D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1992, 230 pp.
D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, Illinois). He is also the author of numerous books that have reliably served followers of Christ for several decades. This trend continues with A Call to Spiritual Reformation, a book in which the pastor’s heart of the author beats loudly as he considers numerous prayers in the New Testament of the Apostle Paul and how they can direct the petitions of God’s people today.
The book begins with this question: “What is the most urgent need in the church of the Western world today?” (11). Carson contends, “The one thing we most urgently need in Western Christendom is a deeper knowledge of God.” He then clarifies, “[T]his is not a book that directly meets the challenge to know God better. Rather, it addresses one small but vital part of that challenge. One of the foundational steps in knowing God . . . is prayer—spiritual, persistent, biblically minded prayer” (15-16). Therefore, “The purpose of this book . . . is to think through some of Paul’s prayers, so that we may align our prayer habits with his” (17-18).
Before providing an exegesis of select prayers from Paul, the first chapter is devoted to lessons about prayer that Carson has personally learned from spiritual mentors. He readily admits these are far less authoritative than the Scriptures, but the reader will benefit significantly from seeing how Carson organizes his prayer life.
In the majority of the remaining chapters, Carson focuses on various passages from Paul’s pen, but this is not a technical commentary. Each explanation of Paul’s prayers has a sermonic feel, and there is a reason for this—Carson writes, “This book began its life as a series of seven sermons preached in various settings” (10). This explains why, interspersed in the chapters specifically on biblical texts, there are three “topical” chapters: Chapter 4, “Praying for Others”; Chapter 7, “Excuses for Not Praying”; Chapter 9, “A Sovereign and Personal God.” The author explains, “The more topical chapters were extended introductions to typically expository sermons” (230).
Each chapter ends with a section titled, “Questions for Review and Reflection,” useful both for personal and group study. Some of the questions encourage the reader(s) to rehearse key concepts from the chapter just read, and others will encourage discussion (and perhaps debate) beyond the content of the chapter. As helpful as these questions might be, the content of the book is so thought-provoking and heart-probing that they are nearly unnecessary.
In the introduction, the author makes a piercing comment: “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” (16). I’m confident most believers would, ashamedly, agree with his assessment of the church. Thankfully, Carson has served us by writing a book that will help the church of Christ “learn what to pray for, what arguments to use, what priorities we should adopt, what beliefs should shape our prayers, and much more” (18).
A Call to Spiritual Reformation is unquestionably one of the most stimulating books I have read on prayer. I have used it not only for personal reflection, but also as a study with a group of men and as the basis for a series of Sunday evening messages. It will lead its readers away from clichéd prayers to those similar in perspective and scope of the Apostle Paul, “both for God’s glory and for our good” (10).