A detailed explanation of Westminster Shorter Catechism
By James Fisher (1697–1775)
Question 98: What is prayer?
Answer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires to God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
Q. 1. “Are we to pray to God only?”
A. “God only being to be believed in, and worshipped with religious worship, prayer, which is a special part thereof, is to be made by all to him alone, and to none other.”
Q. 2. Why is prayer to be made by all to God alone, and to none other?
A. Because “God only is able to search the hearts, hear the requests, pardon the sins, and fulfil the desires of all.”
Q. 3. May we not direct our prayers to any of the persons of the adorable Trinity?
A. To be sure we may: for the Three-one God being the sole object of religious worship, whichever of the three persons we address, the other two are understood as included, 2 Cor. 13:14.
Q. 4. Why may we not pray to angels, or saints departed?
A. Because it would be gross idolatry, they being but mere creatures; nor can they supply the wants, nor remove the miseries which sin has brought upon us.
Q. 5. Do we pray to God to inform him of what he knew not before?
A. Not at all: for from eternity he knew all the thoughts that ever should pass through our minds in time, Psalm 139:2,4.
Q. 6. Do we pray to him that we may alter his mind, or incline him to any thing which he was formerly unwilling to grant?
A. No; for with him is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning,” James 1:17; but we pray to him, that we may obtain what we know and believe he is willing to confer, 1 John 5:14 — “This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us.”
Q. 7. What are the several parts of prayer mentioned in this answer?
A. They are these three; petition, confession, and thanksgiving.
Q. 8. In which of these does prayer properly consist?
A. In PETITION, or supplication.
Q. 9. How does the answer describe our petitions, or supplications?
A. It describes them to be an offering up of our desires to God.
Q. 10. Why are our petitions called our desires?
A. Because the words of our mouth, without the desires of our heart, are nothing but empty sounds in the ears of God, Isa. 29:13 — “This people draw near to me with their mouth, — but have removed their heart far from me.”
Q. 11. Why must there be an offering up of our desires to God?
A. Because prayers are “spiritual sacrifices,” 1 Pet. 2:5; and all sacrifices were appointed to be offered to God only, 2 Kings 17:35, 36.
Q. 12. From whence flow the desires of the heart?
A. From a sense of need: we cannot have any earnest desire after that, with the want of which we are no way affected; for, “the full soul loatheth a honey comb,” Prov. 27:7.
Q. 13. For what THINGS ought we to offer up our desires to God?
A. For things agreeable to his will.
Q. 14. What will of God are we to have our eye upon, when we ask any thing from him?
A. Not upon his secret, but his revealed will, Deut. 29:29.
Q. 15. How shall we know, if what we ask be agreeable to his revealed will?
A. If we ask what he has promised, we are sure it is agreeable to his revealed will to confer it, because the promise is to us, Acts 2:39.
Q. 16. Are we straitened, or narrowed, in our requests, when we are confined to the promise as the subject-matter of them?
A. By no means; for the promise contains infinitely more than we are able to “ask or think,” Eph. 3:20.
Q. 17. May we ask temporal mercies at the hand of God?
A. Yes; because they are promised, so far as we have any real need of them, Psalm 34:10; Isa. 33:16.
Q. 18. Whether ought temporal or spiritual mercies to have the preference in our requests?
A. Spiritual mercies ought to have the preference, Matt. 6:33 — “SEEK ye FIRST the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Q. 19. What is meant by the kingdom of God, and his righteousness?
A. The work of grace in the soul, and the surety-righteousness imputed, as the foundation of it, Rom. 8:4.
Q. 20. Why are these to be sought in the first place?
A. Because absolutely necessary to salvation, Rom. 5:21.
Q. 21. In whose NAME are we to ask things agreeable to God’s will?
A. In the name of Christ.
Q. 22. What is it to pray in the name of Christ?
A. It is, “in obedience to his command, and in confidence of his promise, to ask mercies for his sake?”
Q. 23. Is the bare mentioning of Christ’s name, a praying therein?
A. No; but a “drawing our encouragement to pray, and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer, from Christ and his mediation.”
Q. 24. “Why are we to pray in the name of Christ?”
A. “Because the sinfulness of man, and his distance from God, by reason thereof, is so great, as that we can have no access into his presence without a Mediator.”
Q. 25. Is there any other Mediator but Christ, in whose name we may approach to God?
A. No; “there being none in heaven or earth appointed to, or fit for that glorious work but Christ alone, we are to pray in no other name but his only, Col. 3:17.
Q. 26. Can we, of ourselves, pray in a right manner?
A. No; unless the Spirit of supplication is poured upon us, (Zech. 12:10) to help our infirmities; “for we know not what to pray for as we ought,” Rom. 8:26.
Q. 27. How doth the Spirit help us to pray?
A. By enabling us to understand both for whom, and what, and how prayer is to be made?”
Q. 28. For whom are we to pray?
A. For the whole church of Christ upon earth; for magistrates, and ministers; for ourselves, our brethren; yea, our enemies; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter.”
Q. 29. For what are we to pray, in behalf of the whole church of Christ upon earth?
A. “That they all may be one” in Christ, the glorious head, John 17:21; and that they may “grow up unto him in all things,” Eph. 4:15, till they “all come in the unity of the faith, and knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfectman, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” verse 13.
Q. 30. For what should we pray with reference to magistrates?
A. That they may not be “a terror to good works, but to the evil,” Rom. 13:3; and that, under them, we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty, 1 Tim. 2:2.
Q. 31. For what should we pray in behalf of ministers?
A. That they may not SHUN to declare to their hearers “the whole counsel of God,” Acts 20:27; and that they may “watch for their souls, as they that must give account,” Heb. 13:17.
Q. 32. Can we be hearty in praying for others, if we neglect to pray for ourselves?
A. No; for if we are indifferent about the state of our own souls, it is impossible we can be concerned for others, any farther than our interest and affection bind us, Job 27:10.
Q. 33. Who are our brethren for whom we are to pray?
A. They are not only our kindred, according to the flesh, but all the members of the visible church; yea, all our fellow-creatures, 1 John 4:21.
Q. 34. For what are we to pray in behalf of our, enemies?
A. That their hearts may be changed, their tempers softened, that however they have treated us, they may be made Christ’s friends, and partakers of eternal salvation through him, Matt. 5:44, compared with Luke 23:34.
Q. 35. If we are to pray for all sorts of men living, how may we pray about the Roman Antichrist?
A. Out of the love we should bear to our fellow-creatures, who are under the yoke and dominion of the Roman Antichrist, we ought to pray no otherwise about him, than that the Lord would soon “consume him with the Spirit of his mouth, and destroy him with the brightness of his coming,” 2 Thess. 2:8.
Q. 36. What do we mean, when we pray for those that shall live hereafter?
A. We hereby desire, that Christ’s kingdom and interest may be propagated and advanced in the world, until his second coming, Psalm 102:18; John 17:20.
Q. 37. For whom are we not to pray?
A. We are not to pray “for the dead, 2 Sam. 12:23; nor for those that are known to have sinned the sin unto death, 1 John 5:16.”
Q. 38. Why should we not pray for the dead?
A. Because at death the state of every man and woman is unalterably fixed, Luke 14:22-27.
Q. 39. How may those be known, who have sinned the sin unto death?
A. By their rejection of the gospel which they once professed to embrace; by their malice and envy against Christ, and the way of salvation through him; by their treating the convincing evidences of Christianity, and the peculiar doctrines of it, with blasphemy and contempt; and by their rooted hatred of all religion, and the professors of it.
Q. 40. Why are we not to pray for those, who are known to have sinned this sin?
A. Because the sin against the Holy Ghost is declared, in scripture, to be unpardonable, Matt. 12:31, 32, in regard it is a wilful and blasphemous opposition to the testimony of the Spirit of God concerning Christ, as the only way of salvation, Luke 12:10.
Q. 41. For what things are we to pray?
A. For all things tending to the glory of God, the welfare of the church, our own or others’ good, but not for any thing that is unlawful.
Q. 42. How are we to pray?
A. We are to pray — with understanding, faith, sincerity, fervency, love, and perseverance.
Q. 43. What is it to pray with understanding?
A. It is to have some knowledge of God, who is the object of prayer, Psalm 65:2; of our own necessities, which are the subject-matter of it, Psalm 60:11; and of the promises, which are our encouragement in it, Num. 14:17-19.
Q. 44. What is it to pray in faith?
A. It is to believe that we receive the promised blessings we ask, because he has said, “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them,” Mark 11:24.
Q. 45. What is it to pray with sincerity and fervency?
A. It is to have the heart and affections earnestly intent upon what we are praying for, Psalm 17:1 — “O Lord, attend unto my cry; give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips.”
Q. 46. What is that love to God, which should be exercised in prayer?
A. It is an ardent desire of his presence, Isa. 26:9; and an unfeigned delight in him, as the most amiable and soul-satisfying object, Psalm 73:25.
Q. 47. What is it to pray with perseverance? Eph. 6:18.
A. It is to continue “instant in prayer,” as the word is rendered, Rom. 12:12; or, to bear up against all discouragements, and not to give over, though we have not a speedy answer or return, Matt. 15:22-29.
Q. 48. Is there any difference between praying with perseverance, and praying always, or without ceasing? 1 Thess. 5:17.
A. The difference may lie in this, that to pray with perseverance, is not to become weary of the duty, or desist from it, though we do not immediately obtain what we are praying for; but to pray always, or without ceasing, is to study to maintain a praying frame, Psalm 73:23, and not to neglect the seasons of prayer, as they recur, Psalm 61:2.
Q. 49. What are the several kinds of prayer mentioned in scripture?
A. They are commonly ranked under these three, namely, secret, private, and public prayer.
Q. 50. What is SECRET prayer?
A. It is the retirement of individuals, or single persons, from all company with others, for a time, that they may have free and familiar intercourse with God by themselves: Matt. 6:6 — “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet; and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.”
Q. 51. Is secret prayer incumbent on every Christian?
A. Yes; because every Christian has his own particular wants to be supplied, Psalm 70:5; doubts to be solved, Isa 38:14; and difficulties to be removed, 2 Cor 12:8, which none but God himself can do, Psalm 35:10.
Q. 52. May there not be secret prayer even in company with others?
A. Yes; there may be what is ordinarily called EJACULATORY prayer.
Q. 53. What is ejaculatory prayer?
A. It is a secret and sudden lifting up of the soul’s desires to God, upon any emergency that may occur in providence.
Q. 54. How may we engage in this kind of prayer?
A. Either by a simple thought darted up to heaven, as it would seem Nehemiah did, chap. 2:4; or by words uttered in the mind, yet so as the voice cannot be heard, as we read that Hannah did, 1 Sam. 1:13.
Q. 55. With what success have these ejaculatory breathings of the soul met?
A. They have met with very quick and happy returns, as in the instance of Moses, who, in the midst of the people’s murmuring at the Red Sea, despatched his desires to heaven, in some short ejaculation, to which the Lord gave a present return, Ex. 14:15 — “Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.” And the sons of Reuben, &c., when fighting with the Hagarites, 1 Chron. 5:20 — “They cried to God in the battle, and he was entreated of them.”
Q. 56 What is the usefulness of ejaculatory prayer?
A. It tends to maintain fellowship with God, without any interruption of our lawful callings, Psalm 73:23. It is also a mean to repel sudden temptations, 2 Cor. 12:8, 9; and to dispose the heart for a more solemn performance of the stated duties of prayer and praise in the season of them, Psalm 42:verses 6th and 8th compared.
Q. 57. What is PRIVATE prayer?
A. It is prayer among a few Christians, met together for joining in that solemn exercise, Rom. 16:5.
Q. 58. How is it commonly distinguished?
A. Into family, and social prayer.
Q. 59. What is social prayer?
A. It is to pray in a fellowship society of Christians, out of several families, intermixed with spiritual conference upon soul-edifying subjects; and that at such times as they mutually agree among themselves, Mal. 3:16.
Q. 60. What is PUBLIC prayer?
A. It is the solemn worshipping of God by the church, in her public assemblies, in which a pastor, or one authorized to preach the gospel, is always the mouth of the people to God, Acts 20:36.
Q. 61. What is it to JOIN in private or public prayer, where one is the mouth of the rest?
A. It is to offer up the desires that come from the mouth of the speaker, (for things agreeable to God’s will), as if uttered by ourselves.
Q. 62. What is incumbent on those who are the mouth of others in prayer to God?
A. They are called, to take very special care, that their prayers be regulated exactly by the revealed will of God; in which case all present will be encouraged to join in every part of the duty.
Q. 63. What is requisite for joining in prayer in a right manner?
A. It is highly requisite, in order to this, that there be close attention without wandering, Acts 2:42 — “And they continued steadfastly in prayers;” that there be a lively faith, without doubting, James 1:6; and a series of ejaculation concurring with the words of God that may be spoken, 1 Chron. 16:36.
Q. 64. What is the SECOND PART of prayer mentioned in the answer?
A. It is confession of our sins.
Q. 65. Why is confession of sin mentioned as a part of prayer?
A. Because, being sinners, we cannot pray in faith for any promised mercy, without acknowledging our unworthiness of it; or that it is infinitely above our desert, Dan. 9:18.
Q. 66. What then does the confession of sin necessarily suppose?
A. It supposes guilt, and deserved punishment on account of it, Ezra 9:13.
Q. 67. Why is confession of sin necessary in prayer?
A. Because we cannot be cordial and hearty in asking forgiveness of our sins, unless we are some way affected by a sense of them, Psalm 25:11.
Q. 68. For what end should we confess our sins in prayer?
A. That God may be justified, and have the glory of his judgments, as being all of them just and righteous, Psalm 51:4; and that we may be humbled, and disposed to receive undeserved favours with gratitude, Psalm 32:5.
Q. 69. In what manner should we confess our sins?
A. With grief and hatred of them, Luke 18:13; and with full purpose (in the strength of grace) to forsake them, Job 34:32.
Q. 70. What is the THIRD PART of prayer mentioned in the answer?
A. It is a thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
Q. 71. Are prayer and thanksgiving joined together in scripture?
A. Yes; Psalm 116:17 — “I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord.”
Q. 72. What is the subject-matter of thankfulness?
A. It is mercies, or benefits, whether offered or received.
Q. 73. Why are the blessings we want called mercies?
A. Because having made ourselves miserable by sin, we are most unworthy and undeserving of them, Gen. 32:10.
Q. 74. Why called his mercies?
A. Because God himself is the author of them, and they are his free gift to us, 1 Tim. 6:17.
Q. 75. For what mercies ought we to be thankful?
A. Both for temporal and spiritual; common and special mercies, Psalm 145:9.
Q. 76. What is the best evidence of thankfulness to God for his mercies of any kind?
A. It is to be thankful for Christ, his unspeakable gift, 2 Cor. 9:15.
Q. 77. When ought we to make thankful acknowledgment to God for his mercies?
A. At all times, and on all occasions; there being no condition of life, but what has some mixture of mercy in it, Job 11:6; Psalm 101:1.
Q. 78. Is there ground of thankfulness under afflictions or chastisements?
A. “Though no chastening for the present be joyous, but grievous;” nevertheless it is ground of thankfulness, if “afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness, and be for our profit, and that we may be partakers of his holiness,” Heb. 12:10, 11.
Q. 79. Why ought prayer to be joined with a thankful acknowledgment of God’s mercies?
A. That the mercies we receive may be blessed to us in the use of them; and that we may not, by our ingratitude, provoke God to deny us the mercies we may ask for the future, Isa. 1:15.
Q. 80. How may we know if our prayers are accepted and heard?
A. If we have been helped to enlargement and importunity in prayer, and yet have attained to a holy submission to the will of God, as to the particular we were asking, it is a good evidence that he has heard the voice of our supplication, 2 Chron. 20:12, 17.
Q. 81. How may we know whether mercies come to us in the course of common providence, or as an answer to prayer?
A. This may be known both from the manner, and from the time, in which mercies are received.
Q. 82. How may it appear from the manner in which mercies are received, that they are in answer to our prayers?
A. It may be known by these two signs; namely, if the mercy be granted speedily and unexpectedly, Isa. 65:24; and other mercies are conferred together with, and over and above that which we desired, 1 Kings 3:12, 13.
Q. 83. How may it be known from the time in which mercies are received, that they are given in return of prayer?
A. If they are granted at the time when we need them most, or at the time when we are most earnest and importunate about them; as Peter’s deliverance from prison was on the very night which Herod had determined should be his last; and likewise when the church was assembled to wrestle in prayer for him, Acts 12:6, 7, 12.
Q. 84. Why does the Lord delay mercies, which he designs afterwards to confer?
A. He delays granting them, that we may be the more thankful for them when they come; and in the mean time to make us more assiduous and ardent supplicants for them, 2 Cor. 12:8,9.