Directions on Prayer
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship has a section entitled "Of Public Prayer before the Sermon." It is a relatively long section pointing to the seriousness with which the Reformed fathers at Westminster took prayer. Prayer was not only a serious matter for them, it was also a controversial matter.
The Puritans at the Westminster Assembly in England had long opposed the Anglican "Book of Common Prayer" which was a formal liturgy imposed on all the churches. The Puritans believed that prayers should not be imposed and read, but should be free. The Directory suggests topics for prayer in the public worship rather than giving actual prayers that might be read. It also notes that even these topics may be taken in different order and at different times in the service. The Directory did not want to require anything that the Bible did not require.
The subjects for prayer in this section of the Directory are remarkable for their breadth and depth. The first subject is a confession of sin which comprises about 25% of the whole section. I was struck that in this confession the first reflection is on original sin which not only "makes us liable to everlasting damnation" but is "the seed of all other sins..." If in this age of self-esteem we give little thought to sin in general, we surely give even less to original sin. We need to consider the reality of our fallenness in Adam, our guilt from the moment of conception, and the corruption of our nature that leads us so easily to rebellion against God and His law. In the history of American Calvinism a loss of the doctrine of original sin has signaled a general decline of doctrine and piety.
We are directed then to acknowledge our actual sins against God's holiness and goodness and forgiving love. Our reflection is to cover both the things that we have done against the law, and the things that we have neglected to do. This reflection is to be personal and also corporate: not only our own sins, but "the sins of magistrates, of ministers, and of the whole nation, unto which we are many ways accessory..."
The aim of this portion of the prayer is for the minister "to get his own and his hearers' hearts to be rightly affected with their sins…" Public prayer must not be a routine or formal exercise. Our hearts as well as our minds must be opened before God and His holiness.
The next section of the prayer (about 20%) is for forgiveness and growth in grace. In the face of sin we need to encourage ourselves with the great work of Jesus Christ on our behalf and "in confidence of the exceeding great and precious promises of mercy and grace in the new covenant...." Then we need to pray for the Spirit to assure and sanctify us.
The directions move on to speak of prayer for the propagation of the Gospel to all nations, the return of Christ, and the blessing of God on His church (about 10%). This is followed with prayer for those in authority, particularly the government, teachers and pastors (about 20%). Next (about 15%), prayer is to be offered for the faithful observance of God's ordinances for spiritual growth which is furthered especially by sanctifying the Sabbath day. We are to ask the Spirit to use the outward means to draw us closer to Christ that "we, tasting the first-fruits of the glory that is to be revealed, may long for a more full and perfect communion with Him, that where He is, we may be also, and enjoy the fullness of those joys and pleasures which are at His right hand for evermore."
The final topic (about 10%) is for a blessing on the preacher and the hearers as the Word is preached. The prayer especially focuses on the need of the Spirit to make of the hearers "good grounds" for the seed "so that Christ may be formed in them..."
I have summarized this section of the Directory at some length to show something of the character and the emphasis of Puritan prayers. The Puritan dimension of our Reformed heritage has often been criticized as unbalanced and exaggerated. But those criticisms are usually unbalanced themselves. These directions for prayer cover the wide range of Christian experience and need achieving a much better balance than most of our modern prayers which always run the risk of becoming a list of illnesses to be cured.
The summary of Christian worship found in Acts 2:42 lists prayer as one of the four basic elements of worship. We always need help in keeping prayer central, heart-felt and deep. The guidelines of the Directory can encourage us.