During our lessons in the School of Prayer, we’ve been talking about the fact that “calling on the name of the Lord” and praying “in the name of Jesus” are ways of asking God to do what he has promised. That’s Gospel-shaped prayer. The patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets of the Old Testament prayed to God to do what he promised: to send a Messiah—one of the offspring of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—to come and crush the serpent’s head and defeat sin and death, setting them and the whole creation free from their slavery.
In the Gospels, we learn that Jesus is, indeed, that promised offspring—a son of Adam and Abraham, but also Son of God. Last week we talked about the fact that in Jesus God took on the limitations of human flesh, being born into a fallen world, and prayed that God’s ultimate promise would come through in his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ prayer life was all about the gospel and we said that the context of our prayers should reflect Jesus’ concern for the mission of God. Every prayer we pray should be shaped by the mission.
That kind of prayer puts the focus on God’s work in us and God’s work in the lives of others, no matter the circumstance. In whatever situation we find ourselves, our prayers are for God to reveal his glory. And so we pray like this:
- Lord, help me to see this as part of your great work in my life and in our world.
- Lord, use this to make me more like the Lord Jesus, and to bring others to know Jesus.
- Lord, strengthen me so that I might point other people to Jesus today, encouraging them to see your agenda for their lives.
- Lord, work through me to advance your agenda in the lives of my friends and family and in our world through the gospel.
That’s gospel-shaped prayer!
But while we’ve talked about the reasons why we should pray, and how we should pray, the other side of the equation is to ask, “How does God answer prayer?” If you remember back to the first sermon in the series, we agreed that prayer is hard work and that it requires patience—something that is often in short supply in our culture of instant gratification. We would like our prayers answered quickly and according to our expectations.
But if our asking “in Jesus’ name” is all about putting our prayers in the context of God’s mission and the revealed promise of the gospel, then we should expect God’s answers to our prayer to be within that context as well. God answers prayer according to his promises, and that means that we need to better attune our lives and our prayers according to this expectation. To see God at work in this way requires a different set of lenses.
For sure, it would be great if we simply woke up one morning and were suddenly like Jesus! It would be awesome to suddenly know all there is to know about God! How cool would it be to awake tomorrow and realize that God’s kingdom had come in its fullness during the night—that the news was all good, that nobody died, that hospitals were empty, and your problems were gone.
It would be great, but it doesn’t work that way. The truth is that we will not see the complete answers to all of our prayers on this side of the kingdom of God. What we will see instead are grace-filled glimpses of what God has done in us and what he is doing in the world. And that requires patience and a gospel-shaped expectation to the way in which we pray. We need to learn to see where God is already at work and pray in ways that tap into the promises of God.
That’s the way that the early church learned to pray. In fact, the New Testament tells us explicitly what we should be praying for because there are certain prayers that God is always going to answer—prayers that tap into his covenant promises. Like the people of the Bible, we might have to wait or look closely to see where God is moving the needle in response to our prayers, but these are prayers that we can be sure that God will respond to according to his will.
Gary Millar calls these “no-brainer” prayers that we should be praying as individuals and communities because God has already guaranteed an answer. Let’s look at these in turn.
The first prayer that God always answers is when we pray for forgiveness. Throughout the Scriptures, God promises to forgive the sins of his people because it is the first step in his mission to crush the snake. Forgiveness of sins is the release of sin’s enslaving power over us and not only does it liberate us, it always heals his creation. God promises King Solomon that “if my people who belong to me will humbly pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Notice that when Jesus heals someone, he often tells them that their sins have been forgiven. Forgiveness brings healing and wholeness to the entire person. The writer of I John says that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong” (1:9). On the other hand, “if we claim we have never sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us” (1:10). We can come to God with our sin and brokenness, not in fear of God’s condemnation, but knowing that God follows through on his promises. God forgives us so that we can be shaped into the people God created us to be. Forgiveness sets us free, and when we forgive others we set them free as well. This is all part of God’s mission and thus a prayer that God will always answer immediately!
The second prayer God always answers is when we pray to know God better. In Ephesians 1, notice that Paul prays that the church would have “enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among the believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers” (1:18-19a). He prays later that they would have the “power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond all knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God (3:18-19). James says that when we “come near to God” in prayer, then God will come near to us (4:8). When we humble ourselves before the Lord, he will lift us up (4:10).
One of the great images in the Bible for this is prayer as “seeking God’s face.” It’s kind of like a child who, from the very first, focuses on the face of his or her parent. I remember when our kids were little and they wanted our attention, sometimes they would reach out and put my face in their little hands and turn them toward theirs. You can’t help but give them your attention then! God promises that when we intentionally reach out and seek his face in prayer, he will be present and reveal himself to us.
The apostle Paul was willing to lay everything else in his life aside in order to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3). Are we as desperate to know God? When we seek him, God always draws near. He wants us to know him intimately, just as we know him intimately.
The third prayer that God always answers is the prayer for wisdom. Wisdom is knowing how to live for God. It’s interesting that in the Old Testament, God came to King Solomon and offered him the ability to ask for anything—anything! That’s quite an offer. What would you have asked for? And yet Solomon prayed for wisdom. He knew that without it he would not be able to manage anything else.
James wrote to the church, “Anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask” (1:5).
Now, it’s not as though God simply zaps us with wisdom when we ask for it. It’s part of our drawing near to God, not only in prayer but in studying his Word. The Holy Spirit is promised to us as a guide who leads us to wisdom. And why do we need wisdom? So that we can live out the mission God has for us in the world. Seeking wisdom is a prayer that God always answers, but we also recognize that real wisdom often counters our natural desires. If we want God to give us wisdom, we have to be willing to change when it comes to us. Wisdom helps to shape us for the gospel, thus praying for it means that we’re willing to change because of it.
And that leads to the next prayer God always answers: when we pray for strength to obey, love, and live for God. Paul prayed that the Ephesians would know the “overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among the believers—the power conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength” in the resurrection of Jesus form the dead (1:19-20). He also prayed that God would “strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit” (3:16).
The truth is that we cannot become the people God created us to be through our own strength. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about praying to God to take away his “thorn in the flesh,” but God answered him, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). When we recognize our weakness, our need for the gospel, it is then that God is able to bring his strength to bear in and through us for his glory.
This is the basic cry of people who have been enslaved by the snake. Lord, we want to live for you. You have crushed the serpent’s head, now enable us to live for your glory and to love you fully. This is what God wants, and so God promises to provide his strength in the midst of our weakness. We don’t serve a God who gives us expectations that are impossible to keep and then gigs us when we don’t keep them. Instead, we serve a God who knows our weakness and promises to build us up and strengthen us when we draw near to him.
And what does God strengthen us for? The work of the gospel. Indeed, that’s the fifth prayer that God always answers—prayer for the spread of the gospel. Before sending out the seventy on their gospel mission, Jesus encouraged them to “plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest” (Luke 10:2). Paul urged the Colossian church to “Keep on praying… that God would open a door for the word so that we can preach” the gospel of Jesus (4:2-3). The spread of the gospel was so important to the early church that the apostles set aside other priorities to pray for the mission.
The gospel is the mission of God—everything flows into that mission and out from it. Prayer is no exception. God is more than willing to answer anything that we pray for that furthers the mission. Again, it may not happen in exactly the way we envision, but we can be assured that God will work his mission in response to our prayers.
I was reading more gloom and doom this week about the decline of the church in England and in other places. Things look bleak and it’s easy to wonder what to do. The article I read suggested that the best thing for the church to do would be to get with the times and follow society’s trends. And I thought—no! The best thing the church can do is pray—to pray for forgiveness for the ways in which we have neglected God’s mission; to pray that we might draw closer to God as the culture draws further away from him; to pray for wisdom to and strength to do what God commands even though it will cost us a lot; and to pray that this secularization of the world will actually open a new door for the gospel to spread among people who will discover that life is empty and going nowhere without the good news of Jesus.
These are the prayers God always answers. Why? Because these prayers sum up the work of the gospel. This is what God has said he will do. These are all prayers for God to do his covenant work through his word. This is what it means to pray in the name of Jesus, to call upon the name of the Lord.
If we want to become effective people of prayer, this is the kind of prayer we need to pray. It’s not about better techniques or better methods of prayer; it’s about becoming a better ask-er—to pray gospel-driven prayers. Gary Millar puts it this way:
“You need to realize that you are a walking disaster who needs God every step of the way, every day, to avoid making a train wreck of your life and the lives of those around you, to realize that the gospel yells at us, ‘You are weak and sinful and flawed—but he is strong and gracious and good.’ So ask him to do what he has already promised to do. And, above all, pray for the spread of the gospel everywhere. God will answer, because this is how he displays his goodness and glory in a broken world. And keep doing it until the day when we no longer need to pray, because we will see our God and King face to face.”
May we be a gospel-shaped people, praying gospel-shaped prayers! Amen.
Millar, J. Gary. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer. New Studies in Biblical Theology series (ed. D.A. Carson). IVP, 2016.