PRAYER AS A MEANS OF GRACE
Acta 9:11:—"For behold, he prayeth."
We read these words, "For behold, he prayeth," of Saul of Tarsus, immediately after the account of how, when he was journeying from Jerusalem to Damascus on his persecuting errand, he was smitten to the ground by the Divine hand and raised again by those gracious words—how gracious, how inexplicably gracious they must have seemed to him!—which promised him service for the very One whom he was now persecuting. And when we read them our first thought is likely to turn on the appropriateness of prayer in the circumstances. Thus the theme is obviously suggested of prayer as the appropriate expression of the renewed sinner's heart. On this subject I I shall not, however, speak to you just now. I wish to call your attention, rather, to another subject for meditation which also lies in our passage, though perhaps not so prominently. That is, Prayer as a means of Grace.
If we look closely at this verse we shall see that it suggests prayer as a means of grace. You will notice that it reads, "For behold, he prayeth, and he hath seen" a vision of Ananaias coming to him to restore him to sight. "For behold he prayeth
and"; that is, this statement is given as a reason, and as a reason why Ananaias should now go to him. And the reason is that Paul is now prepared for the visit. And the preparation consists of the two items that he is praying and that he has seen in a vision Ananaias coming. In other words, that he is in a state of preparedness for the reception of grace in general is evidenced by his being in prayer; while he is prepared for Ananaias' coming in particular through the vision. The passage thus represents prayer as the state of preparedness for the reception of grace; and, therefore, in the strictest sense as a means of grace. We purpose to look at it for a few moments in this light.
Even if we should not rise above the naturalistic plane, I think we might be able to see that the attitude into which the act of prayer brings the soul is one which especially softens the soul and lays it open to gracious influences. Say that we hold with those who believe in prayer, but do not believe in answer to prayer. Well, is not the mental attitude assumed in prayer, at least, an humble attitude, a softening attitude, a beneficial attitude? Do we not see that thus the very act of prayer by its reflex influence alone—could we believe in no more—will tend to quiet the soul, break down its pride and resistance, and fit it for a humble walk in the world? In its very nature, prayer is a confession of weakness, a confession of need, of dependence, a cry for help, a reaching out for something stronger, better, more stable and trustworthy than ourselves, oil which to rest and depend and draw. No one can take this attitude once without an effect on his character; no one can take it in a crisis of his life without his whole subsequent life feeling the influence in its sweeter, humbler, more devout and restful course; no one can take it habitually without being made, merely by its natural, reflex influence, a different man, in a very profound sense, from what he otherwise would have been. Prayer, thus, in its very nature, because it is an act of self-abnegation, a throwing of ourselves at the feet of One recognized as higher and greater than we, and as One on whom we depend and in whom we trust, is a most beneficial influence in this hard life of ours. It places the soul in an attitude of less self-assertion and predisposes it to walk simply and humbly in the world.
The significance of all this is, of course, vastly increased, when we rise above the region of naturalism into that of supernaturalism. If when we believe only in prayer but not in its answer, if when we look only for a natural, reflex influence on our life of the attitude into which prayer brings us, we can recognize in it a softening, blessing effect; how much more when we perceive a Divine person above who hears and answers the prayer. If there were no God, we can see that it
would be a blessing to men to think there was a God and throw themselves at His feet in prayer. If there is a God who sits aloft and hears and answers, do we not see that the attitude into which prayer brings the soul is the appropriate attitude which the soul should occupy to Him, and is the truest and best preparation of the soul for the reception of His grace? The soul in the attitude of prayer is like the flower turned upwards towards the sky and opening for the reception of the life-giving rain. What is prayer but an adoring appearing before God with a confession of our need and helplessness and a petition for His strength and blessing? What is prayer but a recognition of our dependence and a proclamation that all that we dependent creatures need is found abundantly and to spare in God, who gives to all men liberally and upbraids not? What is prayer but the very adjustment of the heart for the influx of grace? Therefore it is that we look upon the prayerful attitude as above all others the true Christian attitude—just because it is the attitude of devout and hopeful dependence on God. And, therefore, it is that we look upon that type of religious teaching as, above all others, the true Christian type which has as its tendency to keep men in the attitude of prayer, through all their lives.
Every type of religious teaching will inevitably beget its corresponding type of religious life. And that teaching alone which calls upon man to depend wholly on the Lord God Almighty—our loving Father who has given His Son to die for us —for all the exercises of grace, will make Christians whose whole life is a prayer. Not that other Christians do not pray. But only of these Christians can it be said that their life is an embodied prayer. In so far as any Christian's life is a prayerful life, pervaded by and made up out of prayer, it approaches in its silent witness the ideal of this type of teaching. What other attitude is possible to a Christian on his knees before God but an attitude of entire dependence on God for His gifts, and of humble supplication to Him for His favour? But are we to rise from our knees only to take up a different attitude towards God? Says one of the greatest thinkers of modern times: "On his knees before God, every one that has been saved will recognize the sole efficiency of the Holy Spirit in every good work. ... In a word, whoever truly prays ascribes nothing to his own will or power except the sin that condemns him before God, and knows of nothing that could endure the judgment of God except it be wrought within him by the Divine love. But whilst all other tendencies in the Church preserve this attitude so long as their prayer lasts, to lose themselves in radically different conceptions as soon as the Amen has been pronounced, the Calvinist adheres to the truth of his prayer, in his
confession, in his theology, in his life, and the Amen that has closed his petition re-echoes in the depths of his consciousness and throughout the whole of his existence." That is to say, for us Calvinists the attitude of prayer is the whole attitude of our lives. Certainly this is the true Christian attitude, because it is the attitude of dependence, and trust. But just because this is the attitude of prayer, prayer puts the soul in the attitude for receiving grace and is essentially a means of grace.
But once again, prayer is a means of grace because it is a direct appeal to God for grace. It is in its very innermost core a petition for help and that is—proportionately to its sphere—for grace. The means—the most direct and appropriate, the most prevailing and sure means of obtaining aid from a superior, is to ask for it. If a community desires a boon from the government, it petitions for it. The means above all others by which we are to obtain God's blessing is naturally and properly to petition for it. It is true that all prayer is not petition. The Apostle gives us a list of the aspects of prayer in 1 Tim. ii :1 sq. under the names of "supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings." All these elements enter into prayer. Prayer in its full conception is then, not merely asking from God, but all intercourse with God. Intercourse, indeed, is the precise connotation of the standing word for prayer in the New Testament—the second in the list of 1 Tim. ii:l, translated in our version simply "prayers." The sacred idea of prayer per se is, therefore, to put it sharply, just communion with God, the meeting of the soul with God, and the holding of converse with Him. Perhaps we would best define it as conscious intercourse or communion with God. God may have communion with us without prayer; He may enter our souls beneath consciousness, and deal with us from within; and because He is within us we can be in communion with Him apart from prayer. But conscious communion with Him is just prayer. Now, I think we may say, emphatically, that prayer is a means of grace above everything else because it is in all its forms conscious communion with God. This is the source of all grace. When the soul is in contact with God, in intercourse with God, in association with Him, it is not only in an attitude to receive grace; it is not only actually seeking grace; it is already receiving and possessing grace. And intercourse with God is the very essence of prayer.
It is impossible to conceive of a praying man, therefore, as destitute of grace. If he prays, really prays, he draws near to God with heart open for grace, humbly depending on Him for its gift. And he certainly receives it. To say, Behold he prayeth! is equivalent, then, to saying, Behold a man in Christ! Dr. Charles Hodge used to startle us by declaring that no praying soul ever was lost. It seemed to us a hard saying. Our difficulty was that we did not conceive "praying" purely enough. We can, no doubt, go through the motions of prayer and not be saved souls. Our Saviour tells us of those who love to pray on the street corners and in the synagogues, to be seen of men. And He tells us that they have their reward. Their purpose in praying is to be seen of men, and they are seen of men. What can they ask more? But when we really pray—we are actually in enjoyment of communion with God. And is not communion with God salvation? The thing for us to do is to pray without ceasing; once having come into the presence of God, never to leave it; to abide in His presence and to live, steadily, unbrokenly, continuously, in the midst of whatever distractions or trials, with and in Him. God grant such a life to every one of us!