He Will Not Send You To Purgatory (Ryken)

Philip Ryken’s When You Pray is a very helpful resource for studying the Lord’s Prayer and for learning more about prayer and praying.  When I recently studied the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts...”), I found the following paragraphs helpful:

“As soon as we start trying to figure out how to pay God what we owe for our sins, we realize how much trouble we are really in.  Obviously, we cannot pay off our debts by ourselves.  How could we ever make up for all the sins we have committed?  Yet this is precisely the error most religions make, including false versions of Christianity.  They all operate on the basis that human beings can do something to make things right with God.  Their reasoning goes something like this: ‘Lord, I know I keep messing up, but I’m trying really, really hard to be good.  In case you haven’t noticed, I have a list here of some of the good things I’ve done – charitable work, and that sort of thing.  Yes, I know my list isn’t as long as it could be, but why don’t we just call it even?’  This kind of approach is based on the principle of works righteousness, the idea that doing good works can make someone good enough for God.”

“The truth is, however, that forgiveness is not something we can work for, it is only something we can ask for.  Even if we worked for all eternity, laboring in the very pit of hell, we could never work off the debt we owe to God.  What could we ever pay to God?  Jesus posed the question this way: ‘What can a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mt. 16:26b NIV).  The answer, of course, is nothing.  Our souls are the most valuable thing we have.  When, because of our sin and guilt, we owe God our very souls, there is nothing left for us to pay.”

Later Ryken notes that “we owe God far more than we or anyone else could ever pay.”  So what can we do about our massive debt to God?  The only thing we can do is beg God for forgiveness: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! (Lk. 18:13).

“This is precisely what we do in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  We ask our Father to forgive us our debts.  With these words we declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have.  Then we do the only thing we can, which is to ask him to forgive us outright.  Because he is our loving Father, God does what we ask.  ‘He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Ps. 103:10, 13 NIV).  God the Father offers forgiveness as a free gift of his grace.  When you go to him, weighed down with the debt of all your guilt and sin, he will not sit down with you to work out a payment plan.  He will not scheme to charge you more interest.  He will not send you to Purgatory or anywhere else to work off your debts.  On the contrary, God is a loving Father who offers forgiveness full and free.”

Philip Graham Ryken, When You Pray (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2000), p. 125-6.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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“Abba” is not “Daddy”

It isn’t quite right to say that the Aramaic “abba” means “daddy.”  In other words, to call the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “daddy” at the outset of our prayers is a bit too casual and irreverent.  Philip Ryken explains.

“To call God ‘Abba, Father’ is to speak to him with reverence as well as confidence.  Abba does not mean ‘Daddy.’  To prove this point, the Oxford linguist James Barr wrote an article for the Journal of Theological Studies called ‘Abba isn’t “Daddy”.’  What Barr discovered was that abba was not merely a word used by young children.  It was also the word that Jewish children used for their parents after they were fully grown.  Abba was a mature, yet affectionate way for adults to speak to their fathers.”

“The New Testament is careful not to be too casual in the way it addresses God.  The Aramaic word abba appears three times in the New Testament (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).  In each case it is followed immediately by the Greek word pater.  Pater is not the Greek word for ‘Daddy.’  The Greek language has a word for ‘Daddy’ – the word pappas – but that is not the word the New Testament uses to translate abba.  Instead, in order to make sure that our intimacy with God does not become an excuse for immaturity, it says, ‘abba, pater.”

“The best way to translate abba is “Dear Father,” or even “Dearest Father.”  That phrase captures both the warm confidence and the deep reverence that we have for our Father in heaven.  It expresses our intimacy with God, while preserving his dignity.  When we pray, therefore, we are to say, ‘Our dear Father in heaven.’”

Philip Ryken, When You Pray, p. 57-8.

shane lems

Short Prayers, Good Prayers

 Ever since I was a younger Christian I’ve heard many godly men exhort me to spend long periods in prayer.  Some recommended waking up early to pray (from 5-6 AM), others recommended taking a day off each month to pray.  I’ve also read many accounts of great Christians who have spent hours upon hours in prayer – which has no doubt benefited Christ’s church.  I have to confess: though I do pray fervent prayers quite often, I find it very difficult to spend hours in uninterrupted prayer.  But I don’t despair for reasons that follow.

As wonderful and beneficial as longer prayers are, I think we have to be careful when it comes to this topic.  We’ve always got to remember not to judge prayers based on how long they are.  The essence of true prayer is a believing heart calling upon the Father through Christ by the Holy Spirit (see Heidelberg Catechism LD 45).  In fact, Jesus told us not to heap up empty phrases when we pray, thinking that we will be heard for our many words (Matt. 6:7).  And the pattern for prayer that he gave us is pretty short (Matt. 6:9-13).  I appreciate how Philip Ryken discussed this in When You Pray.

“Knowing God as Father means…you can keep prayer simple.  When children need something from their fathers, they do not hire a lawyer, draft a formal petition, or get down on their knees, they just ask.  That is why Christian prayers are straightforward.  The prayers of pagans tend to be overly complicated, but when Christians pray, they pray to their Father.”

“As a general rule, the prayers of God’s children are short and sweet.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) once said, ‘Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning…Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan.’  Indeed, one of the striking things about most biblical prayers is their brevity.  It is hard to find a prayer anywhere in the Bible that when read aloud would be more than five minutes long.”

“Some Christians measure spirituality by the amount of time a person prays.  True, there is plenty of teaching in Scripture about being devoted to the life of prayer.  Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and the apostle Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV).  However, the effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on the length of our prayers.”

Ryken goes on to discuss Elijah’s short, fervent prayer in contrast to the long-winded prayers of Baal’s prophets (1 Ki. 18).  Elijah’s prayer was brief and simple.  Or consider Isaiah’s prayer in which he confessed his sin (Is. 6:5).  Think about the publican’s prayer: God be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).  Thomas’ confession-prayer also comes to mind: My Lord and my God! (John 20:28).  Ecclesiastes even says, Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few (Ecc. 5:2 NIV).

God’s people all have different personalities and temperaments.  Some can pray for hours on end with great fervency.  Others pray short fervent prayers throughout the day.  The point is that we pray often, from the heart, to our Father in heaven.  The saint that prays for hours is not more spiritual than the saint that prays frequent, brief, heart-felt prayers.  My own prayer life has grown since I’ve come to understand what Ryken means in this closing paragraph.  You may want to read it a few times if you’ve struggled in this area.

“God does not need any lengthy explanations.  If you find that your prayer life is too weak, is it possibly that you are trying to make things too complicated?  Our prayers must be fervent, of course, and they ought to be frequent, but they do not need to be fancy” (p. 30-31).

Philip Ryken, When You Pray.

shane lems

Bonhoeffer’s Prison Prayers

   This is a sweet book.  It captures many of my interests at once.  First, I appreciate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings in general.  These letters and papers are especially edifying because I can see what is “behind” some of his other works, so to speak.  Second, I love reading about the tough issues: What does it mean to be a Christian (or a church) under intense pressure?  You’ll find answers to this question in this book, Letters & Papers from PrisonThird, having read many volumes of WWII history, these letters/papers fascinate me from a historical perspective. 

Here are a few of Bonhoeffer’s prayers that are quite moving, especially considering he penned them from a Nazi prison.  I recommend reading these out loud.

“In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me.”

“Lord Jesus Christ,
You were poor
And in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.
You know all man’s troubles;
You abide with me
When all men fail me;
You remember and seek me;
It is your will that I should know you
And turn to you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow;
Help me.”

 “I remember in your presence all my loved ones,
my fellow-prisoners, and all who in this house perform their hard service;
Lord, have mercy.”

Amen.

shane lems

Growing (Painfully!) In The Gospel: P.T. Forsyth

One of the neat things about running a book blog is the recommendations we get from time to time.  We appreciate it when you notice the different kinds of books we enjoy and then let us know what you think we’d enjoy based on our blog posts.  Awhile back one of you mentioned that we might like P.T. Forsyth.  I finally got around to reading something by him.  I chose The Soul of Prayer because I’ll be preaching through the Lord’s Prayer this spring.

This is a strange book – but it is strange in the best sense of the word.  After reading it, I can see why someone called Forsyth the English precursor to Karl Barth.  Though there are parts of the book that I’m not too wild about (i.e. his use of the term sacrament and his discussion of God’s will), other parts were amazing and profound.  Here are a few quotes to give you a taste of Forsyth’s book on prayer.  In this section he is talking about the preaching and praying pastor.

“If it were only texts or men we had to handle!  But we have to handle the gospel.  We have to lift up Christ – a Christ who is the death of natural self-confidence – a humiliating, even a crushing Christ; and we are not always alive to our uplifting and resurrection in him.  We have to handle a gospel that is a new rebuke to us every step we gain in intimacy with it.  There is no real intimacy with the gospel which does not mean a new sense of God’s holiness, and it may be long before we realize that same holiness that condemns is that which saves.”

He continues,

“There is no new insight into the Cross which does not bring, whatever else come with it, a deeper sense of the solemn holiness of the love that meets us there.  And there is no new sense of the holy God that does not arrest his name upon our unclean lips.  If our very repentance is to be repented of, and we should be forgiven much in our very prayers, how shall we be proud, or even pleased, with what we may think a success in our preaching?  So that we are not surprised that some preachers, after what the public calls a most brilliant and impressive discourse, retire…to humble themselves before God, to ask forgiveness for the poor message, to call themselves most unprofitable servants – yea, even when they knew themselves that they had ‘done well.’  The more we grasp our gospel the more it abashes us.”  [note: abash means humble or shame.]

Quotes taken from The Soul of Prayer (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2002).  I forgot which of you recommended P.T. Forsyth’s work, but thanks!

shane lems

The Unbusy Necessity of Prayer

  I’m in the middle of Paul Miller’s A Praying Life.  I really like most aspects of it (i.e. his emphasis on the gospel), but there are a few things I’m not  so wild about (i.e. he was almost too ‘contemporary’ in some of his theological language, which ended up sounding messy).  To summarize a long review, I think it is well worth getting, but should be read with some discernment (as with all books!).  Here are a few quotes.

“American culture is probably the hardest place in the world to learn to pray.  We are so busy that when we slow down to pray, we find it uncomfortable.  We prize accomplishments, production.  But prayer is nothing but talking to God.  It feels useless, as if we are wasting time.  Every bone in our bodies scream, ‘Get to work.'”

“If we try to be quiet, we are assaulted by what C. S. Lewis called ‘the Kingdom of Noise.’  Everywhere we go we hear background noise.  If the noise isn’t provided for us, we can bring our own via iPod.  Even our church services have that same restless energy.  There is little space to be still before God.  We want our money’s worth, so something should always happen.  We are uncomfortable with prayer.”

One of the subtlest hindrances to prayer is probably the most pervasive.  In the broader culture and in our churches, we prize intellect, competency, and wealth.  Because we can do life without God, praying seems nice but unnecessary.  Money can do what prayer does, and it is quicker and less time-consuming.  Our trust in ourselves and in our talents makes us structurally independent of God.  And as a result, exhortations to pray don’t stick.”

“Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart.”

“What does heavy laden feel like? … You have so many problems you don’t even know where to start.  You can’t do life on your own anymore.  Jesus wants you to come to him that way!  Your weariness drives you to him.”

“If we think we can do life on our own, we will not take prayer seriously.”

Quotes taken from Paul Miller’s A Praying Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2009). 

shane lems

Matthew Henry on Prayer

The great puritan Matthew Henry wrote an outstanding book on biblical prayer called A Method for Praying.  In a world where an adverbial phrase – I just want to…like – is the repeated chorus in prayer, Henry’s book is an antidote to such a shallow chorus.  In Ligon Duncan’s terms (from the intro), a scriptural pattern of prayer “…will move us from our inherent man-centeredness in prayer to a Biblical, God-centered way of praying” (p. 9).

To be clear, this book is not really Henry’s devotional thoughts on prayer or “tips” on praying powerfully.  Rather, it is a big outline of the prayer-patterns of scripture with all kinds of verses that display such prayer patterns.  For example, the first part of prayer is adoration.  In this section, Henry simply puts many verses together in which the scriptures adore God (i.e. for his perfections, wisdom, sovereignty, etc).  The next few sections include confession of sins, repentance, petition, supplication, thanksgiving, and conclusions to prayer.  In other words, Henry basically lists many verses from scripture on the certain prayer topics, and puts them together for ease of praying.

Let me give another example.  Under the “Petition” section, Henry lists prayers for more hope in the Christian life.  Here’s how it reads:

“Let patience work experience in us, and experience hope, such a hope as maketh not ashamed.  Through patience and comfort of the scriptures, let us have hope, and be saved by hope.  Let the God of Jacob be our help, and our hope always be in the Lord our God.  Let us be begotten again to a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and let that hope be to us as an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast, entering into that within the veil, whither the forerunner is for us entered” (p. 66).

After nearly each phrase, Henry lists the scripture reference.  This is a great way to improve our prayer language.  It is easy to grasp for straws when we pray, filling the silence (which is sometimes good!) with useless adverbs and adjectives.  Learning to pray this way is learning to pray biblically.

The book also has a few sermons Henry gave on prayer, along with some appendices.  The appendices contain the entire book in outline form both short and long (great for outlining prayers with some specifics).  There is also a brief outline following Samuel Miller’s discussion of public prayer.    This book is a treasury of scripture and a much needed tool for prayer; it will convict you that robust, God centered prayers are those bathed with scripture.

shane lems
sunnyside wa