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Requirements of True Prayer (2): Sincerity

Requirements of True Prayer (2): Sincerity

The following post was adapted from a sermon called "In the School of Prayer: The Requirements of True Prayer," preached by Prof. Ron Cammenga on March 26, 2023, at Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church. Listen to the whole sermon here, or read on for part two of three in this series. Click here for a list of RFPA books by Cammenga.


When we pray, we are, first of all, called to pray to God sincerely. That's the first requirement of prayer, and we cannot go on to requirements 2 and 3 without first noticing this requirement: sincerity. Sincerity is underscored in Lord's Day 45. That was the teaching already of Question and Answer 116.

116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and also, because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.

When we pray to God, we must pray with sincere desires. The literal reading of that 116th Answer is quite striking. In the original German, this is the last part of that Answer, "Because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only who groan inwardly and pray continually." Groan inwardly. To groan inwardly implies that our prayers aren't just words on our lips, but that our prayers arise out of the depths of our being. They're sincere. They're the groanings that come from our hearts.

That we are to pray sincerely is also the teaching of Question and Answer 117. That's true even though the Answer does not use the word "sincere" or "sincerely." But we are called, says the Catechism, first of all, to pray from the heart. To pray from the heart is the same as saying to pray sincerely.

The seriousness of praying sincerely before God is that God sees and God knows our hearts. We see that in connection with the 10th commandment which forbids the sin of the heart, and now at the very beginning of our study of prayer, that truth is again underscored.

When we pray, God is watching and God is listening. He knows whether I am just saying words without thinking at all about the meaning of those words—maybe the same words and the same phrases that I've used over and over again in my prayers, so that without even thinking those words and phrases spill out of my mouth. He sees me during the congregational prayer. He sees whether I am sleeping or whether I'm thinking about other things, things altogether apart from the congregational prayer. He's watching and he's listening when your father or someone else in your family is praying at family devotions. He notices when you're not following the prayer, when you are a million miles away thinking about all kinds of other things. When a teacher is praying at school, God sees and God looks down from heaven to behold whether or not the children are praying with the teacher or with the classmate who's leading devotions before lunchtime.

It belongs to sincerity in prayer that we pray only to the one true God, to the God who's revealed himself to us in Holy Scripture. That's the 117th Answer. If we are sincere in prayer we will pray only to God and to no one or nothing else—certainly not to any man! This is the first commandment of God's law, and this is the first requirement of prayer. We must worship God and God alone. When we pray, we come into God's presence. We draw near to God. We pour out our hearts before God.

The psalmist Asaph in Psalm 50 has a good deal to say about God, the God to whom we pray. He is, according to the first verse, the mighty God. God Almighty. Sovereign ruler over all things. He is the God of the church, according to verse 2. "Out of Zion," the psalmist says, "the perfection of beauty, God hath shined out of Zion." That's the church. He is the God of righteous wrath against those who hate him and oppose him. Verse 3, "Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him." Woe to them who do not honor God as the only and true God. He is the God, further of the covenant, God of friendship towards his people in Jesus Christ. Verse 5, "Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice." You could read, "have made a covenant with me by Jesus Christ, the one to whom the Old Testament sacrifices pointed." Verse 7, "Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God."

All who pray to any other God than this God do not and cannot pray sincerely. Because we are to pray sincerely, God despises the prayer of the hypocrite. That's Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:5, "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." And that's also the teaching of the psalmist in Psalm 50, especially verses 8 through 10. "I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills." He's rebuking there those who brought their sacrifices dutifully, obediently just as prescribed in the Old Testament law. But they brought those sacrifices not as worship of God, but merely to fulfill the letter of the law.

The word for hypocrite that Jesus uses in Matthew 6:5 is a very striking word. Our English word hypocrite is taken directly out of the Greek language. The Greek word refers to an actor. It refers to someone who's involved in theater, a dramatic production. The hypocrite was an actor. What he was doing was not real. He was all show. He was pretending to be someone whom he was not. He wore a mask, a mask that covered up his real identity. That's the way it is with the hypocrite. Their piety is all outward. Their piety is a sham. They're wearing a mask, a mask that God himself will one day tear away. Their godliness is fake. It's all a show intended to impress an audience. The prayers of the scribes and the Pharisees in Jesus' day were exactly that. That's why they prayed where they did and how they did. They were praying to men and not to God. God despises the prayer of a hypocrite.

One very important part of sincerity in prayer is that when we pray we are walking in obedience to God's commandments. To put it differently, sincerity in prayer is that we are not walking impenitently in disobedience to God while at the same time we're praying. That can't be. This is another important connection between God's law and our life of prayer. You can't separate those two. They're intimately connected. The one who dares to approach God in prayer while, at the same time, he's walking impenitently in sin—clutching some sin to his bosom, a cherished sin, a pet sin—he is praying insincerely; his prayer is hypocritical.

The scriptures are clear in this regard. In Psalm 66:18-20, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me: But verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me." Psalm 145:18-19, "The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them." The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says in Hebrews 10:22, "Let us draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." And in Job 11 (it's Zophar that's talking here) verses 13 through 15, "If thou prepare thine heart, and stretch out thine hands toward him; If iniquity be in thine hand, put it far away, and let not wickedness dwell in thy tabernacles. For then shalt thou lift up thy face without spot."

And the scriptures are equally clear on God's judgment upon those who dare to call upon his name while at the same time living in sin. Proverbs 15:8, "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD: but the prayer of the upright is his delight." And in Psalm 109:7, "When he," he is the wicked man of verse 6, "When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin." Let his prayer become sin. And in John 9:31, "Now we know," this is the blind man healed by Jesus in the synagogue who is going to be cast out of the synagogue by the Jews but is responding to the Jews who are accusing him and says, "Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth."

This is also the teaching of Asaph in the Psalm that we read together this morning, Psalm 50. It's teaching in verse 16, "But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?" He's talking about prayer there when he says, "and takeeth my covenant in thy mouth," because that's what prayer is. Prayer is covenant communion with God, fellowship and friendship with God. "How dare the wicked take my covenant in their mouth? How dare those who are walking impenitently in sin call upon me in prayer?"

This is practical. There is a warning here this morning that every one of us needs to hear. Woe to that man who is cheating on his wife, or abusing his wife, or is a drunkard, or is addicted to pornography, but dares to approach God in prayer, lead his family in prayer, join the congregation on the Lord's day in prayer unto God. Woe to that woman who is unruly and unsubmissive, who is a busybody and a gossip, who is always wasting her time on Facebook, or texting this one or that one, who isn't faithful in carrying out her tasks in the home and family, her calling as a wife and as a mother, who even resents that calling, but yet dares to call upon God in prayer. Woe to that young person who is involved in immorality, enjoys and amuses himself with worldly entertainment, runs with the children of this world, disobeys and rebels against his parents, skips catechism, church services, and yet dutifully dares to approach God in prayer. That's hypocrisy, and God hates the prayer of the hypocrite.

Sincerity and humility, closely connected. Our coming to God in sincerity of heart is that we humble ourselves before God in prayer. This is the second requirement of acceptable prayer according to the 117th Answer, which (along with the third requirement) we will address in the third and final article of this series.

Interested in Scripture's teaching on prayer? Check out When You Pray by Prof. Herman Hanko by clicking the picture below. Also available as an audiobook!

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