Such teaching typically focuses on the crucial passages like the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, or the prayers of the Apostle Paul—all of which serve as wonderful examples of what biblical prayer looks like.
But there are other questions that you probably never thought to ask: How does the idea of prayer develop or change throughout the Bible? What was prayer like before the Pauline epistles, Christ’s teaching on prayer, or even the psalms? What does it really mean to pray in Jesus’ name?
These are some of the questions J. Gary Millar, Principal of Queensland Theological College, Australia tries to answer in Calling on the Name of the Lord: A biblical theology of prayer in the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series (NSBT) from InterVarsity Press.
Learning to Pray in Jesus’ Name
Millar’s root interest in this topic is “simply a desire to pray more and more effectively as one who belongs to, and is called to and is enabled to pray by the Lord Jesus Christ” (15). He also writes to combat a temptation in English-speaking churches to focus so much on expository preaching, that prayer gets left by the wayside, or at best, is hardly more than a mere tactic to close a small group meeting or conversation.
Consider Millar’s thesis:
Prayer in the Bible is intimately linked with the gospel — God’s promised and provided solution to the problem of human rebellion against him and its consequences. The gospel shape of prayer is evident from the opening pages of the Bible —and in particular from the first mention of prayer in Genesis 4:26, when people first begin to ‘call on the name of Yahweh’—right through to the end, when the church prays, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22:20).” (17)
This thesis is greatly shaped by a powerful quote from Calvin’s Institutes that Millar refers to several times:
“Just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name [Romans 10:14-17]. And this is precisely what [the apostle] had said a little before: the Spirit of adoption, who seals the witness of the gospel in our hearts [Romans 8:16] raises up our spirits to dare to show forth to God their desires, to stir up unspeakable groanings [Romans 8:26], and confidently cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ [Romans 8:15].”
(Calvin 1960, 2: 850-851)
The book walks through each major section of Scripture (the Pentateuch, the Former Prophets, the Latter Prophets, the Writings, the Psalms, the Gospels, the book of Acts, Paul’s letters, and the latter New Testament) to show the broad sweep of how prayer is talked about and done.
One of Millar’s main findings is that prayer responds to God’s promises. These promises look different at different points of salvation history. Early on, prayer responds to promises God made to Adam and Eve or responds to the Abrahamic Covenant, and pleads for God to keep his promises. As God’s self-revelation to humanity increases through the Scriptures and in relationship with Israel, covenant/promise-driven prayers are shaped by more revelation given. Since all of God’s promises are ‘Yes!’ and ‘Amen!’ in Jesus Christ, all true prayer is done in Jesus’ name and according to God’s purposes in history.
My experience and recommendation
This volume in The New Studies in Biblical Theology series is scholarly, but fairly accessible. Working through some chapters was slow going (particularly through portions of the Bible I have a hard time with). The book also was repetitive; but something to be expected in a tome seeking to prove a simple thesis through the whole Bible text.
Calling on the Name of the Lord has changed the way I look at prayer, but not in the way I expected. I expected to have some practical suggestions and insights from an assortment of biblical texts, but I found myself captivated by the big-picture simplicity of prayer. Pondering the prayers of Genesis 4:26 that were pre-flood, pre-Abraham, pre-Moses, pre-Bible, pre-automobile, pre-iPhone made me remember that we can still call on the name of the Lord and ask Him to fulfill His promises to us. And we enjoy so much more divine revelation available to us proving God’s love for us in Christ.
This book left me more motivated to anchor my prayers to God’s saving actions in Christ, pour out my heart before Him (Psalm 62:8), and cast all my anxieties on the One who cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).
I recommend this book for pastors and scholars looking to frame their understanding of prayer in God’s saving purposes.