How to Draw Near to God

Learning Prayer from the Puritans

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Pastor, Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley

The Puritans, at their best, cultivated a communion with the living God that flowed naturally into prayer. Moreover, as Christlike pastors, they prayed Christlike prayers, reflecting the desires and priorities of their Savior for his people.

In learning prayer from the Puritans, we are not seeking to become mere mimics. We do not live in the seventeenth century; we may not live in those places where the Puritans walked. We are not trying to simply ape their vocabulary and the cadence of their intercessions. At the same time, we do want to understand how they prayed — from pulpits and in prisons, among their families, and in their churches. It is not carnal to ask, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). We learn well by listening to those who pray well, not with empty eloquence but with heavenly fervor.

As we listen to Puritan and Puritanesque praying, putting our ears to their doors, what do we hear? What can we seek to imitate?

Pray with Intelligence

We hear, first of all, intelligence. I do not mean that their prayers sounded clever, displayed their academic learning, or impressed with their oratory and vocabulary. I mean that they prayed from true knowledge.

First, they possessed a knowledge of God — an experiential and affectionate knowledge of their God and Father. Have you ever heard someone pray who walks with God, who is accustomed to communion with him, who knows what it is to be in the presence of the Almighty and returns there by familiar paths? I have sat stunned as a praying man seems to take me by the hand and lead me with him into the presence of God. That cannot be manufactured.

In addition, the Puritans show intelligence in their thinking about prayer. The Westminster Catechisms define prayer like this: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” A succession of further questions delves into the nature of prayer.

John Bunyan wrote a treatise exploring this definition: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God hath promised, or according to the Word, for the good of the church, with submission, in faith, to the will of God” (Prayer, 13).

William Gurnall said that “prayer is called a ‘pouring out of the soul to God.’ The soul is the well, from which the water of prayer is poured; but the Spirit is the spring that feeds, and the hand that helps to pour it forth; the well would have no water without the spring, neither could it deliver itself without one to draw it” (The Christian in Complete Armour, 467).

Puritans distinguished between public and family and private prayer; between personal and pastoral intercession; between regular habits of prayer, special seasons of prayer, and sudden cries in prayer; between feeble, faithful, and fervent prayer. They argued about scripted prayers as opposed to extemporaneous prayers. They did this not to bewilder or confound, but because they wanted to honor God in their praying. So, they studied the spirit and substance of true prayer according to God’s revelation.

Pray with Reverence and Confidence

The Puritans’ knowledge of God led them to pray also with reverence. Puritans knew that they approached a high and holy God. Like the publican in the temple, they were conscious that sinners like them could approach the throne of the Almighty only through the blood of sacrifice.

In Thomas Cobbet’s language, “No sooner do the saints essay to draw near unto God, than the beams of the glory of God reflect upon their souls, which do thus awe and abase them; they see in the glass of that excellency their own vileness” (Gospel Incense, 212). This is true humility, a profound awareness that coming to God under the terms of the new covenant does not in any way diminish a sense of his holiness but rather enhances it (Hebrews 12:22–29). They realized that nothing but the blood of Jesus could open a way for sinners to come to the God of light.

But such reverence is matched by confidence. Alongside that holy fear was a holy familiarity. Because Puritans came to God by Christ, they had “confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” And having “a great priest over the house of God,” they drew near “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” — their “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and [their] bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19–22).

Trusting in Christ for their reception, and assured that they were accepted in the Beloved, the Puritans came to their Father in heaven, crying out to him as beloved sons, in tones at once intimate and expectant: “Let us . . . with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). For them, the promises of Luke 11:9–13 were no empty rhetoric, but the very basis on which they came with large petitions.

They loved to speak of coming to a throne of grace, to the mercy seat where God both displays and dispenses his favor to those who come in faith: “As long as God hath a mind to give mercy and grace, as long as any of the children of men are sensibly needy of grace and mercy, and askers and receivers thereof from the Lord, (and that will be till the heavens be no more), this throne of grace will be plied and praised” (The Works of Robert Traill, 1:14).

Pray with Substance

When they came to the throne of grace, we also hear the substance of Puritan prayers. Several collections of prayers by the Puritans and others of their spirit demonstrate this substance (for example, The Valley of Vision, Piercing Heaven, The Pastor in Prayer, or Into His Presence).

It is one thing to theorize about the Puritans at prayer; it is another to read them teaching and preaching about praying; it is something else altogether to lurk at their shoulder as they approach God on behalf of his people. One is tempted to say, “If this is how they spoke with the Lord in public, what must have been their communion with him in private?” These are men who deal with God, who plead the promises of Scripture, who wrestle with a tenacity learned from Jacob (Genesis 32:28), with a humility and dignity that has something of Christ himself about it.

If you read a prayer like Daniel’s in chapter 9 of his history and prophecy, you see the whole woven together from strands drawn from previous revelation. The Puritans do likewise. Their prayers, therefore, reflect divine priorities and concerns. Such scriptural substance gives their intercessions richness and depth, and underscores their confidence because they are asking for what God has already promised.

Some Puritans offered helps for prayer, sometimes culling Scripture (or, at least, “bibline”) phrases from the word of God to supply the saints with appropriate vehicles for their wants and needs, their praises and their pleas (such as Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer). They loved the Psalms and similar portions of Scripture as fruitful expressions of a praying heart; they explored the recorded prayers of Christ and his apostles. This scriptural familiarity gave their prayers at once a glorious variety (for they plucked their flowers from the whole field of revelation) and a delightful simplicity (for the language they used — while of its time — is earthy and potent). They drive straight at the mercy seat, echoing God’s word back to him.

To the Throne of Grace

Without wishing or needing to become anachronistic mimics, the Puritans can teach us to pray. They teach us what prayer is, to consider it intelligently, to engage in it reverently, to pursue it confidently, and to deal with God substantially.

At root, if you had asked a Puritan how to pray, I suspect they would have said to study God in Christ. Why? Because when we thus perceive God by faith, we become praying people. The spirit and substance of our prayers should be conditioned by our coming through the gracious Spirit by the beloved Son to the almighty Father, seated on a throne of grace. Here we arrive at the very heart of true prayer, and here we begin all true eloquence.

serves as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, and is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children. He has authored several books, and is grateful to preach, to teach, and to write as opportunity provides.