Westminster & Preaching: Prayer and the Pulpit

In his first sermon on our Lord’s prayer in John 17, Anthony Burgess (d. 1664), preacher and delegate to the Westminster Assembly, makes the case why prayer is necessary to all preaching.

“If therefore we would have our preaching and your hearing do any good, be powerful to a heavenly alteration and change, then look up with your eyes to heaven; It's from God that this must do me good, It's from God that this must teach my heart; In vain is a Teacher without if there be not also a Teacher within.”

For Burgess preaching is not enough. Of course, preaching is prescribed and essential to all good in the life of God’s people. The Church cannot live without preaching. Yet preaching cannot live without prayer. God alone possesses the key of all men’s hearts, says Burgess. Not the preacher. Not the people. The living God must come to us in preaching or we will never come to him.

Because men are sinners, prayer must always be employed in preaching. Prayer before and after preaching must not only plead that God graciously overcome the ruinous effects of our sin, but that God would also turn his anger away from our obstinacy and unbelief.

Humble prayer, spiritually prostrate before God, coming as lowly petitioners seeking benefits from the merciful God in the name of Christ, is our only hope that God has brought preaching to us and our children for better ends than he had in store for Judah when He sent Isaiah to them (Isa. 6:9-10).

Without entreaty to God and his gracious reply, says Burgess, “you hear yourselves into damnation, and we preach you into greater and greater spiritual judgements daily.”

Now it is not exactly clear how Burgess’ thoughts on prayer and preaching correspond to his participation in the Westminster Assembly. He was not a member of the subcommittee which drafted the Directory for Worship. Yet his concerns are clearly in accord with the Assembly’s own priorities for public worship.

The Directory calls for two prayers in relation to the sermon, one just before and one just after. The prayer before the sermon is when the minister “endeavor[s] to get his own and his hearers hearts to be rightly affected with their sins, that they may all mourn in sense thereof before the Lord, and hunger and thirst after the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”

Consonant with Burgess’ exhortations, the Directory calls for the preacher to confess sin on behalf of the people. The suggested language is not so much about sin preventing our ability to understand, but about the several ways we have offended God by neglecting graces previously given. It is a prayer designed to humble all, the preacher and the people:

“[We] bewail our blindness of mind, hardness of heart, unbelief, impenitency, security, luke-warmness, barrenness; our not endeavoring after mortification and newness of life, nor after the exercise of godliness in the power thereof.”

Even so, there must be a plea for mercy. Prayer without gospel is not Christian prayer. Thus, the Directory pivots from lament to hope in its suggested prayer before the sermon: “[We] draw near to the throne of grace, encouraging ourselves with hope of a gracious answer of our prayers, in the riches and all-sufficiency of that only one Oblation, the Satisfaction and Intercession of the Lord Jesus Christ….”

The Directory next addresses preaching itself. Even here prayer is not neglected. The Directory bids the preacher to toil in private prayer: “…he ought still to seek by prayer, and a humble heart, resolving to admit and receive any truth not yet attained, whenever God shall make it known unto him.” It is a fatal confidence if the preacher thinks he has already obtained all he needs to speak the oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11).

Finally, the Directory charges ministers to pray after preaching. The Assembly suggests God not only be thanked for what he has just given, but that God be petitioned that the message “may abide in the heart, and bring forth fruit.”  Burgess goes further. He says prayer after preaching is to be marked by urgency and soberness for he notes the many times in scripture God’s people saw and heard wonderful things yet afterward drifted into stubbornness as if unaffected.

In the things of God, God is our only hope. Preaching too. It is God whom we have business with, not the preacher. Preaching is useless to us unless God rises to our cause. As Burgess says, “Of itself it worketh no more than exhortations to a dead man, but when clothed with divine authority, then it beateth down everything that opposeth itself.”

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley