Pray to Receive, Not to Earn

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Principal, Queensland Theological College

This particular moment never failed to disappoint me as a pastor — and it happened often. It would strike unexpectedly as I prayed with members of our church after we studied the Bible together.

After wrestling with the text, enjoying the amazing grace of God in Christ, and applying it to our lives, we would then turn to pray prayers that bore very little relation to what we had just read. After revelling in the gospel, we prayed prayers that were prosaic, limited (often only for those who were sick), and, to be honest, significantly out of step with the gospel. I think it’s a common issue in our churches today: what we pray is not shaped and driven by the gospel itself, but by our circumstances.

Perhaps we leave behind the gospel in our prayers because we forget the immense privilege it is to pray in the first place. Not only should we pray over the good news, but we should delight that the gospel opens our closet doors to pray in the first place.

The Wonder of Asking God

In the Bible, prayer basically means to “ask.” There are lots of other activities which are related to or overlap with prayer (like adoration, praise, and thanksgiving), but generally they either lead up to or flow from the heart of prayer, which is asking God to do something.

That, of course, isn’t unique to Christianity. Muslims pray and ask for things. Baal-worshipers were keen for their god to show up and do what they needed. Virtually every religion in history has been strong on human beings asking. But there is something quite different about prayer in the Bible. Rather than people like us having to jump through all kinds of ritual or spiritual hoops in order to ensure our prayers are sufficiently potent, we just have to ask. Why is that? It’s because of the gospel.

In his Institutes, John Calvin makes a seminal statement that can completely recalibrate the way we think about prayer, “Just as faith is born through the gospel, through the gospel our hearts are trained to call on God’s name.” In other words, we can pray because of the gospel — not our good works, good looks, or good resolves. God draws near to us on the basis of Christ’s accomplishments, not our own.

The core of the gospel is that we have nothing, contribute nothing, bring nothing to God — we are rescued by grace alone through faith — asking — alone. It should not come as a shock that prayer, which is made possible by the gospel and shaped by the gospel, works exactly the same way. But on another level, this is completely revolutionary. It sets Christian prayer — and its gospel-shaped invitation — apart from any other kind of prayer in the world.

Prayer Unlike Any Other

For a start, it means that our prayers are made possible by the fact that we are united to the Christ who died for us by faith. In a sense, we get to join in his conversation with the Father. For example, Paul writes, picking up on Jesus’s own teaching on how we should pray, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:6–7). Our prayers are “insider prayers.”

Jesus himself makes this explicit when he tells us,

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:9–13)

Prayer then is made possible by the gospel, through the Holy Spirit who enables us to pray along with Jesus. But there is more to say.

Gospel-Shaped Prayers

Not only are our prayers made possible by the gospel, but they are shaped by the gospel. Our prayers are made possible by the grace of God and should be shaped by the grace of God. We are freed up to ask God to do what only he can do. We are commanded to ask God to do what he alone has promised to do. In other words, we are enabled, encouraged, and instructed to pray gospel-shaped prayers.

When we open our mouths to ask, it’s appropriate to do our asking in the context of marveling at the God who has revealed himself to us and rescued us. When we open our mouths to ask, we do so in a context where God has already lavished so much on us that we can’t help but thank him for what he’s doing. And when we open our mouths to ask, we will continue to be blown away by what God has done for us in Christ. Our greatest longing will be to see God continue to do what he has promised in us and through us, as he builds his kingdom.

So, when we have grasped the gospel, our prayers will inevitably revolve around what God has done, is doing, and will do through the gospel. It’s why our prayers will be dominated by requests for God to bring people to know Christ. It’s why we will cry to God to work in and through his church. It’s why we will ask God continually to deepen his gospel work in our lives. It’s why we will ask God every day to take hold of what he has already given us through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. John Piper’s IOUS prayers model this so well:

I, Incline my heart to your testimonies (Psalm 119:36).
O, Open my eyes to see wonderful things (Psalm 119:18).
U, Unite my heart to fear your name (Psalm 86:11).
S, Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love (Psalm 90:14).

This, then, is not simply an attempt to give a “gospel-centered” take on prayer. This is the unmistakeable teaching (and logic) of the Bible. The gospel drives us to pray, and it teaches us what to pray for. If we understood that, there would be deeper, wider, and higher prayers when we study the Bible together, and a new freedom and passion when we pray alone in our closets.