back to Theology main page
On the efficaciousness of Prayer
— Does prayer operates Ex Opere Operato?
by Daniel Chew
Have you noticed how much praying for revival has been going on of late – and how little revival has resulted? I believe the problem is that we have been trying to substitute praying for obeying, and it simply will not work. To pray for revival while ignoring the plain precept laid down in Scripture is to waste a lot of words and get nothing for our trouble. Prayer will become effective when we stop using it as a substitute for obedience.”
- A. W. Tozer
I have received a recent feedback from a pastor involved in the Global Day of Prayer 2008 in Singapore, which I have
warned about (but he was responding to an email that I have sent to my friends of which one of them forwarded it to him).
One of his many
excuses defences for the Global Day of Prayer event was that prayer is good and therefore we should just come and pray. Prayer after all is "the key to change the world" according to him.
So on the one hand it is entirely possible therefore to come for the Global Day or Prayer event just to pray for Singapore, but not to agree with what is going on.
On the other hand, as long as we pray it doesn't matter in what contexts we pray in. After all, prayer is THE power of God unto revival, according to such people.
It is with this in mind that I would like to address the issue common to both of them: the issue of prayer as "the key to change the world". I have mentioned before based on the biblical doctrine of separation that being unequally yoked is a sin, and joining heretics in ministry, no matter how remote in such events, is therefore a sin. Therefore, it is absolutely hypocritical to call for repentance in such an event while all the while this event IS sin, in the same way as confessing your sin of stealing before God while still continuing to rob people. They claim to be for repentance? Fine, let them prove it by their works (Jas. 2:18)!
The issue of prayer being "the key to change the world" deals with the issue of the efficaciousness of prayer. After all, all sides agree that God uses prayer as a means to effect change in the world. Yet what we disagree with is the issue of whence comes this efficaciousness. Does prayer operates by its own power, or to use the technical term Ex Opere Operato? Or does prayer depend ultimately on the Will of the Sovereign God who decides to do as He pleases by His own principle?
To answer this, let us first look into what it means for prayer to be a power of its own accord. What is the principle of Ex Opere Operato?
The Principle of Ex Opere Operato
The phrase Ex Opere Operato is a Latin phrase which is roughly translated as "From the work, having been worked", or simply that the thing produces what it purports to produce by itself. It is typically used in discussion of Roman Catholicism, as the Roman Catholic sacraments are said to work grace to the recipient independent of the faith, response or spirituality of both the priest and the recipient. Therefore, actual salvation is said to be conferred via Baptism apart from faith for example, and that is why so much emphasis is placed on sacraments such as Baptism in Roman Catholicism.
With regards to its generic meaning, the phrase ex opere operato refers to anything which operates/ works by its own power alone. Therefore, the Word of God works ex opere operato, since the Word of God itself has the power to accomplish what God has purposed to do (Is. 55:10-11). In other words, only something which does not depend on any secondary external principle but the power and purpose of God operates in such a way. Anything which depends on the response or faith of Man does not and will not operate ex opere operato.
The Case of Prayer
So does prayer operates ex opere operato? If so, then it can rightfully be said to be "the key to change the world". As it is, so far only the Word of God satisfies the conditions to be labeled thus. Are there prerequisites for prayer to work besides prayer itself?
To answer this question, let us look at a few passages
And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.
“If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate.
“Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered.
“Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness.
“For thus says the Lord God: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord God (Eze. 14:12-23)
In Ezekiel 14:12-23, we are told that even if Noah, Daniel and Job were in a land which sins against the Lord, they would save themselves by their righteousness/ faith but would not be able to save others. Noah was a righteous man who survived the Flood together with his four sons and their wives, and both the prophet Daniel and Job interceded for others, yet even then their intercession would avail nothing for a sinning city that God intends to destroy. In fact, they could not even deliver their sons and daughters but themselves through the outpouring of God's wrath upon sinners.
In the book of Jeremiah, such passages also can be found
“As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you. (Jer. 7:16)
The Lord said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.” (Jer. 14:11-12)
In these and similar passage, we see the horrifying reality that God will not hear the prayers of His people Israel, and that is because of their wickedness and their sin. We can therefore see that wickedness renders prayer impotent. What is even more striking is not only that God will not hear the prayers of the wicked, but God will not hear the prayer of the righteous pleading in intercession for these wicked if he so desires to destroy them. This then bring us to the final passages we will look to
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps. 37:4)
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (Jas. 4:3)
and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him (1 Jn. 3:22)
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us (1 Jn. 5:14; Bold added)
As it can be seen, the efficacy of prayer depends on our asking according to the will of God. When we ask for selfish reasons as per Jas. 4:3, it will not be given to us.
So therefore, from what we have seen, Scriptures teaches that the efficaciousness of intercession and prayer depends on three things: Faith, Obedience to God's command, and the Will of God. Without these three things, prayer is not efficacious, and therefore prayer does not work ex opere operato.
On the efficacy of prayer with regards to participation in prayer events and gatherings
With this, what then can we, in fact must we, say with regards to the idea that as long as we Christians pray with good intentions, such prayer is therefore good and pleasing to God? Or that prayer is the key to change the world? Such ideas are in fact nonsense in light of the plain teachings of Scripture, since the mere existence of prayer alone [even long prayers and fasts] have no definite guarantee of any response from God. This is especially so if done from a position of disobedience, and God DOES not lower the bar just because you are sincere. In fact, Scripture plainly teaches that disobedience hinders our prayers from reaching God such that He will not hear them at all; regardless of how many hours you pray or fast, God will still not hear you. The whole idea of prayer to change the world therefore is totally unbiblical, because as long as disobedience is present (and God by the way defines what obedience and disobedience is according to His Word), God will not even hear such prayers.
It is extremely striking how the many prayer movements being started in our times have no true biblical understanding of the doctrines of Scripture, and just as surely compromise the faith (which is disobedience of God and His Word). When prayer movements claim to work towards unity or evangelism of anything else, yet for example that unity is not grounded in the Truth but instead are ecumenical gatherings whereby heresy and unrepentant heretics are allowed to join in the prayer movements, then God has written the word Ichabod (The glory has departed cf 1 Sam. 4:21) over the movement and left such people to their own devices. Rather than proclaim the Word of God and working towards true revival, such people desire their own glory and will receive it on earth, but God who is sovereign will give them over to delusion because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved (2 Thess. 2:10).
In conclusion, let us look at the words of A.W. Tozer again, who so succinctly states the issue:
Have you noticed how much praying for revival has been going on of late – and how little revival has resulted? I believe the problem is that we have been trying to substitute praying for obeying, and it simply will not work. To pray for revival while ignoring the plain precept laid down in Scripture is to waste a lot of words and get nothing for our trouble. Prayer will become effective when we stop using it as a substitute for obedience.
Truly, prayers offered in disobedience to God and not out of faith is "to waste a lot of words and get nothing for our trouble". May God aid us to pray in the way we should, and not in the ways of Church-ianity. Amen.
 Efficaciousness (n) is best defined here as the state/ power of being able to bring about a desired amount of an effect. (From definition of Efficacy (n): ability to bring about desired amount of an effect; Efficacious (adj): able to bring about desired amount of an effect)
 At the Council of Trent, Roman Catholicism sets forth its view on the topic by repudiating what it views as heresy, and therefore by implication embraces the opposite. As it states:
CANON VI.-If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or, that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto; as though they were merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith, and certain marks of the Christian profession, whereby believers are distinguished amongst men from unbelievers; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, The Seventh Session, ON THE SACRAMENTS IN GENERAL) (Source)