Pray for a Soft Heart and Retentive Memory

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear (Matt 13:3-9)


In “To the Members of a Prayer-Meeting,” Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote about how to pray for the preaching of God’s Word, so that it’s not ineffectual to closed and hardened hearts:

If you look at Matt 13:39, you will see how much of our preaching is in vain, and what need there is to pray that God would open the hearts we speak to.

What is a heart that’s hardened to the preaching of God’s Word?

Is it not true that some of your hearts are like the footpath, trodden all the week by wicked thoughts? [Matt 13:3-4] Free passage this way is written over your heartscommon worldly thoughtsbusy covetous desires of moneymalicious thoughtsimpure, abominable thoughts. Oh who can tell what a constant thoroughfare of wicked imaginations is passing night and day through every unconverted mind! Oh, look at Gen. 6:5, and weep over the Bible description of your own hard hearts.

How does a hardened heart respond at the gathering of the church?

Now, when you come to the church on Sabbath, your heart is like a footpath; the seed cannot fall in, it lies upon the surface. You do not understand the minister. Perhaps he preaches of the desperate wickedness of the heart, and the danger you are in of going to hell if you be not born again. You feel it to be a dry subject, and turn your head away. Perhaps he is preaching of the love of Jesus, in tasting death for every man; and that He will in no wise cast the vilest sinner out. Still you feel no interest, and perhaps you fall asleep during the sermon.

How does a hardened heart depart from the church’s gathering?

Oh, you are the wayside hearers,the devil plucks all the seed away. When you turn your back on the church, you turn your back on divine things; and before you have got half-way home, the devil has carried off every word of the sermon. Yea, often, I fear, before you have got a sight of your own cottage, or the trees before the door, the devil has filled your hearts with abominable worldly thoughts, and your tongue with evil talk, unworthy of the Sabbath.

How then ought we pray for those who hear the ministry of the Word?

Dear believers, pray that it be not so with you, nor with your friends; pray for a soft heart and a retentive memory; and often speak together of the sermons you hear, and get them harrowed into your hearts, that Satan may be cheated, and your soul saved.

From McCheyne, R. M., & Bonar, A. A., Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (1894; Banner of Truth, pp. 304-05), paragraphing mine.

Yes, It’s The Price of Citizenship

Al Mohler points to the tragic ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a photography business owned by Christians could not refuse to photograph homosexual unions. The most unsettling statements came from the opinion of Justice Bosson, who argued that this couple is “now compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives.” He continued:

At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others.

Read It Is the Price of Citizenship? Having preached yesterday on Hebrews 12:1-14, I was struck by its immediate relevance to the growing assault on Christians in our society.

Now, it should go without saying that for Christians, compromising our “religious beliefs” to accommodate anyone is not an option on the table. We must obey God, not men (Acts 5:29). For those beliefs are not just the “inspiration” of our lives, they’re the basis for our hope for life at all – its only those who endure in faith that preserve their souls (Heb 10:39).

Truly, we seek “peace with everyone” (Heb 12:14), but only as far as it depends on us and as it allows us to maintain obedience before God (see Rom 12:18). In other words, peace with men can never come at the cost of compromising holiness before God. Puritan David Dickson (1583-1662) put it like this:

It is more dangerous to quit holiness than to quit peace; for he that followeth holiness shall see God, albeit he find not peace amongst men. But if any man prefer mens peace before holiness, while he gaineth men, he loseth God (Epistles of Paul and Hebrews, p. 73).

That is the price of citizenship in God’s Kingdom. Enduring in faith and obedience, striving for holiness, is necessary if we’re ever to “see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). That price can accommodate no compromise.

So what are Christians to do? Most basically, we must again take seriously whats always been the extent to which were called to struggle against sin and endure hostility from sinners, to the “point of shedding your blood” (Heb 12:3-4). We must even rejoice in it, remembering that we have a better and abiding possession (Heb 10:32; cf. Acts 5:41).

Also, we must not forget, especially when the pain seems unbearable, that were enduring our Fathers discipline, whos lovingly forming us into a more obedient sonship (Heb 12:5-8). He loves us through and not apart from the pain of persecution. Hes seeking our good, our share in His holiness, so that we might pay the price of citizenship and see Him forever (Heb 12:9-11). Persecution is painful, but it is not pointless – it’s eternally purposeful.

If we pay the price of citizenship that Justice Bosson suggests, well lose our citizenship in the world to come. If you accommodate the world, you lose your soul (Luke 9:23-25). But if you lose the world and endure the pain of doing so, you’ll gain your soul. And, in the end, well get the world as well because all things are ours to inherit in Christ (1 Cor 3:21-23).

Until that great Day, it remains for us to enter that Kingdom through many tribulations (Acts 14:22). That is the price of citizenship.

Help with Personal Holiness

We must be holy, because this is the one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world [2 Cor 5:15; Eph 5:25-26; Titus 2:14] Jesus is a complete Saviour. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believers sin, He does more He breaks its power (1 Pet 1:2; Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 12:10).

J.C. Ryle, Holiness, p. 49.


I’ve recently preached a mini-series on holiness for our congregation (links to the audio can be found under Preaching, above) We began with Lev 10:1-11 and 1 Cor 6:9-11, and I’ll conclude with Heb 12:1-14 next Lord’s Day, DV.

After being a Christian for nearly 20 years, I can unfortunately say that personal holiness has not been a topic that’s received great emphasis in the churches and ministries with which I’ve been in fellowship. In Rediscovering Holiness, J.I. Packer points to the same reality.

Packer identifies 3 evidences that Christians today evidently do not think personal holiness is very important:


  • Its not the topic of much preaching, teaching, or writing.
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  • Its seldom valued or expected in Christian leaders.
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  • Its not shared in the message of evangelism, declaring to the world that without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).

Again, I believe Packers unarguably correct. But fortunately we’ve not been left without help on the path of holiness. Apart from Packers own book, here are a few more faithful works, listed from older to recent, that I believe are good resources for every Christian.

J.C. Ryle, Holiness. This maybe the classic work on the subject and even Ryle’s greatest contribution to the library of faithful Christian teaching. Fortunately, it’s old enough that it can be read online. And theres also a recent edition with a nice biographical sketch of Ryle by J.I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle. It’s hard to imagine Christians progressing much in holiness without reading Ryle on holiness.

Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness. What can you say about Jerry Bridges? Reading him always feels like sitting down with your favorite grandfather. You know you’re going to hear it straight, but that it’s going to be loving and easy to grasp as well. In every work, Bridges is faithful and clear, no less so in this book. Whenever I find a used copy of this book, I always buy it to give away.

Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness. DeYoung has really given us a wonderful recent work that’s particularly geared to our American evangelicalism, today. It’s a great reminder that along with reviving Gospel centered Christianity and the doctrines of grace, we must focus efforts on the necessary result of the Gospel, personal holiness. (This was also the topic of his address at T4G 2012, Spirit-Powered, Gospel-Driven, Faith-Fueled Effort)

Whenever I get a new appliance or product, I tend to skip the booklet in 5 languages and go right to the “Quick Start Guide.” All of the above works are worth the investment of your funds and your time to read. But if there’s a “quick start” guide to personal holiness, it might be Joel Beeke’s concise but helpful booklet, Holiness. Maybe start with it and work your way up the other books.

Whether we read all, one, or none of these helpful books, let’s not let the general neglect of personal holiness in our day be an excuse to neglect holiness in our lives. The exhortation of Hebrews 12:14 still addresses us:

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Learn Much of Your Heart, But More of Jesus

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived… And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9, 11).

Of all the written treasures that remain of Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s ministry, his letters have to be among the most valuable. In September of 1840, M’Cheyne gave a reply to George Shaw, who had written asking for advice on how to study biblical prophesy. (M’Cheyne was a great champion of premillennialism, as well as ministry to Jews – even risking a dangerous journey to Israel to establish a mission there).

After offering advice on studying prophetic texts, M’Cheyne characteristically set before Mr. Shaw two further topics of study – related to his own growth in holiness.

First, the great depravity of his own heart:

Learn much of your own heart; and when you have learned all you can, remember you have seen but a few yards into a pit that is unfathomable. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jer. 17:9.

Secondly, and with even more diligence, the glories of his Savior, Jesus Christ:

Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms.

… Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him. Let the Holy Spirit fill every chamber of your heart; and so there will be no room for folly, or the world, or Satan, or the flesh.

-“To Mr. George Shaw, Belfast,” in Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (1894), p. 252.

Read the entire letter.

That is mature counsel for growing in Christian faith and obedience. We can never underestimate the wickedness of our hearts – it is beyond what we could fathom in a lifetime. But neither can we overestimate the greatness of Christ, He is beyond what we could fathom in an eternity of worship!

Every Christian who is so disciplined to studiously consider the Lord Jesus cannot but grow in contentment with His loveliness and love for us, in unceasing worship and prayer, and in obedience – when your heart is full of Christ, there is far less room for sin and what does remain will be treated as a hated and unwanted intruder.

With every look at yourself, take ten looks to Christ.


Previous posts related to Robert Murray M’Cheyne:

Book Note: A Neglected Grace

Our faith and practice are obviously intertwined. We will not do what we do not believe. But there’s another relationship between the two, as well. We’ll be tempted to disbelieve what we do not know how to do. That may be the greatest stumbling block to affirming the biblical practice of family worship – many families simply do not know what to do or where to begin.

Several helpful books and and booklets have appeared in recent years to address this deficiency, but I’m not sure that I’ve read one that’s as clear, compelling, convicting, and downright practical as A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home by Jason Helopoulos.

Family worship is a challenging topic because because it must be approached with the right blend of theology and practice. Helopoulos describes how he approached it:

My great challenge in writing this book was to do so in a way that would show the benefits of family worship – how important and beneficial it is for the Christian family – and yet would do so in a way that would not lead struggling husbands, fathers, and mothers to be weighed down by guilt.

Thankfully, he has succeeded in this goal. A Neglected Grace clearly explains from Scripture why family worship proceeds from God’s grace and how it extends it to the family. This book also outlines how real families, who yet struggle with sin, spiritual immaturity, and the pressures of life, can faithfully practice it. It’s brief without cutting corners on explanation. Convicting without being onerous in its burden. Exceedingly practical without being overly prescriptive. A Neglected Grace would benefit the most experienced family to those who have yet to even try family worship.

In chapter 1, Helopolous gives a helpful and concise biblical theology of worship, reviewing its three expressions in private, corporate, and family worship. In chapter 2, he explains from Scripture why family worship is important. I appreciated how he described the husband and father’s role as a “responsibility,” rather than using the broader term, “leadership”:

Paul is speaking about the responsibility that a head of the home has to those within it. This man’s position is not one of indulgence, but of provision. His responsibility is great.

Chapter 3 reviews other benefits of family worship, which I found especially convicting and motivating. Not only does it “center the home,” but encourages “our children in Christ,” “Christian character,” “peace in the home,” and “equips our children for corporate worship.” His explanation of how family worship “provides systematic discipleship” was a good point, especially with our tendency to react to crises, rather than develop character over the long haul:

We are often so busy concerning ourselves with quick fixes that we ignore the benefits received by hearing the whole counsel of God in our homes over time. Daily family worship will provide a strong foundation that is built upon hearing the Word daily, praying daily, and giving thanks daily. It takes time to build a strong house.

Chapters 4-5 give a simple schematic for what to do and how to lead times of family worship. And chapter 6 was incredibly insightful in reminding us how family worship can be abused and how to avoid doing so. Chapter 7 has a lot of practical tips, like meeting at the same time and place to help your kids learn the routine, as well as keeping it appropriately brief. Chapter 8 gives helpful tips to single parents or parents of unbelieving spouses. And chapter 9 is a final encouragement to “Just do it,” with several testimonials from differing families about how family worship goes (and sometimes doesn’t!) in their homes. Four appendices with sample structures for family worship, as well as resources in singing, Scripture reading, and catechizing round out the book nicely.

With A Neglected Grace, every Christian family will find an accessible toolkit for family worship.If we had the budget, I’d buy a copy for every household in our congregation. Undoubtedly, this book will become my “go to” resource for encouraging our families to practice and persevere in family worship.


I received a free copy of A Neglected Grace from Christian Focus for the purpose of this review. I was not required to write a positive review, these opinions are my own.

The Foolishness of Biblically-Regulated Worship

On occasion, the thought still comes to me, This feels silly. That is, the simple acts of corporate worship. We gather the congregation together, somebody gets up and reads a portion of the Bible, then we pray and sing. After that, someone speaks from another part of the Bible for an extended period of time, which is followed with more prayer and singing. And this is what exalts our holy and Triune God? This is stepping into the presence of heaven in spiritual worship? Sometimes it can feel like little more than a corporate delusion of grandeur.

So I completely understand the appeal of a little mood-lighting, perhaps even with candles, as well as music that’s more impressive in its movements and performance. Maybe even architecture that’s grandiose and dramatic pictures to adorn our walls or display on the overhead. I even understand why Christians suggest inserting poignant movie clips or poetry readings or dramatic skits in a service of worship. Wouldn’t adding these elements engage us more and help us feel more like what we’re doing is important, even transcendent?

Christians add foreign elements to worship, because just reading, speaking, and singing from God’s Word feels foolish. But, of course, ensuring that it does is really the point.

Worshiping the God Who Is

If our worship is true, it’ll be consistent with who God is and how sinners may come into His holy presence. In other words, it’ll be consistent with what God has revealed and commanded in the Scripture. To Israel, for example, the Lord commanded that all incense be offered from the smoldering coals of the prior sacrifice (cf. Exod 30:9; Lev 16:12). For no sinner can commune with the holy God in prayer outside of a prior atonement for their sin. The Lord confirmed this with severity by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, who effectively denied who God was as holy and how they were to approach Him as sinners by bringing incense “which He had not commanded” (Lev 9:24-10:2).

To the Church, the Lord has commanded our worship to exclusively consist of the reading, praying, preaching, singing, and showing (in baptism and the Lords Supper) of His Word. For God is an invisible Spirit who creates light and life simply by speaking (2 Cor 4:6). And sinful men come to Him by faith in Jesus Christ alone, faith that is created and matured simply by hearing (e.g., Rom 10:17). So God has commanded that we exclusively worship Him by speaking and hearing His Word – that’s who He is and how we come to Him.

Worshiping the Way God Commands

Since the Reformation, Christians have called this biblical conviction the regulative principle. That is, God regulates our worship by the commands and examples of His Word. Most fundamentally, the regulative principle is about ensuring our worship preserves the folly of God’s power and wisdom in the Gospel (see 1 Cor 1:18-31).

John Calvin explained it like this:

For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.

– John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church

In our worship, God has designed that we exalt Him by seeking to “depend entirely on his sovereignty” and that we humble ourselves by confessing “all we are able to do is to go astray.” Biblically-regulated worship forces us to experience the wonder, even the mystery, of worshiping the God who confounds man’s wisdom and needs nothing from us (Acts 17:25). If we are to worship according to the Scripture, our pride must be slain and our boast must be raised to Him alone (1 Cor 1:28-31).

Worship for Our Good and God’s Glory

I’ve gathered with Christians in some impressive venues – with lights, dramatic presentations, moving film clips, and engaging musical performances. And truth be told, I did not leave without being excited or spiritually nourished. But these events were nourishing like a sugar high. I was excited for the moment, but dizzy and distracted a couple hours later. Despite all the stimulation of the senses, it was an experience easily forgot and whose point was hard to discern.

Then I’ve also worshiped in small rooms, with the simple but sincere reading and preaching of God’s Word, prayer, and clear corporate singing – where every voice was heard. Nothing about it was initially impressive. But I’ve been completely changed and unable to forget it. Because in those simple times, you couldn’t avoid God. Even years later, I’ve thought, “That must’ve been a small foretaste of what heaven will be like.” I know, I feel a little silly even writing that. But that is the point, isn’t it?

The simplicity of biblical worship feels foolish because we have to shame ourselves and believe that God is wiser (1 Cor 1:25) and that what is folly to the perishing is actually His power to us being saved (1 Cor 1:18). God must be sanctified and glorified by those who draw near to worship Him (Lev 10:3), so we must worship as He commanded. In biblical worship, without the hindrance or distraction of man-made elements, God is forcing us to actually believe and meet Himself.

For Further Study

If you’d like to consider the regulative principle a bit more, here’s a few places to begin:


  • In Regulative Like Jazz, Jonathan Leeman observes the fact that restricting worship in the Church actually offers more freedom to the Christian.

For book-length treatments, I’ve enjoyed:


  • Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship. Burroughs is one of my favorite Puritans and he’s definitely among the most readable. This is an extended reflection on Lev 10:1-3 that is convicting, instructive, and still relevant.

  • John Frame, “The Second Commandment: Regulating Worship” (pp. 464-86) in The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Frame’s perceptive distinctions have helpfully illuminated what the regulative principle pertains to and how to apply it.

  • “Part 1: The Bible and Worship” (pp. 17-101), in Give Praise to God. Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, and Edmund Clowney contribute helpful chapters on aspects of worship according to the Bible. Presbyterians maybe really wrong on baptism, but not about everything!

  • Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, “Understanding the Regulative Principle” and “Applying the Regulative Principle” (pp. 77-88), in The Deliberate Church. Simple, biblical, and practical, the same reasons why I’m grateful for 9marks.

Why I Write Public Prayers, Part 2

We’ve all experienced it. Someone is leading in prayer, during corporate worship or a prayer meeting, and they’re meandering all over the place. Moving without evident rationale from this request to that, while interspersing “uh’s” and tap-dancing on blasphemy by repeatedly inserting God’s name as a place-keeper. You’re hearing plenty of phrases that you’re not sure are biblical and details that you’re not sure are necessary – I mean, doesn’t the Lord know what hospital she’s at, do we really have to remind Him of the address? Then come the personal items – “Please help me…” or “Lord, I confess…” – that make you feel a bit awkward, like you’re eaves-dropping on their private prayer time. Before long, you’re not praying at all, except to ask that your brother would find the “Amen” sooner than later.

Though they often get confused, there is a difference between leading people in prayer and just praying before people. The unique part of public prayer is that others have to actually be able to pray along with you. And this uniqueness explains the other two reasons why I write-out my public prayers. In part 1, I described the two spiritual realities that lead me to write my prayers – the work of the Holy Spirit in preparing the prayer and the prayers of the Bible which God gave us to actually pray.

These last two reasons why I write public prayers, owe to the unique responsibility of leading other Christians in prayer.

3. I write public prayers to help keep the prayer Christian.

“God, we just thank You for this opportunity. In Your Name, Amen.” To which God did we just pray? What’s opportunity has He’s given? And in whose name did we pray? A good rule of thumb is that if a Jew or Muslim could’ve prayed it, we probably didn’t pray like a Christian to the Triune God. By preparing and writing-out his prayer, the one leading can help the church pray like Christians.

Christians pray by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Son, addressing their Father in heaven (Eph 2:18). Take one of Paul’s prayers, for example:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Eph 3:14-17)

If someone leads in a generic “Dear God” prayer, is it biblical or Christian? And will people know the One to whom we’re praying and how it is that we can address Him at all? Will any non-Christians who’re listening-in feel appropriately excluded, understanding that since they’re outside of Christ they cannot pray to this God? By preparing to address our Triune God, I’m better able to lead others to pray sincerely Christian prayers.

As I lead the congregation in prayer, I also have to consider the biblical principle that “all things be done for edification” (1 Cor 14:26). In other words, will they understand what we’re praying and should they be comfortable praying with me? This means that I must be sure that what I lead the congregation to adore of God, what we thank Him for, what we confess, as well as what we ask of Him, is actually consistent with who He’s revealed Himself to be in the Bible. Usually that requires exploring God’s own prayer book, the Bible, beforehand so I can lead Christians in prayers they can pray with a good conscience.

This includes the general topics of our requests, as well. In our congregation, we try focus our intercessions on members of our congregation (1 Thess. 5:17), other local churches (Eph 6:18), governmental authorities (I Tim. 2:1-2), missionaries (Col. 4:3-4), persecuted Christians (Heb. 13:3), along with people-groups unreached by the Gospel (Luke 24:46-47).

In this vein, I try to keep in mind that everything that’s done in public worship, even what I pray, is instructive. Jon Payne has remarked, “through hearing the pastoral prayer Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, Christians are instructed how to pray. Indeed, the pastoral prayer fosters similar prayers among the congregation” (In the Splendor of Holiness). I need to ask whether I’m praying something that should be repeated in the family worship or private devotions of our members? By preparing a prayer with an open Bible, I feel freer to lead others and even to instruct them how they should pray. (On a personal note, I’ve found that the more I prepare to pray, the less I need to prepare. Studying the Bible to write a prayer for others has taught me how to pray more than any other single exercise ever has).

Finally, preparing to pray helps keep the prayer from turning into a public “quiet time.” To be specific, public prayers shouldn’t contain personal pronouns (“I” or “me”) because we’re leading people in prayer, not praying in front of them. This principle is easier to violate when you’re winging it, than when you’ve prepared to lead others in prayer.

4. I write public prayers to help keep Christians praying.

When a prayer has been prepared, it tends to be more focused, clear, easier to follow, not to mention appropriately brief. If the Lord’s Prayer teaches us anything, it’s that brevity in prayer can be a virtue (Matt 6:7-13; cf. Eccl 5:2). And I’d guess that all Christians can attest to finding it difficult to follow meandering and unnecessarily lengthy prayers. In other words, preparing to pray simply helps other Christians stay focused in prayer. Again, Jon Payne has offered wise counsel on this point:

… the pastoral prayer should be prepared in advance. It should be an element in the worship service that God’s people are looking forward to, not dreading! To be sure, some, due to spiritual coldness, will be averse to the pastoral prayer no matter how it’s done; nevertheless, a rambling, unprepared minister should not be the cause for that aversion.

It’s refreshing and invigorating to be lead in a clear and biblical prayer. In equal measure, it’s quite discouraging and disheartening when prayers are overly-long and hard to follow. Writing-out a prayer is the easiest way to accomplish the former and avoid the latter.


I wouldn’t pretend that these posts (see part 1) cover all the reasons why public prayers should be written-out – nor answer every objection! But these four reasons are why I typically lead in prayer with a piece of paper in-hand. It’s important not to forget what constitutes a sincere prayer. Praying something you wrote beforehand is no less sincere than “making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19) by singing hymns from a hymnal written (often long) beforehand. What makes a prayer sincere is whether it’s prayed in faith (e.g., Jas 1:6), not whether it’s spontaneous.

Why I Write Public Prayers, Part 1

John Smyth, one of, if not the original Baptist, was so concerned with the spirituality of corporate worship, that he actually argued that a translation of the Bible should be prohibited. He reasoned that since only the original Hebrew and Greek were inspired and translations were the work of men, obviously subject to imperfections, they would corrupt the purity of Christian worship. In short, “man-made” Scripture should be excluded from the “spiritual” act of worship (History of the English Baptists, p. 36)

I share that vignette only to illustrate that silly ideas about what makes Christian worship “spiritual” have been around for quite a long time. For example, Christians suggest that drafting or writing prayers for corporate worship is “man made” and hinders the spirituality of corporate worship. Though it does not rise to the level of Smyth’s eccentricity (who still got baptism right!), I do think it completely misunderstands the nature of spirituality in corporate worship.

There at least four reasons why I write-out my prayers for public worship – the first two deal with spiritual realities in prayer and the latter two concern the nature of public prayer in particular. I’ll only address the first two in this post.

1. I write public prayers because I believe in the Holy Spirit.

I understand that may sound counter-intuitive to some, but I prepare my prayers with the conviction that the Spirit works as I prepare. I’m not sure from where it originated, but many Christians have the idea that God’s Spirit exclusively works in moments of spontaneity. Maybe passages like Luke 12:11 and 21:14-15 have been misconstrued, applying the Lord Jesus’ promise that His disciples would receive answers at the moment of persecution, their opportunity to “bear witness” (Luke 21:13), too broadly. Suffice to say, the Lord was not outlining the ordinary means of the Spirit’s work in a congregation’s public worship.

I think we can understand the folly of equating spontaneity with spirituality if we just think about what actually happens to us in spontaneous moments. What do we usually do or say when we’re put on the spot? Typically, whatever comes easy. In those moments, we rely on what we already know or what we have memorized. Truth be told, it is in spontaneous moments, especially before others, in which I’m most tempted to offer rote and meaningless prayers, a knee-jerk recitation of a familiar prayer. In unplanned moments, I’m captive to whatever I already know and to pray prayers that D.A. Carson has described as “largely formulaic, liberally larded with cliches that remind us, uncomfortably, of the hypocrites Jesus excoriated” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, p. 17).

I seek to prayerfully prepare my prayers because I do not want to be captive to formulas or cliches or just whatever comes to my mind. I do not want to be driven by the fear of praying adequately before others as I enter the pulpit. I do not want to pray motivated by that last unsettling comment or criticism I received right before the service began. What I do want to do is actuallypray. So beforehand I pray that the Spirit of God might teach me through His Word and guide me in how to intercede on behalf of this congregation, bringing their souls to the throne of grace.

Unfortunately, my sin and stupidity is not excluded from the moment I ascend the platform. But fortunately by God’s grace, the work of God’s Spirit in me is not limited to the moment I am in the pulpit before the congregation. You could say that I write my prayers because I do believe in the powerful working of God’s Spirit at all times and because I don’t believe in my own.

2. I write public prayers because God wrote a prayer book.

The Bible was not only give to us to reveal God’s Word to man, but also to give us words to bring to God. Just as we teach our children how to speak and address us properly, God has taught us how to speak to Him in the Scripture. You observe this with Jesus’ instruction on prayer to His disciples. After He rebuked empty hypocritical praying(Matt 6:7-8), the Lord did not teach that the opposite of it was spontaneity! Instead, Jesus gave His disciples a script, instructing them to pray “like this” (Matt 6:9-13).

However, perhaps the “definitive prayer book” that the Lord gave us is the Psalter, the book of Psalms. This inspired hymnal has been preserved by the Spirit for God’s people to sing (Eph 5:19) as well as to pray:

But wouldnt it be nice to have the definitive book on prayer, one that included both forms of prayers and words to pray, one that could be used in any season of life?

Actually, that sounds like the Psalms.

The Psalms are the prayer and praise book of the Bible. When we read a psalm, we are listening in on an inspired conversation between God and his people. The conversation takes place sometimes in moments of pure delight and other times in extended seasons of crushing despair. Sometimes it is a private conversation: Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing! (Psalm 6:2). At other times we hear the raised voices of a glad throng of worshipers: Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! (Psalm 95:1). In a sense, the Psalms are Gods most comprehensive answer to the request, Teach us to pray.

(God Has a Prayer Book. Are You Using It?)

If writing-down prayers is not contrary to God’s understanding of spirituality, then I would suggest that godly people shouldn’t have any hang-ups about it. And as we go to pray, we should probably think about the words that God Himself gave us to pray to Him – and perhaps even write them down, so that we don’t forget them when we pray with others in public.

In another post, I’ll cover the latter two reasons to explain why I think public prayer uniquely (though not exclusively) lends itself to preparing and drafting of prayers.

When Your Prayers Are Discouraging

When you read John Owen, Sinclair Ferguson has said, be ready for the knife. That is certainly true with The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded, which has nearly cut me in half (Banner has also published a paperback edition of this great work).

But Owen applies salve for the soul as well as he wields the sword.

Some, it may be, will say that if it be so, they, for their parts are cut off. They have no experience of any such spiritual rest and complacency in God, in or after their prayers. At the best they begin them with tears and end them with sorrow; and sometimes they know not what is become of them, but fear that God is not glorified by them, nor their own souls bettered.

What do we do when our prayers seem void of true rest and contentment in the Lord? Owen’s answer is fourfold:

I answer,

1. There is great spiritual refreshment in that godly sorrow which is at work in our prayers. Where the Holy Ghost is a Spirit of grace and supplication, he causeth mourning, and in that mourning there is joy.

2. The secret encouragement which we receive by praying, to adhere unto God constantly in prayer, ariseth from some experience of this holy complacency, though we have not a sensible evidence of it.

3. Perhaps some of them who make this complaint, if they would awaken and consider, will find that their souls, at least sometimes, have been thus refreshed, and brought unto a holy rest in God.

4. Then shall you know the Lord, if you follow on to know him. Abide in seeking after this complacency and satisfaction in God, and you shall attain it.

-The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded

In spiritual discouragement, remember that sorrow itself can be a sign of spiritual growth, persistence in prayer does evidence your rest in the Lord, even if it doesn’t always “feel” like it, and if you keep seeking the Lord, you will find Him.

Seek the Lord while He may be found… (Isa 55:6)

… he rewards those who seek him (Heb 11:6)

Disconnecting Our Doctrine

In part 2 of his interview with Tim Challies, Paul Washer identifies some concerns he has regarding younger Christians who’ve rediscovered the biblical doctrines of the Reformation – each of them involve a “disconnect” (my word) between those doctrines and their necessary application in faith and practice.

Three of Washer’s concerns, in particular, stood out to me.

#1 Embracing Reformation doctrines without letting go of unbiblical models of church life:

We must realize that much of what is wrong with current evangelical practices has to do with a departure from the biblical theology that was set forth in the Reformation. If we truly grasp these doctrines, especially Sola Scriptura, then it demands that we conform our organizational structures and methodologies of ministry to the Scriptures, not the other wayaround.

#2 Comprehending Reformed and Puritan theology without practicing its piety:

Their prayer closets were just as familiar to them as their libraries. They longed to be conformed to the image of Christ. They were by no means perfect men, but they painstakingly sought to conform every aspect of their lives to the dictates of Scripture. The transformation in their theology produced a transformation in their doxology and praxis.

#3 Attempting to appear contemporary, hip or cool:

This flirtatious relationship with culture is dangerous, and it makes it very difficult for the world to take the minister or his messageseriously.

Read the entire interview (& part 1).

I am grateful that Washer identified these three concerns. They are pressing in my own life and also seem to me quite conspicuous in our generation. There are many “disconnects” between our biblical doctrine and our church life, our devotional life, and our relationship with the world. We may love the doctrines of the Reformation, but do we love what they must mean?

You cannot marry Sola Deo Gloria and the man-centered consumerism assumed by most within the average evangelical church. It’s impossible to reflect on the theology Calvin’s Institutes in the morning and then peruse Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Churchin the afternoon, while assuming yourself to be consistent. Many try this, but there’s no middle ground between the two – the foundational presuppositions of modern evangelical (“it’s all about keeping you happy and entertained”) pragmatism are at odds with the doctrines of God’s grace.

Neither can one say with integrity that they love the theology of God’s sovereignty and glory in Romans 9 without being led to the doxology of Romans 11:33-36. The Reformation was more than an ideology for intellectuals, it was a pastoral movement for Christian piety.

And there’s a reason that the Reformers and Puritans were despised, forsaken, and rejected by men – just like the Apostle Paul (2 Cor 4:8-10) – because the doctrines of grace assault man’s pride (1 Cor 1:26-31). If the world loves your hip “relevance” (see Luke 6:26; John 15:19; 1 John 2:15; Jas 4:1; et al), it may be because you have not consistently applied these doctrines to their humbling end – “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:30).

Do not resist believing doctrines of grace. And also do not resist applying their necessary and biblical implications to our churches, our lives and our relationships.

If you’re interested in more from Paul Washer on how to connect our doctrine to our practice, I would recommend reading his booklet, Ten Indictments Against the Modern Church. (There’s also a free Kindle version).

But let me warn you that it is well-titled. And it is indicting!