We’re still at that part of the Catechism which is about what God requires of us if we’re to escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin. And we’ve learned already that we’re to turn from our sin in repentance. And we’re to turn with faith to the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. And all who repent and believe are immediately justified so that we’re pardoned for all that we’ve done wrong and we’re accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ which is now regarded as ours. And all who repent and believe are immediately set apart as God’s people and we’re adopted into his family so that God is no longer the judge who condemns us, but is our loving, heavenly Father.
But, then, having repented and believed, we’re to make diligent use of all the outward means by which the Lord Jesus gives to us the benefits of redemption. What are the benefits of redemption? Well, as well as justification and adoption, there’s: sanctification so that we’re renewed in the image of God and become more and more willing and able to obey him; there’s assurance of God’s love so that we know that God is for us and not against us; there’s peace of conscience so that we can come before God with confidence, knowing that our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west; there’s joy in the Holy Spirit so that, even though our life may be marked by suffering and trials and difficulties, we’re still able to rejoice in our salvation; then there’s growth in grace so that we grow and mature as believers; and there’s perseverance so that God enables us to keep trusting in Christ throughout the remainder of our lives.
The Lord Jesus, our Great Redeemer, wants to give us these things. And he gives these things to us through the outward means of grace. And the outward means of grace are: the reading and preaching of his word; the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and prayer. We’ve already looked at preaching; and we’ve already looked at baptism; And then, last time, we looked at the Lord’s Supper. All that we’re left with is prayer, the third of the means of grace and the last topic for discussion in the Shorter Catechism.
And so we have question and answer 98 which provides us with a brief definition of prayer. Someone asks you: What is prayer? And this is how you can answer them:
Prayer is an offering up of our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
Then we have question and answer 99:
What rule has God given for our direction in prayer?
In other words, where can we go for guidance about how to pray? If you want to know how to bake a cake, then you go to a recipe book for guidance. If you want to know how to use a computer, then you go to a ‘Computers for Dummies’ book for guidance. If you want to know how to treat a cut or a wasp sting, there’s a first aid book which provides guidance. So, where do we go for guidance on how to pray? Well, listen to the answer to question 99:
The whole word of God is of use to direct us in prayer, but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.
Where do we go for guidance? We go to the Bible. And more specifically, we go to the Lord’s Prayer. In Luke’s gospel, when the disciples asked the Lord to teach them to pray, he gave them — and therefore he gave us — the Lord’s Prayer as a model prayer to guide us when we pray. And so, questions and answers 100 to 107 are an explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, beginning with the Preface (‘Our Father in heaven’), and then going through it line by line, or petition by petition, until we say ‘Amen’ at the end.
We’ll begin to study the Lord’s Prayer the next time. Today, however, there are three things we need to consider. First of all, there’s the fact of prayer. Secondly, we’ll look at the three parts of prayer which the Catechism mentions in its definition. Thirdly, we’ll think about how prayer is Trinitarian — it involves all three Persons of the Trinity.
The fact of prayer
First of all, there’s the fact of prayer. Throughout the Bible we read about people who prayed to God. So, in Genesis 4:26 we have the first reference to prayer:
At that time, men began to call on the name of the Lord.
Then in Genesis 12 we read about Abraham who built at altar to the Lord where he called on the name of the Lord. And we read something similar in Genesis 21. Then, in Deuteronomy 26 Moses tells the Israelites how they’re to address God in prayer and say to him:
Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground you have given to us.
And then, throughout the Old Testament historical books we read the prayers of God’s people. Think of Hannah’s prayer to God for a child in 1 Samuel 1 and her prayer of praise in 1 Samuel 2. We have David’s prayer of praise in 1 Chronicles 16 and also in 1 Chronicles 17:
There is none like you, O Lord, and there is no God besides you….
And in 1 Chronicles 29 David prays to the Lord and praises him and he instructs the people to bless the Lord their God. And we read that all the people bowed their heads before the Lord. In 1 Kings 8 we see Solomon praying to God at the dedication of the Temple. In 2 Kings 19 we have Hezekiah appealing to the Lord for help against their enemies. Daniel, of course, was thrown into the den of lions because he continued to pray to the Lord three times a day despite the King’s order forbidding prayer. And in Daniel 9 we have Daniel’s prayer of confession for the people of Israel and in his prayer he asks God to show them and to allow them to return to the Promised Land. And what a prayer it was!
17 Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. 18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. 19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.
Nehemiah also prayed to confess the sins of the Israelites and to ask God for mercy. And, of course, there are many other examples in the Old Testament of God’s people praying to him: confessing their sins and asking for his help. And, of course, since the Psalms are addressed to God, they too are a form of prayer. Take just two examples. Psalm 8:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
And Psalm 139:
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
That’s the Old Testament.
And prayer is mentioned often in the New Testament. So, in the gospels we read of the Lord Jesus going off to pray by himself. And we read how he taught us how to pray by giving us the Lord’s Prayer. And the Apostle Paul’s letters refer to his prayers for the churches he was writing to and they contain instructions on how we should pray. So, to the Ephesians, he said:
To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me….
And to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:17), he said:
Pray without ceasing.
The purpose of quoting these verses is to remind you that it’s impossible to go very far in the Bible without some reference to prayer.
The parts of prayer
The next thing to consider this evening is the three kinds of prayer which the Catechism mentions in its definition. First of all, it says that prayer is the offering up of our desires to God. Therefore, when we pray, we’re petitioning God. We’re bringing our cares and concerns and requests to him. Secondly, prayer involves confessing our sins. And thirdly, prayer involves giving thanks to God. Let me say a few words about each of these.
First of all, when we pray, we offer up our desires to God. And so, David wrote in Psalm 98:
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him….
We’re encouraged to come before God in prayer and to lay out before him all the desires of our heart. Every longing, every need, every concern, every care, every worry: we may bring them all before the Lord to seek his help. And so, we have in the Bible examples of people like Daniel and Nehemiah praying for big things: for God to bring his people back to the Promised Land. But we also have Hannah praying to the Lord for a child of her own. We have the Lord who instructed us to pray for God’s name to be hallowed and for his kingdom to come. But at the same time he taught us to pray for our daily bread. We have Paul asking his readers to pray for his preaching ministry. And we have James encouraging us to pray for the sick. God encourages us to come before him with all kinds of prayers and requests and petitions.
Now, this tells us several things about God. First of all, it tells us that God is personal. He’s a person we can address in prayer and talk to, just as we address and talk to one another. He’s a person who hears and can understand us. He’s a person we can love and who is able to love us. In the Bible, we read about people who would bow down and speak to a block of wood or a lump of metal. They bowed down before the sun and the moon. But we come before our loving Heavenly Father who hears and understands us. Secondly, God is near to us. Yes, he dwells in a high and holy place, ruling over all things from his throne in heaven. But he’s also near to us so that he can hear us. And we don’t need to shout aloud. We don’t even need to say anything audible, because he hears the thoughts of our hearts. And thirdly, the fact that we’re encouraged to bring all our requests to God tells us that God is powerful. Someone came to me a long time ago and asked me to get him a job. He’d heard I was a minister — and thought I was a minister in the government with the authority to get him a job. Well, I don’t have that kind of power or authority. There’s very little I can do for most people. But there’s nothing which is too hard for the Lord. And nothing we ask of him is beyond his ability.
Does this mean God will give us whatever we ask for? You know: Since he’s able to do what we ask, then will he always do what we ask? Well, those of us who are parents know that we can’t give our children everything they ask for. But we don’t give them everything not because we’re mean, but because we love our children and want what is best for them. And so, if your son asks you for the carving knife to play with, you’ll say ‘no’ to him. Playing with the carving knife would not be good for him. And our Heavenly Father always knows what is best for us. He knows what will do us good. And he knows what will be bad for us. And so, listen to what the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 7:
11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Nothing is too hard for the Lord. But he is very wise and only gives us those things which are for our good.
Prayer is the offering up of our desires to God. Secondly, when we pray, we should confess our sins before God. In Psalm 66, the psalmist says:
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
And when the Lord Jesus gave his disciples the Lord’s Prayer as a model for their own prayers, he told them to pray for the forgiveness of their sins. Why is this so important? Well, think what happens when you’ve offended someone. You’ve said something unkind. Or you’ve done something which was wrong and which has annoyed them. Whenever they see you now, they cross the road to avoid you. Or they turn their back towards you. They so annoyed or offended, that they don’t want to speak to you or even to see you. And that’s the way it remains — until we admit that we’ve done wrong and we ask for their forgiveness. So, think of a husband and wife who have fallen out. He’s done something which has hurt his wife and she’s offended. What must he do? Well, he needs to seek her forgiveness. Doesn’t he? He needs to say ‘sorry’ and to ask for her to forgive him.
Every day we sin against God by our sinful thoughts and words and desires and deeds. Even our best deeds are spoiled by sin. And every sin is an offence against God, because with every sin we break his holy law. Isn’t that what we learn from Psalm 51? David had sinned against Uriah by taking his wife and arranging for him to be killed on the battlefield. It was a terrible thing to do against Uriah and against Bathsheba too. But in Psalm 51, when he confessed his sin, David said:
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight….
Since every sin is against God, we ought to confess our sins before him when we pray and we ought ask for his forgiveness.
But there’s another reason why we should confess our sins. Think again of what sometimes happens when we have done something against a friend or someone we love. We’re ashamed of ourselves because of what we’ve done. And because we’re ashamed of ourselves, and we wonder what they now think of us, we try to hide from them. We want to keep out of their way because we’re so ashamed.
Sometimes we hesitate to come before God. We’re ashamed because of what we have done. We can’t bear the thought of facing him. And so, because of what we have done, we’re reluctant to come before God.
We therefore need to get them out of the way. That’s what David learned in Psalm 32. He said:
when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
He felt miserable, so long as he kept silent about his sins. But the moment he confessed them, God forgave him and the burden was lifted from him. The writer to the Hebrews wrote in chapter 10 about coming before God ‘in full assurance of faith’. It’s the assurance of knowing that God will not hold our sins against us, but will pardon us for the sake of Jesus Christ who has paid for them in full. So, when we pray, we confess our sins before God. We get our shame and guilt out of the way. And we’re then free to come before God with our cares and concerns, knowing that he has forgiven us. That’s one of the reason why we confess our sins before God early on in our service of worship on Sundays. We want to clear the air, if you like, before we do go any further.
When we pray, we offer up our desires to God. And we confess our sins. And then there’s thanksgiving. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the Apostle Paul instructed his readers to:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
He said: Pray without ceasing and give thanks to God in all circumstances. You see, every good thing we enjoy in life has come to us from God. And just as parents will teach their children to say thank-you for anything they receive, so we must learn to give thanks to God for all his good gifts to us. Before we ask him for anything new, we should begin by saying thank-you for what he has already given us to enjoy. And we have much to thank him for, don’t we? There’s health and strength and daily food. Friends and family; and work and rest. All of these good things. But he’s also given us his Son to be our Great Redeemer. And so we want to thank God for him and for all that the Lord Jesus has accomplished for us by his life and death and resurrection and for all that he continues to do for us from his throne in heaven. Then, we want to thank God for his Spirit who enables us to trust in Christ. There’s the church where the gospel is proclaimed to us in word and sacrament. There’s the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of the resurrection from the dead and everlasting life with God. We will want to give thanks to God for all of these things. And even when we face troubles and trials in this life, we know (don’t we?) that our Father in Heaven is able to bring good out of every trouble we will face and he’s able to use what happens to us for our ultimate good. What did Paul say in Romans 8?
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…. I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
No matter what suffering comes our way, nothing we face will separate us from God who loves us. And so we want to give thanks to him for that. And we can thank him, because we know that he will turn whatever befalls us in this troubled life to our good.
The last point today is very important. True prayer is Trinitarian. In other words, it involves all three persons of the Trinity.
So, when the Lord’s disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer as a model prayer. And the Lord’s prayer is addressed to ‘our Father’. So, we learn that we’re to direct our prayers to God the Father. And when we pray, we pray with the help of the Holy Spirit. That’s what Paul teaches us in Romans 8. There he wrote:
the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
So, we pray to God the Father with the help of God the Spirit. And we pray in the name of Jesus Christ. So, think of prayer as entering into God’s throne room in heaven. We come to the entrance to the throne room and we knock on the door and we say:
In the name of Colin Gamble, open the door!
Well, who is Colin Gamble? Only a sinner who deserves nothing but condemnation from God the Father for all my sins. And so, the door remains firmly closed. How then should we come to God’s throne room? Well, we come to the entrance and we knock on the door and, this time, we say:
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, open the door!
And immediately, immediately, the door is flung open and we’re invited in because we’ve come to God the Father in the name of his Son who is also our Saviour.
Remember what happened when the Lord Jesus died on the cross? The curtain in the temple, separating the people from the presence of God in the Most Holy Place was torn in two. And that signified how sinners like us can now approach God with confidence, knowing that our sins have been paid for and there is peace with God for all of Christ’s people. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this in chapter 10:
Therefore, brothers, since we have 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 since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Through faith in the Lord Jesus who died for us, we’re washed and cleansed from all our guilt. And so, we can come before God with confidence because we know that our sins have been pardoned forever. So, through Jesus Christ, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we come to our Father in heaven who loves us and who is ready and willing to hear us when we call out to him.