Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (2)

Image: Unsplash (CC0)

In my previous post, we looked at how Luther applies the principles of promise, necessity and faith to the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — where we exercise our faith in God’s promise to meet our dire need for the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, and protection from temptation and doubt. Now let’s turn to the second half of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread

What does this mean?
God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers; but we pray in this petition that he would lead us to know this, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What is meant by daily bread?
Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, property, fields, animals, money, goods, a believing spouse, believing children, believing servants, believing and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and so on.

Once again, we see how our prayer is not needed to persuade a reluctant God, but is founded on an unconditional promise: “God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers.”

As for the “dire need” that is addressed here: well, it amounts to pretty much every need we have in our everyday lives; “everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body,” ranging from the basics of food, drink and shelter, to the need for “good government,” “peace,” and so on.

Many expositions of the Lord’s Prayer would put matters such as social justice (“good government”) and peace under the first half of the prayer: the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of his will. However, there is something refreshing about Luther’s perspective here, particularly in a time where world events can otherwise lead us to despair. For those of us who feel that a President Trump or a vote for Brexit would be the opposite of “good government,” perhaps even (in our more despairing moments) the opposite of “peace,” it is healthy to be reminded that all these are matters of “daily bread,” not “the kingdom.”

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, or deny our prayers on account of them; for we are not worthy of any of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. Instead we pray that he would grant all our petitions by grace; for we sin greatly every day, and all we deserve is punishment. In the same way, for our part, we will sincerely forgive those who sin against us, and readily do good to them.

Luther’s exposition of this petition is the first not to include an explicit statement of promise — but then, the promise on which the forgiveness of our sins is based has already been set out in the first half of Luther’s exposition.

Indeed, what we find in this petition is a personal appropriation of the promises of the first three petitions: that the promise of forgiveness held out in the proclamation of the Word, which we receive by the faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit, would be ours; and that we would lead a “godly” life as a result, at the heart of which is our imitation of God in extending to others the same forgiveness and goodness that he has shown to us.

And lead us not into temptation

What does this mean?
God tempts no one. However, we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and that, though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.

Again, the promise: “God tempts no one.” But again, the dire need: “that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us.” And again, the faith we exercise as we pray, confident in God’s promise that “though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.”

But deliver us from evil

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would deliver us from every evil of body and soul, property and honour; and that in the end, when our last hour comes, he would grant us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to himself into heaven.

Again, the promise is implicit here, this final petition being based on everything that has gone before, and with our every dire need encompassed in that single word “evil”. The need for salvation, for daily bread (in all its multiple aspects), for forgiveness, for preservation from temptation, and — finally — from the fear of death itself. In this final petition, our faith develops into hope as we look forward to “our last hour,” the promise of “a blessed end,” and the hope of being taken from “this vale of tears” to be with God forever. (Note that the Creed has already reminded us that our ultimate hope is not “going to heaven” but the resurrection of the dead.)


What does this mean?
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.”

The promise that has undergirded every word of our prayer has been the promise that “these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them”; a promise that addresses the direst need of all when we pray, our need to be heard, for us not to be talking into the air. So we make our final affirmation of faith in that promise by saying “Amen”: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”



Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (1)

Photo: Greying_Geezer (CC BY-NC-SA)

In my previous post, we saw how Luther describes the five ingredients for “valid” prayer:

  • the promise of God;
  • our dire need;
  • faith;
  • earnestness;
  • praying in and through Christ.

It’s worth looking at how the first three of these, in particular, undergird Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism (the final two are more pervasive in nature). Let’s look at each petition, and see how Luther’s exposition can be related to God’s promise, our need, and our faith in the promise.

Hallowed by thy name 

What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.

How is God’s name kept holy?
When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead holy lives in accordance with it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches and lives other than as taught in God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Preserve us from this, Heavenly Father!

This establishes the pattern found throughout Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. First, a clear declaration of God’s promise: “God’s name is certainly holy in itself.” As we saw in my previous post, it’s the assurance that our prayer is, in a sense, unnecessary — because God’s love and goodness towards is so unshakeable in any event — that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place: “that it may become holy among us also.”

So there is the dire need we face: the need for God’s name to “become holy among us also,” a need that is met “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity.” Our greatest need, Jesus tells us in teaching us this prayer, is the Word of God; and not just the Word of God in the abstract, but the Word of God “taught”, the Word proclaimed in the life and ministry of the church. And to pray this petition is itself an act of faith in God’s promise that this Word will be taught and proclaimed among us.

Thy kingdom come 

What does this mean?
The kingdom of God comes by itself even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.

How does God’s kingdom come?
When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.

It’s one thing for us to hear the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, taught and proclaimed, but to receive the benefits of that gospel we need faith — and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is in the coming of the Holy Spirit, working faith in us, that the kingdom of God comes to us, Luther tells us; echoing here, perhaps, Christ’s words in Luke 11:13.

In telling us to pray this petition, Christ assures us of the promise that “the kingdom of God comes by itself”. He also shows us our “dire need” for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us. After all, as Luther has told us in his exposition of the Creed, to confess my faith in the Holy Spirit is to admit that I am incapable of such faith under my own steam:

I believe that I cannot … believe.

So we pray, confident in the promise that as we hear Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit is working in us the faith that enables us to pray at all.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

What does this mean?
The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

How is God’s will done?
When God breaks and hinders every evil plan and intention which do not want to let us hallow the name of God or to let his kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; and when he strengthens and keeps us steadfast in his Word and in faith until our end. This is his gracious and good will.

Again, Luther starts with the unconditional promise that is implied by Christ’s instruction to us to pray this petition: “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.” But our dire need is “that it may be done among us also.”

Above all, our need is for protection from the opposition that the proclamation of the Word of God (first petition) and the Holy Spirit’s working faith in us (second petition) arouse: every “evil plan and intention” of “the devil, the world, and our flesh”; the temptation and doubts of Anfechtung, which undermine our ability to keep us “steadfast in his Word.” Once again, Christ’s instruction to pray this petition gives us the confidence to do so in faith, assured of the promise that “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.”

So we reach the halfway point in Luther’s exposition. In my next post, we’ll look at his explanations for the final four petitions, but in the meantime, let’s review where we’ve got to so far.

To be honest, in the past I have found Luther’s exposition of these petitions somewhat narrow and repetitive in scope. Other, more modern, expositions of the Lord’s Prayer cover a seemingly wider vision for these petitions, including a lot of material — social and political transformation, the needs of those around us, and so on — which (as we’ll see) Luther compresses into the single petition “give us this day our daily bread.”

But I don’t think Luther’s intention here is to give an exhaustive explanation of what these petitions mean, but to focus our attention on what is of first importance in them, and in our lives as Christians. The dire needs we have that we can otherwise so easily overlook; the promises of God we can so easily take for granted: for the Word of God to be proclaimed, for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us, and for us to be protected from the assaults of “the devil, the world, and our flesh.” A prayer we need to repeat, for our own sake, morning, noon and night.

The Small Catechism set free

Luther's Small Catechism - click to readLuther’s Small Catechism is a vitally important document for Lutheranism, one that is at the heart of Lutheran catechesis.

It’s also (as I can testify from personal experience) a document that can be a great blessing to Christians from other traditions. Indeed, no less a figure than Joseph Ratzinger made a distinction between “the Luther of the Catechisms” (and of the hymns and liturgical reforms) and Luther the polemicist.

For many Lutherans, the most familiar version of the Small Catechism is the 1986 edition published by Concordia Publishing House (CPH) and widely used by confirmands in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and its partner churches around the English-speaking world – including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England.

Unfortunately, however, CPH asserts its copyright on the 1986 edition very firmly (as I’ve discussed before). Even the LCMS website now appears to lack a copy, and the PDF version that used to be available on CPH’s site has also (as far as I can tell) disappeared.

Whatever the merits of CPH’s approach – CPH executives will argue very strongly in its defence, and it’s not an argument I wish to reopen here – the result is that it is not easy to find a modern English edition of the Small Catechism online.

(Update: turns out CPH has recently launched a rather elegant online version of the Catechism here. A PDF of the Catechism with Explanation is here. Glad to be corrected, but if anything this makes it even stranger that CPH takes such a hard line on churches and other groups making the Catechism available on their websites – since making it available in this way clearly doesn’t undermine commercial sales of the printed editions. It also doesn’t remove my disagreement with CPH on “the principle of the thing”.)

Our church website included, until recently, a copy of the 1986 edition. However, having been made aware that CPH considers this an infringement of its copyright, we took the page down a few weeks ago.

This has spurred me to undertake an exercise I’ve been meaning to get round since at least 2010. I have now gone back to the 1921, public domain version of the Catechism, and have lightly modernised it. I’ve retained the NIV – which I know won’t be a universally popular decision – as this is the version used in the familiar, 1986 version.

The result can be found on our website, and is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence (other than the excerpts from the NIV, which are made available under licence from the NIV’s publisher).

I’m not going to claim that this is perfect, and would welcome any suggestions for changes. However, it does provide a modern English version of the Catechism within the same “tradition” as the 1921 edition (on which the 1986 edition is also heavily based) – and provides it in a form that is freely available for others to use, modify and distribute.

Pragmatic and pastoral: Luther on prayer

Martin LutherOne underappreciated gem from Martin Luther’s writings is his “Simple Way to Pray”, addressed to his barber, Peter Beskendorf, who had asked for guidance on prayer.

In this booklet, Luther shows many of the same tendencies as the English tradition described by Martin Thornton: a “speculative-affective synthesis” of doctrine and prayer, a pastoral and domestic emphasis, and a distinctly Benedictine influence in the use of a form of lectio divina and of “frequent and ardent” prayer rather than complex devotional techniques.

Luther’s guidance falls into roughly three sections:

  1. A general introduction on how and when to pray in the midst of a busy life.
  2. Use of the Lord’s Prayer as a structure for prayer.
  3. Use of the Ten Commandments (or of a psalm or scriptural text) for further meditation or prayer when time allows.

1. Introduction

Luther emphasises that he is basing his advice on how he himself prays, again showing the same unity between priest and layperson as Thornton describes as a key element of “English spirituality”. When he feels he has become “cool and joyless” in prayer, Luther says, he says quietly to himself “the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some Psalms, just as a child might do”.

Luther also advises that prayer be made “the first business of the morning and the last at night”, and to “guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, ‘Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.'” We all know how that ends, don’t we?

The most interesting and original advice given by Luther in this section, though, is his suggestion that our daily work can be “as good as or better than prayer, especially in an emergency”. This is Luther’s concept of vocation (a critically important part of Lutheran pastoral understanding) as itself a form of prayer, and indeed as a means of obeying Christ’s injunction to “pray without ceasing”.

That said, we shouldn’t allow this “vocation-as-prayer” to supplant entirely what Luther calls “the habit of true prayer”. Again, Luther is acutely aware of the human capacity for self-deception: “The devil that oppresses us is not lazy or careless, and our flesh is too ready and eager to sin and is disinclined to the spirit of prayer.”

2. The Lord’s Prayer

Having “warmed the heart” with the Commandments, Creed, psalms and so on, Luther goes on to set out how the Lord’s Prayer can be used as a basis for our own prayers, by expanding on each petition (in a similar manner to that set out in the Small Catechism).

Luther’s theology of prayer is perhaps best summed up by his comments on saying “Amen”:

Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, “Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means.

Given how Luther is often (unjustly) accused of “individualism”, it is noteworthy how he teaches that our confidence in prayer is intimately connected to our awareness of praying in and with the church as a whole, even in our individual prayers.

Luther also emphasises that Peter (and we) should not simply repeat his words, which “would make it nothing but idle chatter and babble, read word-for-word out of a book”. He wants our hearts “to be stirred and guided concerning the thoughts which ought to be comprehended in the Lord’s Prayer”, rather than simply reciting written prayers in an inattentive and distracted manner. (A healthy warning for those of us who find the Daily Office a helpful basis for our prayers.)

In short, we need to devote the same concentration to our prayers as we do to the tasks of our daily vocations. Luther applies this specifically to Peter:

So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, “The one who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.” How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!

3. The Ten Commandments

In the final section, Luther describes how – if he has “time and opportunity” (again with that pastoral realism!) – he goes on to a similar meditation with the Ten Commandments, using a technique which clearly owes a debt to the monastic practice of lectio divina, in which he treats each commandment in turn as “instruction”, “thanksgiving”, “confession” and “prayer” (see this post from a few years ago for more details).

Once more, we need to maintain our spiritual attentiveness rather than working mechanically through a technique:

If in the midst of such thoughts the Holy Spirit begins to preach in your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honour him by letting go of this written scheme. Be still and listen to the one who can do better than you can.

Similarly, Luther concludes with a repetition of his call for a sane, pastoral balance (one which, yet again, shows the influence of St Benedict):

Take care, however, not to undertake all of this or so much that one becomes weary in spirit. Likewise, a good prayer should not be lengthy or drawn out, but frequent and ardent.

Finding A Simple Way to Pray

I’ve been quoting the version found in the latest edition of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. A cheap Kindle edition is available from CPH. Finally, If you google “simple way to pray” you will find various copies of Luther’s text.

Our holy angels with us

Today is the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels in the Roman Catholic Church. While the Lutheran church doesn’t celebrate this feast, the notion of guardian angels (however uncomfortable and alien it may seem to modern ears, including my own) is deeply embedded in Lutheran teaching and spirituality. After all, Luther’s Small Catechism – at once a doctrinal standard and a pastoral and devotional tool – calls on us to conclude our prayers, in the morning and at night, with the words:

Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.

Luther also wrote:

For we who believe must be certain that the princes of heaven are with us, not one or two, but a great multitude of them, as is recorded in Luke that the heavenly hosts were with the shepherds (Luke 2:13). But if we were without this protection, and the Lord did not restrain the fury of Satan in this manner, we would not remain alive for a single moment. … Therefore the good angels are busy in order that the fierce enemy may not inflict harm.

As for the Catholic feast, today’s Magnificat has a lovely devotion on the guardian angels by Fr Adolphe Tanqueray. Fr Tanqueray quotes Fr Odier’s Trinitarian-flavoured meditation on the role of the guardian angels, based on our being children of God, members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit:

Because we are his children, he appoints to us as tutors the princes of his realm, who hold it an honour to have us in their charge. Because we are his temples in which he himself dwells, he wills that angels hover about us as they do about our churches, so that bowed down in worship before him they may offer a perpetual homage to his glory, supplying for our neglect and making reparation for our irreverence.

He sends this mysterious host of angels in order that they may by uniting themselves to us and binding us to themselves form one body of the Church of heaven and the Church of earth.

I particularly love that image of the angels hovering about us, “supplying for our neglect and making reparation for our irreverence.”