Our Confidence in Prayer

March 21, 2017

by Carl Trueman

Central to understanding the connection of the Trinity to prayer is Christ’s role as priest. Prayer is an integral part of his priestly role, and it is this that provides the objective basis for the prayers of the saints. It is because Christ is the great intercessor on behalf of his people that his people’s own intercessions are heard by the Father.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes Christ’s priesthood well:

Q. 25. How does Christ execute the office of a priest?
A. Christ executes the office of a priest in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.

Here the Catechism summarizes an important strand of biblical teaching. The New Testament makes a clear connection between the prayers of the saints and the intercession of Christ before the Father. The argument of the book of Hebrews makes this a central point: the divine-human mediator is central to the Christian’s status before God and to understanding the ongoing nature of divine activity in our salvation. Intercession is an integral part of Christ’s priestly action that continues in the present. As he died on Calvary as a sacrifice for sin, so he now lives before the Father to offer that sacrifice on behalf of his people.

As he died on Calvary as a sacrifice for sin, so he now lives before the Father to offer that sacrifice on behalf of his people.

Priesthood and Trinity 

There are a number of observations about this priesthood in relation to the Trinity:

First, we should note that Christ’s priesthood points clearly to God’s sovereignty in salvation. The Lord chooses who is to be a priest (Lev. 8). Specifically, we are told that he appointed Christ as risen (Heb. 5:4–6). This is demonstrated in the historical narrative of the virgin birth and the Spirit’s anointing of Christ at his baptism. This sets all of the actions of Christ’s priesthood, including his intercession within the context of God’s sovereign will. Thus the definitive act of prayer—that of Christ to his Father—is an act of the sovereign God.

Second, we should note that Christ’s priesthood in general reveals the trinitarian nature of God. As Christ declares in his high priestly prayer in the Gospel of John, he has been sent by the Father. He is also one who is empowered by the Spirit at his baptism. There is no other God than that God who has revealed himself in the actions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are all bound together in the economy of salvation in a manner that exhibits a perfect harmony of intention and execution. Thus all of Christ’s actions, including his intercession, are to be set within the context of a trinitarian understanding of God.

Indeed, the New Testament makes it quite clear that the human act of prayer is intimately connected to the trinitarian actions of God and is in fact enfolded and subsumed within the larger divine action. Thus in Romans 8:26 Paul declares that the Spirit intercedes for believers in their weakness, when they do not know what they should pray for. The personhood of the Spirit is important here: intercession is a personal activity. Furthermore, Paul is stirring up the believer to confidence by placing human prayer within the divine economy of salvation relating to the persons of the Trinity. Thus the human act of prayer is clearly to be understood against the background of a more profound reality: the intercession of the Spirit for the saints. This places the believer’s prayers within the very trinitarian life of God himself and is both a doctrinal truth and a practical reality.

Third, given this we should observe that this trinitarian economy of salvation serves to make the accomplishment of salvation by Christ itself an act of devotion and prayer. Christ’s earthly life was marked by prayer, and that was also closely connected to his obedience and suffering (Heb. 5:7–8). This also places love at the centre of salvation: Christ offers himself through his prayer to God the Father as an act of love towards both him and those on whose behalf he prays.

Furthermore, while we should never reduce the work of Christ to that of mere moral example, it is clear from Christ’s own life that his intercession is in part paradigmatic for the believer. As Christ prayed to the Father, so he instructs his followers to do the same (Matt. 6:9; 26:39). As Christ prayed for strength from the Father, and for the Father’s will to be done, so he instructs his followers to do the same (Matt. 6:10–11; 26:39). And even in the practice of drawing aside to pray, Christ makes it clear that he is setting his disciples an example to follow (Matt. 6:6; Mark 6:46).

When Christ prays to the Father for us, the Father will grant him what he asks, for it is what he himself desires.

The Desire to Answer

This then brings us to the first practical point about prayer and the Trinity: Christ’s trinitarian priesthood should fill Christians with confidence and be an encouragement to all those who fear God to approach him. This is because in Christ we have the perfect example and the perfect intermediary. While there can be a tendency to understand Christ’s intercession as something that cajoles the Father into granting something he is not immediately keen to do, such a view rests upon a failure to understand the significance of that which Athanasius saw so clearly: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one God and all desire the same things. Thus Christ as the God-man asks the Father only for that which the Father desires to give him, and he does so as one who perfectly understands what it is to be human. When Christ prays to the Father for us, the Father will grant him what he asks, for it is only what he himself desires anyway.

This post was adapted from Carl Trueman, The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), xx–xx. Used with permission of the publisher.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

Next Post...

Help Me Teach the Bible: Jonathan Gibson on 2 Peter

March 14, 2017

by Jonathan Gibson