Prayer According to God’s Will

Christian Living, Prayer

prayerI was recently asked by a brother in our congregation about prayer in light of 1 John 5:14-15: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” The question revolved around whether or not we ought to be praying for specifics that are concealed in the secret will of God. In other words, given John’s statement that when we “ask anything according to [God’s] will he hears us,” shouldn’t we only pray in accordance with those things we know to be true from God’s revealed will?

More specifically, should we pray that God heal someone from a particular infirmity, or should we only pray that an individual suffer well as a child of God, with patience, endurance, and hope in the resurrection to come? Should we ask God to regenerate the heart of a specific individual that they might become a new creation in Christ, or ought we to simply ask God to make us faithful ambassadors of Christ, taking every opportunity we have to point people to the truth of the gospel? The difference is that God has not promised to heal specific individuals of their suffering in this life, nor has he told us who his elect are throughout the world. So is it wrong for us to pray for those things which God has not made clear?

It’s a good question and certainly worthy of every Christian’s time and consideration. My answer is, it depends! Surely if a man asks God to help him keep his adulterous relationship a secret from his wife, or if I ask God to make me a more savvy thief, we are not praying in accordance with God’s will. However, God’s character and nature can inform our prayers that they be consistent with His revealed will, even though they may not come to pass in the way we ask because God’s eternal plan is concealed in his secret will.

There are various kinds of prayers all throughout the Bible: Prayers of adoration and praise, prayers of confession and repentance, prayers of rejoicing and thanksgiving, imprecatory prayers, and prayers of intercession and supplication. A Christian’s time before the Lord in prayer should include each of these elements, and we would be well served by utilizing the prayers of the Bible to give a launching point for each type of prayer in our daily, private worship. But the question at hand is really dealing specifically with supplication or intercessory prayer.

I turn to the words of Matthew Henry:

“[W]e must not think in our prayers to prescribe to him, or by our opportunity to move him. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and knows what he will do. But thus we open our wants and our desires, and then refer ourselves to his wisdom and goodness; and hereby we give honour to him as our protector and benefactor, and take the way which he himself hath appointed, of fetching in mercy from him, and by faith plead his promise with him, and if we are sincere herein, we are, through his grace, qualified according to the tenor of the new covenant to receive his favours, and are to be assured that we do, and shall receive them.”

I appreciate the balance struck by Henry: We are not setting out in prayer to change the mind or will of God, but to simply make known to him our “wants and our desires” while simultaneously settling in our hearts that it is God’s will we ultimately desire to see fulfilled, not our own. I am reminded of the prayer of Jesus as he prepared for death on the cross: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus knew there was no other way, and yet in his humanity desired to be delivered from the inevitable. Likewise we might pray, “Father, while I know my prognosis from the cancer is terminal, if you are willing, would you heal my body? Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Or, “Father, my neighbor is so far from you and scoffs at the name of Jesus. He will not hear the gospel, but would you be pleased to send the Holy Spirit to arrest his heart and give me the opportunity to share the truth with him? Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

R.C. Sproul writes:

“Nothing is too big or too small to bring before God in prayer, as long as it is not something we know to be contrary to the expressed will of God as made clear in His Word… What is important to us may also be important to our Father. If we are not sure about the propriety of our request, we should tell that to God. James 1:5 says, ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.’ The Greek phrase translated ‘without reproach’ literally means ‘without throwing it back in your face.’ We don’t need to be afraid of the reproach of God, provided we are sincerely seeking His will in a given situation.”

So how might we use the Word of God (his revealed will) to pray specifically for individuals or circumstances that are uncertain to us (his secret will)?

  1. Identify your motive: Why are you bringing your request before God? “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2b-3).
  2. Search the Scriptures: Are you asking for something contrary to the revealed will of God? Has God already answered your request in His Word?
  3. Know God: Is your petition consistent with the nature and character of God? Has He shown in His Word that what you are asking is what He has done before and would do again in the future? Perhaps this takes some explanation. While God has shown in His Word that He has healed myriads of people throughout history through various means, he has not shown in His Word that He will give a man a set of wings that he might fly away from his circumstances. Likewise, nothing of Scripture suggests that God has ceased in the healing of the infirmities of mankind, therefore it’s not an unreasonable request that is contrary to the nature of God. Contrarily, many elements of God’s past dealings with mankind have ceased to include the gifts of tongues and prophecy, and it would be a great error to seek such things. Furthermore, God is a God of redemption and takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32). He has saved and continues to save a people from the wrath to come by the hearing of the gospel, and the power of the Holy Spirit to grant faith and repentance in Christ Jesus alone. Therefore, it is consistent with God’s nature and character that we might pray for the salvation of our neighbor.
  4. Remember who prayer is for: Prayer is not about man changing the mind of God, but rather God conforming the heart of man to be more humble, faithful, reverent, and trusting in the everlasting promises of God to His people. Our persistence in prayer is not to annoy God into submission, but rather to build within us a greater patience and trust in the reality that He is sovereign over all things, and our trust needs to be constantly bound up in him alone.
  5. Remember God’s Will is not always your own: There is as much to be learned in God not answering our prayers in the way we desire as there is in when He does. When God doesn’t heal or save the individual I’ve prayed for, there’s not failure on God’s part, but rather an opportunity for me to be reminded that God’s ways are greater than my own, and His eternal plans are far more wise than my short-term longings. “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”
  6. Pray God’s revealed Will: The primary emphasis of our prayers of intercession and supplication should be focused on what God has revealed in His Word. While praying for the sick, it is good and right to ask God to heal them, but all the more important to pray, “God, they are your servant – will you help them to suffer well with patience and perseverance that you would be glorified through them? May it be that others see the hope that is within them and inquire as to why they find joy in the midst of trials.”

Prayer is about a Christian’s communion with God and union with Christ. “Lord, here is what I desire, and as I look in your Word, I don’t see that what I’m asking is wrong or opposed to your Word or your nature or your character, but Lord I want your will to be done, not mine, for I know that your will is far greater than anything I could hope or imagine – so whatever the outcome, will you help me trust you, will you humble me to submit myself to you and your will that you might be glorified through the circumstances of my life both now and in the future?”

John Calvin writes:

[Prayer is] not so much for his sake as for ours. He wills indeed, as is just, that due honour be paid him by acknowledging that all which men desire or feel to be useful, and pray to obtain, is derived from him. But even the benefit of [giving ourselves in prayer] which we thus pay him redounds to ourselves [it is to our benefit]. Hence the holy [fathers], the more confidently they proclaimed the mercies of God to themselves and others, felt the stronger incitement to prayer… it is very much for our interest to be constantly [calling out to] him; first, that our heart may always be inflamed with a serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving, and serving him, while we accustom ourselves to have recourse to him as a sacred anchor in every necessity; secondly, that no desire, no longing whatever, of which we are ashamed to make him the witness, may enter our minds, while we learn to place all our wishes in his sight, and thus pour out our heart before him; and, lastly, that we may be prepared to receive all his benefits with true gratitude and thanksgiving, while our prayers remind us that they proceed from his hand.

Therefore I conclude it is entirely appropriate for a Christian to pray for those things which are not explicitly revealed in the Scriptures, and yet remain consistent with God’s nature and character and are not opposed to the Law of God. In doing so, we are asking according to his will and He hears us. Praise God!

(By: Nick Kennicott)

Memorizing Bible Versus

The Gospel, Theology

Everyone knows that the best scene in the movie is always the fight scene.  Rocky vs. Apollo, Luke vs. Darth, Gandalf vs. The Balrog… there is just something about direct conflict that resonates with us.  The Bible is no stranger to epic throw-downs.  Sometimes, as in the conflicts of Cain vs. Abel or Herod vs. John, the battle doesn’t go the way we would have hoped.  Other times such as with David vs. Goliath or Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal we rejoice to see the forces of God driving back the ranks of evil.

While there are many such battles recorded in the Bible, they are all just small skirmishes in a larger war which provides an organizing  lens through which to view these more localized attacks.  The first strike in this meta-war occurred when the ancient Serpent enticed God’s image-bearers to break ranks and disobey a direct order of their King.  This led to a declaration of war in Genesis 3:15, wherein it was promised that the Seed of the woman would go forward as the champion for the forces of good.  He would not emerge unwounded, but He would claim skull-crushing victory.  The subsequent events of Biblical history record the progress of this struggle, as the armies of death rage against God’s chosen people and seek to stomp them out whenever possible.  Yet again and again God’s people are shown that the battle belongs to the Lord, and though they may be weak and often unfaithful to His call, He will not be mocked.  In the fullness of time, God’s Champion is sent out to strike the victory blow- not by means of brute strength or worldly glory, but through the courageous humility of a deeper love.  The Lion of Judah becomes the Passover Lamb, and Death shrivels up and withers away in the brighter light of  Resurrection.

Victory has been declared, but the enemy still swings wildly as he clutches his mortal wounds and spits out hate at the triumph of the Lamb.  Our king will return for us.  Until then we continue to fight His war, rejoicing as we see captives set free from the ranks of the Evil One and enlisted under the Banner of the one they once despised.  While the fighting goes on, the war is over; as it truly was decided the moment that our God (who cannot lie) promised His deliverance in that ancient Garden.  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56, ESV)

So while I’m a big fan of memorizing Bible verses, let’s not forget to memorize Bible versus.  Seeing the war-story behind the sword drills and the systematics will help us understand how every part of the Bible fits into this larger picture: God rescues sinners through the life, death and resurrection of His Son- for our good and His glory.  Or to put it another way… in this battle, Jesus wins.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

You can’t say you love the Holy Spirit but don’t love Church History

Church History

I should qualify the title of this post.  You obviously can use your vocal apparatus to audibly utter that particular string of words.  However, there are lots of things I can say in a rigidly literalistic sense.  I can say that Seattle is in Kansas, or I can say that Yankees fans have souls… but my physical ability to form those words doesn’t mean that such ridiculous notions are accurate or defensible.

So my contention is that you can’t say you love the Holy Spirit but don’t love Church History.  An overstatement you might wonder?  Here’s my reasoning:

1. You can’t say you love the Holy Spirit but don’t love Church History because Church History is the record of the Holy Spirit’s ministry.

The first mention of the Church in the New Testament occurred when Jesus Christ said to a Jewish fisherman named Simon Bar-Jonah you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus was promising that He would be with His people as they fulfilled this global building project, the blueprints of which He would lay out in Matthew 28:18-20.  He said that it would actually be Him who was doing the building, although we later read that His means would be through the sent Helper of John 14:26, 15:26, and 16:7.  Jesus has built and is building His Church through the ministry on the Holy Spirit in the lives of His people.

So while there is a firm cessation of Biblical revelation and its accompanying miracles at the close of the Apostolic age, there is a definite continuation of God’s providential care, the Son’s spiritual presence, and the Holy Spirit’s active ministry to the church throughout the ages.  The study of Church History is not primarily an analysis of a curious socio-religious phenomenon; it is the recognition of the Spirit wrought fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to build His church.

2. You can’t say you love the Holy Spirit but don’t love Church History because the Holy Spirit has used Church History to help you believe what you believe.

Even the most ardent anti-confessionalist is deeply indebted to the progressive development of theology recorded in the pages of Church History.  His reading of the Scriptures is always informed by those who have studied it before him.  If he professes faith in even a rudimentary form of orthodoxy he most likely uses the inherited (and vital!) ecclesiastic vocabulary.  In fact, his very exaltation of the Scriptures is a doctrinal stance, which was recognized, defended, and carefully expressed in the confessional tradition of Church History.

While it would be wrong to so enshrine the men and confessions of Church History so as to make them practically impeccable, we aught always to thank God for those who have gone before us.  We should count ourselves blessed to live in an age which has such a rich deposit of the Spirit-aided study of the Holy Scriptures.  Practically speaking, our reliance on them is unavoidable.

3. You can’t say you love the Holy Spirit but don’t love Church History because the Holy Spirit loves the Church in all ages and so should you.

A low view of Church History is a low view of the Holy Spirit.  While this may not be the intention, it is the result.  We like to always exalt our own interpretation of the Scripture over the testimony of those who have come before us… but do we really believe that they didn’t have the same Holy Spirit giving them illumination in the same manner He gives it to us?

When viewed thought the centuries a clearly progressive character is evident in Church History.  That means that until Jesus returns we will never exhaust the wells of Biblical study, and our doctrines will continue to be refined and restated to address new challenges and concerns.  But this truth must never allow us to despise men who labored and bled for the doctrines we now gladly confess.  Neither their chronological distance from us, the occasionally crude or imbalanced presentation of their doctrine, nor their cultural peculiarities is justification for our casual dismissal.  Yes, further progression is lawful; but let us never take a low view of all that God has done to build His church long before we ever drew breath or cracked open a Bible.  The Helper has been at work for millennia, He is not ours uniquely.  He loves the Church as she existed yesterday, exists today, and will exist tomorrow.  May we as well.

So should everyone be a Church History geek like me?  I’d never argue for that.  But should we all love and appreciate the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit not just in our own day but also throughout the ages?  Only if we love Him…

(By: Nicolas Alford)

Augustine on Peer-Pressure


On page 34 of the Oxford World Classics translation of Augustine’s Confessions the following turn of phrase perfectly captures the way that peer-pressure so easily can induce us to sin-

As soon as the words are spoken ‘Let us go and do it’, one is ashamed not to be shameless.

It’s amazing how the Fall has flipped things so upside-down: we are ashamed not to be shameless.  Thank God that Jesus came to put the world back on its feet (Acts 17:6).

By the way, I almost called this post “Augustine on Pear-Pressure”- which is probably funny if you’ve read his Confessions.  If you haven’t, it’s probably not.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

Spurgeon and Dabney on the Call to the Ministry (Part 5 of 5)

Church History, Ministry, The Church

This is the fifth and last post in this series.  What has been demonstrated thus far?  In summary, the call of the man of God is first biblical.  To be faithful to the text of Scripture, the church must believe in and enforce the necessity of a divine commission for any who would enter into ministerial labors.  The call of the man of God is also Spiritual.  The Holy Spirit not only equips a man with the Biblical qualifications, He also gives him a holy desire, what Spurgeon calls the “fire in the bones.” Only a man with a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, the health of His church, and the salvation of the lost should ever dare to approach a pulpit.  The call of the man of God is lastly ordinary.  The certain testimony of these things is to be found in the Word, the deliberations of the church, and the prayer closet.  Having sought out the best of both Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Robert Lewis Dabney on this matter, this series of posts will now conclude with some final observations and reflection on this comparative exercise, especially as they relate to modern Reformed Baptist churches.

With a few notable exceptions aside, Spurgeon and Dabney find great unity on the divine call.  They are both thoroughly Biblical and Spiritual.  They both place preeminence on the biblical qualifications for an Elder.  There are certainly more areas where they overlap than where they differ.  Yet their differences are significant, and at times extreme.  For Spurgeon, a man ought not to enter the ministry “if he can help it.”  For Dabney, a man who can speak and does not desire the ministry is most likely not a Christian and has the “daily danger of hellfire abiding on him!”  To paraphrase: Spurgeon says that if you possibly can’t, then don’t, while Dabney says if you possibly can, then do!

Pastor A.N. Martin was quoted above, and his counsel was summarized as to read both men with an eye towards a sort of sanctified regression to the mean.  The man who takes this advice will find it a greatly rewarding effort.  Yet what is the result?  How are the above views to be synthesized?  And who has the final say where they remain incompatible?

Spurgeon and Dabney in Context

This conundrum is partially relieved by recognizing the diverse contexts from which these two men speak.  Charles Spurgeon preached to a church of thousands and had his sermons published around the world.  His article contains several accounts of men practically knocking down his door to gain entrance into his pastor’s college.[1]  It is to be expected that he would be jealous to guard against presumptuous men who are most likely drawn to the fame and notoriety of his ministry.  Dabney’s situation could hardly be more antithetical to Spurgeon’s.  His treatment is full of lament over the sad state of ministerial aspirants in the Presbyterian Church in Virginia.  He spends a full five pages reviewing the crippling need for ministers,[2] making mention of both the sorry number of young pastors and the utter lack of any missionaries to the foreign fields.  Some of the discrepancy between Spurgeon and Dabney can therefore be attributed to their very different ecclesiastical contexts.

Who Speaks For Us?

Context, however, cannot fully bridge this gap.  Even if it could the question would still remain as to who then speaks for Reformed Baptists in the twenty-first century.  In most cases, modern Reformed Baptists of course stand with Charles Spurgeon.  Yet in regards to ministerial training, there seems to be more overlap with the situation of Robert Lewis Dabney.  Many major American cities have no Reformed Baptist church at all.  Many Reformed Baptist pulpits are filled by faithful men who have labored long and well, yet there are not enough younger men ready to take up the baton.  Many countries have no Reformed Baptist missionary witness.

What is needed are faithful men.  These men must combine the passion of Spurgeon with the urgency of Dabney.  The ministry is the highest of callings, and so the bar cannot be lowered pragmatically.  Yet a man must hear the urgency in the words of Dabney and ask himself some grave questions:  Do I meet the standards of an overseer?  If I do not, can I work towards that end?  Do I yearn to see the church built up and sinners brought to salvation?  Has the Lord gifted me to serve his Church?  Is not the gospel the greatest of messages?  Is not Jesus Christ the greatest of masters?  Shall I not give my life over to him?  Am I called?

These questions must be asked, and the answers must be sought out through prayer and through the voice of the church.  The Word of God must be the final and sufficient guide.  Men must catch the passion of Spurgeon and the urgency of Dabney.  The Lord Jesus Christ is calling men to preach His gospel and shepherd His flock.  This is the testimony of Scripture, and this is the witness of history.  May the Lord grant his feeble servants the strength to answer this call.[3]

Dabney’s closing words provide an appropriate sentiment with which to end this series:

There is then no time to consider; it is time to act.  If you are prepared at present to preach, and God calls you to preach, then he calls you to preach now.  If you have preparation to make, and God calls you to preach, he calls you to begin that preparation now; for a perishing world needs you now; while you causelessly hesitate souls drop into hell.  “TO-DAY, IF YE WILL HEAR HIS VOICE, HARDEN NOT YOUR HEART.”[4]

[1] Spurgeon, pp. 35-41.

[2] Dabney, pp. 37-43.

[3] In this author’s experience the best extra-biblical works to encourage this zeal in a young man  are the two works by Spurgeon and Dabney utilized in this paper, and the small book Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar.

[4] Dabney, pp. 45-6.