To Pray or Not to Pray?
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 1 Timothy 2:1-2NKJV
This morning we look at Westminster Larger Catechism Question 183, which asks, “For whom are we to pray?” It gives the answer, “We are to pray for the whole church of Christ upon earth; for magistrates, and ministers; for ourselves, our brethren, yea, our enemies; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter, but not for the dead, nor for those that are known to have sinned the sin unto death.”
It is almost never wrong to pray for someone. That is, assuming we are praying for their good, that they would do good, that they would trust God, that they would turn away from sin, that God would have mercy upon them. Such prayers are almost always good and right to offer to God, again assuming that we are coming to God, the one true God, in real humility, and by faith in Christ. And there is a certain priority that we are to have concerning the people for whom we are to pray. Though not explicitly stated here by the Catechism, the principle of honoring our own fathers and mothers and caring for particularly our own families necessarily applies to the practice of prayer. Scripture says that if a man does not provide for his family, especially for the members of his own household, he denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). Prayer is an important part of our provision. Our families are the first ones we are to provide for. Therefore, we are responsible first and foremost to pray for our immediate families.
Alongside the principle to provide is the command to love. Love, like provision, goes out first to our immediate circle and then outwards to all. In addition to his physical family the Christian has a spiritual family, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the Catechism teaches we are to pray for the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, the family of God, composed of believers and their children. Of course we cannot know the hearts of other people, to know who is truly converted or not, but that is not our business. Our business is to pray for all who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and for their children, because we are family. “Magistrates and ministers” refers to the leaders of church and state. The reason why they are mentioned first is not because they are more important or more valuable in the sight of God, but because being in positions of authority, magistrates and ministers touch many lives in very significant ways. Their jurisdiction concerns the bodies and souls of men, and therefore the more God blesses the right administering of these offices, the more blessings go out to everyone under them.
After mentioning the institutions of church and state, the Catechism exhorts us to pray for individuals. “Our brethren,” being mentioned between “ourselves” and “our enemies”, probably should be understood as our neighbors: those fellow-human beings who are in some way near us; for we are all brethren in the sense that we are all sons and daughters of the same two human parents. Praying for our neighbors and our enemies is part of the duty of showing love to them, as is the duty to love ourselves. If I truly love myself, that is with real Biblical and therefore holy love, I will pray for myself. I will pray in particular that my faith and repentance will increase, that my love for God and neighbor will grow, and that I will do more and more good works and less and less bad ones. “All sorts of men” refers to everyone else. We should pray for people we do not even know, people we hear of on the news or read about in the paper. Anyone of whom God makes you aware, pray for them. Pray for their spiritual and physical good. Likewise, we can and should pray for future generations, for those yet unborn. Jesus prayed this way (John 17:20), and therefore, so should we.
It is almost always good to pray for others, however, there are two groups of people for whom we are not to pray. We must not pray for the dead. The reason for this is that those who have died have been judged (Heb. 9:27). Their sentence has begun. They are either with the Lord or in torment. To pray for the dead is to go against the already executed will of God. This is also the reason we are not to pray for those that are known to have committed the “sin unto death.” The Catechism cites 1 John 5:16 at this point. The reasoning is the same. The person who has sinned “unto death” has already had God’s sentence pronounced upon him. Therefore, to pray for that person would be to go against the declared will of God. Now how it is that we can know someone has committed such a sin is not explained by the Catechism, and neither can I explain it! But if God had in some certain way revealed to us that a person has been condemned by Him, it would by definition be wrong to go against God’s will to pray for that person. However, short of that divine revelation, we are to pray for everyone we know, for those who will live after us, and for all who are currently alive, just as long as they still draw breath.