A Primer on Praying to Our Triune God

This article, written by Donald R. White, describes the nature of Christian prayer, God's law, the Lord's Prayer, and trinitarian prayer.

A Primer on Praying to Our Triune God
photo by Abel Marquez

written by Donald R. White

The practice of praying to the Triune God is a discipline of personal piety and public, corporate worship that is based upon the whole counsel of God.

Article Content

  1. What Is Prayer?
  2. What Is God’s Law?
  3. What Is the Lord’s Prayer?
  4. What Does Trinitarian Prayer Look Like?

What Is Prayer?

There is a well-known acrostic in the Evangelical and Reformed Christian world: ACTS. It is easy to remember because it is also the first word in the name of the fifth book of the New Testament, right after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

A is for Adoration.

In adoring God, we declare our agreement with Him in all that He has declared and revealed Himself to be. Further, in our adoration we are at liberty to cite our experiencing of Him that lines up with what His Word declares about Him. In this way, we are bearing witness to the veracity and truthfulness of His self-disclosure.

C is for Confession.

In our confessing, we own up to the fact that we are sinners through and through. We are corrupt to the core of our Adamic fallen nature. In the words of Thomas Cranmer, “There is no health in us. In the words of Isaiah the prophet, we are “full of wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores.” In a word, we are undone.

If left to our own devices, it would have been better for us if we had never been born. If we can confess these things in full sincerity, then the confessing of our particular sins as the Holy Spirit graciously reminds us proceeds much more freely. Then we confess our inability to make satisfaction for our sins apart from God’s gracious provision of a sacrifice that He will accept and the provision of a righteousness that is perfect.

T is for Thanksgiving.

We thank God first and foremost by laying hold of Christ by faith as the One whom God the Father has authorized to lay down His life in the place of sinners, to take it up again that we might be justified by trusting Him alone, and then to offer us His perfect righteousness as the clothing—by the wearing of which we have right standing in the sight of His Father.

Having focused our thanks upon this greatest of gifts, our salvation from sin in Christ, we then pass on to thank God the Father for who He is. Further we thank Him for all the supports of life in this world and for His kindness to all His creatures, even to our fellow men who are still His enemies.

We give particular thanks to God for His special favor toward the household of faith and ourselves in particular, whose faith He is encouraging every day with the supply, at bare minimum, of our daily needs and often an abundance above all that we could ask or think.

S is for Supplication.

Someone here may be wondering, “What is supplication?” Supplication is a fancy Latin word for begging, pure and simple. Just begging. Little children and household pets are famous (some would say “notorious”) for their begging. Some even get choosy in their begging. Not very endearing behavior!

But listen to what our Lord Jesus says: “Assuredly I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” (Matthew 18:3-5).

Near the back of the NT, John’s first epistle makes it clear that no matter how long we walk with the Lord and no matter what stage of maturity we find ourselves occupying in the Christian pilgrimage, we are to remain little children in our self-assessment and in our general demeanor among ourselves and even under the hot gaze of a watching, hyper-critical world. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says our Lord Jesus, “for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Now, in order for us to understand the height, depth, breadth, and fullness of prayer for those who are in Christ, let us make an analogy between what the Scriptures teach us about God’s Law and what the Scriptures would have us to understand with great depth about that privileged communication between us and our God.

2. What Is God’s Law?

God’s Law is an expression of His character.

It flows out of His very nature. Since He is perfect in His very being and all His attributes and since man is the chief of His creatures and the only species that bears His image and likeness—made for the express purpose of reflecting His character, made to glorify Him and to enjoy Him now and forever—then God’s Law cannot be anything other than it is!

God’s Law is not arbitrary or capricious.

God has never had a debate in the eternal counsels of the Godhead over how to word legislation—no wrangling over the implications or potential consequences of a provision amongst the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are always on the same page!

God’s Law can be summarized

God's Law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. Yet further, God’s Law Can Be Expressed Specifically as Moral Law, Case Law (both criminal and civil), and Ceremonial Law (as illustrative of the spiritual principles and realities of the New Covenant that was to come).

God’s Law can be epitomized

That is, God's Law can be distilled down to its quintessence. How many of you know what “Essential Oils” are? There are many plants—herbs, spices, even what some consider weeds, such as dandelions or thistles—that have medicinal properties. Willow bark, for example, yield the compound acetyl-salicylic acid that the Native Americans used for an analgesic. We call it aspirin.

But then there is a favorite herb used extensively in Italian cuisine: oregano. If you were to make a strong tea of oregano, you could boil that down, strain off the leaves, then boil it down some more till there is no water left—only the oil. That would be like the 613 commandments found in the Torah—the five books of Moses—and summarizing them in the Ten Commandments. But then, if you were a pharmacist and had a still in your laboratory, you could raise the temperature above the boiling temperature of water, and reduce the volume of your oregano oil by boiling off hydrocarbons until what was left in the still was very thick and only one-fifth of its former volume. Then you would have the quintessence of oregano. That is what Jesus gives His disciples when asked the question by a lawyer:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all you heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

With this example of how our Lord reduces God’s Law from the summary found in the Ten Commandments down to its quintessence found in the two great commandments, we have an analogy that will help us to understand the nature of the Lord’s Prayer and how it relates to the whole life of prayer of Christ’s church as a whole and the individual Christian as well.

3. What Is the Lord's Prayer?

It is our Lord Jesus Christ's prayer, in that He composed it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He composed it as a primer, a first book of introduction to a very demanding and voluminous subject. The separatist Pilgrims and Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony used the New England Primer with their children in order to instruct their children in the basics of reading.

Jesus structures the statements at the beginning and end and the petitions in between in order to cover the most fundamental elements of pious communication between redeemed people and our God as general principles to regulate and inform all true prayer.

The preincarnate Christ, the Messenger of the Covenant, as Malachi 3:1 describes Him, the Second Person of the Trinity spoke directly from the top of Mt. Sinai to the fully assembled tribes of Israel in the first giving of the Ten Commandments. He gave them a primer on the Moral Law. Each of the Ten Commandments, whether stated positively or negatively, stands for a whole host of actions of the mind, the tongue, and the whole body—things that we must do and things that we must not do as God’s imagebearers.

For example, the commandment, “You shall not kill” means not only that we must not murder but that we must not be careless with regard to any life of a fellow human or deprive him of any of the supports of life. We must not entertain causeless anger or wish a person dead, for such acts of the mind are tantamount to murder. This kind of analysis of the law can be multiplied by the thousands, and the law’s righteous import and intent will not be exhausted.

Thus we see that the Ten Commandments are intended to drive to meditation, self-examination, and mourning over what we lost through Adam’s fall—that any one of us would have done no better than he had we occupied his place as federal head of the human race. And as Christians view the Law from our Lord's perspective, which He gives us in the Sermon on the Mount, we understand increasingly the Law’s intense, penetrating spirituality.

In Romans 7:14, Paul speaks in this fashion about his own Adamic, fallen nature in relation to God’s Law: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I [by nature] am carnal [with a fallen, depraved human nature], sold under sin [like a live human chattel, to be bought and sold in a slave market to the highest bidder].”

If you are in Christ today, it is because God the Father chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world. It is because God predestined you to the adoption of sons, heirs, joint heirs with Christ (Ephesians 1). Your status of being in Christ is validated by the fact that God the Father has given to you the Spirit [that is, the Holy Spirit] of adoption through whom you cry out, “Abba, Father!”

If you indeed have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside you, inside the new heart that He sutured in place when He took out your heart of stone, then you can identify with the human author of Psalm 119. Listen to what he says in Psalm 119:96: “I have seen the consummation of all perfection, but Your commandment is exceedingly broad.”

We see in the words of the book of Revelation that the Triune God is the consummation of perfection in such expressions as, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End,” that is, “the Originator of all things and the End (Purpose or Goal) of all things.”

But LORD, “Your commandment is exceedingly broad!” How can I ever attain to it? The carnal man is tempted to think, What is the use in my even attempting to obey God? I can just put up a front and look like I am devoted to God. I can put my fish symbol on the front window of my store—it’s good for business in my neighborhood. I can behave well enough to pass for a Christian in polite society. Maybe I’ll get in by the skin of my teeth. What do texters say: LOL? I don’t know—I don’t text, so I’m not sure. But I certainly do not believe in luck.

The spiritual man, however, has an entirely different take. He continues in agreement with the Psalmist. “I see, LORD, your perfection expressed through Your law. I am impressed by the infinitude of its applications. I see that it demands perfection from me and that I cannot, personally, ever hope to keep it perfectly while I am in this body of sin that Paul and I complain about. But this realization helps me love You, Lord Jesus, all the more; for You have kept God’s Law perfectly in its broadest applications and its deepest, most spiritual, most selfless intent.” Now he says with the Psalmist in verse 97, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.” As I meditate upon Your law, O LORD, I understand more and more who you are, Lord Jesus, and I long to be like You.” These are thoughts “not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1Corinthians 2:13).

In light of the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is a primer and that it teaches us to pray to a divine Person and to pray fully informed by whom God has revealed Himself, in His Word, to be, we must infer that truly mature Christian prayer addresses each Person of the Godhead directly. When Thomas was confronted face to face with the living Christ, and by a combined invitation and command, probed the wounded side of his Redeemer, he cried, “My Lord and My God!” Jesus accepted that cry as worship, confession, and a plea for forgiveness for having doubted the testimony of others. I can assure you that Thomas received from our gracious Master all that his wounded but joyful heart desired.

4. What Does Trinitarian Prayer Look Like?

The traditional answer to this question is a simple formula: We pray to the Father in the Name of the Son in the power (and under the direction of) the Holy Spirit.

That’s a safe answer, and it may do in the beginning of our walk with the Lord. But if we persist in using this simple approach we will be stunted in our spiritual growth and end up forfeiting a great deal of the blessings of sweet communion with each Person of the Godhead and power for living and proclamation. This simplistic, traditional mindset toward the single most constant activity and discipline of the Christian life—“Pray without ceasing!”—Paul commands the Thessalonian saints and us, can be ill-mannered, mind-numbing, and downright dangerous.

Early in the Christian life, it may be perfectly acceptable for us to thank the Father for sending the Holy Spirit to make us alive, to indwell us, and to sanctify us through the truth of His Word. But after a while, that practice begins to look and feel like bad manners. If you and I were standing among a group of friends at a wedding reception and I were to ask you to convey a message to a mutual friend who was standing at arm’s length from me and in full earshot of our conversation, even looking in our direction, both you and he would think: “Didn’t Donald’s mother teach him better etiquette than that? How ill-mannered! Hmm. Maybe he has just slipped a cog. Hmm. Yes! That’s it! Donald is in the first stage of Alzheimer’s!”

Now, I don’t know the details of your pilgrimage, but I’ve been walking with the Triune God for nearly fifty-nine years. Through prayer, the reading and study of Scripture, hearing it preached and meditating upon its treasures—then acting upon what the Bible has taught me, I have grown.

My working knowledge of God’s Word has increased a hundredfold over what I learned the first year of my pilgrimage. I have learned to commune with each Person of the Godhead with regard to the special contribution of each to my salvation and the place each has in my life of loving service to the great God of my salvation. Since the Lord Jesus is my Advocate, my Mediator and Defense Attorney in the Court of Heaven, I have learned to speak directly to Him. I mean, a man like me who has been indicted for innumerable crimes must be crazy not to pour out his heart to his attorney, wouldn’t you say?

Now, consider the fact that God the Father and God the Son have sent God the Holy Spirit to design, build, and take up permanent residence in a brand-new master suite in my old house. He is now my constant Companion, and I am finding He is the best of Company and the best of Counselors. I mean, He is right here inside me—in my head and in my heart; He is training my conscience by His Word and He is turning my intuition into genuine spiritual discernment. And the treasure hunts He talks me on through the Bible—they make the space images that have come back to earth from the Hubble Deep Space Telescope seem like mud pies! We are on such familiar terms that He feels quite free to give me advice, even when I don’t ask for it.

Now that brings me to the subject of my will—that inner faculty of mine is taking some serious work. Sometimes I grow suddenly stubborn, setting my heels—so much so that it is frightening. But my Holy Comforter just dismisses Himself, unobtrusively, and goes back into an inner room of His suite. He waits there, patiently, very quietly, until I miss Him, until I come looking for Him. When I confess to the Holy Spirit that I have been petulant, willful, stupid even—that I have grieved Him and quenched the cheering fire that He kindled on my hearth and stubbornly resisted the loving counsel with which He aimed to preserve me from harm, He does the most amazing things. Straightaway, He reminds me to go to Jesus to plead for cleansing by His blood and to freshly don the seamless wedding garment of His righteousness, and to thank Him for being my ever-ready and all-sufficient Savior.

So why am I opening up myself to you in this way? It is because I would be a sinful, selfish, stingy steward of the spiritual schooling that I have received from the Triune God as He has walked with me and I have walked with Him if I failed to share with you the precious lessons that I have learned of true friendship with my Father, my Elder Brother, and my Holy Comforter. He is calling me to invite you, on His behalf, to pursue a richer, deeper relationship with each of His Persons.