Carson, D.A. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992. 230 pp. $19.99.
What is the greatest need for believers? Carson recognizes that what the church needs “is a deeper knowledge of God….to know God better” (15). This does not come, however, through bible teaching and theology courses but through an intentionally biblical prayer life. Christians must recognize their need for a prayer-filled life if they wish to see personal and corporate renewal, not to mention the work of the gospel continue worldwide. For this task Carson limits his scope to specific prayer passages from the apostle Paul. Carson warns readers stating, “This book is not a comprehensive theology of prayer, set against the background of modern debate on the nature of spirituality” (9). Readers seeking such a guide should refer to his Teach Us to Pray text. With this in mind, Carson begins his discussion with personal lessons he has learned on prayer.
Chapter one provides readers with practical reflections highlighting the necessary facets of prayer. Apart from chapters four (“Praying for Others”), seven (“Excuses for Not Praying”), and nine (“A Sovereign and Personal God”), all remaining chapters are dedicated to careful exposition of Pauline texts for the purpose of highlighting prayer. Carson provides a thorough yet not exhaustive treatment of prayer from the words of Paul. Establishing the need of an eschatological foundation (seen in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10), Carson carefully exegetes the text for the purpose of reflection and application. With this in mind our prayers and petitions must be shaped by the gospel. Carson states, “[B]y grace we cherish holiness and a deepening knowledge of God” (60). Grace shapes one’s vision in prayer. This is the ultimate foundation of a believer’s prayer life.
Though this text is no “how-to” primer, Carson’s opening chapter provides practical tips acquired from experience. Carson encourages readers to develop the practical components of a prayer life prior to his task of exegeting Pauline prayer passages. Though practical, these tips are wonderfully biblical. Readers are reminded to maintain the balance of God’s sovereignty with the effectiveness of their prayers (30-1). Carson concludes this chapter with helpful practice for readers: pray until you pray. This concept, expounded by the Puritans, arises from the recognition that initial attempts at prayer may be unsuccessful. Therefore, believers ought to persevere in prayer until actual and pure prayer arises (35-7).
Wedged between Carson’s exegesis of the Pauline prayers is a chapter dealing with the practical reality of our prayer excuses (ch. 7). Carson dissects six excuses for lack of prayer and implores readers to examine their own prayer lives. Continuing with his Pauline exegesis, Carson draws attention to Philippians 1:9-11, Ephesians 1:15-23 and 3:14-21 as well as Romans 15:14-33. From here Carson challenges readers to test their motives (138-40), recognize the grace of God’s sovereign intervention (170), understand God’s loving discipline and growth (200), and acknowledge the real struggle of living a prayer-filled life (212). Throughout the text, Carson advances the prayer posture of Paul as the necessary model for emulation. This is not a call to copy word for word, but rather to enter the mind of one for whom prayer was the unceasing act of ministry and the sign of unwavering devotion to Christ.
Some readers may be frustrated at Carson’s lack of connecting exegesis to praxis (again see Teach Us to Pray) and may feel a tad overwhelmed at the “go and do likewise” presentation. Providing readers with study questions helps to alleviate some of this anxiety, adding a necessary practical element for personal reflection and small group discussions.
Carson provides the church with more than a theology of Pauline prayer. This work integrates the call to prayer with a thorough biblical foundation. A Call to Spiritual Reformation will orient the reader to more than the basic nature of prayer but an explicit call to engage in prayer for the sake of the gospel. Carson implores readers to action, not just reflection. Carson accomplishes his task by pointing to a lack of prayer as the chief cause for a lack of knowledge. Thus we must conclude as Carson does that the church cannot know God apart from praying to God.