What Gospel-Centered Prayer Looks Like

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Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Basics for Believers: The Core of Christian Faith and Life, published in partnership with Baker Books.

In Philippians 1:4, Paul insists that whenever he prays for the Philippians, he does so with joy and thanksgiving. He goes on to give us the content of his prayers for them:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)

This is stunning. Paul’s petitions reflect the priorities of the gospel.

Observe three features of this prayer.

1. Abounding Love

First, Paul prays that the love of the Philippians “may abound more and more.” Paul provides no specific object. He doesn’t say “that your love for God may abound more and more” or “that your love for one another may abound more and more.” I suspect he leaves the object open precisely because he wouldn’t want to restrict his prayer to one or the other.

From a Christian point of view, growing love for God must be reflected in love for other believers (see 1 John 5:1). However wonderful this congregation has been, however faithful in its love even for the apostle himself, Paul prays that their love may abound more and more.

2. Knowledge and Insight

Second, what Paul has in mind is not mere sentimentalism or the rush of pleasure spawned, for example, by a large conference. “I pray,” Paul writes, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” The kind of love Paul has in mind is the love that becomes more knowledgeable.

Of course, Paul isn’t thinking of just any kind of knowledge. He isn’t hoping they will learn more and more about nuclear physics or sea turtles. He has in mind the knowledge of God; he wants them to enjoy insight into God’s words and ways, and thus to know how to live in light of them.

His assumption, evidently, is that you really can’t grow in your knowledge of God if you are full of bitterness or other self-centered sins. There is a moral element in knowing God. Of course, a person might memorize Scripture or teach Sunday school somewhere or earn a degree in theology from the local seminary or divinity faculty, but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as growing in the knowledge of God and gaining insight into his ways.

The Christian life embraces every facet of our existence.

Such growth requires repentance; it demands a lessening of our characteristic self-focus. To put it positively, it demands an increase in our love, our love for God and our love for others.

Just as knowledge of God and his Word serves as an incentive to Christian love, so love is necessary for a deepening knowledge of God, because it is exceedingly difficult to advance in the Christian way on only one front. Christians can’t say, “I will improve my prayer life but not my morality,” “I will increase in my knowledge of God but not in my obedience,” or “I will grow in love for others but not in purity or in my knowledge of God.” They can’t do it.

The Christian life embraces every facet of our existence. All of our living and doing and thinking and speaking is to be discharged in joyful submission to God and to his Son, our Savior.

So if Paul prays that the Philippians’ love “may abound more and more,” he quickly adds, “in knowledge and depth of insight.”

3. What Is Best

Third, for Paul this prayer has a further end in view. He lifts these petitions to God, he tells the Philippians, “so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (1:10). Clearly, Paul does not want the Philippian believers to be satisfied with mediocrity. He can’t be satisfied, in a fallen world, with the status quo. He wants these believers to move on, to become more and more discerning, proving in their own experience “what is best.” He wants them to pursue what is best in the knowledge of God, what is best in their relationships with other believers, what is best in joyful obedience. For ultimately what he wants from them is perfection: he prays that they “may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.”

It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that all these petitions are gospel-centered. These are gospel prayers.

For Paul, this is not an idolatrous prayer. For some people, of course, it could become just that. For perfectionists, perfection—at least in some arenas where they excel—becomes a kind of fetish, even a large idol. But this isn’t the case with Paul. The excellence for which he prays, for himself and for others, is further defined in verse 11: being “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” Moreover, none of this will be allowed simply to enhance our reputations—for sad to say, some people are more interested in a reputation for holiness and excellence than in holiness and excellence. But all such petty alternatives are swept aside in Paul’s final constraint: his prayer is offered up “to the glory and praise of God” (1:11).

That is what Paul prays for. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that all these petitions are gospel-centered. These are gospel prayers. That is, they are prayers offered to advance the work of the gospel in the lives of the Philippian believers. And, by asking for gospel fruit in their lives, the ultimate purpose of these petitions is to bring glory to the God who redeemed them.

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