by Ezekiel Hopkins
PRAY WITHOUT CEASING - 1 THESS. 5:17
THIS Text is one of those many commands, which the Apostle lays down in this chapter. Being now almost at the end and close of his Epistle, and not willing to omit the mentioning of duties so necessary for their practice, he pours them out in short, but weighty exhortations. The connection betwixt most of them is dark; if there be any. I shall not therefore vex the words, by tacking them either to the precedent or subsequent verses by any forced coherence; but take them as they are in themselves, in one entire proposition: and so they contain in them a duty, and that is, Prayer; and the manner also of performing of it, and that is, without ceasing; and both of these do administer to us this plain Doctrine,
I. That IT IS A CHRISTIAN'S DUTY TO PRAY INCESSANTLY.
This is a plain and necessary point, and I intend to handle it in as plain and familiar a method.
And there are Two things, which I shall enquire into.
What it is to pray. And, then,
What it is to pray without ceasing.
i. I shall begin with the first, WHAT IT IS TO PRAY.
I answer: To pray, is, BY THE ASSISTANCE AND HELP OF THE HOLY GHOST, IN THE NAME AND MEDIATION OF JESUS CHRIST, WITH FAITH AND FERVENCY, TO MAKE AN HUMBLE REPRESENTATION OF OUR DESIRES UNTO GOD, FOR THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE ACCORDING TO HIS WILL, WITH SUBMISSION TO HIS PLEASURE, AND WITH REFERENCE TO HIS HONOUR.
This is that holy duty of Prayer, in which, of all that belong to religion, the soul usually enjoys the most near and sweet communion with God. When we are oppressed with guilt, or overwhelmed with fears and griefs, what sweeter retreat than to betake ourselves to our God and to our Father, into whose bosom we may unload all our burdens? It is the greatest solace of an afflicted mind, to lie prostrate before the Lord, and melt itself down in holy tears and in holy affections at his feet. Hence it is said of Hannah, 1 Sam. 1:18 that, after she had poured out her soul before God, her countenance was no more sad. And, therefore, this is not so much our duty, as our privilege. It is the happiness of the glorious angels in heaven, and of the spirits of just men made perfect, that they are always near unto God in their attendance upon him; that they are waiters about his throne: and Prayer gives to us the very same high privilege, and brings us into the presence and before the throne of the same God: only with this difference; they draw near to a Throne of Glory, and we draw near to a Throne of Grace.
Let us now take a more particular view of this excellent duty of Prayer, according to the description given of it.
1. The Efficient Cause of Prayer is the Holy Ghost.
Then we pray, when we breathe out those requests unto God, which the Holy Ghost hath breathed into us: and therefore it is said, Rom. 8:26. The Spirit helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with sighs and groans which cannot be uttered. All prayer, which is not dictated by the Holy Ghost, is but howling, in God's esteem. And, though wicked men, in their distresses, may be very passionate and very vehement in their requests, yet they have no promise that their prayers shall prevail with God: sometimes, indeed, God doth hear them, and, out of his common bounty and goodness, grant to them those temporal good things which they crave: he, who hears the young ravens when they cry, he, who hears the lowing of the oxen, sometimes also hears wicked men under their afflictions, when they roar to him as a wild bull in a net, as the Prophet expresseth it: but yet such prayers of wicked men, though they are answered, are never accepted. God accepts no petitions, but such as are presented to him through the intercession of Christ: now Christ makes intercession for none in heaven, but only for those, in whose hearts the Spirit makes intercession here upon earth: their prayers alone ascend up to God as sweet incense; being perfumed with that much incense, which Christ offers up with the prayers of all the saints. God always hears and answers them, either in the very thing for which they pray, or else in what oftentimes is far better: when they ask that, which will be to their own hurt; then he answers them graciously, by denying them. In James 5:16 the Apostle tells us, that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much: this, indeed, may seem a needless tautology, to say an effectual prayer availeth, for it is but one and the same thing to avail and to be effectual; but if we consult the original, we shall find the words may be translated, The in-wrought prayer; and, possibly, we may with more congruity render it thus, The prayer of a righteous man wrought in him; that is to say, by the Spirit of God: such a prayer availeth much.
2. As the efficient cause of our prayers is the Holy Ghost, so the only Object of our Prayers is God, for it is a representation of our wants and desires unto him.
Now God may be considered either essentially or personally; and, under both respects, we may direct our prayers unto him.
(1) If we consider the Persons of the glorious Trinity, so they are all adorable with this act of divine worship.
None will deny, but that we may direct our prayers unto God the Father. And that God the Son may be distinctly prayed unto, we have an uncontrolable instance in that of St. Stephen; Acts 7:59. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit: yea, and this adoration is due not only to the Divine Nature of Christ, which was from all eternity the same in being, majesty, and glory with the Father; but it is also due unto Christ as Mediator, as God-Man, and so his Human Nature is also joined in the participation of this high honour, through its union to the divine nature: the very angels in heaven are commanded to adore him as God-Man, as Mediator; Heb. 1:6. When he bringeth in his first-begotten into the world; that is, when he brought him into the world as man, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. Indeed we no where in Scripture, as I remember, have express mention made of any prayer directed to the Holy Ghost: yet whosoever allows him to be God cannot deny him this worship of prayer: if we must believe in him, we may then certainly call upon him; as the Apostle argues, Rom. 10:14 yea, we have an instance of the Seraphims giving praise unto him, which is one part of prayer, Isa. 6:3 they cried one to another, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts: this God is the same, who, in verses 9, 10, 11. bids the Prophet say to the people, Hear ye, indeed, but understand not.… Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears: this is that God, whom the Seraphims adored; and this is that God, who spake to the Prophet; and the Apostle, quoting this very place out of Isaiah, tells us, Acts 28:25 that it was the Holy Ghost spake: so that, by comparing these two places together, you see plainly that the Holy Ghost is God; and that he is to be adored by us with the same worship, with which we worship the Father and the Son, for the Holy Ghost is the Lord God of Hosts; which St. Paul refers to the Holy Ghost, Well spake the Holy Ghost concerning them. Thus, if we consider God personally, each Person in the Trinity may well be the Object of our Prayers.
(2) Consider God essentially; and so we are also to direct our prayers to him.
To consider God essentially, is, to have the eye of our faith fixed upon his attributes; not upon his person: to consider him, when we pray to him, not as Father, Son, or Holy Ghost; but only as an infinitely glorious, wise, powerful, gracious God, and the like; to look upon him as a most pure essence, whose presence is every where, whose presence and goodness are over all things; to conceive him to be an infinite being altogether unconceivable: this is to consider God essentially. Now this notion of God is equally common to all the Three Persons: and therefore this is the most fit and congruous way when we come to God in prayer, to represent before us his attributes: we need not select out any one Person in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, to direct our prayers unto; unless it be in some cases, wherein their particular offices are more immediately concerned: but, when we pray to him who is almighty, who is all-wise, infinitely holy, infinitely just and merciful, we pray at once to the whole Trinity, both to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. So when we pray according to that holy form which Christ hath taught us, Our Father, which art in heaven, Father there denotes not only God the Father, the First Person in the Trinity; but it is a relative attribute belonging equally to all the Persons in the Trinity. God is the Father of all men, by creation and providence; and he is especially the Father of the faithful, by regeneration and adoption: now as these actions of creation, regeneration, and adoption are common to the whole Trinity, so also is the title of Father common to the whole Trinity. God, the First Person, is indeed eminently called the Father, but that is not in respect of us, but in respect of Christ his only begotten Son from all eternity: in respect of us, the whole Trinity is Our Father, which art in heaven; and, when we pray so, we pray both to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, to all the Three Persons. Yea, and it may seem very probable, that when Christ prayed, Matth. 26:39. Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thy will be done: I say, it is probable that this prayer was not directed to God the Father personally, but to the whole Trinity; for we must consider that Christ prays here only as he was man, and that appears by his distinguishing of his will from and submitting it to God's will: now not only God the Father, but the whole Trinity was the Father of Christ as man; yea, Christ himself, according to his divine nature, was the Father of his human nature; and, therefore, praying, as man, to his Father, that that cup might pass from him, he prayed to all the Three Persons, both to God the Father, and to God the Son, and to God the Holy Ghost.
And, thus much, for the Object to whom we must direct our prayers; and that is to God only, whether considered personally or essentially.
3. Observe also the Matter of our Prayers. It must be a representation of our desires to God, for such things as are according to his will.
So we have it, 1 John 5:14. If we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us. God's will, in bestowing a desired mercy upon us, is best known by the promises, that he hath made to us. Which promises are of two kinds: some refer to temporal blessings, and others refer to grace and glory.
(1) Grace and Glory are promised absolutely.
It is that, which we are commanded all of us to seek after: and, therefore, here can lie no mistake upon us, while we beg these; for there is no doubt while we pray for grace and glory, but that we do it according to the will of God. Here, we may be earnest and importunate, that God would sanctify and save our souls: and, while we ask this, and make this the matter of our requests, we are under an impossibility of asking amiss; yea, and the more violent we are, and the more resolute to take no denial at the hands of God, the more pleasing is this holy force, since it shews a perfect conformity and concurrence in our wills unto his will, who hath told us, It is his will, even our sanctification: 1 Thess. 4:3. This was one part of that violence, which our Saviour saith the kingdom of heaven suffered in the days of John the Baptist. It is an invasion that is acceptable unto God, when we storm heaven by prayers and supplications, with strong cries and tears: when we plant against it unutterable sighs and groans, this is such a battery, that those eternal ramparts cannot hold out long against it. We may pray absolutely for Grace and Glory.
(2) Though we may pray thus, absolutely and with a holy peremptoriness, for grace and glory, saying to God as Jacob to the angel that wrestled with him, I will not let thee go until thou hast blessed me with spiritual blessings, in heavenly things in Jesus Christ: yet, secondly, for the Degrees of Grace and for the comforts of the Holy Ghost, we must pray conditionally; if the Lord will.
For these things are not absolutely necessary, neither are they absolutely promised to us by God. Neither any degree of grace nor any consolation of the Spirit is absolutely promised to us. But, however, our prayers ought to be, so much the more fervent and importunate for these things, than for outward, temporal things; by how much these are of far greater concernment, than the other.
(3) To pray for outward and worldly blessings is not contrary to the will of God, for he hath promised to bestow them.
But then, as his promise is conditional, if it may stand with our good: so, truly, must our prayers be conditional, that God would give them to us, if it may stand with his will and with our good. Whatsoever we thus ask, we do it according to the will of God; and we are sure of speeding in our request, either by the obtaining of our desires, or by being blessed with a denial. For, alas! we are blind and ignorant creatures, and cannot look into the designs and drift of Providence, and see how God hath laid in order good and evil in his own purpose: oftentimes, we mistake evil for good, because of the present appearance of good that it hath: yea, so short-sighted are we, that we can look no farther than outward and present appearance. But God, who sees through the whole series and connexion of his own counsels, knows, many times, that those things, which we account and desire as good, are really evil: and therefore it is our wisdom, to resign up all our desires to his disposal, and to say, "Lord, though such temporal enjoyments may seem good and desirable to me at present, yet thou art infinitely wise, and thou knowest what the consequence and issue of them will be: I beg them, if they may stand with thy will; and if thou seest they will be as really good for me, as I suppose them now to be. If they be not so, I beg the favour of a denial." This is the right frame, that a Christian ought to have upon his heart, when he comes to beg temporal mercies of God; and, whilst he thus asks any worldly comforts, he cannot ask amiss. It was an excellent saying of the Satirist, "We ask those things of God," says he, "which please our present humours and desires: but God gives those things, which are best and fittest for us: for we are dearer to him," saith the Heathen, "than we are to ourselves." "And," says another, very well, "it is mercy in God, not to hear us when we ask things that are evil:" and when he refuseth us in such requests, it is that he might not circumvent us in our own prayers; for, indeed, whilst we ask rashly and intemperately whatever we foolishly set our hearts upon, God need take no other course to plague and punish us, than by hearing and answering us.
So much for the Matter of our prayers: it must be for things, that are according to God's will.
4. Observe, also, THE MANNER, IN WHICH OUR PRAYERS MUST BE DIRECTED UNTO GOD.
(l) We must pray in the Name of Christ.
Before the Fall, man might boldly go to God, in his own name; and speak to him, upon his own account: but, since the great breach made betwixt heaven and earth, since that great quarrel and enmity arose betwixt God and man, there is no hope of man's finding acceptance with God, upon his own account; and therefore he must go to God, in the name of a Mediator. Hence Christ saith, If ye ask any thing in my name, I will do it for you: John 14:14. Now to ask in the name of Christ, is nothing else, but, in all our addresses to God, to plead his merits; and to depend upon his mediation, for the obtaining of those good things, which we desire. It was truly said, God heareth not sinners: John 9:31: and how then can we, who are sinners, yea the chief of sinners, hope for audience and acceptance with him, who heareth none such? But, though God heareth not sinners, yet he always heareth his Son, who is continually making intercession for sinners; yea, and he always heareth sinners, who come to him in the name of his Son, and by faith tender up his merits, through which alone they expect favour and to prevail with God. All things go by favour and friendship, in the Court of Heaven: if we stand upon our own merits and deserts, we shall be shamefully disappointed in our expectations: no merit takes place in heaven, but only the merit of the Lord Jesus Christ; and, while we argue that by faith with God, we come to him in the name of his Son.
(2) Our prayers must be put up with Faith.
James 1:6. Let him ask in faith, says the Apostle, nothing wavering. For let not such a man, that is, let not such a man that wavers, think to receive any good thing of God. So, in Heb. 11:6. He, that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him. Faith is the soul's hand, whereby it receives those blessings, which God willingly bestows. This is the reason, why, though we do so often pray to God, yet we are still so indigent and necessitous: God's ears are not heavy, his arms are not shortened, neither are his bowels dried up: no; still he hath the same power, the same will, and the same love to his children that ever he had; but we want a hand to receive those mercies, which God hath a heart and a hand to give forth unto us: and that is the reason of our necessitousness, notwithstanding we do so often come before God in prayer.
(3) Our prayers must be put up as with faith, so with Fervency also.
And therefore it is required, that we should be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord: Rom. 12:11 and so the fore-cited place, The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. We should strive to kindle in our souls a holy flame of heavenly affections, when we come to God in prayer. The prayers of the saints were typified, under the Old Law, by incense; but no incense was to be offered up, without fire: so, truly, there should be no prayer offered up to God, without the fire and flame of holy affections and fervency. How do you think that a dull and heavy prayer should mount up as high as heaven? or, that God should hearken to or regard what we speak, when we scarce regard what we speak ourselves?
This for the Manner of our prayer.
5. We must observe THE END AT WHICH WE OUGHT TO AIM IN OUR PRAYERS; and that is, the glory of God. We must pray for those things which we want, with submission to his will and with reference to his glory. That must be the end of our prayers.
Our design, in begging any thing from God, should be, that he may have it out of us again in his service, and to his honour and glory; and, while we propose this to ourselves, we are like to speed in our requests: we may well hope our prayers will be successful, when we beg mercies, not to consume them but to husband them; that the increase of all may return again to God, who gave them. And can we think that God will be sparing, when, if I may so speak with reverence, it concerns his own gain to be liberal? Wicked and unthankful men are but like vapours and exhalations drawn up out of the earth, which do but eclipse the sun that raises them: so, when God raiseth up wicked men by his bounty and goodness, they only serve to eclipse and stain his glory in the world. Whereas, godly men are like rivers, which, as they receive all their streams from the sea, so they return all again into the sea: so these, whatever they receive from God, they improve all for and return all again unto God. And, therefore, they may well hope to speed, who beg mercies at the hand of God, that they may return all again unto the glory of God.
So much for the qualifications of prayer. It must be made by the assistance of the Holy Ghost; in the name and mediation of Jesus Christ; with faith and fervency; making an humble representation of our wants and desires unto God, for those things, which are according to his will, with submission to his pleasure, and with reference to his honour.
And, thus much, for the First thing, What it is to pray.
ii. The Second thing propounded, was to shew you, What it is TO PRAY WITHOUT CEASING.
And this I shall do Negatively and Positively.
1. Negatively. To pray without ceasing is not always to be actually engaged in this duty of prayer; either orally, verbally, or mentally: it is not that all other duties shall be swallowed up and give place unto prayer.
This was an old error of the Messalians and Euchites, who began 340 years after Christ; whose opinion it was, that, because here and elsewhere in Scripture we are commanded to pray continually, and to pray always, and the like, therefore the whole work of a Christian was only to pray. A most fond and foolish error! for what is the great end of prayer, but that we may thereby obtain that grace from God, which may enable us to perform other duties of religion and holiness? Certainly, God doth not blow up one duty by another: he, who hath commanded us to pray without ceasing, hath likewise commanded us to hear, read, meditate, and the like. Yea, although prayer be so spiritual and so heavenly a duty, yet we are not to neglect the duties of our particular callings, only that we may have the more time for prayer: God hath divided out the work, and hath given unto every thing its season, in which alone it is beautiful. Prayer makes melody in God's ears, then only when it is well timed: when we justle out one duty by another, beside the sinful omission of what we should perform, that, which we do perform, becomes unacceptable, because unseasonable. Neither can we hope that that prayer will prevail with God, which appears before him guilty of the death and murder, if I may so phrase it, of other duties. This, therefore, cannot be the meaning of it, that we should do nothing but pray.
2. Absolutely or Positively, I shall give you a Fourfold interpretation of this expression of the Apostle, pray without ceasing.
(1) That may be said to be done without ceasing, which is done constantly, and at set times and seasons.
So we have the word used, Gen. 8:22. While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease: that is, they shall not cease, in their courses and appointed times. So, here, Pray without ceasing: that is, observe a constant course of prayer, at fixed and appointed times; still keeping yourselves from any superstitious observations. And, thus, Exod. 29:42 the daily sacrifice is called a continual burnt-offering; and yet it was offered up only every morning and every evening, and yet God accounts it a continual offering. So, here, Pray continually, or without ceasing: that is, keep up frequent and appointed times for prayer, without intermission.
(2) To pray without ceasing, is to pray with all importunity and vehemency.
So, in Acts 12:5. the Church is said to pray for St. Peter without ceasing: that is, they were very earnest and importunate, and would give God no rest until he heard them. So, also, in the parable of the unjust steward, which our Saviour spake on purpose to shew how prevalent with God importunity is, Luke 18:1 it is said, that the Lord would teach them that they ought always to pray: that is, that they ought to pray earnestly and importunately, not giving over till they were heard. So, also, 1 Sam. 7:7, 8 the children of Israel entreated Samuel not to cease crying to the Lord for them: that is, that he would improve all his interest at the Throne of Grace to the utmost in their behalfs. So we are bid to pray without ceasing: that is, to be earnest and vehement, resolving to take no denial at the hands of God. But yet we must do other duties also, though we are vehement in this. We may learn how to demean ourselves in this case towards God, by beggars who sometimes come to your doors and bring their work along with them: they beg importunately, and yet they work betwixt whiles: so also should we do: we should beg as importunately of God, as if we depended merely upon his charity; and yet, betwixt whiles, we should work as industriously, as if we were ourselves to get our livings with our own hands.
(3) To pray without ceasing, is to take all occasions, at every turn, to be darting up our souls unto God in holy meditations and ejaculations.
And this we may and ought to do, when we hear or read the word, or whatever duty of religion we are engaged about: yea, this we may and ought to do, in our worldly employments. If your hearts and affections be heavenly, your thoughts will force out a passage, through the crowd and tumult of worldly businesses, to heaven. Ejaculations are swift messengers, which require not much time to perform their errands in. For there is a holy mystery in pointing our earthly employments with these heavenly ejaculations, as men point their writings sometimes with stops; ever now and then shooting up a short mental prayer unto heaven: such pauses as these are you will find to be no impediments to your worldly affairs. This is the way for a Christian to be retired and private, in the midst of a multitude; to turn his shop or his field into a closet; to trade for earth, and yet to get heaven also into the bargain. So we read of Nehemiah 2:4 that, while the king was discoursing to him of the state of Judea, Nehemiah prayed unto God: that is, he seat up secret prayers to God, which, though they escaped the king's notice and observation, yet were so prevalent as to bow and incline his heart.
(4) There is yet something more in this praying without ceasing. And that is this: we may then be said to pray without ceasing, when we keep our hearts in such a frame, as that we are fit at all times to vent ourselves before God in prayer.
When we keep alive and cherish a praying spirit; and can, upon all opportunities, draw near to God, with full souls and with quick and vigorous affections: this is to pray without ceasing. And this I take to be the most genuine, natural sense of the words, and the true scope of the Apostle here; to have the habit of prayer, inclining them always freely and sweetly to breathe out their requests unto God, and to take all occasions to prostrate themselves before his Throne of Grace.
Now those, who would maintain this praying temper, must be especially careful of Two things.
 That they do not too much engulf themselves in the Businesses and Pleasures of this life.
For this will exceedingly damp and deaden the heart to this holy duty. As earth, cast upon the fire, puts it out; so the world, when it is spread over the affections, must needs stifle and extinguish that holy flame, which should ascend up to heaven. How hard is it for a man, who oppresseth himself with a heap of businesses, to raise his heart unto God under all that load! How hard is it for those, who let out their hearts thus to and fro, a thousand ways, to summon them in the next moment to attend upon God, with that awful and serious frame which becomes all those who appear before him! When we come to prayer reaking hot out of the affairs of this world, we find our hearts subject to manifold distractions and discomposures; and our thoughts scattered like bees, still flying from one flower to another, still bringing some intelligence from worldly objects, even then when we are about divine employments.
 If you would maintain a praying temper of soul, be careful not to fall into the commission of any known, presumptuous Sin.
The guilt of sin lying upon the conscience, will exceedingly deaden the heart to prayer. Alas! how can we go to God with any freedom of spirit; how can we call him Father, with any boldness and confidence; while we are conscious to ourselves, that we have daringly provoked him by some wilful offence? I may appeal to your own experience in this: do not your consciences fly in your faces? do they not take you by the throat and even choak your speech, while you are praying, with some such suggestions as these? "What! can I pray for the pardon of sin, who frequently commit that, which I know to be sin? Shall I dare to lift up unclean hands before his pure and holy eyes, or to speak to him in prayer, when as those sins, which rankle and fester in my conscience, must needs make my breath unsavory and noisome to him? Will the Lord hear such prayers? or, if he doth hear them, will he not account them an abomination?" You now, whose consciences thus accuse you, do you not find such reflections as these to be great deadenings to your hearts, great damps to duty, and clippings of the wings of the Spirit of God and takings-off of the wheels of the soul, so that it drives on but slowly and heavily in the performance of that duty? Certainly, guilt is the greatest impediment to duty in the world: for it takes off from the freeness and filialness of our spirits; and fills us with distrust, diffidence, and a slavish fear of coming before God, rather as our Judge than as our Father. And therefore we find, that, as soon as Adam had sinned against his Maker, he hid himself from him: yea, and we may observe in ourselves, what a slavish dejectedness and deadness seizeth upon us, when we come to God in duty, after we have wronged him by any known sin: how doth this make us come with such misgiving fears, as if we would not have God to take notice that we were in his presence; making us to be continually in pain until the duty be done!
And, thus, you see what it is to pray without ceasing. It is to pray constantly, at set times and seasons: it is to pray importunately and vehemently: it is, upon all occasions, to be sending up holy ejaculations unto God: and, especially, to keep alive and cherish a praying frame of heart; which whosoever would do, he must beware of immerging himself in the world, and of committing any known and presumptuous sin.
And, so much, for the Doctrinal part.
II. The APPLICATION shall be, to stir us up and excite us to the performance of this holy duty; wherein, indeed, the vitals of religion and holiness do consist.
And, to press this upon you, consider with me these following particulars:
i. PRAYER IS ONE OF THE GREATEST SIGNS OF A MAN'S NEW BIRTH.
As, in the natural birth, we know the child is living, by its crying, when it comes into the world; so also, in this spiritual birth, it is an evidence, that we are born living souls to God, when we cry mightily unto God in prayer. And, therefore, in Acts 9:11 when God sent Ananias unto Paul, that he might take off that fear from him which might otherwise seize upon him in going to such an enraged persecutor as he was, he tells him St. Paul was changed; for, behold, he prayeth. This is an infallible sign that we are children of God, when we can, with a holy reverence and boldness, cry Abba, Father.
ii. Consider: IT IS A GREAT AND INESTIMABLE PRIVILEGE, THAT GOD WILL PERMIT US TO APPROACH SO NEAR TO HIMSELF; that he will permit such vile dust and ashes as we are to speak to him, who is the God of the Spirits of all Flesh.
The holy angels in heaven stand always ministering in the presence of God; and prayer doth, in some kind, associate us with them: it brings us to lie prostrate at the feet of God; at whose feet, also, angels and all the powers in heaven do, with much more humility than we, fall down and worship: we and they fall down together at the feet of the Great God; we, in prayer; and they, in praises. This privilege cost Jesus Christ dear, for it is through him, as the Apostle speaks, that we have access with boldness unto the Throne of Grace: all access thither was barred against sinners, till Christ opened a passage for us by his own death and most precious blood: and shall not we make use of a privilege, purchased for us at so dear a rate as that is? hath Christ shed his blood to procure us liberty to pray, and shall not we spend our breath in praying? hath Christ died such a cursed, cruel death, to purchase liberty for us to pray, and shall we rather choose to die an eternal death than make use of it? This is to despise the blood of Jesus Christ; to offer a high affront and indignity unto him; to account it a vile and contemptible thing, when we make no more esteem of that for the purchase of which he shed his precious blood. We look upon it as a great privilege, to have free and frequent access to those, who are much our superiors; and shall we not reckon it a much higher privilege, that we may at all times approach the presence of him, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and higher than the highest, as we may do at all times in prayer?
iii. Prayer IS THE MOST SOVEREIGN MEDICINE AND REMEDY FOR AN AFFLICTED MIND.
Nothing is so desirable in this world as a faithful friend, to whom we may at all times unbosom ourselves, and make all our secrets and grievances known. Now prayer directs us to go to God himself: he is our most faithful friend, who can best counsel and best help us; and prayer is a means whereby we reveal the secrets and troubles of our souls unto him. Prayer is our discoursing with God: when our hearts swell with grief and are ready to break within us, how sweet is it then to take God apart and give our hearts vent! Prayer is a making of our case known to him, and a spreading of our wants before him; casting all our burdens upon him, who hath promised to sustain us.
iv. Consider: Prayer IS A MEANS APPOINTED BY GOD FOR THE OBTAINING OF THOSE BLESSINGS AND MERCIES, OF WHICH WE STAND IN NEED.
For all things are God's: he is the great Lord and Proprietor both of Heaven and Earth: whether they be spiritual or temporal mercies that we desire, if it be wealth, strength or wisdom, all are his. If we would have spiritual blessings conferred upon us; our faith, our love, our patience, our humility, strengthened and encreased; he is the God of all these graces, and prayer is a means appointed by God to convey all these unto us. Our prayers and God's mercy are like two buckets in a well: while the one ascends, the other descends: so, while our prayers ascend to God in heaven, his mercies and blessings descend down upon us.
v. Consider: ALL OUR SUPPLIES ARE ONLY FOR OUR PRESENT EXIGENCIES; TO SERVE US ONLY FROM HAND TO MOUTH.
The stock of mercy is not our's, but God's: he still keeps it in his own hands. And this he doth, that he may keep us in a constant dependence upon him, and in a constant expectation of mercy from him. Our wants grow up very thick about us; and, if we did but observe it, we should find every day, yea every hour, new cause to present new requests and supplications unto God: and, therefore, as our necessities never cease, so neither should our prayers.
vi. Consider this: IF YOU WILL NOT BE PERSUADED TO PRAY, YOU SHALL ONE DAY BE MADE TO HOWL.
You, who will not now look up to heaven in prayer, shall hereafter look up in blaspheming: Isai. 8:21. They shall fret themselves, says the Prophet, and curse their King and their God: that is, in their horrid despair and anguish, they shall curse and blaspheme both God and their king, that is the Devil, and they shall look upward. Though now wicked men will not look to heaven, yet then God will force them to look upwards.
III. TWO OBJECTIONS, possibly, may be made against this duty of prayer.
FIRST OBJECTION. "God doth beforehand know all our wants and desires, and therefore what necessity is there of prayer?"
To this I answer, with St. Augustin, God doth require that we should pray to him, not so much to make known what our will and desire is, for that he cannot be ignorant of: but it is for the exercise of our desires, and to draw forth our affections towards those things that we beg at his hands, that thereby we may be made fit to receive what he is ready to give.
SECOND OBJECTION. Say some, "It is in vain to pray, because all our prayers cannot alter the course of God's Providence. We cannot, by our most fervent prayers, change the method of God's decrees: if he hath resolved from eternity to bestow such a mercy upon us, we shall receive it whether we pray or pray not: if he hath resolved we shall never partake of it, if we do pray, all our prayers will be in vain."
I have long since answered this Objection; and told you, that, it is true, God's providence is immutable: but the same providence, that orders the end to be obtained, hath likewise ordered the means by which it must be obtained: as God hath decreed blessings to us, so he hath decreed that they should be obtained by prayer; and therefore we must pray that we may obtain those blessings, for that is the means which God hath decreed for the obtaining of them.
IV. Some possibly may say, "If we must thus pray without ceasing, how shall we be assured that God will hear us? If it be our duty to pray, HOW SHALL WE PRAY so as that our prayers may become acceptable unto God?
i. If you would have God hear you when you pray, YOU MUST BE SURE TO HEAR HIM WHEN HE SPEAKS.
See that place, Prov. 1:24, 25, 28. Because I have called, and ye have refused.… and have set at nought all my counsel.… therefore, says God, ye shall call, but I will not answer: ye shall seek me early, but.… shall not find me: God stops his ears against their prayers, who stop their ears against his law. So you find it, Prov. 28:9. He, that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination. And this is but equity with God, to refuse to hear them, who refuse to hear him: wherefore should God give attention to us, when we pray; more than we to him, when he speaks?
ii. If you would have God hear you, YOU MUST BE GREATLY AFFECTED WITH WHAT YOU SPEAK YOURSELVES.
Qui frigidè rogat, docet negare: "He, who asks coldly, begs only a denial." Certainly, we cannot in reason expect that God should regard when we pray, when we do not regard ourselves what we pray. How do you think a lazy prayer, that scarce drops out of your lips, should have strength and vigour enough to reach heaven, and to pierce through the ears of God? If you expect to shoot up a prayer to heaven, you must draw it from a soul full bent.
iii. We must come to God WITH RESOLUTIONS TO WAIT FOR AN ANSWER.
We must not give over prayer, because God doth not presently bestow a mercy upon us that we desire: this is not only to lose the mercy itself, but to lose our prayers also. God is a great God and King above all gods, and it is but his due state to be waited long upon: in this sense, it is true, He, that believeth, maketh not haste. Certainly, if we believe God to be infinitely wise to know the best season to give us what we crave both for his advantage and for ours also, we shall not be in haste in our suits, or peevish because we are not straight answered: but shall patiently wait God's leisure; as knowing that God hath read our petitions, and will grant them when he seeth the fittest time.
iv. If you would pray so as to be heard, BE SURE YOU PUT UP NO REQUESTS IN THE BEHALF OF YOUR LUSTS.
The Apostle gives the reason why, of so many prayers that are put up to God, so few prove successful: James 4:3. Ye ask, and receive not; because ye ask amiss, to consume it upon your lusts. Now to ask blessings from God for our lusts, is when we beg any outward mercy, be it wealth, or health, or the like, with reference to the gratifying of our own carnal and corrupt desires. Therefore in James 4:4 the Apostle calls them adulterers and adulteresses. Such men are indeed like adulteresses in this: as they ask their husbands those things, many times, which they bestow upon them whom they love better; so wicked men do, many times, ask those mercies and blessings of God, which they intend to spend upon their lusts that they love better than God: and therefore it is no wonder that God, who knows their secret thoughts and intents, denies them.
v. YOU MUST PUT SOME STRESS UPON YOUR PRAYERS, if you would have them heard and accepted.
You must believe, that it is to some purpose, that you pray. If we think it is of no great concernment, to pray; God will think it is of no great concernment, to give what we pray for.
vi. YOU MUST TAKE HEED ALSO, THAT YOU DO NOT PUT TOO MUCH STRESS UPON YOUR PRAYERS.
That you do not set them up in the stead of Christ; that you do not expect to merit by your prayers the things which you pray for: but only look upon them as a means and ordinance, which God hath appointed, to obtain those good things that you stand in need of.
vii. You must be sure TO MAKE JESUS CHRIST YOUR FRIEND, WHEN YOU COME UNTO GOD; or else all your prayers are no better than scattered in the air, or spilt in the carriage.
Benjamin was a type of Christ, in this respect: Joseph chargeth his brethren, that they should not dare to see his face again, unless they brought their brother Benjamin with them. So, truly, they shall find no welcome with God, who do not bring their elder brother Jesus Christ in the arms of their faith, and plead his merit and his righteousness for the obtaining of their desires.
So much for this time and text.