Summary: If we do not merit God’s blessings, then how is it that those who are obedient are more likely to see their prayers answered?
This morning, we continue our series of messages on prayer. I’ve chosen this topic to begin the year because of its great importance. Prayer is absolutely foundational to the Christian life. It’s basic to our identity as Christians. Prayer is a necessary practice for anyone who wants to know and experience God. In fact, it’s no understatement to say that without prayer there is no Christian life. If this is absent, then you may have church attendance, you may have Bible reading, you may have giving, or serving, or morality -- but you don’t have Christ. Because prayer is essential to our relationship with Christ, and that’s what Christianity is all about: a relationship. A love relationship between us and God, one that lasts forever. As Jesus himself said, when he prayed to God the Father on the night before his crucifixion:
"Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." -- John 17:3
If you want to know God, if you intend to be a follower of Jesus Christ, if you’re looking for a faith that’s real, that’s genuine, then you must pray. And in fact, if all those things are true, then you will pray. Because that’s what Christians do. They pray.
My purpose in this series is threefold. First, to help you understand prayer. Second, to motivate you to pray. And third, to make you successful in prayer. To help you pray effectively, so that you experience all the benefits God intends. That third one may surprise you, the idea that there are degrees of effectiveness in prayer, or that we can learn to pray more effectively. Most people, I think, have the idea that all prayer is basically equal, that every prayer has the same chance of being answered. We understand that God answers some prayers and not others, but we attribute this to the mysteries of God’s secret will, his unknowable, inscrutable plans and purposes. And it’s certainly true that, with respect to any specific prayer, we can’t know why God does or does not grant our request.
As Paul exclaims: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" -- Romans 11:33
Likewise, Deuteronomy tells us that: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever . . . " -- Deuteronomy 29:29
Some things God reveals, others remain hidden, at least for now. None of us fully understands God’s ways, not even the apostle Paul. And so we don’t always have an answer for the "why?" questions, such as why God did or didn’t answer this prayer, or that prayer. However, God has told us in general terms what kind of prayer pleases him, and is likely to be answered.
Another reason that the idea of "effectiveness" in prayer may seem strange to you is that we teach, and believe, a gospel of grace. God’s undeserved, unearned favor. In contrast to every non-Christian religion, and even some aberrant versions of Christianity, we as evangelicals profess that every good thing we receive from God comes as a gift, including salvation. Including forgiveness of sins. Including eternal life. And including answers to prayer. There is nothing we must do, nothing we can do, to merit anything good from God. We cannot place him in our debt, whether by good works, or good intentions, or painful sacrifices. We all fall short. We’ve all violated God’s standards. Our only hope is to confess our sin and unworthiness, and accept the free offer of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus Christ. The only way for us to be accepted by a holy and righteous God is to receive something from outside ourselves, to have the merit of Christ imputed to us; to have his perfect obedience and righteousness credited to our account.
As Paul writes, again in Romans,
"Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." -- Romans 4:4-5
We do not work in order to obtain salvation, we do not seek to collect wages from God as if we had earned anything. As this passage clearly states, God doesn’t justify, he doesn’t consider as just, those who have somehow done enough good things to merit forgiveness. On the contrary, he justifies "the wicked," those who realize that they can never be good enough. God regards as righteous, not those who put forth great amounts of effort, but those who simply "trust" him, who have "faith" in him. In order to be saved, we must trust, not in our own works, nor in some combination of our work and Christ’s work. We must trust in Christ alone. And that, my friends, is the core of the gospel. It’s all about grace, from beginning to end.