What Prayer Does Not Do
If someone is scrolling through social media, it won’t take long to come across a post about a tragedy, illness, or a difficulty of life. Many people react to these posts with a comment letting the individual know they are praying for them. Sometimes the comment will simply say “prayers”, other times people may just use an emoji. I hope people are actually praying.
Some folks are cynical toward prayers. After a national tragedy, people may say “I am tired of thoughts and prayers. They aren’t helping.”. I would say by and large, these people are the loud exception to the rule. In tragedy especially, few people mock prayer. The opposite is usually true. People who don’t pray might give it a try when tragedy strikes.
Abraham Lincoln said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”. In the 1940’s James B Coats wrote the lyrics “Where could I go but to the Lord”. To those that pray, prayer is precious. And to many who do not pray, it is regarded as special.
Prayer is a wonderful privilege. The idea that a lowly human can go to the God of the universe and thank Him, honor Him, share problems with Him, and make requests to Him is more profound than can be expressed.
One thing that is clear by the Lord’s ministry is there are prayers that are good and acceptable, and there are prayers that are not. In Matthew 6:5-15, Jesus addresses hypocritical prayers, vain prayers, and he gives us a proper structure to prayers. With these things in mind, it becomes apparent quickly that some prayers can be powerless because of how we pray. However, some of the specific requests we have in prayers are inappropriate to ask for as well. There are some things that prayer was never designed for.
Prayer cannot make a sinner a saint. No one has ever been saved by reciting the “sinners prayer”. There are a lot of people who would say otherwise, but they will be hard pressed to find the sinners prayer in the Bible, or an example of someone being saved by a prayer.
In Acts 10, Peter is instructed to go to a centurion named Cornelius to share the gospel with him. Cornelius was a “devout man” and a “God fearing man”. Cornelius “prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). An angel appeared to Cornelius and told him to send for Peter because he needed to “hear words” from him (10:23). When Peter gets there he informs those present that he is there so they can “hear all things that have been commanded” by the Lord (10:33). In 11:14, Peter says that these are the word’s “through which he would be saved" (11:14).
Cornelius through all his praying was still lost. After a unique experience of the Holy Spirit falling upon the gentiles, signifying the kingdom of God being open to all nations (10:44-46; 11:16-18), Peter reveals that command that Cornelius was waiting for. The command was not to say a special worded prayer asking Jesus into his heart. The command was to “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48).
The conversion of Saul is spoken of in Acts 9, 22, and 26. Saul was a zealous jew that persecuted disciples of Christ. As Saul was going to Damascus to do damage to God’s people, Jesus appeared to him with a bright light and said “Saul Saul why persecutest thou me?”. Saul’s responded by asking who this was. The Lord responded, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”
The Lord then appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him that he is to go to Saul to give instructions to him. An interesting part of Pauls conversion is found in Acts 9:11 when the Lord includes this detail, to go and find Saul, “for behold, he prayeth”. From the time that Jesus appeared to him, to the time that Ananias got to him, Paul prayed.
I believe it is worth while to remind ourselves of the fact that Saul was there when Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7. That is significant because Stephen had preached a masterful gospel sermon to that crowd. Paul’s response was one that “consented to his death”. The point is, Saul heard the gospel in Acts 7 but didn’t believe it was true. In Acts 9, after his experience on the road, he believed it was true.
The prayers that he was offering up to God in Acts 9:11 were prayers of conviction and trust. But those prayers and that type of belief didn’t save him. I know this because in Acts 22:16, after his praying and belief, he was still in his sins. Ananias told him to “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling upon the name of the Lord”.
It is an interesting footnote to consider what Paul thought he was doing for those three days that he was praying. Did he think “calling upon the name of the Lord” meant to say a prayer? It certainly could have been the case. Perhaps that misunderstanding is why Ananias included that phrase in his instructions to Paul. Whatever the reason, Ananias cleared it up for all of us. Baptism, washing away sins, and calling upon the name of the Lord are all connected in meaning and purpose.
Peter says that baptism is an “appeal to God for a clean conscience” (1 Pet 3:21). We “call upon the name of the Lord” in our submission to the command of God, when in faith we are baptized to have our sins washed away.
Not once do you have someone told to say a prayer to be saved in the New Testament.