Pastoral Perspectives

Praying “in Jesus’ Name?”

Christians often end their prayers with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name.” I have been asked if it is always necessary to include that phrase in prayer. In a nutshell, the answer is no—it is nowhere demanded in Scripture that Christians ought to end their prayers with that formula. Although it is tempting to leave this as a matter of freedom, it is necessary to try to understand what that phrase actually means and why we utter it, lest it becomes a meaningless convention.

First, it should be noted that the very prayer which our Lord had taught his first disciples did not contain a closing formula in his name (Mt. 6.9-13). The original ending of it was simply: “but deliver us from evil” (or, from the evil one). The doxology (“for thine is the kingdom…”) was not present in the earliest manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel, but even that later addition does not contain an appeal to Jesus’ name. This means that the early Christians who felt the need to complete the Lord’s Prayer by adding a doxology to Matthew 6.13 did not think it was necessary to explicitly make an appeal to our Lord. If our Lord did not require it, and the early Christians did not see a need for it, then there is no compulsion for all Christians to end their prayers with “in Jesus’ name.”

One place in the New Testament where our Lord Jesus Christ explicitly teaches his disciples to pray in his name is in John 16.23-24. Our Lord says, “In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (cf. Jn. 14.13-14).

What does it mean to ask of something in our Lord’s name? Here, he does not mean we need to say a requisite formula lest we forfeit our prayer. To ask something in the Lord’s name, means to appeal to his mediatorship in the act of prayer. According to the Reformer John Calvin, there would be no effective prayer without his role as a mediator:

For just as the promise commends Christ the Mediator to us, so, unless the hope of obtaining our requests depends upon him, it cuts itself off from the benefit of prayer. For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind, we cannot but tremble and be driven far away by the recognition of our own unworthiness, until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.[1]

Without Christ, God is not disposed to hearing the prayers of sinners. His atoning death grants that our prayers may be heard by God and gives us the confidence to bring our petitions to God. This is why in certain early church liturgies, Christians stressed the mediatorship of Christ when they prayed to the Father, through the Son, and in the power of the Spirit.[2]

To pray in the Lord’s name is to appeal to his role as a mediator before God. For example, if you are a secretary and your employer instructs you to make a purchase for the company, you are doing so in “the name of your employer” —by the authority he invests in you—and not in your own capacity. Apart from your position as a secretary and his authorization, you have no right to make a purchase for the company. Likewise, when we pray to God in Christ’s name, we are praying from our position as sinners reconciled to God through Christ; whenever we pray it is always an act that is only enabled by Christ’s mediatorial office. God hears us through Christ. We do not petition God by our own merits but by the superabundant merits of Christ, and that is fundamentally what it means to pray in his name.

This also means that when we pray in our Lord’s name, we must pray in accordance with his character and will. Continuing the illustration above, it would be unacceptable (even criminal) if you made a purchase for the company based on your fancy rather than one which is demanded by your employer. Likewise, we are not to ask God for things which contradict Christ’s character—his lovingkindness, mercifulness, and righteousness—and/or his revealed will to us in Scripture. Praying in Jesus’ name is not proclaiming a divine imprimatur on our petitions that guarantees a hearing before God. Rather, it is a call to submit our desires to Christ, and to desire what he desires (hence, “thy will be done”). Whenever we pray in faith, trusting in and submitting to Christ’s mediatorial work, we are in fact praying in his name. Therefore, in John 16.23-24, our Lord is not telling us to include a formulaic ending for our prayers.

That being said, it is customary for prayers in liturgical services—especially in the Western church tradition—to end with an appeal to Christ: “through Jesus Christ our Lord” or “through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God…”[3] Such stylized endings, while somewhat formulaic, are not inserted at the end of prayers to satisfy our Lord’s instruction or to ensure the validity of the prayers. Rather, they serve as an expression of the church’s faith—of our union with Christ and participation in the trinitarian economy—and reminds the assembly of Christ’s mediatorship and how their pleas ascend to God only by his grace. By praying them in the liturgy, they serve to shape the theology and practice of the faithful.[4]

Of course, not all liturgical prayers in the tradition of the church end with such formulae. The prayer of John Chrysostom in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer does not end with an appeal to Christ. The Aaronic benediction (from Num. 6.24-26) that is sometimes used for the benediction does not contain that either. There are also many liturgical prayers in the Eastern church tradition which do not have an appeal to Christ but includes a doxological formula like, “For You are a merciful God Who loves mankind, and to You we offer up glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.” Not every single prayer in a liturgy needs to end with an appeal to Christ because the entire liturgy itself should sufficiently convey the notion that he is our sole mediator before God.

To conclude, it is not necessary for Christians to always end their prayers with the formula “in Jesus’ name.” Instead, it is necessary for Christians to understand why all prayer must be done in Jesus’ name. It is good for prayers in our Sunday liturgies to include an explicit appeal to Christ since they are the public prayer of the church and an expression of the church’s faith. Yet not every liturgical prayer demands that ending if the liturgy in its entirety sufficiently conveys our trinitarian faith and the mediating work of Christ.

[1] Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John Thomas McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960)3.20.17.

[2] Maxwell E. Johnson, Praying and Believing in Early Christianity: The Interplay between Christian Worship and Doctrine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 25–26. Johnson points out that this was not a uniform practice because Christians were also praying to Jesus Christ in view of his divinity. That Christians were doing this seems to be an issue for the 3rd century theologian Origen, leading him to insist in his treatise On Prayer that Christians should only pray to the Father alone and not to Jesus Christ since the latter has revealed himself to be a mediator. He writes in the voice of Jesus, “You should offer up your prayer to the Father alone, with me and through me.”

[3] See the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for examples.

[4] Following the principle lex orandi lex credendi (the rule of prayer is also the rule of faith).