Jennifer Walker

May 1, 2006

Prof. Westblade

18th Century Theology

 

A Gift Honoring God and Blessing Men:

The Mysterious Role of Prayer in the Life of a Believer

 

            In his works, Jonathan Edwards delineates several spiritual disciplines which could serve as a means to grace in a believer’s life.  One such instrument is prayer. Prayer played an important public and private role in Seventeenth-Century New England. Edwards himself did much to revitalize public prayer meetings and transformed languishing prayer gatherings into thriving, consistent ministries.[1] Prayer occupies many passages in Edwards’ writings as well as figuring much in his daily life. Each day Edwards rose early to spend time alone in personal prayer in addition to both morning and evening household prayers.[2] Edwards holds that prayer includes confession of sins, petitions for blessings on earth, pleas for the salvation of the unregenerate as well as for the strength and growth of believers, intercession on behalf of the church, and offering of thanks. Edwards considers many of these different aspects of prayer in his writings. Most significantly he addresses the uniqueness of prayer within the Christian faith and the purpose and methods of prayer, in addition to answering several common objections raised against his view.

In his sermon entitled “The Most High a Prayer-hearing God,” Edwards argues that God’s reception of human prayers serves as an essential aspect of God’s nature. Edwards proves through Scripture that God’s attention and answer to prayer sets Him apart from all other idols. Prayer “distinguished the true God from the gods to whom the nations prayed and sought, those gods who cannot hear, and cannot answer their prayer.”[3] Psalm 115:7, referring to the vanity of false gods, states: “They have hands, but they do not handle; feet they have, but they do not walk; nor do they mutter through their throat.” The unique gift of prayer, Edwards contends, contains four primary aspects: free access, ready hearing, liberal giving, and revelation of God’s greatness.

Children of God have free, open, limitless access to Him through prayer. There is no veil between God’s people and His throne as Hebrews 4:16 instructs: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God stands ready at all times to hear the supplications of His people. After establishing this principle, Edwards reveals scripturally that God gladly hears true prayer, citing Psalm 86:5: “For You are good and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy unto all that call upon You.” Indeed, God is so willing that He often answers before the suppliant finishes. In Daniel 9, Daniel asks God for aid and while he is yet praying, God sends Gabriel to his assistance. Even if the prayer seems to be in vain, Edwards teaches that God attends to them. Any prayer deferred for the present ultimately results in “the good of His people…that they may be better prepared for the mercy before they receive it, or because another time would be the best and fittest on some other account.”[4] This prayer-hearing God also gives liberally, showering abundant blessings, above and beyond all His people could ask or imagine.[5] His knowledge of the human heart and history enables Him to provide perfectly for every need or desire of the individual. Quoting James 1:4-5 – “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally” – Edwards argues that men must simply pray with faith and trust and God will lavishly provide.

 God demonstrates His sovereignty over the hearts of men and over the natural world in His attention to prayers. When Esau came against Jacob with an army, Jacob prayed for mercy, and God changed Esau’s heart from one of hatred into one of gracious forgiveness.[6] God demonstrated His greatness over creation as well by causing the sun and moon to halt for several hours in response to Joshua’s prayer.[7] Elijah also prayed earnestly that no rain would come upon the land until he asked again for it, and God honored Elijah’s request, altering the usual pattern of rainfall.[8] These four characteristics of prayer unique to the Christian God set Him far above all other gods as well as demonstrate His greatness, omniscience, and love.

            God reveals much about His character through His desire to hear men’s prayers. This truth, however, raises two questions for Edwards: Why does God require men to pray? And why does such and infinitely high God willingly listen to the supplications of infinitely low men? In response to the first question, Edwards first clarifies that prayer is certainly not to inform God of man’s wants. As perfectly omniscient, God cannot gain any knowledge, indeed, Edwards states that “He knows what we want, a thousand times more perfectly than we do ourselves, before we ask.”[9] Prayer does not alter God’s sovereign plan, yet it does serve as the means He chooses to bestow mercy and blessings upon men. Edwards further explains this position in his sermon “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God”:

God has been pleased to constitute prayer to be antecedent to the bestowment of mercy; and He is pleased to bestow mercy in consequence of prayer, as though He were prevailed on by prayer.— When the people of God are stirred up to prayer, it is the effect of his intention to show mercy; therefore he pours out the spirit of grace and supplication.[10]

 

God inspires those whom He will bless to turn to Him with their supplications. Edwards provides two explanations for why God would establish prayer as a prerequisite to blessings. First, prayer recognizes man’s complete inability to help himself and his full dependence on God, “the Author and Fountain of all good.”[11] Acknowledgement of this dependence brings glory to God. Since God has fashioned all creation for His glory, it is fitting and proper that men should honor Him through their prayers. Second, prayer is not only for God’s glory, but also for man’s benefit. Sincere prayers ready the suppliant’s mind for the reception of blessing. Edwards encourages true, fervent prayers as they prepare the heart, “exciting a sense of [man’s] need… the value of the mercy which [he] seeks…whereby the mind is more prepared to prize it, to rejoice in it when bestowed, and to be thankful for it.”[12] Not until one recognizes the value and need of a request can he truly rejoice in the answer. Similarly, prayers of confession reveal the true heinousness of human hearts, and bring men to a greater awareness of their need for forgiveness. As a result, God’s greater glory and man’s deeper sense of joy and thankfulness flow from Edwards’ first argument regarding why men should pray.

In his Miscellanies, Edwards provides another essential motive for prayer: communication with God.[13] He teaches that union and communication between members in any society is conversation; that the well-being and happiness of society centers on friendship; and that friendship, above all things in society, requires verbal expression. Therefore, man’s ultimate well-being and happiness depend on mutual communication with God. God speaks to men through His Word, and men ought to respond through prayer. Full enjoyment of the divine kingdom involves friendship with fellow believers, but even more importantly, it calls for friendship with the King Himself. Edwards contends that the foundation for fellowship and happiness in Heaven begins in this world. Thus, to ignore “the glorious Head, the fountain of all perfection and felicity of the society,” diminishes future joy and fellowship.[14] Such free, open, trusting communication shows proper respect and honor for God and brings the greatest happiness in both this life and the next.

After addressing the question of why men should pray, the question of why God would desire communication with such “despicable and unworthy” men arises.[15] God is so complete and so infinitely above men that His desire for human prayers could not possibly stem from any need for communication with mankind. Nor can anything in man himself draw God towards him. God cannot find any worthiness inherent in human supplications. Rather, as an over-flowing fountain delights to satisfy those around it, so God takes pleasure in sharing His abundant mercy and goodness with His creatures through communication with them. Not only does God delight in providing for those beneath Him, but it also greatly glorifies and honors Him by demonstrating His complete sufficiency as the counterpart to human dependency.

Because God is holy and righteous, He cannot associate with sinful men without a mediator. Consequently, in His generous overflow, He provided the perfect solution in Christ. Edwards argues, “that our guilt need not stand in the way, as a separating wall between God and us, and that our sins might not be a cloud through which our prayers cannot pass.”[16] Through His death, Christ atoned for human sins, purchased the privilege of coming freely and openly before the Throne of Grace, and continually intercedes to God on man’s behalf. Christ’s sacrifice was two-fold: it “not only removed the obstacles to [human] prayers,” thereby clearing men of their sin – tabula rasa - but it also declared men righteous in the sight of God, thereby “merit[ing] a hearing of their [prayers].”[17] By providing a mediator, God enabled men to draw near, drink from His fountain, and in this way increase His glory. He graciously provided a bridge between His infinite glory and man’s sinful nature by sending Christ, His only begotten Son.[18]

Edwards next provides instruction on the manner in which men should call upon God. Edwards turns to the Bible to find the basis of prayer: “How highly privileged are we, in that we have the holy word of this same God, to direct us how to seek for mercy!”[19] Following Christ’s command in the New Testament, Edwards instructs that men ought “to pray to our Father which is in heaven” with sincere faith.[20] In “Justification by Faith Alone” Edwards states: “Christian prayer to God for a blessing, is but an expression of faith in God for that blessing: prayer is only the voice of faith.”[21] Edwards in his Miscellanies echoes the truth that proper prayer exists through faith alone, “whatsoever is the matter of prayer is the matter of faith and the prayer of faith can never fail… faith depends on X for all good that [men] need.”[22] Prayer does not act as a magical procedure whereby Christians can gain whatever they wish through some kind of guaranteed incentive. Rather, faith in Christ alone serves as the prerequisite for both audience and answer.

In addition to approaching God with faith, the believer must also pray with a submissive and humble heart, recognizing the greatness of God. Edwards uses Christ’s example to support the necessity of humility:

Christ expressed great reverence towards God…in the manner of his praying to the Father in the garden when he kneeled down and prayed (Luke 22)… He also manifested perfect submission to the will of God tho’ He was a person so honourable that in His original nature He was subject to the will of none and knew that He was the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth and was to reign as such as God man.[23]

 

Christ humbly submitted to death and humiliation although “the will of God was so terrible to His human nature.”[24] If Christ, Himself a member of the Holy Trinity, approached God in prayer with such tremendous submission and humility, how much more should earthly men draw near with this attitude.

            Men are also to pray without ceasing. Edwards warns that “slack and slothful attendance upon [prayer], and unsteadiness in it, are the causes which make it so great a burden as it is to some persons.”[25] Conversely, if one prays consistently, “it is one of the best means of leading not only a Christian and amiable, but also a pleasant life; a life of much sweet fellowship with Christ, and of the abundant enjoyment of the light of His countenance.”[26] Christ’s life exemplifies obedience to this command for prayer as well. In the utmost diligence, Christ prayed “with strong crying and tears” that He would “not fail but might have God’s help to go through” every situation.[27] A true believer ought to have a deep thirst for communion with God through prayer. Edwards goes even to the extent of calling prayer a duty – a delightful duty – and warns against neglecting it: “If we enjoy so great a privilege as to have the prayer-hearing God revealed to us, how great will be our folly and inexcusableness, if we neglect the privilege or make no use of it.”[28] Ignorance does not serve as an excuse in Edwards’s mind. In questioning why anyone would neglect such a duty, he states: “It is impossible that any among us should be ignorant of this command of God.”[29] In his writing, Edwards reveals the seriousness of prayer and teaches that men must rely upon it fully and plead with God for strength and diligence in this duty.

            The question of what the proper object of prayer should be arises in Edwards’ discussion on the subject. Praying for fellow believers brings encouragement and honors God by acknowledging His power at work in every life. Christ exemplifies the powerful role of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when He asks His disciples to stay awake and pray with Him. Edwards also guides parents in the importance of praying for their children, stating that it is “their duty to pray earnestly” for their salvation and growth.[30] It seems that the role of prayer in these areas is clear, but is prayer for lost souls always proper? Edwards bases his answer on the example found in 1 Samuel and again on the pattern of Christ’s life. Despite the Israelites rejecting God, mistreating Samuel, and demanding a king, Samuel states: “God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you.”[31] Believers should pray for the salvation of unbelieving souls, trusting that God does miraculously work in unregenerate hearts. Christ also prayed for both sinners and saints.  Edwards reminds his readers that “if X the Head of all the chh pities the damned and seeks their good, doubtless His members ought to do so too.”[32] While encouraging prayers for all races throughout the world, Edwards gives the following praise regarding the prayers of David Brainerd: “In his prayers, he insisted much on the prosperity of Zion, the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world, and the flourishing and propagation of religion among the Indians.”[33] Thus, Edwards believes that it is important to pray for lost souls, but that there are also circumstances when one ought to pray against them. If an unbeliever fights against Christianity and, consequently, continues an enemy of God, Edwards maintains that in such a case “it is not unsuitable thus to pray against our enemies.”[34] Likewise, it is not the believer’s duty to pray for those “that sin unto death.”[35] With the exception of these last two conditions, however, praying for all fellow men is an important aspect of prayer.

Finally, Edwards addresses several objections raised against his understanding of prayer. First, some petitioners have the impression that their prayers persuade God to change His mind. Jeremiah 18:8 gives an example of God “relenting” after receiving human supplication: “if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.” Chronicles 21:15 states that “God relented of the disaster” that He had planned for Jerusalem.  When God uses the language of men in this manner, however, He does not use it in the human sense. Rather His phrasing serves as a metaphor to help men grasp a divine mystery. Edwards states: “it is not to be thought that God is properly moved or made willing by our prayers; for it is no more possible that there should be any new inclination or will in God, than new knowledge.”[36] As a sovereign, omniscient Being, God never has a reason to change His mind. Answering this objection, however, brings up several more questions.

One subsequent question asks why men should even pray to a sovereign God who has ordained all of history and who does not change. What is the purpose of prayer if God knows all beforehand, even the prayer itself? In “Religious Affections” Edwards teaches that prayer does not change anything concerning God, the alteration occurs in men. Prayer “can be of no further use,” he states, “than [to] have some tendency to affect our own hearts, or the hearts of others.”[37] Prayer is a blessing from God to men, transforming human hearts and desires and enabling men to better understand their own dependency coupled with God’s magnificence.

Prayer may alter the hearts of individuals, but what about prayers offered for others? What role does prayer for a sick friend or a suffering relative play? The question arises as to whether or not human prayers of this sort have a purpose or result. Do they merely encourage the heart of the sufferer, or do they actually have an effect on physical recovery? Displaying Christ’s example, the Bible often describes Christ praying for the health of others, and commands that believers bear one another’s burdens. Scripture teaches that “the prayer of faith will save the sick” and that the “fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”[38] This, however, does not seem to line up with God’s divine providence over creation. Scholars such as C. S. Lewis have devised a solution by dividing up the prayers in Scripture into two categories: conditional prayers – “Thy will be done;” and prayers made with complete confidence in a certain outcome. Lewis admits that he does not know how to balance the two seemingly conflicting ideas for proper prayer, but Edwards does not appear to see a contradiction between submission and boldness. Prayer is the means whereby God carries out His will – it is a means to grace. Just as Edwards teaches that men must preach the Gospel even though they themselves cannot bring about the desired end, so too men ought to pray in faith. Prayers do not heal a person or provide comfort on their own, but they are the means achieving that end. Prayers provide the context whereby God in His good pleasure chooses to operate. 

Another objection addresses why God sometimes seems to ignore human prayers. Edwards responds that this protest provides no proof against God’s attention, but rather demonstrates that God looks at the heart attitude behind the supplication. Edwards especially warns against three improper motives. First, if a prayer asks for temporal possessions that gratify human lusts rather than something which honors God, it may not be granted: “If you request Him to give you something of which you will make an idol, and set up in opposition to Him—or will use as weapons of warfare against Him, or as instruments to serve His enemies—no wonder that God will not hear you.”[39]  God protects men by denying their requests for unsuitable desires. Second, insincere prayers offered without true faith are not honoring to God nor do they condition human hearts to receive God’s blessings. They show neither “a manifestation of dependence on God, [or] a trust in His sufficiency and mercy.”[40] Such an improper attitude rejects both primary purposes for prayer. This warning particularly applies to those who pray with sincere words that God might purge their sins, but by their lifestyle clearly demonstrate the opposite desire. Third, some men assume that God does not hear their prayers when He does not answer them in their expected timeframe. Since God, however, knows “what is best for us ten thousand times better than we do,” He promises to fulfill them in the perfect timing of His will.[41] Edwards’ response to all three objections refers back to his basis for prayer, God’s glory and man’s preparation. Any unfulfilled request that would lessen one of these purposes does not point toward a deficiency in God, but rather an insufficiency in human motives.

            The pursuit of God’s glory is paramount in all Edwards’ discussions of prayer. Prayer is a gracious gift; indeed it is a duty that every Christian should unceasingly utilize, both to glorify God and to prepare his heart for God’s work in his life. Edwards emphasizes the tremendous importance of prayer and strives to inspire a submissive attitude among the Northampton community through his example and teaching. Edwards’ conclusion is a joyful response of gratitude:  “Hence we may learn how highly we are privileged, in that we have the Most High revealed to us, who is a God that heareth prayer…and whatever difficulties or distress we are in, we may go to Him with confidence and great encouragement. What a comfort may this be to us!”[42] Such an understanding of the free gift of prayer should radically transform the lives of Christ’s true followers.

 

 


Bibliography:

 

Cherry, Conrad. The Theology of Jonanthan Edwards: A reappraisal. Indianpolis, IN: Indiana

University Press, Bloomington/Indianapolis, 1990.

 

Edwards, Jonathan. “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer” In The Works of Jonathan

Edwards: Peabody. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998. II:71.

 

Edwards, Jonathan. “Justification by Faith Alone.” Available at:

http://www.apuritansmind.com/Justification/EdwardsJonathanJustification.htm

 

Edwards, Jonathan. “Religious Affections” In The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Peabody. MA:

Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998. I:242.

 

Edwards, Jonathan. “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God” In The Works of Jonathan

Edwards: Peabody. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998. II:113.

 

Gerstner, John H. The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards: Volume I. Powhatan, VA:

Berea Publications, 1991.

 

Gerstner, John H. The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards: Volume II. Powhatan, VA:

Berea Publications, 1991.

 

Gura, Philip F. Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.

 

Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,

2003.

Tracy, Patricia J. Jonathan Edwards: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century

Northampton. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.

 

Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Jonathan Edwards: A Biography. New York: Macmillan Company,

1940.

 

 



[1] Marsden, 156.

[2] Marsden, 133.

[3] “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:113).

[4] Ibid., 114.

[5] Ephesians 3:20.

[6] Genesis 32.

[7] Judges 15.

[8] 1 Kings 17.

[9] The Most High A Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:116).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Miscellanies, 1338.

[14] ibid.

[15] “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:116).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] John 3:16

[19]  “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:116).

[20] Miscellanies, 743.

[21] “Justification By Faith Alone,”

http://www.apuritansmind.com/Justification/EdwardsJonathanJustification.htm

[22] Miscellanies, 640.

[23] Miscellanies, 791.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer,” (Works II:77).

[26]  Ibid.

[27] Miscellanies, 795.

[28] “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:117).

[29] “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:117).

[30] Miscellanies, 577.

[31] 1 Samuel 12:23.

[32] Miscellanies, 1356.

[33] Marsden, 325.

[34] Miscellanies, 640.

[35] Miscellanies, 1348.

[36] “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:116).

[37] “Religious Affections,” (Works I:242).

[38] James 5:15, 5:16

[39] “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:117).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” (Works II:116).