I’ve been reading D.A. Carson’s book A Call to Spiritual Reformation and have been profoundly blessed by this brief work on the subject of prayer being the greatest need in churches today. I’ve decided to summarize the book for anyone who wants to know what Carson’s thoughts are without taking the time to read the work itself – I’d encourage you to read the book!
Dr. Carson starts off his book by reviewing perceived urgent needs in the church and bringing to the front why these needs are important but yet fall vastly short of being the most urgent need within the church. Looking at the sexual problems within the church and the world he brings to the front that sexual sin is rampant within many congregations and that through on-demand abortions there are millions of children dying around the world without anyone to voice a defence for them. After showing us this serious problem Dr. Carson then points out that Jesus hating Muslims are in agreement with the Christians on both of these matters and therefore these matters cannot be the Christian’s major concern. He then looks at lack of financial integrity and selfishness that has replaced generosity and concludes that there are atheists who are also concerned with these things and so these cannot be the primacy of our concerns either. Evangelism and church planting are also both touched upon as important but almost worthless apart from being headed by passionate deep knowledge of God. Lastly, on the list of failed answers to the problem, Dr. Carson looks at Seminaries and the idea that lack of knowledge of the Bible is the chief problem in the Christian churches today and he then concludes that he has seen many Christians in seminary spend thousands of hours studying but fail to grow at all spiritually. Finally, Dr. Carson explains that the greatest need in the church is spiritual, persistent, biblically informed prayer as both the most basic indication that we know God and also the major source of all spiritual growth. The church today needs to be on its knees before God addressing Him in the ways that He has mandated about the issues that He has told us are of prime importance.
After showing his readers that spiritual, persistent, biblically informed prayer is the most pressing need in the church Dr. Carson then goes on to give tips that he has learned from mature Christians on prayer. Firstly, he explains to us that much prayer does not happen because Christians don’t take the time to plan to pray and so their day fills up with all sorts of activities and prayer takes a sideline – Christians must learn to plan to pray. Some Christians plan to pray but then are defeated by mental drifts – Carson advises his readers to try praying out loud, praying through scripture, praying through worship hymnals, pacing as they pray, or journaling their prayers. He also encourages taking the time to organize a prayer list so that all the needed areas of prayer are covered. Dr. Carson also encourages developing prayer partner relationships where young Christians learn from mature Christians, by their example during payer, how to pray. He also encourages gathering in groups with Christians who are determined to live Godly lives and intercede before God in prayer. Another encouragement from Dr. Carson is to mingle praise, confession, and intercession in prayer but when interceding to tie as many requests as possible to scripture. He also reminds his readers that godliness rests in God’s providence and that prayer isn’t an attempt to change God’s will through intercession but this truth is not an excuse to stop praying because Christians have a responsibility to intercede on behalf of others. Dr. Carson advises his readers, if they have any role in public ministry, to work on their public prayer for the purpose of being able to encourage and build up their hearers. Lastly, he reminds his readers of the Puritan advice, “pray until you pray” – prolonged prayer can get a Christian past the mere formalism and duty of prayer that can crop up during brief prayer times.
Having set the prayer at the pinnacle of Christian needs and laid down some basic advice on how to develop one’s prayer life Dr. Carson turns to the prayers of the Apostle Paul and beginning with 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 he shows his readers the framework of Paul’s prayer. Paul begins with thanking God that the Thessalonians are relying more and more upon God as time passes and that their love for Christ is overflowing in practical love for one another. Paul also thanks God that this love is fortifying them to persevere under trials so as to not be disheartened by worldly difficulties. Paul then goes on to encourage them that this work of love that God is doing in them that results in perseverance in suffering is evidence that they have been counted worthy of the kingdom of God and will be spared the judgment on the last day. Paul continues on to tell his readers that the judgment will come upon those who are persecuting them and then retribution will seen to be done. Dr. Carson defends the doctrine of retribution and shows that it is an indispensible necessity that Christians hold that God must punish every sin and that retribution is just and holy when it comes from God. Carson concludes on this passage by saying, “Paul keeps in mind [a] discerning gratitude for signs of grace among the people for whom he prays and simple confidence in the prospect of God’s perfect vindication of his people when Jesus returns – That is the framework of his thought as he sets himself to pray for the Thessalonians.”
Having set the framework of Paul’s prayers in place Dr. Carson moves on to show what sorts of petitions Paul brings before God in this framework. He shows his readers that Paul prays that God might work so mightily in the lives of these Christians that they would be conformed to the standards of being counted worthy of their calling. Paul isn’t satisfied with their growth to date but wants to see them continue growing in these graces. Furthermore Paul requests that the good, faith prompted, purposes of these Christians – which all Christians must have in order for their faith to be proven genuine – would be brought to fruition by God’s power. Dr. Carson points out that Paul’s goal in these petitions is that Jesus would be glorified through both the purposes behind the actions and the transformation of the believers because of what Jesus has done for them on the cross. Ultimately, Dr. Carson reveals, Paul wants these believers to understand that it’s by God’s grace and not merely their harder efforts that they will become more sanctified and effective in their worship-focused good works.
With the framework and vital content of worthy petitions put forth to his readers Dr. Carson discusses some general truths regarding prayer. He starts off by explaining that the motivations behind any Christian leadership must necessarily be for the spiritual growth of the people and not be about successful programs or fame. With motives in mind Dr. Carson explains that a lot of schools of prayer falsely teach people to be focused on themselves and the personal benefits of prayer rather than on the benefits of prayer for others – he wants us to recognize both personal benefits and also the benefits for others and to have both of these in mind as we approach God in prayer. Dr. Carson then shows a long list of Paul’s prayers and from the large lot of them draws out three main points: we must be praying for what God sees as best; we must examine our hearts to remove sinful motives towards people; we must be looking to root out sin we have been nurturing and cherishing. Having the right motives is what Dr. Carson sees as of utmost importance when approaching God in prayer.
The subject of motives is further expounded upon as Dr. Carson looks at 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and shows his reader’s the motives of Paul in prayer. Paul’s prayer arises out of his intense longing to be with the Thessalonians for their good – he isn’t interested in fame, respect, acceptance, or the successful implementation of a program. His prayer sprints forth from delight at the reports of the Thessalonians’ faith, love, perseverance and strength. Paul’s love for these Christians results in every good report being a reason for thanksgiving to God and personal rejoicing. Dr. Carson points out to his readers that Paul doesn’t thank the Thessalonians for the grace in their lives so as to puff them up. Paul also doesn’t hide his rejoicing so as to avoid building them up. What Paul does is thank God in front of the Thessalonians for what He is doing in the Thessalonians so that they can be encouraged and also direct their own thanks to God rather than themselves. Paul then shows that he believes in active prayer – he prays that God would enable him to go and strengthen the Thessalonians. Out of his great love for these Christians Paul wants to go there and work hard to see them grow even more in the faith, Paul is not satisfied with praying for God to build them up in some vague way. Paul wants to see an overflow of love amongst these believers and for them to be so strengthened in heart that they will be blameless and holy on the last day – Paul truly loves these Christians and his motives in prayer are entirely bound up with God-centred love for them.
Dr. Carson explains that it is scripture that has most shaped his prayer life and gives his readers an example of how this is true by looking at Colossians 1:9-14 to draw some lessons from the setting of the prayer and the content of the prayer. Paul has never met the Christians at Colossae but yet he prays for them with unceasing prayers of thanksgiving leading to petition. First, Dr. Carson explains that Paul’s prayer for Christians he has never met teaches Christians that they are responsible to be praying outside of their daily social circles. Second, he deduces that Paul’s unceasing prayer didn’t mean some strange endless prayer but rather that Paul prayed for these Christians during his regularly set aside times in the day for prayer. Third, Dr. Carson explains that Paul’s thanksgiving for what God is doing in these believers moves him to petition God for more of the same – Paul wants to see these believers growing; he doesn’t wait for things to turn bad before seeking God to bless these Christians. The content of the prayer displays the importance of believers growing in knowing God’s will as they are transformed in their inner being by the reading and application of scripture as well as the sanctification of their characters to be conformed to Christ’s. The purpose of this prayer being that Paul wants these believers to be utterly pleasing to the Lord rather than shaming him through associating themselves with His name but yet living sinful lives. Paul then sketches out what this looks like by briefly going over four characteristics of a life pleasing to the Lord: bearing fruit in every good work; growing in the knowledge of God; displaying great endurance and patience with joy through persecution; and joyfully giving thanks to the Father in everything because Christ has saved them from their sins.
With so much revealed on how Christians should be praying Dr. Carson then looks to attack the sinful excuses that people make for why they are refusing to seek God in prayer. Firstly Dr. Carson attacks the idea that a person can be too busy to pray: Jesus commends Mary on rejecting real duties in order to benefit from the higher duty of listening to Jesus – if Christians are really too busy to be praying then something needs to be cut out of their lives so that they have time to pray because few duties are as important as the duty of prayer. Secondly he removes the excuse of feeling too dry spiritually to pray by exposing that this is really founded on either the idea that Christians are accepted by God because of how they happen to feel that day or they have decided that the personal feelings of individuals determine whether or not God’s commands are valid. Dr. Carson also addresses and exposes excuses like not feeling the need to pray, being too ashamed to pray, being too bitter to pray, and being alright with a mediocre Christian spirituality.
The God to whom we are praying must be understood in some degree in order for Christians to be able to pray to Him so Dr. Carson then expounds on God as a Sovereign and Personal God. He shows his readers that scripture teaches that God is totally sovereign and that humans are responsible for their actions – these are two truths that stand side by side without one overriding the other. Dr. Carson also brings forth how pitting one over the other results in either limiting God’s power or removing blame for sin from sinners. One of the many texts he uses to display this truth to his readers is Genesis 50:19-120 where Joseph explains to his brothers that although they did evil in selling him to Egypt that God was so sovereign over all of it that God planned these events for the purpose of saving the sprouting family of Israel from famine and to bring them to the land of Egypt as he had promised Abraham He would. Dr. Carson also explains that God is far beyond human comprehension but yet bends down to a human level of comprehension and explains Himself in limited but true ways to give believers a tip of the iceberg to begin their understanding of essentially who God is. He concludes that these truths should be balanced in the prayer lives of believers and should effect believers today in the same way it effected believers in scripture: to increase their wonder at the power, the mystery, and the personal closeness of God. Dr. Carson argues, to conclude the chapter, that the reason the event of Moses interceding with God until God relented from destroying Israel happened was because God wanted to show that He is very angry with the disobedience of the people and that He intends to keep His covenant despite this anger through appointing intercessory agents who will hold up God’s own promises as the sole reason for why wrath should be diverted – God appoints believers to intercede and has planned for their intercession. Christians are encouraged to pray while fully founding their prayers joyfully on the sovereignty of God and not giving in to fatalism that acts as through prayer does nothing.
Nearing the end of his book Dr. Carson looks at how Paul prays for power in the lives of Christians. Paul prays that God would powerfully strengthen believers through His spirit in their inner being so that they might bound forward in sanctification of character, morals, thought lives and everything else that isn’t external so that they will be prepared for Heaven. He also prays that they might have the power to experientially grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ. Dr. Carson is quick to remind his readers that God has the power to grant our requests in ways that are far beyond our imagination and that He’ll do so for the glory of Christ and the church – we should be quick to run to God because of who He is.
In the closing chapter of the book Dr. Carson looks at Romans 15:14-33 to glean some final lessons. In this section Paul is asking for prayer to be offered in earnestness, urgency, and persistence, which all flow out of the love that the Holy Spirit fills believers with. Paul describes this sort of prayer as a struggle and so his readers see that they are to be battling in prayer against their flesh, the world, and Satan. Paul asks that his service would be acceptable to the saints in Jerusalem and also that he’d be delivered from the disobedient so that he can continue his ministry and reach the Roman Christians to whom he is writing. Dr. Carson shows his readers that it is right to pray for a ministry to be found acceptable by those who are being ministered to because it is possible that some Christians are so focused on an issue or group of issues that they’ve lost sight of what is truly important and therefore frown upon what is actually a Heaven-sent ministry of godliness. Paul also desires to continue the ministry to the Romans and so enjoys being a blessing to believers that he is refreshed in doing so. Dr. Carson observes that some of Paul’s prayers aren’t answered as he would have liked. This means that believers should not be discouraged if some prayers go unanswered or if they are answered in ways that weren’t expected. Dr. Carson closes the book reflecting on the idea that a God who always answers every pray is a denigrated and tame God who is a genie rather than glorious and holy.
I looked at four reviews of A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D.A. Carson and found that the majority agree that this book is of much needed benefit to the church today. Mark A. Seifrid says that Dr. Carson’s work is simple enough for the layperson but deeply penetrating and enriching – Seifrid points out that the questions at the end of each chapter are a great help for group study or adult Sunday school. Pastor John R. Throop summarizes his opinions on the book by telling us that it is a manifesto for profound, other-centred, God-guided praying. Professor James E. Rosscup views the work as one of the best recent efforts that integrate biblical praying with the whole Christian life – the reader comes away with how urgent it is to get on with what the book calls for: to pray and not just say nice things about how important prayer is. These three reviewers are in uniform agreement that Dr. Carson has produced a work of great benefit for the church today.
However, Jeffery Gibbs does not feel the same way about the book and considers it to be challenging, pious, and entirely unhelpful. Gibbs wants the work to empower the reader to change and grow in the life of prayer by expounding on how the gospel makes this possible. He considers the book as a good resource for challenging the reader in their extent and focus of their prayer life but does little to actually help the reader change and grow.
I consider A Call to Spiritual Reformation to be a brilliant and brief address to many of the critical points in prayer that are often left in the dark. Dr. Carson does a wonderful job of extolling prayer to its proper heights while also leaving the reader no excuses to hide under in order to dismiss their call to spiritual, persistent, and biblically informed prayer. In my opinion Jeffery Gibbs would do just as well to condemn the dictionary for being the poorest novel he’s ever read – what he expects from Dr. Carson’s book is not related to the actual purpose of the book and so he is let down by expectations that should not have been there in the first place. What Dr. Carson is trying to accomplish, in great brevity, is the reorientation of Christian efforts to fix the major problems within the church at large today – he is not attempting to remind the reader in every chapter that the gospel is the only means of salvation and that Jesus is essential to even being able to pray.
Dr. Carson is quick to point out that his book is brief and does not cover many areas of prayer. He understands that there is much more to be said on many subjects but his concern isn’t to make an exhaustive treatise on prayer but rather to change the focus of his readers. I believe he has accomplished his goal and have been personally challenged to improve my prayer life on many fronts. I would gladly encourage any Christian to read this book and would do so with full confidence that as they pray they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be transformed more in to the image of Christ.