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May 2021 Credo

It is customary for Christians in our day, especially those who belong to the Protestant denominations, to end one’s prayer with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name.” These words have become a formula, so to speak, for public and private (personal) prayers.

Yet, if we were to search the Bible, we would quickly notice that its use as a formula to conclude one’s prayer is nowhere to be found. It is not the way the Lord’s Prayer as taught by Jesus (Matt 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) ends. None of prayers in the book of Acts and in Paul’s epistles ends with this formula. So, why do Christians pray that way, and is there a scriptural basis for it?

 

Historical Precedents

The use of this phrase to end the Christian prayer is a relatively modern practice. It could have arisen among some Protestant groups in the 19th century, when special emphasis was placed on the name of Jesus. However, calling on the name of Jesus itself (not the use of the phrase as a formula) can be traced back to the early Church Fathers in the Eastern Church, and the Jesus Prayer was probably derived, at least in part, from this ancient tradition.[1]

Other Christian traditions like the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans, even in recent times, use the formula, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. It is similar in function and form to concluding a prayer by saying, “in Jesus’ name”.

 

Scriptural Basis

The Scripture is replete with references to doing something or praying in Jesus’ name. Matthew 12:21, citing Isaiah 42:1-4, says, “In his name the nations will put their hope”, referring to Jesus. The Lord himself says, “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20). The disciples and Jesus had a conversation about performing miracles and driving out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38-39; Luke 9:49). The apostle Paul did just that, when he cast out a demon from a slave girl at Philippi (Acts 16:16-8).

James, the brother of the Lord, also instructed church leaders to anoint the sick “in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). Even more pertinent are the passages that are found in the Gospel of John. In it, the Lord promises that he will do whatever his disciples ask “in his name” (John 14:13-14; 16:23-24). They are also told to bear fruit as disciples in his name (John 15:16).

Given these so-called injunctions in Scripture, it is appreciable how this has developed into the custom of using the formula, “in Jesus’ name”, to end one’s prayer. However, it should be noted that these passages in themselves do not teach that our prayers must conclude in that way. What these passages highlight is the need to approach prayer with an attitude of humility and submission to the sovereignty of God, rather than giving a stylized formula to conclude one’s prayer.

In other words, while the Bible teaches that things (including prayer) are to be done in the name of Jesus, it is not teaching that our prayer must conclude with these words as a standard formula. Praying or doing something “in Jesus’ name” means that the disciple does them under the lordship of Christ, and in obedience to him. It also reflects our understanding that Jesus, as our high priest, is the mediator between God and his people, and our prayer is premised on his role as our intercessor.

 

Its Relevance for Today

Given the foregoing discussion, the question that remains is, should Christians use this formula today? In this regard, two points should be noted. First, it is not wrong to use the customary formula, which is theologically sound, even if it is not explicitly instructed in Scripture. Second, it also does not mean that leaving out the formula would invalidate the effectiveness of our prayer.

Yet, for those who are advocating that such a practice (using the words to close one’s prayer) should stop, there is another point for us to consider: If this formula is used to express one’s allegiance to the lordship of Christ or a willingness to submit to the will of God, trusting in him as our mediator, and has been developed into a customary way for Christians to end their prayer, the question is, why would we not use it?

Is it because there is an inclination to reject anything that is not explicitly instructed in Scripture (and tradition is suspect)? There are Christians today who advocate that everything should just return to (their interpretation of) the Bible. The theological developments within the community of faith through the centuries, to them, are wholly irrelevant to their personal beliefs and convictions. This is not only naïve, it is also impossible.

The church is never theologically stagnant, and the indiscriminate rejection of the traditions of the faith smacks of an individualism that is neither warranted nor necessary. The fact that the teaching of Scripture about praying in Jesus’ name, which later developed into the tradition of using it as a formula to conclude one’s prayer, is a case in point. It illustrates how Scripture provides the impetus for theological development as the community of believers appropriate its teaching, which then gives rise to a tradition or practice in Christian piety.

In conclusion, the use of the words “in Jesus’ name” as a formula to end one’s prayer is not an injunction of Scripture. But such a practice is based on sound theological understanding of what it means to pray or to do something as a disciple of the Lord, with the conviction that he is our high priest and mediator. The formula, therefore, serves as a helpful way to underscore our submission to God. Yet, it does not mean that one’s prayer is invalidated without it. Therefore, its use or non-use should not become an issue of contention among Christians.

Note: This article arose out of a discussion with my colleagues at Trinity Theological College, and their viewpoints have been incorporated into it.

[1] For those who may not be aware, the Jesus Prayer goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It most likely developed within the traditions of Desert Fathers dating to around the 5th century a.d.


Rev Dr Leonard Wee is New Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Durham and holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (B.B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.).