Only Believers Pray
Larry D. Harvey
Recent public discourse has seen a great deal of homage given to what has been labeled "prayer". The term has been bandied about in public speech, political races, court cases, and around flag poles at schools. As I listen to all of this, I can not help but wonder whether or not the word "prayer" is being used without any regard to its definition. I should also ask myself whether or not the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is contributing to any misuse of the word and disregarding the Scriptures in so doing.
There is no doubt that throughout the history of the church, one of Satan's most effective devices has been to steal and then pervert terms used to precisely identify and confess the sound teachings of the Scriptures. If Satan is successful in so doing, he is all the more effective in leading people away from Christ Crucified and into eternal death. We have seen such with terms such as "grace", "spiritual", "baptism", and so many other terms used to express the articles of faith. I fear we are surrendering "prayer" to Satan's definition, as well.
Simply put, the question that Christians should answer on this issue is whether or not we have endorsed the concept that "prayer" is nothing more than any utterance, thought, desire, or impulse directed to a particular individual's view of a sovereign power greater than the individual? If we have, then we have surrendered to Satan this great gift from the True God and all the promises attached to that gift.
First and foremost, prayer, as defined and given by the Triune God, and revealed only in His Word, is totally predicated on Saving Faith, i.e. faith in the vicarious satisfaction of Christ Jesus. Prayer is the heart-beat of Saving Faith (Koehler, p. 165). If there is no Saving Faith present within the individual offering that utterance, thought, desire, or impulse, then there is no prayer occurring. That is not to say that our Lord does not hear that utterance or thought or know that desire or impulse any more than He would fail to hear a clap of thunder or the babble of fools. Instead it is received by Him as an offense against Him, and none of His gracious promises are attached to it. The unbeliever's "prayer" is nothing more than the continued rejection of Christ Crucified and therefore no prayer at all.
Saving Faith is Justifying Faith, "the unique means and instrument through which we lay hold on the righteousness of Christ, receive it, and apply it to ourselves". (Chemnitz, Vol. II, 490) To be a man of faith means to be a man justified. Therefore, to be a man of prayer, one must first be a man justified. We can not allow prayer to be rooted in any teaching except justification.
The doctrine of justification is the very heart of Confessional Lutheran Theology, because it is the central theme of all that is revealed in the Scriptures. (Pieper, Vol. II, 512 et.seq.) As Martin Chemnitz said, "Paul everywhere describes the article of justification as a judicial process wherein the conscience of the sinner, accused before the tribunal God by the divine law, convicted, and subject to the sentence of eternal damnation, flees to the throne of grace and is restored, absolved, and freed from the sentence of eternal damnation and received to eternal life for the sake of the obedience and intercession of the Son of God, our Mediator, which is laid hold of and made one's own through faith." (Chemnitz, Vol. II, 480)
It is of course true that we normally teach prayer in and around teachings on the doctrine of sanctification. But we must not do so as if sanctification somehow is worked separate and apart from justification. The same principles apply in sanctification. It is God alone who is at work making us holy. He alone is the cause and content of our sanctification. He is the source and power of all responses to the free gifts of Christ Crucified, justification and faith. The very source, content and form of sanctification is fully and only informed by Christ Crucified. Our definition and understanding of prayer must always carry that same understanding. Any other approach to prayer would be like trying to understand a tree without ever focusing upon the roots and trunk of that tree. I can study the fruit of the tree, the stem that connects the fruit to the limb, or the leaves of the limbs and never grasp the concept of a tree. I must keep the roots and trunk in mind. The same is true concerning prayer.
Prayer does not exist with some focus of its own, separate and apart and not informed by the doctrine of justification as revealed in Scriptures. Any attempt to understand, much less teach, prayer without maintaining the focus upon the benefits of Christ's Person and work laid hold on through faith runs the very real danger of attempting to have our relationship with God based upon our works or merit. That is to lose Christianity into the works righteousness of all the false teachers, false gods, and worthless ideologies of a world dead in its sin.
I do not know if there is any real way to recapture the term "prayer" in the secular world. I would be willing to surrender that particular English word to the world, and identify the definition as given by God with some new English term carrying the correct definition, whatever that term could be, if such was possible today. Assuming for the moment that such is not possible today, should we not at least be all the more diligent within the congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in insuring we use and teach prayer only as defined in Scripture? Should we teach what it means to pray out of our faith in and thankfulness for our justification? Would it affect the prayer lives of our people if their entire prayer life was focused upon the Cross and Empty Tomb? Would it affect how we bring forth our requests and thanksgivings? In fact, would such a focus not redefine our view of everything in this temporal existence? I would submit that increased attention to the relationship of justification and prayer might well redefine many of the "prayer ministries" (sic) of our congregations. It might well sharpen and strengthen the prayer vigils, prayer "trails", prayer requests and all the "opening" and "closing" prayers within our congregations. Better yet, it might well sharpen and strengthen the prayers within our Divine Services and individual hearts and minds. Justification is the heart of the Gospel, and it is the Gospel that is the power of God for our salvation. Romans 1:16,17.
Prayer does not begin in our questions or requests. It begins in and is filled with the Answer, that is, Christ Crucified.
Index to Citations
Chemnitz: Loci Theologici, by Martin Chemnitz Translated by J.A.O. Preus Two Volumes © 1989 Concordia Publishing House
Koehler: A Summary of Christian Doctrine, by Edw. W.A. Koehler, P.D. © 1939 by Edward W.A. Koehler © 1952 by Alfred W. Koehler Published by Concordia Publishing House
Pieper: Christian Dogmatics, by Francis Pieper, D.D. Four Volumes © 1953 Concordia Publishing House