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[Here we continue a series on Prayer. This begins our second study in this series, which is self-described as, “A declaration what true prayer is, how we should pray, and for what we should pray. Set forth be John Knox, Preacher of God’s Holy Word.”]—Ed.
The True Nature of Prayer, pt. 1
by John Knox (1505-1572)
How necessary is it that no Christian be ignorant of the right Invocation of God’s name (otherwise called perfect Prayer), seeing it is the very branch which springs forth of true faith, whereof if any men be destitute, notwithstanding he be endowed with whatsoever other virtues, yet in the presence of God is he reputed for no Christian at all. Therefore a manifest sign it is, that such as in prayer always are negligent, do understand nothing of perfect Faith: For if the fire be without heat, or the burning lamp without light, then true Faith may be without fervent Prayer. But because, in times past was (and yet alas, with no small number is) that reckoned to be Prayer while in the sight of God was and is nothing less, I intend shortly to touch the circumstances thereof.
What Prayer Is: Those who will pray, must know and understand that Prayer is an earnest and familiar talking with God, to whom we declare our miseries, who’s support and help we implore and desire in our adversities, and whom we laud and praise for our benefits received. So that Prayer contains the exposition of our troubles, the desire of God’s defense, and the praising of His magnificent name, as the Psalms of David do clearly teach.
What is to be Observant in Prayer: That prayer be most reverently done, should provoke us the consideration in who’s presence we stand, to whom we speak, and what we desire: standing in the presence of the Omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth, and of all the contents thereof; to whom assist and serves a thousand thousand of angels, giving obedience to His eternal Majesty; and speaking unto Him who knows the secrets of our hearts, before whom dissimulation and lies are always odious and hateful; and asking that thing which may be made to His glory, and to the comfort of our conscience. But diligently should we attend, that such things as may offend His godly presence, to the uttermost of our power, may be removed. And first, that worldly cares and fleshly cogitations (such as draw us from contemplation of our God), be expelled from us, that we may freely, without interruption call upon God. But, how difficult it is to perform this one thing in prayer. It is difficult even for those who are not content to rename within the bands of their own vanity, but who do strive to attain to a purity in prayer, asking not such things as the foolish reason of man desires, but which may be pleasing and acceptable in God’s presence. Our adversary, Satan, at all times compassing us about, is never more busy than when we address and bend ourselves to Prayer. O! how secretly and subtly he creeps into our breasts, and calling us back from God, causing us to forget what we have to do; so that frequently when we (with all reverence) should speak to God, we find our hearts talking with the vanities of the world, or with the foolish imaginations of our own conceit.
How the Spirit makes intercession for us: So that without the Spirit of God supporting our infirmities (mightily making intercession for us with unceasing groans, which cannot be expressed with our tongue), there is no hope that anything we desire can be according to God’s will. I mean not that the Holy Ghost does mourn or pray, but that He stirs up our minds, giving to us a desire or boldness in prayer, and causing us to mourn when we are extracted or pulled therefore. Which things to conceive, no strength of man suffices, neither is able of itself; but hereof it is plain, that such as understand not of what they pray, or expound not, or declare not the desire of their hearts clearly in God’s presence, and in time of prayer (to their possibilities) do not expel vain cogitations from their minds, profit nothing in prayer.
Why we should pray, and also understand what we do pray: But men will object and say, “Albeit we understand not what we pray, yet God understands, who knows the secrets of our hearts; He knows also what we need, although we express not, or declare not, our necessities unto Him.” Such men verily declare themselves never to have understanding what perfect Prayer meant, not to what end Jesus Christ commands us to pray; which is, first, that our hearts may be inflamed with continual fear, honor, and love of God, to whom we run for support and help whatsoever danger or necessity requires; that we, so learning to notify our desires in His presence, He may teach us what is to be desired, and what not. Secondly, that we, knowing our petitions to be granted by God alone, to Him only we must render and give love and praise, and that we ever having His infinite graces fixed in our minds, may constantly abide to receive that which with fervent prayer we desire.
Why God defers to grant our prayer: For some time God defers or prolongs to grant our petitions, for the exercise and trial of our faith, and not that He sleeps or is absent from us at any time, but that with more gladness we might receive that which with long expectation we have abided; that thereby we are assured of His eternal providence (so far as the infirmity of our corrupt and most weak nature will permit), doubt not but His merciful hand shall relieve us, in most urgent necessity, and extreme tribulation. Therefore, such men teach us that necessarily it is not required that we understand what we pray, because God knows what we need, would also teach us that neither we honor God, nor give unto Him thanks for benefits received; for how shall we honor and praise Him, who’s goodness and liberty we know not? And how shall we know, that we receive and some time have experienced? And how shall we know that we have received, unless we know verily what we have asked?
The second thing to be observed in perfect Prayer is, that standing in the presence of God, we be found such as do bear His holy law reverently, earnestly repenting from iniquities past, and intending to lead a new life; for otherwise in vain are all our prayers. As it is written, “Who so withdraws his ear that he may not hear the law, his prayer shall be abominable” (Prov. 28:9). Likewise Isaiah and Jeremiah say thus, “You shall multiply your prayers, and I shall not hear, because your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:15): that is, of all cruelty and mischievous works. Also the Spirit of God appears by the mouth of the blind (whom Jesus Christ did illuminate) by these words, “We knew that God hears not sinners,” (see John 9:31), that is, such as glory and do continue in iniquity; so that of necessity, true repentance must needs be had, and go before perfect prayer, or sincere Invocation of God’s name.
When Sinners are not heard of God: And unto these two precedents must be annexed the third, which is, the dejection of ourselves in God’s presence, utterly refusing and casting of our own justice, with all cogitations and opinion thereof. And let us not think that we should be hard for anything proceeding of ourselves, for all such as advance, boast, or depend anything upon their own justice, from the presence of His mercy, repels and holds with the high proud Pharisee: and therefore the most holy men we find in prayers most dejected and humiliated. David says, “Oh Lord, our Savior, help us, be merciful unto our sins for thy own sake. Remember not our old iniquities. But have you O Lord, and let your mercy prevent us” (Ps. 79:8). Jeremiah says, “If our iniquities bear testimony against us, do according to your own name” (Jer. 14:7), and behold Isaiah “You are angry, O Lord, because we have sinned, and are replenished with all wickedness; and our justice is like a defiled cloth. But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are clay, you are you the workman, and we are the workmanship or your hands: Be not angry, O Lord, remember not our iniquities forever” (see Isa. 64:5-9). And Daniel, greatly commended of God, makes in his prayer most humble confession, in these words, “We be sinners, and have offended; we have done ungodly, and have fallen from Thy commandment, therefore, not in our own righteousness make we our prayers before You, but You must write and great mercies bring we forth for us. O Lord, hear! O Lord, be merciful and spare us! O Lord, attend, help and cease not; my God, even for Thy own name’s sake, do it; for Your city and Your people are called after your own name” (Dan. 9:16-19). Behold that in these prayers is no mention of their own justice, their own satisfaction, or their own merits. But they consist of most humble confession, proceeding from a sorrowful and penitent heart; having nothing whereupon it might depend, but the free mercy of God alone, who had promised to be their God, (that is, their help, comfort, defender, and deliver), as He has also done to us by Jesus Christ in time of tribulation; and that they despair not, but after the acknowledging of their sins, call for mercy and obtain the same. Wherefore it is plain, that such men as, in their prayers have respect to any virtue proceeding of themselves, thinking thereby their prayers to be accepted, never prayed aright.
What Fasting and Good Deeds are with prayer: And albeit to fervent prayer be joint fasting, watching, and good deeds, yet are none of them the cause that God does accept our prayers; but they are spurs which suffer us not to vary, and make us more able to continue in prayer, which the mercy of God do accept. But here it may be objected, that David prayed, “Keep my life O Lord, for I am holy; O Lord, save my soul, for I am innocent; and suffer me not to be consumed” (see Ps. 86). Also Hezekiah, “Remember Lord, I beseech you, that I have walked righteously before you and that I have wrought that which is good in your sight” (see II Kings 20). These words are not spoken of men glorious, neither yet trusting in their own works. But herein they testify themselves to be sons of God, by regeneration, to whom He promises always to be merciful, and at all times to hear their prayers.
The cause of their boldness was Jesus Christ: And so their words sprung from a wanted, constant, and fervent faith, surely believing that as God of His infinite mercy had called them to His knowledge, not suffering them to walk after their own natural wickedness, but partly had taught them to conform them to His holy law, and that for the promises sake, so might He not leave them destitute of comfort, consolation, and defense in so great and extreme necessities. And so their justice alleged you not to glory thereof, or to put trust therein, but to strengthen and confirm them in God’s promises. And this consolation I would wish all Christians have in their prayers: a testimony of a good conscience to assure them of God’s promises. But to obtain what you ask must only depend upon Him, all opinion and thought of our own justice laid aside.
(This study will continue in the next issue, D.V.)