Prayer and the “happy exchange”

martinlutherprayingformelanchthon
Martin Luther praying for the life of Philip Melanchthon, by Gustav König (1897)

How should we pray? Not in the sense of “what words should we use?”, but in the sense of: “In what frame of mind should we pray? With what expectations? And how can I pray with confidence that God will actually listen?”

Martin Luther addressed this question in his sermon for Rogate Sunday on 13 May 1520, a sermon that is quoted by Oswald Bayer in the concluding chapter of his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (see previous post).

This sermon “documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer,” Bayer writes, an understanding that is deeply trinitarian in nature. Luther identifies five characteristics of true prayer, saying: 

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]: otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

  1. The promise of God (promissio)

This is “the foundation on which the entire prayer relies,” declares Luther:

if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favourable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

  1. Dire need (necessitas)

True prayer requires that we state “the specifics of the dire straits or else the substance of what is desired”: which in turn requires “gathering one’s thoughts” to focus on “the godly promise”:

Based on this, [self-]selected little prayers, rosaries, and the like are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution.

Where does that leave a prayer such as the Jesus prayer, which I’ve written on before? Good question: but at the very least, Luther’s words are a warning that this type of spiritual discipline is no substitute for specific heartfelt prayer, a prayer that involves the conscious “gathering of one’s thoughts” to concentrate both on “the dire need that is identified” and on “the help that is expected” – that is, the “divine promise” (Bayer, p.352).

  1. Faith (fiducia)

In order to pray with confidence, we need the faith “by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises”. But prayer that is based on a confident trust in God’s goodness has a paradoxical element that Luther proceeds to tease out:

To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promised that he will give it. Thus, only trust can expect that the faithfulness of God is at work to ensure it will happen.

In other words: we pray, trusting that God’s goodness will provide for us even if we don’t – because God is so completely trustworthy. It is, in a sense, the assurance that our prayer is unnecessary (in the sense of our not needing to alert God to what we need or persuade him to give it to us) that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place.

As Bayer observes (p.352), this is the faith that can say “amen” in the sense that Luther expounds it in the Small Catechism, where to say “amen” means:

That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for he himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that he will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

  1. Earnestness (desideratio)

Prayer should not be half-hearted or “vacillating”, Luther continues. We should pray as those who “urgently desire” what we are praying for, in contrast to those who pray:

as if on an adventure, where whatever happens happens, as if one throws something at a pear to knock it out of a tree

To pray in such a casual, “taking a punt” way is “a mockery of God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised” – one that may “provoke God instead, with evil results.”

  1. In the name of Jesus

This is undoubtedly the most important requirement for prayer, that it “takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command […] and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things.”

It is praying in the name of Jesus that gives us confidence that we will be heard:

Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument.

But what about our sins? Don’t they get in the way of effective prayer? If anything, Luther concludes, it’s the opposite: Christ’s prayer in heaven for our sins gives us confidence that our own prayers will continue to be heard:

And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: What could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name.

All this is based on what Luther elsewhere refers to as the “happy exchange” that lies at the heart of the gospel, an exchange that he describes in a beautiful and delicately ironic statement in this sermon

Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange.

So our prayer is intimately connected with that “happy exchange”, an exchange which not only removes the barrier of sin between me and God, but also – to give me even greater confidence that I will be heard – gives me the positive holiness of Christ:

And both come to purity, connected together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life.

It is this exchange which also gives prayer its trinitarian character: “I come through him to the Father … at the same time [that] he is coming before the Father on my behalf” (Bayer, p.349), all this being enfolded in the work of the Holy Spirit, who “gives public witness to Christ’s own words in his testament” and “[frees] us from being under our own power” (Bayer, p.351).

So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

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