Introduction. Prayer is a great privilege for Christians. (1
John 5:14). Yet, this assurance that God hears prayer is dependent upon asking
“according to His will.” Balaam’s prayers to curse Israel
demonstrate God does not grant prayers contrary to His will (Num. 22-24). One
must have the proper relationship with God, and offer prayer conforming to His
revealed will. James warns, “you ask and do not receive, because you ask
amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3). To ask
“amiss” – Gr. kakos “badly” (Strong), is to ask
improperly or “wrongly” (ESV). How may we be guilty of improper
prayer? Tonight let’s
consider three ways this can be done.
I. Perverting the Direction of Prayer
The proper direction of prayer under Christ.
1. Under Moses, prayer was directed
towards the temple (1 Kings 8:26-30). In exile, Daniel prayed towards Jerusalem
2. Under Christ, we come to the
“heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22-24). Prayer now must not be
directed to Jerusalem, Mecca, or any earthly shrine but to heaven.
3. Mosaic prayer towards Jerusalem was not
worship of Jerusalem, but of God.
4. Now prayer towards heaven must not be
worship of heaven, but of Him who dwells there.
B. Conditions of approaching God. No man approaches a king without proper
permission, escort, and authorization. The privilege of approaching the Creator
in prayer is not without condition.
1. The pagan who directs prayers to
imagined gods prays in vain to things “which by nature are not
gods” (Gal. 4:8).
2. The ecumenical prayers of Jews,
Muslims, and denominationalists assembled together in prayer ignore the terms
by which man may come into the presence of the true God.
3. In this age all prayer must come
a. This demands the proper relationship
with God in Christ through obedience to the gospel (John 14:6).
b. It also means prayer must be directed to
the Father through the intercession of Jesus (John 16:23).
C. Improper direction in prayer. The simplicity of this fails to satisfy
the religious world.
1. The Roman Catholic Church looks to Mary
for intercession. At the close of a Vatican II proclamation, it speaks of
offering “prayers together with all the Christian faithful that through
the intercession of the Virgin Mary… the nations may be led to the
knowledge of the truth as soon as possible” (Decree on the Missionary
Work of the Church, December
2. This false doctrine rests in the erroneous
belief in prayer to dead “saints” for intercession. The Catholic Catechism claims, “The witnesses who have
preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as
saints, share in the living tradition of prayer…Their intercession is
their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to
intercede for us and for the whole world” (IV. Christian Prayer, 1.
Prayer in the Christian Life, no. 2683).
3. In biblical terms a “saint”
is simply a Christian (1 Cor. 1:1-2).
4. The Bible never teaches that the dead
may be petitioned, or that they can offer intercession for the living.
5. All prayer in Christ is to God the
Father through Christ alone (1 Tim. 2:3-6).
II. Perverting the Definition of Prayer
Types of Biblical prayer. Biblical prayer may involve
“supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks” (1
Jesus demonstrates these aspects of
prayer in His model prayer (Matt. 6:9-13).
Prayer may be silent (1 Sam. 1:12-13),
audible (Acts 1:24-25), public (1 Cor. 14:16), or private (Matt. 6:6), but it
stands in marked contrast to pagan and eastern concepts of a mystical trance which
raise a participant to a heightened spiritual state.
B. Improper Definitions of prayer.
Prayer.” Catholic and Greek
Orthodox teaching intermingles pagan and biblical concepts into what they call
“mental prayer.” This is not just unspoken prayer.
The eighth century Greek theologian John
of Damascus imagined a type of prayer which he called “an elevation of
the soul to God” (On the Orthodox Faith, 3.24). He called
mystical contemplation and meditation a type of prayer.
Bible certainly teaches value in meditating on truth (Phil. 4:8), but
meditation is not prayer.
2. “Holy Spirit prayer
denominations teach a variation of this in what they call using “Holy
Spirit prayer language.” Daniel Bernard explains, “Even though we
may not know what the will of God is the Holy Spirit does and prays
accordingly. Therefore, pray in the Holy Spirit by using an unknown prayer
language… as you pray in the Holy Spirit (prayer language), you are
praying in the perfect will of God” (Praying Up a Storm, 37).
a. This false concept reflects a misunderstanding
of Romans 8:26.
b. Charismatics miss that
Paul says this happens “with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
This is silent, unspoken, and unheard. Paul addresses how God’s Spirit
knows the thoughts and needs of our spirit. This is not an unknown prayer language
(cf. Romans 8:27; 1 Chron.28:9; Prov. 20:27).
c. Paul condemns prayer
that does not involve the understanding of what is said (1 Cor. 14:13-15).
3. “Vain Repititions.” While we might shun definitions of
prayer making it a trance or “prayer language,” prayer void of the
understanding can happen in other ways. Jesus condemned using “vain
repetitions” (Matt. 6:7-8).
a. Scripture does not teach prescribed,
formulaic prayers. We must reject rituals such as the rosary or prayer books.
b. This also means avoiding mindless
repetition of stock phrases. We can ask God to “guide, guard, and direct
us” or give the preacher a “ready recollection” so long as
each time these words are spoken they are the sincere appeal of our heart.
c. A true relationship with Christ
grants the Christian “boldness and access with confidence” (Eph.
d. Audience with the All-Mighty in prayer
must avoid the extremes of stoic showy formality and a loose irreverent
III. Perverting the Power of Prayer
In Christ we have confidence in the
effectiveness of prayer. (James 5:16). However, man often distorts scriptural
teaching about the “power of prayer.”
B. Distortions of the
“power of prayer.”
1. “The Sinner’s
Prayer.” Scripture does not
teach that salvation comes through saying the so-called “Sinner’s
a. God is aware of the prayers of a
sinner (Acts 10:4), but alien sinners do not have access to God which allows
requesting forgiveness (1 Pet. 3:10-12).
b. This comes through faith in Jesus
(Gal. 3:26-27), repenting of sins (Acts 2:38), confessing Christ (Rom. 10:10),
and baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 22:16).
c. Only the Christian can pray for forgiveness (Acts 8:20-22).
2. “Praying Through to
“Sinner’s Prayer” is a relic of the old Calvinistic idea that
one must pray to receive confirmation of election. The nineteenth century
gospel preacher Barton W. Stone wrote of his early life in Presbyterianism.
Believing that only those whom God predestined could be saved, he followed the
practice of his day of trying to “pray through to God” to receive
evidence of his election. He wrote, “For one year I was tossed on the
waves of uncertainty—laboring, praying, and striving to obtain saving
faith—sometimes desponding, and almost despairing of ever getting
it” (Works of Elder B. W. Stone, p. 14).
a. Thanks be to God, obedience to
the gospel is not so complicated. Any who are “cut to the heart”
can obey Christ now (Acts 2:37-41).
3. Prayer and repentance. The fact that Christians can pray for
forgiveness leads some to misunderstand the limits of this.
a. Christians can’t pray for
forgiveness without repentance—that is not prayer “according to His
will” (1 John 5:14; cf. Acts 8:22).
b. Christians are to pray for the
forgiveness of other Christians (James 5:15-16), but this also is conditioned
upon their repentance. Unrepentant sin is “sin unto death,” for
which John forbids us to pray (1 John 5:16-17).
c. We cannot pray for forgiveness of
the unrepentant dead. Man is judged for what is done in the body (2 Cor. 5:9-10).
d. Some appeal to the apocryphal
account of Judas Maccabeus prayer for the sins of Jews slain in battle as
authority for prayer for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:38-45).
e. This is no authority at all! Apocryphal
books were never viewed by the Jews as inspired, nor does Jesus quote from them.
The account simply records what happened and the writer’s belief. It does
not prove it was acceptable to God.
4. Imagined power in the process of
prayer. A final distortion of the
“power of prayer” treats the process of praying itself as if it
a. In Christ confidence in
prayer’s power is confidence in God’s power. There is no magic in
the act of prayer.
b. Vague appeals to a “higher
power” which ignore the terms of a true relationship with God are merely
revived pagan animism (i. e. the belief that spirits inhabit and influence nature).
c. God promised, to hear His people,
under His terms (2 Chron. 7:12-14).
d. God wants His people to pray to
Him, but this isn’t “prayer by petition.” Some speak as if
prayer in sufficient numbers compels God to protect or bless when He would not
otherwise have done so.
e. If the prayer of faithful
Elijah led God to stop the rain (James 5:17-18), God is not waiting in heaven
for a certain number of “names on the petition” to answer prayer.
Kyle Pope 2010