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The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer

In Mt 6:1-18, the Lord Jesus addresses the issue of man’s approach to religious observances (almsgiving, prayer, fasting). He cautioned His disciples against praying like hypocrites and heathens. The Lord then gives His disciples a model to use for prayer. Calvin comments on the prayer:  “[Christ] embraces, therefore, in six petitions what we are at liberty to ask from God. Nothing is more advantageous to us than such instruction. Though this is the most important exercise of piety, yet in forming our prayers, and regulating our wishes, all our senses fail us. No man will pray aright, unless his lips and heart shall be directed by the heavenly Master.”[1] It is important to note that Jesus says, “In this manner, therefore, pray” – He doesn’t say “repeat after me with blind repetition” – that would be tough to sustain in light of vv.7-8. It is also important to note that after the preface, there are six petitions with a specific order:  God comes first. The Bible is conspicuously God-centered and while the unbeliever balks at such a truth, the believer delights in it. Prior to the petitions, the Lord Jesus highlights another important truth concerning prayer:  the believer is not to rush into the presence of his Father and immediately start asking for things; but rather the believer is to ponder who God is and ascribe praise, worship, and adoration to the Father. There are obvious exceptions to this general rule (the moment before a car collision, a fall from a high place), but the pattern ought to be reflected in the believer’s prayer life.

The Lord Jesus instructs His people to address God as “Father.” This title is loaded with meaning. In the first place, the Christian does not address blind fate or impersonal power, but rather a personal Father. Secondly, the title indicates the gracious character of God’s relation to us.  We are dead in trespasses and sins and completely alienated from God, but He “predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph 1:5). This also indicates that this particular prayer is the possession of believers only. Carson notes, “The early church was right to forbid non-Christians from reciting this prayer as vigorously as they forbade them from joining with believers at the Lord’s Table.”[2] Thirdly, the title indicates that God our Father hears us. A fundamental problem with heathen idols is that “They have ears, but they do not hear” (Ps 115:6) – not so our God! The Lord Jesus said that when we got into our secret room, the Father who sees in secret will hear us and reward us openly. Fourthly, the title demonstrates that our Father cares for us. Peter encouraged his readers that when they pray, there are to do so by “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). Finally, the title reminds the believer that our Father loves us. Thomas Watson wrote, “He loves His children with such a love as He loves Christ (Jn 17:26). It is the same love, for the unchangeableness of it. God will not more cease to love His adopted sons than He will to love His natural Son.”[3]

The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer not only calls the believer to address God as Father, but it also encourages the child of God to remember that the Father is “in heaven.” God occupies a position of authority over His creation. In theological terms, this means that God is transcendent.  While God is omnipresent (is always present with His people), He is also independent of His creation and over His creation. Secondly, the position of God in heaven reminds the believer that God is sovereign. The Psalmist demonstrates a fundamental difference between the gods of the nations who cannot speak, see, hear or smell, with the God of heaven and earth who is in the heavens and therefore “He does whatever He pleases” (Pss 115:3; 135:5-6). Thirdly, the position of our Father encourages the believer by reminding him of God’s omnipotence. God may love His people, hear them when they call upon Him, and care for them, but stripped of His ability to come to their aid, He would be reduced to an impotent, albeit sentimental being, who cannot undertake on behalf of His children.

The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer further teaches that prayer is to be intelligent. The heathen are known for multiplying words in order to be heard; the believer is to pray with intelligence to his prayer hearing God. Intelligence here should not be misunderstood; intelligence means knowing the Bible, knowing good theology, and praying God’s thoughts back to Him. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 puts it this way, “prayer… [is to be with] understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance…” The practice of Christian prayer is not an exercise wherein the believer empties his mind and approaches an idol in a spirit of ecstasy and carnality; but rather it is an exercise where the believer understands who God is and approaches Him accordingly. Because this is the case, the believer must know God and must address Him accordingly. Prior to rushing in to the presence of God and telling Him all the things He can do for you, take some time, reflect upon the written word, understand who your Father is, delight in the position of absolute sovereignty He occupies, and then worship through prayer.

 



[1] John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke (trans. William Pringle; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1840; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), XVI, p.317.

[2] D.A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:  Matthew-Mark (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2010), p.204.

[3] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (Carlisle:  PA, 1890 [1993]), p.17.

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Why Pray if God is Sovereign?

In Matthew chapter 6, the Lord Jesus Christ cautions His disciples against praying as the hypocrites (v.5) and the heathen (v.7).  He then prescribes a model prayer for His disciples’ use.  Prior to the model prayer (or, “Lord’s Prayer” as it is commonly called), Jesus makes this statement in v.8, “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”  This statement is a corrective to the technique employed by the heathen:  use many words so that God (or the gods) will hear you and answer.  Jesus is saying that you cannot manipulate God or control God or exercise certain formulas in order to make God perform; rather, He knows what you need before you ask Him.  It is important to notice what Jesus does not say; He does not say, “Your Father knows the things you have need of so don’t bother asking Him.”  No, the Lord Jesus says “He knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” – the Lord assumes we will present our petitions before God.  This is consistent with the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 65:24, “It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”  God is a sovereign God and therefore knows the end from the beginning and has certainly decreed all things that come to pass.  If God were not sovereign; if God did not decree all things; if God did not possess absolute authority over all things, prayer would be useless.

In light of this biblical truth, people often ask, “Why pray if God is sovereign?”   The Scripture gives several reasons why believers ought to pray to a sovereign God.  Here are just a few of those reasons.  In the first place, prayer is a natural response from the born again child of God.  In the discussion concerning prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus does not command believers to pray, He assumes that they will pray.  When the Lord speaks to Ananias and tells him to make contact with the newly converted Saul of Tarsus, He describes Saul this way, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11).  It is true that hypocrites pray (remember Mt 6:5) and therefore we can say that “not all that glitters is gold.”  However, it is equally true that gold does in fact glitter and therefore a man who has been brought out of darkness into marvelous light by the sovereign grace of God cannot help but pray.  Secondly, prayer is commanded.  While Jesus assumes believers pray in Mt 6, the rest of the Bible contains various commands to pray.  We might be tempted to think, “if it is part of my life as a new man to pray, why would I have to be commanded to pray?”  There are a whole host of things Christians ought to do, but nevertheless they also need to be commanded to do them; such is the way with remaining sin.  Thirdly, prayer is an act of worship.  God has ordained prayer as a means by which the believer submits to his Father and expresses praise and adoration for His goodness.  This facet of prayer is displayed in the life of Job.  After having experienced the loss of most everything that was near and dear to him, Job did not seek solace in worldly comforts or books with catchy titles like “Ten Principles on Dealing with Grief.”  No, the Scripture says, “Then Job arose, tore His robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.  And he said, ‘naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.  In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (Job 1:20-22).  Our difficulties do not lessen the beauty and glory of God.  Our difficulties do not remove the obligation or privilege of worshiping God.  Upon later reflection, many seasoned saints have witnessed how difficulties drove them to a more earnest worship of their heavenly Father.  Fourthly, prayer to a sovereign God is an exercise of the believer’s faith.  From time to time books appear or sermons are preached which maintain the unbiblical notion, “prayer changes God.”  Prayer does not change God, but rather prayer changes us.  God is our Rock, He is unchanging, and He is all powerful.  It is not God that needs to change; we need to change.  In prayer, the believer’s faith is exercised, his dependence upon God is strengthened, and slowly but surely, the believer is conformed to God’s will.  Finally, prayer is a means by which the believer may unburden himself with One who cares for him, as Peter writes, “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).  Calvin summarizes in this manner,

 “Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to Him, or of exciting Him to do His duty, or urging Him as though He were reluctant.  On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek Him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on His promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into His bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.”[1]

 

In conclusion, the believer must also realize that prayer does not exist in isolation from the Bible.  The Bible informs us concerning God, His being, His attributes, and His purpose in the world and with His people.  We must know Him as God through our Lord Jesus, trust Him as our heavenly Father, and realize that He has purposed to work all things for good for His people (Rom 8:28) which even includes difficulties, trials, and tribulations.  With this understanding of prayer, perhaps the more legitimate question is, “Why pray if God is not sovereign?”

 



[1] John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke (trans. William Pringle; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1840; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), XVI, p.314.