Friday, July 8, 2011

Why Prayer is NOT a Means of Grace.

I was looking through a series of systematic theologies in Calvin College library recently and found several interesting things in the sections that deal with the sacraments.  First, all of them title the section on the sacraments "The means of grace."  From a Lutheran or Roman Catholic perspective, this is an odd title because for us what the Reformed say they have is precisely not means of grace, but rather visual aids in one form or another (Zwingli vs. Calvin).  Secondly, baptism and the Lord's Supper are not only mentioned, but also prayer.  

Steven Paulson recently gave a talk where he discussed how Augustine characterized prayer in a similar manner.  Faith prays to God for sustaining grace in order to make the distance.  I must be humble and I cannot be certain that I will endure to the end.  Therefore I must constantly pray that God give me sustaining grace.  Notice that the Reformed also think of the life of faith as something that needs to be "sustained" through the "perseverance of the saints"(note the P in TULIP).   This is true for the Reformed, even though they agree with Luther against Augustine on the total assurance of salvation through Christ.

Nevertheless, Paulson states, when faith primarily is expressed through prayer, then it always rest on uncertainty.  Why?  Because prayer is always prayer for something.  Praise does of course occur in prayer, but usually in the context of asking for something.  Praise of God when alone is generally characterized as being just that, praise and not prayer.  If prayer is always asking for something, then it means that it rests on uncertainty.  It humbly asks "if" God will do such and such.  

For this reason, Faith does not rest on prayer and prayer is not a means of grace.  Faith looks to Word and sacrament wherein the promise made by Jesus on the cross is already "yes" and "Amen."  Faith is based on certainty.  It does not have to look ahead for preserving grace (as both Augustine and the Reformed hold), but it looks back to baptism.  Baptism means that my new being of faith coram Deo has already been actualized through dying and rising with Christ.  Everything is done and over.  There is not uncertain, because the deed is done.


  1. "If prayer is always asking for something, then it means that it rests on uncertainty. It humbly asks "if" God will do such and such."

    I don't really know Paulson, but this is a fundamentally faulty argument. For Christian prayer, when it is Christian, does not cry out for favors as though prayer were like making a wish and then rubbing Buddha's belly. Rather, prayer is an act of faith itself, and an exercising of faith in Christ. Put another way, the best prayers are for those things which we already know, by faith, that we have in Christ.

  2. Latif, I think you're mischaracterizing Paulson's position. I don't think he means (and neither do I!) think that prayer is wish fulfillment. The point is that prayer asks for things which we do not have. It is not like a good luck charm because we humbly ask for it, not believing that we have a right to it. We of course trust in God's graciousness and believe that he will make the best decision. Nevertheless the outcome is ultimately not certain. We are not certain that we will receive what we ask for exactly. This is why it is not a means of grace, because the means of grace are things which God has already given us.

  3. How do you understand the following paragraph from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

    Lastly, if among the Sacraments all things ought to be numbered which have God's command, and to which promises have been added, why do we not add prayer, which most truly can be called a sacrament? For it has both God's command and very many promises; and if placed among the Sacraments, as though in a more eminent place, it would invite men to pray. 17] Alms could also be reckoned here, and likewise afflictions, which are, even themselves signs, to which God has added promises. But let us omit these things. For no prudent man will strive greatly concerning the number or the term, if only those objects still be retained which have God's command and promises.

  4. Steven, the Lutheran Confessions have various definitions of sacraments. The Catechisms say that there are 3 sacraments, the Apology says maybe 4, and the FC says only 2. There's no difference, because the word "sacrament" is relatively fluid and not defined specifically by the Bible. If one was to define sacrament as something which merely has the command and promise of God, then yes, prayer would qualify. Nevertheless, if we define it in the narrow sense of the FC, as that which conveys salvation through its promise in relation to a visible means, then prayer would not qualify.

  5. As a result of this post I googled Luther Sacrament prayer. I came across this interesting post.

    Here is the quote (I believe) from the Babylonian Captivity that he bases his post on:

    Therefore these two things—mass and prayer, sacrament and work, testament and sacrifice—must not be confused; for the one comes from God to us through the ministration of the priest and demands our faith, the other proceeds from our faith to God through the priest and demands his hearing. The former descends, the latter ascends. The former, therefore, does not necessarily require a worthy and godly minister, but the latter does indeed require such a one, for “God does not listen to sinners” Luther's Works 36 page 56

  6. Dr. Kilcrease:
    Sorry, it's been a few days since I've visited here. Anyway, first let me say thank you for your blog; I am glad to have found it.

    Regarding prayer as a means of grace, to be sure, I agree with you. It is not. On the other hand, it is worth pointing out that such a question is fruitful only if an agreed definition of a phrase like means of grace is employed, and only if it is not dogmatized. For the phrase itself is a construct, and is capable of potential elasticity.

    My own thinking as to the nonsuitability of seeing prayer as a means of grace goes like this: In my view, prayer, at its essence, is indeed a powerful devotion, for it is the meditation on God's all powerful Word (think, eg., of what Luther says to his barber in A Simple Way to Pray -how, for example, in prayer the Holy Ghost can preach great sermons to us). Yet it does not actually deliver to us the forgiveness of sins which Christ won for us on the cross. It's greatest virtue might be that it in fact drives us to the means of that grace, ie, the sacraments of Confession and the Holy Supper. Prayer, in other words, is sacramental, in the sense of being a wonderfully rich devotion which serves to always lead us back to the sacraments.

  7. Now regarding the line of argument about prayer being an asking for things you do not have, I believe I see what you are driving at, and I didn't meant to mischaracterize you or Paulson. Indeed, prayer in the narrow sense of the word is an asking for something. My point is precisely that prayer in the broad sense is an act of faith, and that even when it is an asking for something, I must say that the most Christian things for which we ask are things we do already have in Christ.

  8. Prayer is most certainly a means of grace, though not a sacrament. True prayer expresses absolute confidence that God will keep his word to forgive, save, have mercy, protect, provide for, etc. Indeed, prayer was a means of grace, laying hold of God's word and promises, before any sacraments even existed. Sacraments are a bonus for the Christian, whereas prayer is the life blood. God's favor is explicitly tied to those who seek his face, not through ritual, but prayer, as well. Indeed, what are the sacraments, worship, faith itself, apart from prayerful hearts?