Power of Christian Prayer – Tertullian

Prayer is one of the three traditional tools for spiritual growth in Lent (and anytime), the others being almsgiving (charity) and fasting. Prayer is primary, however, for without communion with God, it is impossible to fast or serve joyfully and effectively. This excerpt from Tertullian’s treatise On Prayer, written in the late second century, speaks of the power of Christian prayer, which replaces the sacrifices of old and makes us priests who are worshipers in spirit and in truth.

Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices? asks God. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?

What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. The hour will come, he says, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit, and so he looks for worshipers who are like himself.

We are true worshipers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own.

We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God.

christian prayer power sacrifices tertullian

Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe.

Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armor of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may know what is gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.

In the past prayer was able to bring down punishment, rout armies, withhold the blessing of rain. Now, however, the prayer of the just turns aside the whole anger of God, keeps vigil for its enemies, pleads for persecutors. Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.

Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells, to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the fainthearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.

All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look out to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more need be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever. Amen.

This excerpt from Tertullian’s second century treatise On Prayer deals with Christian prayer as a replacement for the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.  It is used in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for Thursday of the 3rd week in Lent. The accompanying biblical reading is Exodus 34:10-28.


Tertullian, son of a Roman centurion from North Africa, was born around 160A.D. He received a good education in literature and rhetoric and probably practiced law for a while before being converted to Christianity around the year 197A.D. It is the Church Father St. Jerome who tells us that Tertullian became a priest, but there are some indications that he may have remained a layman. What is clear is that eloquent as he was in both Greek and Latin, Tertullian quickly after his conversion set himself to defending the Catholic faith against the pagans as well as heretical Christians.

In so doing coined some of the key theological terms and phrases of the Christian theological tradition. It is in Tertullian’s writings that we first find the Latin word “trinity” to describe the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whom he taught were “one God in three persons.” This remains a classic Trinitarian formula to this day. He also made a great contribution to Christology, the branch of theology which seeks to understand the person of Jesus Christ and how divinity and humanity are related in him. It is Tertullian who gives us the formula later canonized by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, teaching that Christ is “one person in two natures.”

Tertullian is the author of many apologetic and theological works and is one of the most quotable of the Early Church Fathers. His is the famous phrase “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” And criticizing the reliance on pagan philosophy that he detects in many heretics, he coined yet another famous phrase: “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Though Tertullian made great and lasting contributions to a wide scope of Catholic doctrines (Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, etc.), he always had a tendency towards severity and rigorism. This tendency sadly drew him into a rigorist heretical sect called the Monanists around 210 AD. Tragically, Tertullian died around 225 A.D. separated from full communion with the bishops of the Catholic Church whose authority he earlier upheld. Nevertheless, his early writings give powerful witness to the faith that comes to us from the apostles. The writings listed below are far from complete–they are mostly intended to provide a few of the more inspirational passages from his works that can be used to enrich our prayer and give us a taste of the teaching of this influential Early Christian writer.