What does the doctrine of the Trinity have to do with the practice of prayer? Well, the Trinity is something that all Christians believe, but often find difficult to understand, much less explain. And prayer is something that all Christians do, but rarely practice with the consistency and delight they know they should. In the realms of Christian doctrine, the Trinity ranks among the most difficult. Among the disciplines of Christian living, prayer tops the list as most challenging.
But there's another connection between prayer and Trinitarian theology that helps us better understand the doctrine of the Trinity and make progress in our prayer lives. The connection is in many passages, but most succinctly in Ephesians 2:18 where Paul says, "For through him [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father." This sentence is pregnant with significance for understanding who God is and how we can come to him.
But first, some definitions: What do Christians mean when they talk about the Trinity? Essentially, three things. You might think of these as three strong pillars on which the doctrine of the Trinity rests.
- First, we mean that there is only one God. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4).
- Second, this one God exists in three distinct persons, or personalities: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- Third, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully, equally, and eternally God.
Deny one of those statements, and we get into trouble. If we deny the first and say that there are actually three gods, then we are tri-theists, rather than monotheists. More commonly, people say that there is one God who acts in three different modes, or manifests himself in three different ways, or wears three different hats: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (much as I myself am a son, a husband, and a father). But this idea (formally known as modalism and condemned by both Protestants and Catholics), denies the second pillar, and dozens of texts, that affirm the distinct personalities of Father, Son, and Spirit. Others, especially among the cults, teach that the Son and/or the Spirit are somehow inferior to the Father, being less than fully, equally, and eternally God.
But Scripture leads us to affirm all three pillars. There is one God, who exists in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and these three are each fully, equally, and eternally God.
So, what does this have to do with prayer? Well, prayer is essentially talking with God. But communication with God requires access to his presence. And Ephesians 2:18 shows us that our access to God involves all three Persons of the Trinity.
- We have "access…to the Father."
- But that access to the Father is "through him" - Jesus Christ, God's Son, who reconciles us to the Father (see Ephesians 2:11).
- But notice further that our access to God is "in one Spirit". This means that our prayers are enabled and empowered by the Spirit.
So, when we pray we come to Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. Prayer is communion with the Three-in-One God.
Now, how can this rescue your prayer life?
Sometimes we hesitate to pray, because of unbelief. We're not sure God really cares about our needs. But this is to forget that we're praying to our Father, who already knows our needs and invites us to come to him as little children.
At other times, we wrongly think we've got to manufacture certain feelings or emotions in order to pray. But Paul says that we have access to God in the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who enlivens our hearts and enables to us to pray.
All too often, we feel compelled to pray from a sense of duty. (Good Christians pray, therefore, if I want to be a good Christian, I should pray.) Or, we're held back from prayer by a sense of guilt. (Only good Christians can really come to God. I haven't been very good lately, so I'm not worthy enough for God to hear my prayers.) Worst of all, sometimes we can feel confident about prayer because we've been keeping our Christian noses clean!
But, don't you see? This is self-reliance and legalism. This kind of thinking and praying, neglects the work of the Son in reconciling us to the Father. When we live and pray like this, we're not coming through Jesus. We're coming on the basis of our own merits. And there is no access to God that way. But when we remember that our access to God is through Christ alone, then we can come boldly to the throne of grace in the confidence that God will forgive our sins and hear our prayers, for Jesus' sake.
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church in Niles, Michigan. He has been married to Holly since 1996 and has three children: Stephen, Matthew, and Susannah. He has contributed articles to Heartcry! A Journal on Revival and Spiritual Awakening, Pastor Connect, and The Banner of Truth magazine. He is the author of christ formed in you: the power of the gospel for personal change (Shepherd Press, 2010). And licensed to kill: a field manual for mortifying sin (Cruciform Press, 2011)