Johannes Schlaginhaufen, a ministerial student living in the home of Martin Luther in 1532, expressed to his mentor his struggle with prayer: “Whenever I think about God and Christ, this immediately comes into my mind: ‘You are a sinner; therefore, God is angry with you. For this reason, your prayer will amount to nothing.’ ” Luther replied to his student, “If I waited to pray until I was righteous, when would I pray? Now, then, whenever Satan suggests to you: ‘You are a sinner; God does not listen to sinners,’ you should boldly turn that argument inside and say, ‘Therefore, because I am a sinner, I pray, and I know that the prayers of the afflicted are effective in God’s sight’ ” (Wenger, The Pastoral Luther).
In these brief instructions to his student, Martin Luther revealed key aspects of his reformation of prayer. He rejected late medieval teaching that the efficacy of prayer came through the act of praying itself and the worthiness of the one offering up the prayer. Rather, Luther believed that prayers were efficacious based on the righteousness of God, the object of prayer, and the content of Scripture.
By the late medieval period, prayer had become a primary component of the sacrament of penance. This sacrament derived in part from a mistranslation of the Greek word for repentance in passages such as Luke 13:5, where the Latin Vulgate read “unless you do penance.” The Council of Trent (1545–1563) codified the doctrine and identified the elements of penance as contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Works of satisfaction performed by sinners allowed God to forgive the guilt of sin and remove the habits acquired by evil living.
The Council of Trent went on to prescribe three kinds of satisfaction—prayer, fasting, and giving alms—explaining, “God we appease by prayer, our neighbor we satisfy by alms, and ourselves we chastise by fasting.” Although no one can offer contrition or confession on behalf of another, one can “pay for others what is due to God” through prayer, alms, and fasting. Thus, medieval clergy devoted themselves to this task.
Medieval society was composed of three estates or orders: the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Third Estate (everyone else). A seventeenth-century lawyer summarized the duties of the three estates like this: “Some pray, others fight, still others work” (Duby, The Three Orders). Those in the praying class—parish priests, but especially monks and friars—were responsible to pray on behalf of those in the other estates. They had the time to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Also, through the sacrament of holy orders, they supposedly possessed a level of holiness that others did not, thus making their prayers more effective.
Martin Luther rejected the idea of a professional praying class and taught that everyone’s prayers could be effective. He discarded the errors of the medieval prayer books and compiled new volumes based on Scripture.
Luther insisted that Scripture teaches the priesthood of all believers, that all Christians have an equal soteriological standing in the sight of God, and that the clergy do not become more holy through the sacrament of holy orders. The prayers of monks are not necessarily more efficacious than those of peasant farmers. Prayers are efficacious only because of the righteousness of God (the object of prayer), not the righteousness of the one praying. All Christians are to pray because God commands us to pray, not because we are holy enough to pray. Luther confessed, “When [as a monk] I had prayed and said my mass I was very presumptuous. I didn’t see the scoundrel behind it all because I didn’t put my trust in God but in my own righteousness.”
Luther rejected the belief of the medieval monastics, who, he believed, were seeking to be righteous in their own eyes. Their repetitious prayers, Luther held, were attempts to offer up good works to God. He stated in the Large Catechism, “We have rightly rejected the prayers of monks and priests who howl and growl day and night like fiends.… For none of them has ever purposed to pray from obedience to God and faith in his promise, … but they thought no further than this, to do a good work, whereby they might repay God, as being unwilling to take anything from him, but wishing only to give him something.” Medieval monastics believed that their prayers, like the Lord’s Supper, were effective ex opere operato (i.e., innately), whether or not God even heard them. This turned prayer into a work, rather than an obedient response to what God had done.
Our own righteousness does not make our prayers efficacious, but neither should our lack of righteousness prevent us from obeying God’s command to pray. Luther explained in his Large Catechism, “For we allow such thoughts as these to lead us astray and deter us: ‘I am not holy or worthy enough; if I were as godly and holy as St. Peter or St. Paul, then I would pray.’ But put such thoughts far away, for just the same commandment which applied to St. Paul applies also to me.… Therefore, you should say: ‘My prayer is just as precious, holy, and pleasing to God as that of St. Paul, or of the most holy saints. This is the reason: For I will gladly grant that he is holier in his person, but not on account of the commandment; since God does not regard prayer on account of the person, but on account of his word and obedience thereto.’ ” We pray because God commands us to pray, and we have faith in God’s promise that he will hear our prayers.
Our lack of righteousness should not lead us to attempt to profit from the righteousness of dead saints by praying to them. Unlike the monastics, Luther and the Reformers offered prayers only through the mediation of Christ, never to and through departed saints. As Calvin explains, “Now Scripture recalls us from all to Christ alone, and our Heavenly Father wills that all things are gathered together in him. Therefore, it was the height of stupidity, not to say madness, to be so intent on gaining access through the saints as to be led away from him, apart from whom no entry lies open to them” (Institutes, 3.20).
Luther instructed Christians to pray in response to, and using the words of, God’s promises revealed in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, which contain “the total content of Scripture and preaching and everything a Christian needs to know” (Works, 43.13). In his 1535 advice to his barber on how to pray, Luther said that when he felt cool or joyless in prayer, he retreated to his room or to the church, where he recited quietly to himself the words of the “Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do” (A Simple Way to Pray, 1). With each passage, Christians should ponder the instructions given to them, offer thanksgiving, confess sins exposed by the text, and issue a general prayer in response. Instead of mindlessly repeating words, the Christian meditates on divine truths and responds in a prayer of repentance and faith.
Luther displayed his confidence in God’s promises in his prayer for his close friend Philip Melanchthon, who was deathly ill: “Our Lord God had to bear the brunt of this, for I threw my sack before his doors and wearied his ears with all his promises of hearing prayers that I knew from the Holy Scriptures, so that he had to hear me if I were to trust any of his other promises” (Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, 418).
Protestants subsequent to Luther followed in his reformation of prayer. Calvin believed that prayer was the means whereby we “reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father.” Those riches are not material goods, but the presence of God himself, in his providence (guarding us), power (sustaining us), and goodness (receiving us). Calvin concluded, “It is by prayer that we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us” (Institutes, 3.20).
Similarly, in the seventeenth century, the Westminster Divines designated prayer a means of grace: faith is increased and strengthened through the sacraments and prayer (WCF 14.1).
The Reformers taught that prayer, instead of a work of the professional praying class to appease God in the sacrament of penance, was an “offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confessions of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (WLC 178). The orientation of prayer was corrected: whereas the monastics offered it as a good work ascending to heaven, the Reformers saw it as an invocation for God to send down his favor based on the work of Christ.
Prayer was transformed from a meritorious work to a means of great comfort to God’s people. As Luther said, “For whenever a godly Christian prays: Dear Father, let Thy will be done, God speaks from on high and says: Yes, dear child, it shall be so, in spite of the devil and all the world.”
Some Christians today are still tempted to see prayer as a means of earning God’s temporal favor. While we realize that our works do not merit eternal life, we might think that our obedience to God’s command to pray causes him to smile on us or even to love us a bit more. We must recognize with the Reformers that our prayers do not deserve God’s favor, but that God chooses to communicate his favor, which is ours in Christ, through our prayers.
The author is the pastoral intern at Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Mass. New Horizons, January 2017.