Learning to Pray for the Kingdom with Stanley Grenz

JANUARY 2006: REVIEW

Stanley Grenz’s untimely death in the spring of 2005 deprived the church of an eloquent theological voice that expressed the perceptions of a penetrating mind fed by the springs of a pious heart. Cry for the KingdomThe revised, second edition of Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdomoffers a fitting memorial to the central focus of Dr. Grenz’s career as a pastor-theologian: authentic communion with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Grenz composed the first edition of Prayer (1988) as a textbook for his own students when a search through the library at North American Baptist Seminary failed to produce anything suitable for his course on the theology and practice of prayer. It is not surprising, then, that both the strengths and the weaknesses of Prayer reflect its origins, though the book’s central thesis, that prayer is an eschatological activity anticipating the Kingdom of God, is born of Grenz’s own biblical/theological sensibilities.

Grenz’s specific interest is petitionary prayer. How and why does requesting something from God actually work, if indeed it does? After a brief but helpful comparison of the Greco-Roman and Old Testament traditions of petition, Grenz states his central thesis: Christian prayer is “an eschatological activity” in which we ask “the Sovereign God of history to bring the divine program for history to its glorious goal–namely, the Kingdom of God” (18).

Though one would typically expect this thesis to introduce yet another exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, Grenz chooses a refreshingly different route by wrestling with the theological issues surrounding divine-human dialogue. He first surveys the perpetuation of Jesus’ eschatological impulse throughout the early church, emphasizing the centrality of petition in New Testament prayer. He offers these biblical observations as a deliberate corrective to the idea that petition is somehow “less mature” than the prayer that abandons personal requests by embracing divine communion for its own sake (25). Curiously, however, no sooner does Grenz make this important observation than he backs away from its significance and elaborates a time-worn acrostic for “a well-rounded prayer life”: A.C.T.S. These initials denote Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (27). Here the reader encounters the first example of an apparent tension, a tension that runs throughout the book, between Grenz’s biblical insights and his pastoral impulses. At the very point where one would expect him to elaborate the New Testament focus on petition, he turns to expound a homiletical, mnemonic device. Fortunately, elsewhere in Prayer the results of this tension are less jarring and more felicitous.

Depending on the reader’s own theological background, Grenz’s second major thesis may prove to be either the most valuable or the most troublesome of the book: our petitions can genuinely affect God (35). Grenz’s most sustained line of argument serves to buttress this claim. After a brief survey of the various theological responses (both sympathetic and antagonistic) aroused by this position, Grenz provides his own definition: “Petition is the laying hold of and releasing God’s willingness and ability to act in accordance with God’s will and purpose on behalf of creation, which God loves” (46). Though some readers will be discomfited by the repeated emphasis on prayer’s ability “to release God,” Grenz carefully circumscribes what he means by this phrase. First, God is both loving and all-powerful such that he is always willing and able to act in creation. Second, God’s actions are always in accord with the divine will such that God is free to “voluntarily make Himself dependent upon our prayers” (51, quoting O. Hallesby). Third, the accomplishment of God’s will, with or without human cooperation, is directed towards establishing the coming eschatological kingdom.

Navigating the theological straits between this particular Scylla (God’s will) and Charybdis (human requests) requires Grenz to delineate what he means by “praying according to God’s will.” Thus the heart of the book is devoted to just that, explaining “What Praying According to God’s Will Means” (chapter 3) and “How to Pray According to God’s Will” (chapter 4). Here Grenz’s ability to combine sound biblical/theological insight with practical pastoral advice shines through, suggesting that the author had prayed about prayer as much as he had thought about it. These two chapters alone are worth the book’s purchase price.

First, he explains how praying according to God’s will depends upon the character of the petitioner as much as it does the content of the petition. Here Grenz provides a fine discussion of how personal piety, submission to the Spirit, and the study of Scripture all conspire to forge prayer requests that God will be eager to grant. Second, Grenz elaborates how petitions born of personal sanctity “seek to discover what the inbreaking of the kingdom” might entail in the various situations of life (69). Although the timing of God’s answers is often elusive, there are several items every believer may pray about with confidence: the conversion of unbelievers, world missions, social transformation, the spiritual growth of fellow Christians, divine wisdom, and physical healing. The carefully nuanced discussion of illness and healing in the New Testament offers another example of Grenz’s ability to successfully integrate biblical interpretation, theology, and pastoral care in a few concise pages.

Finally, the closing chapter offers a series of practical suggestions to facilitate helpful prayer in the three common settings of public worship, private devotions, and small group meetings. His practical advice reminds the reader that Grenz wrote first and foremost as an active churchman who was genuinely concerned that God’s praying people learn to experience the grace and mercy that comes only from heaven.

My criticisms of Grenz’s work are minor when compared to the book’s strengths; yet, several alterations could have strengthened the work considerably, at least in this reviewer’s estimation.

First, though the book provides a lengthy bibliography for anyone interested in further reading, it is heavily slanted towards popularized theology and devotional literature arising from the holiness-revivalist tradition. (Perhaps this reflects the composition of the North American Baptist Seminary library?) Noticeably absent are any of the important biblical/theological studies of prayer by such scholars as Samuel Ballentine, Donald Carson, Oscar Cullmann, Robert Karris, and Patrick Miller. While Grenz is to be commended for avoiding many of the theological pitfalls popularized by the holiness-revivalist literature that he has so deeply imbibed, he fails to introduce his readers to the valuable resources that can help others avoid those pitfalls for themselves.

For instance, Grenz (thankfully) does not repeat the common injunction to “pray fervently” in order to make petition truly effective (there are no stories about long-gone “prayer warriors” with heavily calloused knees and worn floor-boards at the bedside), but he also fails to explain how or why the standard passages traditionally harnessed for this perspective have, in fact, been consistently misinterpreted.

Similarly, Grenz perpetuates the long-standing misinterpretation of Luke 11:5-8 (The Parable of a Friend’s Midnight Visit) as Jesus’ admonition to persistent prayer (93-97). However, a brief tour of the major, modern commentators would have provided a valuable service in helping his readers discover for themselves how the popular, devotional literature of the early twentieth century consistently misread this story. In a similar vein, Grenz begins Prayer with the ubiquitous popularizer’s scolding over the prayerlessness of the contemporary church. “[O]urs is the epitome of a prayerless church,” he chides (3). This is an odd, not to mention unfortunate, opening since he also laments the ways in which prayer is sometimes used to trigger “a sense of guilt and defeat” rather than “the feelings of joy and victory” that God intends (4). Ironically, while ostensibly eschewing guilt manipulation, Grenz has produced a very guilt-inducing introduction of his own.

Finally, the most telling flaw is Grenz’s failure to resolve the vital pastoral question raised by petitionary prayer: why do so many petitions, seemingly in complete accord with the will of God, appear to go unanswered? For instance, after assuring us that God wills for all people to be saved, that God is more powerful than any impediment to repentance, and that prayer for another’s conversion is one request that God will always wish to grant, Grenz never explains why so many people for whom so many pray seemingly die in unbelief (70-75). At one point, he seems to suggest that “unanswered” prayers are the product of meager faith (91). But the issue remains unexplored, and the question goes unanswered, while the smell of the sawdust trail and the tenor of a revivalist’s call to repentance drowns out the voice of New Testament study.

I suspect that the theological and existential complexities of petitionar y prayer mean that no author will ever write a fully satisfactor y analysis of Christian prayer. However, despite its limitations, Stanley Grenz’s revised edition of Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom makes a valuable and useful contribution to the attempt.

David Crump is professor of religion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.