We Must Pray Only to God
For You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men 1 Kings 8:39b NKJV
This morning we look at Westminster Larger Catechism Question 179, which asks, “Are we to pray unto God only?” It gives the answer, “God only being able to search the hearts, hear the requests, pardon the sins, and fulfil the desire of all; and only to be believed in, and worshipped with religious worship; prayer, which is a special part thereof, is to be made by all to him alone, and to none other.”
The Scripture at the head of this article explicitly affirms the first reason given by the Catechism as to why prayer is to be made to God only: God alone knows the hearts of men. In Scripture, as in many languages, cultures, and nations, the heart is an often used metaphor to refer to a person’s innermost desires, attitudes, thoughts, and intentions. The actual heart of a person is a huge muscle located just left of center in the chest and its function is to constantly pump blood throughout the body. It is one of the most important organs of the body. If your heart stops beating for any length of time you are dead. However, as important as the heart is, it has nothing to do with a person’s thoughts or emotions and it is very unlikely that the ancients thought that it did. No, they used the word heart to refer to a man’s innermost disposition because of its crucial importance and its central location in the body. We do the same thing. Human beings are complex. We all have many different thoughts, impulses, and feelings at the same time. Some are more surface oriented and lightly held. They are external to what we really believe but for various reasons we temporarily adopt them. Only those motivations that constitute our deepest convictions come from “the heart.” And by definition no one can truly know our hearts except God. So prayer; the expression of our most earnest and sincere desires, fears, hopes, and confessions; must be made only to God.
Secondly, God alone is to be believed in and worshipped with “religious” worship. We are used to seeing the word religious as that which is surface, formal, and insincere. It is almost always a negative word today. Such was not the case in seventeenth century England. Religion and being religious was one of the most highly regarded and respected virtues. To worship or believe in something religiously was to do so with all of one’s heart. Yes the formalism was still part of the definition, but formalism also was positively regarded as over against a thoughtless, impolite, and disrespectful spontaneity. Additionally, religion referred to the divine. Anything religious was by definition related to God or to His worship. Finally, religion included and referred to the moral duty and piety of the believer in God. A religious person was someone who believed in God and keenly lived out that faith in moral uprightness. Thus, “religious worship” was understood to mean the most sincere and ardent kind of worship that was offered to a divine being according to his instructions. Prayer was and is a mark of nearly all religions. By stating that prayer is a part of “religious worship,” the Catechism was making an argument that by definition prayer is to be offered only to God. To pray to someone is to hold that One to be God.
In the middle ages many Christians began to “pray” to saints. The practice is quite common today in certain branches of Christianity. You can look up prayers to St. Christopher or St. Jude. The “Hail Mary” is probably the most famous prayer, which is regularly offered by millions of people to a real human being who physically died many years ago, Mary, the mother of our Lord. However, in order to pray to a departed saint the believer must hold that the saint can hear and grant his or her request. Here, those who defend prayer to the saints will say they are not really “praying” to the saint, they are “asking” the saint to pray for them. Certainly there is nothing wrong with asking a godly person to pray for you. It is something we all should do! Yet how can I as a living person ask a dead person to pray for me? And the answer is always and only: by praying to them. And that is the problem! Prayer is a part of religious worship. By definition it is to be offered to God only. Therefore, it is wrong and sinful to pray to another human being in order to ask him or her to pray for me. If I could call or text Mary to ask her to pray for me that would be legitimate. However, to pray to her in order to ask her to pray for me is by definition idolatrous. May God grant that you and I would grow in the time and the quality of our prayers that we offer to Him alone.