Recently, I wrote an article on prayer as a means of grace. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism states:
Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
Having studied and written on the three classical marks of the church (the notae ecclesiae which are the pure preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of church discipline), I find it interesting that the first two marks of the church correspond directly to the first two means of grace in our catechism answer: preaching God’s Word and the sacraments. Yet, notably, prayer as a third means of grace is not considered a formal mark of the church. Why? We must distinguish between a means and a mark.
The Reformers gave us the three Biblical marks to identify whether a congregation is a true body of Christ where the Spirit of God is present. Frances Turretin taught that a mark must be both “proper” (i.e. not a characteristic common to an object but formal and pronounced) and “somewhat known” (i.e. the mark cannot be of an intangible quality but must be able to be measured in some way). Turretin showed how the word, sacrament, and discipline meet these criteria (see here).
Though the church should certainly be “a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13) as the incense of the prayers of God’s saints rises heavenward (Rev. 8:3-4), prayer is not sufficient as a mark. Many false religions can pray, so it is not “proper” enough. Measuring tangibly the prayer life of a church is difficult. Yet understanding prayer as a means and not a mark in no way diminishes it. In reality, this distinction highlights a beautiful truth regarding prayer as a means of grace.
Prayer itself is dependent upon the Word of God. In breathing in the Word of God through hearing it preached or reading its wondrous truths, we are being filled with God’s Spirit. Then, as we pray, we are exhaling the Spirit’s words and God’s will back to the Lord. What a wonderful means of experiencing grace that makes prayer to be!