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Chapter V.

The work of the Holy Spirit as to the matter of prayer.

These things are considerable as to the matter of prayer; and with respect unto them, of ourselves we know not what we should pray for, nor how, nor when. And the first work of the Spirit of God, as a Spirit of supplication in believers, is to give them an understanding of all their wants, and of the supplies of grace and mercy in the promises, causing [such] a sense of them to dwell and abide on their minds as that, according unto their measure, they are continually furnished with the matter of prayer, without which men never pray, and by which, in some sense, they pray always; for, —

First, He alone doth, and he alone is able to give us such an understanding of our own wants as that we may be able to make our thoughts about them known unto God in prayer and supplication. And what is said concerning our wants is so likewise with respect unto the whole matter of prayer, whereby we give glory to God, either in requests or prayers. And this I shall manifest in some instances, whereunto others may be reduced.

1. The principal matter of our prayers concerneth faith and unbelief. So the apostles prayed in a particular manner, “Lord, increase our faith;” and so the poor man prayed in his distress, “Lord, help thou mine unbelief.” I cannot think that they ever pray aright who never pray for the pardon of unbelief, for the removal of it, and for the increase of faith. If unbelief be the greatest of sins, and if faith be the greatest of the gifts of God, we are not Christians if these things are not one principal part of the matter of our prayers. Unto this end we must be convinced of the nature and guilt of unbelief, as also of the nature and use of faith; nor without that conviction do we either know our own chiefest wants, or what to pray for as we ought. And that this is the especial work of the Holy Ghost our Saviour expressly declares, John xvi. 8, 9, “He will convince the world of sin, because they believe not on me.” I do and must deny that any one is or can be convinced of the nature and guilt of that unbelief, either in the whole or in the remainders of it, which the gospel condemneth, and which is the great condemning sin under the gospel, without an especial work of the Holy Ghost on his mind and soul; for unbelief, as it respecteth Jesus Christ, — not believing in him, or not believing in him as we ought, — is a sin against the gospel, and it is by the gospel alone that we may be convinced of it, and that as it is the ministration of the Spirit. Wherefore, neither the light of a natural conscience nor the law will convince any one of the guilt 278of unbelief with respect unto Jesus Christ, nor instruct them in the nature of faith in him. No innate notions of our minds, no doctrines of the law, will reach hereunto. And to think to teach men to pray, or to help them out in praying, without a sense of unbelief, or the remainders of it, in its guilt and power, the nature of faith, with its necessity, use, and efficacy, is to say unto the naked and the hungry, “Be ye warmed and filled,” and not give them those things that are needful to the body. This, therefore, belongs unto the work of the Spirit as a Spirit of supplication. And let men tear and tire themselves night and day with a multitude of prayers, if a work of the Spirit of God in teaching the nature and guilt of unbelief, and the nature, efficacy, and use of faith in Christ Jesus, go not with it, all will be lost and perish. And yet it is marvellous to consider how little mention of these things occurreth in most of those compositions which have been published to be used as forms of prayer. They are generally omitted in such endeavours, as if they were things wherein Christians were very little concerned. The gospel positively and frequently determines the present acceptation of men with God or their disobedience, with their future salvation and condemnation, according unto their faith or unbelief; for their obedience or disobedience are infallible consequents thereon. Now, if things that are of the greatest importance unto us, and whereon all other things wherein our spiritual estate is concerned do depend, be not a part of the subject-matter of our daily prayer, I know not what deserveth so to be.

2. The matter of our prayer respects the depravation of our nature, and our wants on that account. The darkness and ignorance that is in our understandings; our unacquaintedness with heavenly things, and alienation from the life of God thereby; the secret workings of the lusts of the mind under the shade and covert of this darkness; the stubbornness, obstinacy, and perverseness of our wills by nature, with their reluctancies unto and dislike of things spiritual, with innumerable latent guiles thence arising, — all keeping the soul from a due conformity unto the holiness of God, — are things which believers have an especial regard unto in their confessions and supplications. They know this to be their duty, and find by experience that the greatest concernment between God and their souls, as to sin and holiness, doth lie in these things; and they are never more jealous over themselves than when they find their hearts least affected with them. And to give over treating with God about them, — for mercy in their pardon, for grace in their removal, and the daily renovation of the image of God in them thereby, — is to renounce all religion and all designs of living unto God.

Wherefore, without a knowledge, a sense, a due comprehension of 279these things, no man can pray as he ought, because he is unacquainted with the matter of prayer, and knows not what to pray for. But this knowledge we cannot attain of ourselves. Nature is so corrupted as not to understand its own depravation. Hence some absolutely deny this corruption of it, so taking away all necessity of labouring after its cure and the renovation of the image of God in us; and hereby they overthrow the prayers of all believers, which the ancient church continually pressed the Pelagians withal. Without a sense of these things, I must profess I understand not how any man can pray. And this knowledge, as was said, we have not of ourselves. Nature is blind, and cannot see them; it is proud, and will not own them; stupid, and is senseless of them. It is the work of the Spirit of God alone to give us a due conviction of, a spiritual insight into, and a sense of the concernment of, these things. This I have elsewhere so fully proved as not here again to insist on it.

It is not easy to conjecture how men pray, or what they pray about, who know not the plague of their own hearts; yea, this ignorance, want of light into, or conviction of, the depravation of their nature, and the remainders thereof even in those that are renewed, with the fruits, consequents, and effects thereof, are the principal cause of men’s barrenness in this duty, so that they can seldom go beyond what is prescribed unto them. And they can thence also satisfy themselves with a set or frame of well-composed words; wherein they might easily discern that their own condition and concernment are not at all expressed if they were acquainted with them. I do not fix measures unto other men, nor give bounds unto their understandings; only I shall take leave to profess, for my own part, that I cannot conceive or apprehend how any man doth or can know what to pray for as he ought, in the whole compass and course of that duty, who hath no spiritual illumination, enabling him to discern in some measure the corruption of his nature and the internal evils of his heart. If men judge the faculties of their souls to be undepraved, their minds free from vanity, their hearts from guile and deceit, their wills from perverseness and carnality, I wonder not on what grounds they despise the prayers of others, but should do so to find real humiliation and fervency in their own.

Hereunto I may add the irregularity and disorder of our affections. These, I confess, are discernible in the light of nature, and the rectifying of them, or an attempt for it, was the principal end of the old philosophy; but the chief respect that on this principle it had unto them is as they disquiet the mind, or break forth into outward expressions, whereby men are defiled, or dishonoured, or distressed. So far natural light will go; and thereby, in the working of their consciences, as far as I know, men may be put to pray about them: but 280the chief depravation of the affections lies in their aversation unto things spiritual and heavenly.

They are, indeed, sometimes ready of themselves to like things spiritual under false notions of them, and divine worship under superstitious ornaments and meretricious dresses; in which respect they are the spring and life of all that devotion which is in the church of Rome: but take heavenly and spiritual things in themselves, with respect unto their proper ends, and there is in all our affections, as corrupted, a dislike of them and aversation unto them, which variously act themselves, and influence our souls unto vanities and disorders in all holy duties. And no man knows what it is to pray who is not exercised in supplications for mortifying, changing, and renewing of these affections as spiritually irregular; and yet is it the Spirit of God alone which discovereth these things unto us, and gives us a sense of our concernment in them. I say, the spiritual irregularity of our affections, and their aversation from spiritual things, is discernible in no light but that of supernatural illumination; for if without that spiritual things themselves cannot be discerned, as the apostle assures us they cannot, 1 Cor. ii. 14, it is impossible that the disorder of our affections with respect unto them should be so. If we know not an object in the true nature of it, we cannot know the actings of our minds towards it. Wherefore, although there be in our affections an innate, universal aversation from spiritual things, seeing by nature we are wholly alienated from the life of God, yet can it not be discerned by us in any light but that which discovers these spiritual things themselves unto us; nor can any man be made sensible of the evil and guilt of that disorder who hath not a love also implanted in his heart unto those things which it finds obstructed thereby. Wherefore, the mortification of these affections, and their renovation with respect unto things spiritual and heavenly, being no small part of the matter of the prayers of believers, as being an especial part of their duty, they have no otherwise an acquaintance with them or sense of them but as they receive them by light and conviction from the Spirit of God; and those who are destitute hereof must needs be strangers unto the fife and power of the duty of prayer itself.

As it is with respect unto sin, so it is with respect unto God and Christ, and the covenant, grace, holiness, and privileges. We have no spiritual conceptions about them, no right understanding of them, no insight into them, but what is given us by the Spirit of God; and without an acquaintance with these things, what are our prayers, or what do they signify? Men without them may say on to the world’s end without giving any thing of glory unto God, or obtaining of any advantage unto their own souls.

281And this I place as the first part of the work of the Spirit of supplication in believers, enabling them to pray according to the mind of God, which of themselves they know not how to do, as is afterward in the place of the apostle insisted on. When this is done, when a right apprehension of sin and grace, and of our concernment in them, is fixed on our minds, then have we in some measure the matter of prayer always in readiness; which words and expressions will easily follow, though the aid of the Holy Spirit be necessary thereunto also, as we shall afterward declare.

And hence it is that the duty performed with respect unto this part of the aid and assistance of the Spirit of God is of late by some (as was said) vilified and reproached. Formerly their exceptions lay all of them against some expressions or weakness of some persons in conceived prayer, which they liked not; but now scorn is poured out upon the matter of prayer itself, especially the humble and deep confessions of sin, which, on the discoveries before mentioned, are made in the supplications of ministers and others. The things themselves are traduced as absurd, foolish, and irrational, as all spiritual things are unto some sorts of men. Neither do I see how this disagreement is capable of any reconciliation; for they who have no light to discern those respects of sin and grace which we have mentioned cannot but think it uncouth to have them continually made the matter of men’s prayers. And those, on the other hand, who have received a light into them and acquaintance with them by the Spirit of God are troubled at nothing more than that they cannot sufficiently157157    “Omnino oportet nos orationis tempore curiam intrare cœlestem, illam utique curiam, in qua rex regum stellato sedet solio, circumdante innumerabili et ineffabili beatorum spirituum exercitu … Quanta ergo cum reverentia, quanto timore, quanta illuc humilitate accedere debet, à palude sua procedens et repens ranuncula vilis? Quam tremebundus, quam supplex, quam denique humilis et sollicitus, et toto intentus animo majestati gloriæ, in præsentia angelorum, in concilio justorum et congregatione assistere poterit miser homuncio?” — Bernard. Serm. de quatuor orandi modis. abase themselves under a sense of them, nor in any words fully express that impression on their minds which is put on them by the Holy Ghost, nor clothe their desires after grace and mercy with words sufficiently significant and emphatical. And therefore this difference is irreconcilable by any but the Spirit of God himself. Whilst it doth abide, those who have respect only unto what is discernible in the light of nature, or of a natural conscience, in their prayers will keep themselves unto general expressions and outward things, in words prepared unto that purpose by themselves or others, do we what we can to the contrary; for men will not be led beyond their own light, neither is it meet they should. And those who do receive the supplies of the Spirit in this matter will in their prayers be principally conversant about the spiritual, internal concernments of their souls in sin and grace, let others despise 282them and reproach them whilst they please. And it is in vain much to contend about these things, which are regulated not by arguments but by principles. Men will invincibly adhere unto the capacity of their light. Nothing can put an end to this difference but a more plentiful effusion of the Spirit from above; which, according unto the promise, we wait for.

Secondly, We know not what to pray for as we ought, but the Holy Ghost acquaints us with the grace and mercy which are prepared in the promises of God for our relief. That the knowledge hereof is necessary, to enable us to direct our prayers unto God in a due manner, I declared before, and I suppose it will not be denied; for, what do we pray for? what do we take a prospect and design of in our supplications? what is it we desire to be made partakers of? Praying only by saying or repeating so many words of prayer, whose sense and meaning those who make use of them perhaps understand not, as in the Papacy, or so as to rest in the saying or repetition of them without an especial design of obtaining some thing or things which we make known in our supplications, is unworthy the disciples of Christ, indeed of rational creatures. “Deal thus with thy governor, will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person?” as Mal. i. 8. Neither ruler, nor friend, nor neighbour, would accept it at our hands, if we should constantly make solemn addresses unto them without any especial design. We must “pray with our understanding;” that is, understand what we pray for. And these things are no other but what God hath promised; which if we are not regulated by in our supplications, we “ask amiss.” It is, therefore, indispensably necessary unto prayer that we should know what God hath promised, or that we should have an understanding of the grace and mercy of the promises. God knoweth our wants, what is good for us, what is useful to us, what is necessary to bring us unto the enjoyment of himself, infinitely better than we do ourselves; yea, we know nothing of these things but what he is pleased to teach us. These are the things which he hath “prepared” for us, as the apostle speaks, 1 Cor. ii. 9; and what he hath so prepared he declareth in the promises of the covenant, for they are the declaration of the grace and good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself. And hence believers may learn what is good for them, and what is wanting unto them in the promises, more clearly and certainly than by any other means whatever. From them, therefore, do we learn what to pray for as we ought. And this is another reason why men are so barren in their supplications, they know not what to pray for, but are forced to betake themselves unto a confused repetition of the same requests, — namely, their ignorance of the promises of God, and the grace exhibited in them. Our inquiry, therefore, is, by what way or means 283we come to an acquaintance with these promises, which all believers have in some measure, some more full and distinct than others, but all in a useful sufficiency. And this, we say, is by the Spirit of God, without whose aid and assistance we can neither understand them nor what is contained in them.

I do confess that some, by frequent reading of the Scripture, by only the help of a faithful memory, may be able to express in their prayers the promises of God, without any spiritual acquaintance with the grace of them; whereby they administer unto others, and not unto themselves: but this remembrance of words or expressions belongs not unto the especial work of the Holy Ghost in supplying the hearts and minds of believers with the matter of prayer. But this is that which he doth herein:— he openeth their eyes, he giveth an understanding, he enlighteneth their minds, so that they shall perceive the things that are of God prepared for them, and that are contained in the promises of the gospel; and represents them therein in their beauty, glory, suitableness, and desirableness unto their souls: he maketh them to see Christ in them and all the fruits of his mediation in them, all the effect of the grace and love of God in them; the excellency of mercy and pardon, of grace and holiness, of a new heart, with principles, dispositions, inclinations, and actings, all as they are proposed in the truth and faithfulness of God. Now, when the mind and heart is continually filled with an understanding and due apprehension of these things, it is always furnished with the matter of prayer and praise unto God; which persons make use of according as they have actual assistance and utterance given unto them. And whereas this Holy Spirit together with the knowledge of them doth also implant a love unto them upon the minds of believers, they are not only hereby directed what to pray for, but are excited and stirred up to seek after the enjoyment of them with ardent affections and earnest endeavours; which is to pray. And although, among those on whose hearts these things are not implanted, some may, as was before observed, make an appearance of it, by expressing in prayer the words of the promises of God retained in their memories, yet for the most part they are not able themselves to pray in any tolerable useful manner, and do either wonder at or despise those that are so enabled.

But it may be said, “That where there is any defect herein, it may be easily supplied; for if men are not acquainted with the promises of God themselves in the manner before described, and so know not what they ought to pray for, others, who have the understanding of them, may compose prayers for their use, according to their apprehensions of the mind of God in them, which they may read, and so have the matter of prayer always in a readiness.”

284I answer, — 1. I do not know that any one hath a command or promise of assistance to make or compose prayers to be said or read by others as their prayers; and therefore I expect no great matter from what any one shall do in that kind.

The Spirit of grace and supplication is promised, as I have proved, to enable us to pray, not to enable us to make or compose prayers for others.

2. It savours of some unacquaintance with the promises of God and the duty of prayer, to imagine that the matter of them, so as to suit the various conditions of believers, can be pent up in any one form of man’s devising. Much of what we are to pray about may be in general and doctrinally comprised in a form of words, as they are in the Lord’s Prayer, which gives directions in and a boundary unto our requests; but that the things themselves should be prepared and suited unto the condition and wants of them that are to pray is a fond imagination.

3. There is a vast difference between an objective proposal of good things to be prayed for unto the consideration of them that are to pray, which men may do, and the implanting an acquaintance with them and love unto them upon the mind and heart, which is the work of the Holy Ghost.

4. When things are so prepared and cast into a form of prayer, those by whom such forms are used do no more understand them than if they had never been cast into any such form, unless the Spirit of God give them an understanding of them, which the form itself is no sanctified means unto; and where that is done, there is no need of it.

5. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to give unto believers such a comprehension of promised grace and mercy as that they may constantly apply their minds unto that or those things in an especial manner which are suited unto their present daily wants and occasions, with the frame and dispositions of their souls and spirit. This is that which gives spiritual beauty and order unto the duty of prayer, — namely, the suiting of wants and supplies, of a thankful disposition and praises, of love and admiration, unto the excellencies of God in Christ, all by the wisdom of the Holy Ghost. But when a person is made to pray by his directory for things, though good in themselves, yet not suited unto his present state, frame, inclination, wants, and desires, there is a spiritual confusion and disorder, and nothing else.

Again; what we have spoken concerning the promises must also be applied unto all the precepts or commands of God. These in like manner are the matter of our prayers, both as to confession and supplication; and without a right understanding of them, we can perform no part of this duty as we ought. This is evident in their 285apprehension who, repeating the words of the decalogue, do subjoin their acknowledgments of a want of mercy, with respect unto the transgression of them I suppose, and their desires to have their hearts inclined to keep the law. But the law with all the commands of God are spiritual and inward, with whose true sense and importance, in their extent and latitude, we cannot have a useful acquaintance but by the enlightening, instructing efficacy of the grace of the Spirit. And where this is, the mind is greatly supplied with the true matter of prayer; for when the soul hath learned the spirituality and holiness of the law, its extent unto the inward frame and disposition of our hearts, as well as unto outward actions, and its requiring absolute holiness, rectitude, and conformity unto God, at all times and in all things, then doth it see and learn its own discrepancy from it and coming short of it, even then when as to outward acts and duties it is unblamable. And hence do proceed those confessions of sin, in the best and most holy believers, which they who understand not these things do deride and scorn. By this means, therefore, doth the Holy Spirit help us to pray, by supplying us with the due and proper matter of supplications, even by acquainting us and affecting our hearts with the spirituality of the command, and our coming short thereof in our dispositions and frequent inordinate actings of our minds and affections. He who is instructed herein will on all occasions be prepared with a fullness of matter for confession and humiliation, as also with a sense of that grace and mercy which we stand in need of with respect unto the obedience required of us.

Thirdly, He alone guides and directs believers to pray or ask for any thing in order unto right and proper ends: for there is nothing so excellent in itself, so useful unto us, so acceptable unto God, as the matter of prayer; but it may be vitiated, corrupted, and prayer itself be rendered vain, by an application of it unto false or mistaken ends. And that in this case we are relieved by the Holy Ghost, is plain in the text under consideration; for helping our infirmities, and teaching us what to pray for as we ought, he “maketh intercession for us according to God,” — that is, his mind or his will, Rom. viii. 27. This is well explained by Origen on the place: “Velut si magister suscipiens ad rudimenta discipulum, et ignorantem penitus literas, ut eum docere possit et instituere, necesse habet inclinare se ad discipuli rudimenta, et ipse prius dicere nomen literæ, ut respondendo discipulus discat, et sit quodammodo magister incipienti discipulo similis, ea loquens et ea meditans, quæ incipiens loqui debeat ac meditari; ita et Sanctus Spiritus, ubi oppugnationibus carnis perturbari nostrum spiritum viderit, et nescientem quid orare debeat secundum quod oportet, ipse velut magister orationem præmittit, 286quam noster spiritus (si tamen discipulus esse Sancti Spiritus desiderat) prosequatur, ipse gemitus offert quibus noster spiritus discat ingemiscere, ut repropitiet sibi Deum.” To the same purpose speaks Damascen, lib. iv. chap. 3; and Austin in sundry places, collected by Beda, in his comment on this. He doth it in us and by us, or enableth us so to do; for the Spirit himself without us hath no office to be performed immediately towards God, nor any nature inferior unto the divine wherein he might intercede. The whole of any such work with respect unto us is incumbent on Christ; he alone in his own person performeth what is to be done with God for us. What the Spirit doth, he doth in and by us. He therefore directs and enableth us to make supplications “according to the mind of God.” And herein God is said to “know the mind of the Spirit;” that is, his end and design in the matter of his requests. This God knows; that is, approves of and accepts. So it is the Spirit of God who directs us as to the design and end of our prayers, that they may find acceptance with God.

But yet there may be, and I believe there is, more in that expression, “God knoweth the mind of the Spirit;” for he worketh such high, holy, spiritual desires and designs in the minds of believers in their supplications as God alone knoweth and understandeth in their full extent and latitude. That of ourselves we are apt to fail and mistake hath been declared from James iv. 3.

I shall not here insist on particulars, but only mention two general ends of prayer which the Holy Spirit keeps the minds of believers unto in all their requests, where he hath furnished them with the matter of them according to the mind of God; for he doth not only make intercession in them, according unto the mind of God, with respect unto the matter of their requests, but also with respect unto the end which they aim at, that it may be accepted with him. He guides them, therefore, to design, —

1. That all the success of their petitions and prayers may have an immediate tendency unto the glory of God. It is he alone who enables them to subordinate all their desires unto God’s glory. Without his especial aid and assistance we should aim at self only and ultimately in all we do. Our own profit, ease, satisfaction, mercies, peace, and deliverance, would be the end whereunto we should direct all our supplications; whereby they would be all vitiated and become abominable.

2. He keeps them unto this also, that the issue of their supplications may be the improvement of holiness in them, and thereby their conformity unto God, with their nearer access unto him. Where these ends are not, the matter of prayer may be good and according to the word of God, and yet our prayers an abomination. We may 287pray for mercy and grace, and the best promised fruits of the love of God, and yet for want of these ends find no acceptance in our supplications. To keep us unto them is his work, because it consists in casting out all self ends and aims, bringing all natural desires unto a subordination unto God, which he worketh in us if he worketh in us any thing at all.

And this is the first part of the work of the Spirit towards believers as a Spirit of grace and supplication, — he furnisheth and filleth their minds with the matter of prayer, teaching them thereby what to pray for as they ought; and where this is not wrought in some measure and degree, there is no praying according to the mind of God.

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