One night recently, I was praying with my three-year-old before bed and I concluded the prayer like I always do: “in Jesus’ name, amen.” When we finished praying, she asked, “Why do you say, ‘in Jesus’ name, amen?’” It was a good question—not just for a child, but for an adult—and it got me thinking.
The idea appears in John 14-16, where Jesus said at least three times in a prolonged address to His disciples the night before His crucifixion that they were to pray in His name. Jesus explained, among other matters, that the only way to access God the Father is by having a personal relationship with His Son (John 14:6). In that context, He taught that only those who know and love Him can have fellowship with the Father through prayer.
The New Testament epistles explain in greater detail the nature of believers’ access to God. Though sin once separated us from Him, we “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). When Jesus died on the cross, God placed the sin of humanity on Him and poured out on Him the judgment that sinners deserve (2 Corinthians 5:21). All who place their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior are reconciled to God; Christ’s death “killed the hostility” that God once felt toward them because of their sin (Ephesians 2:16).
When Christians pray “in Jesus’ name,” it is an admission that we only have standing to speak with the Father because Jesus granted it to us. It’s a bit like a police officer yelling at a criminal, “Stop in the name of the law,” or a royal servant telling the king’s subjects, “In the name of the king, I declare that everyone must pay their taxes.” The police officer derives his standing to act from the law, and the royal servant derives his from the king. To end a prayer, “I ask these things in Jesus’ name, amen,” is an admission that we have no authority to make requests of God the Father apart from the authority granted to us by His Son.
Of course, praying in Jesus’ name does not guarantee that God will always answer our prayers in the affirmative. Sometimes our all-wise Father knows it is best to take a loved one home to heaven despite our prayers for healing. Sometimes He knows that an opportunity we hope will materialize would lead to our ruin. Sometimes He disciplines us for sin by causing our prayers to be hindered (e.g., 1 Peter 3:7). Yet even when God’s will does not align with our specific requests, or when our sin inhibits the effectiveness of our prayers, He hears our petitions and offers us an intimate relationship with Him through Jesus.
With somewhat predictable regularity, evangelical leaders stir controversy by saying that God does not hear the prayers of non-Christians. Such remarks are often ill-timed or carelessly stated, and certainly an omniscient God is aware of all the prayers offered by all humans. Nevertheless, such statements touch on a foundational spiritual truth: Because of our sin, no one has standing to speak with God as a personal friend. Only “in Jesus’ name” can anyone bridge the infinite gap between a holy God and sinful humanity.