William Ames Tells Us Why to Pray
This question may rise in our minds when we think about our faith. Prayer is part of our lives as Christians, but why?
We do not doubt that God could have arranged things so prayer would not be necessary for us. We don’t know how that might be accomplished…but surely, God knows! Yet, God has established prayer as part of what the people of God do, in various ways. Prayer emerges throughout our Christian experience. We pray in church. We may pray at specific times, such as at meals or when we arise in the mornings and go to bed at night. We may pray at the point of a special need; or perhaps just when we feel a need to be in conversation with God. Prayers abound. Yet, why is prayer important? What does it bring to us? To God? Why is prayer a core action in our Christian faith?
To gain some perspectives on why we pray, we can consult the important seventeenth-century Puritan theologian, William Ames (1576-1633). Ames was a leading theologian whose books were significant for the Reformed faith. His Marrow of Sacred Divinity, first published in Latin (1627), then English (1642) was the standard theological textbook for American Puritans for over a century. Some regard it as “the best succinct summary of Calvinistic theology ever written.” 1
Ames defined theology as “the doctrine or teaching [doctrina] of living to God.” 2 “The nature of theological life is living to God,” he said. 3 This makes theology “not a speculative discipline but a practical one.” 4 Following the French philosopher, Peter Ramus (1515-1572), Ames divided theology into two parts: “faith and observance” (2 Tim. 1:13). 5 What we believe (faith) is expressed in how we live; how we live (observance) is an expression of what we believe. Our faith must be expressed in what we do.
Ames clarified this Reformed and Puritan conviction that doctrine and life are bound together. This is important because it means prayer is part of the “observance” of our faith. Prayer expresses what we believe. By “observing” or practicing prayer we are obeying God and serving God, seeking to do “the will of God for the glory of God.” 6 When Ames defined prayer in his Marrow, he said: “Prayer is a devout presentation of our will before God so that he may be, as it were, affected by it.” 7 He continued: “It arises first from faith (Rom. 10:14).” 8 So we believe; so we pray.
These views help us listen when we ask William Ames why we should pray? Among the many things Ames said, these descriptions are helpful.
Sweet communion with God. We receive, wrote Ames, “the sweetest communion and communication of the grace of God in the exercise of prayer.” 9 Ames said prayer is “among the primary duties that ought to concern us.” 10 Though a “duty,” a reason to pray is the sweet communion with God we experience in prayer.
In prayer, God communicates grace to us—the best grace being the communication of the “sweetest communion” which comes by being in God’s presence through prayer. This is the most important—and wonderful—experience we can imagine! Ames had earlier said that “our true and highest good consists in the union and communion we have with God.” 11 We should take “true care so that day by day we make our union and communion with God more constant and certain to ourselves.” 12 As we pray, in “seeking union and communion with God, in which our entire blessedness consists,” we should “entirely cling to Christ alone” who is the “foundation and manifestation” of the union between God and humans. 13
Why pray? We pray because “the blessing” of believers “consists in the communion they will have with God in Christ” and we must “take heed and flee from separation from Him.” 14 Cling to Christ! We must never neglect prayer! We pray to receive “the sweetest communion” with God!
God’s Glory and Our Good. Prayer is our duty to God and prayer “attributes the highest glory to God, for God is always to be acknowledged in our prayers as the foundation and fount of every good.” 15 Our prayers should be made earnestly and continually because “prayer is a necessary medium of God’s glory and our good.” 16
Prayer is a means of giving glory to God as we acknowledge who God is and what God has done. Prayer is also the means God uses to establish God’s will for our good. As we pray, in “sweet communion” with God, we speak to God and listen to God. In our listening to God, we perceive God’s will and desires for us. We receive the gift of God’s goodness as God fulfills the providential purposes God has for our lives. God leads and guides us. Prayer is a means or “medium” through which God’s providence can work to lead and guide us according to God’s will. Ames believed God’s purposes and providence “do not take away but establish the prayers of the faithful. The certain apprehension of providence by faith does not make true believers slothful but stirs them up the more to pray (1 Chron. 17:25-27).”
The Scripture Ames cites here refers to King David’s receiving God’s promise to “build you a house” and establish David and his offspring “forever” (17:14). God’s promise led David immediately to pray, giving glory to God (17:20) and saying, “therefore your servant has found it possible to pray” (17:25). As we receive God’s promises and experience God’s providence in leading and guiding us, we pray! Trusting God’s providence does not make us lazy or “slothful”—it stimulates us and stirs us up “the more to pray,” as Ames says. Providence promotes prayer!
We pray to give God glory and receive our good. In prayer, we offer praise and receive God’s blessings.
What God Wishes to Grant. In prayer, we give thanks to God and offer our petitions or requests to God. Ames notes that we do “not pray to God in order that we may make known desires till then unknown to him, for he Knows our thoughts afar off, Ps. 139:2”—before they even occur to us! “Nor do we pray,” says Ames, “in order to convert him from an opposing to our own point of view.” For God’s will is fixed and firm (James 1:17). 17
Rather, said Ames, “We pray to him in order to obtain by our prayer what we believe he wants to grant.” Our prayers are to be offered, in faith, and with the desire that they be in accord with God’s will and what God desires for us. Ames quoted 1 John 5:14: “This is the confidence we have in God, that if we ask him anything according to his will he hears us.” 18 We pray confidently as we petition and ask God for what is according to God’s will for us.
We have many desires. We believe God wants us to share our desires when we pray. Yet not all desires are the same. Some desires can be understood as closer to God’s will for us than others. We should not pray for something that is against what God has revealed to us in Scripture as being God’s will. God’s will is our standard for petitions in prayer.
When Ames discussed the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he drew from it the teaching (doctrine) that “the revealed will of God ought to be our rule of life.” 19 Through Scripture, the Word of God, we learn God’s will. Scripture is always the touchstone or criterion by which our perceptions of “God’s will” are tested. As the Psalmist put it: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The law of God is our guide. We look to Jesus to see God’s will incarnate and made known to us in a real person, Jesus Christ.
We pray for what God wishes to grant. Our prayers are assessed by the will of God which is our lamp and light. It is God’s will we seek…not our own: “Thy will be done.”
To Give Ourselves Up to God in Thanksgiving. Why pray? We pray so we may give ourselves up to God in thanksgiving. As Ames put it: “In prayer we dedicate ourselves to God expressly, or, at least, implicitly, so that we rise up from prayer more obligated to God than before, because every prayer always has adjoined to it some promise of gratitude for the prayer (oration) heard and the desires (votis) granted.” 20
As we pray, we express our thanksgiving and gratitude to God, realizing we receive all things by God’s grace, without meriting or earning God’s favor. We acknowledge God’s blessing, thank God for these blessings given to us, and then express “a true esteem of them with fitting gratitude,” said Ames. 21 We are grateful God hears our prayers and blesses us by granting
our desires. In our gratitude we thank God for what we receive; and we ask also that we may relate what we have received “to the glory of God who gave it (2 Cor. 1:11).” 22
No wonder, as Ames said, we “rise up from prayer more obligated to God than before”!
After prayer, we have all the more for which to be thankful. Our gratitude given to our Lord is only deeper! The Holy Spirit, who “exercises His own particular efficacy in pious prayers,” says Ames, helps us in our prayers to pray as we ought…and “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). How can we fail to give ourselves up to God in thanksgiving for blessings like these!
Why pray? Ames tells us why…now it is up to us…to pray!
We pray to experience the sweetest communion with God. We pray to give glory to God and receive God’s good for us. We pay to seek what God wishes to give us. We pray to give ourselves fully to God in thanksgiving.
Our prayer lives always need deepened. We always need to know more fully and completely what we believe. We always need to live out our faith more faithfully, especially when it comes to prayer. Union and communion with God in prayer is our “entire blessedness,” Ames said. This is our “highest good.” Prayer is foundation for our lives of “living to God.”
William Ames wrote that “we ought to pray in some way at every occasion.” 23 Do we pray “at every occasion”? Will we? Ames tells us why to pray. Now, “let us pray”…
Donald K. McKim is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a former pastor, seminary Academic Dean and Professor of Theology, as well as Executive Editor for Theology and Reference for Westminster John Knox Press. He has written and edited a number of books including Everyday Prayer with the Puritans; Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions; and the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. He and his wife LindaJo live in Germantown, Tennessee.
1 See Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans with a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 47-48.
2 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. John Dykstra Eusden (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), 77.
3 Ames, Marrow, 77.
4 Ames, Marrow, 78.
5 Ames, Marrow, 79. Keith L. Sprunger wrote that “Theology in two parts was a Ramist gift to theology,” The Learned Doctor William Ames: Dutch Backgrounds of English and American Puritanism (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972), 140.
6 Ames, Marrow, 219.
7 Ames, Marrow, 258.
8 Ames, Marrow, 258.
9 William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, trans. Todd M. Rester, Introduced by Joel R. Beeke and Todd M. Rester, Classic Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 198. Hereafter cited as Catechism. This is a contemporary translation of the English title of Ames: The Substance of Christian Religion, or, A plain and easie Draught of the Christian Catechisme in LII lectures on chosen texts of Scripture, for each Lords-day of the year, learnedly and perspicuously illustrated with Doctrines, Reasons, and Uses (London, 1659), 198. This work was Ames’ comments on the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).
10 Ames, Catechism, 197. Ames said that “in godly prayer we have communion with God
according to his will,” Marrow, 275. God’s will is that we pray.
11 Ames, Catechism, 8.
12 Ames, Catechism, 10.
13 Ames, Catechism, 34.
14 Ames, Catechism, 101.
15 Ames, Catechism, 197.
16 Ames, Marrow, 260.
17 Ames, Marrow, 260.
18 Ames, Marrow, 260.
19 Ames, Catechism, 214.
20 Ames, Catechism, 198.
21 Ames, Marrow, 266.
22 Ames, Marrow, 266.
23 Ames, Catechism, 199.