Prayer in the Growth of the Christian
December 29th, 1957 @ 10:50 AM
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13
PRAYER IN THE GROWTH OF THE CHRISTIAN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13
12-29-57 10:50 a.m.
You are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the Pastor bringing the morning message at the eleven o’clock hour entitled The Place of Prayer in the Life and Ministry of the Christian. In our preaching through the Word of God, we have come to the third chapter of the first Thessalonian letter, which is the passage that we read together a moment ago.
The letter of Paul to the church at Thessalonica shows forth the burden on his heart in behalf of these new converts, this young church that has been established in the midst of great suffering and trial. In the second chapter of his letter, in the sixth verse, he speaks of the burden on his heart for them. Then he describes himself as being like a nursing mother who cherisheth her children [1 Thessalonians 2:7]. He speaks of himself as being affectionately desirous, willing to impart not only the Gospel of God but his own soul because, he says, "Ye are dear unto us" [1 Thessalonians 2:8]. Then in the eleventh verse, he compares himself again to a father who loves his children: "As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children" [1 Thessalonians 2:11]. Then, in the eighteenth verse of the same second chapter, he tells why it was he has not been able to see them. He says, "Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us" [1 Thessalonians 2:18]. Then, in the third chapter, he describes what finally he did.
First, he says, when they were in Athens, because of the earnest intercession in his soul in behalf of the church at Thessalonica, he finally, because he could bear the burden no longer, he finally sent Timothy, his young son in the faith, to go to Thessalonica to inquire of their spiritual welfare. And he says that he was left alone in Athens, sending Timothy to them [1 Thessalonians 3:1-2]. In the meantime, Paul went from Athens to Corinth and began his ministry in that Greek city [Acts 18:1].
While he was there in Corinth, he was greatly discouraged; he was burdened still further [1 Thessalonians 3:7]. And in the midst of that discouragement, there came to him from Thessalonica his young son in the ministry, Timothy. Then see how the whole word changes. He says, "But when Timothy came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and love . . . " [1 Thessalonians 3:6]. Timothy came back, and as Paul says elsewhere in the letter, Timothy came back and told the apostle how from the church at Thessalonica, not six months old, yet from that little band there had sounded out the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the region – that they were growing in faith and maturing in the Word of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 1:8-10]. When Timothy brought that message back – now you can turn to the eighteenth chapter of the book of Acts and see what happened to Paul. When that report came, he was greatly encouraged, and he set himself anew and again in a new fervency and devotion to the preaching of the Word of the Lord in the city of Corinth [Acts 18:5].
Then he says here, in the third chapter of the First Thessalonian letter": "For now we live, knowing that ye stand fast in the Lord" [1 Thessalonians 3:8]. And that is no exaggeration. His life was lent a new color, a new exuberance, a new buoyancy, a new faith, a new victory: "For now we live" having heard from Timothy the wonderful report of his Christian converts in Thessalonica. Then he closes the chapter with a prayer, which is the message of the morning:
For what thanks can we render to God for you . . .
Because already for your sakes we pray night and day; praying that your faith might be perfected . . .
That the Lord would make you increase and abound in love toward one another, and to all men,
And that he may stablish your hearts unblameable, in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.
[from 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13]
So what Paul does is this. Hindered by Satan to see them [1 Thessalonians 2:18], prohibited to be in their presence, there is one thing he says that he can do and does do. He can influence them and reach them by his prayers. So he gives himself to prayer for the church at Thessalonica [1 Thessalonians 3:10], to which he could not go, among whom he could not visit, prohibited and hindered by Satan from even coming to where they met.
Now, could I make an aside here concerning many, many, who every Lord’s Day listen to these services over this radio? There are a great many of the people who belong to this church, who in days past were present every time the door was open, who cannot come anymore. They are afflicted by illness, and, as Dr. Fowler says in his prayer so often, prohibited from coming by age and infirmity. There are even young people who belong to our church who, because of a permanent illness, are not able to come. A thing like that could not but bring despondency and sometimes despair to the heart:
There God’s people are, gathered in Sunday School, and I can’t be present; gathered in the services of the church, and I cannot attend; planning all these wonderful programs by which we seek to reach the city for God, and I cannot share in them. All I can do is just stay in this house, or lie on this bed.
But that other thing that you can do, and so many of you also truly do, means more than you could ever realize or we could ever say in words. You can do what Paul did when he wrote this letter to the church at Thessalonica. "I cannot come. I cannot be with you, but I can pray for you. And night and day," he says, "I do it, praying exceedingly" [1 Thessalonians 3:10].
I suppose the great poet Tennyson was right when he said, "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of" ["Morte D’Arthur," by Alfred Tennyson, 1845] – reaching out through the arms of intercession, molding and framing and guiding the work of the Kingdom of God by prayer and supplication.
I do not suppose there was ever a true and mighty minister of Christ who did not have back of him an interceding and praying people, somebody who can speak to God. I have often said, to me, the sweetest and most meaningful sentence I ever read from the lips of a great preacher was this. One time, Charles Haddon Spurgeon [1834-1892] said to a dear friend, "Sir, sometime, when you have the ear of the great King, would you mention my name?"
"Cannot come, cannot be with you, cannot be present, but I pray for you." And Paul was persuaded that in the praying of his heart and the pouring out of his soul to God, there would come blessings, and power, and honor, and unction to the little band of Christians in the church at Thessalonica.
Now, let us see for what Paul prayed. "For your sakes, before our God, night and day praying exceedingly" [1 Thessalonians 3:10], and he has three things in his prayer. First, that they might be perfect, might be mature – that that which is lacking in their life, that they might have from God those things that make for grown-up Christians: no longer babes, no longer children, no longer adolescent, but grow up in the faith – "might perfect that which is lacking in your faith" [1 Thessalonians 3:10]. Second thing: that they might exhibit that maturity in Christ. "That the Lord might make you to increase and abound in love to one another, and toward all men" [1 Thessalonians 3:12]. And then the third: that God might establish their hearts unblameable in holiness [1 Thessalonians 3:13].
Now, that is very representative of the attitude of Paul in the preaching of the whole Gospel message of Christ. He was not only an evangelist, a missionary, a flaming soul winner and preacher, but he also was a faithful teacher who brooded over the souls of his converts that they might grow and mature in the faith. That is, it is not enough just to win people to Christ, to be evangelistic, to have the flame of appeal in your heart, but we must also be teachers, and we must have a burden on our hearts for the growth of these who are won to Christ.
It is not enough just to preach for the salvation of the souls of men, but we must also be full of care for their spiritual growth and maturity. It is not enough for the father and the mother to rejoice in the birth of a little child – see what God hath given, there bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh, this little gift into your arms. But there must also be in our rejoicing in the birth of the child also a prayer, a continuing prayer, that God will grant the little child growth: growth in his mind and understanding, growth in wisdom and knowledge, growth in stature, in body, growth in spirit toward God. And the delight of a home will inevitably be found in the growth of that child to speak a word, to take a step, to grow, to be able to sit up, to walk. That is a true picture of Paul’s prayer for his converts: not only that they be saved, but that they also grow in the Christian faith.
That is the meaning of the sixth chapter of the Book of Hebrews. Writing to the little church made up of Jewish people, he says to them, "We are not to be engrossed and given all the time to whether I’ve been saved or not, was my repentance just right or not, was my faith just perfect or not." Leaving those principles of those primary doctrines of Christ, the foundation of repentance from dead works, of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms and eternal judgment – all of that is to be in the past – we, he says, leaving these principles are to go on unto perfection, unto maturity [Hebrews 6:1].
Now let me tell you something. One of the commonest conferences that I have, frequent – has been all of my ministry – is this. "Pastor, I do not know whether I am saved or not. I do not know whether I have been converted or not. I’m not sure." Therefore, their minds are turned back, and they go over and over and over again: "Did I repent just right? Did I have saving faith just so? Was I genuinely born again? Is my name in the Book of Life? Was I truly converted?" That is one of the commonest experiences of Christian people. And if I were to ask all the people here this morning, all of you, who have gone through that experience – "Am I saved? Am I really born again?" – most of you would hold up your hands, "I have gone through that experience."
That is childishness. That is adolescence. That is immaturity. Having done the best you could at some time in your life – "I went down that aisle. I took Jesus Christ as my Savior" – you can’t ever do that in any other way. When you have turned from sin and turned to God in faith, done the best you could to receive Him as your Savior, you cannot do any more. That’s all a human mortal can do to save himself, and you’re not to go over and over and over that again and again and again. What you are to do is having confessed your faith in the Lord, having, the best you know how, taken Him as your Savior, you are to go on. On to what? That’s the thing that most of our people do not realize.
What’s the matter with them is there is a dearth and a drought and a lack of unction and meaning and power in their lives, and they think they’re not converted. "Pastor, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. God doesn’t answer my prayers. I don’t have any ableness before God. My life is like a desert, and my heart is like an arid place." What’s the matter is not haven’t been saved, haven’t been converted. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t interested in God, nor would you be talking to the pastor if it were not a burden on your heart to please the Lord. Well, what’s the matter?
This is it. When a man is saved, when you’re converted, you’re just born: you’re a babe; you’re a child; you’ve just started out. And to stay a child is to be frustrated and defeated in all of the ultimate purposes of God, and you feel it. If you are powerless and immature and childlike in the Christian faith, naturally you feel something is wrong, and you think, "Well, I haven’t been saved." It’s not that at all.
There is a great something else for God’s child and that is the fullness of the Spirit, the spiritual understanding of the Word. Sometimes they’ll call it "the baptism of the Holy Spirit;" sometimes "the enduement from on high;" sometimes "the fullness of the Spirit." However the nomenclature, there is, for the Christian, a something else and a something further, a something great and mighty and wonderful. Seek that. Don’t keep your face turned to the back. Turn your face forward. "Lord, back there I repented. I accepted Jesus as my Savior. I was baptized. Now, Lord, give me this other full blessing: the baptism of the Spirit, the understanding of the Word of God, the fullness of Heaven, a victory in Thee, a rejoicing in God my Savior."
Well, how do you do that? It is a very simple thing, and it is here in the Scriptures. The means of our grace are always the same, and they’re very simple. The means of grace by which we are saved and the means of grace by which we grow are both the same. They are alike, and they’re very simple. They are first, the Word of God; and second, they are prayer, intercession, speaking to God. And it takes both of them. The means of grace by which we are saved are those two.
Listen to the Word of the Lord. First Peter 1:23-25: "Born again . . . by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever . . . and this is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you" [from 1 Peter 1:23, 25]. James 1:18: "Of His own will begat He us by the Word of God." But also Romans 10:13: "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." So a man is saved by listening to the Word of God, by hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are saved by the Word of the Lord, and by prayer, by calling upon Him. "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" [Romans 10:13]. I am saved through the mediation of the Gospel message of Christ, the Word of God; I am saved by calling upon the name of the Lord – those two means of grace.
Now, those same two means of grace grant us also our growth in the Christian spirit and faith. I grow by feeding upon the Word of God. First Peter 2:2 – the following passage that I quoted a while ago – immediately he says: "Therefore, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby." John 17:17, the prayer of our Lord: "Father, sanctify them through Thy truth; Thy word is truth." Ephesians 5:26: "Ye are cleansed, ye are sanctified, with the washing of water by the Word." But also, I am admonished to watch and to pray, lest I enter into temptation [Mark 14:38]. So the two are together: feeding, eating, drinking the Word of God, and speaking to the Lord in prayer – the same two means of grace by which I’m saved, by which I grow in the faith.
And both of them are necessary. If I read the Word of God and study the Word of God without praying, then I become a historical critic. I become very learned in all of the historical meanings and foundations and developments of the Holy Scriptures, and I can become brilliant in all the doctrines of the faith, but I have no unction and no power, and it is nothing more than a mass of historical facts and incidents. I become puffed up in learning and knowledge. I become superior in theological training, but I have not the power and the Spirit and the true message of God in my heart if I read the Word and do not pray.
Now turn it around. If I pray and do not read the Word of God, then I become introverted and subjective. I become esoteric and abstruse. I become a fanatic. I am blown about with every wind of doctrine [Ephesians 4:14]. When I pray, I must know and learn the mind of God if I am ever to come in maturity in the faith of Jesus Christ. So for this great blessing that will hallow and sanctify the life of the Christian, I must give myself to the Word of God and to prayer.
Now, may I make this comment of our day and our generation? I do not know of any day or any generation but that has felt its weakness and its powerlessness in the preached Word of Jesus Christ. But how true is that of our day? There never was any time or any era when the pulpits of the Christian church were filled with more learned and trained and educated men than we have today. Our men for the most part, in most every pulpit in the land, is a man trained in the college. He has a graduate course in theology in the seminary. And from the east side to the west side, there are men who are greatly educated and wonderfully trained, some of them brilliant indeed as they stand in the pulpit.
But when you listen, you wonder at the lack of moving power, the fire from Heaven, the burning from above. What is it? It is simply this: that the young man, that the preacher, has poured over the Scriptures in the light of his historical criticism, in the light of his books of theology, in the light of all of the history and background and manners and customs, exegetical commentaries, and all of the things that enter into the learning. He’s done it magnificently, but he hasn’t done what Jesus did: pour out His soul before God. And he hasn’t done what Paul did: "Wherefore I bow the knee before God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" [from Ephesians 3:14] and stay on his face, or on his knees, or by himself until he has a message from God.
I do not know of any calamity that has overtaken the modern preacher greater than this: he’s a maneuverer; he’s a politician; he’s a machine greaser; he’s an organizer; he’s an advertising agent; and he’s an editor; he’s a publisher; he’s a civic speaker; he’s a go-between; he’s a gadabout; he’s an up-and-down-the-streeter; he’s a backslapper; he’s a glad-hander; and a few other things I could think about that’d be just as true. But how many would you say, "This is a man of God. This man has a message from the Lord"? You can’t be that way, and you can’t have that burning word without a closet that’s shut and closed, and there you stay and you stay and you stay and you stay.
One of these great, great preachers of the last century, Richard Cecil [1748-1810], said:
There is a manifest want of spiritual influence on the ministry of the present day. I feel it in my own case, and I can see it in that of others. I am afraid there is too much of a low, managing, contriving, maneuvering temper of mind among us. We are laying ourselves out, more than is expedient, to meet one man’s taste, and another man’s dislikes. The ministry should find in us a simple habit of spirit, and a holy but humble indifference to all consequences.
[Josiah Pratt, Remains of the Rev. Richard Cecil, M.A., 1821]
Just leading, knowing, praying for the mind of God.
And that incomparable preacher, Richard Newton [1813-1887], said,
The principle cause of my leanness and unfruitfulness is owing to an unaccountable backwardness to pray. I can write or read or converse or hear with a ready heart; but prayer is more spiritual and inward than any of these, and the more spiritual any duty is, the more my carnal heart is apt to start from it. Prayer and patience and faith are never disappointed . . . When I can find my heart and frame in liberty for prayer, everything else is comparatively easy.
William Penn [1644-1718], for whom Pennsylvania is named – not because of himself, but when the king granted him the charter he made him name it Penn, put his name there, Pennsylvania. Of George Fox [1624-1691], the great founder of his faith, of the Society of Friends, he said:
But above all, he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words have often struck even strangers with admiration. The most awesome living reverend frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was his prayer. And truly it was a testimony. He knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men; for they that knew him most will see most reason to approach him with reverence and fear.
[William Penn, "Testimony of William Penn Concerning that Faithful Servant George Fox," in George Fox: An Autobiography, by George Fox, adapted from The Works of George Fox, 1831].
And I took this out of a word from the William Carey Brotherhood [William Carey, 1761-1834], over there in Serampore at the mouth of the Ganges River, near Calcutta in India:
Let us look at David Brainard in the woods of America pouring out his very soul before God for the perishing heathen . . . Prayer – secret fervent believing prayer – lies at the root of all personal godliness . . . A heart given up to God in closet religion – this . . . more than all knowledge, or all other gifts, will fit us to become the instruments of God in the great work of human redemption.
[Carrey’s Brotherhood, Serampore, India]
When I say these things and read these things, my own heart smites me, and I can sense in the congregation that same conviction of dereliction and lack and want and need. Our spiritual lives are so shallow, and our faith is so weak, and our prayer life is so barren.
Could I say two things that enter into our praying? First, always and always, when we kneel, when we bow, when we talk to God, first there must always be the spirit of submissiveness, of yieldedness on our part. "Not my will but Thine be done [from Luke 22:42]. Lord, I have come to speak of Thee, of these matters." Then lay them before the Lord.
One of these blessed, sainted women who was so ill was asked by her friend, "If you had to choose, would it be to live or to die?" And she said, "As God chooses." But she was pressed, "If God should refer it to you, which would you choose?" And she replied, "Truly, I would refer it to God again."
A yieldedness, a surrender, a submission, "Lord, we have come to speak of Thee of this matter. I am ill in body," or, "I am broken in soul and in heart." Then lay it before the Lord. And as the Lord shall choose: "Shall I get well, then to use health and strength for his glory; shall I be sick, then Lord, may I exhibit the patience and the dependence and the humility of a true Christian" – as God shall choose, praying in yieldedness and in submission.
Then this second thing: praying in a waiting faith. It isn’t like that. It doesn’t work like that: rush into the presence of God, ask Him, run away with an answer – "Sure I got it." It doesn’t work that way. A little boy said to his teacher – he was such a bright-eyed, earnest-faced boy – "Teacher, why is it that so many prayers are unanswered? For the Bible says, ‘Ask and it shall – you’ll get an answer, seek and you’ll find, knock and it’ll be opened unto you.’ Teacher, why don’t we receive these things for which we ask?" And the teacher replied, she said:
Son, sitting by a fire some evening, did you ever have somebody knock at the door, and then you go to answer the summons and look out, and there, nobody there – it’s just darkness? But down the street you hear the patter of little feet. One of your little friends came and knocked on the door, then he ran away. He didn’t expect an answer. He didn’t expect to enter. He was just a mischievous boy, just playing a trick on you.
And she said, "Son, that’s the way it is with God’s children. So many times we ask and don’t expect to receive, and we knock and don’t wait for entrance. Son," she said, "when you pray in true faith, you wait, and you knock, and you wait, and you knock. And by your importunity, God looks into the heart and sees the earnestness of the request, and God grants entrance, and God grants answer": to wait, to wait, to pray importunately, and to wait in faith.
Reading these things, preparing this sermon, I came across so much. Oh, if you had an hour or two hours just to say what you find, as I prepare these messages.
Moody [Dwight L. Moody, 1837-1899] coming into a hotel, fellow pointed and said, "You see that man seated there? He’s the leader of the infidel club in this city."
"Well," said Moody, and he walked over there and sat down by the man in the hotel.
And the infidel, with sarcasm, turned to Moody and said, "How long are you going to continue this humbugging business, telling these people that God answers your prayers?" He said, "Moody, why don’t you try it on me and see if God answers prayer?"
Mr. Moody said, "I will." And he got down there on his knees in the foyer of the hotel and prayed for the infidel that God would save him.
And when Moody got up from his knees, the infidel looked at him with sarcasm and said, "See there, it didn’t work. I’m not converted!" Moody turned to him and solemnly said, "But you will."
And a little while after that, they were having a big revival meeting in the city, and guess the businessman who was leading it? It was that infidel, that infidel. "But you will. But you will" – praying in faith and then just wait on God.
In my much reading, I read an address by George Mueller [1805-1898]. I can’t tell you the end of it, but I can tell you what he said up to that time. George Mueller, the great man of faith and prayer of England said, he said, "Five men were laid upon my heart to pray for them, that they’d be converted – five men." He said, "I prayed for those five men. One of them was converted eighteen months later. The second," he said, "was converted five years later." He said, "I continued to give myself in prayer, and twelve and a half years later a third was converted." And then he said, "I have prayed for the other two for forty years, and I have the assurance that God will give me their souls too."
I cannot go any further with the story because I was unable to find how ultimately it ended. But think of that. Eighteen months and one saved. Five years and another saved. Twelve and a half years and a third saved. And forty years in faith that God would give him the other two. Sometimes these prayers of ours are answered after these who have prayed have gone to glory.
One of these men that came down here and took me by the hand and gave his heart to God said to me, "Oh, Preacher, oh, Preacher, that Mother was still alive, that Mother was still alive that I could tell her, that I could tell her." Why his mother had been dead for years. He was an older man. She’d been in Heaven for years. She had died and no answer to her prayer. That is, it didn’t seem as though her prayer was answered; but down the aisle, here at this church, comes this older man, and he says, "Oh, Preacher, that my mother were still alive, that I could tell her, that I could tell her."
The most dramatic incident that I ever witnessed as a student was in a revival meeting at Baylor when Dr. Scarborough [Lee Rutland Scarborough, 1870-1945] held a revival meeting there. And one of those boys was converted, and he came down to testify and plead with other young men to give their hearts to the Lord. And he closed his testimony looking up to heaven, and he said, "Oh, Mother, can you see me? Can you see me? Mother, do you know? God has answered your prayers."
Maybe after we’re gone, maybe after we’re dead, maybe after we’re in glory, but we’re praying in faith. If it’s the will of God, if it is right, if it is according to what God would choose, we’re to ask in faith and wait and wait.
I must close. These ministries of reading the Word of God and of intercession, those simple ministries are God’s means of grace. That’s the way you’re saved: listening to the invitation of Christ and receiving it in your heart – "Lord, I open my heart to Thee. Save me, remember me, forgive me." And that’s the way we grow in grace: listening to the Word of God, reading the Word of the Lord, and asking God’s blessings and His favor upon us, looking to Him in prayer and in faith.
While we sing this song this morning, somebody, you, give his heart to the Lord. Would you come? "Here I am, Pastor. I give you my hand. I give my heart to God." A family of you to come, put your life in the church. I’m just a voice, an echo. It is the Spirit of the Lord; it is His work; it is His appeal. He speaks to your soul. Would you answer? Would you come? In this balcony around, down these stairwells at the back, at the front, "Here I come." This great throng of people on this lower floor: "Here I am, Pastor, I take the Lord as my Savior," or, "I put my life in the fellowship of the church." While we make appeal, would you make it now while we stand and while we sing?
THE GROWTH OF A CHRISTIAN
I. The burden of Paul for his new
converts(1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, 11)
of his desire to visit them(1 Thessalonians
to go himself, he sent Timothy(1 Thessalonians
in the meantime is in Corinth, in affliction and discouragement
Timothy’s wonderful report (1 Thessalonians
3:6-8, Acts 18:5)
thing Paul can do – pray(1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
moving, outreaching influence of prayer
1. There are many who
are incapacitated, unable to come to church
they can do is pray
2. True minister of
Christ will have back of him intercessors
II. What Paul prayed for
they might be perfect, mature, grown-up Christians
That they might exhibit that maturity in Christ
God establish them unblameable in holiness
picture of Paul’s prayer for his converts – not only that they be saved, but
that they also grow in the faith(Hebrews 6)
III. The means of grace by which we are
saved and by which we grow
essential means of grace are the Word of God and prayer
1. By these comes
conversion(1 Peter 1:23-25, James 1:18, Romans
these we also grow, mature(1 Peter 2:2, John 17:17,
must have the two
If study the Word and do not pray, become puffed up with knowledge
pray without reading the Word, we become introverted, subjective
learned, many times brilliant, but weak in prayer
pride of learning against dependent humility of prayer(Ephesians 3:14)
things we must have in our praying
Waiting in faith