(the shorter version)
James 5:15 "The Prayer of faith will..."
The subject is of importance, and is often misunderstood.... It has served to perplex and distress some good people, and to delude others; while providing skeptics with a host of objections against the idea of all prayer.
Those have been perplexed and distressed, who were wishing to pray acceptably, and were told that they were not exercising the required faith; while yet they were conscious of a readiness to credit God's word. They were then charged with not being willing to believe the Scripture, and thus with defeating their own prayers, in connection with objects which they greatly desired to secure; such as the conversion of individuals in whom they were specially interested, or the occurrence of a revival in certain churches.
The deluded class have also had an unpleasant experience. Persuaded that their theory of prevailing prayer was correct, they tried to reduce it to practice. In so doing, they had for a time seeming corroborations of their view, the facts coming out according to their desire and petition. This gradually emboldened them to enlarge their experiments, and to announce the result confidently before hand. “When the case was plainly going against them, they endeavored to believe more firmly; insisting that their faith was being put to the test, and that, in the end, it would signally triumph. Quite possibly, also, they fell into criticism of those who doubted their assurances of a favorable result, and thus grieved truehearted brethren and sisters, and created coldness where there should have been warm sympathy. Finally, they were put to confusion by the disappointment of their hopes and the non-fulfillment of their predictions; which left them on the edge of a reaction into an actual and sad unbelief; and for a time paralyzed their spiritual influence....
When skeptics assail the doctrine of prayer, they invariably state it in the form of this obnoxious theory; knowing that unanswerable objections can be brought against it. They thus succeed in rendering the idea of prayer ridiculous to the minds of those who have not sufficient knowledge of the Bible, to discriminate between the view presented by the inspired writers and this delusion.
What the Theory Teaches (at least for some people):
This theory teaches, that we can receive, in answer to prayer, any gift which we really think to be desirable, if we believe, at the time of offering the prayer, that it will be granted. This is said to be “The Prayer of Faith,” which always prevails; and the cause of failure to receive any thing for which one prays is declared to be, a lack of the specific faith, that the exact thing petitioned for, will surely be given. As faith, to be reasonable, must rest upon evidence, we are referred to a pledge which God is said to have given to the effect named, in the texts of Scripture which, without naming any limitation, bid us ask, and assure us that we shall receive. God, it is argued, has thus placed himself at our disposal; so that whatever may be our felt want, a believing petition will secure its relief.
But to this view many things may be objected.
1. It implies that God virtually abdicates his throne in our favor; for it represents him as pledging himself in advance to do whatever we ask him to do. That would be to make man ruler.... Such an unconditional pledge leaves no place for a divine plan. The Bible assures us, that God is operating upon a wise and minute plan, which is to be carried out for the general good and his own glory. But he must needs surrender such plan, if he is to hold himself bound to grant every petition which we present with faith.
2. This method would be badly adapted to our moral training, which is the end chiefly had in view in the introduction of prayer into the divine economy. It would breed presumption rather than faith, self confidence rather than humility; and it would fail to develop the spirit of patience, submission, importunity, perseverance and labor. It would introduce into God's family the very evils which are to be deplored in human families where parental indulgence is the only rule.
3. It would ruin us and those we love and for whom we offer petitions. We should be certain to ask for gifts (as all children do) which would not be for our own good, or for the benefit of those for whom we might pray. Desire is ever blind. “We think we need a multitude of things, which we are better without. In times past we have asked for that which, afterwards, we were glad not to have received; and we have prayed to have events prevented, which we now see to have been for our good. God is too benevolent to put so dangerous a power into our hands.
4. The theory involves self-contradiction; for it would bind God to do opposite things, at the same time, if opposing prayers should chance to be offered by those who accept the supposed pledge.
5. The theorists themselves either never venture to act upon their theory, or are unwilling witnesses of its failure. For plainly they do not secure a multitude of objects which they most desire to secure, and for which either they strangely do not pray, or else pray in vain. Their friends and relatives die; their enterprises fail; their troubles come and remain, as in the case of other men; and their spiritual undertakings are no broader, or more successful than those of Christians who pray on a different understanding of the conditions.
6. Nor does the Bible lend support to this view. Some think that the Bible means a peculiar kind of prayer, by “the prayer of faith;” which differs from other acceptable prayer, in that it always secures its specific object by believing that it will receive the very thing desired; and that this can be offered only in certain cases, where special promises exist, or special indications are made of the divine will. But the words of James, “the prayer of faith shall save the sick,” do not imply any such peculiarity; but only that the prayer so offered, with a faith appropriate to the circumstances, would secure the desired result.
In interpreting Scripture, one must never forget that, usually, but a single topic is handled at a time, and the reader is expected to know, or to learn, what is elsewhere said.... It finds a passage which reads, “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them,” and it fails to remember, that this presupposes that another condition, shaping the desire and the prayer, has already been complied with; to-wit, that we should ask only for the things which are according to the will of God. John says, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us;” which certainly does not mean, that if we ask anything according to our own will, (provided only we ask believingly,) he will always hear us. But Jesus, assuming that we understand this, says, that, when we thus have an object of desire, which we have evidence is according to the divine will, then, if by a firm faith, we believe that we have it, we shall find it to be indeed so. This leaves us to submit unknown matters to the yet unrevealed divine will; making our prayer with respect to them conditional. Thus did Jesus in his prayer in the garden; and received that which was best. Similar was the spirit which Paul exercised with respect to “'the thorn in the flesh;” for the removal of which he thrice prayed specifically, without obtaining the desired object; yet found his faith honored and his prayer answered, by a spiritual equivalent, even special grace which enabled him to gain a victory over the trial.
That when we pray, we must fully believe that God will be true to all that he has promised. This implies that we are ready to learn what his promises are, and to make them the basis of a sure expectation.
1. The general pledge that Prayer shall be answered. As we have already seen, the Bible abounds in declarations that God answers prayer; as when the Psalmist says: “O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come;” and when Jesus says, “Ask and it shall be given unto you.” ... Faith will accept these pledges at their full value, and will so rest upon them, as habitually to carry all wants to God in childlike petition, certain that he will do the very best for us that is possible, and taking the comfort of that fact. It will also have the spirit of expectation, and will watch for answers to its petition so relying on the fatherly character of God and his invitations to his children to make known their desires with the utmost freedom.
2. We must notice the reason for faith, found in the promises of the Bible on specific subjects. God does more than to give general assurance of a willingness to hear prayer, and to relieve human want. He makes mention of specific blessings, which he is ready to bestow.... It is only necessary, then, to ascertain that the desired favor is covered by some promise, covenant, prophecy, or command, to have a perfect warrant for faith that, in answer to prayer, God will bestow that very thing.... We are entitled to claim, at God's hand, whatever he has been pleased graciously to promise. And so our prayers may and should have the characteristic of perfect faith, that they will be literally answered according to the blessing asked.
The prayer of faith uses these divine assurances as a sufficient ground of conviction that God will aid in the emergency to which any of these promises applies, according to the exigency of the case. The man feels that he can pray with an accompanying certainty of being heard. It is not now so much an occasion of submission, as of grateful expectation.
In interpreting the specific promises, we must guard against a merely imaginative, or a fortuitous interpretation of them; in which some indulge without warrant from the Bible itself.... They wish to be divinely guided; and so, after prayer, they open the sacred volume, determined to take the first text which meets the eye, as an indication from God of what they are to do. Or they read the Bible devoutly, or engage in prayer, and meet with or suddenly think of a passage, the wording of which powerfully impresses their imagination as applicable to their case; especially if it harmonizes with their natural wishes. The difficulty is, that a rational faith has no ground on which to rest, in such a case; there being no assurance in Scripture that God will reveal his will in that way. And it often results in lamentable delusion.
It is not intended, by these remarks, to deny that the Holy Spirit often uses passages of Scripture unexpectedly seen, to lead the mind to needed spiritual results; nor yet to express doubt that God may be pleased to arrange in his providence that the eye, at times, shall meet appropriate texts, which fill the soul with needed comfort. The instances in proof of such a divine guidance are too numerous and striking to allow of denial.
3. Another warrant for faith, in connection with prayer, may be found in the indications of divine providence.... We might not be able to interpret these signs, were it not for the word of God, which pre-announces his purposes; but with the Bible in our hands, to assure us of the divine plans, we ought to be able to discern the evidence that they are in process of fulfillment in specific cases.... And so God's people find special ground for the exercise of faith as to the answer of their prayers, when they discern, in the events of the day, in the peculiar ordering of circumstances around them, evidence that God is preparing to accomplish a part of his work in the world in which they feel a special interest. For his will appears in his providence, as truly as in his Word.
4. There is still another warrant for a prayer of faith, found in the leadings of the Holy Spirit. That these are a reality, no devout Christian will be disposed to deny. The New Testament is filled with declarations on this point; and it was the chief theme of discourse of our Savior at the institution of the Lord's Supper. As the promised Comforter was to be the universal spiritual helper of Christ's followers, we are prepared to learn that his aid has a special relation to our supplications. We are therefore directed to “pray in the Spirit,” and are assured that “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit; because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Rom. viii:26, 27.
In consequence of this bestowment of the Holy Spirit, the soul of the Christian is prepared to pray with faith. First of all, the Spirit awakens right desires and directs them to the proper objects; so that prayer goes straight to its mark.... by the Spirit our desires are chastened, elevated, purified, and thus brought into sympathy with the divine plans, as respects ourselves and others. We are prepared to pray with a spiritual intelligence and intuition, and to have a corresponding confidence awakened that we shall be heard.
The Spirit guides to a true interpretation of Scripture; so that we understand the promises, covenants, prophesies and commands, in their adaptation to our duties, temptations, trials and labors. When these are made clear to our apprehension, and we feel that in them we are come into contact with the heart of God, to learn the extent of his love, we exercise faith as the most natural of inward acts.
The Spirit aids us to interpret the divine providence. He who is in spiritual sympathy with God's aims, and is led to an understanding of his Word, has the key to the mystery of earthly events. He sees along the line of divine purposes, and thus with a longer and clearer vision than that of men of the world.
There is no prayer acceptable to God, but the prayer of faith; and that this simply means, that all prayer must be offered in full confidence that God will be true to his word.
This summary was developed from William Patton’s Prayer and Its Remarkable Answers