Tag Archives: the Lord’s Prayer

Two Relationship Cripplers

As a pastor one of my chief goals is to see the believers entrusted to my care grow in having a vital relationship with God.  I want to see the people in my church mature in a relationship of fellowship with him.  Growing up in the church or being discipled in the church, there are habits we can pick up that can stand in the way of this growth.  Today I want to look at two “relationship cripplers.”  Both of these have to do with one of the chief ways in which our relationship with God comes to expression on a daily basis:  prayer.  Every healthy relationship includes communication, and prayer is the biblically-ordained means by which we communicate in our relationship with God.

The language we use in prayer reflects how we think about our relationship with God and, to some degree, how that relationship functions.  Specifically, I’m thinking about how we address God in our prayers.  The words we use to address anyone in any relationship often reflect how that relationship works.  For example, husbands and wives often use terms of endearment and this reflects their love for one another.  Now, when it comes to God and how we address him, there are two possible “relationship cripplers.”  There are more, but let’s focus on these two.

Never “Father”

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer as a model.  While there are other many other prayers in Scripture we can learn from, the Christian church has always given pride of place to the prayer which Christ himself taught us.  In that prayer, our Lord taught us to address God like this:  “Our Father in heaven…”  So Jesus taught us that we can pray to God as “our Father.”  Believers are adopted children of God and so they have the inestimable privilege of addressing God as their Father.

Yet when you listen to many Reformed believers pray, they don’t take advantage of this privilege!  Instead, they often default to the more Old Testament way of speaking to God as “Lord.”  Now, there is certainly nothing unbiblical or sinful about addressing God as “Lord.”  Yet Christ taught us “our Father,” and why?  Because he wanted us, when we pray, to remind ourselves that our relationship with God is familial:  he is our Father, we are his children.  When we never use the language taught to us by Jesus, we run the risk of crippling (at least in our experience) the reality of our relationship with God.

“Lord” emphasizes God’s transcendence, his highly exalted majesty.  “Lord” has the tendency to focus on God’s holiness and his distance from sinners.

“Father” emphasizes God’s immanence, his gracious presence and nearness.  “Father” has the tendency to focus on God’s compassion and his love for sinners.

With good reason, then, Jesus taught us to pray “our Father.”  When we do that, we also express something of God’s transcendence (a father is always greater than his children), but when we combine it with “in heaven,” then that emphasis is also explicitly present.  In that you can see the brilliant wisdom of the Lord’s Prayer.  So, think of God as your Father, and use the privilege of addressing him as such.  It will enrich your relationship with him.

Only “Father”

The first crippler is a matter of emphasis; our second is an outright erroneous interpretation of Scripture.  Again, it has to do with the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven.”  There have been some who have argued that when Jesus said to pray “Our Father,” he was teaching us to pray only to the first person of the Trinity.  So, on this interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, Christians are not supposed to pray to Christ or to the Holy Spirit.  We are only to pray to God the Father.  Ironically, often the same people who hold this view are the ones who chronically pray “Lord,” instead of “Father.”

I have discussed this at length before.  Let me just summarize three of the strongest counter-arguments:

  1.  In the original context in which the Lord’s Prayer was taught, Jesus was speaking to Jews who had, at best, a shadowy understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.  No original audience member would have concluded that Jesus was speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  Instead, he was using language from the Old Testament that had been used to speak of Yahweh (the one God) as Father (Deut. 32:6, Ex. 4:22-23, Is. 63:16, etc.).
  2. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see several examples of prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ with no indication this is unlawful (Acts 7:59, 2 Cor. 12:8, etc.).
  3. In Ephesians 5, the relationship between Christ and his church is said to be like a marriage relationship.  A relationship in which one party is forbidden to communicate with the other is absurd.

Further, it’s clear in church history that such an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is a quirky outlier.

When we use the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” we are addressing the one Triune God as our heavenly Father — “Yahweh,” if you will.  But this in no way precludes the freedom and privilege Scripture gives us to also speak to the individual persons of the Trinity.  If we have a real relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we ought to be communicating with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we don’t, we run the risk of crippling our relationship by reducing one or more of the persons of the Trinity to an abstract theological concept.  Ask yourself:  why do so many believers refer to the Holy Spirit as “it,” rather than “he”?

There are moments in Christian devotion when it is appropriate to pray to Jesus in particular.  For example, if your personal devotions take you through the gospels where you see the person and work of Christ explicitly on display, it makes good sense to pray to him and praise him for how you see him revealed there.  It makes sense to vocalize your love for Jesus and your praise to him.

There are moments when it’s also appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit.  He is the one who dwells in us and who gives us the strength to hate sin and fight sin.  We ought to plead with him to do his work, to sanctify us, and to help us grow in becoming more like Christ.

A robust Trinitarian spirituality is crippled when we erroneously believe that the line of communication is only open to one person of the Trinity.  This is not biblical and this is not helpful.

So, dear reader, do make use of the privileges Scripture gives us in regard to our relationship with God.  When it comes to prayer, you have the privilege of addressing the one Triune God as your Father.  You also have the privilege and freedom to address each individual person of the Trinity.  When you understand and use both of these privileges, you’ll find that your relationship with God will grow stronger and more meaningful.


Pray with an Eye on our Father and His Love (Lord’s Day 46 Sermon Excerpt)

This is an excerpt from last Sunday afternoon’s sermon at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church.  The catechism lesson was Lord’s Day 46 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

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Having God as our Father is a basic Christian teaching.  We have a Father in heaven, because we have a Saviour who came to earth.  We have a Saviour who reconciled us to our Maker, and because of that reconciliation, we are in a relationship of fellowship with God.  That relationship is described in terms of a Father and his children.  God is our Father, and we are his children.  It’s a beautiful gospel reality.

Our Master teaches us to open our prayers with an eye on God as “our Father.”  Right away, we need to be clear about what that means.  There are those who say that Jesus is referring to the Father as one of the persons of the Trinity.  They say that we are then to pray only to the Father as that person of the Trinity.  The conclusion is that Jesus is teaching us only to pray to the Father, as distinct from the Son and from the Holy Spirit.  However, brothers and sisters, there is another way of looking at this, and it is a better way.

When Jesus said, “Our Father in heaven,” he was not introducing something new to Jewish ears.  In the Old Testament, the word “Father” is found several times in reference to God.  When it’s found in the Old Testament, the word “Father” refers to Yahweh.  The word refers to God in himself, not as the person of the Father distinguished from the Son and the Holy Spirit.  A good example of this is in Malachi 1:6.  God is rebuking his people there.  He says, “A son honours his father, and a servant his master.  If then I am a father, where is my honour?…”  God is a Father to his people.  There, the word “Father” is being used in connection with Yahweh’s relationship to his people, not to the relationship between the persons of the Trinity.  This is the pattern of the Old Testament usage of the word “Father” for God.  It refers to Yahweh.

Our Master continues in that pattern with the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus is not speaking about God the Father as distinct from the Spirit and the Son, but God our Father as distinct from the creatures who call upon him.  This is not a reference to the Trinity, but to God as One.  Therefore, we cannot conclude that our Master is teaching us to address one particular person of the Trinity to the exclusion of the others.  That’s not in the picture here at all.  This is confirmed by other prayers that we see in the New Testament.  For example, when Stephen was being martyred in Acts 7, he prayed to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Paul uses the prayer, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus” and other examples could be added.  We have the freedom to do likewise.

With the opening of the Lord’s Prayer, Christ is simply teaching us to look up to Yahweh as our Father and call upon him with an attitude of childlike reverence and trust.  We need to trust that our God loves us and will take care of our needs.  This is laid out beautifully in Matthew 7, further in the Sermon on the Mount.  There too, Christ is speaking about our Father in heaven, Yahweh, as he relates to his children.  Jesus makes a comparison between earthly fathers and our heavenly Father.  Earthly fathers will normally take care of their children and provide for their needs.  A child who asks for bread is not going to get a stone from his dad.  Or even worse, if a child asks for some fish, his father is not going to throw him a cobra.  People are evil and yet they still give good things to their children.  But then there is God.  He is perfectly good.  So, what would make you think that he wouldn’t give good gifts to those who ask him?  So, the conclusion:  ask your Father in heaven for good things, and because he loves you, expect that he will follow through and provide you with what you need.  We have a Father in heaven who loves us and it’s to him that we need to pray expectantly.

But that’s a lot easier to say than to do, isn’t it?  Trials and difficulties can easily muddy this teaching in our minds and even make it sound glib.  For example, one of the hardest things in life is to lose a baby.  My wife and I have gone through that and many of you have too.  You have hopes and dreams for that baby in your womb and then the Lord decides otherwise.  It’s hard to take.  Glenda Mathes is a sister from the United Reformed Churches and she has a helpful book on early infant loss.  It’s called Little One Lost.  I highly recommend it.  In the book she tells the story of Brad and Stephanie.  They were pregnant with their second child.  Caleb would be only fifteen months younger than their firstborn Joshua.  They had dreams of the two boys playing together and they planned to homeschool both.  Stephanie had an induction scheduled, and the day before they did an ultrasound and everything looked normal.  The next day they came in for the induction and there was no heartbeat.  They were devastated.  Later a medical examination revealed that there was no discernible reason why Caleb died before he was born.  Brad and Stephanie struggled with that.  “We had prayed for a healthy baby,” they said, “why had God chosen to answer us with a dead baby?”

That’s a tough question to answer.  In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him.”  The Catechism paraphrases that in QA 120.  Isn’t a healthy baby a good thing?  Why would God withhold that from Brad and Stephanie or from any of us who have gone through this?  It’s easy to understand why tragedies like that would make you question our Father’s love.  Stephanie did that.  She says that, after losing Caleb, she questioned God and found prayer and Bible reading to be extremely hard.

Yet, in time, Brad and Stephanie came to peace with what God had done with Caleb.  Through this tragedy, they came to closer fellowship with the believers in their church.  Their brothers and sisters surrounded them with love and encouragement.  They came to see that their little baby boy was spared the heartbreak of sin.  Because of the covenant God has with believers and their children, Caleb is enjoying perfect blessedness.  Stephanie says, “There is peace in knowing that Caleb is safe, that God is taking infinitely better care of him than I ever could.  Though we never knew our baby, it is assuring to know that he was and is known by God.”  In time, this couple came to see that what happened was not inconsistent with what we confess about the love of our heavenly Father.  He does know what is best for each of us at any given moment.  It’s sometimes difficult to acknowledge that, but yet this is what the Scriptures teach.

One of the keywords in QA 120 is “childlike.”  When it comes to prayer, we have to be like children, because we are, well….like children.  We are not the equal of our Father, nor are we anywhere close.  We don’t have the understanding of our Father.  We don’t have the comprehensive knowledge of our Father.  We don’t have his wisdom.  We are finite, he is infinite in every way.  Really, we are like little children before him.  He has the full picture and full plan of our lives in his mind.  He knows everything from its beginning to its end, and we know very, very little. We have ideas about what is good for us, but they don’t always line up with what he knows for certain to be good for us.

Loved ones, we need to trust what Scripture says about our Father.  We need to believe his promise that because of Christ, he loves us and will provide what we truly need.  If we struggle with that, we can and should pray about that too.  We can pray and be honest with God and say, “I’m having a hard time believing that you love me because of all these trials – please help me to trust your Word.”  Even that would be an expression of childlike reverence and trust, the kind of thing taught to us by our Master.


God our Father and the Address of our Prayers

For this coming Sunday afternoon’s sermon, the Catechism lesson will be Lord’s Day 46.  This deals with the beginning of our prayers, “Our Father in heaven.”  As part of my preparatory study, I was looking through some sermons of colleagues.  One of them was quite insistent that the words of the Lord’s Prayer mean that we must not direct our prayers to Jesus himself or to the Holy Spirit.  We must only pray to the Father, which is to say, the first person of the Trinity.  I have never been convinced by this and still remain unconvinced.  There are serious exegetical problems with that position and also a fundamental category error.

The category error is explained in some detail by Richard Muller in his excellent Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms.  Under the definition of “essentialiter,” Muller writes the following:

essentialiter:  essentially; Latin equivalent of ousiados as opposed to personaliter or hypostatikos; specifically, one way of predicating names of God.  Thus “Father” can be predicated of God either essentialiter or personaliter.  “Father,” predicated of God essentially, indicates the entirety of the Godhead or divine essence, which stands over against the finite order as Creator and Regenerator, i.e., “the one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).  In this sense, “Father” indicates, according to the scholastics, Father, Son, and Spirit, since the whole of the Triune Godhead is over all and through all and in all.  When “Father” is predicated personally of the Godhead, however, it refers to the First, Unbegotten Person of the Trinity, not in relation to creatures as such, but rather in relation to the Son and to the Spirit…  (106)

This is a crucially important distinction and losing sight of this results in theological imprecision and misguided prayer practices.

When Muller refers to “the scholastics” above, he is referring to Protestant scholastic theologians of the post-Reformation.  Among those would be Zacharias Ursinus.  Therefore, we should not be surprised to find Ursinus using this distinction in his commentary on Lord’s Day 46.  Let me quote the entire section and please note the objection to which Ursinus is responding:

Obj. 1.  We call upon the Father according to the command of Christ.  Therefore we are not to call upon the Son and the Holy Ghost.  Ans.  We deny the consequence which is here drawn; for it is no just conclusion which infers that certain attributes are withdrawn from the other persons of the Godhead, when they are attributed to one of the persons.  Again:  the name of the Father, as the name of God, when it is opposed to creatures, must be understood essentially [emphasis added here, WB]; and where it is used in connection with the other persons of the Godhead, it must be understood personally [emphasis added again].  The name Father must, therefore, here be understood essentially, the reasons of which are evident:  1. Because the name of Father is not here put in opposition to the persons of the Godhead, but in opposition to creatures by whom he is called upon.   It is in this way that Christ is called by the prophet Isaiah the everlasting Father (Is. 9:6).  2.  Because when one of the persons of the Godhead is named, the others are not excluded, when mention is made of their external operations or works.  3. We cannot think of God the Father, and draw near to him, except in his Son, our mediator.  The Son has also made us the sons of God by the Holy Spirit, who is for this reason called the Spirit of adoption.  4. Christ commands us to call upon him likewise, saying “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23).  5. Christ gives the Holy Ghost.  It is therefore, he himself from whom we are to ask the Holy Spirit.

The use of the distinction between essentialiter and personaliter could not be more clear than here!  The primary author of the Catechism asserts that, on the basis of the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, one cannot forbid Christians to pray to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit.  That prohibition cannot be justified on the basis of Scripture or our Confessions — and yet somehow it has embedded itself in some of our Reformed churches.  It would be interesting to research how that happened and trace its origins.  Was it imported from the Netherlands or did it somehow develop here in Canada?

See here for more argumentation in favour of prayer to our Lord Jesus and here for argumentation regarding praise and prayer to the Holy Spirit.


How to End Your Prayer (Lord’s Day 52)

Once again we’ve come to the end of the Lord’s Prayer and the end of the Catechism.  Next week it’s back to Lord’s Day 1.  But for this afternoon we want to consider prayer one last time, specifically the sixth petition and the conclusion of our prayers.  It’s important to begin our prayers properly, but it is equally important to finish our prayers properly.  Our Chief Prophet and Teacher gives us instruction about how to do that.  We’re going to see that we’re taught here by our Lord Jesus to prayerfully confess:

  1. Our weakness
  2. God’s sovereign might and majesty
  3. Our faith

The church father Augustine once said that the whole life of a Christian is temptation.  Day after day, temptations come our way.  They come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, sometimes even apparently custom-made for the individual being tempted.  The sixth petition addresses this reality.

To continue reading this sermon, please click here.


Prevailing Over Satan’s Temptations

This Sunday I’m preaching on Lord’s Day 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism and the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  As part of my preparatory study, I’ve been reading Thomas Watson’s The Lord’s Prayer.  Watson is my favourite Puritan — eminently readable and filled with Scripture-shaped wisdom and insights.  On the sixth petition, it’s no different.  He spends several pages discussing by what means we may prevail over Satan’s temptations.  Here’s my summary (Watson goes into detail with each one, so if you want to follow up, I’d encourage to pick it up and read it):

1)  Get into the communion of saints, avoid solitariness.
2)  Beware of melancholy.
3)  Study sobriety with respect to the world.
4)  Be always on guard, watch against Satan’s wiles and subtleties.
5)  Beware of idleness – the bird that sits still gets shot.
6)  Be accountable to a godly friend.
7)  Make use of the Word – it’s a two-edged sword: one for your lusts, one for Satan!
8)  Be careful of your own heart that it does not deceive you into sin.  Bernard:  everyone is Satan to himself.
9)  Flee the occasions of sin.
10) Make use of faith.
11)  Be much in prayer.
12)  Pursue humility.
13)  Do not enter into a dispute with Satan.  He’s had far too much practice and you have little.
14)  Put on Christian fortitude.
15)  Actively call in the help of others.
16)  Make use of all the encouragements we can.

From Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (Banner of Truth, 1993 reprint), 294-299.