Our guest contributor today is Giancarlo Montemayor, the Spanish Publisher at B&H Publishing Group and a PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Marcela and they have two children.

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John Newton (1725–1807)—the famous writer of Amazing Grace—wrote more than a thousand letters in his lifetime, and many of them deal with the subject of prayer. Newton believed and taught that prayer is a corporate discipline as much as it is a personal one. In correspondence with a friend, Newton expressed his high view on public prayers—or “social prayers”—as he called them. He referred to these prayers as “the most profitable exercises (excepting the public preaching) in which Christians can engage”.[1] In another letter, Newton instructed a reader on how to conduct such public prayers—that they should be short, methodological, distinct from sermons, and reverent.[2]

1. Public Prayers Should be Short

John Newton

John Newton

First of all, Newton argued that “long prayers should in general be avoided,” because they could distract even the most spiritually mature people. For him, the problem of some public prayers is that they are too long. He thus said that it is better that the hearers “should wish the prayer had been longer, than spend half the time in wishing it was over.”[3]

2. Public Prayers Should be Simple

Newton was not fond of elaborated prayers, arguing that they sounded rather “artificial.” He didn’t mean that prayers should be disorganized. In fact, he said that “some attention to method may be proper, for the prevention of repetitions.”[4] He recommended Isaac Watts’ A Guide to Prayer, but he commented, “a too close attention to the method therein recommended, gives an air of study and formality, and offends against that simplicity which is so essentially necessary to a good prayer.”[5]

3. Public Prayers Should be Distinct from Sermons

Public prayers are indeed a learning opportunity for those who listen, but Newton regretted that “the prayers of some good men are more like preaching than praying.” Newton believed that preaching is speaking “the Lord’s mind to the people,” while praying is speaking “the desires of the people to the Lord.”  When one confuses one for the other, “it can hardly be called a prayer.” Far from benefiting the congregation, Newton lamented, such prayers would hardly help those who want to pray from their hearts. In contrast, Newton commended prayers that are “breathings to the Lord, either of confession, petition, or praise.” And although prayers should be based on Scripture and the gospel, they should reflect the experience, expressions, and feelings of the soul. By doing so, prayers will result in “the edification of others.”[6]

4. Public Prayers should be Reverent

Lastly, Newton disapproved the “custom that some have of talking to the Lord in prayer.” He was referring to the informal tone as if prayer was “the most familiar and trivial occasion.” He exhorted those who pray publicly to remember that they speak to the King of kings. Praying this way will “prevent us from speaking to [God] as if he was altogether such as one as ourselves!”[7] 

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[1] John Newton, Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 78.

[2] Even though the letter is not divided as such, the pattern seems obvious as one reads it.

[3] John Newton, The Works of the Reverend John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 1:77.

[4] Newton, Works, 1:77.

[5] Newton, Works, 1:77.

[6] Newton, Works, 1:77.

[7] Newton, Works, 1:77.

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