By Jake Griesel
John Calvin regarded the command to pray and God’s promises as the two pillars of prayer (cf. Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xx.13-14). In this regard he points inter alia to Matt. 7:7 “Ask (command) and it shall be given you (promise)” Here Christ teaches us, says Calvin, not only what we are supposed to do (pray) but also promises us that our prayers are never in vain. God’s promises grant us great assurance in our prayer lives.
Our prayers and the lesson from the Psalms
If we want to learn how to pray, we must inter alia go to the Psalms. The Psalms have been called the “school of prayer.” In the Psalms we find ourselves in the inner room (Matt. 6:6) of the Old Covenant. There we see how believers in the Old Covenant prayed in their inner rooms. But that is not all. We must especially remember that the prayers in the Psalms were not merely human prayers, but were inspired by the Holy Spirit, who after all inspired the Holy Scriptures and therefore also the Psalmist’s prayers, whether it be David or someone else. Therefore spending time in the Psalms means that we find ourselves in the Holy Spirit’s “school of prayer.” He is the One who teaches us to pray in the Psalms. One thing about the Psalms is especially noteworthy here: the role which God’s covenant plays therein. The poets sang about God’s covenant; they rejoiced in it. Just think of Psalm 105:8 “He hath remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations.” And this we find also in the prayers of the Psalms. When the Psalmists prayed, they did not pray aimlessly, but appealed to what the LORD had promised in his covenant. To give one example, Asaph prayed in Psalm 74:20, “Have respect unto the covenant.”, thereby making an appeal to God’s covenant. Many other prayers in the Psalms, though not necessarily containing the word “covenant” (Heb: berith), nonetheless also allude to God’s covenantal promises, such as in Psalm 88:11 where the sons of Korah prayed: “Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?”, or in Psalm 143:1 where David prayed: “Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications: in thy faithfulness answer me, and in thy righteousness.” The Psalmists knew that they could depend on God’s promises and faithfulness. The believer’s plea is never in vain when founded upon God’s promises. The LORD is faithful and will perform that which he has promised.
Our prayers and the baptismal form of our church
Now we must connect the instruction in the Psalms to ourselves in our day. We are, after all, also children of the covenant/promise (Gal. 3:29; 4:28). The Lord has indeed also made his covenant with us. He has given us a great treasury of promises. We not only may, but indeed should also appeal to these promises, being assured that God will hearken unto us when we appeal to what he has promised.
In this regard I’d like to refer to the baptismal form of our church – the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (Afrikaans: Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk). In our baptismal form, we find a summary of what God has promised us, which is linked to the Trinitarian formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). These promises are discussed below:
Promise #1: Dat Hy ons Vader is wat ons liefhet en vir ons sorg (That He is our Father who loves us and cares/provides for us)
We were baptized in the Name of the Father. As our Father, He desires to provide us with all good things and avert evil or work it together for our good (Rom. 8:38). We should therefore not doubt when we pray that God will provide for us – He promised to do this, and his faithfulness and promises never fail. “Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” (Psalm 46:2). When we therefore pray for his Paternal care and protection, we may know without doubt that our lives are in the omnipotent hands of our heavenly Father who loves us. This does not mean that no evil (illness, loss, etc.) will cross our paths. The Lord has nowhere promised this to us. What we can indeed know, however, is that we never face our trials and tribulations without our heavenly Father’s providential care and that he will ultimately work all of these to our good. This he does indeed promise (again, Rom. 8:38), and this promise certainly is an uninterrupted fountain of comfort to us believers while we dwell as pilgrims in this world.
Promise #2: Dat Jesus Christus ons Verlosser is (That Jesus Christ is our Redeemer)
Our forgiveness is also no dubious matter, because when we were baptized in the Name of the Son, God thereby promised that it is his will to wash us clean of our sins in the precious blood of his Son. Children of God often struggle with doubt: “Will God ever forgive me for this great sin which I have committed?” But we ought not to stand with eyes fixed on the greatness of our sins, but rather to fix our eyes firmly on the greatness of God’s faithfulness which he has promised us in Jesus Christ. As John Newton once said, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour”. As great as our sins may be, Christ is an infinitely greater Saviour.
Promise #3: Dat die Heilige Gees in ons woon, van ons nuwe mense maak en ons lei (That the Holy Spirit dwells in us, makes new people out of us and leads us)
When we were baptized in the Name of the Holy Spirit, God promised to ingraft us into Christ by his Holy Spirit, and grant us faith, repentance, sanctification and obedience by his Holy Spirit. If we then struggle with a certain sin or wavering faith, we do not therefore have to doubt that God will grant us his Holy Spirit if we ask him in prayer. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7).
Christ and assurance in our prayers
Why is it so certain that the Lord will perform that which he has promised? Why can we pray with so much confidence regarding the Lord and his promises? Is it because any merit we may have which secures these promises? Certainly not. No, if we look to ourselves, we look to corruption, severe fallibility and, ultimately, a hopeless cul-de-sac. We then immediately abrogate all of God’s promises. We can then not depend on any of his promises. When we look to ourselves, therefore, the deepest sense of doubt and despair overcomes us. But “all the promises of God in him [Christ] are yea, and in him Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20); these promises are true and sure and fixed not because of us, but because of Jesus Christ, and in him. That is why, whenever we pray, we pray in Jesus’ Name.
Prayer and faith in God’s promises
The Lord promises us great and amazing things in his covenant, but this covenant also demands our response: We must repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). Whoever does not do this, also does not receive the fulfilment of God’s promises. The same counts for our prayers: we must pray in faith, otherwise we will not receive, as James so clearly teaches us (1:6-7). Many believers struggle with doubt and wavering faith. But this also we may confess to the Lord and pray for faith. And then there is no need for any doubt: he will grant us faith according to his promise. After all, faith itself is a gift from God, and is not of ourselves (Eph. 2:8). God’s covenant does include a condition that needs to be fulfilled from our side, but this condition is granted us and fulfilled by God on our behalf, by the granting of faith and repentance through the Holy Spirit – not only in regeneration, but also in sanctification and perseverance. Therefore we can say with Augustine:
Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis – “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt” (Augustine, Confessions, X.29).