The Necessity of Prayer

Do we believe in the absolute importance of prayer, and do we truly desire revival in the lives of Christians and for great awakening in the lives of unbelievers? No we don’t, for these will not come apart from fervent prayer. Yet, by and large, most churches no longer have regular prayer meetings. Many churches no longer have altar calls. And hardly will you hear the stressing of prayer or the need for revival from pulpits. There was a time when, in many Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches, altar calls were filled with persons crying out to God for lost family members and friends. But that is now a bygone era. Advertise that Chris Tomlin will be playing at a certain time of the week and you’d have people coming from miles around. Have a prayer meeting any time of the week and the average church would be lucky to have even a tenth of its members attend.

Do we believe in the vitality of prayer? No, we put more stock in formal theological education, good preaching, conferences, and good ol’ know-how, despite the fact Jesus tells us plainly, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). 

So important is prayer to the very One we call our Sovereign Savior and Lord, He says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?” (Luke 19:46)

Greg Frizzell rightly notes, “If a restaurant is called a ‘House of Fish,’ that implies … that the prominent practice of that establishment is the cooking and eating of fish. When you call a place a ‘house of something,’ you certainly expect that ‘something’ to be the predominant practice of the establishment. In the exact same way, if the church is to be the ‘house of prayer,’ God expects prayer to be its predominant ongoing practice. When a church chooses to become a house of prayer, the practice of prayer literally saturates all it does.”

Are churches today known as “houses of prayer”? No, they’re called either houses of God or houses of worship. An average church service will have about 20 minutes of worship time, 30-45 minutes of preaching, and maybe five minutes of prayer. We like to think God is honored by all of this because we do it all in His name, but is He honored when we deliberately disregard what He has told us what He desires for the emphasis of His house to be? And is it any wonder why churches and denominations are in such poor shape? Understand, sound biblical teaching and genuine worship are, indeed, important as well. But it is through prayer and the moving of God which fuels these with power. A pastor is not a savior. If churches are not being the church, and a house of prayer filled with the Holy Spirit, a pastor will not be able to fix what’s broken, regardless how talented he might be. He might preach well, and organize well, but he is completely helpless in doing what only God can do in response to the prayers of His people. 

Furthermore, (and I believe this wholeheartedly) a church will only value and emphasize prayer as much as the leadership will. If leadership puts stock in various credentials, those are what the church will put stock in. If the leadership will not stress prayer, neither will the church. The emphases on prayer and its necessity must be a priority of those in leadership, for only then will the church begin to recognize its importance. Only as God’s people humbly and sincerely cry out to Him in faith, will we witness mighty moves of God. I’m not talking about ridiculous sensationalism, as one might see on TBN, but genuine moves of God when people are convicted of sin, the chains of vices and addictions are broken, and people becoming genuinely inflamed with passion for Christ. 

We are told in Matthew 9:36-38, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”

Why does Jesus command us to pray earnestly on this matter? If God is sovereign and has no need of us, then why must we pray? Yet, although God is sovereign, the Scriptures teach us that many things either happen or not—depending on whether God’s people pray. But let me ask, does Jesus contradict His own sovereignty? He certainly does not, yet He commands us to pray earnestly for laborers in God’s harvest. And by laborers, does he simply mean those who are formally trained in a theological institution? This is highly doubtful, since in Acts 4, we are told of two of Jesus’s disciples who stood before the Jewish Council, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (v. 13). Then later, when a controversy arose between the Jewish and Greek believers, the apostles commanded, “Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Notice the lack of worldly credentials in both accounts. Instead, the emphases are company with Jesus, good reputation, fullness of the Spirit and of wisdom, and prayer. 

Now, consider what some of the great saints have said about prayer:

Oswald Chambers observes, “Prayer seems like such a small thing to do—next to nothing at all in fact. But that’s not what Jesus said. To Him, prayer is everything…. We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but Jesus wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but Jesus wants us to pray before we do anything at all…. He wants us to talk to Him, not aboutHim. He wants us to talk to Him about unbelievers before we talk to unbelievers about Him. Prayer is not just an exercise routine God has us on; it’s our business, our only business. Prayer is our holy occupation. Plain and simple.”

John Calvin rocognizes our desperate need for prayer, as he notes, “we are plagued with such poverty and destitution that even the best of us must sigh and groan continually, and call on the Lord with all humility.”

Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, declared, “I would rather teach one man to pray than ten men to preach.”

Thomas Watson, the great Puritan, notes, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” Watson also notes, “That prayer is most likely to pierce heaven which first pierces one’s own heart.”  

The Puritan, William Gurnall, says of the importance of corporate prayer, “There is a wonderful prevalency in the joint prayers of [God’s] people. When Peter was in prison, the church met and prayed him out of his enemies’ hands. A prince will grant a petition subscribed by the hands of the whole city, which, may be, he would not at the request of a private subject, and yet love him well too. There is an especial promise to public prayer: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” 

Jonathan Edwards says, “Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is to life.” He also notes, “When God is about to do a mighty new thing He always sets His people praying.”

And lastly, Henry Blackaby observes, “Studying revivals throughout history will reveal that they are not identical. Revivals in Wales, New England, Kentucky, Korea, India, Ruanda, and South Africa had characteristics unique to the people and the social environment in which they occurred. However, in every revival the consistent common denominator is fervent, faithful, persistent, righteous prayer.”

So, I ask again, do we believe in the utmost vitality of prayer? Is it not strange that in churches one is more prone to hear quotes on Calvin’s teachings on God’s sovereignty, Billy Graham’s thoughts on evangelism, or even some hogwash from persons of questionable theology and character, rather than on the very words of the incarnate Son of God when He stresses the importance of prayer? And why are many of us negligent in prayer? Does it not boil down to a mixture of pride (thinking we can accomplish great things—which is very contrary to the Scriptures, as well as to reformed theology), lack of fervor for Christ and His glory, laziness, unbelief, and really, straight-up apathy for the lost? Men, we give so many lousy excuses for our lack of praying, but these five reasons are truly why we do not give more attention to prayer. Yet, if one reads some of the Puritan prayers in books like, The Valley of Vision or Piercing Heaven, he will read passionate prayers exemplifying genuine humility and the awareness of personal sinfulness, a burning passion for the glory of Christ and the furtherance of His kingdom, confidence in the mercies, providence, and wisdom of God, and pleadings for God to pour out His mercies on others as He has done so to them.

Charles Spurgeon, who was a staunch Calvinist, understood the dual, non-contradictory truths of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility better than any preacher I know of. In one of his sermons on these very things, in the first part of his message he stresses the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty in salvation. Later, he argues against the hyper-Calvinists of his day, saying, “When God sent the prophets to Israel and stretched forth His hands, what was it for? What did He wish them to come to Him for? Why, to be saved. 

            ‘No,’ says one, ‘it was for temporal mercies.’ Not so, my friend; the verse before is concerning spiritual mercies, and so is this one, for they refer to the same thing. Now, was God sincere in His offer? God forgive the man that dares to say He was not.”

It is true, God is sovereign over our salvation. Not a single one of us, comes to God apart from Him making the first move toward us. Yet, let not our lofty views of Calvinism blind our minds and hearts to the equal truth of God’s love and desire for the lost to come to know Him and so be saved. Just as definite God will one day thoroughly judge the wicked in His wrath, so just as definite are His tender mercies for them, as He told the angry prophet, Jonah, concerning the ruthless, idolatrous Ninevites, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Just as surely as God’s sovereignty over our salvation are His words spoken through Ezekiel, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (33:11). Just as certain as the apostle who stressed in Romans that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (9:18), is also the same apostle who emphasized to his protégé, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:1-6).

But how will people come to this saving knowledge of Christ? Simply by God’s sovereignty? We are not granted any more authority than the liberal to pick and choose what Scriptures we like or prefer. As Spurgeon notes, ‘The system of truth is not one straight line but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once.” What he is talking about is the truth of God’s sovereignty as being one line, and God’s sincere invitation to all people to repent. But how will men come to saving faith in Christ? Simply by solid biblical preaching? Someone might say, “Yes, for so Paul says in Romans 10.” But does one think, really, that the power comes from a preacher apart from prayer?

But what does Jesus say? He tells us to pray. He tells us to pray that God will send laborers into His harvest. He tells us to ask, seek, and knock. And what does Paul say? Does he say to simply preach and let the chips fall wherever they are sovereignly destined? No, he tells us to pray.

How can the fire of revival sweep through our churches or a great awakening resound throughout the nations? Indeed, these must come by God’s sovereign power, there’s no doubt about that. But does not God invite us to ask and plead for these? James tells us we have not because we ask not. Is it not true that we do not earnestly pray for these? When was the last time you pleaded for revival in private prayer? Or when has the church gathered to plead for revival? Churches will only do so when they truly recognize they need revival. How many of us genuinely believe we ourselves need to be revived? Those of us who are fathers, do we just give everything to our children, or do we not often give things only when they sincerely ask?

Did the Holy Spirit fall on His disciples during Pentecost sovereignly, while they were sleeping, or when they were together in the upper room praying, utterly dependent on God’s direction and moving? Was Peter released from prison simply by the sovereign hand of God or was it in connection with a gathering of believers pleading fervently on his behalf? When Moses was on top of a hill with Aaron and Hur, watching Joshua and his army fighting the Amalekites, did God simply help Joshua prevail or was it only as Moses raised His hands to God? Prayer was vital in each of these events.

We often view Paul as some spiritual powerhouse, but when we read his letters, we see he was a man devoted to prayer, as well as dependent on the fervent prayers of God’s people. In the thirteen letters of Paul, he mentions prayer in some form nearly fifty times. To the Ephesians, he asks that they pray for him, “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (6:19). To the Colossian believers, he writes, “Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (4:3). He says in his letter to Philemon, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective” (1:6).

And as I was preparing for this study, I was reminded of a dear brother’s message recently, from the prophet Ezekiel, when God said, “And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none” (22:30). As this brother pointed out, is God not looking for men to stand in the breach today, when our country and world are standing on the brink of destruction? Are we to be content with God’s judgment on the wicked? Such an attitude reveals the wickedness of our own hearts and is no reflection of the tender heart of God. God wants us to pray.

As Southern Baptists, we might pride ourselves for our dedication to the Great Commission, but what are we that we can accomplish anything? Can we truly fulfill it by our own strength and ingenuity? The common underlying attitude is that we can. No, of course we don’t say this outrightly, but our lack of prayer declares this as much. But how’s this going for us so far? The Great Commission was never intended to be fulfilled apart from true commitment to Christ’s teachings, an absolute dependence on Him through prayer, and the filling of His Holy Spirit.

Men, should we not feel ashamed when the ladies of many of our churches have taken it upon themselves to make time to get together for times of prayer, when God has called us to be the spiritual leaders? This is not a criticism of the women, but of us, for it is we who should have taken the lead.

Leaders, whether you are pastors, deacons, or on committees, don’t expect great things for our churches if prayer is not of utmost priority. Jesus states plainly that apart from Him, we can do nothing. This fact remains true whether we accept it or not. 

If we genuinely desire to see revival take place in our churches, and to see people experience true life in Christ as they are delivered from the bondage of sin and the devil, then we must become a people and houses of prayer. Otherwise we will simply remain a people who do churchystuff. If we truly desire revival, then we must actively plead for it. We might blame the lack of revival or awakening on men’s wickedness or God’s just sovereignty, but we are just as much to blame when we are unwilling to acknowledge our own sins and stand in the gap on behalf of the people.

I think I have made it clear that we do not truly see prayer as being absolutely vital, despite what we might say with our mouths. However, what are we going to do with the charge presented here? Like the church in Ephesus, we might have impeccably sound theology, but this does not guarantee fervency of spirit and passionate love for Christ. May churches truly become a houses of prayer to the nations and devoted to our first love. To not do so means to both remain powerless and to dwell in sin because of choosing to not become a house of prayer. Brethren, we must repent. Let us not think that God shares in our apathy for a lost and dying world around us, nor think that somehow our concern and burden for them is greater than His. Our hills of love in which He creates within us will never compare to the mountains of love which are an eternal part of Him.

In closing, may we truly begin to understand the necessity of prayer. Jesus says this place is to be a house of prayer. And as Chambers says, prayer is to be our holy occupation. 

Let us pray.