8 Principles of Prayer from John Owen

Direction for Prayer

There are some generally allowed principles, which, though not always duly considered, yet cannot at any time be modestly denied, that give direction toward the right performance of our duty [of prayer] herein. And they are these that follow.

(1) It is the duty of every man to pray for himself. The light of nature, multiplied divine commands, with our necessary dependence on God and subjection unto him, give life and light unto this principle. To own a Divine Being is to own that which is to be prayed unto, and that it is our duty so to do.

(2) It is the duty of some, by virtue of natural relation or of office, to pray with and for others also. So is it the duty of parents and masters of families to pray with and for their children and households. This also derives from those great principles of natural light that God is to be worshiped in all societies of his own erection, and that those in the relations mentioned are obliged to seek the chiefest good of them that are committed unto their care; and so is it frequently enjoined in the Scripture. In like manner, it is the duty of ministers to pray with and for their flocks, by virtue of special institution. These things cannot be, nor, so far as I know of are, questioned by any; but practically the most of men live in an open neglect of their duty herein. Were this but diligently attended unto, from the first instance of natural and moral relations unto the instituted offices of ministers and public teachers, we should have less contests about the nature and manner of praying than at present we have. It is holy practice that must reconcile differences in religion, or they will never be reconciled in this world.

The Holy Spirit—The Comforter

John Owen, Andrew S. Ballitch

Volume 8 of The Complete Works of John Owen explores the Holy Spirit’s role in prayer, assuring salvation, and equipping the church for ministry. These three treatises have been edited for modern readers by Puritan scholar Andrew S. Ballitch.

(3) Everyone who prays, either by himself and for himself, or with others and for them, is obliged, as unto all the uses, properties, and circumstances of prayer, to pray as well as he is able. For by the light of nature everyone is obliged in all instances to serve God with his best. The confirmation and exemplification hereof was one end of the institution of sacrifices under the Old Testament. For it was ordained in them that the chief and best of every thing was to be offered unto God. Neither the nature of God nor our own duty toward him will admit that we should expect any acceptance with him, unless our design be to serve him with the best that we have, both for matter and manner. So is the mind of God himself declared in the prophet:

“If ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And if ye offer the lame and the sick, is it not evil? [. . .] Ye brought that which was torn, and the lame, and the sick; should I accept this of your hand?” saith the Lord. “But cursed be the deceiver, which hath in his flock a male, and voweth, and sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing: for I am a great King, saith the Lord of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the heathen.” (Mal. 1:8, 13–14)

(4) In our reasonable service, the best wherewith1 we can serve God consists in the intense, sincere actings of the faculties and affections of our minds, according unto their respective powers, through the use of the best assistances we can attain. And if we omit or forego, in any instance, the exercise of them according to the utmost of our present ability, we offer unto God the sick and the lame. If men can take it on themselves, in the sight of God, that the invention and use of set forms of prayer, and other the like outward modes of divine worship, are the best that he has endowed them with for his service, they are free from the force of this consideration.

(5) There is no man but, in the use of the aids which God has prepared for that purpose, is able to pray according to the will of God, and as he is in duty obliged, whether he pray by himself and for himself, or with others and for them also. There is not by these means perfection attainable in the performance of any duty, neither can all attain the same measure and degree as unto the usefulness of prayer and manner of praying; but everyone may attain unto that wherein he shall be accepted with God, and according unto the duty whereunto he is obliged, whether personally or by virtue of any relation wherein he stands unto others. To suppose that God requires duties of men which they cannot perform in an acceptable manner, by virtue and in the use of those aids which he has prepared and promised unto that end, is to reflect dishonor on his goodness and wisdom in his commands. Wherefore, no man is obliged to pray, in any circumstances, by virtue of any relation or office, but he is able so to do according unto what is required of him; and what he is not able for he is not called unto.

For by the light of nature everyone is obliged in all instances to serve God with his best.

(6) We are expressly commanded to pray, but are nowhere commanded to make prayers for ourselves, much less for others. This is superadded,2 for a supposed conveniency, unto the light of nature and Scripture institution.

(7) There is assistance promised unto believers to enable them to pray according unto the will of God; there is no assistance promised to enable any to make prayers for others. The former part of this assertion is explained and proved in the ensuing discourse, and the latter cannot be disproved. And if it should be granted that the work of composing prayers for others is a good work, falling under the general aids of the Holy Spirit necessary unto every good work whatever, yet are not those aids of the same kind and nature with his actual assistances in and unto prayer as he is the Spirit of grace and supplications. For in the use of those assistances by grace and gifts, every man that uses them does actually pray, nor are they otherwise to be used; but men do not pray in the making and composing forms of prayer, though they may do so in the reading of them afterward.

(8) Whatever forms of prayer were given out unto the use of the church by divine authority and inspiration, as the Lord’s Prayer and the psalms or prayers of David, they are to have their everlasting use therein, according unto what they were designed unto. And be their end and use what it will, they can give no more warranty for human compositions unto the same end, and the injunction of their use, than for other human writings to be added unto the Scripture.


  1. I.e., by which.
  2. I.e., increased in a compounding way.

This article is adapted from The Holy Spirit—The Comforter by John Owen.

Related Articles

6 Questions about John Owen

Lee Gatiss

Alongside regular preaching and teaching, John Owen produced many works, including books on toleration, his monumental multi-volume writings on the Holy Spirit, and four large folio volumes on Hebrews.

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.