John Murray: Man of Prayer (II)


John Murray’s practice of prayer was the outpouring of his devotion to the Triune God revealed in Scripture. The language of his prayer was the language of Scripture, for his prayer reflected what God says to us in His Word, and what we say to Him, guided by His Word and Spirit. Describing the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, John Murray turns to the reply of Jesus to the tempter: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4. Writings 4:23). The spoken words of Jesus, the Word incarnate, are infallible, and it is He who testifies to Scripture as proceeding from the mouth of God. “Inspiration means simply God-breathed word” (Writings 4:24). Since God is not silent, but speaks to us, our words to Him must always begin with His words to us. “We should pray,” He says, “in accordance with his commands and promises” (Writings 3:168).

Scriptural devotion is directed to the God who speaks and who listens when we speak. With the Psalmist’s love. ours goes out to the Lord who “has heard my voice and my supplications” (Psalm 116:1,2. Writings 3:168ff). He inclines His ear to us, as though He leaned over to catch our faint plea. Because prayer is Scriptural. it is directed to the One who addresses us personally, and as His people. John Murray warns against the “morbid, sickly subjectivism” of an introspective piety cut loose from God’s promises to us (Writings 3:169). “This type of piety can become nauseating…It is true that piety produces experience, and the deeper the piety, the deeper and richer the experience. But the point to be stressed is that piety does not feed on experience. Piety feeds on Christ, on His truth, on the mysteries of God’s revelation, and on the promises which are all yea and amen in Christ” (Writings 1:148). James A. Tallach, a contemporary of John Murray, and pastor of the Stomaway Free Presbyterian Church spoke of the trust we put in God for the full value of all that Christ suffered on our account. “At present we have only the Word of God that he will do this, although there is a certain amount of proof in the experience of grace, the witness of the Spirit. We are exhorted, “O taste and see that the Lord is good: but the greater part of godliness is in trusting rather than in tasting. We do taste a little of God’s love and mercy, but only a few drops in comparison with what we trust him to do for us. The best is yet to be…the ocean of God’s love …” The prayer of faith rests on God’s Word. His message about His saving work.



Prayer to the Father

Prayer addresses our Father in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. John Murray was very jealous for the name and glory of the Father, who is the Father of Lights. We pray to the triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet the Word of God emphasizes prayer to the Father. We adore the Father from whom the whole patria in heaven and earth is named. His kingdom will come, His will be done. We call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, and live before Him in reverent fear (I Pet 1:17).He is holy;our God is a consuming fire. John Murray loved humor, but he was deeply hurt when thoughtless students made jokes about holy things. He delighted in the benevolence of the Father who feeds the birds, clothes the lilies, gives good gifts and sends His rain on the just and the unjust. But beyond the goodness of the Father, extends His compassion and mercy. John Murray’s piety was centered in the grace of God revealed in the gospel.

Read John Murray’s exegesis of Romans 8:31,32, and a door is opened on the reflections of this father in the faith (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans, vol. 1, 1959], pp. 322–326).

The Apostle has traced the golden chain of God’s electing love from the foreknowing love He set upon those He chose in Christ to their glorification with Christ. Paul cries, “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered him up for us all. how shall He not also with him freely give us all things?”

John Murray taught that systematic theology must always begin with exegesis. Follow his exegesis as his worshiping heart probes this mystery. (Here I have condensed and paraphrased a bit for time’s sake) Who is the God who is for us? The Father who did not spare His Son His own Son. for no other stands in such a relation to the Father. Jesus called God His own Father (Jn. 5:18). God has many sons by adoption. But none other than the only begotten is the Father’s own Son — an eternal, imcomparable, ineffable sonship. The Father did not spare this Son. Judges spare criminals when they do not pronounce a sentence commensurate with the crime committed. This is not what the Father did. “He did not withhold or lighten one whit of the full toll of judgment executed upon His own well-beloved and only begotten Son. There was no alleviation of the stroke, for ‘it pleased the Lord to bruise him; He hath put him to grief’” (Isa. 53:10). “There was no mitigation; judgment was dispensed upon the Son in its unrelieved intensity.” In the non-sparing, there was no suspension of the relation — His own Son. “It is this conjunction of incomparable relationship and love, on the one hand, and non-sparing on the other, that exhibits the incomprehensible marvel of this fact…”

“Spared not — but delivered him up for us all.” Christ was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse (Gat 3:13) for us. “The Father delivered over his own Son to the damnation and abandonment that sin merited. There was no amelioration of the condemnation executed upon him; Gethsemane and Calvary are the proofs. It was only because the Son was the subject of unique relationship and the object of incomparable love that he could be thus delivered over to the damnation that he endured and ended.”

There may be another aspect of this delivering up, the giving up to all the arch-enemy and his instruments could do against Him. Jesus said to His adversaries on the eve of the crucifixion, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.” Take account of the prophecies in Ps.22:12,13,16; 69:26. Jesus was delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. If restraint had been placed upon the enemy. Jesus would not have despoiled the forces of darkness and made a show openly of the principalities and powers. He would not have triumphed over them and bound them to the triumphal chariot of His cross. Is this not further proof of the Father’s grace, that He should have given over His own Son to the malignity and hate, the ingenuity and power of the prince of darkness and his hosts? It was the Father that delivered Him up, not the hosts of darkness. “Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews for envy;—but the Father for love!” (Octavius Winslow: No Condemnation in Christ Jesus (London, 1857, p. 358).

“It is only as the ordeal of Gethsemane and Calvary is viewed in the perspective of damnation vicariously borne, damnation executed with the sanctions of unrelenting justice, and damnation endured when the hosts of darkness were released to wreak the utmost of their vengeance, that we shall be able to apprehend the wonder, and taste the sweetness of love that passes knowledge, love eternally to be explored, but eternally inexhaustible” (Romans, vol. I ,p.324f).

So exegesis of God’s Word passes into prayer and adoration. John then goes on to show this love of God for those foreknown, predestinated, called, justified, and glorified. God does not save men in the mass. He had in view your distinctiveness in your sin, misery, liability and need. “If we had been submerged in the mass, if we had not been contemplated in the particularity that belongs to each of us, there would be no salvation. The Father had respect to all of us when he delivered up his Son.”

Prayer in the Son

Here we must think of the Murray lecture on the “Heavenly, Priestly Activity of Christ.” John distinguishes carefully the finality of the finished priestly work of Christ on the cross from the continuation of Christ’s priestly office at the Father’s right hand. He shows that as a Priest after the order of Melchizedek, Jesus Christ is a royal Priest. His work includes more than intercession (Rom. 8:4; Heb. 7:25), for He exercises continued priestly rule over the house of God (Heb. 10:19–22). In contrast to Moses, the servant in the house of God, Jesus is the Son over the house. His is a representative mediatorial office. His rule is grounded in His finished work and extends to the power over all things given to Him by the Father. In addition to the Kingly office, or blended with it, Christ has the rule of “a priest upon the throne. His royal authority as Priest makes him a Paraclete, an Advocate at the throne representing His people. helping comforting, supporting them. So He walks among the lampstands, ruling over the churches. He is the Surety and Mediator of the New Covenant. Just as Christ’s priestly function ensured the consummation by His once-for-all propitiation, so He is a royal priest to bring to perfect fruition the redemptive counsel of God. He is a Priest yesterday, today and forever, for He foreshadowed Old Testament redemption, gave it meaning, and will bring God’s plan to achievement and completion.

As Mediator, His ministry at God’s right hand is preeminently directed to the Father (as in His work of propitiation). But it is also on behalf of men. He is appointed for men in things pertaining to God (Heb. 5:1). He administers the house of God on earth and succors the people of God in their temptations and trials.

The sympathy of Christ shines in His heavenly priestly office. His office in glory is based on His incarnate ministry on earth, especially His sufferings and temptations. While His sufferings came to a climax on the cross, they covered the whole course of His humiliation. In heaven Christ bears His human nature. John Murray is bold to say that the development of His human nature on earth conditions the consciousness, feeling and will of His human nature in heaven. “In all the temptations of this life we have a sympathizer, helper. and comforter in the person of him from whom we must conceal nothing, who feels with us in every weakness and temptation, and who knows exactly what our situation, (physical, psychological, moral and spiritual) is! And this he knows because he himself was tempted, like as we are, without sin. He has this feeling with us in temptation, appears in the presence of God for us, is our advocate with the Father, and invests his sympathy and help with an efficacy that is nothing less than omnipotent compassion” (Writings 1:50). This assurance “injects into our fainting hearts the confidence of his invincible grace.”

As He applies this view of Christ’s heavenly ministry specifically to His intercession for us, Murray raises a possible objection. How can such a ministry fit with Christ’s state of glory? Does He not have all authority in heaven and earth? Is He not in possession of all the resources needed to provide for His church? Does He not send the Spirit as Advocate and Comforter? Could it even detract from His glory that He must resort to the Father? On the other hand, does this present the Father as reluctant to provide? Jesus said, “I do not say that I will pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you” (John 16:26). How then should He pray to the Father for us in glory?

Such objections, says Murray, indulge in abstract thinking that is alien to the concreteness and diversity of the Biblical witness. The economy of redemption is not yet consummated. The love of the Father operates in that economy; so does the exaltation of Christ. We are shown concretely the richness of the provisions of salvation that flow from the work of the Triune God. The very abundance of assurance that is portrayed points to the abounding glory of our salvation. John Murray therefore turns to the Gospels to hear the word of Jesus to Peter that He will pray for him that his faith fail not, and to the high priestly prayer in John 17 to understand how Jesus prays for His own. It is Christ’s prayer to the Father that sends the other Comforter at Pentecost (Jn.14:16). We do well to realize how little we comprehend of the works of divine love. Christ’s heavenly priesthood is, like Him, unchangeable, inviolable. Wherefore also He is able to save completely them that draw near to God through Him, seeing He ever lives to make intercession for them (Heb. 7:24,25).

“Full, complete and perfect eschatological salvation is assured by Christ’s intercession.” He meets the believer’s every need. “The security of salvation is bound up in his intercession, and outside it there is no salvation.” It is always availing, for His petition to the Father is never denied (Jn. 11:42) “I know that you hear me always.” It applies also to the elect who are still unbelievers (Jn. 17:20f). The perfection of Christ’s atonement is matched by the perfection of His intercession. It is Christ who died who makes intercession (Rom. 8:34). He appears in the presence of God for us…having put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Heb.7:27; 9:23–26).

Just as John Murray sees the propitiation of Christ as the arrangement designed by the love, grace and wisdom of God, so too the intercession of Christ is the provision of the Father’s love. The economy of salvation, God’s saving plan, is Trinitarian in its design. The messianic appointment and investiture of Christ has its origin, by way of eminence, in the Father’s love. The Father cannot be thought of as having been won over to clemency and grace by inducements that the Son brings to bear. There is no humiliation of Christ in His heavenly ministry. “But the fact that from the seat of exalted and undimmed glory, and in the exercise of high priestly prerogative, he interposes petition to the Father on behalf of every one of his own, to the end that they also might be glorified with him, should cause us to be filled with holy and adoring amazement at the condescensions of Trinitarian love and grace.”

Adoring prayer is our response to the theology of grace. John Murray is drawn by the truth and reality of Christ’s heavenly work, not only to find comfort and assurance, but to be made speechless in devotion.

Prayer in the Spirit

The devotional theology of John Murray is also a theology of the Spirit. In his exposition of Romans 8, he again exalts the Father, for the Spirit is not only the Spirit of Christ, but of the Father who raised up Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:9–11). He is the Spirit of adoption who expresses our sonship as we cry, Abba, Father.” Murray’s explanation of the Spirit’s intercession for the saints points us again to Trinitarian love and grace. The Spirit helps us in our infirmity, and particularly in our infirmity in prayer, for we know not what to pray for properly. In our weakness and ignorance, the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered.

“The children of God have two intercessors. Christ is their intercessor in the court of heaven (d. Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 1 Jn. 2:1). The Holy Spirit is their intercessor in the theatre of their own hearts” (ef. Jn. 14: 16, 17). The Holy Spirit is the author of the groanings of which the Apostle speaks. They define the content of His intercession. Whether “unuttered” or “unutterable,” they transcend articulated formulation. Murray believes that we cannot reasonably think of the Holy Spirit Himself, apart from the the agency of those on whose behalf He intercedes, as presenting His intercessions to the Father in the form of His own groanings. The groanings, therefore, must be those that take place in the hearts of the saints in whom the Spirit dwells. “He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:27). Murray explains that it is God the Father who searches hearts, and that the mind of the Spirit here refers to the mind of the Spirit Himself. Since His intercession must be in accordance with the mind and will of God, the Searcher of hearts knows the content and intent of the intercession. As God searches the hearts of the children of God, He finds unuttered or unutterable groanings. Although they are inarticulate, they are wholly intelligible to Him, and are found to be in accordance with His will. This is true. becuse they are indited by the Holy Spirit, and are ways in which His intercessions come to expression in our consciences. God does “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Not our infirmity of understanding and request is the measure of God’s grace, but the knowledge, wisdom, and love of the Holy Spirit.

In his sermon on prayer from the first two verses of Psalm 116, John Murray says, “Prayer might be called the very breath of spiritual life” (3:168). He drew that breath in his study of the Word of God; his expositions became written prayers. We have not lost John Murray’s prayers, though they were not recorded as he spoke them. In his writings we have them still, from the fountain where he drew them. He tells us that we ought always to pray, and not to faint. God does not always immediately answer a supplication that is according to His wilL but He does answer. “I am poor and needy bu: the Lord thinks upon me.” We love the Lord, for He does hear us. There is a circle of prayer: acknowledgment of prayer answered, love, and again prayer. Answers to prayer do fuel more prayer, “Because be has inclined his ear, will I call upon Him.”

He does exceeding abuduntantly above all that we are able to ask, or even to think. We may understand something of His commands and promises, but their implications are beyond all that we can imagine. “The more we experience and behold of God’s goodness and truth. the more we desire to see. Have we ever heard of an astronomer who viewed the glories and mysteries of the firmament and then turned from his study with the conviction that he had seen enough and now knew all there was to know? Have we ever heard of a saint who beheld the glory of God and then confessed that he had seen enough? Oh no! This has not been the way of knowledge nor of grace. ‘One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may behold the beauty of the Lord and inquire in his temple’” (Ps. 27:4). When we have tasted something of the breadth and length and depth and height of the love that passeth knowledge, there is a corresponding enlargement of heart and mind; there is an establishing of confidence and communion; there is an exploring of the riches of the covenant of grace and of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge that constrains to enlarging, ever-widening, ever-rising prayer and praise. Make every experience of His mercy the reason and ground for increased more abundant prayer. “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened unto him” (Lk. 11:9–10).

Dr. Clowney is professor emeritus of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA, where he still teaches selected courses in the master’s and doctoral programs. He was the first president of Westminster Seminary in Pennsylvania and was the chair of the Practical Theology Department of that institution from 1933–52. He has authored many articles and several books and still lectures throughout the United States and abroad.