The Regulative Principle of Prayer

In this series of blog posts, the regulative principle is being looked at from the vantage point of the Christian life as a whole. Often times, we Christians limit the principle itself to congregational singing without allowing it to influence the rest of our lives as we know it. This principle, again, is founded upon what the Bible says about issues in life (you can fill in the blank). It is not a principle that merely “forces” people into singing, praying, preaching, etc., a certain way, per se, but it centralizes these types of actions in biblically-warranted practices. In other words, there is a biblical way to do something and an unbiblical way to do something.

So, in order to really talk about the principle of prayer, we must do more than simply look at how to pray and, instead, demonstrate what prayer is and what it is not.

What Prayer is Not

Often times, Christians have an envisioning of what prayer is in their minds that will, more often that not, never realize it in their prayer lives. We see an example of this in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14) where the Pharisee seems righteous from his acts in life, but his prayers are far from it. Instead of his prayers being “righteous,” they were exhilarating speeches where he waxed eloquent about himself. If we aren’t careful, our prayers as believers in Jesus Christ can become the same. So, for the sake of clarification, here are some things prayer is not:

  1. Prayer is not self-affirming. Take the Pharisee’s prayer as an example to show us the horrific nature of self-affirming prayers. “God, I did this, this, and this.” “Look at me, God!” Look, God, at what I’ve done!” The Pharisee’s prayer was more about what he had done than anything else.
  2. Prayer is not to be seen. Again, look where the Pharisee was praying – in the temple courts to be seen. He was standing for everyone to see. In other words, this Pharisee was more concerned about who was watching him than to whom he was praying.
  3. Prayer is not just conversation. This point could get a bit overlooked if we aren’t careful, but we must understand its verity. Often times, Christians say of prayer that it is simply “talking to God.” And while I don’t want to belittle the good this statement brings to prayer, we must understand that prayer is much more than just “talking to God.” The Pharisee was “talking to God” and his prayer was less than imitable.
  4. Prayer is not waxing eloquent. It is also very important to notice how the Pharisee is showing how he believes his actions dictate his righteousness. He says, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get” (Luke 9:11-12). It seems as though prayer can be stereotyped into a type of “theological rhetoric” where we are only successful because of what was said. This is NEVER the case in prayer.

What Prayer Is

  1. Prayer is the practice of the presence of God. It is the place where pride is abandoned, hope is lifted, and supplication is made.”[1] In order for our prayer to be successful, if you will, we must understand that we are in the presence of God when we pray. You see, often we think of prayer as requests, petitions, and such. While prayer is such things, prayer is also a scenario where you come boldly into the presence of God.
  2. Prayer is conveying a message to God. Paul in Romans tells us that “the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings” (Rom. 8:26). In a sermon[2] on this verse, John Piper understood what the Spirit does for believers by saying that there are many times during prayer where the Spirit conveys the message to God that we cannot communicate. He noted this was the reason he would not define prayer as “communicating with God.” He rightly asserts that the Bible never calls God’s communicating with us “prayer.” God communicating with us “revelation” or “illumination.” Therefore, prayer is a human attempt to convey our groanings to God from the deepest parts of our being.
  3. Prayer is acknowledging God’s sovereignty. Spurgeon notes that prayer is “a belief that God can and will give that which we seek.”[3] The main thrust of Christian prayer is that God can do that which we ask Him to do for us. God is able to do that which we ask Him to do. Ephesians 3:20-21 demonstrates for us that He is able to do abundantly MORE than we ask or think. When we approach God in prayer, we approach Him with the thoughts that He can do that which we ask because He is the all-powerful, all-sovereign God of the universe.
  4. Prayer is aligning yourself with God’s will and desires. Paul tells us the answer for how to align ourselves with God’s will and desires. He tells us to “walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). One way in which we walk by the Spirit is through the means of prayer. By convening with the Almighty for the purpose of knowing and adoring Him, we then align ourselves with who He is and how who He is manifests in our lives as His children. In doing this, we also affirm the notion that our desires could be out of line and, therefore, need realignment, if you will.
  5. Prayer is (sometimes) doing nothing. Now, this seems a bit counterintuitive, but doing nothing is imperative when it comes to prayer. There are times when prayer must be nothing more than sitting down and being quiet. I firmly believe and am deeply persuaded that there are times in life when all we can do is sit down and be quiet and do nothing. Romans 8:26 tells us that when we are so steeped in our own lives and know nothing of what to pray, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

Regulative Prayer

It is easy to get bogged down into the details of what prayer is and what prayer is not, but in order to know the “correct” way to pray, we need to understand boths sides of this issue. I am firmly convinced that many times prayer deals more with the posture of our own heart than it does the structure of our prayers themselves. The Pharisee and the Publican show us this reality: it is not your stance or words, but the attitude of your heart that reaches the Lord’s throne and bends His ear. Haughty prayers turn God’s listening ear. It was the Publican who “went down to his house justified,” not the Pharisee. We would do well to sit down and examine our attitude in prayer.

Conclusion

Is prayer really that much of an issue to be a “regulative principle” issue? I think so because I believe what the Bible says goes. The Bible speaks much to how we live and how we carry ourselves, especially before a holy and righteous God. He deserves more than our haughty attempts at meritorious speeches. He longs for us to rest in His Son’s finished work for us and approach Him with who we are.


[1] Matt Slick, “What is Prayer?”, Center for Apologetics and Research Ministry, accessed February, 18, 2021, https://carm.org/about-prayer/what-is-prayer/.

[2] Link to sermon here.

[3] Charles H. Spurgeon, “Instant, Constant, Expectant”, The Spurgeon Center, accessed February 20, 2021, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/constant-instant-expectant/#flipbook/.

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