Review: D. A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Praying with Paul (Baker Academic)

Used with permission from

Used with permission from

When I first became a Christian the primary way that I learned to pray was by praying the prayers in Scripture. Sometimes I prayed them word-for-word, but often I would take texts as launching points and then move on to pray in my own words according to the structure, content, and principle illuminated in them. Though I later made two Christian friends who prayed amazingly eloquent and Spirit-filled (not pretentious) prayers, in my early months as a Christian I didn't encounter a pray-er whose praying I wanted to emulate. I don't think my struggle to find a model of prayer outside the Bible is uncommon. Cartoonist Adam Ford has humorously portrayed the way many Christians pray in a comic titled, “If we talked to people the way we talk to God” (see comic to right).

So, how then shall we improve our praying? Perhaps more importantly, with what motivation and to what end? In the newly revised edition of A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Praying with Paul, leading New Testament scholar D. A. Carson brings his technical expertise to a lay level by offering a short and readable book that addresses these foundational questions through an examination of the prayers in the Pauline epistles. Carson's pastoral heart and practical insight are on display in a way that might be surprising to some since he is perhaps primarily known as an academic. Rarely are practical, popular level books written by premier scholars and built on the foundation of robust exegesis and theology. This is the kind of gem we have on our hands with A Call to Spiritual Reformation.

Birthed out of a series of seven sermons, A Call to Spiritual Reformation aims

to mingle a little bit of practical advice on praying with prolonged meditations on some of Paul's prayers. Just as God's Word must reform our theology, our ethics, and our practices, so also must it reform our praying. The chief purpose of this book, then, is to think through some of Paul's prayers, so that we may align our prayer habits with his. We want to learn what to pray for, what arguments to use, what priorities we should adopt, what beliefs should shape our prayers, and much more. (xv)

While most of the chapters address specific Pauline prayers, several address general principles: setting aside time, eliminating distractions, and developing prayer lists (chapter 1); praying for others (chapter 5); excuses for not praying such as being too busy, feeling too spiritually dry, feeling no need to pray, and being content with mediocrity (chapter 7); and the simultaneous truthfulness of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility and how this impacts prayer (chapter 9). Throughout the meditations on Paul's prayers, Carson draws out both elements unique to the different prayers as well as elements that are consistently present in Paul's prayers.

Perhaps intellectual types might be more likely to be drawn to this book—those more grounded on the Bible and more wary of seeking experience. Because Carson is a scholar and is known for his work in theology and biblical studies, his correctives to the tendencies of this camp are not only insightful but also more likely to be heeded. For example,

Because some wings of the church have appealed to experience over revelation or have talked glibly about an ill-defined 'spirituality' that is fundamentally divorced from the gospel, some of us have overreacted and begun to view all mention of experience as suspicious at best, perverse at worst. This overreaction must cease. The Scriptures themselves demand that we allow more place for experience than that. (168-169)

Carson himself acknowledges that this book is only a small offering to helping Christians grow in prayer. He reminds the reader several times that this book only covers the prayers of Paul and has not treated the vast majority of the prayers in the Bible (e.g. the prayers of key biblical characters such as Moses, the myriad of prayers in the Psalms that cover the whole range of human experience and emotion, etc.). Carson did not intend this book to be a how-to manual or a comprehensive theology of or guide to prayer, but as a series of brief meditations on the Pauline epistolary prayers. This little book is an excellent resource for anyone who desires to grow in prayer. Even those who may be in a dry spell and are struggle with the desire to pray will benefit from Carson’s meditations. He doesn't just illuminate the “right” things to pray for so that our prayers stop sounding like the cartoon above but also provides heart motivations for why we should and why we need to cultivate deep prayer lives grounded in Scripture.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Jennifer Guo counts beans by day and eats books by night. She is passionate about the gospel and loves biblical and theological studies. She also loves the arts and is part of a performing arts ministry that uses a variety of mediums to communicate the gospel, God’s heart, and His design for sexuality, relationships, and marriage. Jennifer also loves running and cooking (and not because running allows her to eat more). You can follow her @JenniferGuo and read more of her thoughts at Jennifer Guo.