We must be careful not to break the habit of true prayer and imagine other works to be necessary which, after all, are nothing of the kind. Thus at the end we become lax and lazy, cool and listless toward prayer. The devil who besets us is not lazy or careless, and our flesh is too ready and eager to sin and is disinclined to the spirit of prayer.1
Martin Luther was a pastor-theologian. He worked out his theology in the midst of teaching, preaching, participating in public controversy, and meeting all kinds of pastoral needs. Due to the shape of his life and ministry, his theology has not come down to us in a systematic form.2 We have received his theology through his polemical and pastoral writings as well as his preaching and teaching. Some may lament the lack of systematization in Luther’s theology, but one of the fruits of Luther’s life and ministry is that this eminent theologian, well-trained in the languages with a deep understanding of the Scriptures, wrote on many practical issues that today’s systematic theologians rarely address. For example, Luther’s writings comfort women who had suffered miscarriages, encourage the dying, counsel the tempted, encourage the suffering, and much more.3 In his voluminous works, Martin Luther addresses many “practical” matters with the full-orbed, biblical theology of a theologian, the passion of a persecuted Reformer, and the heart of a parish pastor.
One of the issues on which Luther wrote and taught extensively was prayer. The Reformation era witnessed massive theological and ecclesiastical shifts, but it also brought significant changes in the way both church leaders and common Christians viewed prayer and piety. Philip and Peter Krey explain that as the Reformation progressed, Luther’s understanding of devotion “moved away from its professionalization in the monastery into the home.”4 As theology changed, monasteries broke up, canonical hours ceased, and nuns and priests married, there became a need for a new paradigm for prayer.
Luther put his pen to paper on many occasions in order to teach people how to pray in a way consistent with the evangelical theology. In 1519, Luther published a sermon entitled On Rogationtide Prayer and Procession. He was concerned about the way the people were observing Rogation week (an annual church festival) and focused his sermon on the proper way to pray during the observances and processions of that week. That same year Luther published An Exposition on the Lord’s Prayer, which teaches “the very nature of prayer in simple terms of everyday human life.” It went through thirteen German editions between 1519 and 1522. In 1522, Luther sought to advance evangelical piety and provide a substitute for popular Catholic prayer books with his own Personal Prayer Book. He followed the form of earlier prayer books but replaced the content with evangelical theology, moving from law to gospel to prayer. After the disappointing visitations of 1527 and 1528, Luther wrote the Small Catechism and Large Catechism as tools for pastors and fathers to use to improve the knowledge and worship of those entrusted to their charge. Luther’s catechism, which was similar in content to the Personal Prayer Book, included an explanation of the Lord’s prayer as well as instructions to fathers for daily family prayers. Several years later Luther’s barber asked him for advice on how to improve his prayer life. Luther’s largely autobiographical advice on how to maintain a daily prayer life was published in 1535 as A Simple Way to Pray.5 Luther dedicated it to “Peter, the Master Barber.” Throughout his ministry, the topic of prayer appeared regularly in his sermons. Nowhere is this clearer than in his 1537 sermons on John 14–16, where Luther’s mature theology and advice on prayer spans over two-dozen pages in the American edition of his works.6
This selection of Luther’s writings on prayer does not come close to exhausting everything he wrote on the subject. It does, however, provide a sufficiently representative sample of his writings on prayer, both in regard to time and genre. It spans from 1518 to 1538 and includes everything from sermons to personal advice to catechisms. This article examines these writings on prayer and answers two questions: What was Luther’s theology of prayer? And what was Luther’s practical instruction for prayer?
The first section, which focuses on Luther’s theology of prayer, demonstrates how Luther’s belief in salvation by grace alone through faith alone shaped his view of prayer, and it shows what Luther believed the primary motivations for prayer should be. The bulk of this section, which represents the distinctive contribution of this article, will focus on what Luther thought the role of prayer should be in the context of the spiritual warfare he believed was raging all around him.
The second section outlines Luther’s practical advice on how to pray, focusing especially on his catechisms and how he encouraged Christians to develop a spontaneous and continuous prayer life with the help of the Lord’s Prayer. I conclude by drawing a few lessons from Luther’s theology and instruction for contemporary ministry and Christian living.
1. Luther’s Theology of Prayer: Praying in Christ Alone, by Faith Alone, in the Devil’s Face
During his years as an Augustinian monk, Luther prayed often. Regular hours in prayer were required of monks, and Luther often spent entire Sundays without food or drink in order to catch up on the canonical hours he had neglected due to his other responsibilities.7 Prayer was mainly an obligation, a duty required in order to gain or maintain favor with God. For Luther, it was often a burden. When Luther left the monastery and developed an evangelical theology, his view of prayer changed. Prayer was no longer a compulsory good deed, required to satisfy the pope and maintain favor with God. Luther learned that we gain acceptance with God only by his grace and through faith, and it transformed the way he prayed and taught others to pray.
1.1. The Prayer of Faith
Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand describe the evangelical Luther’s view of prayer well: “Prayer is the conversation of the dependent and trusting child, who is eager to voice both thanks and requests with the loving Father, who in turn is eager to hear from his children.”8 Luther no longer thought rules or the desire to maintain favor with God should motivate prayer. Instead, he called believers to “ask [God] boldly and with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.”9 The first two words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,” are crucial in Luther’s view of prayer. Calling on God as “Father” stirs God’s heart more than any title, and brings with it the idea that we are children, which stirs his heart again. Luther teaches to recognize our position as children of God as we approach God in prayer. This recognition encourages confidence in the efficacy of prayer, strengthens weak faith, and assures us that we approach God as an overflowing giver rather than demanding tyrant. For example, Luther encourages this prayer: “Now through your mercy implant in our hearts a comforting trust in your fatherly love, and let us experience the sweet and pleasant savor of a childlike certainty that we may joyfully call you Father, knowing and loving you and calling on you in every trouble.”10
Praying as a child of God reminds us that God has already accepted us. This foundational fact of prayer is inseparable from the foundational doctrine of the Reformation: justification by grace alone through faith alone. Dennis Ngien explains, “Just as in justification we are declared righteous on account of God’s efficacious word, so in prayer we have his word that he will certainly answer and heartily grant us what we ask for.”11 Praying sinners must banish all thought that our prayers merit favor with God. The truth is that “we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it.” In fact, “we daily sin much and indeed deserve only punishment.”12 Unlike all “Turks, and Jews, and monks, and hypocrites,” who come to God thinking that God will hear their prayer based on their goodness, “A genuinely Christian prayer must issue from the spirit of grace, which says: ‘I have lived my best; therefore I implore Thee not to regard my life and my conduct, but Thy mercy and compassion promised me in Christ, and because of this to grant me the fulfillment of my prayer.’”13 This is why Christ commands believers to pray in his name. It is only by him and through him that we can come to God. Therefore, Christians come to God seeking help, not with any stored up merit, but with faith alone, trusting that Christ has made us acceptable to God. Since Christ has died and God is our Father, we can come to God believing that he is willing to give freely to meet all our needs. Faith in Christ is the foundation of Christian prayer.
1.2. Motivations to Pray
In addition to the foundation of faith, Luther regularly points to several biblical motivations that should move Christians to prayer. First, Luther repeatedly says that people should pray because God commands it. We do not pray after meeting certain requirements or only at certain times or if we are good enough. “The first thing to know is this: It is our duty to pray because of God’s command.”14 Luther points to the second commandment, the Lord’s Prayer, and many other places in the Bible to show that God wills that we pray. This commandment is as serious and as binding as that against murder or adultery. Therefore, this warrants both fear and hope. We must not take this commandment lightly. Instead, “We must understand that God is not joking, but that he will be angry and punish us if we do not pray.” On the other hand, since God commands prayer, we can be sure that he will not “allow our prayers to be futile or lost, for if he did not intend to answer you, he would not have ordered you to pray and backed it up with such a strict commandment.”15
The second biblical motivation to pray is that God promises to answer prayer. In Ps 50:15, God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you,” and in Matt 7:7–8, Jesus promises that if we ask, God will give. Luther writes, “Such promises certainly ought to awaken and kindle in our hearts a desire and love to pray.”16 Between God’s command and God’s promise, we know that God has not only called us to pray but also assured us that his heart is willing to hear and answer. Paul Althaus summarizes these motivating factors well: “Courageous faith asks God for something because it trusts in his promise; it receives its final, decisive, and effective motivating power from obedience to God’s gracious but very serious commandment.”17
The assurance that comes from God’s command and promise should lead Christians to pray with faith and boldness. Luther compares God to an “inexhaustible fountain” that overflows more and more as it gives. God always wants to give more than we have the faith to ask for. “He desires nothing more from us than that we ask many and great things of him,” and is angered if we do not ask and demand confidently. God is like a rich ruler who “commanded a poor beggar to ask for whatever he might desire and was prepared to give lavish, royal gifts, and the fool asked only for a dish of beggar’s broth.” When we pray like this beggar, we receive much less than we could, but even more importantly, faithless prayer “is a great reproach and dishonor to God,” who “offers and pledges so many inexpressible blessings.”18
In order to pray rightly, with faith, the believer must have a promise from God. We should then “reflect on this promise and remind God of it, and in that way be emboldened to pray with confidence.”19 Faith is so vital to the efficacy of prayer that Luther often emphasizes the importance of saying “amen” at the end of a prayer. For example, he advises his barber,
Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, “Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means.20
Praying to the Father in Christ’s name and ending with an amen is designed to encourage faith and motivate people to pray to God, who “offers us more than we are able to ask for.”21
A third motivation to prayer is that “God takes the initiative and puts into our mouths the very words and approach we are to use.”22 This happens in two ways. First, the Psalms, and even more so the Lord’s Prayer, were given by God to guide our prayers and teach us how to pray according to God’s will. We can be confident that as we pray what Jesus taught us to pray, God will answer our prayer. Second, the Holy Spirit is our guide in prayer. At times, Luther says we should disregard our normal course of prayer when “an abundance of good thoughts comes to us.” We should listen in silence, for “the Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers.”23
A fourth motivation to prayer that appears regularly in Luther’s writings is the Christian’s great need of help. In the Large Catechism, Luther explains why the reformers rejected the prayers of the monks and priests: “Not one of them thinks of asking for the least little thing. . . . They only thought, at best, of doing a good work as a payment to God, not willing to receive anything from him, but only to give him something.”24 Unlike the monks and priests, readers of the catechism should think about their own needs and then come to God with specific requests, naming exactly what they desire. This alone is true prayer. Luther addresses the problem of prayerlessness by calling catechumens to consider their helplessness: “We must feel our need, the distress that drives and impels us to cry out. Then prayer will come spontaneously, as it should, and no one will need to be taught how to prepare for it or how to create the proper devotion. . . . For we are all lacking plenty of things: all that is missing is that we do not feel or see them.”25 In a 1519 sermon, he encourages those who sometimes let their sinfulness keep them from prayer. Rather than seeing their unworthiness as a hindrance to prayer, it should drive them to pray with confidence and faith:
We pray after all because we are unworthy to pray. The very fact that we are unworthy and that we dare to pray confidently, trusting only in the faithfulness of God, makes us worthy to pray and to have our prayer answered. . . . Your worthiness does not help you; and your unworthiness does not hinder you. Mistrust condemns you; but confidence makes you worthy and upholds you.26
God’s command, promise, and instruction, combined with a realization of our sinfulness and need, should motivate us to a life of faith-filled prayer.
1.3. Prayer as Spiritual Warfare
In the study of pastoral ministry in the Reformation, much is made of educational, sociological, political, and institutional factors. Too often, historians ignore a factor that Luther mentioned more than any other: the devil and spiritual warfare. One of the most prominent features of Martin Luther’s theology is his developed and integrated diabology. Heiko Oberman’s seminal work Luther: Man between God and the Devil has done much to correct the picture of Luther as the first modern man and to remind us of Luther’s firm belief in the supernatural, especially the power of God and the reality of the devil. Oberman presents Luther as a man who believed he was living in the last days. He saw the last days as times of intense spiritual warfare and strife in which the devil was aggressively attacking believers, thus necessitating faith and prayer in order to stand. Oberman argues that Luther’s regular mentioning of the devil is far from a strange leftover of medieval superstition. Instead, it is integral to his theology and way of life. Oberman writes, “Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end.”27 Carlos M. N. Eire’s study of the devil in Luther’s Table Talk demonstrates the important role the devil played in Luther’s thinking. Eire points out that the six-volume Weimar edition of Table Talk lists 447 references to the devil, a number much higher than topics like the Bible, gospel, grace, and prayer. Eire describes Luther as an “Augustinian monk, [who] saw his world as a battleground in which the soldiers of Christ [monks and priests] stood bravely in the front lines against hordes of demons, and that he drew upon monastic tradition for a vivid theory of diabolical temptation for a well-defined arsenal with which to wage battle.” Luther carried on this battle after he left the monastery, but in the process, he transformed it. Since every Christian is a priest, he taught, “Every Christian [is] on the front lines, equipped with a new arsenal of weapons that were at once familiar and radically different.”28 This frontline warfare motif pervades Luther’s writings on prayer. Some works on Luther and prayer fail to mention the devil at all, and most give only a brief mention to this theme despite the fact references to the devil and spiritual warfare are abundant in Luther’s writings on prayer.29 One of the aims of this article is to provide a more in depth treatment of the role of the devil in Luther’s theology of prayer.
When Luther’s understanding of the gospel changed, his view of the devil’s attacks transformed as well. Before, it seemed the devil’s main strategy was to tempt Luther to commit heinous sins and depart from the law of God. After Luther’s evangelical discovery, Eire explains, “Satan now tempted him with doubt, the opposite of faith. And it was always easy to doubt one’s own righteousness.”30 Satan tempts Christians to doubt their salvation and attacks their conscience by reminding them of their great sinfulness. Luther teaches people to pray that God would help them withstand the accusations and assaults of the accuser. In the Personal Prayer Book, he writes the following prayer: “Silence that evil spirit—the cruel backbiter, accuser, and magnifier of our sin—now and in our last hour, and in every torment of conscience . . . . Do not judge us according to the accusations the devil or our wretched conscience brings against us.”31 For the evangelical Luther, the believer is saved by faith alone, and is now engaged in a fight of faith. Therefore, we must call out to God for help to hold tightly to the gospel as the devil attacks our faith.
Another change in Luther’s diabology was in the object of the devil’s fury. The devil now attacked all people, not just the spiritual elite. Eire writes, “Whereas the devil had formerly concentrated most intensely on a distinctive clientele behind cloister walls, Luther’s devil plagued everyone who was near to Christ with equal ferocity.”32 The front lines of spiritual battle had moved from the closed-down monasteries and into the peasant’s house. Every believer was a priest, and was under attack. In fact, the nearer one drew to Christ, the fiercer the devil’s assault would become. Therefore, all Christians should expect to battle the devil: “We who would be Christians must surely expect to have the devil with all his angels and the world as our enemies and must expect that they will inflict every possible misfortune and grief upon us. For where God’s Word is preached, accepted or believed, and bears fruit, there the holy and precious cross will also not be far behind.”33 A final change in Luther’s diabology appears in the way he thought believers should fight the devil. Rather than depending on “sacramentals, like holy water and sacred salt,” Christians now fought only by the Word of God and the prayer of faith.34
In the Large Catechism, Luther teaches that the devil is always actively opposing everything Jesus tells us to pray for in the Lord’s Prayer:
For no one can believe how the devil opposes and obstructs [the petitions’] fulfillment. He cannot bear to have anyone teach or believe rightly. It pains him beyond measure when his lies and abominations . . . are disclosed and exposed in all their shame, when they are driven out of people’s hearts and a breach is made in his kingdom. Therefore, like a furious foe, he raves and rages with all his power and might.35
Since the devil wants his kingdom to advance and his will to be done, and since he always lives to thwart the purposes of God, believers must pray without ceasing that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done. Luther says also that the other petitions in the Lord’s Prayer are all “directed against our chief enemy, the devil.” When Christians pray for their daily bread, we are praying against the devil who is working to take away everything we need for life and godliness. Not only does Satan want to hurt the church, and thereby undermine spiritual order, “but he also prevents and impedes the establishment of any kind of government or honorable and peaceful relations on earth,” whereby necessities for life are made accessible.36 Satan is determined not just to rob faith, but also to take food, health, and home. Therefore, Jesus says to pray for daily bread. Regarding the petition, “forgive us our debts,” Luther says that we all sin daily because we live in the world and because “the devil is after us, besieging us on every side . . . directing his attacks against all the previous petitions, so that it is not possible always to stand firm in this ceaseless conflict.” When discussing the petition, “Lead us not into temptation,” Luther teaches catechumens to pray not only, nor even mainly, to avoid temptations to the flesh. Since “the devil . . . baits and badgers us on all sides, but especially exerts himself where the conscience and spiritual matters are concerned,” we should petition for protection from temptations to unbelief and doubt.37
Finally, Luther deals with the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from the evil one,” opting to translate τοῦ πονηροῦ as “the evil one” rather than the more generic “evil.” Referring to this petition, Luther makes explicit what is evident throughout his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. He says, “[The petition] seems to be speaking of the devil as the sum of all evil in order that the entire substance of our prayer may be directed against our arch-enemy.”38 Some translations since Luther—including the KJV and ESV—have rendered ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ as “but deliver us from evil,” choosing to consider τοῦ πονηροῦ an abstract noun rather than a personal noun, and therefore leaving the article untranslated. Many contemporary scholars, however, echo Luther, interpreting the petition in Matt 6:13 as referring to Satan, “the evil one.” For example, D. A. Carson points out, “Matthew’s first mention of temptation (4:1–11) is unambiguously connected with the Devil,” and the preposition ἀπό (“from”) usually refers to persons.39 It is likely that Luther’s pre-modern worldview, which gave much more credence to the active presence of demons in the world, may have helped him to render the phrase more in line with the biblical author’s original intent than some modern English translations of the Bible. What is certain is that Luther’s beliefs about the devil and his activity pervasively influenced Luther’s theology and practice of prayer.
Luther cautions Christians to brace for more intense attacks from the devil as we grow in the faith and actively advance the gospel. The devil is not the only thing opposed to God’s purposes and our good. In addition to the world, “[Satan] enjoys the advantage of having as an ally within our own hearts that great piece of Adam, who is too lazy by nature, too sluggish, and too tired to engage in a battle like this and always draws us back, thus making it especially hard . . . to fight to the finish.” 40 Perseverance to the end is always the goal for Luther, but with so many obstacles, without and within, how is this possible? We must never think we are strong enough or mature enough to withstand the devil’s opposition by our own strength. For “such is life that one stands today and falls tomorrow,” and “even if at present I am chaste, patient, kind, and firm in faith, the devil is likely at this very hour to send such an arrow into my heart that I can scarcely endure, for he is an enemy who never lets up or becomes weary; when one attack ceases, new ones always arise.”41
Luther is not trying to scare people into religiosity or spirituality. His design in regularly emphasizing the incessant attacks of the devil is not to destabilize or create insecure Christians. His goal is the exact opposite. Luther’s purpose in talking about the devil and human weakness is to drive us out of ourselves and towards God. “We are far too weak against the devil and all his might and forces arrayed against us, trying to trample us underfoot.” Since this is true, “Therefore, there is nothing for us to do on earth but to pray without ceasing against this archenemy. For if God did not support us, we would not be safe from him for a single hour.”42
In his sermon on John 16, Luther says that just as Satan works to hinder the spread of the gospel, he also strives to keep Christians from praying. Satan knows that prayer is powerful and that we have “no greater and no more powerful defense against all his might” than prayer. Luther points out three specific strategies the devil uses to keep people from prayer and then offers strategies for countering the devil’s temptations. First, and most commonly, the devil suggests that it is not a good time to pray. The devil whispers, “‘You are not yet ready to pray! Wait a half-hour or a day, until you are in a better condition to do so or have first accomplished this or that.’ Meanwhile the devil is there to distract you during that half-hour, and during the entire day you no longer think about praying.” The second obstacle the devil regularly presents is to remind people of their sinfulness. He comes alongside a stricken conscience and fans the flame of doubtful thoughts, telling people they do not deserve to live, let alone receive anything good from God. The third way the devil attacks prayer is to make the believer doubt that God actually hears or wants to answer. Satan presents thoughts like this: “My dear friend why do you pray? Observe how quiet it is about you. Do you suppose that God heeds your prayer?”43 By striking the faith of the Christians and making them doubt the goodness and willingness of God, he strikes down prayer and wins the victory.
If we are going to win the larger spiritual battle, we must win the battle fought with the devil over prayer. Regarding the first obstacle mentioned above, Luther advises,
Cultivate the habit of falling asleep with the Lord’s Prayer on your lips every evening when you go to bed and again every morning when you get up. And if occasion, place, and time permit, pray before you do anything else. In this way you get ahead of the devil by surprise and without warning, whether you are ready or not, before he catches up with you and makes you wait. For it is better to pray now, when you are half-ready, than later, when you are not ready at all.
Regarding the second obstacle, Satan’s assault on the conscience, he says to jump over doubts about unworthiness and pray anyway. Even if someone is just coming from committing sin, they should immediately turn to God in prayer and never let their sin keep them from going to God for even a moment. If we wait to pray until we are worthy, we will never pray. Again, he urges hearers to let our sin and need drive us to the God of grace, rather than away from God. Regarding the third obstacle, the doubts that God is willing to hear and answer prayer, Luther recites the first three biblical motivations to prayer mentioned above, “Behold, you could repulse the devil and all his false suggestions by basing your prayer on these three things: God’s command, His promise, and the manner and words Christ Himself taught. These things the devil cannot deny or annul.”44 Here we see how prayer and the Bible work together in Luther’s pastoral theology to fight off the advance of the devil. When the devil accuses of sin or tempts one to doubt the goodness of God, we should turn, not to our own internal feelings of God’s favor or our own external demonstration of righteousness, but to the truth of God’s word. God’s command and promise is the only sure foundation in the ongoing fight of faith.
2. Practical Advice
Martin Luther wrote both his Small Catechism and his Large Catechism soon after the visitations of 1527 and 1528. The reports of biblical ignorance and unreformed worship appalled Luther, and moved him to write the catechisms.45 He designed them to increase biblical knowledge among common Christians and advance the evangelical interpretation of the Scriptures. William R. Russell argues, “For Luther, informed prayer is the goal or purpose of catechesis.”46 The end goal was proper piety, or right living before God in light of evangelical truth. Gustav K. Wiencke, in his examination of Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray, concurs with Russell that the book “reveals a lifelong use of the catechism, not as a textbook of doctrine, but as a daily resource for prayer.”47
The structure of Luther’s Small Catechism is instructive. The Ten Commandments are followed by the Apostle’s Creed, and then the Lord’s Prayer. Luther explains the rationale for this order most clearly in an earlier work, saying that a person must first know what is required (Ten Commandments). Then, second, when we see our failure to meet the requirements, we must know where help and grace can be found (Creed). Third, we must know how to obtain the strength we need to live the Christian life (Lord’s Prayer). 48 Luther compares this process, which he sought to bring all catechumens through, to the process of identifying, prescribing, and treating a physical ailment. Timothy Wengert summarizes it this way: “This movement from diagnosis of the human condition (sin) through the Law, to treatment through the announcement of God’s mercy and grace, to the reception of medication through prayer marked all of Luther’s catechesis and even his private prayer.”49 So Luther intends that prayer be learned in the context of law and gospel. Prayer is a means of seeking help to obey the law and cling to the gospel. Prayer, according to Luther, is gospel-centered. Rather than being focused primarily on physical or temporal needs, prayer’s main benefit is in seeking strength to persevere in believing and advancing the gospel, and Luther’s catechism seeks to teach people to pray in this way.
Luther intended the catechism to be used in homes as fathers taught their wives and children to pray. For example, the heading over the Lord’s Prayer in the catechism reads, “The Lord’s Prayer: In a very simple way in which the head of a house is to present it to the household.”50 In another section it reads, “How the head of the house is to teach the members of the household to say morning and evening blessings.”51 Much indeed was expected from fathers in training children to pray. Luther knew that if the evangelical religion was to be integrated into the lives of the people, evangelical theology and piety had to infiltrate the homes. The Small Catechism made that clear, specifically calling out heads of households to train their families.52
The Lord’s Prayer was the essential training tool for Luther. He used it as the framework for teaching people to pray in his catechism as well as his other writings on prayer. He also found it most useful for his own personal prayer life, on one occasion saying it was “even better than the Psalter, which is so very dear to me.” Luther teaches that the Lord’s Prayer is meant to encourage further petitions based on its principles, rather than merely be recited. He encourages the reader to dwell on each petition, listening and letting one’s heart flow out toward all the needs that the Holy Spirit brings to mind. In A Simple Way to Pray, he also encourages people to use the Ten Commandments as a guide for prayer. He writes of his own personal prayer time as an example: “I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as, first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.”53 If time permits, he says, one could utilize the Creed in the same way, thus making the entire catechism, effectively a prayer book.
For Luther, prayer is by no means merely a private matter. Each church service is to include prayers of thanksgiving and intercession. In fact, he names prayer as one of the marks of the church: “A Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer, no matter how briefly.”54 When the church—always under attack from the evil one—comes together it must lift up its voice together, “For indeed, the Christian church on earth has no greater power or work against everything that may oppose it than such common prayer.”55 As in the catechism, so in the worship service; the truth of the gospel should lead to faithful prayer. After hearing the word preached, the church must “unite in giving thanks to God, in praising him, and in praying for the fruits of the Word.”56 For Luther corporate prayer is precious and powerful, and cannot be neglected if the individual believer or the church hopes to persevere.57
Although Luther encourages corporate prayer, the use of written prayers, and the memorization of biblical texts as a help to prayer, he comes down strongly against what he calls “vain repetitions.” He condemns “the kind of babbling and bellowing that used to pass for prayers in the church,” but was not really prayer at all. Repeating the same prayer every day is not always bad, and he encourages such practice in the catechism. But he qualifies the benefits of using memorized prayers, saying that they are helpful only “when properly used.” They are designed to “serve as an exercise for young children, pupils, and simple folk,” but the goal is that the heart would unceasingly go up toward God in all circumstances. “To pray . . . is to call upon God in every need.” 58 Luther’s goal is not mere knowledge of the catechism. That is only a starting point, a kind of training wheels for the Christian prayer life. Luther calls for a lifestyle of prayer. Believers “should form the habit of praying daily for our needs, whenever we are aware of anything that affects us or other people around us.”59 We should make prayer “the first business of the morning and the last at night.” 60 Luther urges believers to be guided by the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and compelled to earnestness by our own need, and thereby to develop a faithful and continuous life of prayer.
There is much that we can learn from Martin Luther’s writings on prayer. For Luther, prayer was to be offered by faith in Christ, with boldness as children of God, and always against the devil and his evil devices. Sadly, the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of Christian prayers has too often become a throwaway line, with no more meaning than to alert those listening that they may open their eyes. Luther reminds us that coming to God through Christ is the only way we can pray and shows us in the Scriptures how the knowledge of our standing in Christ can make us incredibly bold and confident in prayer. Regularly reading Luther’s gospel-centered writings on prayer would almost surely bear the fruit of both greater faith and more frequent praying in the lives of Christians today.61
Luther is well known for his biting sarcasm, crude language, and sometimes vitriolic polemics. These factors may lead some to overlook his tender appeals to sinners with weak consciences and struggling faith. Luther’s writings on prayer reveal an understanding of religious experience unmatched by many twenty-first-century theologians. His emphasis on the Christian’s position as a beloved child of God before a dear Father, as well as his patient advice for those struggling to persevere, demonstrates Luther’s pastor’s heart and his ability to illumine the powerful meaning bound up in common words like “our Father” and “amen.” Pastors and theologians alike could benefit greatly from spending time with this pastoral Luther.
While Luther is helpful in all of these areas, probably his most significant contribution to contemporary understandings of prayer is his treatment of the devil and spiritual warfare. Luther’s calls to prayer come always alongside reminders of our need. Too often Christians feel strong and self-sufficient. We often forget that we are weak and that we have a mighty enemy. This sinful self-sufficiency has left many churches silent before the open doors of heaven. In so many parts of the church, we have forgotten that we are at war and therefore rarely call out desperately for help.
Finally, Leonhard Ludwig observes that Luther “does not furnish a speculative treatment of a topic but the powerful demonstration of a life steeped in prayer.”62 Luther, the pastoral theologian, presents us with an example of theology forged in the furnace of pastoral ministry and personal devotion to God, along with rigorous study. Luther’s teachings on prayer betray a man who knew how to pray. During the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Luther’s friend Veit Dietrich wrote to Melanchthon from the Coburg Castle, where Luther was hiding out:
I cannot sufficiently admire the singular steadfastness, the happy attitude, the faith and hope of this man in serious times. . . . There is not a day on which he does not devote at least three hours, the very ones most suitable for studying, to prayer. Once I was fortunate to overhear his prayer. Good God, what faith in his words! He speaks with the great reverence of one who speaks to his God, and with the trust and hope of one who speaks with his father and friend.63
Reading Luther not only draws us more deeply into a life of prayer, but also reminds us that those who speak of the things of God speak best when they know the God of whom they speak.