This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 4, “Declension in Prayer”.
Winslow asserted at the outset of chapter 4 the importance of prayer, presenting it as a prime indicator of the soul’s spiritual vitality. One could say that prayer serves as a sort of “canary in the coal mine” in that respect. This trait was singled out as the primary evidence of the genuineness of Saul’s conversion, when Ananias was told to seek out the former persecutor of the church. To assuage Ananias’s reluctance, the Lord, speaking of the recently converted Saul, assured him: “Behold, he prays” (Acts 9:11). In enumerating sure marks of the true Christian, prayer was at top of a list prepared by J. C. Ryle:
“A habit of prayer is one of the surest marks of a true Christian. All the children of God on earth are alike in this respect. From the moment there is any life and reality in their religion, they pray. Just as the first sign of life in a newborn infant is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again is praying.” (J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, available online at http://www.gracegems.org/Ryle/a_call_to_prayer.htm)
And yet even though we will all agree on the primacy of prayer in the life of the believer, prayer is also an area where we tend to feel inadequate. In one of his sermons I heard via the web over a year ago, Sinclair Ferguson shared an experience he had as a young minister in this regard. He was approached by a publisher to consider writing a book on prayer. Ferguson told the publisher that he felt inadequate to write such a book at the time. The publisher said that was understandable, and asked whom he would recommend instead. Ferguson mentioned a few names, and after each one, the publisher, somewhat sheepishly, let him know that those individuals (well known, household names in the Christian world) had also been approached, and had also declined. It became apparent that Ferguson wasn’t very high on their list, and so as the conversation continued, he finally asked how many people they had already consulted before asking him, since they were apparently scraping the bottom of the barrel!
Despite our own similar misgivings and feelings of inadequacy, Winslow encourages us to draw near to God frequently in prayer, lest we begin to harbor unwarranted suspicions of his love and affection for us:
“If the simple axiom be true, that the more intimate we become with any object, the better we are prepared to judge of its nature and properties, we may apply it with peculiar appropriateness to our acquaintance with God. The encouraging invitation of is word, is, ‘Acquaint now thyself with God, and be at peace.’ Now, it is this acquaintance with God that brings us into the knowledge of his character as a holy, loving, and faithful God; and it is this knowledge of his character that begets love and confidence in the soul towards him. The more we know of God, the more we love him: the more we try him, the more we confide in him. Let the spiritual reader, then conceive what dire effects must result from a distant walk from God. The farther the soul gets from him, the more imperfect must be its knowledge of him.”
John Bunyan, a great Puritan largely due to his prayer life, wrote a book on prayer, part two of which was titled “The Throne of Grace”. Taking Hebrews 4:16 as his text, Bunyan took every opportunity to encourage the believer to come with confidence to this throne of grace:
“By this word grace, we are to understand God’s free, sovereign, good pleasure, whereby he acts in Christ towards his people. Grace and mercy therefore are terms that have their distinct significations; mercy signifies pitifulness, or a running over of infinite compassion to objects in a miserable and helpless condition. But grace signifies that God still acts in this as a free agent, not being wrought upon by the misery of the creature, as a procuring cause; but of his own princely mind.”
“Were there no objects of pity among those that in the old world perished by the flood, or that in Sodom were burned with fire from heaven? Doubtless, according to our apprehension, there were many. [He went on to list several instances in the OT.] These, with many more places, show that mercy is God’s place of rest, and thither will retire at last, and from thence will bless his church, his people.”
“But yet the term ‘throne’, ‘the throne of grace’, does more exceed in glory: not only because the word shows that God, by all that he does towards us in saving and forgiving, acts freely as the highest Lord, and of his own good-will and pleasure, but also because he now says, that his grace is become a king, ‘a throne of grace’. A throne is not only a seat for rest, but a place of dignity and authority. This is known to all. Wherefore by this word, a throne, or the throne of grace, is intimated, that God rules and governs by his grace. And this he can justly do: ‘Grace reigns through righteousness, unto eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5.21). So then, in that here is mention made of a throne of grace, it shows that sin, and Satan, and death, and hell must needs be subdued. For these last mentioned are but weakness and destruction; but grace is life, and the absolute sovereign over all these to the ruling of them utterly down. A throne of grace!”
“But this then God plainly declares, that he is resolved this way to rule, and that he points at sin as his deadly foe: an if so, then, ‘where sin abounds, grace must much more abound’ (Rom. 5:20). For it is wisdom and discretion of all that rule, to fortify themselves against them that rebel against them. Wherefore he saith again, ‘Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace (Rom. 6.14). Sin seeks for the dominion, and grace seeks for the dominion; but sin shall not rule, because it has no throne in the church among the godly. Grace is king. Grace has the throne, and the people of God are not under the dominion of sin, but of the grace of God, the which they are here implicitly bid to it for help: ‘That we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help; to help in time of need’. For as from the hand and power of the king comes help and succour to the subject, when assaulted by and enemy; so from the throne of grace, or from grace as it reigns, comes the help and health of God’s people.”
And so when we are discouraged, or tempted, or dejected for whatever reason such that we feel unworthy to go to God in prayer, that is the very instant we are to approach the throne of grace confidently, just as we are, as Winslow exhorted at the end of our chapter:
“Satan’s grand argument to keep a soul from prayer, is – ‘Go not with that cold and insensible frame; go not with that hard and sinful heart; stay until you are more fit to approach God.’ And listening to this specious reasoning, many poor, distressed, burthened, longing souls have been kept from the throne of grace, and consequently from all comfort and consolation. But the Gospel says, — ‘Go in your very worst frames’; Christ says, — ‘Come just as you are’: and every promise and every example but encourages the soul to repair to the cross whatever be its frame or condition.”
“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16, KJV)