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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
has been well defined, the offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name or through the mediation of Jesus Christ, by the help of the Holy Spirit, with a confession of our sins, and a thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
1. Prayer is in itself a becoming acknowledgment of the all-sufficiency of God, and of our dependence upon him. It is his appointed means for the obtaining of both temporal and spiritual blessings. He could bless his creatures in another way: but he will be inquired of, to do for them those things of which they stand in need, Ezekiel 36:37 . It is the act of an indigent creature, seeking relief from the fountain of mercy. A sense of want excites desire, and desire is the very essence of prayer. "One thing have I desired of the Lord," says David; "that will I seek after." Prayer without desire is like an altar without a sacrifice, or without the fire from heaven to consume it. When all our wants are supplied, prayer will be converted into praise; till then Christians must live by prayer, and dwell at the mercy seat. God alone is able to hear and to supply their every want. The revelation which he has given of his goodness lays a foundation for our asking with confidence the blessings we need, and his ability encourages us to hope for their bestowment. "O thou that hearest prayer; unto thee shall all flesh come," Psalms 65:2 .
2. Prayer is a spiritual exercise, and can only be performed acceptably by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, Romans 8:26 . "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight." The Holy Spirit is the great agent in the world of grace, and without his special influence there is no acceptable prayer. Hence he is called the Spirit of grace and of supplication: for he it is that enables us to draw nigh unto God, filling our mouth with arguments, and teaching us to order our cause before him, Zechariah 12:10 .
3. All acceptable prayer must be offered in faith, or a believing frame of mind. "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering—for let not the wavering man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord," James 1:5-7 . "He that cometh unto God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him," Hebrews 11:6 . It must be offered in the name of Christ, believing in him as revealed in the word of God, placing in him all our hope of acceptance, and exercising unfeigned confidence in his atoning sacrifice and prevalent intercession.
4. Prayer is to be offered for "things agreeable to the will of God." So the Apostle says: "This is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us; and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him," 1 John 5:14-15 . Our prayers must therefore be regulated by the revealed will of God, and come within the compass of the promises. These are to be the matter and the ground of our supplications. What God has not particularly promised he may nevertheless possibly bestow; but what he has promised he will assuredly perform. Of the good things promised to Israel of old not one failed, but all came to pass; and in due time the same shall be said of all the rest.
5. All this must be accompanied with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of God's mercies. These are two necessary ingredients in acceptable prayer. "I prayed," says the Prophet Daniel, "and made confession." Sin is a burden, of which confession unloads the soul. "Father," said the returning prodigal, "I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight." Thanksgiving is also as necessary as confession; by the one we take shame to ourselves; by the other, we give glory to God. By the one, we abase the creature; by the other we exalt the Creator. In petitioning favours from God, we act like dependent creatures; in confession, like sinners; but in thanksgiving, like angels.
The reason on which this great and efficacious duty rests, has been a subject of some debate. On this point, however, we have nothing stated in the Scriptures. From them we learn only, that God has appointed it; that he enjoins it to be offered in faith, that is, faith in Christ, whose atonement is the meritorious and procuring cause of all the blessings to which our desires can be directed; and that prayer so offered is an indispensable condition of our obtaining the blessings for which we ask. As a matter of inference, however, we may discover some glimpses of the reason in the divine Mind on which its appointment rests. That reason has sometimes been said to be the moral preparation and state of fitness produced in the soul for the reception of the divine mercies which the act and, more especially, the habit of prayer must induce. Against this stands the strong, and, in a Scriptural view, fatal objection, that an efficiency is thus ascribed to the mere act of a creature to produce those great, and, in many respects, radical changes in the character of man, which we are taught, by inspired authority, to refer to the direct influences of the Holy Spirit. What is it that fits man for forgiveness, but simply repentance? Yet that is expressly said to be the "gift" of Christ, and supposes strong operations of the illuminating and convincing Spirit of truth, the Lord and Giver of spiritual life; and if the mere acts and habit of prayer had efficiency enough to produce a Scriptural repentance, then every formalist attending with ordinary seriousness to his devotions, must, in consequence, become a penitent. Again: if we pray for spiritual blessings aright, that is, with an earnestness of desire which arises from a due apprehension of their importance, and a preference of them to all earthly good, who does not see that this implies such a deliverance from the earthly and carnal disposition which characterizes our degenerate nature, that an agency far above our own, however we may employ it, must be supposed? or else, if our own prayers could be efficient up to this point, we might, by the continual application of this instrument, complete our regeneration, independent of that grace of God, which, after all, this theory brings in. It may indeed be said, that the grace of God operates by our prayers to produce in us a state of moral fitness to receive the blessings we ask. But this gives up the point contended for, the moral efficiency of prayer; and refers the efficiency to another agent working by our prayers as an instrument. Still, however, it may be affirmed, that the Scriptures no where represent prayer as an instrument for improving our moral state, in any other way than as the means of bringing into the soul new supplies of spiritual life and strength. It is therefore more properly to be considered as a condition of our obtaining that grace by which such effects are wrought, than as the instrument by which it effects them. In fact, all genuine acts of prayer depend upon a grace previously bestowed, and from which alone the disposition and the power to pray proceed. So it was said of Saul of Tarsus, "Behold, he prayeth!" He prayed in fact then for the first time; but that was in consequence of the illumination of his mind as to his spiritual danger, effected by the miracle on the way to Damascus, and the grace of God which accompanied the miracle. Nor does the miraculous character of the means by which conviction was produced in his mind, affect the relevancy of this to ordinary cases. By whatever means God may be pleased to fasten the conviction of our spiritual danger upon our minds, and to awaken us out of the long sleep of sin, that conviction must precede real prayer, and comes from the influence of his grace, rendering the means of conviction effectual. Thus it is not the prayer which produces the conviction, but the conviction which gives birth to the prayer; and if we pursue the matter into its subsequent stages, we shall come to the same result. We pray for what we feel we want; that is, for something not in our possession; we obtain this either by impartation from God, to whom we look up as the only Being able to bestow the good for which we ask him; or else we obtain it, according to this theory, by some moral efficiency being given to the exercise of prayer to work it in us. Now, the latter hypothesis is in many cases manifestly absurd. We ask for pardon of sin, for instance; but this is an act of God done for us, quite distinct from any moral change which prayer may be said to produce in us, whatever efficiency, we may ascribe to it; for no such change in us can be pardon, since that must proceed from the party offended. We ask for increase of spiritual strength; and prayer is the expression of that want. But if it supply this want by its own moral efficiency, it must supply it in proportion to its intensity and earnestness; which intensity and earnestness can only be called forth by the degree in which the want is felt, so that the case supposed is contradictory and absurd, as it makes the sense of want to be in proportion to the supply which ought to abate or remove it. And if it be urged, that prayer at least produces in us a fitness for the supply of spiritual strength, because it is excited by a sense of our wants, the answer is, that the fitness contended for consists in that sense of want itself which must be produced in us by the previous agency of grace, or we should never pray for supplies. There is, in fact, nothing in prayer simply which appears to have any adaptation, as an instrument, to effect a moral change in man, although it should be supposed to be made use of by the influence of the Holy Spirit. The word of God is properly an instrument, because it contains the doctrine which that Spirit explains and applies, and the motives to faith and obedience which he enforces upon the conscience and affections; and although prayer brings these truths and motives before us, prayer cannot properly be said to be an instrument of our regeneration, because that which is thus brought by prayer to bear upon our case is the word of God itself introduced into our prayers, which derive their sole influence in that respect from that circumstance. Prayer simply is the application of an insufficient to a sufficient Being for the good which the former cannot otherwise obtain, and which the latter only can supply; and as that supply is dependent upon prayer, and in the nature of the thing consequent, prayer can in no good sense be said to be the instrument of supplying our wants, or fitting us for their supply, except relatively, as a mere condition appointed by the Donor.
If we must inquire into the reason of the appointment of prayer, and it can scarcely be considered as a purely arbitrary institution, that reason seems to be, the preservation in the minds of men of a solemn and impressive sense of God's agency in the world, and the dependence of all creatures upon him. Perfectly pure and glorified beings, no longer in a state of probation, and therefore exposed to no temptations, may not need this institution; but men in their fallen state are constantly prone to forget God; to rest in the agency of second causes; and to build upon a sufficiency in themselves. This is at once a denial to God of the glory which he rightly claims, and a destructive delusion to creatures, who, in forsaking God as the object of their constant affiance, trust but in broken reeds, and attempt to drink from "broken cisterns which can hold no water." It is then equally in mercy to us, as in respect to his own honour and acknowledgment, that the divine Being has suspended so many of his blessings, and those of the highest necessity to us, upon the exercise of prayer; an act which acknowledges his uncontrollable agency; and the dependence of all creatures upon him; our insufficiency, and his fulness; and lays the foundation of that habit of gratitude and thanksgiving which is at once so meliorating to our own feelings, and so conducive to a cheerful obedience to the will of God. And if this reason for the injunction of prayer is no where in Scripture stated in so many words, it is a principle uniformly supposed as the foundation of the whole scheme of religion which they have revealed.
To this duty objections have been sometimes offered, at which it may be well at least to glance. One has been grounded upon a supposed predestination of all things which come to pass; and the argument is, that as this established predetermination of all things cannot be altered, prayer, which supposes that God will depart from it, is vain and useless. The answer which a pious predestinarian would give to this objection is, that the argument drawn from the predestination of God lies with the same force against every other human effort, as against prayer; and that as God's predetermination to give food to man does not render the cultivation of the earth useless and impertinent, so neither does the predestination of things shut out the necessity and efficacy of prayer. It would also be urged, that God has ordained the means as well as the end; and although he is an unchangeable Being, it is a part of the unchangeable system which he has established, that prayer shall be heard and accepted. Those who have not these views of predestination will answer the objection differently; for if the premises of such a predestination as is assumed by the objection, and conceded in the answer, be allowed, the answer is unsatisfactory. The Scriptures represent God, for instance, as purposing to inflict a judgment upon an individual or a nation, which purpose is often changed by prayer.
In this case either God's purpose must be denied, and then his threatenings are reduced to words without meaning; or the purpose must be allowed; in which case either prayer breaks in upon predestination, if understood absolutely, or it is vain and useless. To the objection so drawn out it is clear that no answer is given by saying that the means as well as the end are predestinated, since prayer in such cases is not a means to the end, but an instrument of thwarting it; or is a means to one end in opposition to another end, which, if equally predestinated with the same absoluteness, is a contradiction. The true answer is, that although God has absolutely predetermined some things, there are others which respect his government of free and accountable agents, which he has but conditionally predetermined. The true immutability of God consists, not in his adherence to his purposes, but in his never changing the principles of his administration; and he may therefore, in perfect accordance with his preordination of things, and the immutability of his nature, purpose to do, under certain conditions dependent upon the free agency of man, what he will not do under others; and for this reason, that an immutable adherence to the principles of a wise, just, and gracious government requires it.
Prayer is in Scripture made one of these conditions; and if God has established it as one of the principles of his moral government to accept prayer, in every case in which he has given us authority to ask, he has not, we may be assured, entangled his actual government of the world with the bonds of such an eternal predestination of particular events, as either to reduce prayer to a mere form of words, or not to be able himself, consistently with his decrees, to answer it, whenever it is encouraged by his express engagements.
A second objection is, that as God is infinitely wise and good, his wisdom and justice will lead him to bestow "whatever is fit for us without praying; and if any thing be not fit for us, we cannot obtain it by praying." To this Dr. Paley very well replies, "that it may be agreeable to perfect wisdom to grant that to our prayers which it would not have been agreeable to the same wisdom to have given us without praying for." This, independent of the question of the authority of the Scriptures which explicitly enjoin prayer, is the best answer which can be given to the objection; and it is no small confirmation of it, that it is obvious to every reflecting man, that for God to withhold favours till asked for, "tends," as the same writer observes, "to encourage devotion among his rational creatures, and to keep up and circulate a knowledge and sense of their dependency upon him."
But it is urged, "God will always do what is best from the moral perfection of his nature, whether we pray or not." This objection, however, supposes that there is but one mode of acting for the best, and that the divine will is necessarily determined to that mode only; "both which positions," says Paley, "presume a knowledge of universal nature, much beyond what we are capable of attaining." It is, indeed, a very unsatisfactory mode of speaking, to say, God will always do what is best; since we can conceive him capable in all cases of doing what is still better for the creature, and also that the creature is capable of receiving more and more from his infinite fulness for ever. All that can be rationally meant by such a phrase is, that, in the circumstances of the case, God will always do what is most consistent with his own wisdom, holiness, and goodness; but then the disposition to pray, and the act of praying, add a new circumstance to every case, and often bring many other new circumstances along with them. It supposes humility, contrition, and trust, on the part of the creature; and an acknowledgment of the power and compassion of God, and of the merit of the atonement of Christ: all which are manifestly new positions, so to speak, of the circumstances of the creature, which, upon the very principle of the objection, rationally understood, must be taken into consideration.
But if the efficacy of prayer as to ourselves be granted, its influence upon the case of others is said to be more difficult to conceive. This may be allowed without at all affecting the duty. Those who bow to the authority of the Scriptures will see, that the duty of praying for ourselves and for others rests upon the same divine appointment; and to those who ask for the reason of such intercession in behalf of others, it is sufficient to reply, that the efficacy of prayer being established in one case, there is the same reason to conclude that our prayers may benefit others, as any other effort we may use. It can only be by divine appointment that one creature is made dependent upon another for any advantage, since it was doubtless in the power of the Creator to have rendered each independent of all but himself. Whatever reason, therefore, might lead him to connect and interweave the interests of one man with the benevolence of another, will be the leading reason for that kind of mutual dependence which is implied in the benefit of mutual prayer. Were it only that a previous sympathy, charity, and good will, are implied in the duty, and must, indeed, be cultivated in order to it, and be strengthened by it, the wisdom and benevolence of the institution would, it is presumed, be apparent to every well constituted mind. That all prayer for others must proceed upon a less perfect knowledge of them than we have of ourselves, is certain; that all our petitions must be, even in our own mind, more conditional than those which respect ourselves, though many of these must be subjected to the principles of a general administration, which we but partially apprehend; and that all spiritual influences upon others, when they are subject to our prayers, will be understood by us as liable to the control of their free agency, must also be conceded; and, therefore, when others are concerned, our prayers may often be partially or wholly fruitless. He who believes the Scriptures will, however, be encouraged by the declaration that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man," for his fellow creatures, "availeth much;" and he who demands something beyond mere authoritative declaration, as he cannot deny that prayer is one of those instruments by which another may be benefited, must acknowledge that, like the giving of counsel, it may be of great utility in some cases, although it should fail in others; and that as no man can tell how much good counsel may influence another, or in many cases say whether it has ultimately failed or not, so it is with prayer. It is a part of the divine plan, as revealed in his word, to give many blessings to man independent of his own prayers, leaving the subsequent improvement of them to himself. They are given in honour of the intercession of Christ, man's great "Advocate;" and they are given, subordinately, in acceptance of the prayers of Christ's church, and of righteous individuals. And when many or few devout individuals become thus the instruments of good to communities, or to whole nations, there is no greater mystery in this than in the obvious fact, that the happiness or misery of large masses of mankind is often greatly affected by the wisdom or the errors, the skill or the incompetence, the good or the bad conduct, of a few persons, and often of one.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Prayer'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/p/prayer.html. 1831-2.