What is Prayer?

by Zacharias Ursinus

Prayer consists in calling upon the true God, and arises from an acknowledgment and sense of our want, and from a desire of sharing in the divine bounty, in true conversion of heart and confidence in the promise of grace for the sake of Christ the mediator, asking at the hands of God such temporal and spiritual blessings as are necessary for us; or in giving thanks to God for the benefits received. The genus or general character of prayer consists in invocation or adoration. Adoration is often used in the sense of the whole worship of God, since we regard him as the true God, whom we worship. Prayer is a species or part of invocation, for to call upon the true God is to ask of him such things as are necessary both for soul and body, and to render thanks to him for benefits received. It is here used in the sense of the general character of pray. There are, therefore, two species or parts comprehended in prayer—petition and thanksgiving. Petition is a prayer asking of God those blessings necessary both for the soul and body. Thanksgiving is prayer acknowledging and magnifying the benefits received from God, and binding those who receive these gifts to such gratitude as is pleasing to God. Thankfulness in general consists in acknowledging and professing what and how great is the benefit received, and in binding those who are the recipients thereof to the performance of such duties as are mutual, possible and becoming. It comprehends, therefore, truth and justice.

The apostle Paul, in his first Epistle to Timothy, 2:1, enumerates four species of prayer, saying, "I exhort, therefore, that first of all supplication, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men." The first includes prayers against evil things; the second, petitions for good things; the third, intercession for others; and the fourth, thanksgiving for benefits received and evils warded off. This distinction is drawn from the end or design of prayer.

Prayer is also distinguished into public and private prayer, from the circumstances of person and place. Private prayer is the intercourse which a faithful soul has with God, asking, alone and apart from others, certain blessings for himself, or for others; or giving thanks for benefits received. This form of prayer is not restricted to any particular words or places, for oftentimes the heart, when burdened and distressed, gives utterance to nothing more than sighs and groans; and the Apostle commands "that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands." (1 Tim. 2:8.) Public prayer is that which, by the use of certain words, is offered up to God by the whole church in the congregation, the minister leading, as it is right and proper that he should in the public gatherings of the church. Language, or the use of the tongue, is necessary for this form of prayer. Hence Christ said: When ye pray, say, Our Father, &c. It was also chiefly for this that the tongue was made, that God might be praised and magnified by it; and it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaketh. Lastly, by this others are also invited to praise and worship God.


The reasons on account of which prayer is necessary for Christians are these: 1. The command of God. God has commanded that we call upon him, and desires that we in this way chiefly worship and praise him. "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee." "Ask and it shall be given you." "When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven." (Ps. 50:15. Matt. 7:7. Luke 11:2.) 2. Our necessity and want. We do not obtain the blessings which are necessary for us, except we ask them at the hands of God; for he has promised them to none but such as ask. Prayer is, therefore, just as necessary for us as it is necessary for a beggar to ask alms.

The same thing must be understood respecting the necessity of thanksgiving, which is said concerning the necessity of prayer; for without the giving of thanks we lose those things which are given, and do not receive those which are necessary and should be given. And the necessity of both will readily appear, whether we consider the effects or cause of faith, and so also faith itself. Faith is neither kindled nor increased in any one who does not desire or ask it. No one has faith who is not thankful for it; for all those who are possessed of true faith taste the grace of God, and those who have tasted of the grace of God show themselves thankful to God for it, and desire it more and more. "The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us." (Rom. 5:5.) The Holy Ghost is also obtained by prayer; for he is given to none, except those who seek and desire him.

Obj. 1. But the wicked receive many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, who nevertheless do not ask or desire them. Therefore these things are not merely given to such as desire them. Ans. The wicked do indeed receive many gifts; but not such as are principal nor peculiar to the elect, as faith, repentance, conversion, remission of sins and regeneration. And still further, the gifts which they do receive do not contribute to their salvation, but to their destruction. And should any one reply, and say that infants do not desire the Holy Ghost, and yet receive him, so that he must be given to more than those who ask and desire, we answer that the Holy Ghost is not given to any except such as desire him, which is to say, to adults who are capable of asking and seeking him. And yet even infants desire the Holy Ghost after their manner, in that they have in possibility an inclination to seek him just as they according to their manner believe, or have an inclination to faith. "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength." (Ps. 8:2.)

Obj. 2. The effect is not prior to its own proper cause. Prayer is the effect of the Holy Ghost, inasmuch as no one who does not possess the Holy Ghost can desire him; and he alone indites prayer within us. Therefore the Holy Ghost is not received by prayer, but is in us before we give utterance to prayer, and is consequently given not merely to such as desire him. Ans. The effect is not prior to its own cause in order and nature, but in time they both exist together. So the Holy Ghost, and our desiring him, are both in us at the same moment in respect to time, although it is different according to nature. For the Holy Ghost is in us, according to nature, before we give utterance to prayer, inasmuch as we then for the first time begin to desire him, and to ask him of God, when he is given unto us; but according to time he is simultaneous with our prayers. For we begin to desire the presence of the Holy Ghost as soon as he is given unto us, and he is also given just as soon as he is desired and sought, or in other words, God effects in us a desire of the Holy Ghost and gives him unto us in the very same moment. Yea it may be said that he produces in us a desire of the Holy Ghost by commanding us to pray for him; and in producing this desire he at the same time gives him unto those who ask and desire him. God does not so work in us, therefore, as when a ray of the sun falls upon a vessel; because the Holy Ghost is a gift of such a character, that he is given, received and prayed for at one and the same time. We might also make a distinction between the beginning and increase of the Spirit within us, inasmuch as we do not desire the latter before we have the former. No one desires the Holy Ghost, except he in whom the Spirit dwells. But the first solution or answer which we have given must suffice. For that which Christ says in Luke 11:13, "How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him," is not to be understood merely of the increase, but also of the beginning of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit.

Question 117. What are the requisites of that prayer, which is acceptable to God, and which he will hear?

Answer. First, that we from the heart pray to the one true God only, who hath manifested himself in his word, for all things he hath commanded us to ask of him: secondly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of his divine majesty: thirdly, that we be fully persuaded that he, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as he has promised us in his word.

Question 118. What hath God commanded us to ask of him?

Answer. All things necessary for soul and body; which Christ our Lord has comprised in that prayer he himself has taught us.


The conditions of acceptable prayer are—

1. That it be directed to the true God, or that the true God be called upon, who has revealed himself in the church by the word delivered by the Prophets and Apostles, and by the work of creation, preservation and redemption. This true God now is the eternal Father, Son and Holy Ghost. "As we have received" said Basil, "so have we been baptized, and as we have been baptized, so do we believe, and as we believe, so do we worship the Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

2. The second requisite of acceptable prayer, is a knowledge of the divine commandment. Without the commandment of God we doubt in regard to our being heard. The person, however, that has an eye to the divine command, rests fully assured that his prayers are acceptable to God; because the worship which God requires of us, in his word, cannot be other wise than pleasing to him. When we pray, therefore, we ought so to think and resolve, I call upon thee, because thou, hast commanded me.

3. A knowledge of the things which we ought to ask at the hands of God, is also necessary to effectual prayer. God does not desire us to direct vague and wandering petitions to him, being uncertain what we would pray for. A king would consider himself derided and mocked if any one were to kneel before him, without knowing what to ask at his hands. So God will have us consider and think what things we should ask of him, if we would pray unto him and not mock him when we come into his presence. We, however, do not know what we should ask. It is for this reason that Christ has prescribed a form of prayer, which contains the sum and substance of the things which we should pray for To sum up the whole in as few words as possible, we would say, we should pray for things which we are certain are approved of by God, and promised. These consist of two kinds—such as are spiritual and temporal, both of which God desires us to ask at his hands. Spiritual things, because they are necessary to our salvation, and temporal things, 1. That the desire of them may exercise our faith, and confirm our confidence in regard to our obtaining such things as are spiritual. The reason is, because no one can expect good things of God, except he be reconciled to him. 2. That we may consider and reflect upon the providence of God, knowing that these small and comparatively unimportant things do not come fortuitously.

4. There must be a true desire for those things which we ask of God, if our prayers are heard. God will not have our prayer to be feigned, or hypocritical—they must come from the heart, and not merely from the lips. God wills us to pray with an earnest desire of the heart, for it is not the words of the mouth, but the sighs and groans of the heart, that constitute true prayer, as the Lord said unto Moses, "Wherefore criest thou unto me? "when Moses, nevertheless, said nothing. (Ex. 14:15.) Hence an ardent desire is to be made the general and chief thing in the definition of prayer.

5. A knowledge and sense of our own want. This should be the spring or fountain from which all our desires should proceed; for what any one does not feel himself greatly in need of, that he will not ardently desire. All of us now stand in need of God.

6. True humility with an acknowledgement of our want. We should cast ourselves before the divine Majesty as humble suppliants. God is under no obligation to us. All of us, too, were the enemies of God before our conversion. God now does not hear sinners; that is, such proud sinners as the Pharisee was, who prayed standing in the highest seat in the temple. Hence, true humility, penitence, and conversion are necessary to acceptable prayer. The promises of God, too, have respect merely to such as are converted. No one can pray in faith without conversion to God; and without faith, no one can have any assurance of being heard, nor does he receive what he desires.

7. A knowledge of Christ the Mediator, and trust in him, are likewise necessary, in order that we may rest assured that both we and our prayers please God, not on account of any worthiness on our part, but only for the Mediator's sake. It was in this way that Daniel prayed and asked to be heard for the Lord's sake. (Dan. 9:17.) Christ also commands us to pray to the Father in his name. Our prayers should be placed upon our altar, even Christ. So shall they be acceptable to God.

8. Confidence of being heard. As it respects the former condition, faith is necessary in order that we may be fully persuaded that we are just before God, and that he is reconciled to us in Christ. Here faith or confidence of being heard is necessary, inasmuch as this cannot exist independent of the former. "Because ye are sons, God hath put forth the Spirit of his Son, into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father." "Without faith, it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him." (Gal. 4:6. Heb. 11:6.)

We must, however, here observe in respect to this confidence of being heard, that there is a difference in the things which are to be prayed for. Some gifts are necessary to salvation, as are those which are spiritual; whilst there are others—such as are temporal—without which we may be saved. The former are to be simply and positively desired with full confidence that we shall as certainly receive them, as we ask them specially at the hands of God. The latter are indeed to be sought and desired, but with the condition of the will of God, that he will confer them upon us, if they contribute to his glory, and are profitable to us; or that he will confer upon us other and better things, either now or hereafter as may seem best in his sight. We should in praying for these things imitate the example of the leper, who said, "Lord if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean." (Matt. 8:2.) It is in this way that the faithful present their prayers before God, and desire to be heard, inasmuch as we oftentimes pray for things which, perhaps, would be more injury than advantage to us, if God were to hear and grant our requests.

Obj. He who asks doubtingly does not ask in faith, and is not heard. We seek temporal blessings with doubt, inasmuch as we pray for them conditionally. Therefore, we do not ask them in faith. Ans. The major proposition is either particular, or else it is not true. For the nature of faith does not demand that we be fully assured in reference to temporal blessings, but merely in reference to spiritual blessings, such as the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, which are necessary to salvation. Respecting temporal benefits, it is sufficient if faith submit itself to the word of God, and desire and pray for such things as are profitable for us. We also deny the truth of the minor proposition; for although we do pray conditionally for temporal blessings, yet we do not simply doubt in regard to our obtaining them. We believe that we shall obtain from God the temporal blessings which we ask at his hand, if they contribute to our salvation, and do not desire to be heard, if they would be injurious to us. We, therefore, notwithstanding ask in faith, when we submit to the word of God and acquiesce in his will, and pray to be heard according to the good pleasure of our heavenly Father. For faith submits itself to every word and desire of God. But the will and pleasure of God consist in this, that we desire and pray for spiritual things simply, and for temporal things conditionally, and that we be fully persuaded that we shall receive the former particularly; and the latter in as far as they contribute to the glory of God and our salvation. Praying in this way, we do not doubt in regard to our being heard.

9. A knowledge of the divine promise, with confidence in it. God promises that he will hear those who call upon him, observing the conditions which we have now specified. "Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver thee." "And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer, and while they are yet speaking, I will hear." (Ps. 50:15. Is. 65:24.) Without this promise, that we shall be heard in what we ask of God, there is no faith; and without faith, prayer is of no avail. Except we have faith in the divine promises, and have a regard to them in our prayers, they will not avail us any thing, neither can we desire any thing with a good conscience. Confidence in the divine promise produces an assurance of being heard, and of our salvation, which assurance kindles in us a desire of calling upon God, and of making supplication to him.

From the conditions which we have specified as being necessary to constitute acceptable prayer, it readily appears what a great difference there is between the prayers of the godly and the ungodly. The godly desire to observe all these conditions in drawing near to God in prayer: the ungodly, on the other hand, either neglect all of them, or else they observe one or two of these conditions, and fall short as it respects the rest. Some commit an error, as it were, in the very threshhold, having an incorrect knowledge of the nature and will of God, and so violate the very first condition necessary to acceptable prayer—some err in the things which they pray for, in that they pray for things that are evil, uncertain, and not approved of by God—some ask blessings of God hypocritically—some ask without any consciousness or sense of the want of the blessings for which they pray—some have no confidence in Christ the mediator—some ask that they may be heard in the things which they pray for, and yet persist in sin—some ask things necessary for salvation, and yet do it with distrust, whilst others again address prayers to God, and yet never think of the divine promise, and therefore ask without faith, and so receive no answer to their prayers.

Question 119. What are the words of that prayer?

Answer. Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.


The form of prayer prescribed by Christ is recited by two of the evan gelists, Matthew and Luke. It is, without doubt, the best, the most expressive and perfect form of prayer that has ever been delivered. It was delivered by Christ, who is the wisdom of God, and whose words were always heard and answered by his heavenly Father. It also contains, in the most condense form, all things which are to be sought as necessary for soul and body. It is in like manner a rule or pattern with which all our prayers ought to conform and agree.

It is sometimes asked, Are we so bound down to this form of prayer, as not to be permitted to use other and different words when we pray? We reply to this question, that Christ delivered this form, not that we should be restricted to these words, but that we might know what things we should ask of God, and how we should ask them. It is a general form respecting the manner, and the things which we should pray for. It is likewise frequently the case that there are particular benefits necessary for us, which we should particularly ask of God, according as it is said, "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you." "If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and up-braideth not, and it shall be given him." "Pray ye that your flight be not in the winter." (John 16:23. James 1:5. Matt. 24:20.) But these things are not to be found in this prayer as far as the words are concerned. There are also many examples of prayers, both in the Old and New Testament, which as to the words, at least, are different from this prayer; as the prayers of Jehoshaphat, Solomon, Daniel; of Christ himself, of the apostles, &c. (2 Chron. 20:6. 2 Kings 8:15. Dan. 9:4. John 17:1. Acts 4:24.) These prayers, too, were heard and answered of God. It follows, therefore, that this form prescribed by Christ is a thing indifferent in as far as it respects the words.

Obj. 1. But we must not pretend to be wiser than Christ. Therefore since he has prescribed a certain form of prayer for us, we should be satisfied with it, and are chargeable with doing wrong whenever we use other forms of prayer. Ans. We should, indeed, do wrong in departing from this form of prayer, if Christ had intended to restrict us to its use. But he did not design to restrict us to the very language of this prayer; for his purpose was, when he gave this form to the disciples and taught them thus to pray, to give them a summary of the things which we should ask of God in our prayers.

Obj. 2. That should be retained, than which no better can be invented. But it is not possible for us to invent any better form of prayer, nor to select more suitable words, than we find in the Lord's Prayer. Therefore we should retain both the form and the words of Christ. Ans. We cannot invent a better form, nor more suitable words for the purpose of expressing the same summary, which is, as it were, the general of all those things which we ought to seek in prayer. These kinds or classes of benefits which Christ has prescribed in this form of prayer as the ones to be prayed for, cannot be presented in a better form. But then Christ will have us to decend into particulars, and pray for special benefits according to our necessity. The form which Christ has prescribed is nothing else than a series of certain classes or heads, under which may be comprehended and referred all spiritual and temporal blessings necessary for us. Hence when Christ commands us to pray for these general benefits, he at the same time commands us to pray for every special benefit included in that which is general. And still further, those things which are here expressed generally, ve ought to specify particularly, that we may in this way be led to a consideration of our necessity, and to a desire of asking God to help us in our necessity. But it is necessary in order that we may do this, that we should have special forms of prayer; for the explanation of that which is general by that which is special necessarily requires other forms of expression. Hence Augustin declares that all the prayers of the saints which we have in the Scriptures are contained in the Lord's Prayer. Augustin also adds, that we are at liberty to express the same things in other words when we pray, but are not allowed to pray for things different from those comprehended in this prayer.


From Commentary in the Heidelberg Catechism

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