Luther’s Table Talk concerning prayer

As Reformation Day at the end of this month draws near, we have the opportunity to remember and give thanks for one of God’s greatest works in the history of the church, the Protestant Reformation, through which God restored the gospel to His people and purified the church from the accumulated corruptions of medieval Catholicism. The literature available to the Reformed Christian is voluminous, but may I suggest Luther’s Table Talk as an excellent read for the season (if we may speak of a Reformation day season–not a bad idea in my opinion)? Many are likely already familiar with Luther’s Table Talk, an informal collection of Luther’s sayings and conversations as they were committed to writing by various penmen. This work is a veritable treasure trove. In reading some of Luther’s down-to-earth and frank conversation recorded in Table Talk, I was struck by how important prayer was to the life of the great reformer, as well as the poor state of prayer in the life of the church of his day. Luther worked long and hard for the reformation of the church and of Christian life, and included in that reformation was the way in which Christians pray. Since Reformed Christians rightly put great emphasis on the importance of prayer for our spiritual lives, I thought it fitting to reflect briefly on Luther’s high view of prayer and his restoration of prayer to the people of God.

Throughout the Table Talk we find an excellent picture of Luther as a man of prayer. In this the Luther of the Table Talk is the Luther of everyday mundane life, the Luther not as the doctor of theology or the preacher behind the pulpit, but Luther the ordinary Christian man. Luther was a man who prayed continually and exhorted his flock to pray without ceasing. He describes prayer as the sinew which binds the people of God together, and the way by which the people of God commune with their Lord.  In the first place, Luther reveals his extremely high view of prayer, exalting it with such praise and ascribing to it such powers that it impresses upon one’s consciousness the central importance of prayer in the life of the Christian. “O how great a thing, how marvelous, a godly Christian’s prayer is! How powerful with God; that a poor human creature should speak with God’s high majesty in heaven, and not be affrighted, but, on the contrary, know that God smiles upon him for Christ’s sake, his dearly beloved Son. The heart and conscience, in this act of praying, must not fly and recoil backwards by reason of our sins and unworthiness, or stand in doubt, or be scared away” (Table Talk, CCCXXVIII.) As with the rest of his theology, Luther’s view of prayer is grounded in his deep understanding of man’s depravity and the redemption that is found in Christ alone through faith alone. This perfect work of Christ gives the individual Christian such confidence that he may approach the Lord in prayer, not through the mediation of a priest or some prescribed formula dictated by the Romish church, but he himself may come before the throne of grace with all confidence in Christ and pray with the confidence that God will answer him in mercy and love for Christ’s sake. As Luther says, “it is impossible that God should not hear the prayers which with faith are made in Christ.”  Being a mighty man of prayer himself, Luther understood the importance of prayer in the Christian life both as a means of perseverance in the faith and for the strengthening of the church. We also ought to have this high view of prayer. We must come before the Lord in prayer often in the full confidence that He will hear us for Christ’s sake. We do not need another man or priest or Mary to intercede for us, we have direct access to God our Father through Christ.

Luther restored this marvelous truth of the gospel to the people of God, and for this reason it can be said that Luther’s reformation restored prayer to the people of God. Under the bondage of Rome, prayer had become little but lip service. The laity prayed their rosaries and invoked the saints, while monks sang their canonical hours. All of the comfort of prayer was stripped away and replaced with the monotony of heartless and formulaic prayers. Luther described the state of prayer in the Roman Church of his day: “Prayer in popedom is mere tongue-threshing; not prayer, but a work of obedience. Thence a confused sea of Horae Canonicae, the howling and babbling in cells and monasteries, where they read and sing the psalms and collects, without any spiritual devotion, understanding neither the words, sentences, nor meaning” (Table Talk, CCCXXX.) Luther’s church was a praying church, just as his home was a praying home. We who stand as the direct heirs of the Reformation ought to be praying members of praying churches. This is vital for our own spiritual wellbeing as well as the spiritual wellbeing of our churches.

For those who are interested in reading this most enjoyable work of Luther’s pen, it may read online or obtained as a PDF from the following website: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/tabletalk. For those who have not read it, I would encourage you to take a look. Not only are there great theological meditations to be found in these collected sayings of the good doctor, but also many simply hilarious conversations and aphorisms.

JS

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