May, 2017

Prayer – John Calvin

The namesake of the theological movement known as Calvinism was the French-Reformer John Calvin. John Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509. At the age of 14, he began training for the Roman Catholic priesthood, but by 1527 Calvin had been influenced by the Reformation and left the Roman Catholic church. He began to study law, but eventually found his way back to theology. In 1536 John Calvin fled Catholic France and began to travel to Strasbourg, where he hoped to live a quiet life of study and writing. Due to war between Francis I and Charles V, Calvin detoured through the Swiss city of Geneva. In Geneva Calvin was approached by William Farel, who had heard that Calvin was in town. Farel asked, pleaded, and compelled Calvin to remain in Geneva to pastor the church. Calvin eventually agreed and remained in Geneva ministering alongside of Farel. In addition to lecturing, teaching, preaching, and other pastoral duties, Calvin wrote theological works. His Institutes of the Christian Religion were first published in 1536 and then revised in 1539 and 1543, with a final edition appearing in 1559. Calvin composed several catechisms (1537, 1538, & 1545) for the instruction of the people of Geneva. He also wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible.

Calvin’s Catechisms and his Institutes have much to say on the topic of prayer. The Catechisms each progress through the basics of the Christian faith, principally as laid out in the Apostles’ Creed. Through this basic faith, we are given hope. And hope leads us to prayer. “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things that faith believed to have been truly promised by God” (Calvin’s Catechism 1538). Prayer then is “the invocation of God in all one’s needs” (CC 1545). Faith, hope, and prayer are all linked. Hope begins with the realization that one’s current resources are insufficient. People do not hope for what they already possess, but they hope for what is not. Prayer is a vocalizing (inwardly or outwardly) of those needs to God. The first part of prayer, therefore, is neediness. Man should see how needy he is and then call out to God. “Prayer is a communication between God and us whereby we expound to him our desires, our joys, our sighs, in a word, all the thoughts of our hearts” (CC 1537). There are two things that then move us toward prayer. The first is God’s Word. We are instructed and commanded to pray. Second, there is the promise in which God assures us that we shall obtain everything we ask in accordance with his will. And this prayer is expressed in two types of prayer, either a request of God or a thanksgiving to God.

Calvin’s instruction in prayer is expanded in his 1545 Catechism, but that instruction is even further expanded in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes are a systematic theology covering God the Creator (Book 1), The Redeemer in Christ (Book 2), Grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit (Book 3), and the Church (Book 4). Book 3 chapter 20 is Calvin’s most extended treatment on prayer. In it Calvin explains the nature and value of prayer before giving four practical rules on how to pray. “Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many good ways the exercise of prayer is profitable. In prayer we invoke the presence of his providence, his power, and his goodness. It is by prayer we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us” (Institutes 3.20.2).

The first rule for prayer is that it must be approached with all due reverence. There should be a devout detachment from carnal and worldly concerns. Free up time and space so that you can pray undistracted. And ask God for things that are appropriate. It is imprudent to ask God for “whatever dreams have struck your fancy.” But because our wills are wholly unable to do this, we are to seek the Holy Spirit as an aide.

The second rule is that pray from a sincere sense of want, and with penitence. We must acknowledge that we are insufficient and need God’s provision. The primary need we have is of forgiveness for our sins. “Lawful prayer, therefore, demands repentance. Only sincere worshipers of God pray aright and are heard. Let each one, therefore, as he prepares to pray be displeased with his own evil deeds, and let him take the person and disposition of a beggar” (3.20.7).

The third rule is that we yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon. We come as humble suppliants for mercy. We must abandon all thoughts of our own glory and look to God alone. The plea for forgiveness is the most important part of prayer. We should expect nothing from God until we are reconciled to him.

The fourth rule is that we pray with a confident hope. Hope and faith overcome fear. We pray under two emotions, an anxious groaning under present concerns and worries and confident hope in the refuge of God. But by faith, we believe that God will give what is asked. We believe that God will actually answer prayer. “If we would pray fruitfully, we ought to grasp with both hands the assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins to his own voice, and all the saints teach by their example” (3.20.12). We are commanded to pray. We are promised great blessings if we pray. We would, therefore, be foolish not to pray.


Prayer – Reformed Confessions – 2

The Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries are a treasure trove for studying the development of various Reformed doctrines. One should note, however, that the Reformed faith as it was developing in those centuries was not monolithic. The Reformers were bumping up against a variety of issues that were specific to their particular time and place in history. Yet in their various circumstances there are consistent threads that run throughout. The issues of sola Scriptura and the authority of the church were consistently addressed in the Reformed Confessions. These matters have a direct bearing on the third and fourth questions we will address as we look at the Reformed Confessions and prayer. To whom are we to pray? And for what are we to pray?

To whom are we to pray? The Tetrapolitan Confession, the first truly Reformed confession, stated that prayer is “a lifting up of the mind to God, and such conversation with him that no other thing so greatly inflames man with heavenly affections and more mightily conforms the mind to God’s will.” Prayer is to be made to God and only to God. William Farel’s Summary of Christian Doctrine expresses a similar sentiment. “It is necessary then that our heart address itself to God as our good Father, and that one prays to Him alone. For prayer is the true sacrifice of praise: by which one gives honor and glory to God, to Him alone we have cried for help.” Farel follows this with an admonition that prayer must be made only to God and not to any other. “It is then great idolatry and very displeasing to God if one resorts to another than to Him. For that arises from defiance of His infinite goodness and mercy (as if there were others better and more merciful than He), or from His power and wisdom, as if it were possible or as if He could not know to help us.” The Reformers were addressing an abuse of authority in the Roman Church that arose in the Middle Ages. The idea arose that Saints were those who merited salvation by their faithfulness and had finished their race with an excess of grace and merit, which was returned to the “Treasury of Merit” that could then be dispensed to others. Therefore, the Roman Church encouraged Christians to pray to these Saints that they would dispense their excesses on believers and to intercede on their behalf to God.

This prayer to the departed Saints on behalf of the living was roundly rejected in the Reformation as unbiblical and idolatrous. The Scriptures do not speak of praying to the dead or asking for anyone other than Christ to serve as a Mediator or Intercessor. The Ten Theses of Bern, written in 1528 by Berthold Haller and Franz Kolb and edited by Ulhrich Zwingli, addressed this. The sixth thesis clearly stakes out the Reformed position, “Just as Christ alone has died for us, so He ought to be called upon as sole Mediator and Advocate between God the Father and us believers. Thus all other mediators and advocates who are called upon beyond the bounds of this world and above the foundations of the Word of God, are renounced.”

Prayer is not to be made to the deceased Saints (nor to anyone living) but it is to be made only in the name of Christ. The Emden Catechism #198 instructs that prayers are to be made in the name of Christ because “this is as if you should speak according to the command of Christ, praying through him. For the Father grants nothing to us except though Christ, and for his purpose. Thus, only true believers and those who have been actually converted to Christ can pray in Christ’s name, and who naturally would never desire or ask anything contrary to the honor of God.” Likewise, Theodore Beza wrote in 1560, “among all the fruits that faith brings forth universally in all Christians, we think that calling on the name of God through Jesus Christ is the chief. This we call prayer.”

For what are we to pray? The Emden Catechism #198 flows right from the object of our prayers to the subject of our prayers. We should only pray for those things that are in accord with “the honor of God.” Several of the Confessions point to this same idea. Referring again to Beza, a colleague of John Calvin, “Following the rule of Holy Scripture and the authority of the good ancient fathers, we esteem and allow true prayers to be the most agreeable things that Christians may offer to God among those commandments of the first table.” God’s Word is the pattern for our prayers. So, for what does Scripture call us to pray? The Hungarian Confession (1562), which was strongly influenced by Beza, instructed that Christians are to pray for all things necessary for spirit and body. The spiritual things belong to faith, hope, and love. The body needs “quiet, peace, pious & just princes, the produce of the earth, property, health, an honest life, favorable success, and a loving marriage and children.” The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) echoes this in question #118 by teaching that we are to pray for “all things necessary for body and soul.”

Prayer was and continues to be deeply important in a Reformed understanding of the Christian life. God has called us to pray and to lift up our desire to him. The manner in which and the desires for which we pray are guided and bound by God’s Word. Our prayers are directed by Scripture alone.

Prayer – Reformed Confessions -1

Much more could be said about the development of the Church’s understanding of prayer in the Middle Ages. It was during this time that many scholars were rising up in order to engage with the Biblical on a whole host of issues. It is important to note that the Middle Ages were in no way the “Dark Ages.” Remember, it was during this time that Greek philosophy was rediscovered in Europe, universities began to be formed, and much of the scientific, philosophical, and theological groundwork was laid for the Renaissance and the Reformation.

But our attention will now turn to the period of the Reformation. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a great deal of advancement and refinement in the Church’s understanding of prayer. The dual emphases of ad fontes and sola Scriptura reopened the eyes of the Church in order to evaluate the practice and tradition of the church in light of God’s Word. Beginning with Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to the door of the chapel at Wittenburg, everything in the church began to be examined through the lens of Scripture.

The topic of prayer was examined by a number of the Reformers as they sought to bring all things under the Word of God. The Reformers addressed a number of matters relating to prayer, but they might be summarized under four general categories: 1) What is prayer? 2) How are we to pray? 3) To whom are we to pray? 4) For what are we to pray? This week we will look at the first two matters.

What is prayer? William Farel was a fiery, red-headed reformer Frenchman who came to Protestantism through a thorough study of the Scriptures. After studying under or tussling with a “who’s who” of 16th century theologians, Farel landed in Geneva. In 1535 Farel was able to convince (or coerce) John Calvin to come and be the minister in Geneva. Their attempts to thoroughly reform the city met insurmountable opposition in 1538 when Calvin and Farel were given three days to leave Geneva. William Farel’s Summary, written in 1529, is one of the earliest confessions of the Reformed faith. In it Farel states that prayer is “an ardent talk with God.” Prayer is “the true sacrifice of praise: by which one gives honor and glory to God, and to Him alone we have cried for help.”

A few years later, the various Protestant groups faced persecution from the Roman Catholic church in the form of the Counter-Reformation. With the rise of Charles V as the Holy Roman Emperor, they sensed an opportunity to have the civil government protect them, if they could present to the emperor a reasonable defense for their beliefs at the Diet of Augsburg (1530). Martin Bucer on behalf of four cities (Strasbourg, Constance, Memmingen, and Lindau) composed the Tetrapolitan Confession. This was truly the first “Reformed Confession” but was ultimately adopted by no one because it failed to assuage the specific concerns of the various Protestant factions (primarily the Lutheran versus Reformed views on the Lord’s Supper). In regard to prayer, Bucer wrote, “Prayer is a lifting up of the mind to God, and such conversation with him that no other thing so greatly inflames man with heavenly affections and more mightily conforms the mind to God’s will.” Prayer is a means by which man’s mind is conformed to God’s will.

How are we to pray? As noted by Augustine, the matter of the heart’s attitude toward God is a primary concern in prayer. Ulhrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer of Zurich, wrote his 67 Articles as one of the earliest broadsides against the abuses of the Roman Church. In it Zwingli notes that “true worshipers call on God in spirit and in truth, without clamoring before people.” Also he says hypocrites will be seen by the people and that is their reward. So prayer with “chanting and loud clamor, without true devotion and done for money only” will not be honored by God. Instead, the Reformers emphasized that the one praying must acknowledge his sin before a holy God and rely upon God’s grace in prayer. The Waldensian Confession (1560) arose out of the Reformed church in the NW corner of Italy, bordering on France and Switzerland. This confession placed its instruction on prayer between its discussion of justification and the discussion of righteousness by faith alone. The placement here seems to point to the work of the cross being a prerequisite for man to enter into prayer with God.

This sentiment is echoed in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Frederick III ordered that a new catechism be written for his kingdom. The task was given to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg. Tradition holds that Caspar Oliveanus and Zacharius Ursinius were the principal authors. It continues to be a confessional document in the Dutch Reformed churches. Question 117 instructs that prayer should be made “with our whole heart…thoroughly knowing our need and misery, so as to humble ourselves in the presence of Divine majesty…firmly assured He will hear our prayer.”

Prayer – Augustine-1

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. With respect to Western theology, the same might be said of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine of Hippo was a 4th century church father from North Africa. His writings have dominated the thought of the Western Church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the last 1600 years. Yet in all of Augustine’s voluminous works, there is only one substantial treatment on the subject of prayer. Letter 130 is the first of two letters to a young widow named Proba. This letter is a response to a request by Proba for instruction on how to pray. Augustine responds with a few thoughts on prayer.

Before Augustine began to address the question of how to pray, he answered the more important underlying question, “What manner of person should you be to pray?” Often these underlying issues are never addressed in our rush to answers. But before we can ever learn how to pray, we need to look inwardly to our own hearts. The form of our prayers is completely meaningless if the form of our hearts is not shaped to Christ. So what type of person ought we to be in order to pray? “It becomes you, therefore, out of love to this true life, to account yourself ‘desolate’ in this world, however great the prosperity of your lot may be.”[1] The rich, Augustine argued, cannot pray unless they count themselves desolate. Your station, rank, or wealth in this life will not bring satisfaction. “Men are not made good by possessing these so-called good things…Therefore true comfort is to be found not in them.”[2] Proba came from a good family. She had wealth, children, and status. She was a widow, but her material place in life was comfortable. But Augustine instructed her that when it comes to prayer, she must find herself desolate and greatly desirous of the life found in God. Only the needy can truly pray.

After addressing the inward heart issue, Augustine then instructed Proba on the how and what of prayer. She had become “disturbed” by Paul’s words, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom 8:26). Her concern was that she might do more harm than good if she prayed wrongly. So she didn’t pray at all. Augustine provided an answer, “A short solution of your difficulty may be given thus: ‘Pray for a happy life.’”[3] A “happy life,” Augustine explained, is one who “has all that he wishes to have and wishes to have nothing which he ought not to wish.”[4] The happy life is a life that has health, health for one’s children, and things necessary for life. But beyond this, the truly happy life is one that desires God. “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life” (Ps 27:4). The happy life is primarily marked by a desire for and love of God. And if this is true, then all the other desires of one’s life will be properly ordered.

He illustrated this by going to the very words we often use in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the model prayer given to us by Jesus. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” or when we pray for needful things, our desires should be ordered by the wisdom of Proverbs 30:8, “give me neither poverty nor riches.” It is good, and leads to a happy life, to ask for what is needful. But it is a misunderstanding of prayer to ask for riches, wealth, or honor in order to be greater than this or that man. Augustine noted, “[He] who asks merely from a desire for these things, and not in order through them to benefit men agreeably to God’s will, I do not think that he will find any part of the Lord’s Prayer in connection with which he could fit in these requests.”[5] Again, our heart must be re-oriented toward God before we ask for what we want. Our prayers are to ask God for neither too much nor too little.

Augustine finished the letter by noting that Paul’s words in Romans 8:26, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” linger. Mystery will remain for us because we will never fully understand the depths of God’s will. But prayer, when rightly order, teaches us to submit to God. It also teaches us patience. And we learn that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for [his] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). “If you seek and relish the things that are above, you desire things everlasting and sure.”[6]

[1] Augustine, The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J.G. Cunningham, vol. Vol. 1, Nicene and Post-Nicene Father of the Christian Church (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 460,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 462.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 466.

[6] Ibid., 469.