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Students have asked me in one way or another: “Is it wrong to pray to Jesus?” These students, unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, believe that Jesus is God. So the question, put more precisely, is “Has God the Father reserved prayer to be directed only to Himself, despite Christ’s claims of equality?” This article will present evidence from Scripture, primarily, and tradition, secondarily, that it is appropriate and even important to address Jesus in prayer.
Once while doing a weekend seminar on the cults, I took a few students on a field trip to a Kingdom Hall. That Sunday morning, a Jehovah’s Witness leader gave the Bible lesson on prayer. One of his major points was that “Jehovah has not delegated prayer to the angels or to Jesus. Jehovah has reserved prayer only for himself.” After the service, I asked the leader to explain why we should only pray to the Father, and not to Jesus. He said that it was because “Jesus is not Almighty God, and only God is to be worshipped.” Of course, I reject that reason for not praying to Jesus, as would all evangelicals, since Jesus is God.
It is not just Jehovah’s Witnesses that argue for only praying to the Father. I have also heard a few evangelical Christians argue that we should not pray to Jesus.1 One argument made for this position is that the Lord’s Prayer is addressed to the Father and not to the Son. However, it is precisely because Jesus is a divine Person that we can (and should) pray to Him.
One of the students I taught at that weekend seminar shared with me that for years she had taught her children only to pray to the Father, since that is what she was taught by an influential evangelical teacher. But this family practice gradually lapsed into prayers to both the Father and the Son since praying to both seemed so natural for the kids—and the parents. My student wanted to know what I thought about the issue. Other students have asked in one way or another: “Is it wrong to pray to Jesus?” This article will respond to that question.
Does the fact that this model prayer addresses the Father and not the Son mean that we are never to address the Son (or the Spirit) in prayer? No. By giving us a model prayer, Jesus did not limit our prayers to a certain structure or verbiage. Otherwise, we would need to eliminate using the words “in Jesus’ name,” since they do not appear in the Lord’s Prayer. We would also need to eliminate thanksgiving from our prayers, since that does not show up in the Lord’s Prayer. But obviously, we should give thanks to God in our prayers (1 Thessalonians 5:17–18). Christ's words, “Our Father which art in Heaven” don't keep us from praying to Jesus any more than his words “Give us our daily bread” keep us from praying for something to drink. Furthermore, it would have been a bit odd for Jesus to pray to Himself instead of the Father. We learn a great deal from this prayer, but it does not teach us everything we should know about talking to God.
It is appropriate to pray to the Father directly; the Lord’s Prayer clearly shows that. However, just because we are permitted to pray, and even commanded to pray to the Father, doesn’t mean that we are not permitted to pray to the Son.
Some might say that prayers of praise to Jesus are legitimate while prayers of petition are not. I will argue that Jesus accepted and still accepts both kinds of prayer. Take note of both in the examples shown below.
According to the apostle Paul, New Testament Christians were everywhere praying to Jesus. “Paul. . . to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on3 the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:1–2).”4 It appears that Paul includes himself among those who called upon the name of Jesus. These prayers directed to Jesus were universal. And the present tense of “call” suggests that the prayers were on-going.5
Paul also prayed to Jesus when he “besought the Lord” to remove his thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:8). Why do we believe that the reference to “the Lord” here refers to Jesus instead of the Father? In the Pauline epistles, the term “Lord” (kurios) usually signifies Jesus,6 while “God” usually denotes to the Father. And look at the response of Paul when the Lord said to him, “[My] strength is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul tells us that he would glory in his weakness that the “power of Christ” (the Lord) would be revealed in him. So the referent for “the Lord” is Jesus. Paul prayed to Jesus, and Jesus responded. Notice that these were prayers of petition, not praise. These were not spontaneous petitions or petitions given in response to the voice of the Lord or a vision, but a prayer prayed three times, as Paul persisted in his request to Jesus. If it were inappropriate for someone to offer supplication to Jesus, Paul would not have asked Jesus three times to answer a specific request. Jesus did not rebuke Paul for praying the prayer, but He did inform Paul that he was better off without the request being granted.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17, Paul blessed the Thessalonians with these words: “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father. . . encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” Even though this benedictory prayer is in a different form than other prayers, it implies a request to Jesus (and the Father), and this suggests the legitimacy of prayer to Jesus.7 Paul expected Jesus to answer this request. A similar benedictory prayer (invoking the name of Jesus) is found in 1 Thessalonians 3:11–14.
In the Gospels, Jesus was worshipped, and He accepted it (John 9:38). Surely this involved verbal communication to Jesus or prayer. The Gospels are not the only place where worship of Jesus occurs. The angels are told to worship Jesus.8 There is worship of Jesus (the Lamb) in Revelation by both angels and humans (Revelation 5:8–13).
Since all three members of the Trinity are God, then worship is due to each of them, collectively and individually, because of the nature of the Trinity. Worship involves praise and adoration. It would be wrong to discourage people from addressing each member of the Trinity in praise and adoration. God expects us to worship Jesus. The Jehovah’s Witnesses will not pray to Jesus because they think that He is not worthy of worship. We pray to Jesus because we know He is worthy of worship, and that He even demands worship. Jesus commanded us to honor the Son just as we honor the Father (John 5:23). If we fail to give praise to the Son in our prayers, as we give praise the Father, would we really be honoring the Son as we do the Father?
The early church recognized the importance of worshipping Jesus through prayer. In fact, when Athanasius made his case against Arianism in the early 300’s, he pointed out that Christians had prayed to Jesus from the beginning. Athanasius argued that if Jesus was not of the same substance as the Father (homoousios) and was instead only a creature—only of like substance with the Father (homoiousios), then Christians from the beginning would have been committing idolatry by praying to Jesus.9
In the Gospels, many people asked Jesus for miracles. In a survey of the New Testament, I counted at least seven distinct times when people cried out to Jesus for mercy, treating him as a divine person, and they expected an answer. Should not these requests be considered prayers? Surely, Christ’s departure into Heaven does not mean that his followers can no longer bring petitions to Him.
There are other examples of appropriate prayers to Jesus in the New Testament.10 Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59). At Paul’s conversion, he prayed to Jesus: “Lord, what wilt thou have me do?” (Acts 9:6). Ananias conversed with Jesus when Jesus spoke to him in a vision (Acts 9:10–14). And the very last prayer in the New Testament is addressed to Jesus by the Apostle John: “Even so come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). If it were wrong to petition Christ, John the inspired writer may have said, “Father, may the Son come.” But instead he gave us these words to also cry out to Jesus: “Even so, come!”
The last verse referred to may allude to the phrase, “Maranatha” (found in 1 Corinthians 16:22), which is usually translated as the petition, “Come, O Lord.” “Maranatha” is an Aramaic expression that originated before Christians had filtered throughout the Gentile community. It seems that very early on, the Christians were crying out to Jesus, “Come, O Lord!”11 This was a prayer of petition.
A verse in John 14 strongly encourages prayers of petition to Jesus. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.”12 Jesus here says that he would answer prayer when we asked him anything in his name. So Jesus authorizes us to address him in prayer when we come in his name—in his own authority, and in his will. And he promised that he would answer.
Prayers to Jesus are permitted and encouraged by Christ’s teaching in John 14:14, and by any passage in which Jesus says that we are to pray in His name. When Jesus told us to pray in His name, He wasn’t asking us to use a particular phrase at the end of each of our prayers, though the expression “in Jesus’ name, Amen” is certainly appropriate, and God-honored. Jesus was actually asking us to come to God (therefore any member of the Trinity) in His authority. We have the right to come to God and receive grace and help because of who Christ is, what He did for us, and what He promised. He has given us “great and exceeding promises” (2 Peter 1:1–4) and when we come to God with our requests, we have been authorized to come in faith, believing that He will fulfill what He has promised. It is like the note I wrote to my girls to motivate them to clean their room,
Girls, I will take you out for ice cream if you completely clean under your bed. When you are done, bring this note and pictures on a camera to prove your work, and we will go out within two days of the cleaning.
This note was a promissory note with my signature. When one of the girls came to present the note to me, she was coming in my name, or authority. The girls had every right to expect that I would take them out for ice cream when they brought back the note with my promise and my name on it. Jesus gave us some promises as a divine being with the authority to make much greater promises than I could make. We come to Him or to the Father in His authority. He has given us the “promissory note” with His “signature” so that we can be assured of the answer to our prayers. Praying in His name is praying with faith that He will keep his promises as the good, faithful, and all-powerful God. Whether those faith-filled words are directed to the Son or to the Father makes little difference, since both Father and Son are the one true God. (If one wants to use the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer prayed to Jesus, “in your name, Amen” can be used instead.)
There is a sense in which all of our prayers, even ones we pray to the Spirit or the Son, are ultimately directed to the Father, who is the Head of the Trinity (John 14:26; 1 Corinthians 11:3). It is through Christ that we have access to the Father. And we pray in the Spirit to the Father. “For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). The Spirit’s role is important. Romans 8:26 says that the Spirit helps us in our weakness: “For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groaning which cannot be uttered.” So we are to pray in the Spirit and through Jesus (on the basis of what He has done for us, and in His authority). However, to actually pray to the Spirit or to the Son while praying in the Spirit does not delegitimize our prayer. When we pray to the Spirit we are still praying to God. And when we pray to Jesus in His authority, we are still praying to God, and in a sense to the Father Himself.
Because prayers directed to the Father are so common in the New Testament, it is certainly appropriate to address the Father on a regular basis (we should pray to him often). But I am confident that God is not counting our prayers to each member of the Trinity to make sure we have prayed to each one in proper proportion. The Trinity is not “jealous” of one another. Of course, if we are leaving one member of the Trinity out completely, then there may be a problem with our view of that member of the Trinity. Communicating to each Person in the Godhead is important for having fellowship with our tri-personal God.
Think about the fact that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all divine persons. Since they are persons, they are all capable of having relationships not just with each other, but also with humans. Does God want us to have a personal relationship with each of the divine persons in the Trinity? If so, how could we develop a relationship specifically with Jesus without verbally communicating with Him? How could we develop a relationship with anyone we don’t talk to? Personal relationships must involve communication. If we communicate with God the Son, we are praying to Him.
In John 10, Jesus claims that He knows his followers, His “sheep,” and that He calls them all by name. If our Shepherd calls us by our name (a most comforting thought), then why shouldn’t we also call Him by His name? At the very least, this passage indicates that real Christians have a personal, one-on-one, intimate relationship with Jesus. This must involve talking to Jesus and listening for His voice.
What about the Holy Spirit? Are prayers to Him legitimate too? The Apostle Paul refers to our communion with the Holy Spirit13 and to our fellowship with the Spirit.14 Again, how can we have communion or fellowship with someone we don’t talk to? Even the Holy Spirit desires to have fellowship with us. Dr. Bill Ury asks, “When’s the last time, in prayer, that you spoke to the Holy Spirit with the same tenderness, intimacy, and trust as you do the Father and Son?”15 If prayers to the Holy Spirit are legitimate, then of course it is appropriate to pray to Jesus.
If you have ever prayed with someone to receive Christ, you may have quoted John 1:12 (“But as many as received him [Jesus], to them gave he the right to become the Sons of God”). You may have encouraged the sinner to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and ask Him for forgiveness of sins. This is very important for the sinner to do. If you believed it were inappropriate to pray to Jesus, you would not ask the sinner to pray to Jesus.16 But believing it is proper to pray to Christ, you encourage the sinner to say a prayer to Him. This prayer to Jesus will be the beginning of a lifetime of fellowship between this new Christian and his Savior, whom he can commune with every day.
In Ephesians 5:19 Paul wrote that believers should “[Speak] to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Paul is likely telling us to sing to Jesus (“the Lord”). Since songs addressed to a divine Person are simply prayers set to rhyme and music, we could take it as a command: We are to pray to Jesus in the form of singing.
There is early evidence from church history that Christians took this command seriously. For example, proof of early hymns to Jesus is found in a letter from the Roman Governor Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan (about A.D. 110). Pliny accused the Christians of “singing hymns to Christ as to a god.” This demonstrates that Christians worshiped Christ very close to the time the church began. These early Christians verbalized their adoration of Christ in hymns of praise, and risked their lives in doing so.
A hymn that developed perhaps in the later decades of the second century is called the Phos Hilaron. It lauds Jesus as “Joyous light of the holy glory of the immortal Father,” and says to Jesus, “at all times you should be praised with auspicious voices, Son of God, Giver of life.”17
The tradition of addressing Jesus in hymns has carried down to the current time. Take a look at our hymnbooks. If it were wrong to pray to Jesus (and the Spirit), it would be wrong to sing many of the hymns in our songbooks. When looking through a songbook18 recently, I counted roughly 111 songs addressed to deity, with about 16 primarily addressed to the Father, 51 songs primarily addressing to the Son,19 9 addressing to the Holy Spirit, and 8 addressed to the Trinity (I couldn’t categorize 27 of the songs written to deity).20 Here are a few examples, mostly of prayers to Jesus:
Love Divine All Loves Excelling
... Jesus, Thou art all compassion; Pure, unbounded love Thou art.
Visit us with Thy salvation; Enter every trembling heart.
Jesus the Very Thought of Thee (Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century)
Jesus, the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see, And in Thy presence rest.
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
. . . let me to thy bosom fly
. . . Hide me, O my Savior, hide
. . . Oh, receive my soul at last!
More Love to Thee
. . . O Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee
This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee.
Close to Thee
Thou, my everlasting portion, More than friend or life to me,
All along my pilgrim journey, Savior, let me walk with Thee.
Close to Thee. . .
My Jesus, I Love Thee
. . . I know Thou art mine.
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou.
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.
My Faith Looks Up to Thee
. . . Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine!
Now hear me while I pray; Take all my guilt away.
Oh, let me from this day Be wholly Thine!
Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire
. . . Let us Thine influence prove:
Source of the old prophetic fire.
Fountain of life and love.
Holy Spirit, Be My Guide
Holy Spirit, my heart yearns for Thee; Holy Spirit, abide in me.
Make me clean; oh, make me pure! I must know the double cure.
Our prayers to Christ and the Holy Spirit in our hymns are perfectly consistent with Scripture and with what the church has always taught regarding prayer to each member of the Trinity. Below I will give more examples from church history.21
Here is an example of a prayer to Jesus by one of the great Eastern Fathers of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the mid-to-late 300’s:
I give you the name ‘you whom my soul loves’ because your name is above every name and above all understanding and there is no rational nature that can utter it or comprehend it. Therefore your name, by which your goodness is known, is simply the love my soul has for you. How could I not love you, when you loved me so much, even though I was black, that you laid down your life for the sheep of your flock? A greater love cannot be imagined, than exchanging your life for my salvation (A Prayer to the Good Shepherd).22
Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the best-known church father (c. AD 400), prayed to Jesus:
You are Christ, my Holy Father, my Tender God, my Great King, my Good Shepherd, my Only Master, my Best Helper, my Most Beautiful and my Beloved, my Living Bread . . . my Entire Protection, my Good Portion, my Everlasting Salvation.
Christ Jesus, Sweet Lord, why have I ever loved, why in my whole life have I ever desired anything except You, Jesus my God? Where was I when I was not in spirit with You? Now, from this time forth, do you, all my desires, grow hot, and flow out upon the Lord Jesus. . .
O, Sweet Jesus, may every good feeling that is fitted for Your praise, love You, delight in You, adore You! God of my heart, and my Portion, Christ Jesus, may my heart faint away in spirit, and may You be my Life within me! May the live coal of Your Love grow hot within my spirit and break forth into a perfect fire; may it burn incessantly on the altar of my heart; may it glow in my innermost being; may it blaze in hidden recesses of my soul; and in the days of my consummation may I be found consummated with You!
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer contains the following prayers to Jesus:
O Lord, the only‑begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy, thou only art the Lord,
thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost,
art most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen23
O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Thou art worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.24
John Wesley compiled a collection of prayers for his friends at Oxford.25 These prayers were directed to each member of the Trinity. Take a look at some of the praise and petition to Jesus:
Glory be to Thee, O Holy Jesus, who having through the eternal Spirit offered thyself a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, didst rise again the third day from the dead, and hadst all power given Thee both in heaven and on earth.
O Thou who art the way, the truth, and the life, Thou hast said, no man can follow Thee, unless he renounce himself. I know, O Saviour, that Thou hast laid nothing upon us but what the design of Thy love made necessary for us . . . . May I ever renounce my own, and do Thy blessed will in all things!
I have sinned, but Thou, O blessed Jesus, art my Advocate! Enter not into judgment with me, lest I die; but spare me, gracious Lord, spare Thy servant whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood.
O Lord Jesus, I give Thee my body, my soul, my substance, my fame, my friends, my liberty, my life; dispose of me, and all that is mine, as it seemest best unto Thee. I am not mine, but Thine; claim me as Thy right, keep me as Thy charge, love me as Thy child! Fight for me when I am assaulted, heal me when I am wounded, and revive me when I am destroyed.
Because Jesus is so interested in having a personal relationship with each of us, we as Christians would make a serious mistake to feel as though we shouldn’t address the Son (and even the Spirit) in prayer. A personal relationship with Jesus naturally involves communing with Him, expressing commitment to Him, expressing one’s dependence on Him, asking for His help, etc. But it is important to cultivate a healthy relationship with Jesus, as well as with the Father. “Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (I John 1:3b). All the members of the Trinity share the same desires, one of which is to have a personal relationship with us. All share the same divinity and thus are worthy of worship, and each ought to be verbally praised. Each deserves expressions of adoration and submission.
There is no prohibition in the Scriptures against praying to Jesus. Taking requests to Jesus himself is modeled in Scripture, and addressing Jesus in praise and adoration is commanded. Therefore our prayers need not be restricted to God the Father. As God, Jesus is worthy of praise and is able to answer prayer. All persons of the Trinity ought to be included without hesitation in our prayers to God.
Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nations,
Oh, thou of God, and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish; Thee will I honor,
Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.
Barnes, Albert. Notes on the Bible. Retrieved 10-25-2011 from barnes.biblecommenter.com.
Book of Common Prayer (1979 U.S.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Clarke, Adam. Commentary on the Bible. Retrieved 10-25-2011 from clarke.biblecommenter.com/2_corinthians/13.htm.
Holy Bible, New American Standard Version.
Hurtado, Larry. 2003. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Hoboken, New Jersey:Wiley-Blackwell.
Torrance, James B. 1996. Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Wesley, John. 1733. A Collection of Forms of Prayer for Every Day of the Week.
Worship in Song Hymnal. 1972. Kansas City, Missouri: Lillenas Publishing Company.