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.