June 18, 2021

Book Review: A Call to Spiritual Reformation, by D.A. Carson

D.A. Carson looks in some depth at the intercessory prayers of the Apostle Paul, seeing them as guides and models for how we should be praying for one another. After all, if we want to intercede for our brothers and sisters, our families and friends, and our circumstances around us in a way that is consistent with God’s care and His concerns, doesn’t it make sense to pray as one of the foremost Apostles himself prayed?

But Carson does not begin with this. Instead, he scrutinizes many activities and fundamental perspectives offered up as being the most urgent need in the church of the Western world— things such as personal holiness and purity, sound thinking on human dignity, encroaching materialism, or more intentional evangelism— and finds them each a very good thing, and yet not at the core. At the core, he says, at the root, “The one thing we most urgently need in Western Christendom is a deeper knowledge of God. We need to know God better.” (This is indeed the same point made in J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, another recommended book.)

The thrust of Carson’s book is to address “one small but vital part of that challenge. One of the foundational steps in knowing God, and one of the basic demonstrations that we do know God, is prayer— spiritual, persistent, biblically minded prayer. Writing a century and a half ago, Robert Murray M’Cheyne declared, ‘What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is, and no more.’ We have learned to organize, build institutions, publish books, insert ourselves into the media, develop evangelistic strategies, and administer discipleship programs, but we have forgotten how to pray.”

He goes on, “Shall we not agree with J.I. Packer when he writes, ‘I believe that prayer is the measure of the man, spiritually, in a way that nothing else is, so that how we pray is as important a question as we can ever face’? Can we profitably meet the other challenges that confront the Western church if prayer is ignored as much as it has been?”

Well, then! His purpose is to help us think through Paul’s prayers, to evaluate them, and thus to bring our own intercessory prayers in line with the emphases displayed in Scripture, but not just as a means to be praying ‘more biblically’; instead, the purpose is to show us the Lord’s heart and ambitions for His people, and to show us how our own prayers can help bring that about— to get us to pray.

He then devotes a chapter each to eight prayers of Paul for those in his care, such as 2 Thess. 1:3-12, Col. 1:9-14, Eph. 3:14-21 (how magnificent!), and Eph. 1:15-23. The writing is in depth, but not so deep as to suffocate the reader, instead he is deepening our understanding of the Apostle’s heart and thus the Lord’s heart. If I may interject a personal note: many years ago I memorized a significant portion of the book of the Ephesians, and years later I was put in a position of pastoral care for an adult Sunday School group. Not knowing how to care well for them yet feeling a huge desire for their spiritual growth, I went back frequently to Eph. 1, drew upon Paul’s prayer in vv. 15-19, and made it my own, knowing that, even though it didn’t cover everything they needed, there was much in there that I wanted them to have in their spiritual lives.

I recommend this book by Carson quite highly. It is useful either to read alone or to use in a small study group, because Carson has provided questions at the end of each chapter for that purpose. I have bought several copies and given them to people that I think will be aided by the content and the encouragement to pray.

Intercessory prayer is not easy; on the contrary it is hard, sometimes lonely work. But if you wish to pray in such a way that Time and Eternity will be changed, if you wish to seek the Lord’s face and His heart and His will on matters of eternal significance, this book can be a useful tool to challenge and encourage you.

A Call to Spiritual Reformation