When you are weak in your faith, where do you go for strength? When you are discouraged, what are your sources of encouragement? When you doubt, struggle and need God’s help, when and where and how do you find it?
Our world, and even the church, offers many and varied solutions to our problems: self-help therapy; entertainment; mindfulness; family and friends; Charismatic experiences. We could go on. Some of these may help, yet many either offer only a sticking plaster to our deeply felt problems, or are just so un-biblical as to be dangerous.
The triune God has clearly given us the ‘means’ by which the church is to grow and every Christian receive the grace needed to face the challenges life throws at us. The preaching of the Word of God, with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer — all in the context of the gathered church — are to be what strengthens and encourages us in our faith (Acts 2:42).
As ‘ordinary’ as these means may seem, we must not forget that through them Christ communicates the extraordinary: we hear him speak, enjoy his presence and commune with our God.
As we look at the third ‘means of grace’, which is prayer, an immediate problem confronts us. How can prayer be a means by which Christ communicates his grace to us? In preaching we hear God speak through his Word. In the sacraments we taste and see visibly the promises of God to us. But prayer? Isn’t prayer something we do? Isn’t it the cry of our hearts? How can it then be something Christ uses to bless us?
In answering this problem, I need to acknowledge my indebtedness to B. B. Warfield. In the book Faith and life (Banner of Truth), which is a collection of his Sunday afternoon addresses to seminary students, there is a chapter on this subject. I would commend it to you and unashamedly admit that much of what I say here has its origins in that chapter.
Prayer prepares us to receive God’s grace
Grace is something we receive. It is not earned or merited. On the contrary, it is undeserved. Prayer is at heart an acknowledgement of this reality (which is why we are all Calvinists when we pray, whether we know it or not!). As such, the very act of truly crying out to God is expressive of a humble attitude and a broken spirit. And such a feeling and demonstration of self-abnegation is precisely what we need to receive God’s help. The act of praying prepares us for the grace we cry out for.
Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Both needed the grace of God. The difference between them was simply that one knew it and expressed it, and the other didn’t. Arguably, the Pharisee did not pray at all. He proclaimed his own worthiness to God and as a result left the temple without an ounce of God’s grace.
Yet the tax collector truly prayed. The content and posture of his prayer indicated his own sense of unworthiness before God. His prayer readied him to receive the justifying grace of God. In this way the act of prayer, as well as the cries that form the contents of our prayers, prepare us to receive the grace of God we so need.
Prayer places us to receive God’s grace
Prayer takes us to the only place where real help can be found, and that is to the sovereign God. This is a basic, yet profound point. We pray to God Almighty, to the triune God who reigns over the cosmos.
We may not have access to prime ministers and presidents, to celebrities and the power-brokers of our world, but we do have access, through Jesus Christ, to the omnipotent King of kings, to our heavenly Father who loves us, to our God who is willing and able to help us.
When we pray, however simple, brief and child-like our plaintive cries may be, we pray to this God. More, we pray to our God! In this way prayer is a means of grace, because it takes us to the one place where actual help can and will be found.
Prayer petitions to receive God’s grace
Prayer is not magical, and neither should be mechanical. Rather it is a simple asking; a knocking and a seeking (Matthew 7:7-8). Prayer begs and beseeches, calls and cries out. Prayer offers up to God the desires of our hearts.
More, the Bible teaches us that we do not have, simply because we do not ask (James 4:2). So, to receive strength from God, we need to ask for it. To be given grace, we need to call out for it. To experience God’s help, we need to petition for it. When we do this, prayer is a means of grace.
The very act of asking in prayer is the very means by which we receive the gracious answer of God. Christ would have us ask him for what we need, and when we do he will delight to provide it for us.
So, when you need help, where will you go? When you feel down and discouraged, what will do you to lift yourself up? Perhaps you are looking in all the wrong places? You may be surprised by the blessing of a church worship service, where you are led in prayers of invocation, confession, adoration, thanksgiving and intercession. You may find more strength than you thought possible from your church’s weekly prayer meeting.
Yes, there may only be a handful of you there. And yes, it may be a sacrifice to attend. But it is when God’s people pray that Christ will bless us. It is when we pray that our hearts are prepared for God’s grace, our lives taken to the place of grace, and our petitions receive answers from the God of grace.
Andy Young is the church planting minister of Oxford Evangelical Presbyterian Church