by Rev. Michael Schuermann

Lutheran Reformation - Prayer

“I thank you, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.”

Why does Luther bother providing a whole section of daily prayers in his Small Catechism? There’s no doubt that, as is usually the case, Luther relied on the overwhelming testimony of Scripture as to the necessity and effectiveness of prayer in the life of God’s people as a reason to teach and model the prominent place of prayer in the Christian’s daily life. As he puts it in the Small Catechism, God the Father “has commanded us to pray…and has promised to hear us.” (SC, Lord’s Prayer, Conclusion)

What are some of these commands and promises of God that Luther refers to?

  • “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)
  • “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)
  • “[C]all upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15)
  • “[P]ray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstance so for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18)

Luther writes about the command and promises, “You should say, ‘My prayer is as precious, holy, and pleasing to God as that of St. Paul or of the most holy saints. This is the reason: I will gladly grant that Paul is personally more holy, but that’s not because of the commandment. God does not consider prayer because of the person, but because of His Word and obedience to it. For I rest my prayer on the same commandment on which all the saints rest their prayer. Furthermore, I pray for the same thing that they all pray for and always have prayed. Besides, I have just as great a need of what I pray for as those great saints; no, even a greater one than they.'” (LC, III, 16)

St. Paul’s exhortation to pray “without ceasing” highlights the importance of regular prayer in the life of the Christian. Luther’s years of monastic life modeled a regulated daily life of prayer. The various monastic daily prayer offices seem to have influenced Luther’s teaching of prayer in the Small Catechism. Not only is a prayer for morning provided, but Luther places that prayer within a simple liturgy: first, the name of the Triune God is spoken and the sign of the holy cross is made, then the Creed and Lord’s Prayer (two of the Chief Parts!) are spoken. Finally, Luther suggests his little prayer may be said “if you choose.” Humbly, Luther considers his own contribution optional and the handed-down texts of the Faith essential.

Luther’s modeling of prayer seems deliberately designed to avoid the type of praying that Jesus warns against: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7) With many words comes much work; Luther aims at a simple liturgy of prayer that can be adopted in the daily lives of Christians both in his time and in our present day.

“But the Christian’s prayer is easy, and it does not cause hard work. For it proceeds in faith on the basis of the promise of God, and it presents its need from the heart. Faith quickly gets through telling what it wants; indeed, it does so with a sigh that the heart utters and that words can neither attain nor express. As Paul says (Rom. 8:26), ‘the Spirit prays.’ And because He knows that God is listening to Him, He has no need of such everlasting twaddle. That is how the saints prayed in the Scriptures, like Elijah, Elisha, David, and others—with brief but strong and powerful words. This is evident in the Psalter, where there is hardly a single psalm that has a prayer more than five or six verses long. Therefore the ancient fathers have said correctly that many long prayers are not the way. They recommend short, fervent prayers, where one sighs toward heaven with a word or two, as is often quite possible in the midst of reading, writing, or doing some other task.” (AE 21:143)

Scripture teaches us to bring our needs to the Father in Christ’s name. Luther likewise models this in the opening sentence of the morning prayer, “I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son…”, confident that what a Christian asks will be heard and provided by the Father. As Philip Melanchthon put it in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “So prayer relies upon God’s mercy, when we believe that we are heard for Christ’s sake. He is our High Priest, as He Himself says, ‘Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it’ (John 14:13–14). Without this High Priest we cannot approach the Father.” (AP V (III), 210-212 [331-333])

The Rev. Michael Schuermann is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sherman, IL.