I am a Christian who prays frequently in military ceremonies and community events. Frequently, people will ask me about praying “in Jesus’ name” in these settings. It’s a matter of some controversy. Pastor Mark Roberts has written a four-part series on Praying in Jesus’ Name in which he says most of what I would want to say on the topic.
Here are some key excerpts from the series:
So what does the Bible teach us about praying in the name of Jesus? If we turn to the Gospel of John, we find this statement on the lips of Jesus himself:
“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Other passages in John’s Gospel make a similar point (15:16; 16:23-24, 26).
So doesn’t this rather conclude the matter? Jesus himself teaches us to pray in his name. This seems to leave no option for any praying Christian, …
But things aren’t quite so clear as they might at first seem. If Jesus wanted his followers to say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of their prayers, we must wonder why he didn’t think to include this at the end of what we call The Lord’s Prayer. This exemplary prayer is found in two different forms (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) in the New Testament, but neither ends with anything like “in the name of Jesus” or “in my name.” In Luke 11, Jesus follows his model prayer with further instruction about prayer, urging us to be persistent (vv. 5-8) and confident (vv. 9-13) when we pray. But nowhere does he say we should speak his name in order to get our prayers heard.
In fact, when Jesus speaks of praying in his name, he is not referring to adding a catch phrase at the end of a prayer, though there is not necessarily anything wrong with this practice.
When Christians … pray, we do these things in the name of Jesus, whether or not we say “in Jesus’ name.” To pray in Jesus’ name is come before God’s throne of grace, not in our own merit or authority, but in the merit and authority of Jesus. We have no right to approach God’s throne of grace in our sinfulness, but in the righteousness of Jesus, we can be bold when we come before God in prayer (Heb 4:14-16).
The early Christian writings not only show the true meaning of praying in the name of Jesus, but also contain no prayer that ends with the phrase “in Jesus’ name” or something similar. The first Christians, including many who had known Jesus in the flesh, did not believe that Jesus wanted them to mention his name at the end of their prayers.
The danger of saying “in Jesus’ name” at the end of our prayers is thinking that somehow this practice makes our prayers more effective. The phrase “in Jesus’ name” becomes, for us, an incantation, magic words we use to produce a particular effect. I do think this danger exists, because I once believed that I had to say “in Jesus’ name” or something similar at the end of my prayers in order for God to hear them. I don’t remember whether I was taught this by one of my Sunday School teachers at church, or whether I thought it up by myself on the basis of what I observed at church. Nevertheless, for me, praying in Jesus’ name was no more or no less than saying “in Jesus’ name, Amen” before I opened my eyes and went about my business.
Roberts’ quotation from the Westminster Catechism summarizes his thinking on this issue:
What is it to pray in the name of Christ? To pray in the name of Christ is, in obedience to his command, and in confidence on his promises, to ask mercy for his sake; not by bare mentioning of his name, but by drawing our encouragement to pray, and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer, from Christ and his mediation.
Read Mark Roberts whole series on Praying in Jesus’ Name.
I agree with Mark Roberts about the theological meaning of praying in Jesus’ name. I hope that prompts other Christians to think about the matter. We all write and speak to influence others, but I know that other Christians disagree with me. For some, saying the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer is a requirement of their faith.
I do not expect other chaplains who work with me to “buy” my theology because I am senior. I’m not their bishop (and they’re not mine). I have never told another chaplain what to say or not to say in a prayer. I have advised them to keep their public invocations under one minute. For most of my career, the major complaint about invocations has had to do with their length, not their theology.
I do believe that all of us who wear the cross (or tablets or crescent or wheel) have an obligation to provide for the free exercise of everyone in the units we serve – and to implement the commander’s intent for the ceremonies in which we participate. That’s why the taxpayers give us a check every a month. In this, military chaplains are NOT like invited clergy or others who are asked to participate in public events. But every commander has different expectations and every chaplain has a different approach to prayer. Each has to work out for himself or herself how to meet ALL the requirements that come with being a member of clergy in uniform. We of course do not need a cookie cutter approach or an accepted “book of prayers.” As I frequently say, the government is incompetent to make judgments on matters of religion. Commanders will, however, make judgments on about how their intent is being fulfilled and how their service members are being supported. And service members will determine how much slack they’re willing to cut their chaplain based on the depth of mutual trust and respect in their relationship. At the unit level, we generally figure out how to make this work without the help of lawyers or congressmen. Alas, lawyers and congressmen are involved. If invocations become a divisive distraction (or a legal threat) for commanders, they have a simple solution: end them. And that would be a pity.
I value public prayers at significant events in the life of the military community, although these occasions can multiply to the point that “significant” loses its meaning. Still, there have many occasions in which people have expressed a deep appreciation for public invocations I have delivered (and I don’t mean they just said, “Nice prayer, padre.”) Major life changes, ventures involving risk, large commitments of time and resources, assumption of major responsibilities, times of trauma, healing and grief: all of these push men and women past the superficial and open them to what I would consider a moment of spiritual awareness.
Public invocations are different than the pastoral prayers (or the prayers of the people) in a congregational setting. They sound different, not just because the audience is different, but because the purpose is different. A public invocation is not a prayer for the church gathered.
Theologically, I see public invocations as prayers of blessing fulfilling the intent of Jeremiah 29:7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-2. I offer these prayers in Jesus’ name, even if I don’t use the phrase. Even if someone else might hear my words and think no more than, “That’s a nice sentiment,” for me they are real prayer, offered to the God who made himself known in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose name I now bear and to whom I now belong.