A couple of months ago, my wife and I went to a high school basketball game to support a family friend. The game featured a matchup of two private schools. Everything seemed pretty typical leading up to the game. Rap was blaring from the loud speakers, students were going nuts as both teams warmed up. A couple of minutes later, the starting lineups were announced. Still your typical high school basketball game, but then right before the teams were set to tip-off, the gentleman on the public address system started saying the Lord’s Prayer. I looked around as hundreds of people were casually reciting in a mechanical way these words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. The man with the microphone ended with a hearty amen, and the referees called both teams to center court for the game to begin. I was not certain of what had just happened, but I know what did not happen. I know that we were not praying.
Surely this experience was not what Jesus had in mind when He taught His disciples how to pray—hundreds of people reducing this paradigm for prayer to some sort of cultural rite of passage so a game could begin. Christ’s teaching was belittled with the type of mechanical jargon He warned against in the Sermon on the Mount. However, this experience did cause me to ponder the prayer that had been recited by the crowd in the gym that evening.
The privilege of prayer is magnified in the initial phrase of Jesus as He tells His disciples to pray, “Our Father in Heaven.” There is so much for us to learn in these words. First, we see that what is normal for prayer is not simply personal. No, it is corporate. Jesus does not tell us to pray, “My Father.” He says, “Our Father.”
Second, we see the beauty of the gospel in this prayer. Jesus does not teach us to come to God on the basis of some lesser status. We come as children to a Father. But how can this be? How can wretched sinners who deserve the wrath of God have the privilege of prayer? How can rebels be called the children of God and invited to come to His throne day and night?
Answering such questions requires that we see the connection between prayer and the gospel. In turn, we see why saying the Lord’s Prayer misses its intended purpose when it is recited mindlessly, particularly by those who are not Christians.
The Gospel and Prayer
When the disciples came to Jesus asking how to pray, they came to the One who gives us access to God. In fact, this is why Jesus came—so that we could commune with God. This is why He left His throne in glory. This is why the One who is holy, righteous, and just, the One through whom all things were made, humbled Himself and came to live among us.
In its description of what a kingdom citizen should look like, the Sermon on the Mount reveals our hypocrisy and our sin. At the same time, it declares where Christ succeeded. He lived the life we could not. He was perfectly obedient.
He then went to the cross to atone for our sins, absorbing the wrath of God that we deserved. At the cross, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One died for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18). Three days later, Jesus was raised from the dead because God’s justice had been satisfied. Christ then ascended to God’s right hand, where he intercedes for us, giving us access to the Father in prayer.
Who has the right to cry out to God? Who can come to Him in prayer? No one, in and of themselves. Only through the finished work of Christ can we pray to God, which means that the One who gives us a paradigm for prayer has purchased our communion with God.
Bold in Christ
We now can boldly approach the throne of grace, calling out to our Father, through the Son, by the power of the Spirit. We can revel in the words of the apostle Paul to the church at Rome:
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Rom 8:12–17)
We are no longer slaves to fear but have received the Spirit of adoption. We do not approach God dreading His condemnation but realize that Christ has been condemned for us. With the hymn writer, we can rejoice in our privilege of prayer:
My God is reconciled, His pardoning voice I hear.
He owns me for His child, I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh, with confidence I now draw nigh,
And Father, Abba, Father cry!