Prayer is one of the streams of life that feed Christian spirituality. We speak to God, cry out to Him, and depend on Him in prayer. But that phrase “in Jesus’ name” has become so ubiquitous and its meaning so assumed that I recognize, like this question, it’s not entirely clear anymore what the purpose of this phrase is. What does it really mean to “pray in Jesus name”? I believe a triperspectival approach to this question can best help us understand it theologically.
There are lots of ways that this phrase has been understood. So, some argue that it is about attaching authority to our prayers. When we “pray in Jesus name” our prayers carry a special kind of weight that mandates their fulfillment. Others, argue that to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in accordance with His will. Still others, allude to the theological doctrine of justification – we pray in Jesus’ name because we cannot approach God apart from Jesus’ finished work on the cross for us. I think each approach has tended to emphasize its place to the exclusion of the others, and in fact all three hold some level of truthfulness to them. A triperspectival approach to prayer helps us to see the place of each idea.
Triperspectivalism is a theological grid developed by Presbyterian theologian John Frame. Frame argues that ideas can best be understood by examining them from different angles, or perspectives. He uses the labels “normative,” “situational,” and “existential” to describe the three perspectives. A quick explanation of each perspective will set us up to understand their usefulness for thinking about prayer.
Triperspectivalism unpacks our knowledge of God, the world, and self by looking at them from different angles. The normative perspective deals with God’s authority. He sets the standards and laws, and is Lord over all. The situational perspective has to do with our world, and particularly God’s control of our world. He interacts with the world, seeks His will to be done on earth, and we submit to such will in our lives. The existential perspective has to do with God’s presence and our experience of living in relationship with the covenant Lord.
We can see now how this may help us understand the nature of praying “in Jesus’ name.” The normative sense points to Christ’s authority. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray by his authorization, or with his authority. Wayne Grudem notes:
To come in the name of someone means that another person has authorized us to come on his authority, not on our own. (Systematic Theology, 379)
So, Peter commands the lame man to walk, saying “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). When Paul rebukes an unclean spirit he says, “in the name of Jesus Christ…come out of her” (Acts 16:18). Likewise, Grudem points out, that when the religious leaders question the disciples they ask them, “by what name did you do this” (Acts 4:7). The idea is that “name” equals authority. We speak in someone’s name when we speak on their behalf, by their authorization. We do not pray by our own right, our own authority, our own power. We pray in Jesus’ name.
This does not mean that whatever we ask is guaranteed so long as we add that phrase “in Jesus’ name.” In fact, as Grudem points out, not a single prayer in Scripture ends with “in Jesus’ name.” Praying in Jesus’ name is not a magical formula that guarantees an outcome. Rather the idea is the exact opposite. Our prayers have no power apart from Christ. We pray because He has delegated the right to pray to us.
The Situational perspective highlights God’s will in the world. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in accordance with Christ’s character, according to His will. Names, especially in the ancient world, were representative of the whole person himself. So, “to have a good name (Prov. 22:1; Eccl. 7:1) was to have a good reputation” (Grudem). So our prayers, prayed in Jesus’ name, are those that reflect His character and will. We are seeking the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We are not praying for our own selfish desires (James 4:3), but rather we pray “according to his will” (1 John 5:14-15). Jesus’ name, then, is representative of himself. We pray “in Jesus’ name” when we pray according to His will.
Finally the Existential sense refers to our ongoing relationship with God through Jesus. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in covenant relationship. We pray in Jesus’ name when we approach God through the finished work of Christ. We pray in Jesus’ name when we pray “Our Father.” We pray “in Jesus’ name” when we “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Eph. 3:12; Heb. 4:16). God loves us in Christ, and invites us into His presence without fear or trepidation. He welcomes us as His children. We are in covenant relationship with the Lord and we pray “in Jesus’ name” when we pray in recognition of this relationship.
So, we may add the phrase “in Jesus’ name” or not. The phrase itself does not mean anything if it is detached from the spirit and attitude of the ideas. Likewise, we can pray “in Jesus’ name” when any one of these perspectives is at play, even if we don’t use that particular language. All three perspectives hold some truth and so all three are best understood as different ways to appreciate what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.