What is Prayer?

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 98 of 107

7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. 9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

Matthew 7:7-11

WSC 98. What is prayer?

A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God,1 for things agreeable to His will,2 in the name of Christ,3 with confession of our sins,4 and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.5

1Ps 62:8; 21 Jn 5:14; 3Jn 16:23; 4Ps 32:5–6; Dan 9:4; 5Phil 4:6.

What is prayer? How to pray? Why pray? These are questions that few of us will ask when we become Christians. But these are the same questions that many of us will ask as we grow in our faith. How do we explain this irony? Well, it’s like when a baby is born, it will know how to cry and will cry instinctively. It does not need to be taught what crying is, how to cry or why to cry. But when the baby grows a bit older, and he is a contemplative and thoughtful child, he begins to be self-conscious and asks: What exactly is it to cry? Why do I cry? And Perhaps even how should I cry? Should it be silent sobbing, or should it be loud wailing? I know not every child will ask these questions, but some of you would no doubt have asked these questions in your heart. How do I cry? How do I laugh?

Prayer is something like that. When a person is born again, he is like a baby. Like a baby knowing how to cry, he knows how to pray, even if it is not a perfect prayer. When Saul of Tarsus was converted, the Lord sent Ananias to look for him: “For, behold, he prayeth,” the Lord tells him (Acts 9:11). It appears that he was genuinely praying for the first time in his life, although he must have prayed as a Pharisee many times before. At that point, he did not have to learn what prayer is. Why pray? Or how to pray? He knew how to pray. And so it was when we were converted.

But by and by, we become more conscious of how we ought to pray. We begin to ask what exactly prayer is? And why pray when God knows everything and will bring all things to pass by His sovereign power? It is when we’ve learned the answers that we can enjoy prayer without being hindered by troubling doubts in our minds.

We do not have time to deal with all the questions in this study. Instead, we want to address only one question: what prayer is.

We take our text, or rather our starting point, from the familiar passage in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, where He says:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8  For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened

Mt 7:7-8

We know this passage is about prayer even though the Lord does not even use the word prayer.

I have chosen this text because it is the most basic statement about prayer. It exhorts us to prayer. It assumes that we know that to pray is to ask something of God. To ask, to seek, and to knock are all synonymous with prayer or petition. And it assumes that we know that God answers prayer. Indeed, by saying it in three different ways and then repeating the whole thing from a different angle, the Lord is emphasising that God will hear and answer our prayers. He is fervently encouraging us to pray!

But because it is such a basic statement, it leaves many questions unanswered, prompting us to find answers from other passages of Scripture.

For example, it is evident that God will not give us everything we ask for. He will surely not give us what will harm us even if we ask for it. Will a father allow a little child to touch a scorpion just because he asks for it? So it is obvious that true prayer is not merely asking, but asking in the right way and for the right things. The difference between true and false prayers is their qualifying attributes.

Today, to understand what prayer is, we must look at these attributes.

Our Shorter Catechism, in answer to question 98, “What is prayer?” offers:

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.

Here are six things that qualify prayer in a way as to make it a truly biblical and effectual prayer per the Lord’s declaration: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Take note of the acrostic, especially if it helps you remember the six points.

  • Prayer must be directed to God alone.
  • Raise your desires sincerely to Him.
  • Agreement to God’s will is a must.
  • Yes, pray in Christ’s name, but not mechanically.
  • Engage in confession of sins sincerely.
  • Remember always to give thanks.

Let’s consider these points briefly.

1. Prayer must Be Directed to God Alone

It is obvious that when the Lord says, “Ask, and it shall be given you,” He is referring to asking God.

In verse 11, he says:

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

Christian prayer must always be directed to God. Usually, we should address the first person of the Trinity. This is why the Lord Jesus teaches us to pray: “Our Father which art in heaven…” (Mt 6:9). Indeed, when Christ himself prayed in John 17, He begins His prayer with: “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son…” (Jn 17:1). There are occasions when we can direct our prayer to Christ himself because He is God. Indeed, praying to the Holy Spirit would not be wrong under the same argument. But it is clear that our prayer must be directed to God alone and should usually be addressed to the Father.

We must never pray to Mary, to saints—whether alive or dead, to angels, idols, demons, or anything else. Such prayers are superstitious and idolatrous. Thus, when the people of Lystra tried to worship Paul and Barnabas, “they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you” (Acts 14:14-15). Likewise, when John mistakenly tried to worship an angel, he cried out, “See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God” (Rev 22:9). To pray is to worship. We must worship God alone; we must direct our prayers to God alone.

2. Raise Your Desires Sincerely to Him

Now, this may seem quite apparent at first sight. The Lord says, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” We do generally ask for what we desire.

But if we think about it, we will realise what a great privilege is accorded us. We are sinful creatures of dust, whereas God is the infinite, eternal, all-knowing and sovereign creator. He knows all our needs before we even utter them. “For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether,” says the Psalmist (Ps 139:4).

Yet the Lord not only condescends to hear our requests, but commands us to ask, i.e., to offer or present our requests. He wants us to pour out our hearts unto God. Bunyan says, “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God.”1 Or, as Calvin puts it, “prayer is nothing else than the opening up of our heart before God.”2

Prayer is not meaningless chanting, as some religions have it.

Prayer is not a repetition of stock phrases and requests, even when we do not desire those things. Think of someone praying, “Forgive us our debt,” when he does not feel he is in debt to anyone, whether God or man. He is uttering a statement of prayer, but he is not praying.

Prayer is also not a regurgitation of Scripture, or worse, a sermon to those who are hearing. You know how this can sometimes be a problem in Reformed circles. Some of us are so overwhelmed by the majesty of God that we forget that the Lord has taught us to offer up our desires. So, we make our prayers lofty and sermonic rather than heartfelt and expressive of our needs. The Publican prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18:13). The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (Lk 18:11). Which one is really praying?

But are we not in danger of praying like the Pharisee when we forget that prayer is a pouring out of our desires? Instead of talking about our needs, like the Publican, we speak as if we have no need at all, whereas others have needs. So, our prayer sounds like a sermon for others to hear so that they may become more zealous, more friendly, more godly, etc.

Remember that prayer is an offering up of our heart’s desires. It should express our deepest needs, not merely the needs of others, but our own.

Of course, I am not saying that we should expose our most intimate needs in public prayers, but I am saying that we should always pray as those who need God’s help, not as those who are self-sufficient.

3. Agreement to God’s Will Is a Must

We’ve already mentioned this in our introduction. The Lord says, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” Obviously, He does not mean that whatever we ask, including what is harmful for us, will be given to us.

What, then, does He mean? Well, the apostle John clarifies when he says: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 Jn 5:14).

In other words, we can expect God to hear us when we pray according to His will. But what does praying according to his will mean?

First, we must remember that for all intents and purposes, there are two aspects to God’s will: One may be known as the revealed will, and the other may be known as the Secret Will. The revealed will is essentially what He has commanded us to do and what is revealed as pleasing in God’s eyes in the Word, such as obedience to His word, salvation of sinners, and sanctification of saints. The secret will is, essentially, what God has decreed. There is a way to reconcile the two by speaking of the compound sense and the divided sense of the will of God, but we will not get into that.

We are never to order our lives according to what God has not revealed (Dt 29:29). Therefore, when the apostle John speaks about praying according to God’s will, he must be referring to the revealed will of God. Thus, in WSC  99, we are taught that “The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer.” This refers not only to the manner we should pray, but also to what we should pray for, namely that it must not be contrary to the principle of Christian life taught in the Word.

Thus, praying in regards to obedience to God’s word, salvation (1 Tim 2:4), personal sanctification (cf. 1 Th 4:3) and healing from diseases (Jas 5:14-15) is always right. Likewise, it is right to pray for the Lord’s providence of daily necessity and even His blessing upon our work and calling (cf. Mt 6:11; Prov 30:8-9). But it is never right to pray for worldly or material gains through illegitimate means such as gambling. Neither is it right to pray for the attainment of luxuries to be consumed upon our own lusts (See Jas 4:3).

4. Yes, Pray in Christ’s Name, but not Mechanically

This is familiar to most of us. Although the Lord Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given you,” most of us understand that we must not just pray but pray in the name of Jesus Christ. And it is Biblical, too.

  • John 14:13: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
  • John 14:14: “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
  • John 16:23b: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.”

Upon these and other verses, most Christians will generally end their prayers with “in Jesus’ Name” or an equivalent phrase.

But what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? Does it mean no prayer is acceptable unless we end with “in Jesus’ Name” or an equivalent phrase? Well, do you realise that not a single prayer recorded in the entire Bible ends with “in Jesus’ Name”? Even the Lord’s Prayer does not so end!

What, then, does our Lord mean? Well, simply stated, what He means is that we must come to God through Him, i.e., on the basis of His work on our behalf, and on the basis of our identification with Him.

John Calvin puts it eloquently: “Our prayers are acceptable to God only insofar as Christ sprinkles and sanctifies them with the perfume of his own sacrifice.”3[1]The apostles understood what Jesus meant when they prayed “through Jesus Christ” (Heb 13:21; cf. Rom 16:27; 1 Pet 4:11, etc.).

Let us, therefore, beloved brethren and children, shy away from a mechanical repetition of the phrase “in Jesus’ Name.” To do that would be taking the name of God in vain.

Instead, let us pray, believing that it is only through Christ we may approach the throne of grace (Heb 4:15-16). Let us pray with an understanding that Christ authorises us to approach the throne of grace. Let us go to the throne of grace with hearts  filled with gratitude and humility. Let us go to the Father bearing the insignia of Christ, who has redeemed us out of the death penalty that we deserve.

5. Engage in Confession of Sins Sincerely

  • Our Lord does not mention confession of sins when He says, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” But obviously, the Father will not hear our prayer unless we have a contrite heart. Are we not given to confess in Psalm 66:18, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” Remember the Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee? What does the Lord say of them? He says: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [the Pharisee]” (Lk 18:14). The implication is that the Lord hears the humble and contrite Publican, but rejects the prayer of the proud and self-righteous Pharisee.
  • Except we humble ourselves and confess our sins and our need for forgiveness, we shall have no audience with the Father. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” says John (1 Jn 1:9).
  • But let us be careful not to allow ourselves to fall into generalities. Generalities in confession are often insincerity. Is it not true? We can all pray, “Lord, forgive our sins.” But do we mean it if we cannot even answer what sin we are thinking of? Would it not be better to pray, “Lord, forgive me for my harsh words against Jane,” or “Lord, forgive me for my critical spirit against Tim,” or “Lord, I am ashamed of my lack of compassion towards the suffering saints in Malawi,” or “Father, forgive me for I have failed to delight in the Sabbath. Have mercy on me.”
  • But further, let us take heed to accompany our prayers of confession with deeds of repentance.

So, brethren and children, while not every prayer becomes legitimate only when there are statements of confession, let us see to it that we do not come to pray with iniquities unconfessed. Confession of sin should be part of our conversation with our Father each time we come to Him.

6. Remember Always to Give Thanks

Again, our Lord does not mention thanksgiving when he says, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” But just as the Lord will not hear the prayer of a proud and self-righteous person, He will not hear an arrogant and ungrateful person who thinks God owes it to him to bless him.

This is why the Scripture emphasises thanksgiving when we approach God:

  • Psalm 95:2: “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.”
  • Psalm 100:4: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”
  • Philippians 4:6: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”
  • Colossians 4:2: “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.”

Praise and thanksgiving are closely related. Praise is objective and relates to God’s perfections and work, whereas thanksgiving is subjective and relates to what God has done for us individually and corporately.

Prayer is the pouring out of our hearts unto God as needy, dependent and undeserving children. As such, we must approach Him with an attitude of awe and praise. But at the same time, we must approach Him with an attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving.

We must thank Him for the things He has already given us. We must thank Him for His providence in our lives. We must also ask Him in prayer with the attitude that what He gives us is always best for us.

This is why immediately after teaching us to ask, to seek and to find, the Lord says:

9  What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

Mt 7:9-11

The attitude of thanksgiving is an attitude of submission and confidence. It is an attitude that enables us to say: “Lord, I thank you for hearing my cry; I know that come what may, whatever Thou doth give me, must be best for me.”


This, in a nutshell, is prayer.

WSC 98. What is prayer? Answer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.

What shall we do with this doctrine? Well, let us learn to pray with these elements when we petition the LORD. Let us ask what is consistent with God’s revealed will. Let us address the Father with our heartfelt needs in the name of our compassionate Great High Priest. Let us confess our unbelief and failures as we seek His favour. Let us acknowledge His mercies toward us hitherto concerning the matter we ask.

But most importantly, let us pray and not faint (Lk 18:1-5). Let us remember that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (Jas 5:16b). If you are in Christ, you are righteous. Though God is sovereign and will bring about all things according to His sovereign power, He has appointed that we should pray. He has incorporated our prayers as secondary causes in the outworking of many things in this life. He has promised to answer your prayer. He has promised to give to you when you ask, to present to you when you seek, and to open for you when you knock!

Don’t ask what will not happen if you do not pray. Ask what could be accomplished if you pray. Again, God has ordained that prayer be the means of fellowship between us and our heavenly Father. Don’t ask whether you can change God’s mind with your prayer. Pray, persist in prayer and see what God will do in your soul. See what life abundant and free in the Lord Jesus Christ truly is as you heed His cry:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8  For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened

Mt 7:7-8


 —JJ Lim

  1. Prayer (BOT, 1965 [orig. 1662]), 13. ↩︎
  2. Comm. on Isa 63:16. ↩︎
  3. Comm. on Ps 20:3. ↩︎

Edited by: LPS