Campbellism vs. Prayer

By Wayne Wells

In the early 1800s Alexander Campbell had a noble goal of returning to the teachings of the Bible as the only source of authority in religion. As he attempted to turn from all human doctrines to follow only God’s will, he and other like-minded men diligently studied the Scriptures as they re-examined their old beliefs and developed new ones. Alexander Campbell’s scholarship was highly respected by his contemporaries and his influence is still seen in churches today.

As Campbell studied the Scriptures, he made some mistakes along the way. One of his errors was his misunderstanding of the nature of the work of the church. In 1849 he became the first president of the American Missionary Society. In this position, he influenced many to accept the concept that churches can build other institutions to do the work God commanded the church to accomplish. This error is still causing much division among churches today. Another error was his acceptance of postmillennialism and his belief that the millennium was about to begin.

Many who share in Campbell’s goal to practice New Testament Christianity have avoided some of his errors. Unfortunately, another misunderstanding by Campbell still has widespread influence on churches today. Campbell spent much time combating Calvinism, including the false doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. As he fought the extreme positions some took on the Holy Spirit, he made the common mistake of going too far in the other direction. Those who taught the direct operation of the Holy Spirit claimed the Spirit falls on individuals to miraculously convert them and make them a new creature. Campbell correctly understood conversion takes place when a person hears the Word of God, and willingly submits to its teaching by being baptized into Christ through faith. He knew there was no example anywhere in the Bible of anyone becoming a child of God by the direct operation of the Spirit. All cases of conversion in the Bible involved a person hearing the Word of God and using their free will to obey the gospel.

Campbell was correct in understanding the Spirit uses the Word in conversion instead of directly operating on men to change them, but he went a step further by saying that the Spirit works only through the Word. Some have pointed to apparent changes in Campbell’s writings that indicate he modified his positions as he continued to study throughout his life, which is a common experience for all who study God’s Word. Whichever position Campbell finally took, his writings have influenced many today to hold positions on the work of the Spirit that are closer to the Sadducees than the teaching of the apostles.

The Campbell-Rice debate

In 1843, Campbell debated Nathan Rice, a Presbyterian minister. One of the debate propositions Campbell affirmed was, “In conversion and sanctification, the Spirit of God operates on persons only through the Word.”

The following quotes from this debate reveal Campbell’s belief that the only influence the Spirit has on man in conversion and sanctification is through the influence of His revealed Word.

“If, then, I prove that conversion, or sanctification, is effected by the Word of Truth at all, I prove that it is a moral change, and, consequently, accomplished by the Holy Spirit, through the Word alone.”

Campbell-Rice Debate, pg. 613.

“Now, as Jesus, the Messiah, in the work of mediation, operates through his blood; so the Holy Spirit, in his official agency, operates through his Word and its ordinances. And thus we have arrived at the proper consideration of our proposition, to wit: In conversion and sanctification, the Holy Spirit operates only through the Word of Truth.”

Campbell-Rice Debate, pgs. 616-617.

“All the motives, arguments, and persuasions of the Holy Spirit are found in the record. He uses no other in the work of conversion, or in the work of sanctification." Sanctify them through thy truth." "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul." So far as moral influence is concerned there is none besides, none beyond this.”

Campbell-Rice Debate, pg. 644.

“And when we think of the power of the Spirit of God exerted upon minds or human spirits, it is impossible for us to imagine, that that power can consist in any thing else but words or arguments.”

Campbell-Rice Debate, pg. 717.

The teaching of Alexander Campbell has been repeated by many. As an example, nearly a century later in the Hardeman-Bogard Debate in 1938, N. B. Hardeman said, “But how does the Spirit operate? That is the question. My answer, first, last and all the time, is that He influences through the gospel, which is God’s power.”

This teaching still greatly influences churches of Christ today. Some have gone so far as to deny God’s work in the lives of men in any way besides the influence of the Word.

Modern preachers among churches of Christ

In an email exchange, one preacher from a western state claimed the only thing Christians can ask from God is the forgiveness of sins. He said we can thank God for what He already created but cannot ask Him to do anything else or that would be a miracle. He wrote, “No, I do not believe in any kind of material or spiritual providence by God, Christ nor the Holy Spirit in this day and age.”

In a conversation, several preachers from a northern state claimed the only way God can influence nations is by His Word. They said the citizens will either obey or reject the Scriptures. If they obey, they will be honest and hard working so the nation will prosper. If they reject the Scriptures, they will be lazy and dishonest and cause the nation to crumble, and this is the only influence God has over the nations today!

Such Biblical ignorance and perversions are breathtaking in their implications. How did a people become so ignorant of the hand of the Lord? God asked Israel, “Is My hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?” (Isaiah 50:2). They had no faith that God worked in their lives. The lack of understanding today proves again there is no new thing under the sun.

Although there are many ways this subject can be addressed, for now, let us only consider the Bible’s teaching on prayer. Is God’s influence really limited to just our response to His Word? If so, why pray? When we pray, are we not asking God to cause something to happen that would not have happened if we had not asked? If we pray, and God answers our prayer, is this not God’s influence in addition to the Word?

Prayer for joy, peace and hope

In Romans 15:13, Paul recorded a prayer he offered God. He wrote,

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Why did Paul make this request? Could it be that he actually believed God could do something about his prayer? How did Paul expect God to fill the brethren with joy and peace so they might abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit? He does not provide any details, but he has faith to pray to God and ask Him to do something. If this was accomplished only through the Word, Paul would have told the Romans to keep studying until they are filled with joy, peace and hope. By praying, Paul proved he did not believe this would be accomplished by the Word alone, but through additional work by God. Romans 14:19 tells us to “pursue the things which make for peace,” which is our responsibility. While we pursue peace, we pray to God and ask Him to fill us with joy, peace and hope in addition to our obedience to the Word.

Prayer for strength

In Ephesians 3:14-16, we can read of another prayer Paul offered in behalf of his brethren. There, he wrote,

“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man.”

Why did Paul pray for God to strengthen his brethren through His Spirit? What did he expect God to do if the only way the Father and Spirit can influence us is by the Word? Why didn’t Paul just command the Ephesians to study until they were made strong?

Of course we become strong through our study of God’s Word, but Paul was not content for the Ephesians to be only strengthened by their own effort. He also prayed for God to work in their lives through His Spirit and help them to be stronger than they would have been if he had not prayed. In Ephesians 3:1-5 Paul wrote of the importance of reading the Scriptures. This is essential if we are to understand God’s mystery. In addition to reading the Word, Paul knew his brethren needed prayers for the Spirit of God to work in their lives.

Prayer for sanctification

The Bible tells us we are sanctified by the Word. If we are set apart as God’s servants only through the Word, then would there be any reason to pray for sanctification? Paul saw a need. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, he prayed,

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.”

Are we sanctified by the Word? Of course! (John 17:17) Are we sanctified by the Word alone like Campbell taught? If so, why did Paul pray for the Thessalonians to be sanctified? Why didn’t he just command the Thessalonians to study diligently so they would be sanctified through the Word alone?

How did Paul expect God to answer his prayer? Nothing is said in 1 Thessalonians but there is an indication in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. There, Paul wrote, “God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter also taught that Christians are the elect “in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2).

Both of these passages speak of two aspects of our salvation. One part is our “belief in the truth” and our obedience. The other part is God’s part which includes the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus” and the “sanctification by (of) the Spirit”. We must fulfill our responsibility by believing and obeying the truth. God fulfills His promises by sanctifying and renewing us by His Spirit. Our sanctification is not just the result of our study of the Word as Campbell taught, nor is it just the work of the Spirit as the Calvinists teach. It is the two working together.

The Bible speaks of sanctification in two senses. In one sense, sanctification takes place when we are baptized into Christ. At that time we are set apart as God’s special people. The Corinthians were both washed and sanctified in the past when they became Christians (1 Cor. 6:11). In another sense, our sanctification is an ongoing process that continues throughout our entire lives as we pursue holiness (Heb. 12:14). This process includes all our spiritual growth as we continue to put to death the old man and put on the new man that is in the image of our Lord. The Holy Spirit revealed the Word to guide us and teach us what we must do during our lives of increasing sanctification. At the same time, the Word reveals numerous prayers that are offered to God that seek His help in addition to the influence of the Word.

Prayer for love and strength in holiness

As we grow in sanctification, the Scriptures teach us we should pray to God for help. In 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, Paul recorded his prayer for the brethren. He wrote,

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Growing in love is certainly part of our sanctification as we become more like our God who is love. We learn love as we read in the Word how God first loved us. We also have an approved apostolic example of praying for God to help us grow in love. If reading the Word is all there is, why didn’t Paul just write to the Thessalonians and command them to grow in love? Why did he pray for God to help them? What did he expect God to do about it? Whatever Paul was expecting, he was expecting God to act in addition to the influence of the Word. Why else would he be praying for God to do something?

Not only did Paul ask God to help the Thessalonians to grow in love, he asked for God to “establish your hearts blameless in holiness.” “Establish” is translated from sterizo, which is sometimes translated “strengthen.” Paul was asking God to help the brethren to grow stronger in holiness which is part of our sanctification. No detail is given in this passage on how God will answer this prayer, but the request is similar to the prayer in Ephesians 3:14-16 where Paul prayed for brethren to “be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man.” Paul was clearly not a follower of Alexander Campbell’s teaching that God’s influence is only through the Word. Otherwise, why did he offer these prayers?

Prayer for love and patience

In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he told them of other prayers being made on their behalf. In 3:5 he said,

Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ.”

This prayer for their hearts to be directed into the love of God was similar to his first prayer, but this time he was also praying for God to help them develop patience. Of course we get patience from the Scriptures (Rom 15:4), but if that is all there is, why did Paul ask God to direct their hearts into the patience of Christ? When we pray, are we not asking God to do something that would not have happened if we had not prayed? Is this not in addition to the influence of the Word? If not, why did Paul bother to pray?

Prayer for peace

In 2 Thessalonians 3:16, Paul also prayed,

“May the Lord of peace Himself give you peace always in every way.”

We have peace when we study the truths found in God’s Word, but in addition to this, we also have an approved apostolic example to pray for peace in addition to our study of the Scriptures. Paul was not asking the Lord to give peace through the Word. He asked the Lord Himself to give peace to the Thessalonians.

Prayer for love and discernment

Paul’s prayer for the Philippians was,

“That your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11).

Not only did he pray that they would grow in love like the Thessalonians, he also prayed they would grow in discernment so they could approve the things that are excellent. This is similar to James telling Christians to pray for themselves when he wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Why did Paul pray for God to help the Philippians to grow in discernment? Why did James instruct Christians to pray for wisdom? If God can only influence us through the Word, then why should anyone bother to pray for wisdom for either themselves or others? Wouldn’t it be more productive to command Christians to study more instead of wasting their time offering prayers that will not be answered?

In a conversation, a preacher in a southern state who believes God works only through the Word was asked about James 1:5. He said the only way we can grow wiser is though studying the Word which gives wisdom, therefore, God will not help us be wiser when we pray for wisdom. He was asked, “Do you pray for wisdom?” He answered, “Yes.” He was then asked, “Why do you pray for wisdom?” He answered, “Because God told us to pray.” His acceptance of Campbell’s teaching has forced him into a position where he admits God tells us to pray for wisdom, but then says God will not answer the prayer after we pray! He said God will not help us be wiser when we pray for wisdom in obedience to the Word, because God only works through the Word! This man cannot pray in faith. James 1:6-7 says, But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” How can he pray for wisdom in faith after accepting the idea that God works only through the Word? Since his prayers for wisdom are not offered in faith, he has received no wisdom.

The fact that we gain wisdom though God’s help in addition to us studying the Word is taught in 2 Timothy 2:7. Paul told Timothy, “Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things.” Like Timothy, we must consider the words of the apostle Paul. When we read his words, we can understand his knowledge in the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:3-4). In addition to considering Paul’s words, we also have his example of praying to God to help us have understanding as we study.

This is similar to David saying in Psalm 119:98, “You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies.” In the same Psalm, David also prayed to God, “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law” (119:18). How did David gain wisdom? Was it through God’s Word or prayer? It was both, just as we need both today.

Paul’s prayer for the Colossians

Paul prayed for the brethren in Colosse that they may,

“Be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy” (Colossians 1:9-11).

Compare this prayer to Campbell’s claim that God can influence our spirit only through words. If his claim is true, why did Paul offer this prayer? When Paul prayed for the Colossians to grow in wisdom and strength, was he expecting God to do something in response to his prayer? If wisdom and strength only come through the Word, why didn’t Paul just tell the Colossians they needed to study more? Why did Paul pray? Was Paul not asking God to cause something to happen that would not have happened if he had not prayed?

Prayer for unbelievers

Paul even taught that prayers should be offered for those who do not serve God nor care about His Word. He told Timothy that,

“supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

What is God going to do for kings and those who are in authority? Does not the Word tell us, “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1)? Why should we be surprised when the Word instructs us to pray for God to turn the hearts of kings? This includes men like Nero who was emperor when Paul wrote to Timothy. Some try to evade this simple teaching by saying God influences kings only through events that take place. Even if this is granted, how did God cause the events to take place? Somewhere, God must be influencing men to do His will in ways that are in addition to His revealed Word. Our Lord is still Lord of lords and King of kings and does as He pleases among the nations of men (Daniel 4:35).

Prayer to do God’s will

The writer of Hebrews also understood these principles when he prayed,

Now may the God of peace… make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 13:20-21).

Being “made complete” is part of our sanctification as we grow in maturity in Christ. Alexander Campbell taught we are sanctified only through the Word. The Hebrew writer taught we are also sanctified by God’s help through prayer in addition to the Word. Which one do you believe?

As we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we know, “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Peter’s prayer

Peter also understood our sanctification involved more than just us obeying the Word. After warning Christians that Satan goes about as a roaring lion, he wrote,

Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (1 Peter 5:9-11).

It is our responsibility to resist the devil. God will not do this for us but He does not leave us alone. After we faithfully endure suffering, Peter added the prayer for God to “perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle” the brethren. All of these terms refer to different aspects of our growth in sanctification in the Lord. If our sanctification is only through the Word as Campbell taught, then why did Peter offer this prayer to God? Why didn’t Peter just tell the brethren to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, to resist the devil? Peter never denied the need to take up the Spirit’s sword. He, like Paul, knew we also must be “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” because we need God’s help in addition to our effort to be obedient to the Word (Eph. 6:18).

Which is it? Is it our personal effort that keeps us faithful or God’s help? Speaking of our responsibility to grow, Peter commands us to “be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10). At the same time, following an approved apostolic example, we pray for God to “perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle” us, “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

Prayer for boldness

Paul asked the Ephesians to be,

“praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit… for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:18-20).

Bold speech was not a miracle that Paul was going to perform but was God’s answer to the prayers of brethren. Was not Paul asking his brethren to pray for God to influence his mind so he could speak better than he would have if they had not prayed? This is not a prayer to be influenced by the Word but by God Himself.

This is similar to the modern prayer often made in churches for God to give the speaker a “ready recollection of the things which he studied.” God is not going to impart knowledge to one who has not studied, but there is nothing wrong in asking God to help us remember and think clearer than we would have if we did not ask for help. Sometimes brethren pray today as Paul requested to help speakers speak boldly as they ought to speak. How can we then turn around and say that God does not influence our thinking except through the Word? Campbell’s teaching is as inconsistent with the Scripture as some of the errors he rightly opposed.

Prayer for unity

Paul prayed for the Romans that God may,

“grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6).

We know our Lord commands us many times in His Word to love one another and be united. Paul was not content to just tell the Romans to obey these commands. In addition to their responsibility, he prayed for God to help them be united. Why pray if God is not going to do something about it?

Too often, the condition of the church is similar to the time of Isaiah when God chastened His people for their sin. Instead of brethren dwelling in unity (Ps. 133:1), Isaiah warned, “Manasseh shall devour Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh; together they shall be against Judah. For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 9:21). Many brethren who have accepted Campbell’s error have concluded that the only way God can chasten us is through the Word. As a result, they do not consider that all the division and internal strife could be the work of the Lord in response to our worldliness, compromise, and lack of faith in His mighty hand. Division can come for many reasons and the Scriptures warn us there must be division (1 Cor. 11:19). Whenever it does come, it is a time to examine ourselves to see if it could be God’s chastening hand. Another truth that speaks of God’s ability to work in addition to the Word is found in Proverbs 16:7 where the Word tells us, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”


We must seek the Lord and desire His will, which is revealed only through the Word. As we read the perfect revelation of God, we need to pay attention to the many prayers that are recorded. Just as Solomon prayed for God to “incline our hearts to Himself” (1 Kg. 8:58) and as David prayed, “Incline my heart to Your testimonies” (Ps. 119:36), we, too, must pray for God’s help in everything we do as we grow in sanctification in the Lord.

If people consistently apply the error that God works only through the Word, they will become faithless and prayerless. They will not be able to glorify God because without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5), and will be fruitless because only God can give the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). When God’s people reject the work of the Spirit we should not be surprised when there is a lack of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

God reveals His truth to both sinners and saints only through the Word, but for those who seek, He will help them find, for those who knock, He will open.

(Wayne Wells preaches in Texarkana, TX. He is the webmaster for and can be contacted at

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