Volume. XXXV, No. 45
Sunday, 09 May 2021

From the Pastor’s Heart: Prayer (1)

While I was reading through some writings from the past, I found an article, Prayer, A Reasonable Duty, which was written for The Presbyterian Magazine (Vol. I., No. III, March, 1821. p. 97-101).  I personally feel that there are many treasures in the writings by our forefathers of faith which have not caught our attention yet. This article is an example.  The topic of “prayer”, although important is not always popular. The author (only identified as “S. B. W.) proposes his view of prayer as a Christian duty.  He begins his message with objections to prayer, and then he refutes them all one by one.  I am going to divide his message into two parts because of its length.  The first part mainly focuses on the meaning of prayer and three key objections to the necessity of prayer.  Therefore, please be reminded that the first part raises questions without answering them.  And you will find answers in the next article.  Remember that it was written 200 years ago!  Let me introduce you to his message on prayers:


The obligation to perform this important duty [prayer], seems to grow out of the very relation in which a moral agent must necessarily stand to the Creator and Governor of the universe.  It is therefore, one of the earliest and highest duties incumbent on a dependent moral agent. Deny it; you annihilate dependence.  There will then exist a moral being who needs nothing from God - who has no want to be supplied - who enjoys no bounty he would wish to be continued!  Such a being must be independent!  The generic nature of prayer consists in a sense of need and desire for supply.  It has been invested with modifications of an adventitious character, arising out of particular emergencies. The attributes of prayer have been modified by the fall.  It is essentially necessary to its acceptability, that it be in the name of Christ.  This modification will, I conceive, continue through eternity.  Confession of sins is in the present state a necessary concomitant of prayer.  This will be unknown in the regions of glory.  Thanksgiving unto God, for his unspeakable gift, and all the blessed results, now is, and will eternally continue, an ingredient of this delightful duty, so characteristic of the Christian.


If these premises be true, prayer will be a duty for ever incumbent on. Forever exercised by a saint in glory, as a necessary result of his moral dependence on the God who made him, and continues to be to him, the author of every good and of every perfect gift. A sense of need, and a desire for a supply, are perfectly compatible with our notions of a felicity competent to moral beings even of unsullied perfection.  Had our first parents in the state of primeval innocence, never felt the painful sensation of hunger, they could never have experienced the pleasure arising from the gratification of this appetite.  Indeed, in our present state, it is as hard to form an idea of enjoyment, without a previous sense of want, as to conceive a notion of a fine portrait, in which all were light, without one single tinge of shade! This principle is deeply inlaid in our constitution, and strongly evinced in the progressive development of the human character.


This idea, moreover, does perfectly coincide with that indefinite and progressive expansion of the human mind, which we are warranted to believe, will be going on in endless advances in perfection, in the mansions of glory. Now, in the order of nature, expansion must precede impletion [filling], or the capacity must be enlarged, before there can be any void to be filled. But the very existence of a void will generate a sense of want.  This sense of want, must of course be followed by a desire of enjoyment; and the very existence of this desire in a saint in glory, involves in it the essence of prayer.  But independently of this reasoning, it would be difficult to conceive such a state of apathy in the glorified saints, that they should have no desire of further enjoyment, or wish for the continuance of their felicity.  This desire is prayer.  I have already mentioned, that the confession of sin, is no essential part of the generic nature of prayer.  It is only an exotic graft, the badge of our apostacy from God; but can never have access to that holy place, into which no unclean thing shall enter.


It must be admitted, objections apparently formidable, have been advanced against prayer. It has been alleged that prayer is repugnant to the immutability, omniscience, and infinitude of the Deity. (1) God, say the objectors, is unchangeable.  Our petitions cannot alter His purposes.  The very same will be the result, therefore, whether we pray, or totally neglect supplicating the throne of grace.  Prayer, therefore, must be unavailing; nay, impious, as it presupposes the mutability of Him who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  (2) We can give God no information by our prayers.  He knows what we need, and what is fitting for us, better than we ourselves do.  Is it not rather arrogant presumption, to attempt to dictate to an omniscient God?  (3) Prayers can have no merit, so as to procure or purchase even the smallest blessing.  But prayer supposes some merit in the performance of the service. Something is supposed to be procured by prayer, which otherwise would not have been obtained.  But prayer can merit nothing at the hand of God.  It is absurd to suppose that any finite being can lay an infinite being under obligation or establish any claim of merit on the score of his services.


Let us proceed to examine these objections to this most interesting and important duty.  We shall find, they are more specious than solid.  We will admit, that God is immutable - that prayer can operate no change on His purposes.  These shall remain unaltered from eternity to eternity.  It would be impious to suppose that by our prayers we could change the determinations of the immutable Jehovah.  “His counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure.”  We have no less hesitation to admit the truth contained in the second objection, viz.: that it is impossible by our petitions to convey any information to an omniscient God. With equal readiness we admit the truth of the third objection, while we utterly deny the propriety of the application of any of them.  The highest perfection of created worth can merit nothing from God.  An infinite being cannot be laid under obligation, but by himself. God has condescended to bind Himself by His word and by His oath.  Yet, after all these admissions, we do unhesitatingly contend, that prayer is a duty of indispensable necessity; and that it is as reasonable as any other duty, to the performance of which, moral agents are called.  To the heart completely subjugated by the grace of God, it is sufficient that he hath enjoined a duty. “Thus saith the Lord,” will, to such, be equivalent to the most luminous demonstration.  Yet still, if our reason can recognize the propriety of the command, we are bound to appreciate it, that so in the language of the poet, we may, “… Assert eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men.”


That we may see, whether the duty of prayer be inconsistent with the divine immutability, let us for a moment compare it, with some other duties of acknowledged obligation.  What deist, or fatalist would deny, that if any person should accidentally fall overboard, he ought to use every possible exertion to avoid being drowned?  Was it ever reckoned an absurdity to eat and drink for the sustenance of the animal economy?  Was it ever imagined to be incompatible with any of the attributes of the divinity to cultivate the ground with a view to a future harvest?  Who would not be justly pitied as insane, who should question the propriety of employing the aid of our active fire companies to extinguish the fury of a desolating conflation?  Yet all these unquestionable duties, and all others that could be named, are no less affected by the objections mentioned, than the duty of prayer is. 


To be continued….

S. B. W

More Lively Hope



  • Blessed Mother’s Day to all mothers.
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