I received a very thoughtful, considerate email off the back of yesterday’s catechism sermon, which focused on the First Commandment. In it, I critiqued the phrase “the power of prayer”, so I want to offer some brief clarification.
I’m certainly not opposed to the use of the phrase absolutely – James employs a very similar phrase in 5:16. The context in which I was addressing its use is that, in our modern day, people extoll “the power of prayer” as if the act of prayer itself is powerful. People speak in a similar way about “the power of faith”. You’ll see all sorts of studies that tell us that people who pray live longer and are more likely to overcome illness. These same studies then discuss its psychological benefit, being a form of meditation.
Unlike the common way the phrase is employed within our culture, James is assuming a particular covenantal context. The pray-er must know who the true God is and address Him (hence, the connection with the First Commandment). The member of the covenant of grace (the new covenant, in our period of history) praises and invokes the help of his/her covenant Lord. Our Triune God has freely bound Himself to answer our invocations when they are according to His will. In this sense, prayer (directed toward the Father, in the name Christ, through the power of the Spirit, which accords with His will) is powerful. Again, its power is not in the act of prayer itself (every atheist prays before a final exam!), but because our covenant God has bound Himself to answer His people.
I don’t think “the power of prayer” is ordinarily a helpful manner of speaking, since it’s liable to great misunderstanding – just like I wouldn’t want to ordinarily say “we’re justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), since it, too, is so liable to misunderstanding when its context isn’t understood and assumed.