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The Substance of Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-14, Luke 11:2-4) is one of the most significant texts in the Bible for understanding the Christian life. It has been understood as the foundational text on prayer for God’s people for over 2000 years. We know from the Didache, an early first-century Christian document, that Christians were instructed to pray the Lord’s Prayer regularly. Nearly every major Christian tradition has emphasized the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, alongside the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the sacraments.

My Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has so emphasized the Lord’s Prayer that the final sections of both our Shorter and Larger catechisms consist of very meaningful expositions of this text. This prayer is similarly emphasized in Luther’s catechisms, the Book of Common Prayer, and so on.

Given how significant this prayer has been for God’s people for nearly two millennia, we would do well to examine our own lives to determine how much we have been shaped (if at all) by this prayer that our Lord taught us to pray.

Can you earnestly say that you have taken the teaching of this prayer seriously? Has it shaped you? Does it regularly inform the substance and content of your prayers?

Can you earnestly say that you have taken the teaching of this prayer seriously? Has it shaped you? Does it regularly inform the substance and content of your prayers?

For many of us, there is a danger of familiarity. We have heard the Lord’s Prayer so many times that it no longer arrests us, surprises us, or captivates our hearts and minds.

Another danger is simply that we might have mixed thoughts about God. Perhaps you do not really believe God is a kind Father who desires to hear from you regularly and often. Perhaps you do not believe that God – if he even exists – would care about your daily concerns.

There is much that the Lord’s Prayer could teach us, if we are willing. In this article I want to walk through each line of the Lord’s Prayer and give a few suggestions of how this ancient prayer given to us by Christ could inform our prayers in the present day. Given the significance this prayer has had in my Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, I’ll be sharing key insights and references from these historic traditions in order to further illuminate the teaching of this prayer.

Using the Lord’s Prayer

Think of the Lord’s prayer like a stencil, giving us the shape of our prayers, while we complete the pattern with our own handwriting, instruments, and colors.

A quick word on using the Lord’s Prayer in our own prayer lives. While it us useful to recite this prayer in order to shape our own prayers, this prayer also ought to be viewed as the general pattern for the substance of our prayers. Every line or petition in this prayer can be found in greater detail in countless other places in the Bible. This is why the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) exhorts us,

The Lord’s prayer is not only for direction, as a pattern, according to which we are to make other prayers; but also may be used as a prayer, so that it be done with understanding, faith, reverence, and other graces necessary to the right performance of the duty of prayer. (#187)

Think of the Lord’s prayer like a stencil, giving us the shape of our prayers, while we complete the pattern with our own handwriting, instruments, and colors.

Our Father, Which Art in Heaven

The first line of this prayer is generally referred to as the preface. There are three things we can observe from this introductory line.

First, note the use of the word “our.” This prayer does not begin with “my” Father, but “our” Father. From this we learn that the praying life of the Christian is to be, first of all, communal. Our prayers ought to be both “with and for others” (WLC #189). In other words, the private life of Christian prayer ought to be shaped by the communal life of prayer which a Christian finds themselves in within a local church.

In his family catechism, the Puritan Richard Baxter emphasized that we pray “our Father” and not “my Father” to signify that we pray as members of one body, and look for the good, comfort, and blessedness of others in union with the whole – not in our own separate and individual state. He goes on to say that all Christians must, as they pray for their brothers, sisters, and neighbors, love them, and hate the sins of various schisms which cause separation with Christ’s church.

Likewise, the French Reformer John Calvin exhorts us to conform our prayers to saying “our Father” in order to be filled with a great brotherly love for all the saints, and to be “prepared gladly and wholeheartedly to share with one another, so far as any occasion requires” (Institutes, 3.20.38)

Second, we read that our God is to be prayed to as “Father.” We are told in Galatians 4 and Romans 8 that it is only those who have been adopted in Christ who may call on God as “Father.” To approach God as Father means we are approaching him through the saving and mediating relationship of Jesus Christ. This is why Calvin emphasized that as soon as we begin to pray Father, we are praying in Christ’s name.

This language referring to God as “Father” is difficult for some. All of our earthly fathers are imperfect, and some much more than others. We must always keep in mind that our Heavenly Father is the standard by which we compare our earthly fathers, not the other way around. As you continue to approach God in prayer, if even at a distance, he will draw you slowly and tenderly into his loving embrace. It is his perfect, Fatherly nature to do so.

Third, we pray to our Father who is in heaven. Our God is high and lofty. He is beyond all conception of the body and soul. This preface ties together both the intimacy of God and the holiness of God – he is both near to us, and separate from us. It is this paradox which makes the coming of Christ so beautiful and special. Can you believe that this God in heaven would descend to an earthly form, take a body to himself for all of eternity, suffer what we ought to have suffered, all in order to give us special access to God as Father? Incredible.

Hallowed Be They Name

The second line of this prayer is known as the first petition. The 20th Century theologian J.I. Packer said that in this petition we are asking that the “praise and honor of the God of the Bible, and of him only, should be the issue of everything” (Growing in Christ, 171-172).

The German Reformer Martin Luther emphasized two aspects of this petition. First, he pointed out that all baptized Christians bear the Triune name of God. As name-bearers we represent Christ to the world. In this petition, we pray that God would keep us from dishonoring the name by which we are called, and that he would strengthen us to live good and holy lives.

Second, he emphasized that in this prayer we are asking for God to be glorifying among all the nations as he is glorified in us.

In this petition, we request that God would strengthen and purify us to glorify him in all that we do.

Thy Kingdom Come

God’s Kingdom exists wherever people have recognized Jesus as Lord over their lives. Every Christian brings the light of the Kingdom into this world and is an ambassador for their King. Every local church is an embassy and outpost as the Kingdom of Light goes forward and pushes back the kingdom of darkness in this world.

In this second petition, we look forward to the day when Christ returns and brings about his final kingdom rule over his creation. We pray that Christ would hasten his return. But until then, we also pray that God would bring about renewal in his people, that he would convert sinners, and that he would restrain evil. This is a prayer for the progress of Christ’s Kingdom to move forward as the powers of this evil age retreat.

So what are we going to do with this precious knowledge? Complain? Point fingers? Look for others to blame? Or can we pray, “Your Kingdom come, Lord, and do it through us, for you have already given us the victory in Christ.”

The 17th/18th Century theologian Thomas Ridgley, commenting on the Larger Catechism, summarized in this way:

When we say, “Your Kingdom Come”, we express our desire that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed. (A Body of Divinity, Vol. 2 pg. 620)

If we take a look around right now, it doesn’t much look like Christ’s Kingdom is coming. It looks like the powers of this evil age might be winning. But we know the end of the story! We have victor over sin and Satan by the power of the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 12:11).

So what are we going to do with this precious knowledge? Complain? Point fingers? Look for others to blame? Or can we pray, “Your Kingdom come, Lord, and do it through us, for you have already given us the victory in Christ.”

Thy Will Be Done

The catechisms teach us that in this third petition, we pray for God to make us able and willing to know, obey, and submit to his will in all things, especially because we are prone to rebel against him and harden our hearts toward him (WLC #192).

Yes, we can trust him. Jesus isn’t teaching us to do anything he has not already done himself.

But how can we be sure God’s will is good and trustworthy? Consider that this is the one part of the Lord’s Prayer which Jesus himself prayed in the Garden before his trial and crucifixion. He prayed, “let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). He submitted to his Father’s will under far more difficult circumstances than any of us will ever face. He submitted to his Father’s will rather than his own personal desires. In so doing, he brought about salvation for all those who call on his name.

Yes, we can trust him. Jesus isn’t teaching us to do anything he has not already done himself.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

In this fourth petition we notice that the Lord’s Prayer changes direction. While the first three petitions were focused on adoration and praise, the last three petitions are more horizontal, and focus on our own needs and circumstances. We are not to let ourselves dominate prayer, but instead ought first to give praise and honor to God. When our hearts are so focused on him, we will be ready to focus on our own needs or circumstances.

Augustine reminds us that in this petition we are praying for necessities rather than luxuries. The Proverbs teach us to desire neither poverty nor riches (Proverbs 30:8). Just as the Israelites were to only focus on collecting a day’s portion of manna (Exodus 16:4), we too ought only to ask for the necessities for our daily lives.

This petition also shows us the correct way to relate to and regard our bodies. Much of modern Christianity has disregarded the body and emphasized merely spiritual realities. In so doing it has become much like the ancient gnostics, who regarded the spiritual at the expense of the physical.

But Christians can relate to our bodies neither by deifying them nor despising them. Our bodies are a part of God’s good creation. We can gratefully act as stewards of our bodies. When we enjoy and care for our bodies, we take care of these gifts from the Lord.

When we enjoy and care for our bodies, we take care of these gifts from the Lord.

It is in part for this reason that Luther emphasized not only an individual but a social dynamic to this prayer. As Tim Keller identifies in his book on prayer, Luther believed that there must be a good economy, good employment, and a just society (Prayer, pgs. 114-115). In Luther’s Larger Catechism, he warned against the “daily oppression and raising of prices in common trade, bargaining and labor on the part of those who wantonly oppress the poor and deprive them of their daily bread.” He goes on to warn such people that by perpetuating such injustice in our society, they might find themselves on the wrong side of the prayers of God’s people!

Forgive Us Our Debts, As We Forgive Our Debtors

In this fifth petition we are taught to acknowledge our sin before God, recognizing that we are unable in any way to make satisfaction for the debt we owe to God for our sins (WLC #194). We pray that God would by his grace apply faith to our hearts, grant to us full forgiveness of sin, accept us in Christ, and fill us with an increasing assurance of the forgiveness we have received.

It is from this place of knowing the overwhelming grace and forgiveness of God that we must extend grace and forgiveness to others. Do you remember the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35)? There was a man who owed his master much, and when he was to be taken to jail he fell down and begged his master to be forgiven of his debt. The master was merciful and forgave the servant of all the debt which he owed. But when this servant was released, he went out and found those who owed him money and he acted harshly toward them. The master was engaged, and when he found this unforgiving servant he put him in prison until he could pay off his enormous debt. Jesus ended the parable with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

A bitter, unforgiving Christian is a Christian who is not themselves right with God.

A bitter, unforgiving Christian is a Christian who is not themselves right with God. This is why Calvin said,

If we retain feelings of hatred in our hearts, if we plot revenge and ponder any occasion to cause harm, if we do not try to get back into our enemies’ good graces and commend ourselves to them, then in this prayer we are asking God not to forgive our sins. (Institutes, 3.20.45)

This is the relationship between forgive us…AS…we forgive others. We are pledging ourselves to God: “Forgive us, and we will go and do likewise.” If we are regularly unwilling to forgive others, we might as well as God to withhold forgiveness from us.

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil

When Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake and pray, they fell asleep. They were unable to keep watch and give themselves to prayer. Jesus rebuked them saying, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

To enter into temptation is to entertain and consider the prospect of giving in to sin. I have often counseled those with addictions to various sins that they lose the battle as soon as they commit “pre-meditated sin.” The imagination becomes captivated by sin, and the heart follows suit. Thus we must pray not to even enter into temptation, and for God to keep us from the evil which follows.

So as we pray for God to keep US from temptation, we pray that he would strengthen our local church to resist sin together and restore those who are given to their temptations.

This is a prayer for God’s protection, which he is happy to do within the communion of saints as they work out their salvation together. This is why the Apostle Paul exhorted us in Galatians 6 to restore those who are caught in sin, keep watch on ourselves lest we also be tempted, and to bear one another’s burdens.

A lone Christian is like a lone gazelle, just waiting to be devoured by a roaring lion. So as we pray for God to keep US from temptation, we pray that he would strengthen our local church to resist sin together and restore those who are given to their temptations.

For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory Forever

This conclusion reads like a doxology or benediction, which we find throughout the Bible as a final word of praise to God. Many churches end their service with such words of benediction every week. This final word brings us back to the top of the prayer, returning our hearts to the heights of joyous praise to God and his Kingdom. We remind each other in our prayers that nothing can ever take away our Father’s kingdom, power, or glory. Such confidence in our God brings tranquility and peace to our troubled hearts, which are prone to anxious worry.

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us not merely the words but primarily the substance of the prayers of a Christian. Scripture is filled with countless prayers which are commended to Christians to pray word for word, but also to be used to inspire and fill our own prayers. But the Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of prayers. It teaches us what ought to be included in our prayer, and not to expect or demand anything except what is included in this prayer. And though the words of our prayers may be completely different, as Calvin said, the sense of our prayer ought not to vary (Institutes, 3.20.49).

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The Substance of Prayer

by Ben Hein time to read: 12 min
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