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To Whom Do We Pray? The Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?

To pray to someone is an act of worship. Most essentially, prayer is transcendent communication with someone who does not, during the communication, share your “plane of existence.” In other words, it is an expression of fellowship with someone with whom you are in a non-empirical relationship. Let me put it another way: I don’t pray to my wife, friends, co-workers, or parents. I have fellowship with them, but this fellowship takes place in the same dimension. We pray to God not only because we believe that he exists, but because we believe that he listens from a “place” of transcendence. We believe he has the power to hear and respond to millions of people at once. It is an act of worship, not only because we believe he is transcendent, but because of the power we must ascribe to him to assume that he hears, engages, and responds. Indeed, it is the power of divinity that must facilitate such an act as prayer.

We believe that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but they are not each other. We call this “the Trinity.” But when we pray, to whom do we pray? Do we pray to the Trinity (as an ontological unit)? I start prayers out this way all the time: “Dear God, ….” I can see the members of the Trinity looking at each other in confusion as they attempt to figure out which one I am praying to. “Ummm, I think this one is for you, Jesus,” says the Holy Spirit. “No, it is for the Father,” Jesus responds. “Not me! He just said ‘God.’ That could be any one of us. Rock, paper, scissors?”

Forgive my blasphemous humor here. But I think this illustrates an often unspoken issue for those of us who are Trinitarian. To whom do we pray?

In seminary, Dr. Jeffery Bingham, chair of theology and professor of historic theology (an Irenaeus madman), made it clear what the traditional formula was: We are to pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Did you get that?

TO the Father

THROUGH the Son

BY the the Spirit

Christ, when asked by the disciples about how to pray, starts his prayer with, “Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9). Seems to be quite a slam dunk. We are to pray to the Father. Origen backs this up when he says that we pray to the Father alone “through Jesus” (ANF, Chapter XXXVII). As well, Christ is called the “high priest” who intercedes for us (Heb. 4:15). To whom does Christ intercede? To the Father. Therefore, we enter into the Father’s presence “in his name,” not our own – through the Son (John 15:16).

And there is nothing in the Scripture about praying to the Holy Spirit at all. In fact, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is one of empowerment (Acts 1:8) whose ministry is to point to Christ (John 16:14).

So, it seems pretty clear. We are to pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Right? Not so fast . . .

While I think this is a fine way to think about it, I don’t think we can necessarily go wrong, pragmatically or theologically, when we pray to any member of the Trinity or to God as Trinity alone.

First, concerning Christ’s model prayer to the Father:  it could be that Christ was telling us we are to pray to the Father and not to him, but we may be reading too much into the phrase “Our Father.” It may not be exclusive prayer to the first person of the Trinity, but speaking of God (including all members of the Trinity) as a “fatherly” figure. David Turner says about this passage: “One may think of 6:9-10 as indicating the person to whom prayer is addressed […] and the priorities by which prayers are formed […] This person to whom prayer is addressed is characterized as “Father,” a term inevitably colored by one’s relationship to one’s human father” (Matthew, BECNT, 184). As well, Isaiah speaks of the Messiah/Jesus as “eternal father” (Isaiah 9:6). This is not in the sense of the “first person of the Trinity” (as that would be reading too much into the text, not to mention a promotion of modalism), but in the sense that Christ is an eternal “father figure.” So I am not too comfortable reading our Trinitarian categories into the “our father” of the Lord’s prayer.

Even if we did read “our Father” as meaning the first person of the Trinity, does this exclude a belief that we can pray to Christ? Of course Christ, as our example of prayer, never prayed to himself, so praying to the Father by Christ is on par with his mission. However, once “all authority” was given to him (Matthew 8:28), did some things change? Yes, Christ did say to ask for anything in his name and the Father would do it. However, in John 14:14, he says, “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (emphasis mine). There, he is both the agent of representation and the agent of action.

There are other important issues to consider. We are told to call upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). In the context, it is Christ upon whom we call. It is his reputation and his activity that we beseech. Stephen clearly prays to Jesus upon his death when he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). In Revelation 22:20, we have the great “Maranatha!” which means, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (see also Acts 1:24).

We also have our relationship with Jesus to consider. Being a high priest whom we are to love and find encouragement and support from, it is hard to imagine that we don’t foster this relationship through conversation. After all, how can we have a “friend” (John 3:29; John 15:15) to whom we have never directly spoken? I think the Scriptures testify to a relationship with all three members of the Trinity, including the Holy Spirit, with whom we have “fellowship” (2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1).

So while I do find that most of the prayer in the New Testament seems to be directed toward the Father, and I like the theological astuteness of the whole “to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit” (it just sounds like you know what you are talking about!), I don’t think we should be too theologically legalistic about this. We should think deeply about these things and be intentional in our relationship with God, but this intentionality should not cause us too much anxiety as God – our Trinitarian God – loves us deeply and understands the difficulties involved. When you worship, worship the Trinity. Worship the Father. Worship the Son. Worship the Holy Spirit. When you pray, follow the same pattern.

119 Responses to “To Whom Do We Pray? The Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?”

  1. In many ways, could not those whom walked and talked with Jesus, be ‘praying’ to him, when they asked something of him?

    It’s not that long ago, in our own English language, that the term “I pray to you” was used when asking something of another.

  2. Good article.
    It is very clear from Scripture that the Lord Jesus is prayed to (Acts 1:24, 25; 7:59; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 12:8; etc.) is the recipient of doxologies (2 Timothy 4:18; 2 Peter 3:18; Revelation 1:5, 6) and receives latreuw (Revelation 22:3).

  3. The excellent book Putting Jesus in his Place shows conclusively that Christians have always prayed to Jesus and that there are many references to this in the New Testament.

    When Jesus tells us that we pray to the Father through the Son, he is not saying that we can’t pray to him.

    Christians have always sung to and prayed to Jesus.

  4. Indeed the Great Trinity of God is such a profound mystery, and we can always approach and pray to our Trinitarian-triune God, each member: Abba Father, Logos/Son, and Spirit/Holy Spirit. I am glad myself God has given the Church the Nicene Council and Creed, and those men that hammered it out there and even before, with men like Tertullian, and Theophilus of Antioch, who was the first to use it in its Greek form, “trias” (c.180).

    There is a delightful little book that was written by an Anglican I am happy to say, who was the bishop of Exeter, in 1885 to 1900, the beloved Edward Henry Bickersteth (1812-1906). It is simply called now The Trinity, The Classic Study of Biblical Trinitarianism! (Kregel) And any Christian can read this gem! For the more theological, there is also the Roman Catholic book on the Trinity, simply called: The Trinity, by the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. Who gives us the great axiomatic unity of the “Economic” and “Immanent” Trinity (and is itself only a little over 100 pages). And last but not least for those who are very much for a grand, theological and historic study, my most favorite: The Trinitarian Faith, The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church, by Thomas F. Torrance. (And of course his last book Trinitarian book: The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons.)

    “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” (Rev. 4:8)

  5. Maybe I’m going to be the bad guy here, but what else is new? Why do we have to question everything we are taught nowadays? Theological debate is good when when it comes to questioning what may be possibly the wrong interpretation of scripture on other things, but I’m just not there with CMP on this one. Hopefully this just a question by him, and not some new theology.

  6. C Michael Patton February 23, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Mbaker,

    What is new about what I have said?

    I wrote this because it is a question I got in email today.

    What do you disagree with?

  7. “In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” – Augustine De Trinitate 1.3.5.

  8. CMP,

    That you yourself are asking the the question,r egarding us believers. and what the church has historically believed about prayer.

  9. I still don’t understand your problem.

  10. I don’t have a problem with that personally. I’m just asking why the question in the first place, in response to an e-mail. The Bible I think at least, is pretty clear that Christ is our intercessor and we, as He did, pray to Father in the name His name as such. Where did that change and how does it change the Trinity? I just don’t get why that is such a question with you, although certainly I can understand that might be the case from someone who doesn’t get the Bible.

    Not trying be contrary, but just asking.

  11. I did not think I made this such an issue. I tried to make it not so much an issue. I get asked this all the time. It is kinda theology 101. In the end all I am saying is that it is okay to pray and foster a relationship with all three members of the Trinity, even though the general guideline SEEMS to be that we pray to the Father.

  12. Guess I am not getting the ‘seems’ part, be because to me the Bible makes it pretty clear the difference in the jobs of each, (for lack of a better word) , in the three parts of the Trinity. Why not believe that they are all, as certain factions believe, all one and the same? I certainly get the difference, but where is the difference in prayer? My point is if we are going to tell someone there isn’t one in that respect how are we going to convince them of the three person Godhead in other respects? Guess that is what I’m not getting from your OP.

  13. I am sorry. I still don’t understand. Maybe this will help: if someone asked you if it is okay to pray to Jesus, what would you say?

  14. Interesting post.
    I never had any qualms about praying to Jesus, but I have wondered about the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I have asked the Holy Spirit to help me understand Christ and worship Him, as I understand that is the Holy Spirit’s job…
    Good food for thought.

  15. I think that if you pray in Jesus’ name, that should cover it. I highly doubt that the other two Persons of the Trinity get jealous over Jesus.

  16. I believe one of your ending statements gives away a major flaw in your approach:

    “So while I do find that most of the prayer in the New Testament seems to be directed toward the Father and I like the theological astuteness of the whole “to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit” (it just sounds like you know what you are talking about!), I don’t think we should be too theologically legalistic about this. We should think deeply about these things”

    This implies both that the previous and historical articulations lack depth but worse, theological/biblical precision in our faith is “legalistic”. These are unfortunate signs that you have failed to appreciate the theologically robust writings on the doctrine of prayer and you view its practitioners as legalistic.

    But that aside this apparent review of a rather elementary doctrinal issue is one based in the administrative design and execution of the Trinity. The Bible is quite explicit and language like “it is okay to pray and foster a relationship with all three members of the Trinity” is to demonstrate some rather basic ignorance of the nature of these relationships and how they are fostered by God’s protocol, not yours simply because you have imagined you can do it your way. No.

    Ex: Your relationship with God the Holy Spirit is quite clear in the Scriptures, it is not via praying to him it is yielding to his control.

    Is it okay to pray to Jesus? Is it okay to believe on God the Holy Spirit do save…

  17. Alex: I don’t follow all your thought. CMP was simply stating that prayer is important no matter who you pray to in the trinity. I like praying to the father but am quite certain that Jesus is listening…. Do you believe that which person of the trinity you pray to is such an essential part….I certainly don’t IMHO

  18. As long as it is “simple” that makes it okay?

    And if that is what he was “simply stating” then he would be wrong.

    But he wasn’t “simply stating that prayer is important no matter who you pray to in the trinity”. He asserted and questioned more than this. It should be dealt with for all of what was said, questioned and implied.

    I find the practice of minimizing (obviously you are speaking for yourself and mot CMP but this is a good time to make this point) is simply a tool to avoid accountability for one’s words and actions. You want to fame this as a “simple assertion” to fend off objections. It is not “simple”. Now you may and can disagree, but not in the name of “all Michael was saying was simply…”.

  19. I really can’t believe that this would be an issue. Alex, if I am flawed and ignorant, then so is just about every modern theologian that I know of. Read Grudem’s section on this subject. Also read Puttinh Jesus in His Place for some good details about how the church prayed to Jesus.

  20. Michael,

    I don’t think it’s an issue of being ‘flawed and ignorant’, as you put it, or even ‘legalistic’. It’s simply a matter of consistency in our theology about the Trinity. There is enough confusion about it out there already.

    You made a good case in the first part of your post for the separate roles of each member of the Godhead, yet you seem to blur the distinction when it comes to prayer. Jesus Himself spoke of praying to the Father, in His name. So I don’t think it’s theological nitpicking to recognize that this is what HE said about the matter. So, IMO, we should advise folks of that, then how or to whom they decide to pray personally is up to them.

  21. Again MBaker, what would you say to someone who asked if it was ok to pray to Jesus?

  22. This is one of the reasons I myself feel that the classic Trinitarian Creeds should be read and known in the Church, especially today! And here btw, the EO or Orthodoxy, is simply one of the best teachers.

    ‘Orthodox Christians believe in a single God who is both three and one (triune): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “one in essence and undivided”. The Holy Trinity is three “unconfused” and distinct divine persons (hypostases), who share one divine essence (ousia – uncreated, immateral and eternal. The Father is the eternal source of the Godhead, from whom the Son is begotten eternally and also from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally. The essence of God being that which is beyond human comprehesion and can not be defined and or approached by human understanding.’

    And of course the Doctrine of the Trinity of God, in our understanding, was a doctrine that came from Jewish monotheism itself. It was and is a doctrine of development, from and to our understanding, from the Apostles, to the Apostolic Fathers, to the Apologists (Justin), unto the teaching and understanding of the Incarnational itself! No doubt the theologian who summed up the thought of the second century, and dominated Christian orthodoxy before Origen, was Irenaeus. Here we see for the first time, at least theologically, both God’s intristic being, but also as He God manifests Himself in the ‘economy’, that ordered process of His self-disclosure. Indeed from here we will see later the great…

  23. CMP: Not to be a shameless self-promoter, but I did a series on my blog last year called “Hear O Lord: Praying to Jesus” in which I interacted with some arguments against praying to Jesus and laid out, what I think, is a pretty solid case from the NT that Jesus was prayed too by the earliest Christians and that such practice was widespread.

    And for the record, my general practice is to pray to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit (as I repeatedly state throughout the series), so it’s not like I was trying to justify my own behavior. Anyway, I think that you’ve said enough in your post to make the case, but I figure that my series could help some of the folks who are having trouble with what you’ve said (and might not have access to Bowman & Komoszewski’s brilliantly argued book).

  24. CMP,

    Just what I said in my comment above. I think where I am not understanding you is you seem to want to use word ‘okay’ about praying to Jesus. It can be ‘okay’ to do most anything, but I am saying let’s go by what Christ says first about praying to the Father in His name, when we advise folks. I didn’t say it, He did.

  25. Please help me to get this straight. So you are saying it is NOT okay? Please. Just yes or no.

  26. CMP,

    Not saying either, and that’s my point. I’m simply repeating what Christ said about it, which is what i have done on countless occasions in my years in prayer ministry when asked the same question. Then, as I have already said, folks with further questions can read all the theological opinions on either side, and make up their own minds. I have read them all, and certainly there are valid arguments on both sides, but I let what Christ said about praying to the Father in His name be my first rule of thumb, because I think it more closely follows the Trinitarian roles spelled out in scripture. Sorry, don’t know how to make it any clearer than that.

  27. Btw, praying “In Jesus name” is praying in Christ’s “Mediation”, as HE is ‘the Mediator’, (1 Tim. 2:5). So let’s not fall into a “Christ without Christology.”! And praying to Christ is praying to God, God Incarnate! And btw, Christ IS still Incarnate, at the Right-Hand, or one the Throne of God! Christ has entered “heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” (Hebrews 9:24) :)

  28. CMP – I enjoyed your post- agreed.

    I don’t mind if others restrict themselves to a “form” of prayer like “To the Father…” BUT…

    In practice, I’ve found it more helpful to free more people up to pray rather than restrict them (too many times people are “afraid” to pray or have reservations about it publicly or even privately). I think this is your intent in analyzing examples of praying in the Bible.

  29. mbaker: You seem to be on the edge or rails of a kind of “fundamentalism” here? If I am reading you correctly? This is where we simply cannot escape either a biblical or certain systematic theology! So good “theology” is not mere “opinion”, but hopefully light and truth! :)

  30. I simply agree with CMP’s theology professor that we go by what Christ says first. If that makes me a ‘fundie’…..well, I have sure been called worse! I do believe in the historical foundations of scripture, however, and therefore
    certainly you, of all people, should know by our previous conversations on this that I affirm Christ as God incarnate, and as our Mediator. So that suggestion of ‘Christ without Christology’ IS a little problematic to me.

  31. Certainly many early Church fathers and mothers prayed to Jesus, using the Jesus Prayer (in its earliest forms): “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Thus they replicated the acts of those who encountered the Christ and prayed to him — for healing, for mercy, for light. Were they wrong? I don’t think so.

  32. C Michael Patton February 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Not any more than Stephen was wrong or the Apostles in acts 1.

  33. Okay, so I suppose you guys will say I am kind of a “fundamentalist” here too.

    But I do have a question. Seeing as Jesus did tell us how to pray as mbaker stated, why DO we assume that we can or should do it some other way? Are we ever commanded to pray directly to either Jesus or the Spirit? I can’t think of any place that we are.

    Your last comment, Michael, talked about Stephen and the Apostles in Acts 1. But how many times have we been told right here on this blog if I remember correctly, that there are “descriptive” things in the Bible and also “prescriptive” things? And are we not to obey the “prescriptive” and let the “descriptive” be something that is just that–descriptive and not something that we are necessarily to “go and do likewise?”

    Am I missing something here?

  34. Cheryl, I am not saying that those are prescriptive anymore than Jesus praying all night is prescriptive. I am simply showing how the examples in the Bible do not support any legalistic mentality here. Two questions: Do you think Stephen was wrong? And what would you say to someone who asked if it was okay to pray to Jesus?

  35. We have Jesus’ teaching, and after his resurrection he did not forbid worship towards him, so prayer seems to go hand in hand with this. I’ve never been led strongly to pray directly to the Holy Spirit, but that’s just me.
    I think one of the greatest things about us as God’s creation is the ability to convey meaning. We speak, act, write, and do many things which communicate, which convey meaning, and not just random noise.
    God, Jesus, and the HS all demonstrated the ability to hear us within our hearts – a privilege they reserve for themselves alone. It appears likely that all three are involved in fellowship with us in prayer, and not only in prayer, but in praise and worship as well.
    As far as authority, the patriarchs used to pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so do we, yet we have the name of Jesus, to whom all authority is given as risen Savior. That seems to be the only thing different about the formality of prayer, from a Biblical standpoint.

  36. “I really can’t believe that this would be an issue. Alex, if I am flawed and ignorant, then so is just about every modern theologian that I know of. Read Grudem’s section on this subject. Also read Puttinh Jesus in His Place for some good details about how the church prayed to Jesus.”

    Grudem? Ugh, he couldn’t even get an elementary issue such as the Granville Sharp rule right. He is a very sloppy thinker. But preferring better theologians, yes maybe some do agree but I believe they are, too, exercising with a certain ignoring of Trinitarian explications and implications.

    And again, what about the overwhelming majority you seem to dismiss as “legalistic” without a proper examination or argument regarding their theological cases made but praying to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit? You appear to simply go around their robust arguments.

  37. Alex, who is the overwhelming majority that would legalistically restrict prayer only to the Father? While the majority, including myself, would say that this is the general model, I would like to know who says that one can’t pray. To Christ.

  38. Michael,

    I am really trying to understand where you are coming from when you keep calling folks ‘legalistic’, who when they are asked who or how to pray, use the prescriptive model of Jesus.

    Where is the grace you preach on this blog in that mindset?

  39. Alex, who is the overwhelming majority that would legalistically restrict prayer only to the Father? While the majority, including myself, would say that this is the general model, I would like to know who says that one can’t pray. To Christ.
    _________________

    Where does it say you “can’t believe on the Holy Spirit to be saved”? While asserting the positive it assumes you understand the negative. The explicit instructions are given and demonstrated in Scripture.

    Biblical precision, that is executing the protocol of God in a precise manner, is not legalistic, it is the greatest expression of faith and worship one can exercise.

  40. I am saying it is theological legalism when someone says that you can only pray to the Father. It is the traditally way to pray, but as I demonstrated in the op it is not the only way, either biblically or ecclesiastically. I am not the one being hard line about !

  41. Alex, who is the majority who says one can’t pray to Christ?

  42. mbaker: Since this is a biblical issue alone (here) it seems, what do we do with John 20:28, when Thomas called Jesus, “My Lord and my God”? Surely, if Jesus is believed to be deity (as He is), then prayer to Him is certainly justified, and even warranted! And the biblical-theological argument that Jesus is the Mediator, and the offices of Christ manifest Christ as HE is ‘Prophet, Priest & King’! And even a/the High Priest, a Priest like no other, “Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec”, (Ps. 110:4/Heb.7:17). If we have and know all this, the whole question becomes mute to my mind!

    And my point was and is that Christ IS Christology, Himself! And the only Christ we see in the NT, and especially the “Epistle’s”, or Letters is the Christological Christ!

  43. Michael,

    I do have to agree with Alex that :

    “Biblical precision, that is executing the protocol of God in a precise manner, is not legalistic,”

    Indeed, it is an honoring of Christ and a sign of our love for Him when we teach and follow His prescriptive truth first, and our opinions second.

    That is not to say it is a sin to not pray to the Father in the name of Jesus, because He heeds the humblest of prayers when done in the right spirit.

  44. I would assume that all Christian prayer is in Jesus name since only in his name do we have access to God.

    But the point is that biblical precision does not necessitate a legalistic way to look at this. As I have shown (which somehow is alluding this rather odd conversation) the early church did pray to Jesus! Set aside the prescriptive/descriptive issues—do you think they were wrong to do so?

  45. You keep asking that same question over and over, Michael. Did I not just explain that, no, I don’t think it is a sin or anything, but Jesus Himself asks us to do it and that’s how I honor him myself, whenever I petition Him. And that’s how I advise others who ask MY opinion on the subject.

    As far I am concerned other folks can pray to whomever they want.

  46. Okay. Then the op stands. Ty

  47. I just want to throw out some food for thought here and I’m kind of thinking as I go.

    I don’t think that just because we have a biblical example of a way of doing things that means we have the liberty to do so if it is different then what we see in an express commandment given by God.

    I’m remembering an OT example where people were given express instructions on how to do things. However they chose to do things a different way. With disastrous consequences. The example I have in mind is when King David and company decided to move the Ark and put it on an ox cart to do so instead of carrying it on poles on the shoulders of the Levites like God had told them to. The end result of all of that was one man being struck dead when he reached out to steady the Ark when the oxen stumbled. Funny thing, after that they decided to do things as God had commanded them.

    It seems to me that the details DO matter. And while I recognize that we do not live in the OT but rather in the NT now, I don’t think that means that God now just looks the other way when we decide we can do something in a different way then how He has told us to do it. And I also recall it saying, in Hebrews I believe, that what happened to them back there was to be an example to us today. No, we are not likely to get struck dead for not praying the specific way God tells us to. But it seems to me that if we are serious about His commands, we will try to follow them as closely as we can.

  48. The whole idea that the words of Jesus, or the historical Christ, surmount the words and Letters of the Apostles, is just poor theology! See, (John 14: 25), etc. Not to mention the life and ministry of St. Paul, (Acts (9:15 / Rom. 15:16-17).

  49. Okay then Cheryl. Christ was pretty detailed in the Lord’s prayer and what to say. Yet, if we are following your food for thought method, since there are a lot of prayers in the NT after Christ gave this prescription and since there is not a single time they use this prayer (or anything close to it), they are committing the sin of hard-hearted Israel?

    Let me as you: do you only prayer this prayer with all of the details in tact? If not, are you not following God’s best?

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