Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. ~Hebrews 2:16
As we come to the last two Cross Connections chapters in this book (although certainly not the last two cross connections in the Bible by any stretch!), we’ll tackle the two central disciplines of the Christian life: prayer and Bible reading. These two together are the vital breath of living faith; the Christian life inhales Scripture and exhales prayer. Together, they create and sustain the Christian life. And they both have everything to do with the cross.
What I’ve learned through my own experience and through watching the lives of other believers, is that most of us tend to lean toward one or the other, instead of embracing them both. We tend to either be Bible people, or prayer people. I, for one, am completely unqualified to write this chapter; my prayer life is weak and shaky at best. I’m one of those people whose quiet times gravitate towards Bible and away from prayer, and my walk with God suffers as a result. I have not met many Christians who are deeply and passionately committed to both– and those whom I have met are the deepest, wisest, strongest believers I have known.
The reason that we need to cultivate a life of Bible-saturation and constant prayer is that these two disciplines need each other to function properly. Bible reading that is not accompanied by prayerful meditation will quickly either become dry and academic or derailed by false interpretations. The Holy Spirit uses God’s Word most effectively in our lives when the sword of the Spirit is sharpened regularly by prayer.
Similarly, prayer will quickly turn ingrown and disconnected from God’s will and purposes when it ceases to be tethered to a steady diet of God’s Word. 1 John 5:14 gives us the recipe for successful and answered prayer: “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” And how do we know his will and keep our hearts and minds fixed on it? By filling our minds and hearts with his word. A heart overflowing with God’s Word will pray God’s will.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
The reality of the vital importance of prayer has been proven again and again by saints through history. I want to share some of their observations and experiences with you, to whet your appetite for a life devoted to prayer. These giants of the faith have walked long and deep with God, and have returned to share what they have learned with us. And what they have learned is remarkably simple: prayer is of vital importance.
“Prayer doesn’t fit us for the greater work– prayer is the greater work.” ~Oswald Chambers, early twentieth century evangelist and teacher, and author of My Utmost For His Highest
“Prayer is the vital breath of the Christian; not the thing that makes him alive, but the evidence that he is alive.” ~Oswald Chambers
“Prayer– secret, fervent, believing prayer– lies at the root of all personal godliness.” ~William Carey, pioneer missionary to India in the 1700s and father of the modern missions movement
“I used to think that prayer should have the first place and teaching the second. I now feel it would be truer to give prayer the first, second and third places and teaching the fourth.” ~James O. Fraser, pioneer missionary to China in the early twentieth century
“A sinning man will stop praying. A praying man will stop sinning.” ~Leonard Ravenhill, evangelist and author of Why Revival Tarries
“The one concern of the devil is to keep the saints from prayer. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks at our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.” ~Jonathan Edwards, pastor and theologian during the First Great Awakening
These are but a few testimonies to the vital importance of prayer. We could go back further and read the medieval mystics who walked with God in an age when the church had grown cold and formal, and hear them joyfully recount their experiences in prayer. We could press back further still to the early church fathers who helped to guide God’s people through persecution and fought for the central truths of the gospel, and listen in on their rich prayer life (Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a book-long prayer!). Or perhaps it would do us well to simply listen to God’s Word and heed its command:
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. ~1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Prayer– whether it takes the form of praise or thankfulness or intercession or request– is the living relationship between us and God. How does your life measure up against the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:1– “pray without ceasing?” If your life, like mine, falls far short of that ideal of constant, intimate fellowship with the Father, don’t despair– but start repenting and striving to change. John Dalyrmple, who lived in the 1700s, said this about that verse: “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.”
THE CROSS AND YOUR PRAYER LIFE
The most important thing that I think we need in our pursuit of fuller prayer lives, however, is not better examples or sterner lectures or even practical suggestions. All of those are good and helpful, but what I believe will really change our lives is the gospel. Just like every other area of the Christian life, our praying is meant to be motivated, shaped, and guided by the cross. Our grasp on how the gospel relates to prayer is fuzzy, and so our prayer life is fuzzy. So, to build a clear and vibrant life of prayer, we need to start by building a gospel-driven theology of prayer.
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF PRAYER
The first thing we need to see when approaching the topic of prayer via the gospel is that prayer is impossible. What I mean by that is, sinners have no right to talk to God, no access to approach him, and no reason to expect anything from him. Isaiah 59:2 lays out the fundamental problem we have in prayer:
Your iniquities have made a separation between you and God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.
We are separated from God because of our sins, and in response to our prayers, the gates of heaven are locked shut. As sinners and rebels, we have no access to the King. Many unbelievers have told me that they pray every day; while this might be true, the uncomfortable and tragic reality is that they aren’t praying to the true God– they have no access to him.
ACCEPTABLE THROUGH JESUS
So how do sinners like you and me have any hope of being able to pray to God? The answer is simple and profound. 1 Peter 2:5 says that our spiritual sacrifices– all our worship, service, and prayers– are “acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The only way that a sinner’s prayers will be heard in the throne room of heaven is if they come to the Father through Jesus. He is the One who bridged the great divide, suffered to forgive our sins, and opened the way for us to draw near to God.
That’s why unbelievers do not have access to God through prayer; they are not approaching the throne through faith in Jesus. Muslims pray devotedly five times a day; their prayers are not heard in heaven, because their spiritual sacrifices are not acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. A billion Hindus pray earnestly to their gods, but those idols can neither hear nor save. Your “spiritual” friend or co-worker may pray every day, but unless she comes to God through faith in Jesus, her separation from God remains, and heaven’s doors are closed.
We need to know this reality and feel its sober truth, so that the gospel’s gift of free and unfettered access to the throne of God will land on our hearts as indescribably wonderful. The fact that you and I– weak, failing, faithless sinners– have had heaven’s doors thrown open and been ushered into the throne room is unspeakable grace. What we take for granted every time we pray comes to us at an unfathomable cost. Our access– so free for us– has been been purchased by the blood of Jesus. “Through him we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:2).
Separation between a holy God and unholy sinners was built into the way God related to his people in the Old Testament, and serves as a beautiful picture to help us understand what Jesus has accomplished for us. In the Old Testament, people had to come to the temple to meet with God, and even then, they weren’t able to actually enter into the Holy Place in the temple; only consecrated priests could do that. But even those consecrated priests couldn’t enter into the Most Holy Place, where God had promised that his presence would dwell. The Most Holy Place was shielded from view by a thick curtain, keeping the people’s unholiness and sin separate from the perfect presence of God. Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and only once a year, and he had to bring a sacrifice of blood in order to enter and survive his encounter with God.
Have that picture in your mind as you approach the scene of the crucifixion in Mark 15 and witness the moment of Jesus’ death:
Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. ~Mark 15:37-38
At the moment of his death, the curtain that separated the holy presence of God from the unholiness of the people was torn in two– a picture that shouts, “Access to the holy presence of God is now open! Approach the throne of grace!” Jesus’ death opens the way for us to enter through the torn curtain and approach the presence of God. When you close your eyes and pray in Jesus’ name, you are doing something unthinkable in the old covenant; you are coming right to the throne of God and making your request face to face with your Father. Listen to how Hebrews 10 describes what Jesus did for us, and its implications:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. ~Hebrews 10:19-22
We now have confidence to enter the holy places, to approach God in worship and prayer, because of the blood of Jesus. Hebrews says that “the new and living way he opened for us” through that Old Testament curtain is his flesh; in other words, every time we approach God, we are approaching him through the pierced hands and torn flesh of the Savior. He is our access to God. As Ephesians 2:18 says, “Through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
Because of Jesus– only because of what he has done for us– we now have confidence to approach God in prayer. There are no formulas or “right words” to say; no amount of “Hail Marys” make your prayers acceptable to God. Your prayers do not qualify because of anything you do or don’t do; whether or not you sinned a lot or a little today neither assures you access nor hinders your approach to the throne. A lot times, when I’ve stumbled into the same pattern of sin for the umpteenth time, I feel hesitant coming back to God. I know I’ve messed up again, and I feel the dirtiness of my sin. But the good news of the gospel is that the door to heaven’s throne room always stands open to me, and my confidence is not based on my success or failure, but on Jesus’ blood shed for me.
We need to know this truth, because I think that far too often we base our relationship with God on how well we do, instead of on what Jesus has done for us. When I fall into the same sin for the ten thousandth time, my confidence and assurance is shaken, and so I stop praying, and my heart goes cold. Or, conversely, when I’m doing “well,” I’m much more eager to come to God in prayer and worship. If that’s your experience– hot and cold, up and down– it’s a good indication that you’re trusting in your performance instead of Jesus’ perfect blood and righteousness.
The truth is, even my best days, best deeds, and best prayers are shot through with sinful thoughts and motives. My best deeds are enough to disqualify me from approaching God, and enough to condemn me. But I don’t have to approach God on the basis of what I’ve done; I get to approach him on the basis of what Jesus has done for me. Here’s how John Owen, a Puritan pastor and theologian put it:
“Believers obey Christ as the one by whom our obedience is accepted by God. Believers know all their duties are weak, imperfect and unable to abide in God’s presence. Therefore they look to Christ as the one who bears the iniquity of their holy things, who adds incense to their prayers, gathers out all the weeds from their duties, and makes them acceptable to God.”
All of my obedience is acceptable to God only because it comes to him through Jesus. His shed blood covers every imperfection and sin, “adds incense to my prayers,” gathers out all the weeds of impure motives from my best duties, and makes everything that I do acceptable to God. This is one of the great gospel hopes that I have in prayer.
MY HOPE: HIS PRAYERS, NOT MINE
Jesus secures my free and undeserved access to God, but he does even more than that. The greatest gospel hope that I have is not, ultimately, that my prayers are accepted by the Father, but that Jesus himself is praying for me. Romans 8:34 celebrates this incredible truth:
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Right now, at this moment, the risen and ascended Christ is interceding for us; that is, he is standing before the Father’s throne as our representative and advocate, praying for us, pleading the merit of his shed blood, and securing all of heaven’s blessing and power on our behalf. Hebrews 7:24-25 says that our great high priest, Jesus himself, stands before God, alive forever and always praying for us:
He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
Richard Foster, who wrote one of the great modern devotional classics on prayer, wrote this about that verse: “The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest and, as you know, the function of the High Priest in ancient Israel was to intercede before God on behalf of the people. Do we realize what this means? Today, as we carry on the activities of our lives, Jesus Christ is praying for us.”
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a great nineteenth century missionary, adds this: “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference; he is praying for me.”
Do you feel the weight of glory and comfort that this incredible truth imparts? Today, right at this moment, Jesus Christ is praying for you. He carries you on his heart in the throne room of heaven, and he “always lives to make intercession” for me. When all my prayers fail, when words cannot come, when I don’t even know what to pray for, Jesus Christ is praying for me. His commitment to pray for me is greater than my commitment to pray to him– and yet he never wavers, never changes, never becomes unfaithful to those who he has bought with his blood.
This is why I believe in the perseverance of the saints– I believe in the perseverance of Jesus’ prayers for me. Paul believes this too; look at the breathtaking implication he draws from Jesus’ intercession in Romans 8:
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing will separate me from Jesus’ love, because nothing will separate me from Jesus’ prayers. He died for me, he lives for me, and now he pleads for me– therefore, I am and most assuredly will be more than a conqueror because of his saving, praying love for me. I love what Charles Spurgeon says about Jesus’ prayers for me:
“We little know what we owe to our Savior’s prayers. When we reach the hilltops of heaven and look back upon all the way whereby the Lord our God has led us, how we shall praise him who, before the eternal throne, undid the mischief which Satan was doing on earth. How we shall thank him because he never held his peace, but day and night pointed to the wounds upon his hands, and carried our names upon his breastplate.”
What confidence we have because of Jesus!
IF GOD IS FOR US
There is one more massive thing we have to see about how the cross relates to how we pray, in order to have the rock-solid confidence in prayer that God intends for us. We’ve seen how “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.” We’ve seen Jesus “lives to make intercession” for us as our great high priest. The last thing I want us to see is the massive promise of answered prayer that God makes on the basis of Jesus’ death.
In Romans 8, Paul has been leading us up into the heights of God’s eternal purposes for his people. Some of the most precious promises in the Bible are in this chapter: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1); “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us” (8:18); “for those who love God, all things work together for good” (8:28); and more. In verse 31-32, Paul reaches the pinnacle of this “Mount Everest” of good news:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
This has been called the biggest promise in the entire Bible; it reaches down into the eternal, unfathomable heart of God, reaches out to encompass all of creation, and is anchored in the center of God’s revelation: the cross.
Follow heaven’s logic in verse 32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” This is an argument from the greater to the lesser (if you want to get technical, the formal term of this argument is “a fortiori”). The argument goes, if you were able to do a difficult thing, then you can logically expect to be able to do something comparably easier. For example, “If I can lift this box of books, then of course I can lift a box of Cheerios.” If I can do the hard thing, it logically follows that I can do the comparatively easy thing.
Here’s how the argument in Romans 8:32 works: If God showed the greatest possible love and did the most difficult thing by paying the highest possible cost to surrender that which was most precious to him– namely, the life of his Son– how much more, then, can we expect him to do that which is comparatively small and light and easy– that is, give us everything else we need? If he didn’t spare his own Son but freely gave him up for us all, then of course he’ll freely give us all the other little things we need, like answered prayer. The cross stands not just as proof of God’s love, but as proof of his loving commitment to give us absolutely everything we need. Because of Jesus’ death, God is our heavenly Father and God is for us… and if God is for us, who could possibly successfully be against us? The answer: no one!
This is the confidence that we have to approach God boldly in prayer. Our Cross Connections verse from Hebrews 4 says it this way:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession… Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
If all these promises– that all our prayers and obedience is acceptable to God through Jesus, that Christ himself is praying for us, that all of God’s heart is committed to our everlasting good, and that the throne of heaven is for us a throne of grace– are ours in Christ, how can we not set our hearts to pray eagerly and confidently? John Newton’s encouraging words are exactly what the gospel tells us to believe:
Behold the throne of grace;
The promise calls us near;
There Jesus shows a smiling face
And waits to answer prayer.
That rich atoning blood,
Which sprinkled round we see,
Provides for those who come to God
An all prevailing plea.
My soul, ask what thou will,
Thou cannot be too bold;
Since his own blood for thee he spilt,
What else can he withhold?
What else, indeed, could he withhold? He has given us himself, he has granted us access, he has given us everything we need for life and godliness and devoted prayer. Let’s not let the guilty remembrance of past sin or current failures hold us back; sin no longer has the power to keep us from the throne of grace.
Father, How can I even begin to express my thankfulness for all that you have done for me through your Son Jesus? Thank you for doing the most difficult thing possible– surrendering your Son for me– so that I could know your love and presence and fellowship. Help me not to take for granted the precious gospel gift of access to your throne of grace; rather, help me, by your Spirit, to cultivate a life of prayer and dependence on you.