. Confession of sin is necessary in prayer. If prayer is the address of sinful men to a Holy God, then penitence must characterise it. Repentance is the result of a true saving knowledge of God in Christ; confession is the expression of it. In confession we join with God in declaring our sinfulness to be abominable, something which we hate on account of its opposition to God, His holiness and His gospel.
The Hebrew idiom for confessing sin is to point with the hand. “This pointing is done”, says one Puritan, “first by God, in convincing of sin. Then it is done by man in the confessing of it.” “There is no coming to God but with confession of sin, and prayer for its pardon. . . . Unconfessed sin is the spring of horror and principle of all amazement.” David said in Psalm 32: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. . . . I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid” (Ps 32:3,5).
Confession is the vomiting of sin because it is the loathsome rejection of it. Self-accusation and self-condemnation turn the heart and whole man against sin, casting up with grief and pain what we cast off with detestation. Confession is the vindication of God’s justice and all the afflictions inflicted by Him. The language of true confession is: “Thou hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve” (Ezra 9:13). Confession is the voice with which God is well pleased. “Only acknowledge thine iniquity” is God’s demand. It is well if God will make bare His correcting hand until the stubborn heart acknowledges iniquity. Ephraim cannot sooner relent under God’s hand than He repent of His anger: “Since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still” (Jer 31:20).
4. Acceptable prayer includes thanksgiving. If prayer is the address of the recipient of much bounty and mercy from God, then thanksgiving is a necessary part of it. God’s glory is declared by His rational creatures when they adore His perfections and acknowledge His benefits. Ames wrote that the right performance of thanksgiving requires: (1) a knowledge of the blessings of God, (2) an application of them to ourselves, and by that we understand believing that God has thought on us and has met us in our need with His benefits, and (3) a due estimation of these mercies and suitable affections respecting them.
The way to lose our benefits is to consume them upon our lusts, ascribe them to our own power and forget our unworthiness of them. There are temporal mercies and spiritual mercies; we should be more full in our gratitude for the latter. “Mercies”, says Gurnall, “can be bitter as well as sweet.” Unanswered prayers, for example, are seen as a bitter thing, but look to see if they be not answered in another way, better than you expected, like Paul who got no less affliction, but he got more of Christ.
5. Acceptable prayer includes adoration. If prayer is the address of a rational creature capable of knowing something of God, then adoration ought to be a part of prayer. The Saviour taught His disciples to add adoration to praise when He said; “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory”. “I will deliver thee,” the Lord is saying, “that thou mayest glorify me”, and again in Psalm 50 He says, “He that offereth praise glorifieth me”. The Puritans say that this makes praise a more heavenly employment than any other part of prayer. This part of prayer must pass through the hand of the Mediator like any other; our praise needs to be cleansed and made acceptable, as well as our persons, petitions and pleas.
1. Continued from last month. The first part of this paper dealt with prayer as an indispensable means of grace.