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.