Edwards on Prayer

Jonathan Edwards was a man of persistent prayer, and for that reason, he was a man of profound influence.  God graciously used him in the Great Awakening, a season of revival throughout the eastern portion of colonial America. He knew, both in theory and in practice, that God is a God who hears and answers prayer (Psalm 65:2).  In fact, he preached an excellent sermon on prayer entitled “The Most High: A Prayer-Hearing God,” that elaborates on this topic.

Edwards believed that God not only hears, but answers prayer because it is consistent with His character.  Since He is immeasurably gracious, He allows His creatures to come to Him so that He may receive the prayers of His people.  Here are some tasty morsels of Edwards’ thoughts on prayer:

“God manifests his acceptance of their prayers, by doing for them agreeably to their needs and supplications.  He not only inwardly and spiritually discovers his mercy to their souls by his Spirit, but outwardly by dealing mercifully with them in his providence, in consequence of their prayers, and by causing an agreeableness between his providence and their prayers.”

God demonstrates His mercy toward His children through the inner working of the Spirit and the outward provision of their needs through the gracious gifts of His providence.  And both of these point to the richness of His promises.

He allows us free access to His presence so that we “may come with boldness… [He] indulges all kinds of persons, of all nations… the most vile and unworthy: the greatest sinners are allowed to come through Christ.”  Beyond that, “He not only allows, but encourages and frequently invites them, yea, manifests himself as delighting in being sought to by prayer.”

It is the grace of God that makes us able to come before Him, and it is His grace that causes Him to delight in our coming.  He often gives good gifts that are far more gracious than we ever wanted or imagined.

God is, “as it were, overcome by prayer… In such cases, God is, speaking after the manner of men, overcome by humble and fervent prayer.  ‘The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,’ James 5;16.  It has a great power in it: such a prayer-hearing God is the Most High, that he graciously manifests himself as conquered by it.”

God has promised to be “moved” by our prayers.  This does not mean that God is persuaded by us, but rather He speaks in human terms that portray our prayers as the means by which He has chosen to deliver mercy to us.  Our prayers do not obligate God to us, but they demonstrate our dependence on Him and our willingness to submit to the kind intention of His heart. Whatever He has determined for us will come to pass, but He has promised to hear and answer our prayers according to our needs.  Thus, God is “overcome” by our prayers, in that He plants desires within us that He intends to provide for since He knows what we want and need before we even ask.  The struggle is knowing whether our desires are actually best for us (or simply tainted by sin), and in that regard we must submit to the One who knows all things infinitely more perfectly than we do.

God’s character is seen by the greatness of the things He has done in response to prayer.  When Jacob prayed, Esau’s heart was turned from vengeance (Gen. 32).  When Moses prayed, God brought terrible plagues on Egypt.  When Samson prayed, his strength was returned to him so that he was able to pull down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines.  When Joshua prayed, the sun stood still.  When Elijah prayed, it did not rain for three and a half years.  Then when Elijah prayed again, rain came.  When Asa prayed, God confounded the army of Zerah the Ethiopian (2 Chron. 14:9-12).  When Hezekiah prayed, God sent an angel to kill 185,000 of Sennacharib’s army (2 Kings 19:14-16, 19, 35).  God’s power has been demonstrated in many miraculous works in response to the prayers of His people.  God not only hears the cry of His people, but He hears their silent longings, as in the case of Hannah (1 Sam. 1:13) whose prayer was but in her heart.

God’s faithfulness to His covenant people, both corporately and individually, ought to be inspiring to us.  It ought to encourage and strengthen our faith, and it should compel us to ask for things that are in the interest of His kingdom. When God blesses His people individually, it is always in line with His plan of advancing His kingdom through the blessing of His people at large.  As God gives mercy to us, He intends for us to use it, not only for our own pleasure, but for the purpose of His greater glory. God gives us good gifts so that we might better worship Him, serve His church, and reflect His love to a lost and dying world.  He receives glory as we take satisfaction in giving Him that glory.

Prayer has two purposes, one with respect to God and the other with respect to us: “First, with respect to God, prayer is but a sensible acknowledgement of our dependence on him to his glory.” God’s people gain the opportunity to come to him in order to express their faith in His faithfulness.  “Second, with respect to ourselves, God requires prayer of us in order to the bestowment of mercy, because it tends to prepare us for its inception… Fervent prayer many ways tends to prepare the heart.  Hereby is excited a sense of our need, and of the value of the mercy which we seek, and at the same time earnest desires for it, whereby the mind is more prepared to prize it, to rejoice in it when bestowed, and to be thankful for it.  Prayer, with suitable confession, may excite a sense of our unworthiness of the mercy we seek.  And the placing of ourselves in the immediate presence of God, may make us sensible of his majesty, and in a sense fit to receive mercy of him.  Our prayer to God may excite in us a suitable sense and consideration of our dependence on God for the mercy we ask, and a suitable exercise of faith in God’s sufficiency, that so we may be prepared to glorify his name when the mercy is received.”

God uses prayer to draw us to Himself, and for that end He sometimes withholds provision for a season.  It deepens our trust in Him, and fuels our desire to receive that for which we pray.  It prepares our hearts in humility and dependence so that when the mercy is given, unending gratitude will flow from our hearts.  When a petition has been agonized over long enough, the provision of that petition leaves an indelible mark of gratitude impressed upon the petitioner’s heart. Such an attitude of thanksgiving in the light of mercy will lead our hearts toward an extravagant procession of praise and worship every time that object of mercy reminds us of God’s lovingkindness toward us.  Persistent prayer prepares our hearts for persistent praise.

Let us, therefore, continue to pray as we prepare our hearts to receive the things that God has so faithfully prepared in advance to give us.  He is merciful and has promised to bless His children in their time of need.  He does so more abundantly than we could ever ask or imagine, but He calls us to prayer as a demonstration of our dependence and faith. We must simply trust Him and be prepared to continue seeking His will above our own, and praise Him even when He provides in a way different than we desired.

Thomas Watson wrote from his own experience, “We aim at God’s glory when we are content that God’s will should take place though it may cross our own.” Prayer brings us into position to bow before the Sovereign Lordship of God so that He may do whatever He pleases in and through us for our greatest good and His ultimate glory.

Lord willing, the next post will consider a few reasons why God doesn’t always answer prayer in the manner that we desire, and how it often serves to bring more glory to His Namesake.  Until then, let us be men and women of prayer.

{1} Excerpts from Edwards were taken from Glenn Kreider’s “Jonathan Edwards’s Theology of Prayer” in Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct-Dec 2003).  Anything in quote boxes is either from Edwards or Kreider, and all other comments and conclusions are mine.

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Filed under History, Jonathan Edwards, Prayer, Theological Reflection, Tribbett

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