Avoiding unbiblical extremes and staying within the bounds of the data of Scripture is paramount for the Christian. I have been writing of late on issues of faith versus presumption, and examining the name-it-and-claim it and positive confession teachings.
It is worth doing another piece on all this, since confusion and distortions on these matters continue to thrive. How exactly are we to understand the biblical view of prayer and faith? Instead of picking isolated verses and removing them from their context, we need to consider Scripture in its totality on this.
For example, why is it that it seems our prayers are often not answered? Why do we not seem to get what we ask for? Various reasons can be offered here, but one important text worth examining more closely is James 4:1-4:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Verse three is crucial to our discussion. Some do not receive because they ask with wrong motives. Or as the KJV puts it, they ‘ask amiss’. It is certainly possible that what we ask for is not in or part of God’s perfect will. It is possible, according to this passage, to ask with wrong motives; in this case, motives based on the love of pleasure and greed.
Asking for a new car, or a better job, or perfect health, or a million bucks, in other words, may be based more on selfish, carnal desires than on God’s will. Such prayers, we are clearly told here, will not be answered. R. V. G. Tasker puts it nicely:
Man’s primary need, therefore, is to desire the right things; i.e. the things that God will bestow upon His children if they ask Him for them, just because He knows that they will promote their highest welfare. There is, to be sure, no prayer that we all need to pray so much as the prayer that we may love what God commands and desire what He promises.
This passage also highlights the issue of the dilemma of unanswered prayer. This dilemma often becomes especially acute for those who have been taught a name-it-and-claim-it theology. Contrary to this teaching, it has often been correctly noted that God can answer prayers in one of three ways: yes, no, or wait.
In their zeal to emphasise faith and spiritual boldness, positive confessionists often overlook this fact. They may take an unhealed disease or some other unsolved problem as a sign of lack of faith or God’s displeasure. But the truth is, it may well be that God has answered that particular prayer with a ‘no’ or a ‘wait’.
Much unnecessary anguish can develop because of a theology that teaches one to expect, indeed demand, instant answers to prayer. Alec Motyer expresses it this way: “James does not say that God does not hear, but that we do not receive (3). He always hears; there is no such thing as unheard prayer or, for that matter, unanswered prayer. But time and again the answer has to be ‘no’ or ‘not yet’, because we are incapable of receiving the heavenly gift”
James 5:12-18 contains more important instruction on the nature and conditions of prayer. While the passage gives an encouraging view of the power of prayer, especially in the example of Elijah (vv. 16b-18), it also emphasises the conditional nature of prayer for healing – in this case, the confession of sin (vv. 14-16a).
A proper understanding of these two sections on prayer in James 4 and 5 would clear up much of the confusion brought on by positive confession teaching. As Ralph Martin states concerning the passage in chapter 5:
All prayer is bounded by the providence and sovereign favor of God, who knows believers’ truest needs and may not grant their natural requests in just the way they would choose. . . . Always Christian prayer requires our submission to the Father’s wisdom and knowledge, and even when our praying is at its most persistent and urgent, the fact remains that God gives only what is for his children’s ultimate good (Luke 11:5-13; 2 Cor 12:8-10).
Another passage often appealed to by the positive confession movement is Romans 10:8-10:
But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
This may in fact be one of the texts most often cited by the positive confessionists. However, the immediate context of this passage (10:1-13) involves Paul’s contrast between two kinds of righteousness: between a righteousness that comes from the law and a righteousness that comes by faith. The larger context is of course Rom. 9-11, where Paul discusses the fate of the Jews.
A main point of Romans 10:8-10 then is the means of salvation (faith) and the truth that both Jew and Gentile must come to salvation in the same way, by faith. There is nothing here about some magical power of confession in general. As the context makes clear, the confession is a public confession of the lordship of Christ.
Paul is arguing that belief and confession are two sides of the same coin – they make up the complete process of salvation. Says Leon Morris, “Paul does not contemplate an inner state that is not reflected in outward conduct. If anyone really believes he will confess Christ, so it is natural to link the two”.
Paul is simply stating a basic truth: a genuine heart faith will be made manifest externally. An inner faith will be seen in outward conduct. As James Boice put it (commenting on the fear of the Pharisees to confess their faith for fear of being put out of the synagogue): “Either the secrecy kills the discipleship, or else the discipleship kills the secrecy. In the end, secret discipleship is a contradiction in terms, and this means that we must confess Jesus openly if we are to be (and remain) true Christians.”
Perhaps the most important passage that can be cited to refute the name-it-and-claim-it teaching is Matthew 26:39 (= Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42): “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’.”
Jesus didn’t name and claim relief from suffering and death. He prayed, ‘if it be thy will’. And in this case the divine “no” was for Jesus sufficient. If this is true for Jesus, how much more so for us? There are times when God will say no to our requests. At all times we need to be asking if it be His will, not presenting Him with a list of demands.
Morris reminds us that Jesus was no masochist in this regard: “We are not to think of Jesus facing death with the passionate longing for martyrdom that has characterized fanatics throughout history. The death he faced was a horrible death, and he experienced the natural human shrinking from undergoing such an ordeal. So he prayed that if it were possible it might be avoided.”
One can only imagine if Jesus applied the positive confession approach to Calvary. Fortunately he did not. As R. C. Sproul puts it,
The story does not end with the words, ‘And the Father repented of the evil He had planned, removed the cup, and Jesus lived happily ever after.’ Such words border on blasphemy. The gospel is not a fairy tale. . . . This ‘nevertheless’ [KJV] was the supreme prayer of faith. The prayer of faith is not a demand that we place upon God. It is not a presumption of a granted request. The authentic prayer of faith is one that models Jesus’ prayer. It is always uttered in a spirit of subordination. In all our prayers we must let God be God. No one tells the Father what to do, nay, not even the Son. Prayers are always to be requests made in humility and submission to the Father’s will.
Stephen Smalley, commenting on 1 John 3:21-22, concurs: “There is nothing mechanical or magical about prayer. For it to be effective, the will of the intercessor needs to be in line with the will of God; and such a conformity of wills is brought about only as the believer lives in Christ.”
If the prayers of Jesus appear not to have been always answered, then we cannot assume that ours will always be answered. The pastoral implications of such an understanding are significant. As Philip Yancey remarks, “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? I do not know, but it helps me to realize that Jesus himself knew something of that frustration.”
Such comfort is not available to those who believe that their prayers must always be answered, and answered in the way they determine. The Word of Faith movement is also fond of passages such as James 1:5-8:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
Context, again, is crucial to the discussion. The request here is not for just anything, but for wisdom. Having faith in or for what God has positively declared He wants for us is never to be called into question. Faith in such instances will not be confused with presumption. This passage then cannot be used as a cart blanche statement that faith will get us anything we ask for.
So by all means, ask believing, and ask boldly, for what He has promised us. But make sure it is indeed something He desires us to have, and that we ask with right motivation (to bring glory to Him, not to meet our selfish desires).