The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character

Gardiner Spring, 1829


Another evidence of regeneration is the spirit of prayer. When we say that the spirit of prayer is conclusive evidence of Christian character, we feel under obligation to point out wherein that spirit consists. We are not to forget that there is such a thing as drawing near unto God with the mouth and honoring Him with the lips—while the heart is far from Him (Mark 7:6). The hearts of men may be as stupid and unfeeling, as proud and as self-righteous; they may be in the exercise of as sensible opposition to the character of the Most High, to the law and the Gospel—while offering up the most solemn expressions of homage, as they are when God is not in all their thoughts. But it is not so with the righteous. His prayers goes not forth out of feigned lips (Psalm 17:1). With the spiritual worshiper, the heart feels what the lips express.

The spirit of prayer is humble. It flows from a broken and contrite heart. The publican could not so much as lift up his eyes to Heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). Every sentiment of his heart constrains him to make the affecting confession, "O my God, I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to you, for my iniquities are increased over my head, and my trespass is grown up into the heavens" (Ezra 9:6).

The spirit of prayer is also believing. Though the child of God has an impressive sense of personal unworthiness and ill-dessert, yet he knows that he has a great High Priest who has passed into the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, who is touched with the feeling of his infirmities, and he may therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that he may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

But the spirit of prayer is also submissive. The suppliant prefers the will of God to his own. He pours forth his heart with the affectionate submission of a servant. He is prepared to be accepted, or to be rejected in his petitions. He approaches the mercy-seat with the desire that God would exercise His wisdom and grace in granting or denying his requests.

This is the spirit of prayer: sincere, humble, believing, submissive. Other prayer than this the Bible does not require, and God will not accept. This is the spirit of genuine devotion, a spirit which, you cannot be conscious of possessing without the consciousness of your reconciliation to God. "Because you are sons, God has sent forth the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying Abba, Father!" (Galatians 4:6).

It may not be amiss, while we are upon this subject, to spend a few minutes looking at the question, "What evidence does the long-continued practice of the external duty of prayer afford of the existence of vital religion in the heart?"

We do not mean by this statement necessarily to exclude the spirit from the form of prayer. If we did, the question would be at an end.

What evidence does the long-continued practice of the external form afford of the existence of the internal spirit? Men may pray much and yet not be Christians. They may pray in public and in their families and still not be Christians. This they may do . . .
to gratify their pride,
to be seen by men,
to maintain the character of Christians in the view of the world,
to silence the clamors of conscience,
or to support a hypocritical hope.

But whether men persevere in the habitual practice of secret prayer without good evidence of Christian character, is a question which, I dare not answer in the negative. Neither would I venture to answer it unhesitatingly in the affirmative.

This much the Bible will surely warrant us to say: that men who are not Christians will be exceedingly apt to neglect and in the end, wholly to abandon the practice of secret prayer. Job demands concerning the hypocrite, "Will he delight himself in the Almighty? Will he always call upon God?" (Job 27:10).

Wherever you find the habitual performance of secret prayer for a long course of years, there is some reason to believe you find the breathings of the new-born soul. There you may hope there are hungerings and thirstings after righteousness. There you will discover a heart that is not in pursuit of assurance merely, but grace; not safety only, but holiness. There you will usually, if not always, discover one not muttering over a few unmeaning sentences as devoid of life as a loathsome carcass is of the life-giving spirit, but one whom the Spirit of God has taught to pray . . .
because he is weak and needs strength;
because he is tempted and needs support;
because he is in want and needs supply;
because he is a sinner and needs mercy.

If these remarks are just, it is not impertinent to ask my readers whether they practice the duty of secret prayer.

We do not ask whether you pray in secret now and then, whether you perform this duty on the Lord's Day, or some occasional seasons of unusual alarm or solemnity.

Is this your habitual practice?

Has it been your habitual practice since you hoped you were brought out of darkness into God's marvelous light?

No matter how punctual you are in other duties, no matter what evidence you have of your conversion from any other quarter—if you have not secret prayer, you may set all other down for nothing. The lack of secret prayer is decisive evidence against you, even if the possession of it is not decisive evidence in your favor.

Prayer has been often styled as the "Christian's breath." It is eminently so. A prayerless Christian? No, it cannot be! It is a mark of the highest delusion, of the grossest stupidity, to cherish the hope of having made your peace with God and at the same time to live in the neglect of secret prayer. Who that has the least pretension to religion can presume to live without seeking the favor, without deprecating the wrath, and without realizing the presence of Him in whom he lives, and moves, and has his being? To live without prayer is emphatically to live without God in the world. (See Jonathan Edwards' sermon on this subject "Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Secret Prayer.")

But I would give one caution to a certain class of my readers. There are not lacking those who live in constant doubt and trembling because they do not enjoy the constant presence of God and the uniform fervency of love to God in their seasons of prayer. Real Christians have periods of coldness, which chill the spirit of devotion. Such is the power of indwelling sin, that God's own children are sometimes carried far down the current. To the shame and guilt of God's people, we are constrained to make this affecting acknowledgment.

Still, real Christians cannot live in the neglect of prayer; no, more, those who do not possess the spirit and live in the habitual performance of the duty, are in the gall of bitterness, and the bonds of iniquity. The moment a man begins to live in the neglect of prayer, that moment he should take the alarm. May it then be said of you as it was of Saul of Tarsus, "Behold, he prays?" (Acts 9:11).

If so, then you like him may be a chosen vessel. Maintain a constant and uniform intimacy with the throne of grace, and for the sake of our great High Priest, God will put His fear into your hearts, and you shall not depart from Him (Jeremiah 32:40). "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you" (James 4:8). Keep near to the fountainhead, and with joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3).