Q: In the Scriptures, Jesus tells us to pray to the Father; and anything we as ask for, in His name, God will give to us. So it would seem we should pray to God the Father; but I often hear prayers offered to Jesus. To add to the confusion, is it ever appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit? Because God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit are one, does it matter? Are there prayers that are appropriate to be offered to a particular one of the Godhead and other prayers to another?
A: This is a deep question, because although it asks about prayer on the surface, at the heart of this question is the Trinitarian nature of God. Without getting too deep into the theology of the Trinity, we will need to examine at least in part the roles of each divine Person in order to satisfactorily address this question.
A simplified answer to this question is as follows: the Scriptures indicate that as a general rule for prayer, Christians ought to pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Spirit.
The Questioner is correct in identifying the principle that Jesus taught us to pray to our Father (Matthew 6:7-13; Luke 11:1-13). The Scriptures are also clear in indicating that our ability to address God as our Father is only because of the redemptive work of the Son (Galatians 4:1-7; John 1:12), and that it is the work of the Spirit who applies the merits of the Son to believers and places them into the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30).
To understand that each divine Person in the Godhead has a different role in our salvation (the Father sends, but is never sent; the Son is both sent [by the Father] and sends [the Spirit]; and the Spirit never sends but is only sent), it would be a mistake to think that there is any division in the unity of the Godhead. While God exists as one Being, that Being is eternally consisting of three Persons. We could spend much more time developing the nature of the Trinity and trying to explain how this is a reality (although, we will always fall short as there is no fitting analogy in our finite world that adequately describes this reality present in our infinite God – in fact, the analogies that are often presented, e.g. water, ice and steam, etc., are actually very dangerous as they describe the heretical view of modalism and not the biblical Trinity), but this would take us off of our original question.
What’s important to understand is that, although each divine Person is equally divine, we do not see each Person being prayed to nor receiving worship in the Scriptures. Theologically, it would be difficult to argue that the Holy Spirit is not worthy of receiving prayer or worship (He is worthy!). However, biblically speaking, there are no examples of the Holy Spirit receiving prayer or worship. This is significant.
Similarly, although Jesus is clearly divine based on the revelation of the Scripture, we do not see Him receiving nearly as much worship or prayer as the Father (although there are some examples of Jesus receiving worship to be sure).
As Christians who desire to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we should always be careful to submit ourselves to what has been revealed and not elevating our own reason or understanding above what the Lord has told us for our worship of Him. He is God and we are not. So, while I could argue and demonstrate the full divinity of the Holy Spirit from the Bible, I cannot make a case to pray to the Spirit with the same Scriptures.
As we try to wrap our finite minds around the distinctive doctrine of a Trinitarian God, it is helpful for us to focus on the roles of each divine Person – particularly as it relates to prayer and in the context of the full revelation of God in His Word.
As a product of the Fall (Genesis 3), sin and death entered into the world. Death is both a biological and spiritual reality – and just as biological death separates our spirit from our physical body, spiritual death separates everyone from a Holy God. Even those who are biologically alive are born spiritually dead (helpful for understanding how Adam could “die” [spiritually] in the day he ate of the fruit, but still live biologically for hundreds of years after this event). This separation from God cannot be “fixed” by sinful man but must be redeemed by God alone.
The Father sends His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to serve as a mediator between Himself and mankind (Romans 8:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:5), and then the Spirit applies this regenerative work to all who place their faith (“complete trust”) in the Savior Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:2-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Titus 3:5).
Therefore, we see that the entire work of salvation is done by God: it is initiated by the Father in sending His Son, completed by the Son through His death, burial, resurrection and exaltation, and applied through the agency of the Spirit to those who join their faith to the knowledge of the Son (Hebrews 4). The grace of the Lord, which is given by the Father, through the Son, and enabled in the individual by the Spirit is meant to transform the spiritually “dead” through the second birth into new creations, who are alive in the Spirit.
This work of reconciliation and redemption by God (Father, Son and Spirit) is done for the glory of the Father (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 and Philippians 2:9-11 [notice who gets the glory in v. 11 … the Father!]). Jesus came, not so that we would have Him alone, but so that we would have everlasting life (which is defined as a relationship with God, not as a cloud and a harp after we die!):
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3, NASB)
Jesus came, not so that we would pray to Him, but so that through Him we could be restored to our Heavenly Father as He is (Cf. Matthew 14:36 with Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6).
Is it wrong to pray to Jesus? No, I don’t think so. But Jesus’ mission was to reconcile us with our Father! If we address most (or all) of our prayers to Jesus, then we are ignoring the reconciliation which He came to make possible!
The Spirit of God makes all of these things possible – He is the one who draws us to Christ, who convicts us of our need for a Savior, and convinces us that Jesus is the Messiah (John 16:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:5). It is in the power of the Spirit, through the mediation of Christ, that we can (and should) pray to our gracious and merciful Father, who sent His Son and Spirit to bring us back to Him.
It is good and right to thank our Father for Jesus and for the Spirit, both of whom He so graciously gave to us. It is also good and right to thank Jesus and the Spirit for their work in our lives – both for the gift of salvation and for their present leading in our lives as believers.
After all, it is the Spirit who leads us into prayer (Romans 8:26) and who enables powerful prayers for others (Ephesians 6:18) and who seeks to lead the Christian everyday (Romans 8:14).
If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, I highly recommend reading Bruce A. Ware’s Father, Son & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance, particularly pp. 151-153.
Ware points to many passages in his short treatment of the Trinitarian doctrine as it relates to the prayer life of believers, but the most instructive is Ephesians 2:18:
for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. (NASB)
For through Him (Christ) we have access to the Father in the Spirit. I'll end with a re-statement of our simplified answer: the Scriptures indicate that as a general rule for prayer, Christians ought to pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Spirit.
I'm sure this challenges many of our preconceived notions of prayer, but we are always blessed when we allow the Word of God to transform our lives and bring us into greater alignment with His perfect will for us as His children and His creation.