Romans 1:13 Unanswered Prayer


I think most of us have heard the story of the little boy who was praying for a bicycle for Christmas. His was a poor family, so when Christmas morning came there was no bicycle. A friend of the family, who was not too sensitive about such things, said to the boy, “Well, I see God didn’t answer your prayer for a bicycle.” The boy replied, “Yes, He did; He said No.” Most of us are aware that No is an answer every bit as much as Yes. But I have always felt that the story of the little boy’s prayer doesn’t quite get to the heart of the prayer problem. To receive a bicycle might be nice, but it is clearly not essential. Nor is it spiritual. Most of us understand that when we pray for things like bicycles – a better job, more money, success in a business deal, or the resolution of certain personal problems – there is no real reason why we should expect a Yes answer. God may give what we ask for, but again He may not. We accept that. But what about prayers that really are spiritual? What about prayers that are (or at least seem to be) unselfish? What happens when these prayers are not answered? This is where the real problem with prayer lies and why the people who have trouble with it are not the novices in prayer, as we might suspect – novices do not expect much from prayer anyway – but rather the church’s mature believers. It is the saints who feel the burden of unanswered prayer. It is the godly who wrestle with it strenuously.

In the case of Paul’s prayer, recounted in Romans 1, we have a superb example of precisely this problem. Why is it such a good example? First, it is a prayer by an apostle. This doesn’t mean he is without sin, of course. Nor does it mean that all of Paul’s prayers were spiritual. Second, Paul’s prayer was a proper prayer: It is to the Father on the basis of the atoning work of Jesus Christ and, although Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, it was undoubtedly also in the Holy Spirit. There is one more thing to see about this prayer, the third item: It was a prayer for right things. Paul might have prayed for something that would only have enhanced his prestige or personal comfort; that is, he might have prayed selfishly. But that was not the case here at all. He wanted to assist in the spiritual growth and fruitfulness of the Roman believers. This was an entirely worthy and quite spiritual motive. Yet, Paul was prevented from coming. His prayer was not answered positively. Paul doesn’t suggest a reason why his prayers were unanswered, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for us to reflect on why prayers like this – including the best of our own prayers – go unanswered.

There may be several reasons why perfectly proper prayers may go unanswered and what we may learn from this. The first is: Unanswered prayer may be God’s way of teaching that we are not as necessary to the work we are praying for as we think we are. This is clear in Paul’s case. Paul had been praying that he might be permitted to travel to Rome to serve and strengthen the Roman Christians. But noble as this desire may have been, it is also clear that the believers in Rome were doing quite well without him. They were doing well without any apostle or noteworthy teacher. Paul testifies to this when he records that their strong faith was being reported on all over the world (v. 8).

The second reason why perfectly proper prayers of ours may be unanswered is that God may have other work for us to do. This seems to have been the chief (perhaps the only) reason why God did not send the great apostle to Rome earlier. Paul speaks of his ministry among the remote cities of the Gentiles as a fulfillment of Isaiah 52:15 in the fifteenth chapter of Romans. Then he adds, somewhat unexpectedly, “This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you (v. 22). Paul recognized that delay in reaching Rome was for the sake of the Christian mission elsewhere. We need to learn this too, and be content through learning it.

The third reason why our prayers may go unanswered for a time is the hardest to understand: There may be spiritual warfare of which you and I are unaware (2 Cor. 12:7, 9; Dan. 10:1-14). Spiritual battles are mysteries to us because we cannot see the warfare. But there are spiritual battles, and we need to know about them. They are an important reason why some of our prayers go unanswered.

In the last study I asked the question, “Does prayer change things or change people?” I answered, “Both.” Prayer changes things (or circumstances) because it is a God-ordained way of changing them. But prayer also (perhaps chiefly) changes people, as pointed out. It’s important that we return to that point now, because, in addition to all that has been said so far, one important reason for God not answering prayer is deficiency in us. And so, prayer needs to change us before it changes circumstances. What needs changing in us?

1)Unconfessed sin: There are more verses in the Bible saying that God will not answer prayers than there are verses that say He will, and one of the chief categories of verses that deal with unanswered prayer concerns sin. 2) Wrong motives: James spoke of this when he said, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). 3) Laziness: It is said of Elijah that he prayed “earnestly” that it would not rain and that it did not rain for three and a half years (James 5:17). Prayer was a serious business with him. One reason our prayers are not answered is that we are not really serious about them. 4) We are too busy: Sometimes we are too busy to pray “earnestly.” If we are too busy to pray, what we are really saying is that we consider the things we are doing to be more important than praying. Idols in the heart: Is an idol keeping you from having prayers answered? Is that idol a person, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a wife, a husband, your children, is it your job, your lifestyle, your social position, your worldly reputation, your image of yourself, and are you  determined above all else to be “successful”? To place anything ahead of God is idolatry! 6) Stinginess in our giving: If you do not give to the needy, God will not give to you when you ask Him for something (see Prov. 21:13). 7) Unbelief: The greatest cause of failure in our prayer, and the area in which we most need to be changed, is unbelief. If we do not believe God’s Word unquestioningly, why should we get what we pray for? Is it any surprise that our prayers are unanswered?

Here you are someone who has been praying earnestly for something for a long time and has not had an answer. As we have seen, there are numerous reasons why a positive answer may be delayed, all the way from spiritual warfare in the heavenlies to our sin or unbelief. What are to do? Should you keep on battering the brass doors of heaven with ineffectual petitions? Or should you accept God’s rejection? Should you quit praying? The answer is in Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow, which Luke tells and teaches us that we “should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). Prayer may change us. It may change history. But whatever the case, we must keep on praying! Paul kept praying, and he got to Rome eventually.

Romans 1:13 Reflection Questions:

How do you feel when your prayers go unanswered?

Have you ever realized that your prayers of being answered positively were being delayed? If so how did you respond?

Why do you think you prayers are not being answered?

Romans 1:9-12 Prayed for Constantly


This study is not a “how-to” for an effective prayer ministry. Rather, it’s a glimpse into the apostle Paul’s own prayer life – into his pattern of prayer for Christians in the growing church at Rome – and is therefore a model for us as we think about our own prayer patterns, or lack of them.

There are a number of things I want you to see about this passage, and the first is this: A strong prayer life is not the least bit inconsistent with vigorous and fervent service for the Lord. It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, of course, but we often separate the two in our thinking. We reason that some are called to be “prayer warriors” and some are called to work. Some people are called to a special ministry of prayer perhaps because of some physical handicap. Prayer warriors are needed. But this doesn’t mean that those who are active in Christian work (or any kind of work) do not also need to be strong in praying for God’s direction and blessing. Here is where the example of Paul is so helpful.

Prayer is not inconsistent with vigorous Christian activity. On the contrary, and this is the second point: Prayer directs Christian service properly. Again the apostle Paul is our model. We can think of examples of people who are engaged in Christian work but who don’t seem to be going about it in the right way. Either they use the world’s methods, which produce the world’s results. Or else their goals seem to be secular rather than truly Christian. As we read what Paul says about his prayer life in this chapter, we see that this was not the case with him. He prayed about his work, and as a result God directed it to be done in a spiritual way and for spiritual ends. He says several things about it: Paul’s service was sincere, or wholehearted; Paul’s service was gospel-centered; and Paul’s service was for others.

Prayer will overcome an undue oppression from criticism. Prayer will redirect our energies, so we will not be so tired. Prayer will strengthen us for doing what needs to be done in spite of our tiredness. Prayer will keep us from temptation.

The third point of this passage is that prayer makes the service of the praying one effective. If you are praying for someone, don’t think your prayers are ineffective just because God is not using you to fulfill the request. God has infinite means at His disposal. He may be answering your prayers by others’ service. When Paul prayed that the way might be opened for him to come to Rome, he prayed, as he tells us, that the door might be opened “by God’s will” (v. 10). That is, Paul was praying first that the will of God might be done and only secondly that he might come to Rome. Paul did get to Rome eventually. It wasn’t when he would have chosen, and it certainly wasn’t in the manner he would have chosen. But he did get there, and God did use him to reach many in the capital. Were Paul’s prayers answered? Of course, they were. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16b KJV).

There is one last thing I want you to see in this study. Not only is prayer not inconsistent with a life of active service for Jesus Christ, and not only (on the contrary) does it direct that service and make it effective – Prayer also changes the one praying so that he or she increasingly becomes the kind of person through whom God can accomplish His purpose. This was true of Paul. By temperament he was not a particularly gracious individual – at least, that is how it seems to me. In his early days he was cruel. He killed those who disagreed with him. Even after he became a Christian I’m sure he had his bad moments. He quarreled with Barnabas over John Mark, for instance. Yet how gracious he is in this letter! Paul writes of his desire to visit Rome “so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong” (v. 11). But no sooner has he said this than Paul, not desiring to set himself up above the believers at Rome as if he were somehow superior to them, immediately adds as an important qualification “that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (v. 12). That is an insight into the life of a man who had been changed by prayer and who was being used by God greatly.

Sometimes people ask, “Does prayer change things, or does prayer change people?” It is a good question, and the answer probably is “both.” Prayer does change things, since God responds to prayer and frequently alters circumstances because of it. James points to this result when he says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2b). On the other hand, I’m convinced that far more frequently God uses prayer to change us. Because by it He brings us into His presence, opens our eyes to spiritual realities, and makes His perspectives ours.

Romans 1:9-12 Reflection Questions:

How would you compare your prayer life with Paul’s?

Have you lost your desire to serve others (either secular or Christian work)? Prayer can help.

How has your prayer life changed you? Journal on it and give thanks to God!

Romans 1:8 A Reputation Worth Having


In the first chapter of Romans, in a section that is second, informal introduction to his letter (vv. 8-15), the apostle Paul speaks about a reputation that the Christians at Rome had acquired, and the important point is that he thanks God for it. Their reputation was for faith, and what Paul tells us is that their faith was being spoken about all over the world. This does not mean that every individual in every remote hamlet of the globe had heard of the faith of the Roman Christians, of course, but it does mean that their faith was becoming widely known – no doubt because other Christians were talking about it. “Do you know that there is a group of believers in Rome?” they were asking. “Have you heard how strong their faith is, how faithfully they are trying to serve Jesus Christ in that wicked city?” Since Paul begins his comment by thanking God for this reputation, it is apparent that however worthless some worldly reputations of some worldly person may be, this reputation at least was worth having. Why is a reputation for faith worth having? The text suggests four reasons.

  1. A Genuine Faith: The first reason that the reputation of the Christians at Rome was worth having is that the faith on which it was based was genuine. It was a true faith. This is an important place to begin, because there is much so-called faith that is non-biblical faith and is therefore a flawed and invalid basis for any reputation.
  2. A Contagious Faith: The second reason why the reputation for faith that the Christians at Rome had was worth having is that it was a contagious faith. I mean by this that it was a faith not merely heard of and talked about throughout the known world, but that it was also a faith picked up by and communicated to others. Because of this faith, the Roman church grew and the gospel of the Roman congregation spread.
  3. Faith That Encourages Others: There is a third reason why the reputation for faith that the church at Rome had was worth having: it was an encouragement to other believers elsewhere, including even the apostle Paul himself. In verse 12 Paul speaks of this as an anticipated outcome of his proposed trip to Rome: “that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” That expectation was still future. But Paul could look forward to it and speak so confidently of its happening because reports of the Roman Christians” faith had undoubtedly already been a source of encouragement to him.
  4. Faith: The Central Item: The last reason why the reputation of the Christians at Rome was worth having is that faith, and not some other attainment or virtue, is the essential item in life. Faith in Jesus Christ is what matters. Knowledge is good; Christianity considers knowledge quite important. Good works are necessary; without them we have no valid reason for believing that an individual is saved. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23) – is essential. But faith alone – faith in Christ as Lord and Savior – is essential. For “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6a). Without faith no one can be justified.

I wonder if we have the spirit of the apostle at this point. Is this the way we actually evaluate other Christian works and testimony? I think we evaluate other works first on the basis of size. When we hear of a church that has ten thousand members, we are ten times more impressed than if we learn of a church that has only one hundred members. Let me be clear, I’m not against large churches. I’m glad for them; large churches can do things smaller churches cannot do. We may thank God for numerical growth, but what we should be especially thankful for is strong faith. Is this what we modern Christians are known for; strong faith? Is our faith, like the faith of the Roman church of Paul’s day, spoken through-out the world?

Another thing we do is evaluate Christian work on the basis of programs. The more the better! Or, the more original the better, particularly if the people involved can write a book about it! Again, I’m not against programs. Right programs are for the sake of the people and rightly minister to them. But is this the proper way to evaluate churches? Do programs prove God’s blessings? You know the answer to that. I don’t think the fledgling, first-century church at Rome had many programs, certainly not the kind of things we mean by programs. But it was a famous church – and rightly so. For it was known for what was essential, which is faith! Is that what we are known for? Do people say to us, “How strong is their faith in God and in Jesus Christ”?

I think we are also impressed by big budgets and big buildings. Again, I’m not against either budgets or buildings. Without adequate financing many worthwhile Christian works cannot be done, and without adequate meeting spaces much important activity is hindered. Still, a proper concern for budgets and buildings is quite different from evaluating a work on the basis of how large the budget is or how spacious and modern the church structure has become. The Roman church of Paul’s day probably just met in people’s houses. Yet it was a church whose faith was known throughout the world. Are we known for that? Or is the best thing that other Christians can say about us is that we have a seven-figure budget or impressive church structures?

Faith really is the essential thing, not members or programs, not budgets or buildings. It is by faith that we “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). The apostle John said “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

Romans 1:8 Reflection Questions:

What is your reputation in the world? What is the reputation of your church from your community? What will you do to enhance that reputation for God’s glory?

What is your definition of a genuine faith? Is it biblically based?

What do you think people are saying about your church? Is it strong in faith?

Romans 1:6-7 Paul’s View of the Roman Believers

There was a great deal of travel in the ancient world, much more than we might suppose. Rome was the center of these comings and goings. Undoubtedly, people who had been brought to Christ as a result of Paul’s Gentile mission went to and from Rome, and many undoubtedly settled there. This would explain how Paul came to know as many of the Roman Christians as he did, and it would explain why Paul wasn’t hesitant to write to this church to seek its prayer support for his trip to Jerusalem as well as its financial backing for his projected missionary excursion to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 30-31). It would also explain why, although the church was undoubtedly composed of both Jews and Gentiles, Paul writes to these believers largely as Gentiles. We see this as early as verse 6, where the phrase naturally picks up from the description of Paul’s commission in verse 5: “to call people from among all the Gentiles.”

The interesting thing about the end of this introduction to the letter is what it tells us about the spiritual origins of these people. Here is a group of people who were in the midst of a corrupt pagan society, yet were entirely different from the mainstream. How did they get to be different? How did they become Christians? In these verses Paul tells us four important things about the early church at Rome.

1.       The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, were called to belong to Jesus Christ. This is a general description of Christians, which is different from the similar phrase “called to be saints” that occurs in the next verse. What does it mean? Some people have read verse 6 as if it were describing Christians as people “called by Jesus Christ,” because the Greek can be translated that way. But the NIV is undoubtedly correct when it inserts the words “to belong to.” The sense is not that Jesus has called Christians – that is a work usually attributed to God the Father – but rather that, as a result of God’s calling, Christians are attracted to Jesus and have their true life in that relationship. A Christian is one who belongs to Jesus Christ. That is what makes him or her different and why such a one inevitably seeks the company of others who also belong to Jesus. Does this describe you? Do you belong to Jesus Christ? If you do, you will live like it. If you do not, you are no true Christian, regardless of your outward profession.

2.       The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, were loved by God the Father. God’s love is an electing, saving love. So the statement “loved by God” actually describes how those who are Christians come to belong to the Lord Jesus Christ in the first place. Some think that people become believers by their own unaided choice, as if all we have to do is decide to trust Jesus. But how could we possibly do that if, as we have seen Paul say, each of us is “dead in…transgressions and sins”? How can a dead man decide anything? Some have supposed that we become Christians because God in His omniscience sees some small bit of good in us, even if that “good” is only a tiny seed of faith. But how could God see good in us if, as Paul will later remind us: “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Rom. 3:12). Why then does God love us? The answer is “because He loves us.” There is just nothing to be said beyond that. It is love and love only. The most important thing is that God has loved us. Therefore, we should love and serve Him.

3.       The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, were called to be believers by God. Here is the same idea that occurs earlier in the phrase “called to belong to Jesus Christ”; but although the meaning of the verb is the same, the emphasis here is different. In the earlier phrase the emphasis was on what is means to be a Christian. A Christian is one who belongs to Jesus Christ; this is his identity. Here the emphasis is on the call itself, and it is a follow-up to the truth that Christians have been loved by God. First loved; then called. Left to ourselves, we are all spiritual corpses. We cannot do anything. But when God calls savingly, some of these spiritual corpses come to spiritual life and do God’s bidding. Anyone who has been saved by God has heard this call in some way and has responded to it.

4.       The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, are called saints. Here “saint” does not mean what it has come to mean in large sectors of the Christian church: one who has attained a certain level of holiness and is therefore worthy of some special veneration or even hearing human prayers. In the Bible, being a saint or being sanctified always means being separated to God and His work, precisely what Paul said of himself in verse 1 in the words “set apart for the gospel of God.” Having been loved by God and called by Him, to live for Him and work for Him in this world. This is why the faith of the Roman Christians was “being reported all over the world,” as Paul says it was in verse 8. Because they had been called by God and were separated to Him, these believers were different from the culture around them; and people noticed it! Their being saints was not the cause but the result of their election.

The one who has been loved and called by God does obey God and does follow after Him. Yet this involves struggle. It requires the grace and peace of God each step of the rugged upward way. When Paul closes his introduction with the wish that the believers at Rome might experience “grace and peace…from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not merely passing on a traditional Christian greeting. He is wishing them what they, and we also, need every day we remain on this planet. We have been saved by grace. We must live by grace also. Just as we live moment by moment by moment by drawing on His favor. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b); and peace? We always need peace, for these are not peaceful times. Only fools think them peaceful. These are troublesome times. But those who are in Christ and are drawing on Him for their strength live peacefully in the midst of them.

I close with Paul’s own prayer for those great Roman Christians: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” What great gifts these are! What a wonderful and inexhaustible source of supply!

Romans 1:6-7 Reflection Questions:

What Psalm is Paul quoting in Romans 3:12?

How are you loving and serving God, because He loved you first? How are you responding to God’s call?

Do people today notice the difference in those who profess to be Christians? Do they see a difference in you?

Are you drawing on Jesus Christ for your strength to get you through these troublesome times we are all going through?