An Indispensable Means of Grace
by Rev Roderick MacLeod
From the ashes of the Reformers cruelly burnt on English soil by Mary Tudor, there arose the Puritan movement. Among these Reformers were Ridley and Latimer, who died together. As the fatal fire was lit, Latimer cried out, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.” That is what happened. When the reign of that cruel monarch ended, Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne of England. And during her reign the Puritan movement began. The Puritans sought to purge the Church of excesses, and the nation of errors. By preaching and writing, they taught the doctrine, experience and practice of Christianity as it is found in the Bible.
The aim of this paper is to give some idea of their teaching on prayer. True prayer is a part of the spiritual worship of God and is a means of grace. It was as a means of grace that the Westminster Divines introduced prayer into the Larger and Shorter Catechisms: it is in the use of the Word, the sacraments and prayer that Christ “communicateth to us the benefits” of His redemption. We wish, therefore, to take up this subject where these Puritans took it up.
Prayer is indispensable because it is a means of grace. That is, it is a means of obtaining and strengthening grace. Some object that, as God has promised to bless believers, it is not necessary to pray to God if we have faith in the goodness of God, who will bestow on us what we need. The Puritans address this objection.
William Gurnall illustrated our constant need of prayer. What bread and salt are to the table, he said, prayer is to the Christian in all his undertakings, enjoyments and temptations. Prayer is indispensable, because by use of this means we are conformed to the example of Christ. “Ask of Me, and I will give,” was the rule for the Head of the Church. It is to be our rule also.
Prayer is the breathing out of that life breathed into the soul in regeneration, so that it is as natural for grace to pray as for an infant to cry. “The neglect of prayer”, says Owen, “is a sufficient evidence of atheism. It is the unalterableness of our union to Christ which does secure our salvation, yet our own diligent endeavour is such an indispensable means to that end that without it our salvation will not be brought about.” God has purposed a harvest of blessings to His people in this world, but He has also decreed that that harvest will ordinarily be in answer to prayer. To say that we need not pray because God has promised His blessing is the same as to say that we need not sow because a harvest is promised.
Prayer is a means of grace because the languishing embers of neglected graces are through it brought into a flame by the Holy Spirit. “One principal end of prayer”, Owen says, “is to excite and stir up and draw forth the principle of grace, of faith and of love in the heart unto a due exercise in holy thoughts of God. Those who design not this end in prayer know not what it is to pray. A constant attendance on this duty will preserve the soul in such a frame as where sin cannot habitually prevail in it. To pray well is to pray always.”
Gurnall points to another benefit. Prayer, he says, is not only a means of grace but also a means of discovering that we have grace. Where, he asks, if not in prayer to God alone, does sincerity break out in expressions of true confession of one’s sins, weaknesses, unbelief and shame? Where does the heart give vent to sorrow for sin and uncleanness, if not here in prayer? Where does the soul venture to say, “I love the Lord”, if not at the throne of grace?
Prayer is a means of grace as it brings the soul nigh to God. In prayer we draw nigh to God, and He draws nigh to us (James 4:8). This great privilege of coming to God and taking upon us – who are but “dust and ashes, to speak unto the Lord” – engenders holy affections of self-loathing, divine praise and awe, as it did in Abraham. Drawing near to God is a means of grace because God, as Gurnall says, “sheds forth His grace in a way of communion. In prayer the soul receives influences of grace from Him.”
Now prayer also has a sin-mortifying power. Owen says, “Now this is a great part of the work of prayer: to seek and obtain such supplies of mortifying, sanctifying grace as thereby the power of sin might be broken, its strength abated, its root withered, its life destroyed, and so the whole old man crucified. This we do when, in prayer, we bring our heart’s sins, discovered by the reading of the Word and the convincing power of the Spirit, to the footstool of God, confessing them, hating them and resolving to fight against them. Hereby we receive spiritual aids and supplies of strength against sin. This is the great ordinance of God for the mortification of sin.” “There are some duties”, he says, “which in their own nature, and by God’s appointment, have a peculiar influence unto the weakening and subduing of sin. These the believer ought principally and always to attend unto.” Again: “Whatever notion there be of [sin], whatever power and prevalency in it, it is laid hand on, apprehended, brought into the presence of God, judged, condemned, bewailed. And what can possibly be more effectual for its ruin and destruction? For, together with its discovery, application is made unto all that relief which in Jesus Christ is provided against it, all ways and means whereby it may be ruined. Hence, it is the duty of the mind to ‘watch unto prayer’ (1 Pet 4:7), to attend diligently unto the estate of our souls, and to deal fervently and effectually with God about it.”
While prayer seems to prevail with God, it actually prevails with ourselves. In true prayer, faith is stirred up to believe the promises and the goodness of God, and so we are prepared to receive the desired blessing. Preston writes: “Now when I say these arguments [used in prayer] prevail with God, the meaning is that they prevail with us. They strengthen our faith; they enable us to believe that God is ready to help us. And when we believe it and trust in Him, then indeed God is ready to second it because we are then prepared. We can then put up our desires in the prayer of faith. Otherwise they are put up with doubting, and that makes them unacceptable with God and ineffectual.”
Furthermore, in prayer the love of God is manifested. Gurnall uses the illustration: a father may send to his son in a far country an allowance which he has promised to him; but if the father requires the son to come to him for the allowance, he manifests his care and his love for him. It is not to inconvenience the son, but because of his delight in him. The application of the illustration is simple: God is saying, “Let Me see thy countenance, let Me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely” (Song 2:14).
From these few quotations it becomes clear that the Puritans saw true, believing prayer, not only as a means of communion with the living God, but as a means by which supplies of grace flow from the illustrious Fountainhead to the souls of His people.
1. The first part of a paper presented to the Theological Conference in 1998.