The Role of Prayer in Sanctification

With our pastors away on retreat this week, Jay asked Matt Gilleskie to contribute a guest article. We hope it blesses and encourages you.


Recently, I have been burdened with longing. I long to live a holy life for God’s glory. I long to put off the old man and put on Christ. Moreover, I long for our church to strive for Christian maturity. I long for us to bear abundant fruit. I expect that you, too, long for such things. And you, like me, may experience frustration and discouragement when the fruition of your longings is deferred.

What ought we do when we are discouraged by our lack of holiness? How do we kill our indwelling sin, individually and together, and live unto God? One might answer instinctively, “read more Bible!” But if we neglect prayer, our reading will be ineffective, because God uses prayer to sanctify us. Here are four thoughts on the relationship between prayer and holiness.

I. We Shouldn’t Rest on Our Prayers.

Our holiness is entirely dependent on God’s grace. He sanctifies His people (1 Thess 5:24). The gospel is not a self-help plan. It does not teach that we can become more holy by changing our habits and mindset. Rather, the gospel requires us to look outside of ourselves for qualification and renovation. So before we consider the role of our own prayers in promoting holiness, we should look to our Savior.

What is Jesus doing right now? He is praying for us. As our great high priest, “he ever liveth to make intercession for [us]” (Heb 7:25, KJV). When we are prayerless, He is prayerful. He gathers up our longings and presents them before the Father, who wants to give good gifts to His children (Matt 7:11). In the same way, “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us” (Rom 8:26). Before we struggle in prayer before the Father’s throne, let us remember that the Son and the Holy Spirit have gone ahead of us there.

II. Prayer Keeps us from Temptation.

Temptation can frustrate our pursuit of holiness. Often, we are assailed with temptations from every direction. We despair of overcoming our besetting sins. What can we do in these circumstances? Jesus teaches us to “pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40; cf. Mark 14:38). We might read these words as a command for a particular setting, but that should not prevent us from seeing in them a universal spiritual principle: prayer is a weapon against Satan (Eph 6:18-19) and a means of orienting our desires toward God and away from sin. We are taught the same in the most basic of Christian prayers: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from [the evil one]” (Matt 6:13). So, let us take refuge in Christ through prayer when we are tempted.

III. We Receive the Holy Spirit through Prayer.

Our holiness depends on the grace of the Holy Spirit: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess 2:13, emphasis mine). But this is not to say that sanctification is automatic. In fact, only as we ask the Lord for the Spirit do we receive His gracious influence throughout the course of our lives.

We must petition God for His grace. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” Jesus tells us, “for everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10). We may ask Him for many things, but one trumps all others: the gift of the Holy Spirit. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13). God gives the Holy Spirit, the author of our holiness, to those who ask.

NOTE: Consider meditating on this remarkable statement from the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 45, q. 116): “Why is prayer necessary for Christians? God will give His grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who constantly and with heartfelt longing ask Him for these gifts and thank Him for them.” (http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/lords-days/45.html)

IV. Prayer Reminds Us of the Gospel.

Lastly, the logic of prayer presupposes the gospel of grace. If you are like me, then you assume (consciously or not) that you must prove yourself worthy to call upon God to change you. You desire patience, for instance, but think you must demonstrate patience before asking God to further increase your patience. However, this assumption contradicts the gospel.

The central feature of the gospel is its external character. The love of God in Christ does not depend on anything within us. It depends on the work of Christ – His perfect life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection. His work qualifies us before God. We contribute nothing. Therefore, weak sinners like us can draw near to the throne of grace, purified by the blood of Christ, and stand as beloved sons of our Father (Heb 4:16). Fools can ask for wisdom (Jas 1:5; Prov 2:6); the defiled can ask for purity (Matt 8:2); the hateful can ask for charity (1 Thess 3:12); the adulterer can ask for chastity (John 4:13); the faithless can ask for belief (Mark 9:24); the lonely can ask for companionship (1 Kgs 8:57); the despairing can ask for joy (John 16:24). And sinners can be confident of having their Father’s ear and receiving from His hand because of the cross of Jesus Christ.

We don’t have to achieve holiness before we can ask God to make us holy. We can approach him as needy beggars by the merit and mercy of His Son to receive what we could never produce ourselves. Consequently, each time we approach the throne of grace, we discover the gospel anew.

How Should We Respond?

If you’ll permit me four more thoughts, I’d like to consider how we as a local church might respond to these thoughts on prayer.

  1. Prayer should characterize our life together as a church. CHBC is justly devoted to the word of God. This emphasis is right, good, and desperately needed in our community. But we should not focus on Scripture at the expense of prayer. Doing so would contradict Scripture itself! Let us strive to be a church that is known for the persistence and the power of our prayers.
  2. We should commit to a discipline of private prayer. Each of us should commit once again to a rigorous discipline of private prayer. It may require waking up thirty minutes earlier. It may require foregoing your favorite podcast. But these sacrifices are small when compared to what you will gain: fellowship with your God. Spend time praising Him for His perfections; confessing your sins and pleading for His mercy; thanking Him for His overwhelming kindness; asking Him for His grace (first, for your growth in likeness to Christ and that of your friends, family, and fellow church members; then, for material needs). Pray in conjunction with your Bible reading so that your praises, confessions, gratitude, and petitions are shaped by the word of God.
  3. We should commit to a discipline of family and congregational prayer. Our lives as Christians are not individual; we are bound to others by nature (our families) and by grace (our local church). Therefore, prayer should not be an exclusively private affair. We are called to pray “our Father” in the company of fellow believers. So, is your family life marked by prayer? Do you pray regularly with your children and your spouse; with your roommates or whoever makes up your household? Do you pray earnestly with and for other members of CHBC? Do you share prayer requests with your life group and devote yourself to prayer with them? Is prayer a cornerstone of your discipleship? Let us integrate prayer into our ordinary devotional rhythms as a community.
  4. We might begin with our week of prayer, October 30 to November 6. I pray that the Lord would use this article to make prayer a central feature of our church’s life in Christ. Use our week of prayer (October 30 to November 6) to consecrate yourself (or your small group, or your friends in the church) to prayer. Each Sunday of that week, we’ll hear sermons on the theology and practice of prayer, and we’ll have an opportunity to gather for prayer on that Wednesday evening (November 2). I hope to see you there!

Let me leave you with two thoughts on prayer from believers who’ve gone on before us. The first is from Campegius Vitringa, a theologian of the Dutch Further Reformation. He writes,

“I put prayer in the first place among the means of promoting sanctification: that most holy exercise by which the godly soul joins itself to God, ascends to God as by stairs to heaven itself, and (as from a flowing watercourse) draws for itself divine grace. Surely there is no more glorious exercise for a man (who is mortal, ashes and dust, a sinner from the womb) than to dare appear before the very throne of God on the basis of the divine grace that is offered to him in Christ Jesus, by the merit of His obedience and the support of His intercession.”

Campegius Vitringa, The Spiritual Life, trans. and ed. Charles K. Telfer (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 114-15.

I hope this beautiful image of prayer encourages you to pray more fervently and more regularly.

The second is a story which reminds us that while the work of prayer may feel insignificant, it is in fact the greatest of works for the kingdom of God. David Dickson, a nineteenth century Scottish lay elder, recounted the story of a great servant of Christ in his church.

“Many years ago one of my people, a poor bedridden woman … , used to spend the time of each church service in praying for the Spirit’s blessing on the Word being preached to our congregation. It was a means of grace to sit by that bedside. One day when I called, I learned that that morning she had been suddenly called up to be with Jesus. To her it was far better, but as a few devout men carried her to her lowly tomb at Warriston, they thought she was one who could be ill spared; she had lived so as to be missed.”

David Dickson, The Elder and His Work, eds. George Kennedy McFarland and Philip Graham Ryken (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 81. Emphasis mine.

Let us not forego opportunities to ascend to God through Christ, in the Spirit. Let us not forego living a purposeful, prayerful life for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors. Let us get on our knees and approach the throne of grace, together. If we do, the Lord will answer our frustration and discouragement. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess 5:24).

Recommended Resources

  1. Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer. A set of devotional meditations on Jesus’ teaching on prayer. This volume will encourage you to pray. God used it to encourage and strengthen me a few years ago. Outside of the Bible I think this book has been most formative for my prayer life.
  2. Samuel Prime, Power of Prayer: the New York Revival of 1858 (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1991). A historical account of one of the most remarkable revivals in American history. The revival was fueled, from the human perspective, principally by prayer. This volume will encourage you to pray with greater fervor and regularity.
  3. Arthur Bennet (ed.), The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1975). A set of written prayers that supplies rich and biblical words to guide your own prayers. You can use this volume in your devotional time, during small group prayer, and as a guide to learn to pray richer, more biblical prayers.
  4. Campegius Vitringa, The Spiritual Life, trans. and ed. Charles K. Telfer (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), especially ch. 12. If the above quotation doesn’t whet your appetite for this volume, I don’t know what will. If anyone is interested in reading it with me, please let me know!
Matt Gilleskie