What the New Testament says about Prayer and the Trinity
For the sake of this discussion, I will acknowledge five kinds of prayer: petition, intercession, thanksgiving, praise/worship, and benedictory prayer. Where possible, I will give at least one New Testament example of each form of prayer that is addressed to each member of the Trinity.1
The role of the Father
The New Testament portrays God the Father as the primary recipient of human prayer. Jesus instructed, “
When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.”2 And, “
Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name . . .’”3 And, “
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!”4
Jesus prayed to the Father frequently.5 Of course, he would not have prayed to himself, but it is interesting that Scriptures reveal no times that he explicitly prayed to the Spirit, nor does Jesus explicitly instruct us to pray to the Holy Spirit.
At least three times Paul tells us to give thanks to God, “even the Father” (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 1:12; Colossians 3:17). Paul also tells us to bring our petitions to the Father: “
Be anxious for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.”6
Acts and the Epistles provide a number of good examples in which the Father is addressed in prayer, though prayers of petition to the Father are rare. I will now give an example of each form of prayer directed to the Father.
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them . . . ‘The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ.’ For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed . . . And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.”7
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man.8
We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you.9
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.10
Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.11
Not only is the Father the primary recipient of human prayer, but he is also the primary recipient of the Son’s intercession (Romans 8:34; John 14:6) and the Holy Spirit’s intercession (Ephesians 2:18; Romans 8:15, 26), which we will discuss in the next sections.
Role of the Son
One of the roles of Jesus is as the mediator between us and God the Father.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”14
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.15
He is also our advocate (John 2:1), and he intercedes for us.
Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.16
Jesus is our high priest who made propitiation for our sins, rose from the dead, and now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. Because of His role as mediator/high priest/intercessor we have access to the Father through Him (Ephesians 2:18). It is in Christ’s authority (based on who He is and what He did for us) that we come to God. It is because of Jesus and His work that we can have our prayers answered, and come into fellowship with God.17
We call on Jesus for salvation
Because Jesus is our mediator and Savior, we call on Him for salvation:
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. . . . For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for "whoever will call on the name of the LORD will be saved.” How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?18
This passage identifies the Lord as Jesus himself.19 According to this passage, both Jew and Gentile need to hear of Jesus in order to believe on him, and they need to believe in Jesus to call on him, or pray to him, worshiping Him and submitting to Him as Lord. Paul associates the receiving of salvation with calling on Jesus, who is the Lord. One who receives Jesus (John 1:12) will be calling on the Lord Jesus for salvation.
As it is important to continue to believe (John 3:16–1820) and abide in Him (John 15), it makes sense that that we would continue to “call on the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:2). According to the apostle Paul, New Testament Christians were everywhere calling on (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 on21 the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:1–2).”22
Prayer in Jesus’ name
When Jesus told us to pray in His name, he was actually asking us to come to God in His authority, and by implication, according to His will. We are only able to come to God because of who Christ is, what He did for us, and what He promised. He has given us “great and exceeding promises” 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.
Jesus told us that we can ask the Father for requests in His name to receive answers from the Father. “
I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.”23
Jesus also said, “
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”24 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.25
Examples of Prayers to Jesus
In this section, I will give examples of the five different forms of prayer to Jesus in the New Testament.
In the gospels, many people asked Jesus for miracles, etc. I counted at least seven distinct times when people cried out to Jesus for mercy, treating Him as a divine person, and expected an answer. For an example, look at Matthew 8:2–326:
And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
This practice of making supplication to Christ carried over into the book of Acts (Acts 7:59) and into the Epistles. In 2 Corinthians 12:7–9, Paul tells about the times he petitioned Jesus to remove the thorn in the flesh from him.
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me--to keep me from exalting myself. Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
How do we know that “the Lord” is Jesus? Paul responds to the Lord's "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” by glorying in the "power of Christ." Paul's use of “Christ” supports the conclusion that the person who spoke of His "power” to Paul was Jesus.27 Paul persisted in his prayer to Jesus (it was not spontaneous) and Jesus replied to him.
“Maranatha” (found in 1 Corinthians 16:22), is usually translated as the petition, “Come, O Lord.” “Maranatha” is an Aramaic expression that originated before Christians had spread throughout the Gentile community. It seems that very early on, the Christians were crying out to Jesus, “Come, O Lord!”
The very last prayer in the NT is addressed to Jesus. “Even so come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
In the passage below, John may be telling us that we can intercede for a sinning brother by praying to the Son of God.
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death.30
The pronoun “him,” “he” and “his” in verse 14 seem to be referring to the “Son of God” in verse 13. This means that these requests can be taken to our intercessor and advocate Jesus (1 John 2:1).
Paul rejoiced, “
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry” (1 Timothy 1:12).
In the gospels, Jesus was worshiped.31 The first reference to prayer in the New Testament is the worship of Jesus by the wise men: “
And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him” (Matthew 2:11). I counted six other distinct events of worship of Jesus in the book of Matthew alone.32 There is also worship of Jesus (the Lamb) by the redeemed in Revelation. In one of three major events in Revelation in which Jesus is worshiped, that worship is addressed to Him verbally (the Father is worshiped in Revelation several times):
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”33
Another expression of worship to Jesus (a doxology) occurs in 2 Peter: “
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”34
In 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17, Paul blesses 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.”35 Paul expected Jesus to answer this request. A similar benedictory prayer (invoking the name of Jesus, as well as the Father) is found in 1 Thessalonians 3:11–13: “
Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you.”36
The Role of the Spirit
The Spirit is seen in the New Testament as an intercessor. Ephesians 2:18 points out that it is by the Spirit (and through the Son) that we have access to the Father.37 Romans 8:15 says, “
You received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’” Paul explains the role of the Spirit in getting us access to the Father: “
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. . . . He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”38
The Holy Spirit empowers the believer. In response to prayer, He strengthens us with power in the inner man (Ephesians 3:16). One thing He empowers us to do is pray. “
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit.”39 When we pray in the Spirit, we are being helped by the Spirit to pray.
Not only does the Holy Spirit intercede and empower, but He also answers prayer,40 and may give directives to us in response to prayer.41 The Holy Spirit is actively involved in our prayer lives, and He gives the guidance and strength that we need.42 We need His leadership,43 and we must live and walk by dependence on the Spirit.44
Examples of prayers to the Holy Spirit
I couldn’t find an example of an explicit prayer to the Holy Spirit, but 2 Corinthians 13:14 may include a slightly disguised prayer to the Spirit as part of a benediction.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.45
According to Albert Barnes,
This verse contains what is usually called the apostolic benediction - the form which has been so long, and which is almost so universally used, in dismissing religious assemblies. It is properly a prayer, and it is evident that the optative εἴῃ (eiē), "May the grace," etc., is to be supplied. It is the expression of a desire that the favors here referred to may descend on all for whom they are thus invoked.
[2 Corinthians 13:14] is a prayer and if it is a prayer addressed to God it is no less so to the Lord Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. If so, it is right to offer worship to the Lord Jesus and to the Holy Spirit.46
Adam Clarke explains the prayer for the communion (or fellowship) of the Holy Spirit this way:
May that Holy Spirit, that Divine and eternal energy which proceeds from the Father and the Son; that heavenly fire that gives light and life, that purifies and refines . . . comforts and invigorates, make you all partakers with himself!
Clarke also shows what “communion” likely signifies:
Κοινωνια, which we translate fellowship and communion, signifies properly participation; having things in common; partaking with each other. This points out the astonishing privileges of true believers: they have communion with God’s Spirit; share in all its gifts and graces; walk in its light; through him they have the fullest confidence that they are of God.47
So “[may] the fellowship of the Spirit be with you” could be a request to the Spirit that he would commune with us as a divine person with a human person. Even if not a prayer, the verse could indicate the Holy Spirit’s desire to have a personal relationship with us.
Paul uses the same term (kοινωνια) in Philippians 2:1, “
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy . . .” The phrase “fellowship of the Spirit” can be taken as fellowship with the Spirit, which implies communication with him.
There are also Scriptural examples of direct personal communication from the Holy Spirit that imply a response from us. For instance:
While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
This personal direction from the Spirit implies a response from those who have prayed for leadership. The Christians would have responded in a personal way to the Person who told them what to do. It’s very possible that they were even addressing the Holy Spirit when they were seeking direction. Also, Christ’s promise to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth, and speak of what he has heard (John 16:13) suggests personal interaction with the Holy Spirit, and some sort of dialogue or inquiring. This is also implied by Christ’s reference to the Holy Spirit as a “Comforter,” or “Helper” (John 16:7).
We have seen so far the role of each member of the Trinity in prayer according to the New Testament. We have seen that the “shape” of the NT data regarding prayer involves an emphasis on the Father as the recipient and answerer of prayer, the Son’s role as mediator, intercessor, recipient and answerer of prayer, and the Holy Spirit’s role as one who intercedes, empowers, answers prayer, and leads/guides. In this section, I would like to make some additional theological points, which can be inferred in part from the preceding biblical data.
Praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit
There is a sense in which all of our prayers, even ones we pray to the Spirit and the Son, are ultimately directed to the Father, who is the Head of the Trinity (1 Corinthians 11:3). It is through Christ that we have access to the Father. And we pray in the Spirit to the Father. 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). But 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. We need to remember that the members of the Trinity are one. Where one is present, the others are as well. They all participate in any given divine act, according to their peculiar roles. When we pray to one member of the Trinity, the others hear our prayer as well, and respond in a way consistent with their person.48
Each member of the Trinity is a divine person and thus worthy of worship
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. An orthodox understanding of the Trinity entails the acceptance of each Person as fully divine, fully personal, and fully united with one another as one God. This means that each is worthy of worship, and we should address each member of the Trinity in praise and adoration.49 Those evangelicals who believe that one should only pray to the Father fail to understand that because Jesus is a divine person, we can and should pray to Him. When a Jehovah’s Witness says that we should not pray to Jesus because He is not Almighty God, we can counter that we should pray to Jesus because He is Almighty God, and thus One who expects expressions of worship.50
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all divine persons
Since the members of the Trinity are persons, they are all capable of having a personal relationship with each other and with the humans they created. God is a social being; from eternity past, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have continually interrelated as persons (in complete harmony), and we humans were given the honor to enter into communion with this tri-personal God, and to love each other as His image-bearers. If all three Persons of the Godhead shared in that purpose of creating us for relationship, then it seems that all three of them would be interested in having personal interaction with us. It is not just a “nice thing” for us to communicate with each person in the Trinity; this fits into God’s purpose for our existence. Jesus prayed to His Father that His followers would know both the Father and the Son. “
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”51 John said, “
Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (John 1:3).52 Our fellowship is not simply with a single divine person, but with at least two—both the Father and the Son. We commune with the Father, knowing that He was the One who sent his Son. We commune with the Son, knowing that he was the One who gave His life for us. We make a distinction between our worship of the Father and the worship of the Son because the Bible makes a personal distinction between the Father and the Son.
This can be applied to the Holy Spirit as well. The Spirit is a divine Person that has distinctive roles to play in our lives. This being the case, it is appropriate to pray to Him about those particular roles, like guidance for preaching and other acts of service.53 It’s appropriate to thank Him for His blessing in our lives. How could we not verbalize our adoration of Him? How could we not tell Him how much we love Him? He’s helped us in so many ways.
Responding to the Word of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Colossians 3:16 calls Scripture the Word of Christ.54 When we read His Word and respond to His Word, we are in conversation with Him. Scripture is also said to be the Spirit speaking (Hebrews 10:15–1655). If Scripture is the Word of all three persons we may converse with all or any of them in reading it. Christ speaks to us through His Word. We respond to Christ by asking for His help to obey it. We let Him know how much we are depending on Him.56
Examples from church history of prayers to the members of the Trinity
The historic understanding of Trinitarian prayer is that prayer is both “to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit” and “to the Father, to the Son, and to the Spirit.”57 I will show here just a bit of the historical data that supports the idea that all members of the Trinity were addressed in prayer in the Christian tradition.
The Nicene Creed, accepted and used in the whole church since the 4th century, says of the Spirit: “who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” This means that all three members of the Trinity were prayed to.
Prayers to Jesus were very frequent, even typical, in the early apocryphal Christian writings, including public/liturgical prayers, though they were not commonly used by the second century apologists. Prayers to Jesus became more frequent in certain areas of Christianity after the 4th century.58
Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c. 215) included a rare prayer to Jesus toward the end of his The Instructor. This prayer appeals to Jesus to perfect believers that they would give thanks and praise to “the unique Father and Son, Son and Father . . . with the Holy Spirit, all in One.” Notice how Trinitarian this prayer is.59
The Eastern Orthodox churches have as part of their tradition the invocation of the Holy Spirit in one of the daily prayers:
Heavenly King, Paraclete, Spirit of truth, who art present everywhere and fillest all things, Treasury of goodness and Giver of life, come, dwell in us and cleanse us from all stain, and of thy mercy, save our souls, Amen.60
See also some other examples in my previous article.
Modeling Trinitarian Prayers
Since it is so important in worship to glorify Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the practice finds its basis in the New Testament and in the Christian tradition, I suggest that pastors consider occasionally modeling this kind of Trinitarian worship in public prayer. Those in the congregation need to know that it is not only appropriate but also important to address each member of the Trinity in worship, whether public or private worship. The prayer leader could start by addressing the Father, then address the Son, then the Holy Spirit (according to the order in the Trinity). Each Person in the Godhead should be praised for His unique function in the economy of salvation. The Father could be praised for sending His Son, the Son could be praised for being willing to come and give His life for us, and the Spirit could be praised for His work of guiding believers and convicting sinners.61 The public worship service could close with a benedictory prayer that includes the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Song leaders could also pick hymns and songs that address each member of the Trinity. Notice that many older hymns and many of the newer praise choruses are prayers to members of the Trinity. These hymns and choruses could be used in church, then taken home to be used in private devotions, as each one of us daily commune with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Barnes, Albert.1834. Notes on the Bible. Retrieved October 25, 2011 from barnes.biblecommenter.com.
Episcopal Church. 1979. Book of Common Prayer.
Clarke, Adam. 1832. Commentary on the Bible. Retrieved October 25, 2011 from clarke.biblecommenter.com/2_corinthians/13.htm.
Cole, Graham A. 2007. He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.
Grudem, Wayne. 1994. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
Holy Bible, New American Standard Version.
Hurtado, Larry. 2003. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Morris, Leon. 1995. The Gospel according to John in The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Torrance, James B. 1996. Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Watson, Richard. 1883. Theological Institutes. Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Methodist Publishing House.
Wesley, John. 1733. A Collection of Forms of Prayer for Every Day of the Week. London.