What the Doctrine of the Trinity Means for Prayer
More than any other practice of the Christian life, prayer reveals what we believe about God. When we labor under some illusion about prayer, the underlying cause is likely some illusion about God. Often, these misconceptions circle around God’s majesty: we don’t understand how God’s sovereignty works with human freedom and so perhaps we think we can change God’s mind, or maybe we think God is uninterested in our prayers since he knows everything in advance. Debunking these errors is worthwhile. But here I want to explore a more basic question: what do we learn about prayer from the fact that we pray to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? In other words, how does trinitarian theology shed light on prayer?
Scripture’s teaching is perhaps surprising. Though we intuitively think of prayer as something we do to God, the trinitarian dynamics of prayer tell us just the opposite; more than anything, prayer is something God does to us.
Considering a few snapshots of the New Testament’s teaching will flesh this out.
PRAYER IN THE SPIRIT, THROUGH THE SON, TO THE FATHER
Scripture talks about prayer within an order that reflects, in reverse, the order between the persons of the Trinity. Just as all things are done by the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit—reflecting the old trinitarian rule that the Trinity’s works are inseparably one—so too do we pray to the Father, through the Son, in and by the Spirit.
Following the New Testament, then, we may begin with the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us that when we invoke the Father, this is something done by both us and the Spirit. The Spirit himself is in our hearts crying “Abba! Father!” yet it’s also true that we cry out “Abba! Father!” by the Spirit (cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15). Notice that in both passages, the subject doing the “crying” is different; in Galatians, it’s the Spirit, whereas in Romans it’s us. What does it mean to say that the Spirit cries to the Father within us and that we cry out to the Father by the Spirit? It means that the Spirit cries out within us by moving us to cry out ourselves.
The Spirit frees us to speak with our Father, working within us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). And he does so by leading us to pray to the Father as sons adopted through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:5). The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, who stamps Christ’s image upon us. And part of this image is to offer up “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,” to the one who is able to save us from death (Heb 5:7). So prayer’s reverse movement by the working of the Spirit, through the Son, unto the Father describes partly how the Trinity is conforming us to Christ from within. What does this look like?
THE SPIRIT INTERCEDES WITHIN US
Upon closer inspection, Scripture provides more detail about how the Spirit frees us up to pray like sons to our Father. In Rom 8:26, Paul continues, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” The word for “intercedes” here suggests a superabundance of intercession, tracking with a theme across Paul’s letter (cf. Rom 5:20; 8:37). The point is not that the Spirit prays for us, on our behalf—this is the work of Christ. The point of this abundance is that the Spirit teaches us what to pray for and how to pray for it (cf. Matt 10:19; Mark 13:11). In other words, the Spirit evokes prayer within us not only to express our desires and praises to our Father, but also to have those desires and praises shaped by the mind of Christ (2 Cor 2:14–16).
It’s crucial to see how this is part of God’s grace to us. In our weakness, we are often dangerously unaware of our own desires, the ways that sin twists them out of shape and leads us to ask for the wrong things. But through prayer, these desires are actively exposed by the Spirit who convicts us of sin and shines the light of grace into the dark recesses of our own hearts. He thus illuminates our minds so that we can grasp God’s majesty and glory in the gospel of Jesus, and so perceive that God’s will is beautiful and delightful, that his glory should be desired above all things. By refashioning our desires in light of his grace, the Spirit’s abundant intercession takes us beyond our own appetites and motives and into the kinds of affections belonging to sons. This is how the Spirit conforms us to the image of the Son in prayer.
THE SON INTERCEDES FOR US
As the Spirit intercedes within us, he leads us to the Father through the Son. So when Paul anchors our hope in Jesus Christ’s work on our behalf, he extends this even to the act of prayer: “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who is indeed interceding for us” (Rom 8:34). Whereas the Spirit intercedes within us, Christ intercedes on our behalf. This is not to divide the intercessory work of the Son and the Spirit, because they are part of the Trinity’s one work outside of us, in us, and for us. We might even say that the Spirit’s intercessory work within us extends Christ’s intercessory work outside of us because the Spirit is “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:6).
The Son’s intercession involves two things relevant to our question: his priestly prayer and representation on our behalf, as well as the access he gives us to the throne of grace, to the Father.
First, in the “days of his flesh,” Jesus interceded for his people by offering many priestly prayers on our behalf (examples of which we have in the Lord’s Prayer, in the high-priestly prayer of John 17, in the famous cry of dereliction, and in the whole book of Psalms). At the apex of these prayers, Jesus asks that his followers would behold the eternal glory he enjoys with the Father (John 17:24). In other words, he asks that we would receive the fullness of what the transfiguration only promised. Hold that thought.
Second, now sitting at the right hand of the Father, the Son intercedes by communicating the blessings of his priestly work to us through the Spirit. On account of Christ’s work, it is “through him” that we all “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18; Heb 4:16). Like all of Christ’s work, this access is grace, a gift given irrespective of our merits. At times we fall short even in our prayers, for our desires are impure and we ask for things contrary to God’s will (Jas 4:3). But we need not despair because “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1–2; cf. 4:10; Prov 15:29; Jas 5:16). And if it is through Christ’s righteousness that we are made righteous, then our access to the Father is through the Son’s own “access,” which is his intimate relation to the Father as the Son.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Registering the full force of how trinitarian theology affects our understanding of prayer requires us to step back for a moment and put these pieces together. The Spirit’s intercession within is one with the Son’s intercession on our behalf. When the Spirit conforms us to Christ by molding the content and manner of our prayers from within, he thereby makes us participants in the prayer of the incarnate Son himself. He gives us the mind of Christ, the mind of our great High Priest who intercedes for us. And while Christ’s prayer involves many things, it comes to rest in the vision of his glory, where we behold the Father in filial intimacy by the Spirit. In other words, the more Christlike our prayers become, the more Christlike we become, and therefore the more our own hearts and desires are shaped by the Son’s own relation to his Father. The more, in summary, our hearts are shaped by the glory of God.
In this light, Christ’s prayer on our behalf is the Son taking our condition into his own person and drawing us into the relations of mutual glorification that exist between the Father and the Son and the Spirit. This is why it is through Christ “that we utter our Amen to God for his glory’” (2 Cor 1:20); this is why “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). In prayer, we actively participate in the glorious fellowship of the Trinity. Incorporated into the Trinity’s mutual glorification through the Son by the Spirit, our desires are purified and conformed to God’s desires by the abundance and attractive force of God’s ‘desire’ expressed in the mutual glorification of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Prayer is where our minds and affections are drawn to God’s glory and thereby purified of what is old in them and made new.
At the end of the day, prayer is rightly shrouded in mystery because it concerns the deepest mystery of our salvation, our partaking of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Prayer understood in the light of the Trinity is a gift of immeasurable significance because it takes us into a fellowship of immeasurable depths. It does so because it is God’s ordained means of drawing us to himself, sanctifying our minds and wills to himself so that we may actively participate in his own intra-trinitarian glory through the Son and by the Spirit. Older theologians could speak of prayer as a glorious gift of God. In light of the Trinity, they did so for good reason.