December 18, 2017

At a Glance: Pauline Paradigms for Prayer

Layton Talbert

Prayer is a very personal spiritual exercise. Perhaps “exercise” sounds like something we do out of duty, whether we want to or not, because of perceived benefits. Prayer is conversation with God and, as such, is a vital dimension of our personal relationship to the Lord. Why, then, would the Bible record the personal prayers of others, if not for our instruction in how to pray? How do you know how and what to pray for others, or even for yourself? Last issue’s column surveyed Paul’s specific prayer requests for himself as well as his requests in prayer for others. This column focuses on some of Paul’s prayers as patterns for how we should pray—not only for others but even for ourselves.

Praying for Spiritual Success

2 Thessalonians 1:11, 12

Paul’s prayer for these young believers emerging out of a pagan background revolves around two requests with one objective.

First Request: “that our God would count you worthy of this calling.” Paul is not praying that they would be worthy enough to be invited to salvation (no one is) nor worthy enough to be effectually called to salvation (again, no one is), but that they will live life in a way that is consistent with the privilege and dignity of their calling. A king’s son does nothing to help or deserve being born to the king; but he has a responsibility to behave in a princely manner in keeping with his privileged and responsible position.

But the request is even more pointed. Paul prays that God would count them worthy—not just that people (who see only the outward life) would be impressed with their distinctive lifestyle, but that God (who sees the heart) would consider their walk and behavior and lifestyle and relationships and habits as a worthy reflection of His gracious calling. Paul’s primary concern for them is God’s approval and pleasure. But this still raises a question: How can we live up to that high calling? Paul is not ultimately praying that they would live a certain way; he is not here exhorting them to walk worthy (though he does that sometimes). He prays for God to do something, for God to count them worthy of His calling—and for this to happen, God must be energetically and graciously active in their lives. “In a strange paradox, Paul is constantly telling people to become what they are”—that we, as children of God the King, must “grow up into” that calling. Paul “is not simply asking the Thessalonians to try harder, he is praying for them to the end that God will count them worthy of his calling. Such a prayer is tantamount to asking that God will so work in their lives . . . that ultimately he will count them worthy” (D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 54). That requires the working of God’s grace in their live. Hence the next request.

Second Request: that God would “fulfil [accomplish] all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power.” Let’s take these one at a time. Is this “all the good pleasure of [His] goodness” or “all the good pleasure of [your] goodness”? Either pronoun is inserted; neither is in the original text. Most commentators—for good grammatical reasons—take it in the latter sense. This word for “goodness” appears four times in the NT, always with reference to human goodness. Even the Spirit-filled believer is not inherently “good” in himself; nevertheless (a) regeneration imparts a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17), and (b) the Spirit generates a “goodness” in the submissive believer that becomes a motivating force in decisions and aspirations. So, Paul prays that God would bring to fruition in the Thessalonians every good pleasure in goodness, or every good pleasure that is prompted by that goodness—that is, that they would delight in goodness, be filled with every desire or resolve for goodness, display every inclination to goodness. Knowing the inward battle that your flesh mounts and the outward battle the world mounts against your pursuit of goodness, wouldn’t you like someone to pray that regularly for you? What a Biblical and practical way to pray for others!

Likewise, Paul prays that God would fulfill in these believers “the work of faith”—every work or deed or activity that is prompted by faith. Have you ever ignored something that a simple faith in God’s Word was prompting you to do—an act or decision? Don’t you wish someone would pray that God would bring to fruition a fuller working of faith in you and grace you to be more influenced by your faith than by your doubts or misgivings? Paul prayed for these believers that God would accomplish in them (“by [His] power”) every inclination prompted by goodness and every action prompted by faith.

Objective: “that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you.” This we expect; the ultimate end of every movement and motivation must be that Christ is glorified as people see Him in us and are drawn to Him through us. But Paul adds, “and ye in him.” That we may be glorified in Him? This we do not expect. What kind of request is this? Are we to share in Jesus’ glory? I would be afraid of presumption in saying this, if it weren’t for the fact that God’s Word says it. Paul moves into an eschatological mindset (as he does naturally and repeatedly throughout these very eschatological Thessalonian epistles). Christ’s ultimate glorification in us and our ultimate glorification because of our being in Him are both yet to come. “On that day, just as He will be glorified in them on account of what they have become, so they will be glorified in Him on account of what He is. . . . Their glory will result from their association with the Lord, and thus Paul speaks of their being ‘in’ Him in this connection” (Leon Morris, I and II Thessalonians, 211–12). “The servants come in for a share of the honor of the master whose livery they wear” (Walter Adeney, quoted by D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles, 297). In the end, it is all by means of and “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:12).

Praying for Spiritual Discernment

Philippians 1:9–11

Paul begins by assuring the Philippian believers of his prayers for them (1:3, 4), the reason for his joyful prayers for them (1:5), and the reason for his confidence in praying for them (1:6). Why was he so confident that God would answer his prayers for them? He remembered how God called him to change course abruptly and leave Asia Minor for Macedonia (see Acts 16:6–13), how God so evidently began a work of grace in them (see Acts 16:14, 15), and how God continued His work in them (Acts 16:25–34, 40). Paul had seen the fruit of their growth and maturity in very tangible ways. This epistle was a thank-you letter for their repeated sacrificial giving to him in his needs (Phil. 4). The result was an affectionate attachment to them (1:8). Paul informs them (and us) precisely what his prayer burden was for this particular group of believers (1:9).

For what is Paul praying here, exactly? Literally, “that your love yet more and more may overflow with knowledge and with all insight”—not merely that they would abound in love but with a certain kind of love that would increase along with other balancing qualities, in order that they might be able to think and act in Biblically discerning ways.

Love is exalted as the chief virtue in modern thinking, modern religion, even modern Evangelicalism; but it is often substituted with a sentimental, emasculated shadow of Scriptural love—an unqualified, nonjudgmental, omnitolerance of everyone and everything as okay and acceptable and worthy of being embraced. But this is exactly what Paul is not praying for. Biblical love is not a gullible, naïve, open-armed acceptance of everything, but an informed, discerning, discriminating approval of not only what is good but what is best, not merely what is acceptable but what is excellent. Biblical love is kind and charitable but not blind and gullible; it is not all gut and no brain, not feeling without thinking. Love is discriminating in what it spends itself on, insightful in what it approves. Love needs the enlightenment of a “full knowledge” of truth and the backbone of discernment and insight to keep it from being fuzzy and foolish.

“Clearly, knowledge and discernment without love could easily become” stodgy, unfeeling, Pharisaical. “But love without knowledge and discernment is soon a parody of itself. The Christian love for which Paul prays is regulated by knowledge” of truth “and comprehensive moral insight. These constraints do not stifle love. Far from it: they insure its purity and value” (Carson, 126). Love must be informed and guided by knowledge and discernment because the task at hand is a delicate and difficult one—not the discerning between good and evil (that’s a mark of basic maturity—having your senses exercised to discern good and evil, Heb. 5:14), but the discerning between good and excellent, and the approval and choosing of the latter on an increasingly consistent basis. That’s a mark of advanced maturity.

But even the approval of the excellent over the good is not an end in itself, but a means to being “sincere” (transparent and unhypocritical), “without offense” (not causing others to stumble by one’s choices), and filled with all the fruits of righteous living (a life of consistent choices to fulfill your obligations).

All of this comes “through Jesus Christ,” with a view to the day of Christ and the ultimate glory and praise of God. This prayer is a motivating reminder that we are in this for the long haul, at the end of which is a sober accountability that will make every right choice to pursue the best things worthwhile. Again, this passage is not an exhortation to the Philippians but a prayer to God. He is praying these goals for them. But knowing exactly how someone is praying for us can help us re-evaluate our lives and refocus our own priorities.


Here are two model prayers, inspired “conversations with God” preserved for our instruction and example. Apostolic prayers intended to shape our priorities and our prayers for others and for ourselves. Requests you can pray with confidence and know that you are praying something genuinely useful, valuable, important, and in keeping with God’s goals and God’s will. (1 Jn. 5:14, 15)

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March / April 2006 Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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