Luther on Prayer

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In his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Oswald Bayers argues that prayer is “constitutive…for Luther’s theology” (p 346). Bayer lays out Luther’s theology of prayer from his sermon May 13, 1520, Rogate Sunday:

As nowhere else, this text documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer; it shows very clearly not only how Luther explained the Trinity is such a way that its theological character of as promise was central, but also how his understanding of prayer itself had a trinitarian character. Whenever Luther preached in subsequent years on Rogate Sunday, he came back to the basic structure of what he articulated in this sermon (346)

Bayers quotes this sermon, which follows 5 steps that, as he says, are centered around God’s promise and his triunity. Luther says:

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]; otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

The first is the promise of God, which is the foundation on which the entire prayer relies: if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favorable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

The second is that one states the specifics…so that the scattered thoughts can be focused on the godly promise, because I hope to acquire help; this is what one calls gathering one’s thoughts. Based on this, [self]-selected little prayers… are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution

Third: faith is necessary, by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises, that I can expect that what I pray for is possible without having doubt. To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promise that he will give it…

Fourth, [the prayer] is uttered with earnestness, not with a vacillating spirit and not as if one does not urgently desire the thing for which one prays… This would be a mockery to God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised… (347)

Before we move to the fifth mark, which transitions to the trinitarian structure: notice here that all of prayer is dependent not on the one who prays, but on the God who promises. God is the one who gives the riches of himself in his Son, and promises to hear and answer because of his benevolence, not because of our worthiness or lack thereof. This is why Luther says in step two not repeat selected little prayers. He has in mind not liturgical prayers (Jesus gave us a prayer to memorize!!), but rather mindless praying. Prayer must be thoughtful, filled with the content of God’s benevolence. Prayer this is not a passive enterprise; it is one that remembers and claims God’s covenant promises in Christ.  

Next, Luther ventures into the trinitarian structure of prayer in his fifth mark:

Fifth, such prayer takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things. Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument. And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: what could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name. Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange. And both come to purity together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life (347-8)

Notice here that prayer is located in the Son before the Father. This is what Bayer means that Luther’s theology of prayer is trinitarian. In prayer, sinners are unequally yoked to Christ, and being in him, they come worthily before the Father. And thus it is because of that union with Christ that their prayers are heard. We may speak to the Father because Christ has latched himself to us and us to himself, and thus we are one mystical person in conversation with the Father.

Bayer expounds on this principle:

The final section [of Luther’s sermon, number 5,] answers the decisive question: How can I have any right to address the one who has power over all things, and furthermore, how can I be confident I will be heard?

Freedom from such uncertainty and from our sins comes to us only in connection with that event in which God himself comes to us and brings us to himself: in the way God comes as the triune one. For only in the differentiation and yet mutual connection between Father, Son and Spirit can we be certain concerning the speech in action of God, as those who believe and as those who pray… (348)

Bayer means to say that our prayer is heard because in salvation, we come to inhabit the “mutual connection between the Father, Son and Spirit”. We become one person with the Son in the power of the Spirit, and thus the Father hears us because we are in his Son. Put more simply, we come to the Father not in and of ourselves, but in the Son. We are, to put it sacramentally, in vital union with Christ through baptism: we die and rise with him, and ascend with and in him to the Father. We are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6).

Just as an aside as we end, it is worthy noting here that Luther did not have a merely extrinsic understanding of salvation, as many accuse. Christ is not “out there” representing us to the Father. Christ is in us, we are in him, and thus we are taken up with him to the Father. Luther famously says that “in faith itself Christ is present”. By this he means that to have faith means principally to be vitally united to Christ.

What all of this means is that prayer is effective because God donates the very person of his Son to us, and we become one person with him. We come in Christ by the Spirit to the Father. And thus our prayer is heard!

 

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