Book Review: “Power Through Prayer” by E.M. Bounds (1913)

“To be little with God is to be little for God.” (56)

I came to this inspiring prayer devotional while trudging through one of my own all-too-common periods of spiritual anemia. The devotions remain, the studies continue, the conversations flow, and the teaching seems to be as fulfilling as ever: and yet through it all, I’ve lost the passion and need for prayer. It might start my morning. It occasionally meets my noon. If our duties coincide and we go to bed at the same time, prayer with my wife might send us to sleep. But it’s rare, it’s light-years away from “without ceasing,” and its depth is nothing more than getting my feet wet in the kiddie pool. Prayer as God intended has absent from my life lately, so E.M. Bound’s Power Through Prayer has been precisely the kick in the spiritual pants that I needed.

Though Bounds has written many short volumes such as this on the topic of prayer, this particular work focuses almost exclusively on the power of prayer required in a preacher’s life and ministry. By opening his book with a bitter condemnation of the church’s spiritual status quo (especially as led by studied preachers who simply do not pray enough), Bounds strikes at the very heart of my own problem, convicting me line-by-line, blow-by-blow. In fact, his unique style of authoring trite points of red-hot wisdom makes this book seem as if it were a published collection of the man’s most popular Tweets, only a century ahead of its time. Here are a number of my favorites, covering the key topics of preaching and prayer:

“Your sermons last but an hour or two; your life preaches all the week.” (2)
“The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer.” (3)
“It takes twenty years to make a sermon, because it takes twenty years to make the man. The true sermon is a thing of life. The sermon grows because the man grows. The sermon is forceful because the man is forceful. The sermon is holy because the man is holy. The sermon is full of the divine unction because the man is full of the divine unction.” (3)
“Our being with God is of use only as we expend its priceless benefits on men.” (12)
“Preachers who are great thinkers, great students must be the greatest of prayers, or else they will be the greatest of backsliders, heartless professionals, rationalistic, less than the least of preachers in God’s estimate.” (12)
“Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still.” (14)
“The preachers who are the mightiest in their closets with God are the mightiest in their pulpits with men.” (17)
“A prepared heart is much better than a prepared sermon. A prepared heart will make a prepared sermon.” (35)
“Short devotions are the bane of deep piety.” (55)

While I certainly feasted on this short volume for how it ought to change me and impact my own prayer life, I also couldn’t help but read it as a student and teacher desiring to share its truths with others. As such, I came across two issues that I couldn’t fully agree with, despite Bounds’ inspiring flowery language: the description of unction and the ineffectiveness of Truth.

Regarding the necessity of unction on the preacher’s ministry (1John 2), I had to wonder why Bounds didn’t discuss the power of the Holy Spirit more than he did.

“What of unction? It is the indefinable in preaching which makes it preaching. It is that which distinguishes and separates preaching from all mere human addresses. It is the divine in preaching. It makes the preaching sharp to those who need sharpness. It distills as the dew to those who need to he refreshed.” (43)
“In the Christian system unction is the anointing of the Holy Ghost.” (44)
“Unction in the preacher puts God in the gospel. Without the unction, God is absent, and the gospel is left to the low and unsatisfactory forces that the ingenuity, interest, or talents of men can devise to enforce and project its doctrines.” (45)

Cleary this “indefinable” and “divine” is the very power of the Holy Spirit, yet Bounds hints at this Truth only these few times. What prevents him from declaring why our weak and human prayers can have any effect on God at all? Why does he prefer to dwell mostly in the realm of the mysterious, emphasizing fully our duties and not enough God’s grace in fulfilling our pitiful efforts with the power of His Spirit? Granted, Ephesians 5:18 suggests that the Indwelling Spirit is not automatically the Controlling Spirit, and we all must personally commit to handing that control over to Him by making less of ourselves and more of Christ. Yet at the same time, my commitment will always be sorely insufficient. The Indwelling Holy Spirit isn’t a powerless God requiring my efforts, and it’s hard for me to believe that His power depends on my faultless commitment or (more on topic) that His influence on the hearts of others under my preaching is limited to the strength or weakness of my prayer life that week.

I am in no way dogging the importance prayer in the life of a preacher! After all, the convicting words from Bounds throughout this book have proven to be the very truths I’ve needed to hear. Yet John 15 makes it clear that as I abide in the Vine (maintain that powerful prayer life), His power flows through me in order to produce fruit in my life. My failure to abide in the Vine only results in a lack of fruit on my “branch,” not at all a loss of power in the Vine.

This leads me to the second issue, that of Bounds’ apparent belief in the ineffectiveness of Truth without the backing of prayer:

“Even divine truth has no life-giving energy alone; it must be energized by the Spirit, with all God’s forces at its back. Truth unquickened by God’s Spirit deadens as much as, or more than, error.” (7)
“A prayerless Christian will never learn God’s truth; a prayerless ministry will never be able to teach God’s truth. Ages of millennial glory have been lost by a prayerless Church. The coming of our Lord has been postponed indefinitely by a prayerless Church. Hell has enlarged herself and filled her dire caves in the presence of the dead service of a prayerless Church.” (50)
“Preaching never edifies a prayerless soul. Christ knows nothing of prayerless Christians. The gospel cannot be projected by a prayerless preacher.” (52)

Again, it seems to me that God’s power or desire or willingness to impact my heart with His Truth is not dependent foremost on the strength of my own prayer life, but rather on His boundless love, mercy, and grace. Hebrews 4:12 states explicitly that the Word of God is more powerful than anything, including my own failures, and is able to pierce beyond those failures to turn them into triumphs. John 16:13 informs us that it’s His Spirit Who accomplishes this, so why Bounds thinks it pertinent to limit the power of the Spirit and His Word to match the level of our own prayer efforts, I’m simply not sure.

Despite these two issues, Power through Prayer is an intensely convicting book that will drive any honest preacher or layman back to his knees. The force of prayer on one’s own ministry or on the ministry under which he sits is immense, and the lessons reviewed in this book are essential. Just make sure that this prayer force comes not from a mysterious “indefinable” but rather from a deep relationship with the Living God.

©2016 E.T.

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