What’s the greatest need of the church? What’s the most pressing need for your congregation? What should be your greatest priority?
If this was kids’ TV, I’d ask for answers on the back of a post-card. In lieu of such a method of reader participation, allow me to anticipate some responses. In fact, if you pushed me, these are probably my knee-jerk reactions to the question. What’s the greatest need of the church? Perhaps it’s systematic expository preaching, which strives to apply God’s Word to God’s peoples’ hearts. Or, our top priority should be crafting robustly biblical worship, joyful and true. Maybe we need a greater understanding of theology, deeply considering how redemption has been accomplished and how redemption is applied. Possibly, our priorities should include greater discipleship; focused evangelism; increased personal holiness?
The list is endless. But, in A Call to Spiritual Reformation, Don Carson argues that each of these is merely symptomatic of a more serious need. There’s a vacuum, he argues. An abyss. An emptiness, a hollowness, which threatens to engulf the church. A primary priority which conditions all secondary priorities.
“The one thing we most urgently need is a deeper knowledge of God”. In our churches, in our individual lives, our priority must be getting to know God better.
You might be thinking: “that’s obvious”. A deeper knowledge of God? Surely that’s not the greatest specific need of the twenty-first century church? It’s arguably the greatest need for the church holistic, regardless of time or place. But, when it comes to knowing God, “we are a culture of the spiritually stunted”. We focus on the applied benefits of redemption; we tack the pursuit of our happiness, prosperity, and the fulfilment of our felt needs onto Christianity. We make God, therefore, “the Great Being…who meets our needs and fulfils our aspirations”. If we’re only seeking God’s blessings without any desire for a deeper knowledge of Him, then we’re selfish. All our growth will be stunted.
Everything Carson says, in A Call to Spiritual Reformation, flows out of concern for our need of a deeper knowledge of God. But, how does this pursuit shape our priorities of prayer? In fact, why is A Call to Spiritual Reformation about prayer? If our greatest priority should be to grow in our knowledge of God, why does Carson focus on prayer?
First: “one of the foundational steps in knowing God is prayer”. Prayer is verbal and spiritual communion and communication with the Triune God. So, prayer has a foundational role, in our pursuit of deeper knowledge of God. Second: “one of the basic demonstrations that we do know God is prayer”. If prayer is so fundamental to our knowledge of God, then the question of how and what we pray “is as important a question as we can ever face”. This is why Carson focuses on prayer; because how else “can we meet the other challenges confronting the church, if prayer is ignored as much as it has been?”. Prayer is vital, if we’re going to grow in knowledge of God. And, in a cyclical fashion: this pursuit must inform the priorities of our prayer.
Prayer which eagerly and passionately pursues God is not bare prayer. It’s prayer, with adjectives: “persistent, spiritual, biblically-minded prayer”.
If we’re striving to grow, our prayer must be persistent. We don’t live in The Matrix; our brains can’t instantly download the necessary information and practice to make us masters of prayer. We’ve got to keep praying. “God is not more disposed to help us because our insincerity and flightiness conspire to keep our prayers brief”, and so we must be persistent! Our prayer must be spiritual. We shouldn’t view prayer as an add-on item, to be tacked on to the end of Christian activity. That’s “frivolous, hollow and superficial”. Prayer isn’t a mantra we’re obliged to perform; so our prayer must be spiritual! And, it must be biblically-minded. Carson’s not calling us to enthusiastic joyful prayer, but without any connection to the Bible. If we’re totally misappropriating or misapplying Scripture as we pray, then we’re in danger. Instead, “the rich mixture of approaches to God mirrored in Scripture must be taken into our lives”. This saves us from “formulaic praying, liberally ladled with clichés”, and at the same time helps us truly intercede for others by “think[ing] through, in the light of Scripture, what it is God wants us to ask for”. We must be persistent, spiritual and biblically-minded in all our prayer. These three adjectives must become our priority.
How do we do this? What road are we going to travel?
Through God’s Word. “Just as God’s Word must reform our theology and our practices, so also it must reform our praying”. Carson exposits a smattering of Paul’s prayers. He limits himself to Paul’s letters, so we can see, more clearly, the repeated themes and emphasises of Paul’s prayer. If Scripture must reform our prayer-priorities, Carson looks to Paul; he shows the kind of prayers we should be praying, how we should be praying them, and the beliefs we should have about the One we’re praying to.
So, let me conclude by highlighting Carson’s exposition of Paul’s priorities of prayer, through 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12.
Firstly, Paul is thankful.
When we give thanks, it’s usually for material blessing or physical provision: an unexpected bonus in your paycheque, an exceptional dinner. Usually, “what we give thanks for betrays what we value”. Our thanksgiving highlights our priorities. So, what is Paul thankful for?
- Paul gives thanks that his readers’ faith is growing.
“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly” (v3a). Paul’s priority is that believers grow deeper in their knowledge of God.
- Paul gives thanks that his readers’ love is increasing.
“The love of every one of you for one another is increasing” (v3b). Practically, their love is growing. There can be no other reason “than because they are loved by Jesus Christ and love Him in return”. This is a clear sign that grace is working in their lives.
- Paul gives thanks that they are persevering under trial.
“Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (v4).
Paul’s priority is that which belongs to “the realm of heaven”. The tangible signs of heaven, breaking through in the lives of real believers, “which incline our hearts and minds toward heaven and its values”. We must look for the sings of grace in the lives of Christians, and thank God for them! This must be our top priority, if we’re to grow deeper in our knowledge of God: to thank Him for revealing Himself more deeply to our brothers and sisters. Do we do this? Have we thanked God for signs of grace in the lives of our churches?
Secondly, Paul is confident.
The goal of these signs of grace is Paul’s focus.
- For believers, there will be vindication.
“Since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you…when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed” (v6, 10). This prospect of Christ’s return must be a life-transforming reality. There will be an end, in which we see Christ!
- For others, there will be retribution.
“When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (v7-9).
Paul’s focus is orientated towards the end of the age. He savours the return of his Saviour; he anticipates the glory and the end of the Last Day. This gives Paul, and his prayer, perseverance and lasting strength. “It is hard to follow a despised, crucified Messiah – unless we fix our eyes on the end”. Our minds must be fixed on the new heavens and the new earth, if we’re to endure this world.
So, those are Paul’s priorities. How-about yours? Do they compare, or contrast? I’d encourage you to pick up your Bible, buy A Call to Spiritual Reformation, and determine to grow deeper in your knowledge of God.