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Some Hermeneutical Principles of Seventeenth-Century Federal Theology

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on November 22, 2014 at 2:07 pm


We will now identify and discuss four principles utilized by the federal theologians.[1]

1. The Holy Spirit is the Only Infallible Interpreter of Holy Scripture.

As an example of this principle, John Owen says, “The only unique, public, authentic, and infallible interpreter of Scripture is none other than the Author of Scripture Himself…that is, God the Holy Spirit.”[2] Nehemiah Coxe says, “…the best interpreter of the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the new.”[3] This meant that they saw the Bible’s interpretation and use of itself as infallible and with interpretive principles embedded in it. When the Bible comments upon or utilizes itself in any fashion (e.g., direct quotation, fulfillment, allusion, or echo in the OT or NT), it is God’s interpretation and God’s understanding of how texts should be understood. This often means that later texts shed interpretive light on earlier texts. Or, we could put it this way, subsequent revelation often makes explicit what is implicit in antecedent revelation. This principle led to three more related concepts.

 2. The Analogy of Scripture (Analogia Scripturae)

Here is Richard A. Muller’s definition of analogia Scripturae: “the interpretation of unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with clear and unambiguous passages that refer to the same teaching or event.”[4] An example of this would be utilizing a passage in Matthew to help understand a passage dealing with the same subject in Mark. This principle obviously presupposes the divine inspiration of Scripture.

The principle of analogia Scripturae gained confessional status as follows: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…” (2LCF 1.9).

 3. The Analogy of Faith (Analogia Fidei)

Muller defines analogia fidei as follows:

the use of a general sense of the meaning of Scripture, constructed from the clear or unambiguous loci…, as the basis for interpreting unclear or ambiguous texts. As distinct from the more basic analogia Scripturae…, the analogia fidei presupposes a sense of the theological meaning of Scripture.[5]

An example of this would be interpreting texts that speak of the humanity of Christ in the wider textual-theological context of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. For example, in Acts 20:28, God is said to have purchased the church “with His own blood.” “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” From other texts of Scripture, according to the principle of analogia fidei, we learn that Christ, according to his divine nature, is invisible (John 1:1, 18). So, according to the analogy of faith, we can affirm that God has blood, in so far as the person of the Son has blood, according to his human nature.

The inspired and infallible rule of faith is the whole of Scripture whose textual parts must be understood in light of its theological whole. This insures that the theological forest is not lost for the textual trees.

The principle of analogia fidei gained confessional status as follows: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…” (2LCF 1.9).

 4. The Scope of Scripture (Scopus Scripturae)

Terms such as Christ-centered and Christocentric are used often in our day. But what do they mean? The older way of describing the concept these terms point to, the target or end to which the entirety of the Bible tends, is encapsulated by the Latin phrase scopus Scripturae (i.e., the scope of the Scriptures). This concept gained confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Savoy Declaration, and the Second London Confession of Faith in 1.5, which, speaking of Holy Scripture, says, “…the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God)…”

Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed theologians understood scope in two senses. It had a narrow sense–i.e., the scope of a given text or passage, its basic thrust; but it also had a wider sense–i.e., the target or bull’s eye to which all of Scripture tends.[6] It is to this second sense that we will give our attention.

Scope, in the sense intended here, refers to the center or target of the entire canonical revelation; it is that to which the entire Bible points. And whatever that is, it must condition our interpretation of any and every part of Scripture. For the covenant theologians of the seventeenth century, the scope of Scripture was the glory of God in the redemptive work of the incarnate Son of God.[7] Their view of the scope of Scripture was itself a conclusion from Scripture, not a presupposition brought to Scripture, and it conditioned all subsequent interpretation.

William Ames said, “The Old and New Testaments are reducible to these two primary heads. The Old promises Christ to come and the New testifies that he has come.”[8] Likewise, John Owen said, “Christ is…the principal end of the whole of Scripture…”[9] He continues elsewhere:

This principle is always to be retained in our minds in reading of the Scripture,–namely, that the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built, and whereunto they are resolved… So our Lord Jesus Christ himself at large makes it manifest, Luke xxiv. 26, 27, 45, 46. Lay aside the consideration hereof, and the Scriptures are no such thing as they pretend unto,–namely, a revelation of the glory of God in the salvation of the church…[10]

Nehemiah Coxe said, “…in all our search after the mind of God in the Holy Scriptures we are to manage our inquiries with reference to Christ.”[11]

Their Christocentric interpretation of the Bible was a principle derived from the Bible itself and an application of sola Scripturae to the issue of hermeneutics. In other words, they viewed the Bible’s authority as extending to how we interpret the Bible. Or it could be stated this way: they saw the authority of Scripture applicable to the interpretation of Scripture.

Richard Barcellos
Grace Reformed Baptist Church
Palmdale, CA

[1] This is taken from a lecture to be delivered at the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors’ Conference 2014.

[2] John Owen, Biblical Theology or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth in Six Books (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994), 797, referenced as BTO here on out.

[3] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 36.

[4] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985, Second printing, September 1986), 33, emphasis added.

[5] Muller, Dictionary, 33. Cf. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward An Exegetical Theology (1981; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, Sixth printing, January 1987), 134ff., where Kaiser fails to distinguish properly between analogia Scripturae and analogia fidei and advocates what he calls “The Analogy of (Antecedent) Scripture.” In the conclusion to his discussion (140), he says, “However, in no case must that later teaching be used exegetically (or in any other way) to unpack the meaning or to enhance the usability of the individual text which is the object of our study,” emphasis Kaiser’s. This is, at worst, a denial of the historic understanding of analogia fidei and, at best, a very unhelpful and dangerous modification of the doctrine. It seems to me that this would mean, for example, that we cannot utilize anything in the Bible outside of Gen. 1-3 to help us interpret it. Since there is nothing in the Bible antecedent to Gen. 1-3, interpreters are left with no subsequent divine use, no subsequent divine explanation of how to understand that passage. This method ends up defeating itself when we consider that Genesis (and all other books of the Bible) was never intended to stand on its own and that the Bible itself comments on antecedent texts, helping its readers understand the divine intention of those texts. Kaiser’s method seems to imply that the exegesis of a given biblical text is to be conducted as if no subsequent biblical texts exist. We must realize that, in one sense, we have an advantage that the biblical writers did not have–we have a completed canon. But we must also realize that the Bible’s use of itself (whenever and wherever this occurs) is infallible. If this is so, then the exegete, using tools outside of the biblical text under consideration, ought to consult all possible tools, which includes how the Bible comments upon itself no matter where or when it does so. If the Holy Spirit is the only infallible interpreter of the Bible, then certainly exegetes ought to utilize biblical texts outside of Genesis to aid in the understanding of Genesis. It seems to me that Kaiser’s proposal would give warrant for exegetes to consult commentaries on Genesis to aid in its interpretation, but deny the use of the Bible itself (which contains inspired and infallible commentary) to that same end.

[6] See the discussion in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Volume Two – Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003 [Second Edition]), 206-23, where he discusses these distinctions.

[7] See my forthcoming The Doxological Trajectory of Scripture: God Getting Glory for Himself through what He does in His Son – An Exegetical and Theological Case Study, chapter 5, “Christ as Scopus Scripturae – John Owen and Nehemiah Coxe on Christ as the Scope of Scripture for the Glory of God.”

[8] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1983), 202 (XXXVIII:5).

[9] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987 edition), 1:74.

[10] Owen, Works, 1.314-15.

[11] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 33.

The Reformed Baptist Trumpet. July-September 2014 RBT.Vol 5. No.3

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on November 22, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Trumpet-Book-of-LifeThe Reformed Baptist Trumpet. July-September 2014 Vol 5.No 3 is available online – Click here

The Proud Doomed (Prov 16.5)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on October 15, 2014 at 10:37 am
Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord:
Though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.

Evil is popular. The general rejection of this simple statement illustrates it. “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?” (Prov 20.6). Evil is prevalent, and the corollary is that true godliness is rare. This present, wicked generation is bad in its parts and as a whole. We all swim in a societal soup of sin. True, biblically-minded Christians are like specks of gold in a dunghill. The stench would be overwhelming except for our desensitization by prolonged exposure.

More than ever I realize this. God is helping me become more familiar with the whole biblical message. I trust He is sanctifying me by His Spirit. And like no generation before us, we are bombarded with others’ intimate thoughts, and with events around the world. The filthiness must be more conspicuous to mature Christians.

Just this past week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case related to so-called “gay marriage,” sending a clear message that the status quo of popular legalization may continue unabated. An article in The New York Times undermines an evaluation of pedophilia as immoral. The University of California, San Francisco, is offering an online course to promote “safe abortions and abortion access worldwide.” Dr. Albert Mohler has provided excellent Christian commentary on these developments in his daily podcast for yesterday, “The Briefing.”[1]

I want to call widespread attention to this Scripture text in Proverbs 16:5. It constitutes a sober warning about the present conspiracy of antichristian ungodliness and immorality. I pray some may be saved by divine mercy now from the impending vortex of the world’s ruin by divine justice. Its two lines set forth two interrelated truths we all need to hear.

TRUTH #1: God Loathes the Proud

God’s disapproval can be conveyed in many ways. In 1935, Georgia blues guitar legend Blind Willie McTell took a public position against moonshine with a song entitled “God Don’t Like It.”[2] Here is the chorus:

Now God don’t like it and (I don’t either)
Now God don’t like it and (I don’t either)
Now God don’t like it and (I don’t either)
It’s scandalous and a shame.

Our biblical text exposes something worse than moonshine: being “proud in heart.” To condemn pride cuts across the sensibilities of proud men left to their own judgment. The ancient philosopher Aristotle (384-322 bc), still highly regarded, wrote, “Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them. . . . Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them more powerful, and it is not found without them.”[3] Modern praise of personal autonomy, high self-esteem, and boasting of immorality (e.g., “gay pride”) is wicked pride on display infecting our whole culture.

And it is not just that “God don’t like it.” The language here is stronger than moonshine—“an abomination to the Lord.” None of us have more than an inkling about the fullness and intensity of God’s holy wrath.

The pride of sinners sets God against them. He that, being high in estate is proud in heart, whose spirit is elevated with his condition, so that he becomes insolent [showing a rude and arrogant lack of respect] in his conduct towards God and man, let him know that though he admires himself, and others caress him, yet he is an abomination to the Lord. The great God despises him; the holy God detests him (M. Henry).

TRUTH #2: Popularity Is No Escape

The proud person, then, “shall not be unpunished”—a striking way of putting it, being in negative and understated terms. “Be assured, he will not go unpunished” (ESV). A proud man’s fantasy of escape from severe and eternal punishment, or total oblivion to it, lets him continue in his wicked way (cf. Psa 50.16-22; Amos 9.10; Zeph 1.12). And when we Christians forget the certain and jaw-dropping horrors awaiting all the impenitent, we are apt to feel discouraged in the lonely way of righteousness.

“Though hand join in hand,” this punishment shall surely come to each individual guilty party. “To give the hand is the token of amity; to join hands, that of combination.”[4] Again, Matthew Henry nails it,

Though there are many that concur by their practice to keep wickedness in countenance, and engage to stand by one another in defending it against all the attacks of virtue and justice,—though they are in league for the support and propagation of it,—though wicked children tread in the steps of their wicked parents, and resolve to keep up the trade, in defiance of religion,—yet all this will not protect them from the justice of God (on Prov 11.21).

The “Supreme Court” is not really supreme, because even it must give account to the Judge on high. Each proud “Justice,” without the fear of God and faith in Christ, has his or her own place in hell except he or she repent, with each and every member of our proud society. Ω

D. Scott Meadows, Pastor
Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed)
Exeter, New Hampshire USA

[4] Eadie, J. (Ed.). (1857). An Analytical Concordance to the Holy Scriptures.

The days of special visions and voices and prophesyings have passed away

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on October 1, 2014 at 3:28 pm


“Now the hand of the Lord was upon me in the evening.”—Ezekiel 33:22.

Perhaps, in the special sense in which Ezekiel uses this expression, we shall not expect to feel “the hand of the Lord” upon us. God may not call us to prophesy as Ezekiel did, although in the Scriptural use of the word “prophesy” the preacher of the Word is still called to deliver the message which he has received from his Lord’s lips. The days of special visions and voices and prophesyings have passed away, but we can still say with Peter, “We have a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”[1]


[1] Spurgeon, C. H. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Vol. 58. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1912.



Is Your Church Worship More Pagan than Christian?

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 30, 2014 at 2:36 pm


Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. He alone is the One who brings us to God. The popular but mistaken notions regarding worship music undermine this foundational truth of the Christian faith. It is also ironic that while many Christians deny the sacramental role of those ordinances which the Lord Himself has given to the church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) they are eager to grant music sacramental powers. Music and “the worship experience” are viewed as means by which we enter the presence of God and receive his saving benefits. There is simply no evidence whatsoever in Scripture that music mediates direct encounters or experiences with God. This is a common pagan notion. It is far from Christian.

Read it here

Scenes from the 2014 Keach Conference

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 30, 2014 at 12:16 pm


Pics from the 2014 Keach Conference on the Stylos blog – click here

Christ and His Table-Companions

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 25, 2014 at 9:19 am

The Lord's Supper

I thank God that, coming to this table every Sabbath-day, as some of us do, and have done for many years, we have yet for the most part enjoyed the nearest communion with Christ here that we have ever known, and have a thousand times blessed his name for this ordinance. – C.H. Spurgeon

 Surely one of the paradoxes in Spurgeon’s ministry was that although he was famous as a practitioner of the art of preaching as well as the most well-known homiletical theoretician among British evangelicals, he was a vigorous promoter of celebrating Holy Communion each Lord’s Day. He often expressed his conviction on this subject. For instance, in a sermon on the dimension of table fellowship he tells us that it is his custom to observe the sacrament every Sabbath day as a number of others in his congregation regularly do and have done for many years. In this, he tells us, they enjoyed the nearest communion with Christ they had ever known and again and again blessed his name for this ordinance. (Hughes Oliphant Old. “Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church”. Ed. Jon D. Payne. Tolle Lege Press, 2013. p.788.)

2014 Keach Conference

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 24, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Keach2014 (1)

What?  The Keach Conference is an annual theology and ministry conference presented by the Reformed Baptist Fellowship of Virginia (RBF-VA).  It is open to anyone to attend.  There is no cost to attend, but participants are encouraged to pre-register.

When?  Friday evening-Saturday morning, September 26-27, 2014.

Where?  The 2014 Keach Conference will meet at the Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, 7336 Riley Road, Warrenton, VA 20187.

What is the 2014 theme?  We are continuing our ongoing series through the Second London Baptist Confession.  This year we are on Chapter Eight  “Of Christ the Mediator.”

Who are the speakers?  The speakers will be Pastor Jim Savastio of the Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky and Pastor Earl Blackburn of Heritage Baptist Church of Shereveport, Louisiana.

How do I register? Cost: FREE, Web: Register Now!

What is the schedule?  The schedule will be as follows:

Friday evening, September 26 @ 6:30 pm (Session I):

  • Message: The Glory of the Mediator – Jim Savastio
  • Message: “The Exclusivity of Christ” (LBC 8:2) & John 3:22-36 – Earl Blackburn
  • Fellowship and Literature Tables

Saturday morning, September 27 @ 9:30 am (Session II):

  • Message: “The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Life & Ministry of Christ the Mediator” (LBC 8:3)- Earl Blackburn
  • Message:  The Pre-eminence of the Mediator – Jim Savastio
  • Question & Answer Session with the speakers

The Call to the Ministry

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 11, 2014 at 10:37 am

Charles H Spurgeon

The first sign of the heavenly call is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work. In order to a true call to the ministry there must be an irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling to others what God has done to our own souls; what if I call it a kind of στοργη, such as birds have for rearing their young when the season is come; when the mother-bird would sooner die than leave her nest. It was said of Alleine by one who knew him intimately, that “he was infinitely and insatiably greedy of the conversion of souls.” When he might have had a fellowship at his university, he preferred a chaplaincy, because he was “inspired with an impatience to be occupied in direct ministerial work.” “Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants. If on the other hand, you can say that for all the wealth of both the Indies you could not and dare not espouse any other calling so as to be put aside from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, depend upon it, if other things be equally satisfactory, you have the signs of this apostleship. We must feel that woe is unto us if we preach not the gospel; the word of God must be unto us as fire in our bones, otherwise, if we undertake the ministry, we shall be unhappy in it, shall be unable to bear the self-denials incident to it, and shall be of little service to those among whom we minister. I speak of self-denials, and well I may; for the true pastor’s work is full of them, and without a love to his calling he will soon succumb, and either leave the drudgery, or move on in discontent, burdened with a monotony as tiresome as that of a blind horse in a mill.

“There is a comfort in the strength of love;
’Twill make a thing endurable which else
Would break the heart.”

Girt with that love, you will be undaunted; divested of that more than magic-belt of irresistible vocation, you will pine away in wretchedness.

This desire must be a thoughtful one. It should not be a sudden impulse unattended by anxious consideration. It should be the outgrowth of our heart in its best moments, the object of our reverent aspirations, the subject of our most fervent prayers. It must continue with us when tempting offers of wealth and comfort come into conflict with it, and remain as a calm, clear-headed resolve after everything has been estimated at its right figure, and the cost thoroughly counted. When living as a child at my grandfather’s in the country, I saw a company of huntsmen in their red coats riding through his fields after a fox. I was delighted! My little heart was excited; I was ready to follow the hounds over hedge and ditch. I have always felt a natural taste for that sort of business, and, as a child, when asked what I would be, I usually said I was going to be a huntsman. A fine profession, truly! Many young men have the same idea of being parsons as I had of being a huntsman—a mere childish notion that they would like the coat and the horn-blowing; the honour, the respect, the ease; and they are probably even fools enough to think, the riches of the ministry. (Ignorant beings they must be if they look for wealth in connection with the Baptist ministry.) The fascination of the preacher’s office is very great to weak minds, and hence I earnestly caution all young men not to mistake whim for inspiration, and a childish preference for a call of the Holy Spirit.

Mark well, that the desire I have spoken of must be thoroughly disinterested. If a man can detect, after the most earnest self-examination, any other motive than the glory of God and the good of souls in his seeking the bishopric, he had better turn aside from it at once; for the Lord will abhor the bringing of buyers and sellers into his temple: the introduction of anything mercenary, even in the smallest degree, will be like the fly in the pot of ointment, and will spoil it all.

This desire should be one which continues with us, a passion which bears the test of trial, a longing from which it is quite impossible for us to escape, though we may have tried to do so; a desire, in fact, which grows more intense by the lapse of years, until it becomes a yearning, a pining, a famishing to proclaim the Word. This intense desire is so noble and beautiful a thing, that whenever I perceive it glowing in any young man’s bosom, I am always slow to discourage him, even though I may have my doubts as to his abilities. It may be needful, for reasons to be given you further on, to repress the flame, but it should always be reluctantly and wisely done. I have such a profound respect for this “fire in the bones,” that if I did not feel it myself, I must leave the ministry at once. If you do not feel the consecrated glow, I beseech you return to your homes and serve God in your proper spheres; but if assuredly the coals of juniper blaze within, do not stifle them, unless, indeed, other considerations of great moment should prove to you that the desire is not a fire of heavenly origin.[1]

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, Vol. 1: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle. (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 23-25.


Don’t Pray Like This (Matt 6.7-8)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 6, 2014 at 10:21 am


But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him (AV).

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (ESV).

Acceptable prayer only comes from some people praying in a certain way—in short, from Christian believers praying biblically, according to God’s revealed will. Obviously the prayerless are spiritually lost, but it is startling to consider that God rejects many if not most religious people throughout the world, along with their unscriptural prayers.

Jesus saves us from useless praying by turning our hearts toward the true and living God, and then by instructing us in the right way to pray. We must think about God in the right way, and then this will improve how we address Him in prayer.

Everybody Prays, Sort of

I speak generally, admitting exceptions. Praying in one form or another is not exclusive to Christianity. It is also found in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for example. Complete prayerlessness is more prevalent in the modern, secular West.

Jesus assumes His disciples pray: “when ye pray.” A “prayerless Christian” is an oxymoron. J. C. Ryle states it bluntly: “To be prayerless is to be without God, without Christ, without grace, without hope, and without heaven. It is to be on the road to hell” (A Call to Prayer).

Jesus also recognizes that the “heathen” or “Gentiles” do something that is at least comparable to prayer. He warns His disciples not to pray like them.

Christians Tend to Pray Like Unbelievers

We should be deeply humbled by the realization that we do not just intuitively know how to pray as we ought (Rom 8.26). That is why the disciples properly pled with Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11.1). Our sinful hearts breed sinful habits of sinful speech in our prayers. The Lord knows that we desperately need spiritual renovation and biblical reformation to pray acceptably. His instruction here implies as much. In essence, He counsels us, “Don’t pray like this,” and then He describes the unacceptable prayers most people offer. Even as true Christians, we are prone to imitate their bad example.

According to Jesus, what about their praying was so objectionable? Two things: the form and the purpose.

The form is condemned using a rare Greek word, translated “vain repetitions” (AV) and “empty phrases” (ESV).

The verb battalogeō (“keep on babbling”) is very rare, apart from writings dependent on the NT (BAGD, p. 137b). It may derive from the Aramaic baṭṭal (“idle,” “useless”) or some other Semitic word; or it may be onomatopoetic: if so, “babble” is a fine English equivalent. Jesus is not condemning prayer any more than he is condemning almsgiving (v. 2) or fasting (v. 16). Nor is he forbidding all long prayers or all repetition. He himself prayed at length (Luke 6:12), repeated himself in prayer (Matt 26:44), and told a parable to show his disciples that “they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). His point is that his disciples should avoid meaningless, repetitive prayers.

Jesus also condemns the purpose behind such heathen praying. “They think they shall be heard for their much speaking” (or, “many words”). Tibetan prayer wheels in the Buddhist tradition are believed to have the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.[2] Roman Catholic priests assign a specific number of “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Father’s” for penance after auricular confession, which is no better. But even Evangelicals may imagine that prayer’s efficacy increases with length, and that God must be “softened up” to give us what we ask in prayer. The very notion is heathen and clearly denounced by Jesus in this passage.

Remedy: We Must Always Remember that God Is Our Caring Father

Jesus sees our spiritual problem as rooted in a wrong idea about the nature of God, especially as He relates to Christians. The word “for” (v. 8) connects two ideas: “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” You don’t need to babble incessantly in prayer. This is insulting to God, because it implies He is so hard-hearted that you must pester Him like a disrespectful five-year-old trying to get attention, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” until Daddy finally erupts, “WHAT!?”

As a Christian, you already have God’s attention and His devoted love. Your Father already knows absolutely everything and He is infinitely wise. He is committed to give you everything you need for your ultimate salvation. He already gave up His only begotten Son on the cross for you. Your prayers do not inform Him of anything, but it pleases Him that you should ask in faith, for in this way you glorify Him as your God and Father in heaven.

Keeping that always in mind will help us pray like children beloved of our heavenly Father—thoughtfully, thankfully, trustingly. Amen.

D. Scott Meadows, Pastor
Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed)
Exeter, New Hampshire USA


[1] Gaebelein, F. E., Carson, D. A., Wessel, W. W., & Liefeld, W. L. (1984). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.




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