Prayer and the Gospel
August 25, 2013 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Sermon from selected texts by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, August 25, 2013
Topic: Prayer and the Gospel
Today’s message will be a bit different from other messages you have heard from this pulpit. Our normal practice, here, is to take the main point of a passage of Scripture, make it the main point of the sermon, and then apply it to everyday life. We make that our practice at Redeemer because we want to ensure that God’s agenda ultimately rules the church, not the preacher’s agenda from week to week. What makes today’s message a little different for us is that we won’t be looking at the main point of one passage in particular, but will bring together a host of passages on the subject of our communion with God in prayer and how that communion with God relates to the extraordinary news about Jesus Christ, what the Bible calls, “the gospel.” I want to show you God’s agenda for the church to pray in light of what God, in his extravagant love, has achieved for us through sending his Son, Jesus Christ. And I want to do that not from one passage in particular, but a host of passages where the gospel and prayer come together in very explicit and encouraging ways. And then, at the end of the sermon, we’re going to give you the opportunity to join each other in practicing God’s agenda for prayer. The elders will even be at the front to lay hands on you and pray for you if you so desire.
So that’s what we’re doing this morning. I held off continuing in the Gospel of John, because September 1st begins our global missions emphasis month; and we’ll be in Matt 28 for four weeks—meaning that we would have started chapter 7 today in John and then picked it up again five-weeks later. So, I thought it would be easier for us to keep those messages building on each other week after week.
Why a Sermon on Prayer?
But with that decision meant I had to consider what to preach this morning, and so I’d like to share with you why we’re looking at the subject of prayer. One of the first reasons we’re looking at prayer is that I need growth in this amazing discipline myself; and if I need growth in prayer as a pastor, then surely those following my lead need growth in this area as well. One of the first questions that we, as elders, must ask ourselves whenever we see something wrong or lacking or unhealthy in the life of the church is not “Why aren’t they doing this or that?” but “Have we led them there?” Because a church will only grow towards health insofar as the leadership looks like the Good Shepherd himself. So I wanted to spend some more time reminding myself of the incredible privilege of prayer.
Another reason we’re looking at prayer this morning is that we all need growth in prayer as a church. Think of how quiet it normally is whenever we invite the congregation to voice prayer requests every so often in a worship service. Gary asks us to pray aloud over the church before God, and we wait in silence for someone else to say something, and that someone else is waiting for you to say something. We’re getting better, but we need a fresh look at what privilege we have in coming before God together, to cry out to him together. Or, many times, we often express opinions—we just rattle off at the mouth—about the way things should be without ever consulting God in prayer. Our mouths speak faster than our hearts actually trust in the One who controls and holds all things together.
On top of that, our American culture is constantly shoving more accomplishment and more production in our faces; and we’re very susceptible to believing its lies. Have you ever sat down to pray and felt like you’re just wasting time? You’re five minutes into prayer and your mind begins racing to everything you could be doing right now and your flesh is shouting, “Just get to work for crying out loud!” Your eyes don’t see any immediate results and so you’re frustrated—“What use is this?!” And more and more prayer gets pushed to the peripheral of our Christian life when God’s word is telling us there is no Christian life without prayer. At the heart of our Christian life is communion with God, not just in scheduled times of the day, but also throughout our day and into our nights.
Another temptation we face in this church is that some of us want spiritual vitality and Christ-like transformation and maturity for ministry—which are really good desires—but what is not good is that sometimes we want those things apart from communion with God in prayer. What we’ll see from several passages today is that change without communion not only overlooks the whole point of our salvation—being with God—but is also an attempt of the human heart to do what it’s always been doing, achieve its own agenda without reliance on the grace of God. So, these are some of the ways we need growth in prayer as a church.
A final reason I chose to preach on prayer is that towards the beginning of the year, the elders were reading through the Book of Acts together—some of you are even in the Acts class for Discipleship Hour—and we couldn’t help but notice that regular prayer is a pattern we observe in the early church and a pattern we long to see among the relationships within our own church. So, we started by sharing some of the same things I’ll share with you today with the Care Group Leaders back in February. When God saves people, he unites them to the church and this is what happens—this is from Acts 2:41-42: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Part and parcel to the church’s life and mission was constant dependence on God in prayer such that we even see the New Testament commanding us to “be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12) or to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col 4:2) or to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).
And all these commands are nothing more than an extension of what Jesus taught and modeled for his twelve disciples: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt 26:41); “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1); “When you pray…pray like this, ‘Our Father in heaven” (Matt 6:9). If we’re committed to the word of God ruling our lives, then prayer should characterize our own life and mission together.
Viewing Prayer in Light of the Gospel
So those are a few reasons why I’ve chosen to talk about prayer this morning. But, the Scriptures will not allow me to simply come in, highlight the need we have for growth in prayer, exhort you to do it, and then leave. If we’re going to be thoroughly Christian in our thinking about prayer in the Scriptures, then we must consider how prayer relates to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jewish people pray. Muslim people pray. Lots of people in religions contrary to Christianity pray. But none of them have any real access to the true and living God; and neither did any of us prior to the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to the word of truth, the message of our salvation. When we view prayer in light of the gospel, again and again we will be stunned that we—rebellious sinners—have any access to God whatsoever. Prayer is not just another ball* to keep juggling with the rest of the spiritual disciplines; prayer is the expression of communion with God we once did not have but that now we’ve gained through the work of Jesus Christ; and that brings me to our first point this morning.
1. Prayer Is a Goal of the Gospel
Prayer is a goal of the gospel—it is a goal built into the redeeming work of the Triune God. To put it negatively, apart from the Father’s love, the Son’s life, death and resurrection, and the Spirit’s presence, Christian prayer would be wholly non-existent. Christian prayer would be wholly non-existent, because a relationship with God would be wholly non-existent. Any attention to the larger storyline of Scripture reminds us that God had created us for perfect communion with him, for moment-by-moment dependence on his provision and care. This is clear from Gen 1-2. Adam needed the breath of life, and the Lord provides it (Gen 2:7). Adam needed food, and the Lord gives it (Gen 1:29). Adam needed a place to walk with God—a garden—and God put him in it (Gen 2:15). Adam needed words to follow that lead to life, and the Lord gave them to him (Gen 2:16). Adam needed a suitable helper, and the Lord created the woman from his side (Gen 2:18). Adam needed a King who ruled over his relationship to his wife, a King who knows what the relationship is about, and the Lord walked with them (Gen 2:25). Life in the garden for Adam and Eve was a life of perfect fellowship with God—it was a life of unhindered access to his presence, a life of moment-by-moment dependence on God’s provision and care, and a life lived according to his purposes for the world.
We were all made for this kind of communion with our Maker. Then, Adam rebelled and the entire human race with him fell into sin and out of fellowship with God (Gen 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-14). Because of this rebellion, we are born into the world dead in sin (Eph 2:1), following Satan (Eph 2:2), separated from Christ, without God in the world (Eph 2:12), attempting to live under self-rule and by the power of self-sufficiency (Rom 1:18-32), and we are by nature God’s enemies (Eph 2:3; Jas 4:4). We’re not merely unaware of our need for God and our need for fellowship with him; we actually prefer nothing of his divine care and fellowship even when he offers it.
Adam chose fellowship with a fork-tongued liar over the God who just gave him everything. Israel chooses the meat baskets under Pharaoh’s whip instead of communion with their Rock and Redeemer in the wilderness. Our sinful condition, apart from God’s grace, is that we hate communion with God; we don’t want to depend on him; we despise any admission that we need him; and we rebel from living according to his purposes for the world. Prayerful dependence on the true God is not a natural inclination of the human heart; rebellion is our natural inclination. And the Bible says that such rebellion merits eternal separation from God under his wrath. 2 Thess 1:9 says that those who do not know God “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” There is no communion with God in that relationship.
Now, here’s what’s so amazing about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite our ignorance and rebellion and our preferences which would only condemn us, God sends his Son into the world to live in perfect communion with his Father—to live in total dependence on his Father as a man (John 5:19; 1 Pet 2:23)—so that he could become the perfect sacrifice we needed to bear the punishment we deserved (Rom 3:25-26; Gal 3:13), to reconcile us to God that we might have fellowship with him (2 Cor 5:19; 1 Pet 3:18), to rise from the dead that we might have ongoing access to the throne of grace (Heb 12:22-24), and to ascend into heaven to give us the Spirit that we might desire to pray (Gal 4:4-6), know how to pray (Rom 8:26), and conform our lives to God’s will when we pray (Col 1:9-10). Here’s where we see that prayer is actually a goal of the gospel—or at least one outworking of a much larger goal of the gospel, namely, our reconciliation to God. Let’s look at a few passages together.
John 15:16. Jesus tells his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” So what two things do we see coming together in verse 16? We see God’s gracious election of weak, undeserving sinners—“You did not choose me, but I chose you”—so that they ask the Father in Jesus’ name to bear abiding fruit. Apart from God’s grace, nobody would pray this way because nobody would know the one true God; and even if they heard about him, they wouldn’t try to relate to him through his Son, Jesus Christ. The disciples can only relate to God in Jesus’ name because Jesus chose them in accordance with his Father’s gracious will. God lovingly initiated our relationship with Christ, and the result is that we ask, we pray, we implore God to supply more grace to us and others. Have you ever thought about your discipleship that way—that Jesus chose you to follow him so that you could talk to God, that he didn’t choose you just to put you to work, but so that you might commune with God in the work? Luke 18:7 makes the same point about our election leading to prayer: “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?”
Or how about Gal 4:4-6? It says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” So there again is the grace of God in Christ at work on behalf of unworthy sinners. This is the gospel: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” The Law looked at you and your sin and said, “Guilty! Deserving of condemnation!” And knowing this God sent his Son to live under the Law, fulfill all its demands perfectly for you, and then suffer as your blameless substitute, that the curse you deserved might be lifted forever. That’s the gospel! But there’s even more that his death secures for you. Verse 5, “[All that happened] so that we might receive adoption as sons [And how do adopted sons relate to their new Father? Verse 6 tells us]. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” That’s prayer! Crying ‘Abba! Father!’ as an adopted son is a goal of the gospel (cf. Rom 8:12-15).
Let’s go next to Eph 2:12-18. “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. [Great summary of the gospel! Verse 18…] And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. [Get this!] For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” In Eph 3:12, Paul says that through faith in Christ “we have boldness and access with confidence” to God. Do you ever feel too unclean to speak to God? You are; but that’s the whole point of the cross! Through Christ, God makes you so clean that you can come to him with boldness. So, again, unhindered access to the Father in one Spirit through Christ is a goal of the gospel.
One more from Heb 4:14-16. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Again, God explains the good news: despite our guilt, God anointed Jesus to be our superior high priest. He was sinless; he offered the superior sacrifice for sins; he walked into the heavenly temple as our priestly representative; and he forever lives to pray for us. Now, what does the writer of Hebrews conclude? Verse 16, Let us then [or therefore] with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Do you have needs this morning—needs that have so buried you that you don’t know the way out? Are your sins ever before you? Is the shame and guilt just too much to bear? Jesus became a great High Priest to secure your access to the omnipotent God of the universe whose kingdom cannot be shaken, that is, if you trust him.
The Gospel Answers both How We Can & Why We Should Pray
Total access to God; confidence to enter his presence; inner-dwelling of the Spirit crying ‘Abba!’; assurance as sons; greatest needs are met in Christ; permanent fellowship with God never to be lost again by us or taken by another; a great High Priest who’s ready to give mercy and grace—I hope you’re beginning to see the point. The message of the gospel is that God saves sinners through the work of Jesus Christ and he does so for fellowship with himself, for our communion with God—a communion we lost in the Garden, but now have through faith in Jesus Christ. In this sense, prayer is a goal of the gospel. And that answers questions of both of how we can pray and of why we would pray. We can pray because we have been reconciled to God—something we could never achieve on our own—and we would pray because we have been reconciled to God—to him who is infinite in glory and beauty and worth and honor and splendor. So, that’s the first point I wanted to set before you this morning, that prayer as part of our communion with God is a goal of the gospel.
2. Prayer Is God's Means of Advancing the Gospel
Now, secondly, when we see that prayer is a goal of the gospel, we’ll also see that prayer is God’s means of advancing the gospel. Prayer is the means by which our sovereign Lord accomplishes his redemptive purposes. In other words, part of being saved is praying, and praying is what God uses to advance his salvation. That doesn’t mean our laborious efforts in proclaiming the gospel and laying our lives down for others go out the window; it’s just that none of that will happen apart from fervent prayer for grace to make that happen through us. To put it another way, the work of Jesus brings us into perfect communion with the Father, and in so doing he makes us active participants in the Father’s purposes.
In his kindness, God saves us to commune with him and then uses that communion to achieve his purposes. So, for example, in Acts 4:29-31 the disciples pray like this: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” God has predetermined plans and purposes. And knowing that, they pray like this: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
God has predetermined plans and the disciples participate in God’s plans through prayer. His sovereign work of grace in spreading the gospel is impetus for prayer. He gives prayers to his people in order to accomplish his purposes; and we get to be the privileged recipients interacting with God in his purposes. Then the text goes on to tell us, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” God delights in letting them participate in his purposes by using prayer to accomplish his purposes. If our first point helped us understand how we can pray—namely, God saved us—and why we would pray—namely, God is awesome, this second point helps us understand what we actually pray for, namely, that God’s will be done. And the New Testament gives us plenty of insight into what that actually means.
For example—now I’m about to run through a bunch of verses, so I wouldn’t attempt to turn to them; just sit and listen to how the New Testament views prayer as God’s means of spreading the gospel. For starters, consider John 15:7-8: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Bearing fruit is not ultimately left to you. It’s dependent upon God, and he awaits our word-saturated requests to glorify his name in the Son among all peoples.
In 2 Thess 3:1, prayer is the means by which God causes the word of the Lord to speed ahead: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.”
In Col 1:9-10, prayer is the means by which God causes the church to bear fruit in every good work: “…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
In 1 Tim 2:1-6, prayer is the means God ordained that we might live a peaceful life in bringing the message of reconciliation to people in high places: “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 peaceful and 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 to 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, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” If these leaders are going to be saved, they must believe that message. And God intends to save some of them by using your prayers to change their hearts.
In 2 Thess 1:11-12, prayer is the means by which the name of the Lord Jesus is glorified in the church: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you.” You want Jesus’ name exalted in this church; pray that God would make us worthy of his calling and that God would give us works of faith by his power!
In Rom 10:1, prayer is the means by which God saves people: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” Do you have lost neighbors? Write their names down on your kitchen table and pray for God to save them—that he would remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh, that he would overcome their resistance to the gospel by the Holy Spirit.
In Jas 5:16, prayer is the means by which God keeps us from growing distracted from his purposes with sin: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (cf. 1 John 5:16). Do you want deliverance from particular sins? Hiding them from brothers and sisters and your spouse is destructive to your soul and to the church at large. God’s word says you need the prayers of your brothers and sisters. The Lord uses them to heal.
One more…In Eph 6:16-18, prayer is the means by which God tears down spiritual strongholds and keeps the gospel of peace advancing in darkness: “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” I often wonder if the reason we haven’t seen many converts join our assembly is that we’re simply not praying for God to penetrate the darkness, for God to save anybody in White Settlement and beyond, for God to do any sort of mighty work through us. Pray at all times in the Spirit, so that your feet might run to the lost with the gospel of peace.
Again and again, we see that prayer is a means God uses to advance his purposes in the gospel; and when he saves us, God fills our hearts with such prayers. So, if you want to see our church mature in Christ, God will not only use your various gifts and skills to do so—he will not only use your Bible knowledge to do so—he will also use your prayers. In fact, in his incredible mercy, he has chosen to work through your prayers for this church and the lost people we meet. If you desire to see your care group members bearing each others’ burdens, ask your Father who is omnipotent to make the change. If you long to see our church zealous for evangelism and caring for the needy in our community, pray the Lord will change our hearts to do so. If you want your son or daughter or friend to hunger for God’s word, implore God to open the eyes of their hearts to behold wonderful things in his word.
Whatever it might be, let’s join our voices together even now and ask the Lord to save and heal and fill and come and shake and convict and bless and win! Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain (Ps 127:1).