You can learn theology by reading good books, but if you want to see theology connect with life, listen to someone pray. Prayer is theology gone live. J. I. Packer defines theology as, “first the activity of thinking and speaking about God (theologizing), and second the product of that activity.”[i] Our theology, what we believe about God, is on display when we pray. Our attitude, confidence, and content of our prayers all reveal what we believe about God.
Theology and prayer don’t reside in separate silos of the Christian life. We grow in our knowledge of God (Ephesians 3:17-19) while pouring out our hearts to Him in prayer (Psalm 62:8). B.B. Warfield saw a partnership between prayer and theological study as crucial for having “a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God”. Is it better to spend ten minutes praying or ten hours reading books? Warfield says, put them together and spend “ten hours over your books on your knees.”[ii] Prayer grows in the garden of theology.
Hebrews gives us a biblical model of this partnership. Hebrews 4:16 is a fan favorite at prayer meetings. “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.” This exhortation to bold prayer is the application of a meditation on Jesus’ high priestly ministry (Hebrews 4:11-15). Praying with boldness grows from the soil of theological reflection.
Listen to the Early Church
The Church of the Book of Acts was devoted to prayer (Acts 2:42). As Acts unfolds, we don’t just hear about their prayers; we hear them praying. In Acts 4, the Sanhedrin arrests Peter and John and put them on trial. It’s the first time when gospel proclamation meets official hostility and it’s only going to get more intense (Acts 8:1-4). When Peter and John get released, the early believers immediately pray in Acts 4:24-30:
“Master, you are the one who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David your servant:
‘Why do the Gentiles rage
and the peoples plot futile things?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers assemble together
against the Lord and against his Messiah.’
“For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your will had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
They start by declaring God’s power and authority as the Creator of all things. Quoting from Psalm 2, which foretold the hostility against God’s Messiah, they affirm God’s sovereignty over the crucifixion of Jesus and their current situation. These events are according to His plan and are working out His purpose. Therefore, they ask God to “consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30). What they ask of God draws from the theology affirmed in their prayer. They can keep proclaiming the gospel while staring down the barrel of hostility because the sovereign Creator God works alongside them emboldening their witness and affirming His word. Listening to this prayer in Acts, reveals three characteristics of prayer driven by theology.
Prayer is Worship
For a long time, my prayer life was a series of grocery lists for God. Our needs matter to God. Putting food on the table, acing our algebra test, and having a successful surgery are all important, but we miss something if prayer starts and stops there. Grocery list prayers center around me, not God.
The Christians in Acts 4 teach us how to pray for urgent needs by lifting them to God. What John Piper says about God-centered preaching is also true of prayer. God-centered prayer doesn’t neglect, as Piper says, the “nitty-gritty practical things like parenthood and divorce and AIDS and gluttony and television and sex.”[iii] Rather, in God-centered prayer Piper explains, “every one of those things should be swept right up into the holy presence of God and laid bare to the roots of its Godwardness or godlessness.”[iv] Prayer isn’t dropping a list of demands on God’s doorstep. Prayer sweeps ordinary, daily needs, up into the sphere of worship.
Paul prays for the church in Ephesus, “that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19). He digs deeper than their urgent needs and prays that they might know more fully the love of God in Christ—driving them above their next meal to the God who provides each grain of rice. Prayer drives us deeper into God. Going deeper into God, in turn, elevates our prayer requests from a grocery list to worship. We still pray for daily bread (Matthew 6:11), but our felt needs don’t bind our prayers. Prayer becomes worship when the horizon of our prayer life is the expansive glory of God.
Prayer is Bold
The prayer of Acts 4:24-30 is not only a plea for boldness but is itself a bold prayer. It is a prayer that God would ensure that a relatively small band of believers preaching a message about a crucified Messiah, while swarmed by “sharks”, would come out victorious. This is not because they deserved to win, but because God deserves the glory. It’s a bold prayer.
I remember sitting in the living room of an older Christian, someone who had walked with God for over fifty years, listening in amazement at how boldly they prayed. They talked to God in a way they could never talk to anyone else. They knew God can “do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20) because He “made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 4:24) and who does all things “according to his will” (Ephesians 1:5; 1 John 5:14; Daniel 4:35). Bold prayer affirms this truth. As we grow in Christ, the scope of our prayer life expands. Prayer is bold because God is big. Praying for His name to be honored and His Kingdom to come isn’t just a memory verse. It is the cry of every Christian.
Prayer is Humble
Christians commune with God through prayer. The intimacy of knowing God and being known by Him may be most deeply experienced in prayer. Alistair Begg says, “The greatest gift of God to his people is God. The greatest joy of heaven is God.”[v] Of all the blessings God gives, none compares to the gift of communion with Him. Knowing this, we ought to be humbled in prayer. Acts 4:24-30 is a bold and humble prayer. It is bold because of God’s power and humble because of their dependence. The only sentence about themselves is a confession that they are powerless unless God’s supplies boldness (Acts 4:29). When they consider God, He is big. When they consider themselves, they are small.
Prayer shows us how small, needy, and finite we are. It reveals our utter dependence upon God. Communion with God is a humble privilege, granted by grace, not by strength, and continued in humility, not in pride. We meet God on our knees, and we find His presence to be our greatest joy (Psalm 16:10-11). As theology enriches our prayer lives, we learn this lesson as often as the sun rises.
Taking it Home
Prayer driven by theology infuses the attributes of God into every prayer. As we saw in Acts 4:24-30, God’s attributes reminded His followers that He could meet their needs. We learn to pray this way by intentional effort and habit. Plan to saturate your prayer with God’s attributes. When I pray with people, I’ve started naming specific attributes of God which speaks to the person’s request.
- For the doubter: God is truth and the revealer of the truth.
- For the lonely: God is imminent, an ever-present help.
- For the proud: God is Almighty and all true power belongs to Him.
Be intentional when you pray and be intentional to learn theology as well. With a shallow knowledge of God, you cannot pray with theological depth. This does not mean locking yourself in a tower to spend every day reading thousand-page volumes of systematic and biblical theology, but have an insatiable curiosity about God, about His attributes and about His actions. Read your Bible a lot, tackle some good books and go as slow as you need. Ask lots of questions and be hungry to learn.
Finally, pray big. The more we know of God, the more expansive our prayers will be because we trust that God is able “to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us” (Ephesians 3:20). Puritan Thomas Lye says, “Our imaginations exceed our expressions; yet God’s power far exceeds both.”[vi] The God to whom we pray is the Lord of hosts, Almighty God, Creator, Savior, Sanctifier, and Glorifier. Therefore, pray big.
[i] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), xi.
[ii] B. B. Warfield The Religious Life of Theological Students, (CrossReach Publications) p.4
[iii] John Piper The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, Revised Edition 2004) p 15
[v] Alistair Begg, Pray Big: Learn to Pray Like an Apostle, (The Good Book Company, 2019) p 59