Prayer: A Simple Method

You are a pastor in a small city.  You’ve known your barber for almost twenty years.  One day while he trims he asks for help in prayer.  He, like many others, struggles in that area.  So, you decide to go home and write a brief thirty-four page guide for him.  You even incorporate your friend in the work.  Encouraging attentiveness in prayer you write, “So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting.” Once finished you decide to publish the work and it’s ready for popular consumption by the early part of the year.  Now, your friend and others have help.

What you just read is fact and not fiction. Peter Beskendorf, Martin Luther’s barber asked this very question.  In response, Luther wrote a brief book titled A Simple Way to Pray. It’s a little gem.  And it is exactly what you would expect from the pen of Luther, nothing more and nothing less. For example, in Luther’s pithy way he warns us not to become lax and lazy with regard to prayer because “the devil who besets us is not lazy or careless.”[1]

Luther also gives the sort of advice that you don’t hear very often today.  For instance, he says, “Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly.” He goes on to explain exactly what he means. As firmly as his amen, Luther says, “Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’  This is what Amen means.”[2] I wonder how many of us need that simple but profound instruction.

But Luther does more than give encouragements and terse sound bites.  His simple way is nothing less than a way to pray. So, let me simply walk you through his method.  First, we are to remember what we are doing.  We are praying to God. Therefore, you are to kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes toward heaven and speak or think as briefly as possible.[3]  And what is more, we are to pray without ceasing.  For Luther, this apostolic injunction meant everything from private devotion to the community gathered for prayer to corporate worship.

Second, Luther believed that the Lord’s Prayer was an excellent model for prayer.  In fact, said Luther, had the Lord known a better prayer he would have taught us that one as well![4]  That being the case, it’s not surprising to find that Luther’s method is grounded in the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, Luther would take each part of the Lord’s Prayer and pray through it. For example, after “Hallowed be thy name,” Luther said you might pray for the destruction “of abominations, idolatry, and heresy of the Turk, the pope, and all false teachers and fanatics who wrongly use thy name…”[5] Of course, some of these applications are culturally conditioned but you get the idea.  And Luther encourages us to work through the entire prayer line by line praying as we go.

Third, Luther is not concerned that we say set prayers even his prayers!  Simple recitation would be chatter and prattle.  Luther’s desire is for our “heart to be stirred and guided concerning the thoughts which ought to be comprehended in the Lord’s Prayer.”[6]  Luther’s counsel is helpful at just this point. He says, “I do not bind myself to such words or syllables, but say my prayers in one fashion today, in another tomorrow, depending upon my mood and feeling.  I stay however, as nearly as I can, with the same general thoughts and ideas.”[7]  But neither is Luther a slave to the form.  According to Luther, the Spirit may lead him through one petition only before drawing his prayer to a close.

More might be said according to Luther’s method but this sums it up.  But allow me one point of application.  Luther’s little book was published early in 1535 and by Easter of the same year tragedy befell Peter the barber.  He was invited to the home of his son-in-law, Dietrich, for a happy celebration the Saturday before Easter. Dietrich, an army veteran, boasted of having the art of making himself invulnerable to any wound.  At that moment, Peter, presumably intoxicated, plunged a knife into Dietrich to test his boast. The stab was fatal.[8]

After his explanation of how to use the Lord’s Prayer Luther said, “To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill.”[9]  Peter was exiled instead of executed for his act only because Luther and others spoke on his behalf.  I wonder if Peter took Luther’s simple method with him into exile.  If not, he certainly should have.   

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 43, Devotional Writings II (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1968), 194.

[2] Ibid., 198.

[3] Ibid., 194.

[4] Cf.  200. “It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me.”

[5] Ibid., 195.

[6] Ibid., 198.

[8] Ibid., 191.

[9] Ibid., 200.

A Lion in our Midst: A Eulogy for R. C. Sproul

A Lion in our Midst: A Eulogy for R. C. Sproul

We grieve today at the news of R. C. Sproul’s departure from this life, while so blessed at the knowledge that he basks in the glory of the Savior he served and loved. 

In mourning our loss of this great preacher and church leader, my mind searches back to the early 1990’s, when what is now called the Reformed Resurgence was only an envisioned hope.  I was converted to faith in Christ in 1990 under the preaching of R.C.’s close friend, James Montgomery Boice.  This meant that I soon was exposed to the live phenomenon of R. C. Sproul in the pulpit in the prime of his vigor.  I had never and never will see again such a combination of passion, intellect, and theological courage.  Those of us who were swept up into the Reformed faith during those years were blessed with a band of true pulpit heroes: Boice, Eric Alexander, J. I. Packer, John Gerstner, and others.  But even in that band of astounding men of vision and gospel power, R. C. Sproul stood out.  He was a lion in our midst, and when he roared we lifted up our hearts to God in faith.  For so many of us in the generation that followed these prophets, experiencing R. C. first hand at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and then the Ligonier Conference, inserting the much-anticipated tape-of-the-month cassette into our car stereos, and hearing the life-changing audio recording of R.C.’s The Holiness of God impacted us so deeply that we raced forward to lay our own swords at the feet of Christ.  God dramatically changed our lives through the voice of R. C. Sproul and we have loved him for it.

I have been one of many who are privileged to have known R. C. personally, though I would not claim to be an intimate.  A few remembrances might illuminate the personal charm that accompanied the pulpit brilliance.  In late 1997, council members of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals gathered at a hotel in Orlando to draft a response to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement (ECT II).  I was present as aide-de-camp to Dr. Boice, being still in seminary and new to the organization.  Our first night, Boice thought it appropriate to introduce me and so he started in on a lengthy bio of Rick Phillips.  About 10 seconds into it, R. C. interrupted and said, “Jim, is this your guy?”  Boice testily replied, “If you don’t mind, R. C., I’d like to continue.”  Twenty seconds later, R. C. interjected, “Jim, we don’t really care about any of this.  Is Rick your guy?”  Boice again brushed aside R. C.’s interruption and continued.  Finally, R. C. exclaimed, “Jim, we really don’t want to listen to this.  All we want to know is if this is your guy.”  Boice replied, “Yes, R. C., he is my guy.”  At this, R. C. gave me that impish grin of his and said, “Hi, Ricky.  If you’re Jim Boice’s guy then we’re pals!”  And so we were, much to my blessing.

For that meeting, Boice and Sproul each brought proposed replies to ECT II and all we did was put them together into a unified document (“An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals”).  Then we held a conference call with the evangelical leaders who had participated in and were promoting the joint accord with Rome.  To describe this conversation as alarming and distressing is an understatement, and we went to bed dejected that evangelical scholars could, in our view, so terribly compromise the gospel.  The next morning we slumped together in the hotel breakfast area.  But R. C. perked up and said, “Boys, we have found a hill to die on!  We sing Luther’s hymn, ‘let goods and kindred go,’ and now’s the time to do it!”  For a young minister in training, it was an electrifying experience.  R. C.’s stalwart leadership in defense of justification through faith alone was one of his great accomplishments, and his clarity of insight and courage of spirit were essential in rallying the gospel cause.  Only a few short years after that experience, I had the task of giving R. C. daily reports on the rapid decline of Jim Boice’s health, and we wept together on the phone after I had told him of his best friend’s passage into glory.

These experiences come to mind as I thank the Lord for the life and witness of R. C. Sproul.  I might add numerous personal acts of kindness that he and Vesta performed for my wife and me, together with his warmth of heart and humor that made his great ministry so wonderfully human.  Because he took hard stands for gospel truth, there have been those who disliked R. C., just as Spurgeon had enemies and critics.  But he was a lion in our midst and the call of his voice will resound in our hearts until we are rejoined to this captain and leader in the glories about which we have so joyfully sung here below. 

But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;

The saints triumphant rise in bright array;

The King of glory passes on his way.

Allelujah!  Allelujah!

Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC.  He is also a board member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Joseph’s Decision

19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…

Joseph will not get much press this Christmas. He’ll be around of course, often as no more than a prop to make the Holy Family appear like a normal family. But Joseph is just there. We ask why.

Actually Joseph is a great hero of our faith, one of the greatest ingredients in the profile of the Messiah. Glance backwards to the first 18 verses. Matthew begins by tracing Jesus’ genealogy as the son of Abraham (v.2) and the son of David (v.6). He traces it right down to Jacob the father of Joseph. Then, very carefully, Matthew describes him – “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus is born, who is called Christ.”

While Luke gives the backstory of Mary, Matthew gives us Joseph’s story. It’s not pretty. “Now the birth” – literally the ‘generation’ – “of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” It’s talking about the origin or source, not the birth as such. He came from somewhere. Where? He did not come from a normal sexual union, rather from the action of the Holy Spirit. “Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” (v.18) Luke gives us more details.

 The Holy Spirit comes onto the stage in Genesis 1:2, brooding over the unformed initial creation. The Holy Spirit brings order and breathes life into creatures, especially human beings. He is very active in the production of this particular Child –the Spirit of creativity, the Spirit of God.

Matthew focuses first on Joseph’s reaction to the news. Joseph doesn’t know, of course, that the Child was from the Holy Spirit. That bit of information is not accessible to him. He has just heard the news that his wife-to-be, his betrothed, is pregnant. Matthew captures Joseph’s agony.

It points to his integrity and his tenderness. He “considered these things.” He didn’t just rush to a conclusion. He looked at it from every possible angle. Only after that, he “resolved to divorce her quietly.” He believed it was the right thing to do. However, he resolved to do it quietly, because that would protect her and her place in society.

So we see his integrity. We see his tenderness. He had already made up his mind what to do when a divine representative appears, an angel, a messenger from the Lord. God speaks directly to this man Joseph.

It is very likely that she had not told Joseph anything about the angel who had appeared to her. Characteristically, she would have kept that knowledge to herself. In Luke 2:19 and 52, she kept knowledge of unusual events very close, in her heart. She did not talk easily about everything that happened to her. And just how likely would it have been for Joseph to believe her!

So the angel comes after Joseph has decided on his course of action. Only then does the angel intervene.

There’s a lesson in the order of the events as they unfold. One commentator applies Psalm 112:4 to this situation. “Light dawns in the darkness for the upright.” We are told that Joseph was an upright man. He didn’t know all the facts, but he had reflected on what he did know. He is proceeding along those lines. In light of the knowledge that he had, he is making the right choice. He’s doing it in the right spirit.

At the critical moment, when he has resolved to act, God intervenes and gives him the guidance that he needs. The angel does not say he is doing the wrong thing. The angel comes to give him information that he does not have – additional light.

This very often happens in our lives as well. We find ourselves perplexed about some decision. We find ourselves without any clarity. We do what Joseph did – we bring all that we know to the table. We use all of it to come to a conclusion and make a decision. Perhaps we are not completely happy with it, but all the facts, all the things we know, everything we have examined carefully, all our prayers seem to point one way. So we act on the light we have, even though it is uncomfortable.

God is not unhappy with that – acting on the light you have. We may still keep looking to Him for further light, if and when He sees fit. Many decisions of our lives must be made this way. Those decisions are not infallible. We cannot be absolutely sure. We make a choice with integrity to act in a certain way or to do a certain thing. We takes this job or that job or some other opportunity which lies before us. Or how should we deal with a pregnant teenage daughter?

It may be that God will intervene with His Word or His people to divert us from the decision made. But it is okay to be like Joseph and act on the light that you have. He was doing the right thing.

Then the angel appeared!

Liam Goligher is Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Liam and his wife Christine have five adult children and ten grandchildren.

Prayer: The Closet

Private Prayer is the life source for every true believer. And yet, while we would acknowledge the truth that praying is to the Christian as breathing is to any living creature, we would also admit along with Martin Luther that prayer is “the hardest work of all…a labor above all labors, since he who prays must wage a mighty warfare against the doubt and murmuring excited by the faintheartedness and unworthiness we feel within us.”[1] Christians of all stripes have felt the weight of Luther’s words when it comes to private praying, seeking to approach the Throne of Grace in committed communion with God only to find your heart and mind either wandering away by the cares of the day or weighed down by conscience. The duty of prayer is tough.

We have the example of our Lord throughout the gospels where on many occasions, “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). He was fond of praying alone. Consider how Matthew emphasizes Christ’s aloneness in one verse, “He sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone” (Matthew 14:23).

His example is of course a good reminder that in his earthly ministry he was so dependent upon his Father and sought Him constantly in prayer that upon further reflection we should ask ourselves: are we so self-sufficient that we need not seek our Father in private prayer like Christ? No, the example we see in Jesus ought to convict us of any lack of duty or zeal. As Mark Jones comments on Jesus’ prayer life, “Christ does not expect his people to carry out directives that he was not prepared himself to observe. This includes a vigorous prayer life in dependence upon God.”[2]

But along with Christ’s example, we also have his instruction; perhaps no clearer than that found in Matthew 6:6. “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Here is a clear directive for every Christian to seek the Lord in private prayer.

As the Puritan Thomas Brooks commented, private prayer is of first importance when it comes to any kind of praying or religious duty, “for secret prayer… prepares and fits the soul for family prayer, and for public prayer.” In fact, says Brooks, “the command in the text sends us as well to the closet as to the church; and he is a real hypocrite that chooses the one and neglects the other… He that puts on a religious habit abroad to gain himself a great name among men, and at the same time lives as an atheist at home, shall at the last be uncovered by God and presented before all the world for a most outrageous hypocrite.”[3] In other words, the stakes are high. Private prayer is essential to the Christian life.

If you’ve not read Thomas Brooks on the vital importance of private prayer, I highly encourage you to do so. First published in 1665 under the title The Privie Key of Heaven, and reprinted by the Banner of Truth as The Secret Key to Heaven, it is a soul enriching exposition of this most essential of duties. In one chapter, Brooks makes the obvious but wonderful point that just “as secret meals make fat bodies, so too will secret duties make fat [healthy] souls; and as secret trades bring in great earthly riches, so secret prayers make many rich in spiritual blessings, and in heavenly riches.” Oh, to desire and want those late night moments of prayer more than we crave those late night snacks in the kitchen!

And yet, that very practice of seeking our Lord in private prayer will only work to make the act a habit, engraving that desire deeper within us as we grow accustomed to seeking our Father, who art in Heaven. Did not Nehemiah pray before the Lord day and night (Neh. 1:6), or Daniel go to God in prayer three times a day (Dan. 6:10)? So too did David lift up his voice to God both morning and evening (Psa. 5:3). Indeed, Paul instructs Christians to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) and to continue steadfastly in prayer (Col. 4:2).[4]

Again, listen to Brooks as he encourages us to constant private prayer. “Frequency begets familiarity, and familiarity confidence. We can go freely and boldly into that friend’s house whom we often visit. What we are in the habit of doing, we do with ease and delight. A man who is in the habit or accustomed to write, to read, to ride, to run, or to play on this or that musical instrument, does it all with delight and ease; and so does a man who is in the habit of closet prayer. He will manage it with delight and ease.”[5] May the Lord work within us a greater desire and more constant habit of going into our room and shutting the door and praying to our Father who is in secret.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] cited from Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, (Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), edited by Joel Beeke and Brian Najapfour. Page 9.

[2] Mark Jones, Knowing Christ, (Banner of Truth, 2016), 94.

[3] Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven, (Banner of Truth, 2009), 1-2.

[4] See The Secret Key to Heaven, 183-184.

Rehabilitating Mary

Christmas is fast approaching and images of Mary are everywhere – from cards to Nativity scenes – but she is strangely absent from many, if not most Protestant pulpits. Yes, she may be accorded a passing reference in the Christmas narrative, but she can come across very much as a bit-part, or an ‘extra’ in the drama being rehearsed. But, for those who seek to measure the balance as much as content of preaching against the text being proclaimed, this should raise genuine questions.

It is not as though Mary is a low-profile figure in the birth narrative of Christ. She is more prominent than Joseph and is very much to the fore in Luke’s record. Why, then, does she appear to have been airbrushed out of so many Reformed and Evangelical sermons? The answer is probably because of a conscious reaction against the Roman Catholic view of Mary. Rome has accorded her an unwarranted status in worship and in salvation. It regards her as mediatrix and makes her an object of veneration. Such views find no warrant in Scripture and are rightly to be rejected; but, in doing so, it would be equally unwarranted to ditch Mary completely in the process of rejecting the ways she is misrepresented.

Indeed, Scripture demands that we recognise her unique role in redemption’s story and her proper place in the presentation of the gospel. The fact that Elizabeth, her near relative, loudly greets Mary as the one who is ‘blessed among women’ (Lk 1.42) says more than we might care to imagine. Such a statement – if it was spoken loudly enough for anyone within earshot to have heard – would have set tongues wagging in Elizabeth’s little Judean community. So it should resonate loudly enough in Protestant ears to make us ask whether or not we need to rehabilitate Mary into our preaching.

If we consider the context in which these words appear in Luke’s account of the Nativity, we see at least three reasons as to why Mary should be regarded as distinctively blessed.

Because of Grace

Given the force of Elizabeth’s greeting, it is possible to see how this high praise accorded to Mary could be lifted totally out of context by the Roman Church and be used to justify its cult of Mary. Rome’s theologians have inferred from the strength of this greeting that it must have been the original acknowledgement of Mary’s sinlessness – a requirement, in their mind, for their belief in the so called immaculate conception and the reason God chose her for the task of bringing his incarnate Son into the world.

However, we only need to read the text in its actual context to see how wrong such an interpretation is. In order to appreciate what Elizabeth says to Mary, we need to go back to the preceding passage and the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. As he greets her, he addresses her as the one who is ‘highly favoured’ (Lk 1.28) and as he allays her fears, he declares, ‘you have found favour with God’ (1.30). The verbs he uses both carry the underlying meaning of ‘grace’ in the sense of God’s unearned and undeserved kindness and mercy. So, God’s choice of Mary to be the mother of his incarnate Son was not based on her being the most suitable candidate available on planet earth. Quite the opposite: he deliberately chose her because she was a most unlikely candidate, humanly speaking. She was a sinner, just like any other human being (her sinfulness appears elsewhere in the gospel record). On top of this, she was almost certainly just a teenager who lived in a somewhat obscure and despised part of Palestine. In short, she was a nobody from nowhere, but God ‘graced’ her with the privilege of being mother to his Son.

Therein lies the root of all blessing and blessedness in human experience. It comes not because of what we deserve, but despite it. God’s blessing has its roots in God’s grace. And the fact that the ‘door’ by which God brought his Son and promised Saviour into this world was opened by grace is a potent reminder to us that the ‘door’ by which sinners receive salvation is opened in the same way. The blessedness of Mary and indeed of anyone has its roots in the grace of God.

Because of Christ

There is a second reason why Elizabeth is able to address Mary in this way: one that becomes apparent in how she goes on to qualify her statement about Mary’s blessedness. ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!’ (1.42). The ‘and’ [kai Gk] that connects these two expression can only properly make sense as a causal connection. That is, Mary is blessed because of the blessedness of the child she is carrying in her womb. Even in his unborn state, Jesus in a supreme sense was and is ‘the Blessed One’.

Yet again we need to pause and ponder afresh what it means to be ‘blessed’. In the devalued currency of so much evangelical terminology today, we need to go back to the rich biblical roots of what this word conveys. And, when we do so, we discover the most graphic exposition of blessedness is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount and its portrait of the truly beatified person (Mt 5.3-12). But, when we consider it, our struggle, even as Christians, as we read through its marks is that none of them are ever perfectly true of us. Does that mean, therefore, that we can never fully experience the blessings to which they are linked?

The answer to that question, thankfully, is an emphatic ‘No!’ Because as we look closely at the verbal brushstrokes Jesus is applying in these verses, we begin to realise they are first and foremost his own self-portrait. This in turn reminds us – as we so often need to be reminded – that all the blessings of salvation are bound up with our being ‘in him’.

It isn’t merely that Christ is the very essence of humanity that is perfectly blessed; but that he is also the means by which this blessing flows to all who trust him for salvation. (And, for Christ, this blessedness was not only signalled prior to his birth, but reaffirmed – often by the Father’s words from heaven – right through to his death, resurrection and exaltation.)

So the link between Mary’s blessedness and that of her unborn Son lies in the fact that her Son is also her Saviour! And the fact that her Saviour-Son is no longer on earth, but has taken his and our humanity into the heaven to which it ultimately belongs is tangible proof of the power of grace bound up with him.

Why, then, is Mary rightly called ‘blessed’? – Because of Jesus. He was set apart from his conception as the Messiah God had promised to bring salvation to his world.

Because of Faith

There is one further detail in Luke’s narrative of the Nativity that helps to explain what Elizabeth meant when she used such extravagant language to address Mary. And, yet again, it is a detail that helps us to appreciate the greatness of the gospel itself. It comes at the end of the section when Elizabeth says, ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’ (1.45).

It is possible that Elizabeth made this statement with a twinge of regret because of her husband, Zechariah, and his unbelief. He too had been visited by an angel and he too had been told of God’s supernatural intervention in his own life. But instead of humbly accepting God’s word, he questioned it. In that sense he had learned the hard way that when God speaks, his word is true and is to be trusted.

So, when Elizabeth links blessing to faith in her words to Mary, she is saying something that is true generally. Namely, that if we want to experience God’s blessing for ourselves, we need to take him at his word and trust him.

For Mary, to take God at his word would prove unspeakably costly. It meant the stigma of becoming pregnant before she was married (in an age when chastity before marriage was still cherished). It would also mean deep perplexity, not just over the ensuing nine months, but also for the next 34 years and longer. Yet, despite the pain and regardless of the personal cost, her words to Gabriel, ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said’ (1.38) were to be the watchword of her life. And, in so doing, she was to discover the strange depths of God’s blessing – which, perhaps paradoxically, helps us to grasp the nature of ‘blessedness’ more fully.

It would be wrong to hold Mary up as an object of worship; but it would be equally wrong to ignore the recognition accorded to her in Scripture. She is held up as the first believer in the New Testament era who is a model for us all.

Prayer: Evangelism & Prayer

One of the most important things we need to pray for is our evangelistic efforts. When we fail to pray for our evangelism efforts we could be in danger of acting as if it is within our ability to save individuals. Because God is the great Savior, saving people in Jesus Christ, we must pray and ask that He would do His great work as we are faithful in evangelism. We should prayer for the unsaved, pray for their salvation, and pray for our efforts in evangelism. We pray precisely because we believe that only God can save the lost.

First, what compels us to pray when it comes to evangelism is the belief that only God can save the sinner. If we are convinced that the gospel really is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe (Rom. 1:16-17), we should be asking the Lord to take the message and use it in the hearts of people. In fact, we are told that when the gospel is proclaimed, God is the one who takes this message and declares ‘let there be light’ so that people come to see the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). There are people who do not believe, they need to hear the gospel, but in the preaching of the gospel, God needs to remove the blindness of their hearts. So, to this end we pray. God saves sinners; therefore, I am compelled to pray.

Second, when I pray with regard to evangelism, I should pray specifically for the salvation of the lost person. There are, of course, many ways that I can phrase this prayer. But God hears the simplest request to save sinners. The timing or length of the pray does not induce God more or less. I should pray in secret for the lost. I should pray by name for those who I know are not saved. If I have opportunity to share the gospel on a moment’s notice, it would be wise to quickly and silently pray. Ask that God would send the Holy Spirit both to our lips but also to the ears of the listener.

I should also pray that I would have the words to say and that God would call to mind Scripture to use in sharing the gospel. Jesus tells his disciples that when they are handed over for trials and persecution, they should not worry about what to say in order to bear witness, but the Holy Spirit will give them what to say (Matt 10:17-20; Mark 13:11-13; Luke 21:12-15). I believe that it is a faithful application to say that when I am evangelizing, I should ask Jesus in prayer to give me the words to say.

Finally and most importantly, I should pray that God’s name would be glorified and that He would do all according to His will. We believe that God is sovereign in electing and calling a people to Himself. When the Word of God was preached in Acts 13, we are told in verse 48, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” That does not mean that all the elect are saved the moment that they hear the gospel, the timing of their salvation is also in God’s hand. What it does mean is that my mission in sharing the gospel is first and foremost to glorify God. I should pray that when I evangelize God would be glorified, that Jesus’ Lordship would be made clear so that He is honored. I should pray that God’s will be done.

It is entirely possible for you to faithfully share the message, the listener to openly reject the gospel, and for God to still be completely glorified. While we should continue to pray for the salvation of the sinner, our priority is that God’s will be done. So we should pray “save them, if it is your will”—this is akin to how we should pray for all our requests, in the name of Jesus and with a humble spirit ‘if it is according to your will.’

Prayer and evangelism should go hand in hand. Praying for evangelism keeps me humble. You may be the next world-renowned evangelist, but you save no one. Our efforts in evangelism need to be bathed in prayer. We should ask others to pray for us as we too pray for the evangelism efforts of others.

Prayer in evangelism is about asking God to work. It’s about looking to God. Am I evangelizing because I am enthralled with the glory of God in the gospel? Then I pray “God be glorified.” Do I evangelize because I believe the gospel is the power of God? Thus, I pray “God do your work.” We should not have evangelism without prayer but we also should not have prayers for the lost without evangelism. These are the means which God has ordained to use for the spread of the gospel and the announcement of His glory to all the nations.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Prayer: How to Pray

There are any number of passages on prayer to which one could turn.  But there is something powerfully succinct about Paul’s words in Colossians 4: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (v. 2).  Here we have directions concerning our attitude and response, which surely shapes our actual prayers that we offer up to God.

     We are to come before God with the acknowledgment that whatever the request, the outcome will not come about because of our own wisdom or efforts.  To be sure, there may be things we are called upon to do, and these actions may well be the means through which God accomplishes his sovereign will.  But we always approach our heavenly Father as one who is completely dependent upon him for everything.  After all, it is the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) to which we come, and thus we come as sinners in need of God’s matchless favor to the utterly undeserving.  There is thus the related attitude of humility, recognizing that we have no claim upon God, but receive his blessings out of his abundant goodness and mercy.

     Paul tells us in our passage to “continue steadfastly in prayer.”  We are not to grow weary or discouraged as we offer up those prayers that do not get answered as quickly as we would like.  We are not to give up and lose heart; rather, we are to persevere in our petitions, because through times of waiting and uncertainty God is refining our character and forming us more into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We live in a fast-paced world that frequently looks for instant results.  God does not operate by these same standards.  Yes, sometimes answers to prayer come quickly.  But other times God takes what we know as the “long view” because he knows it is what we need.

     This leads into the other part of Paul’s exhortation, which is to be “watchful” in prayer.  The Christian life is also marked by one of faith, trust, and hope.  The world uses these words as well, but they cannot advance beyond the empty wish that somehow everything will work out favorably.  For apart from the love of God in Christ, there is no settled confidence and assurance that all things will work together for good (Rom. 8:28), because such promises only belong to the people of God.  So as we persevere in prayer we do so believing that God is going to act on our behalf, that he really does go before us, knowing what concerns us even before we ask him (Matt. 6:8).  Moreover, because the Bible reveals to us the character of the one true God before whom we come, there is to be a sense of joyful expectancy even in the midst of offering prayers that remain unanswered.  As Paul declares in Romans 8: “What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (vv. 31-32)?  It is not a question of whether or not God will act, but of when and how he will display his glory.

     Lastly, Paul writes in Colossians 4:2 that we are to pray with thanksgiving.  We see from this that thanksgiving is not only to be given once we receive the answer to our prayer, but is something that is done before we know the outcome.  How is that possible?  Why can Christians render such thanks in advance, when they have no idea how the situation is going to turn out?  The world might respond with some vacuous nonsense about the power of positive thinking being able to affect future results.  But Christians offer up prayers rich with thanksgiving because they know what their God is like because he has revealed himself to them as one who is complete and eternal in all his perfections. 

     Thus, our prayers are to be balanced.  Prayer is not merely a listing of requests, though of course it includes this, for God wants us to bring our needs and concerns before him and the Holy Spirit helps us in our requests.  Prayer is also to include the confessing of our sins.  Indeed, prayer can at times be the activity where we see past decisions and reactions for what they really were, and the consequent need for repentance.  Furthermore, knowing that God does forgive and restore is one reason why the rehearsal of God’s attributes is so vital.  As our Creator and Redeemer he alone is worthy of our praise.  The better we know Scripture, the better such rehearsal of his character will be.  And the better we know God, the more our prayers will align with what pleases him.

Michael D. Roberts is the Alliance editor of  He holds a DTh in New Testament from the University of South Africa.

Anne Hooper – From Rejected Daughter to Single Mother

Being a single mother was common in the sixteenth century, when wars and pestilence claimed the lives of many husbands. Most widows returned to their family homes or relied on the support of the local church. They often remarried. Anne Hooper focused on raising her daughter Rachel and promoting her husband’s writings.

            Her devotion to Rachel’s Christian upbringing can easily put modern mothers to shame. Describing the three-year old progress to the child’s godfather, the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, she wrote, “You must know that she is well acquainted with English, and that she has learned by heart within these three months the form of giving thanks, the ten commandments, the Lord’s prayer, the apostles’ creed, together with the first and second psalms of David. And now, as she knows almost all her letters, she is instructed in the catechism.”[1]

Who Was Anne Hooper?

Born in the Low Countries in a noble Roman Catholic family (the De Tscerlas), Anne had at least one older sister and one brother. Little is known of her early life, except that she and her sister embraced the Reformed faith and moved to Strasbourg. This was, in itself, a revolutionary act – two young women crushing their parents’ expectations and setting out alone in a foreign land.

            In Strasbourg, they found refuge in the households first of a Belgian nobleman, Jacques de Bourgogne, and then of the exiled English merchant Richard Hilles. It was at Hilles’s home that Anne first met her future husband, John Hooper, a former monk and an English exile. He had been ill, and Anne and her sister devoted much time to his care. John and Anne married in 1547, after John had taken a trip back to England to secure his inheritance. Writing to Bullinger, John described Anne “exceedingly favorable to true religion.”[2]

            The Hoopers visited Bullinger in Zurich soon after their marriage. When their first child, Rachel, was born in 1548, Bullinger and the wife of Theodore Bibliander became her godparents. By that time, the British crown rested on the Protestant Edward VI, and many exiles who had disagreed with Henry VIII returned to their country. John and Anne, however, stayed in Zurich two more years.

            Their trip back took them through the city of Antwerp, where Anne was hoping to resume contact with her family. The messenger of the letter found that Anne’s father was dead. Her mother, however, never discovered what Anne had said, because Anne’s brother threw the letter into the fire without reading it. “You see the words of Christ are true, that the brother shall persecute the brother for the sake of the word of God,”[3] John said.

            In London, John and Anne were received warmly. John was made chaplain to the duke of Somerset, and Anne was fully accepted into the London society, even if marriage of former monks and priests – as John had been – had been legalized only a few months earlier. As they had been helped in their exile, they opened their home to other refugees. A second child, Daniel, was born soon after their arrival.

A Stalwart Husband

            Hooper was considered for the bishopric of Gloucester, but his stubborn opposition to the consecration ceremony and to the use of vestments led to a short period of imprisonment, first at Lambeth Palace and then in the Royal Fleet. Eventually, Bullinger persuaded him to relent, for the sake of the unity in the church, and Hooper was released and consecrated.

            Anne became even busier, “overwhelmed by so many and urgent engagements that scarce any leisure was allowed [her]”[4] Undoubtedly, she was trying to take as many responsibilities as possible off the shoulders of her already overworked husband who, in her words, was preaching “at least three times every day.” She was concerned about his health. “I am afraid lest these overabundant exertions should occasion a premature decay,” she said.[5]

            Things changed quickly in 1553, when Mary I came to the throne, and Hooper was again imprisoned in the Fleet. From prison, he wrote a long and loving letter to his wife, encouraging her to have patience and assuring her of her salvation. He also wrote letters to Bullinger, expressing his concern for Anne and their children. Once again, Bullinger pledged to help.

            As the situation in England worsened, Bullinger invited Anne to move to Zurich where he would make sure her needs were provided. With John’s encouragement, Anne left England, but chose to move to Frankfurt, where her brother-in-law was chief minister of the foreign church.

A Short Widowhood

            With the help of her sister and brother-in-law, Anne was able to rent a home of her own. In the meantime, she stayed in touch with Bullinger, sending him news of the exiles in Frankfurt. At one point, she sent Bullinger the church’s prayer book, together with the pastor’s greetings, showing herself in a role of facilitator of the communication between churches, which might have been part of her “many and urgent engagements” in the past.

            News from England, however, were not good. Mary’s persecution of Protestants had spiraled to an extreme, and Anne’s hopes to see John again continued to decrease. “I am more than commonly anxious about my husband,” she told Bullinger, and “I very often feel to be all but dead through grief.”[6]

            Hooper was executed on 9 February 1555. Writing to Bullinger two months later, Anne asked him, as a favor to her, to publish one of the last works her husband had written from prison.

            This was Anne’s last existing letter to the Reformer. On December 7, an outbreak of the plague reunited her to her husband, followed by Rachel’s death a few days later. Daniel moved in with a gentleman who had been appointed as his guardian, and there is no further record of his life.

            Anne’s life was, in some respects, typical of 16th century wives of Protestant Reformers, when the task of preaching a long-neglected gospel was perceived as urgent and worth any sacrifice. Her letters, with her honest communication of feelings and daily activities, bring us closer to these lives which are – to modern eyes – quite ordinary and familiar in their emotions and yet extraordinary in their devotion.

[2] Ibid, p. 38.

[3] Ibid, p. 63.

[4] Ibid, p. 107.

[5] Ibid, p. 108.

[6] Ibid, p. 113.

Prayer: Sovereignty & Prayer

I love the Lord, because He hears my voice and my supplications. Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live.[1]

One of the frequently asked questions about God’s sovereignty is: if God is sovereign, why pray? On the one hand, it is an understandable question. If we believe that God is in control of all things and has ordained “whatsoever comes to pass,[2]” why should we pray to Him? He already knows our needs, and He has already decided what He’s going to do. We can’t change His mind. So why pray?

One answer I’ve heard over the years is that we pray because God tells us to. That is certainly true. We are told to pray. But I think this answer is somewhat lacking. It misses something about the nature of prayer and the reasons we pray and something about God’s sovereignty. We don’t pray to God despite His sovereignty, we pray to God because of His sovereignty.

When we ask the question, “If God is sovereign, why should we pray?” we are making an assumption about the nature of prayer. While we often treat it as such, prayer is about more than simply asking God for what we want or need. As the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches, prayer is “an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit; with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”[3] We should pray to God about our needs and wants, but we should also praise Him, thank Him, and confess our sins to Him.

An old acronym for remembering the different parts of prayer is A.C.T.S.: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. While not every prayer needs to include all of these aspects, in our overall prayer life, we should incorporate each of these. And God’s sovereignty is demonstrated in each type of prayer.

We praise God and adore Him in our prayers because He is sovereign. Who else is worthy of praise? As the creatures in Revelation repeat, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”[4] He alone is almighty. He alone is the Lord. He alone is worthy of praise. There is no one else like Him.

We thank God in our prayers because He is sovereign. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He is our Redeemer and Savior. He is our Comforter and Helper. All that we have is from Him. There are endless reasons to thank Him. Psalm 103 is an excellent example of a prayer of thanksgiving for all that God has done:

            Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your         diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and     compassion; Who satisfies your years with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the           eagle.[5]

We confess our sins to God because He is sovereign. Is there anyone else who can forgive our sins? Where else can we go? Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has purchased for us the forgiveness of our sins. God alone has the power to forgive sins. As He promises, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[6]

Lastly, we bring our wants, needs, and desires to God in prayer because He is sovereign. We ask Him for mercy, healing, protection, provision because He alone is able to answer our prayers. He promises to hear us when we pray, and He promises to answer us:

            This is the confidence which we have before 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 which we have asked from Him.[7]

The question should not be “If God is sovereign, why should we pray?” but rather, “If God is not sovereign, why should we pray?” It is only because He is sovereign that it makes any sense to pray to Him. What use would a god be that was powerless to help us or who might not hear us when we pray?

Our God is not like the worthless idols that we make literally or figuratively with our own hands. He alone is worthy of praise. He alone is the God of all creation. He alone can pardon our sins. He alone is the God who hears. He alone is our Father in heaven who gives us the good things we need. He alone is able.

            Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to             the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all     generations forever and ever. Amen[8]

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She has a BA in History from Texas A&M University. She is a member of a PCA church in the Houston area and the homeschooling mother of three boys.

[1]    Psalm 116:1-2, NASB

[2]    Westminster Confession of Faith, III.1

[3]    Westminster Larger Catechism question 178

[4]    Revelation 4:8, NASB

[5]    Psalm 103:1-5, NASB

[6]    1 John 1:9, NASB

[7]    1 John 5:14-15, NASB

[8]    Ephesians 3:20-21, NASB

Theological Roots and Moral Fruits of Reformation

The leader of a major campus ministry recently said “If forty people approach a campus minister with an objection to Christianity, one worries about Bart Ehrman and his attacks on the authority and reliability of Scripture. The other thirty-nine have moral questions: Why does the Bible have a repressive sex ethic? Why is it silent about abuse of power? Why do evangelical churches support politicians who tolerate racism and misogyny? Why do so many pastors say “God wants you to be rich” and get rich pushing that message? In short, they ask, “Can I look to the church for moral direction?”

     The Reformation era had similar questions and they fueled a desire for reform in an era when the church was society’s dominant institution. Priests were everywhere and their flaws were clear. For example, Zurich had a population of 5,000 people and about 400 priests – over 20% of the adult male population. They lived beside the people, who saw that most of them had concubines and illegitimate children. At the time, popes like Alexander VI and Julius I had acknowledged children.

     We rightly accent to the doctrinal elements of the Reformation, but it began as a moral movement and retained a moral flavor. The church was corrupt; it defrauded the poor to pay for its luxuries. This is a major element of Luther’s protest against indulgences. In 1517, Johann Tetzel, an itinerant preacher, offered a special deal – a plenary indulgence, a complete remission of all penalties for sin, even covering purgatory. But indulgences were expensive. And they financed the lifestyle of a wealthy archbishop of Mainz and paid for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

     Carlos Eire, professor of history at Harvard and practicing Catholic, comments, “It was a very sweet deal through which everyone profited at every level, even in the afterlife.” But eventually, as Charles Taylor, another Catholic said, it “set fire to the whole structure of the medieval church.” The problem was two-fold: corrupt church leaders and the abuse of common folk who scraped together meager savings to buy worthless scraps of paper. Many Catholic leaders, including Erasmus, a mentor of Zwingli, and Johan Staupitz, Luther’s mentor, called for reform. Indeed, forty years later, the Roman church launched a successful reform that corrected financial, sexual, and ecclesiastical abuses.

     But there was more to Luther than moral reform. Luther never intended to start the Reformation. He meant to protest Tetzel’s indulgences for moral abuse and theological error. To quote theses 50-51, if “the pope knew [what] the indulgence-preachers [do], he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.” The pope ought “to sell the church of St. Peter, and give his own money to… those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money.” Why redeem souls “for the sake of miserable money” that he uses “to build a church? The cause “is most trivial” and indulgences promote “greed and avarice,” not prayer (theses 28, 48).

     Clearly, the presenting issue in 1517 was moral, but the root was theological. Luther’s critique of indulgences had staying power because he went past moral dimensions and questioned the edifice of Catholicism, including the sacramental system for obtaining grace.

     The medieval church had an orthodox theology of the Trinity. It affirmed Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the centrality of his atoning death. The disagreement lay in the doctrine of human nature and sin.

     The medieval church said justification and salvation comes by grace, but it said salvation comes by an infusion of grace, an empowering grace, granted by the Spirit to counter human sinfulness. Specifically, Baptism washes away original sin, but corruption or “concupiscence” remains in the desires of the flesh. Grace cannot quench this desire, which easily bursts into flame. But mankind, according the influential late Medieval theologian Gabriel Biel, is wounded, but not dead, prone to burst into sin, but capable of doing good and loving God. Mankind is wounded but alive, crippled but standing.

     Biel offered a simple prescription: “Do what is in you” (“Facere quod in se est”) – do what you can. If you do, take heart, for God chose to obligate himself to infuse grace into you. This idea supports sacramental theology. By taking the sacraments, Christians do what they can and receive grace.

     This is not the moment to recount Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel, but when he realized that the just live by his faith alone, through grace alone, he had a stronger reason to object to indulgences: they confused the gospel. They are part of a theology that tells people to do what they can to gain grace.

     Many agreed on the need for church reform, but Luther gave the reform theological roots. Many protested financial misbehavior, but Luther’s objection rested on a new perspective on God, humanity, and the gospel. He said the will is in bondage to sin and dead to God, not wounded. The cure is not that men do what they can, but that God does what men cannot. Hence salvation is by grace alone, through Christ alone, received by faith alone. That teaching led to Luther’s greatest moral reforms. I will merely mention two: the close of monasteries, which brought new respect for marriage, and the idea that work, in this world, is a vocation.

     The monastery was attractive to the pious because it offered constant access to grace-giving sacraments, especially penance and Eucharist. But the gospel deprives monasteries of a key theological foundation. The Spirit, the gospel and union with Christ offer all necessary grace. Therefore monasteries can empty and people with no calling to singleness can leave and marry. Marriage can regain the esteem it deserves.

     The gospel also drove Luther’s reforms of work. Medieval theology said monks and priests have a vocation, serving God, gaining grace, and keeping (meritorious) vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But if everyone has the necessary grace through Christ, the need for a sacred vocation fades, and the path is open to see all work as a vocation.

     Luther’s view of work will be the subject of a later blog. For now, let’s see that the gospel drove the greatest social reforms of the Reformation era. Then we can explore the way reforms most needed today also rest in the truth about God, mankind, and the gospel.