I regret that I could only give five stars to this book.
Timothy Keller’s book may be the best book on prayer that I have ever read. Scratch that. It IS the best book on prayer that I have ever read, hands down. So much so, that I plan to read it again, much more slowly, to digest every nugget of greatness within.
A couple of statements on the front flap of the book ring very true. “Christians are taught in their churches and schools that prayer is the most powerful way to experience God. But few receive instruction or guidance in how to make prayer genuinely meaningful.” This book addresses that issue head-on. Keller, being humble, says in the introduction, “The best material on prayer has been written,” meaning before he wrote this book. I’m not sure I agree with that statement, after reading this book.
What Timothy Keller has done, here, however, is take some of that “best material on prayer” and gather it together in one place for us. Drawing heavily from the work of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Augustine of Hippo, John Owen, and several modern writers, Keller has crafted a masterpiece. He takes two different views on prayer and syncretizes them, giving us the best of the more doctrinal, clinical type of prayer, along with the contemplative (that so many modern Christians seem to be avoiding like the plague).
The book is divided into five parts, beginning with what is most necessary, “Desiring Prayer.” I will confess that there was a segment of part two, “Understanding Prayer,” in which I almost got bogged down, as Keller went into quite a bit of detail on the history of prayer, in general, and not just Christian prayer. That particular section, while I understand the need for it, was a bit dry, and that is absolutely the only negative thing I have to say about the book.
In part three, “Learning Prayer,” he gets into the meat of the teachings of Calvin, Luther, and Augustine, as well as Owen. This is where the book really takes off, and gets continuously better. In part four, “Deepening Prayer,” he discusses meditating on God’s Word and seeking his face. Part five is the practical section, “Doing Prayer,” in which he gives examples of the different parts of prayer, and gives helpful advice on how to achieve more meaningful prayer times.
In the midst of a book on prayer, Timothy Keller tackles more than just prayer, which made the book even better. One of the parts that spoke to me most was a brief section on repentance. It begins on page 208, in a section with the heading, “Remembering the Freeness of Forgiveness.” Actually, it begins on the page before that heading, as he speaks of the fact that “no sin can now bring us into condemnation, because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice” (p. 207). In the same paragraph, he reminds us that “sin is so serious and grievous to God that Jesus had to die. We must recognize both of these aspects of God’s grace or we will lapse into one or the other of two fatal errors. Either we will think forgiveness is easy for God to give, or we will doubt the reality and thoroughness of our pardon.”
If we lose our grip on “the freeness of forgiveness,” Keller writes, we will fall into a life of “continued guilty, shame, and self-loathing.” In the section that begins on page 208, Keller writes of Martin Luther and his “Ninety-Five Theses, famously nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. These began with a call for “the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” With the wrong understanding of repentance, this sounds terribly bleak, as though we live our lives always asking for forgiveness.
But the fact that “we are saved and accepted through Christ apart from any of our good works or efforts” completely changes “the nature of repentance. When we forget the freeness of grace, the purpose of our repentance becomes the appeasement of God” (p. 208)! (Emphasis mine.) With this understanding of repentance, we are trying to stay on God’s good side by attempting to impress him with our sorrow.
But we don’t have to suffer for our sin, because Christ has already done that! “We do not have to make ourselves suffer to merit God’s forgiveness. We simply receive the forgiveness earned by Christ . . . This profound assurance and security transforms repentance from being a means of atoning for sin into a means of honoring God and realigning our lives with him” (p. 209) (emphasis mine).
It just so happens that God has been dealing with me about this very issue for a while, now, so that portion of the book captured my attention and really spoke to my heart and spirit.
I apologize for the lengthiness of this review. As I stated earlier, there is so much “good stuff” in this book that it cries out for me to read it again, and perhaps again after that. In my opinion, this may be THE modern book on prayer that could change an entire generations’s perspective on one of the most important subjects that the Christian can study.