March 21, 2024

What Is Effectual Prayer?

Nathan W. Bingham & Burk Parsons
What Is Effectual Prayer?

James 5:16 describes the “great power” of a righteous person’s prayer. What is this power, and where does it come from? Today, Burk Parsons clears up several misconceptions about the power and efficacy of prayer.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: This week on the Ask Ligonier podcast, we’re joined by Dr. Burk Parsons. He serves as the senior pastor at Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida and is also a teaching fellow with Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Parsons, what is effectual prayer?

DR. BURK PARSONS: Well, when we talk about effectual prayer, we first have to define our terms. We need to understand what the word effectual means, and simply put, effectual is power. It speaks of working.

Prayer, fundamentally, is not powerful in and of itself. It is God who is powerful. We hear Christians all the time talk about believing in the power of prayer, but we really don’t believe in the power of prayer; we believe in the power of God. And that’s why we pray. We believe that prayer is powerful because God is powerful. God is the One who is working. God is the One who, in His sovereignty, is answering prayers.

And, you know, we speak in terms of God answering prayers. Even the Bible speaks of God hearing and answering prayers. And we understand that dynamic that God hears, God responds, and God does answer prayer. But we have to understand that even when God doesn’t answer prayers according to what we are asking for, He’s always answering them. Sometimes He says, “Yes,” sometimes He says, “No,” sometimes He says, “Wait, be patient.” Sometimes God in answering our prayers wants us to keep coming to Him, keep communing with Him, keep fellowshipping with Him, keep asking of Him.

But God ultimately does always answer prayer, even when His answer to our prayers is different or contrary to what we’ve been praying because, thankfully, our prayers do not change God’s mind. If they did, we should stop praying because we don’t want to change God’s mind. We want, ultimately, what God wants. We want His perfect will to be done in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones and in the world in all events. We want His perfect will to be done because we know that ultimately His perfect will is what gives Him glory.

And so, when we pray and when we pray fervently, as James speaks of in James 5:16, he says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” And the whole context of James 5 is very important for understanding what he means there. There is an element of this qualification that James uses: “For a righteous man.” Now, we could define that in terms of someone who is a Christian, someone who is a child of God, someone who has the imputed righteousness of Christ. But I think there’s also an element there in James 5 wherein he is speaking of our own individual righteousness and our own holiness, that when we go to the Lord, we must go humbly, and we must go trusting Him, and we must go with a repentant and broken and contrite heart.

If someone is living in continual sin without repentance, without confessing that sin—him going to God and asking God to hear his prayer—God may be saying: “You need to get right. You need to repent. You need to get right with your brother. You need to confess your sin.” And so, there’s an element there that we don’t want to forsake, but we also need to make sure that we are not making the opposite mistake, the opposite error.

We need to make sure that we don’t think that prayer is somehow rooted in our own righteousness, that if we are not praying enough, or if we are not praying just the right way, or we’re not praying with just the right words, or if we’re not praying repeatedly enough, that God is not hearing us. And I think sometimes we can fall into that sin, really, because it’s a lack of trusting God.

There’s also a misconception out there about prayer because many people, in coming to understand that God is sovereign, that God is powerful, that He is the One ultimately who is working, He is the One who is effective—often people can make the assumption, “Well, if God is sovereign, if He’s the One who is powerful, then why do we really even need to pray?” And what we need to remember is that God not only ordains the ends of all things, He also ordains the means of all ends. And prayer is one of the means that He has ordained for fulfilling His ultimate, sovereign ends. And so, when we pray that is part of God’s plan in fulfilling and bringing about what His perfect will has ordained.

And so, we pray because we can’t help but pray. The Holy Spirit gave us the desire to pray. That’s why, as Christians, we want to pray. And that’s why we as Christians often feel that we fall short in praying to the Lord, because the Spirit is constantly at work within us, communing with God, the Father, the Son, and we feel that constant need and that constant desire to pray. And so, when we’re not praying as much as we want to or as much as we’re led to, we feel bad about it. It’s because the Spirit is in us crying out. The Spirit is within us saying: “Go to the Lord. Go to Him.” But I think many Christians don’t pray, or they fear prayer, or they feel constantly guilty about prayer because they really misunderstand prayer. Prayer is communion with our Lord. Prayer is fellowship with our Lord.

A lot of people think they have to pray for a certain amount of time in order for God to hear them, or they have to pray a certain pattern in order for their prayers to be right or to unlock the secret of prayer. There is no secret of prayer. There’s no secret of effectual prayer. The secret is God. He is the effectual One. He is the powerful One. And we are going to Him, and fellowshipping with Him, and commuting with Him, and God hears our prayers. We cast all our cares upon Him because He cares for us. And what we need to do is we need to be able to go to Him at any time of day, for any length of time, with any pattern, and to go to the Lord and pray that God would hear us, that God would answer our prayers. And we also need never to give up.

A lot of times in our lives, we stop praying because we think God’s just not going to answer—praying for a loved one, praying for a son or a daughter, praying for our spouse, praying for a friend—we just give up. And we must never give up. I think this is part of what James is talking about, that fervency in prayer, that continual nature of prayer, as Paul says, praying on every occasion or praying “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Let’s not cease to go to the Lord in prayer. And when we see it as fellowship and communion, we’ll more want to pray rather than seeing it as sort of a works-based legalism, whereas we really have to pray, and we have to pray for this length of time, and we have to pray in this particular posture, and we have to pray with these particular words or this particular pattern. That doesn’t make me want to pray. That doesn’t make me want to fellowship and commune with my Lord.

And one of the other reasons that prayer is always effectual is because prayer is not just a means to an end. It’s also an end in and of itself because when we pray, we’re worshiping God. When we pray, we’re communing with our Lord. And that’s why God created us, that He would have a people for Himself to commune with Him throughout eternity.