Prayer as the Route to True Theological Experience

In Romans 8:15-16 Paul says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

There are many things to draw from the wealth of this passage, but do not miss what is sitting right on the surface of it. When we’re reminded that we’ve been adopted by God and feel the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we’re children of God, what happens? We cry out in prayer saying “Abba! Father!” Or in other words, we experience a deep and profound communion with God that leads to a peaceful assurance and rest in God. Some of you may shrink back at the thought of experiencing God as something too emotional, too subjective, perhaps too mystical. There is some truth in this. In every age there have been those who have allowed emotion and experience to determine their faith and view of Scripture, rather than placing their emotion and experience under the examination of Scripture. But, I’m convinced that we will miss a great deal of heavenly blessedness in our souls if we overreact in the opposite direction and reject all emotion and experience with God. If we reject all emotive experiences with God how are we to commune with God? How are to we feel deeply for Him? Indeed we cannot.

John Owen, the English Puritan, in a sermon on the gospel once encouraged his hearers to “get an experience of the power of the gospel…in and upon your own hearts, or all your profession is an expiring thing.”[1] Similar to this quote the Scottish theologian John Murray said, “It is necessary for us to recognize that there is an intelligent mysticism in the life of faith…of living union and communion with the exalted and ever-present Redeemer…He communes with His people and His people commune with Him in a conscious reciprocal love…The life of true faith cannot be that of a cold metallic assent. It must have the passion and warmth of love and communion because communion with God is the crown and apex of true religion.”[2] Hear Peter in 1 Peter 1:8, “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…” We cannot commune with God in any proper or substantial way, we cannot ‘rejoice with joy inexpressible filled with glory’ if we remain cold and against all emotion. No, we are called an intimacy with God where a deep love for God is felt and cherished.

We must be reminded first and foremost that prayer is not a conversation between two equal parties. We do not pray to get things from God, we pray to get more of God.[3] We pray to commune with God and to grow in our affections for God. Tim Keller commenting on these things says, “An encounter with God involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a Christian life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together…”[4] God doesn’t intend us to leave our theology behind and go out on a quest looking for deeper religious experience, no. Rather, in prayer the Holy Spirit helps us experience our theology.[5]

With this in mind let’s examine four prayers Paul makes in his letters to the churches.

Ephesians 1:15-20

“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places…”

When Paul heard of the faith the Ephesian believers had in Christ and their love toward one another, it moved him to pray for them. Specifically praying that God (calling Him the “Father of glory”) would give them the Holy Spirit who would reveal more of God to them so they would increase in their wisdom and knowledge of God. Paul even asks for their hearts to be enlightened so that they would four things: first, how deep and vast our hope is in Christ. Second, how glorious our inheritance in Christ is. Third, how immeasurably great God’s power is toward us who believe. And fourth, for them to recognize that all of these wonderful things he’s been praying for are given to us in the Spirit who raised Christ up to God’s right hand. It seems clear to me, and I hope it seems clear to you, that Paul’s main agenda in prayer here is to ask God to so move among these Ephesians that these Ephesians would experience subjectively what they know to be true objectively. They have rich doctrine in their minds, and Paul desires that doctrine would fill the rest of the lives and the means he goes about encouraging them toward this is prayer.

Ephesians 3:14-19

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

We see a progression in Paul’s prayer here. First, Paul desires that these believers would be strengthened by the Spirit in their inner being according to the riches of God’s glory, so that, Christ would abound in their hearts through faith. Secondly, Paul asks that because of that they would be rooted and grounded in love with one another. Thirdly, because of that He asks that they, together, would comprehend the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge. Fourth, because Paul’s ultimate request from all of this is that they would be filled with the fullness of God. Again, Paul’s driving motivation in praying for the Ephesians here in chapter 3 is similar to his motivation back in chapter 1. He desires they comprehend what is incomprehensible, and that they be filled with the fullness of God. This is to say, he prays they would experience subjectively what they know to be true objectively.

Philippians 1:9-11

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

After reminding the Philippian believers in v3-8 that he prays for them regularly, remembering them for their deep and heartfelt partnership with him in the gospel, Paul prays for that their love would abound, be filled with more knowledge and more discernment, and that God would fill them with the fruit of righteousness for the praise and glory of Christ. Again, we see Paul praying for the Philippians in a very similar manner he prayed for the Ephesians. He is taking immense doctrinal truth and praying that this Philippian congregation would experience the fullness of it. That this truth they know would not only inform their minds but inflame and enliven their lives with a new depth of spiritual communion with God.

Colossians 1:9-14

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

As with the Ephesians and the Philippians, Paul uses almost the exact same language to pray for Colossian believers. He wants them to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and from that desires they walk in a manner worthy of God. He wants them to be increasing and strengthened with God’s glorious might and from that desires they endure patiently with joy. And lastly he wants them to be thankful to God who has delivered them from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of Christ.

I think you get the picture I’m seeking to set before you.

In Paul’s prayer for these churches we something very experiential and something very doctrinal. As Tim Keller told us before, be reminded that God does not ask us to choose between a Christian life that’s doctrinal and a Christian life that’s powerful. No, God calls each of us to a Christian life that is deeply and objectively theological as well as richly experiential and subjective. How exactly does God intend these two worlds of objective truth and subjective experience to mesh together? In prayer.

The greatness of prayer is that in it we subjectively experience what we know to be true objectively. The greatness of prayer is that it is the way in which our theology moves into our soul.

So the application is simple, give yourself to this deeply and daily and what God fill you with His fullness.

 

 

Citations:

[1] John Owen, quoted in Tim Keller’s Prayer, page 15.

[2] John Murray, quoted in Ibid., page 16. Emphasis mine.

[3] Tim Keller, Ibid., page 21.

[4] Ibid., page 16-17.

[5] Ibid., page 17.

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