Prayer is a necessary practice of a sound church. The role of secret and corporate prayer in the life of a Christian congregation is sometimes overlooked. Mark Dever, whose insights we value, fails to list to prayer as one of his “marks” of “healthy churches.” (Dever concedes this point and briefly addresses it in his preface to a subsequent edition.)1 Prayer is an important means God has appointed to bring efficacy to gospel ministry.
God may see fit to use efficaciously the preaching of the word even when there is a lack of prayer (just as he may use a flawed minister or practice), but this does not justify our neglect of prayer. Indeed, the Word of God is so powerful that God often uses the proclamation of the Word in the worst of circumstances to accomplish evangelism and edification. Nevertheless, we hazard ourselves and our ministries if we neglect earnest prayer for God to work.
Paul knew the importance of such prayer. Although Paul was ordained by God to be one of the apostles of Christ’s church (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; 11:1-12:10; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; et. al.), although Christ had promised to use Paul greatly in the conversion of the Gentiles and effectual proclamation of the gospel (Col 1:24-29; Rom 15:14-21); although Paul knew that when he spoke, he was acting as the mouth of God (1 Thess 2:13), Paul nevertheless rested on prayer. He not only prayed for the success of his own ministry (which we can infer from several passages), but he asked others to pray for him.
Paul urged the followers of Jesus, those who had believed the gospel, to pray for his ministry. In Eph 6:18-20, he asked the Ephesian saints to pray for him, “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” In Col 4:3, he says to the Colossian believers (who had never met him!), “pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.” In 2 Thess 3:1, he begged the Thessalonian church to pray for the success of the proclamation of the word of the cross: “pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” In 1 Thess 5:25, the request is simple, yet profound: “Brothers, pray for us.”
Again, note this fact. Paul knew that God was going to give success to the preaching of the gospel (cf. 1 Cor 3:6). Paul knew that Christ had called him to be the instrument through which many Gentiles would come to be reconciled to the Triune God. Paul understood that he had been called to be one of the Christ’s apostles, that essential group of men who, with the prophets, were to act as the very foundation of the church (Eph 2:20, etc.). His success was, as it were, guaranteed by the promise of God. Yet, despite this promise of success, he urged believers to labor for him in prayer to God.2 “Brothers, pray for us,” Paul said.
Paul asked common church folk–deacons, slaves, freemen, centurions, widows, children, and housewives–to pray for him. He asked them to sacrifice their time and energy and mental strength to intercede on his behalf before Almighty God. He knew this was no easy task. He was not making a cursory demand as if he did not understand the personal cost involved in prayer. Yet, he believed that, despite the promises of God for success in ministry, that prayer was necessary to the success of the gospel in evangelism and edification.
If Paul desperately needed the blessing of God through prayer for the success of his ministry, how much more do we? We are not apostles. We have not seen Jesus. We have not be taken to the third heaven. God has not promised us that we will be used with the success with which he used Paul. We need prayer. Your pastor needs prayer. Your pastor friends outside your local congregation needs prayer. We desperately need God’s blessing on our ministries, and this is best accomplished through the great tandem of faithfulness to New Testament ministry and fervent prayer.
Gospel ministry is not a game. It is not an empty exercise. We are dealing with eternal life and death. There is no greater work on earth. With such an urgent and important task before us, how dare we go into the battle without the strength that God provides? As Leon Morris says, “It is not in the unstable qualities of men that trust must be placed, but in the eternal faithfulness of God.”3
Paul’s request for prayer also tells us that gospel ministry is not only up to one person. Your pastor does not and ought not stand alone. Laypeople, too, can be involved in the greatest work in the world through prayer. They may not be regularly preaching and teaching, but the work they do on their knees is crucial to the success of the one doing the work (again, cf. 1 Cor 3:6).
To those of us who are ordained ministers, if we are so bold to ask the people of God to pray for us (how much do we need!), then how much more should we be baptizing our sermons in fervent prayer before we climb into the sacred desk? Have we too been lulled to sleep? Even though the word is powerful, we ought not neglect the work of prayer that ignites it. “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” the Jerusalem twelve said. Dare we even think that our own personal gifts are all that is necessary for ministry success? This is resting in the weapons of carnal warfare. We ought to pray for the success of the Word, and not only for our own ministry, but for each other’s ministries as well.
God is powerful–powerful enough to use the preaching of the Word when prayer is absent. But who knows the work that we might see God do when we, in accordance with the imperatives in the Word of God, seek the Lord’s blessing on the ministry of the Word! If we were to truly seek God’s grace and favor in our work through fervent prayer, who knows what God might do. He might rend the heavens and come down and bless us and the work we are doing in ways we have never before seen or imagined (Eph 3:20-21).
- See Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, new expanded edition (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000), 16. [↩]
- By the way, in the New Testament, Christians often pray for God to do what he has already promised will take place. See, for example, Acts 1, where the apostles gather (I believe) to pray for the Spirit to come after Jesus promises he will early in the chapter. Another great example of this in both Testaments is the prayer for promised eschatological events (in the New Testament, the second coming of Christ) to take place. [↩]
- See his commentary on 1 Thess 5:25. [↩]