GROWTH IN GRACE by John Angell James “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:18

The word grace is one of the key terms of Holy Scripture frequently occurring, and by the knowledge of which much of the import of the whole volume is unfolded. It signifies favor, free and unmerited. “By grace (favor) are you saved,” Eph. 2:8. This is the primitive, prevailing, generic sense of the word, and is its meaning in such passages also as the following, and many others– Rom. 11:5, 6; Eph. 1:2, 6, 7; 2:7; Titus 2:11; 3:7. But as in the ordinary use of language we sometimes call the effect by the name of the cause, the word grace is often applied in Scripture to several things which are the consequences and operations of Divine favor; thus the aids of the Holy Spirit are called grace, as in that passage, “My grace is sufficient for you,” 2 Cor. 12:9; also 1 Cor. 15:9, 10.

In the passage under consideration, it has a meaning somewhat different from either of these, yet related to them, and signifies holiness, as the fruit and effect of God’s grace—and the exhortation to grow in grace is a beautiful, comprehensive, and instructive way of saying, grow in holiness; advance in piety. True, there is a sense in which a believer may grow in the favor of God itself, as well as in its effects. It is said of Christ in his youth, that “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man,” Luke 2:52.

God, in his love, delights in his people on a twofold account; first, because of the work of his Son, which is upon them for justification—and secondly, because of their spiritual graces, inasmuch as these are the work of his Holy Spirit; and therefore the more he sees of this work in them, the more he must love them. On account of their relation as children, he loves them all equally; but as regards their spiritual condition, he loves them in proportion to their degrees of conformity to himself. Hence they may grow in his favor continually, that is, one person may have more in him, than another, that God loves, and that same person may have more in himself, at one time than another, that God approves. But since this supposes, as its ground, a growth in holiness, which is the object of Divine delight, it brings us to that view of growth in grace, which is the meaning of the passage, and the design of this address—I mean, advance in piety.

The explanation of the text is very instructive with regard to several general principles.

1. True religion in the soul is the work of God—it is the operation of God himself as the efficient agent, whoever and whatever may be the instrumentality. It is the grace of God in us.

2. All God’s dealings with men, in regard to salvation and its benefits, are the result of pure favor. Man, as a sinner, merits nothing, and can merit nothing—it is grace that reigns throughout his whole salvation.

3. In sanctification, God’s favor shines as brightly as in justification. God’s grace is as rich and free in delivering us from the power of sin—as from its punishment. God as effectually blesses us, and as truly loves us in the work of his Spirit, as in the work of his Son.

4. Sanctification is a progressive work. Growth necessarily implies progress. We cannot be more justified at one time than another, for justification admits of no degrees; but we can be more sanctified at one time than another, for sanctification admits of all degrees.

5. Inasmuch as every operation of God’s grace is designed to bless us, sanctification is as much a Christian’s happiness as justification, since it is no less an effect of Divine grace. Consequently, to grow in holiness is to grow in happiness.

I now come to the exhortation, and admonish you to grow in grace. This implies, of course, that you have grace, for without this you cannot grow. Regeneration is incipient sanctification, sanctification is the progress of regeneration. The former is the birth of the child of God, the latter is his growth. Without life there can be no growth. Stones do not grow, for they have no vitality; and the heart of man before regeneration is compared to a stone. Are you convinced you are born again of the Spirit? That the heart of stone is changed into warm, vital flesh? It is to be feared that the reason why so many professors never grow, is because they have no principle of vitality. If you do not grow, you may question if you are born again, whether you are anything more than the picture or statue of a child.

Perhaps some will ask what are the signs of growth. Here I would remark that growth may be considered either as general, in reference to the whole work of grace in the soul, or to some particular part of it. If we consider the former, I reply, that it is evinced by a general improvement of the whole religious character; an increasing, obvious, and conscious development of the principle and power of spiritual vitality in all its appropriate functions and operations; an increase in the vigor and purity of religious affections, so that the heart is really more intensely engaged in piety; the inward life is more concentrated, sprightly, and energetic—so that the Christian has more of youthful vivaciousness in the service of God, and is actuated by a more intense and practical ardor.

In this state of GENERAL growth in grace, FAITH becomes more simple, unhesitating, and confiding; less staggered by difficulties, less beclouded by doubts and fears, and more able to disentangle itself on its way to the cross—from self-righteousness, and dependence on frames and feelings.

LOVE to God, though it may contain less of glowing emotion, has more of fixed principle; and is more prompt, resolute, and self-denying in obedience.

JOY in believing, if it has not so much occasional rapture, has more of habitual, calm, and tranquil repose.

RESIGNATION to the will of God is more absolute, and we can bear with less perturbation, agitation, and chafing of mind—the crossing of our will, and the disappointment of our hopes.

PATIENCE and meekness towards our fellow creatures and fellow Christians become more conspicuous and controlled. At first, the believer can scarcely ford a shallow of troubles—but now he can swim in a sea of them; formerly he was oppressed by the lightest injury—now he can bear a heavy load; once he could scarcely endure the unintentional offences of his friends—now he can forgive and pray for his enemies.

An increase of HUMILITY is a sure and necessary sign of spiritual growth. At first we were ready to think many worse than ourselves—now we are as ready to think all better than ourselves. Then we saw some of our defects, and they appeared small—now we see many, and they are affectingly magnified. Then we knew little but the sins of the ‘conduct’—but now the corruptions of the ‘heart’ are continually abasing us. He who is growing in humility is growing indeed; for the growth of grace is as much downward at the root, as upwards in the spreading and towering branches. “Other virtues aspire upwards—but humility looks downwards. We say of the others, the higher they grow the better—but humility is best at the lowest. Faith and hope have a holy ambition, they look not lower than heaven, nothing can content them but an immortal crown; but humility pleases herself with abasement, and you shall find her with Job in the dust, in that school of morality. Yet even there she grows, and that in the favor of God—the deeper she roots, the higher she sprouts.”

ZEAL increases with everything else, and he who grows in grace, advances in love to God’s service, being more constant in attendance upon God’s house, advancing from pleasure on sabbath-day ordinances—to delight in weekday ones; and from regular private prayer—to habitual ejaculatory prayer.

The beauty and purity of external HOLINESS advance in proportion to internal spirituality and heavenly-mindedness; and the profession becomes more and more free from the spots of even God’s children.

CONSCIENCE, instead of becoming more dim in its vision, acquires greater power of perception to discern the criminality of even little sins—and a greater delicacy of taste to loathe them.

LIBERALITY becomes more diffusive, and covetousness is mortified by a longer acquaintance with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

LOVE, that heavenly virtue, without which the greatest gifts are but as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, bears not only a richer crop of blossoms—but of good ripe fruits. From loving a few, and those of our own party, we go on to the spirit of the apostle, and say, “Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.” Those who are outgrowing the prejudices of party and of ignorance, and are rising higher and higher in the strength and stature of love, give, perhaps, the fullest proof of all, of growth in grace.

This is general growth in grace; for grace in one word comprehends all others—it is the genus of which all Christian virtues are the species. Faith is grace; penitence is grace; love is grace and so are patience, humility, and zeal—so that when we are called to grow in grace, we are not restricted to any particular disposition—but enjoined to practice them all.

But there is also a PARTICULAR growth in grace, or a growth in some particular branch of a Christian duty, to which I would now direct your attention, as of some consequence—and that is our advance in those things wherein we are more than ordinarily deficient. Almost all people have, in addition to their other sins, some one sin which may be called their besetting sin, or some neglect which may be called their prevailing deficiency. Now the mortification of these sins, and the supply of these defects, should be considered as our especial aim, object, and duty; and nothing can more decisively mark our improvement in religion than the putting away of these habitual corruptions, and the taking up of these neglected branches of Christian obligation. And as deceit lies in generals, I am persuaded that many who use this phrase, not only in conversation but even in prayer, and who suppose that they are sincere and earnest in asking to grow in grace, are at the same time taking no pains to mortify their besetting sin; and while holding some vague and indefinite notions about spiritual advancement, forget that, in their case, to grow, means to put away that one sin especially.

If a person is constitutionally covetous, or passionate, or proud—to grow in grace is to become liberal, meek, and humble. If they have neglected family prayer, or week-day services of religion, or the right discharge of any social duty, or private prayer—to grow in grace means, in their case, to supply this defect. And perhaps we can better ascertain whether we are growing, by inquiring into the state of our souls with regard to these besetting sins or defects, than by examining the wide range of the whole Christian character. In going round the whole circle of duty we are apt to become confused, and we arrive therefore at no definite conclusion—but in concentrating our attention upon one point, we can better determine whether or not we are making progress. If we are growing in this one point, we are in all probability growing in others; and, on the other hand, it is this general growth that aids us in the particular one, just as the cure of one specific disease in the body is aided by the improvement of the general health, and the cure of the specific disease reacts on the general health.

I shall now point out the MEANS of growth.

And here it is of importance that I should remove a too prevailing MISTAKE, I mean the supposition that as growth is carried on by the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is a matter of pure sovereignty on God’s part to grant it—and of privilege on ours to enjoy it. God’s Spirit, I admit, is necessary—but he has promised to grant the Spirit in answer to believing prayer; and if we have him not, it is because we do not ask, or else we ask amiss. It is, therefore, our duty to grow, as well as our privilege. It is in fact a sinner’s duty to live, and of course it is a believer’s duty to grow. The promise of the Spirit does not constitute the ground of obligation—but only provides the efficient means of discharging it.

There are some methods which God uses, besides those which we ourselves are to employ, to which for a moment I would advert. Sometimes he afflicts his people—severely and variously afflicts them—and what for? To promote their growth in grace. “Every branch in me,” says the Savior, “which bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bring forth more fruit,” John 15:2. It is delightful assurance to the sorrowing disciple, and withal instructive and directory, to be told that affliction is only a pruning-knife to cause the vine to grow the better, and to be more fruitful. Afflicted Christian, are you, then, growing in grace in your sorrows? If not, you are losing the very end of them.

Having heard what God does, now hear what you are to do for your spiritual growth.

In speaking of the means which you are to employ, I will illustrate the subject by a figurative, though, I hope, not too fanciful representation. Taking up the very common simile by which a Christian is set forth in the word of God, I mean a fruit-bearing tree, I will show what is essential to the growth and fruitfulness of such a plant.

It must be PLANTED in a good and congenial soil. This is your privilege, for you are planted in the courts of the Lord’s house, in the church of the living God, and this, like a rich and fruitful soil, contains all advantages and helps for growth—here are public ordinances, and returning sacraments, which we should constantly, devoutly, and anxiously attend—here is the communion of saints, which the more we cultivate, the more we shall be strengthened—here is doctrine to instruct, pastoral oversight to guard, and discipline to correct. Value and improve your church privileges, then, if you would advance in piety.

The growth and fruitfulness of a tree depend much upon proper NUTRIMENT being supplied to the roots—and so does the growth of the Christian; and that which nourishes the root of his piety is the word of God, daily read, correctly understood, cordially believed, spiritually meditated upon, and judiciously applied. The apostle, when setting forth the growth of grace by another metaphor, says, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that you may grow thereby,” 1 Pet. 2:2. Good books alone will not do; hearing sermons alone will not do; we must have the pure word. The reason why the trees in the garden of the Lord do not grow to greater height, stature, and fruitfulness, is because the soul is not sufficiently fed by knowledge—these two are united in the precept—”Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;” we are to grow in grace and in knowledge, which means by knowledge.

A tree requires PRUNING if it grow and flourish; and so does our soul. We must mortify sin. Grace cannot grow in a heart where corruptions are allowed to sprout profusely. Could a grape-vine flourish and bear fruit, if all kinds of parasitic weeds were allowed to spring up and entwine around its branches? Impossible! Just as impossible is it for piety to advance, if the corruptions of the heart are permitted to reign unmortified. It is of heart-sins I now more particularly speak; sins of temper and disposition, pride, envy, jealousy, malice, revenge, impurity; sins of distrust, rebellion, unbelief, discontent; too many of which are often found in the hearts of professors. Vain and hypocritical are all prayers and wishes for growth in grace, if we do not assiduously apply ourselves to the crucifixion of the flesh, with the affections and lusts thereof. And we must also clip the luxuriance of our earthly affections.

If a delicate and tender tree flourish, it must enjoy the WATCHFUL CARE of the gardener. We must feel concerned for its growth, often examine it, and remove from it whatever would hinder it from thriving. It must be protected from injury by damage from man and beast; devouring insects must be removed; and all noxious things must be kept off and put away. Nothing is so delicate and tender as grace in the soul of man. It is a heavenly exotic, and exposed to numberless injurious influences, and requires therefore the most anxious and ceaseless vigilance of its possessor. No duty is more frequently enjoined in Scripture than watchfulness; none is more needed. The increase of piety must be matter of deep and trembling solicitude.

The LIGHT and WARMTH of the SUN are essential to the growth of vegetable life, and those trees flourish most which are placed most fully in the solar beams. And is not Christ the orb of our spiritual day, the Sun of righteousness, whose effulgence is necessary to our growth? Place yourself, then, in the warm, bright splendor of his beams, by the contemplation of his glory, and meditation upon his love. Grace grows best near the cross. Let your religion be full of Christ. Dwell upon his Divine glory as God; his perfect holiness as man, and as our example; his mediatorial office and work as Prophet, Priest, and King. Daily come to him by faith. Yield your heart to his constraining love. Feel him to be precious as he is, to those who believe. Search for him in the Scriptures. Look for him in ordinances. Make him the Alpha and Omega of your thoughts. The more your minds are conversant with Christ, the more your piety will increase, for he is the sun that ripens our graces.

Nor can vegetable life be preserved without MOISTURE. Running streams, and fruitful showers, and the dew of heaven, are essentially necessary. In allusion to which God has promised the dew of his grace, the pouring out of his Spirit, as the early and the latter rain. It is only as the Spirit of God helps us by his influence that we shall grow—but this influence will be granted to any extent we desire and ask for in believing prayer. The promise of the Spirit is not to make us indolent—but diligent; give yourselves then to prayer, and let the burden of your prayers be for more grace. “Prayer,” says an old author, “is a key to open the gate of heaven, and let grace out—and prayer is a lock to fasten our hearts, and keep grace in.” In vain do we expect those alms of grace for which we do not beg.

And now, dear friends, examine yourselves. Are you advancing in the Divine life? Is it your desire, your constant and earnest desire to grow, or are you contented to be as you are? Do you feel it to be more and more a matter of solicitude, and are you even afraid of being no holier than you are? Do you hunger and thirst more than you did after righteousness? Do you take more notice of God in everything than you did, in providential dispensations, and in the means of grace? Is your religion more vigorous at the root, and more abundant in its fruits? Do you grow, not only more tenderly conscientious in little things—but more universally conscientious in all things? Is piety, while more retiring for private exercises, more diffusive in its public influence; does it come more abroad with you out of your closets, into your houses, shops, and relationships? Does it dwell with you more at home, and journey with you more constantly from home? “Does it buy and sell for you, and has it the casting vote in all you do?” Are you more punctual, lively, serious, and happy in ordinances? Do you abound more than you did in the most self-denying duties of religion? Are you more resolute in mortification, more ready and patient in cross-bearing? Is your conscience more quick to discern sin, and more easily wounded by it? Do you find your sorrows more to arise from your sins, and less from your trials, than you did? Do you find the spirit of love gradually supplanting the spirit of fear? Are you more zealous, liberal, and public spirited than you were? Try yourself by these things. Here are signs of growth, clear, decisive, unequivocal.

Do you need motives? How many are at hand. Since growth is the law of life, what strong proof can you have of life without growth? Growth is both your duty and your privilege. Think of the advantages you possess for increase. Consider how long some of you have been planted. Remember what God expects from all his culture. See how much others have outgrown you. Recollect how soon growing time will be over; and how exactly the degrees of glory in heaven will be proportioned to the degrees of grace upon earth.

Professors, I beseech you be not satisfied with much talk about religion, and little practice. “It is no good sign for a tree when all the sap runs up into the leaves, and is spent that way; nor in a Christian, when all his grace is thrown off in words. What are leaves to the fruit? Rather give us fruit on a low shrub, than a tree that can reach the clouds, with nothing but leaves. The cedarly tallness of some trees with a glorious flourish of leaves is goodly to the eye; but the kindly fruit of the lower plants is more acceptable to the taste. The eminence of some notoriously zealous professors may make them much admired; but the good fruits of mercy in men, silent, and less notable, makes them more beloved. The former may grow in applause—but the latter grow in grace—and this growth, O Lord, give me and my people.



John Aloisi1
From time to time, opponents of Calvinism assert or at least imply
that the theological system which takes its name from the famous Reformer makes prayer logically unnecessary and for all intents and purposes a waste of time. After all, if God is sovereign and his decree
encompasses all that will ever come to pass, then why bother praying?
For example, Michael Cox recently suggested that “prayer becomes
practically meaningless for the true Calvinist, since, if he is consistent in
his Calvinistic worldview, to him all things have been decided in advance.” He also claimed, “To the truly uniform Calvinist it would be
absurd to pray for the salvation of the lost….” In light of these ideas
about prayer and Calvinism, Cox concluded that “Calvinism has a lamentable prayer weakness.”2
Statements of this sort could be multiplied, and most people reading this article have probably encountered similar claims in conversation
or print on more than one occasion. Reading assertions such as those
made by Cox, one receives the impression that John Calvin (1509–
1564) and his theological heirs have had little reason or motivation to
engage in the practice of prayer, and such assertions would certainly
lead one to assume that Calvin himself viewed prayer as a fairly unimportant topic. If such assumptions were accurate, then one would expect Calvin’s writings to contain only minimal references to prayer.
Certainly, one would anticipate that the subject of prayer would not be
a major theme in his theology or ministerial practice. But, in making
those kinds of assumptions, one would be mistaken.
Even a cursory examination of Calvin’s writings will lead the reader
to quite the opposite conclusion, for, in fact, prayer features very
prominently in the Reformer’s corpus. For example, when Calvin produced the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536,
he intended it to be a short introduction to the Christian faith. That
modest volume contained just six chapters, and of those six chapters,
Dr. Aloisi is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Detroit Baptist
Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI.
Michael Cox, Not One Little Child: A Biblical Critique of Calvinism
(Bloomington, IN: CrossBooks, 2009), 88.
4 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
one was devoted to the topic of prayer.3
As the Institutes grew over the
years, so did the chapter on prayer so that in the standard English translation of the 1559 edition Calvin’s discussion of prayer comprises just
over seventy pages, making it one of the longest chapters in the entire
Calvin’s chapter on prayer in the Institutes is also, interestingly,
longer than any discussion of prayer found in any modern systematic
Both Alexandre Ganoczy and Ford Lewis Battles suggest that Calvin’s chapter on
prayer in the 1536 edition of the Institutes was heavily influenced by Martin Bucer’s
Commentary on the Gospels (1530). See Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin, trans.
David Foxgrover and Wade Provo (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1987), 162–65; Ford
Lewis Battles, introduction to Institutes of the Christian Religion [1536 edition], by John
Calvin, rev. ed., trans. and annot. Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986),
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles,
ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 2:850–920. Unless
otherwise noted, all quotations from Calvin’s Institutes will be taken from this edition.
In contrast to Calvin, most modern systematic theologies contain very brief
discussions of prayer or, in some cases, no discussion of the subject at all. For example,
prayer does not even appear in either the tables of contents or the indexes of Louis
Berkhof, Systematic Theology, new ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) and James
Petigru Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (1977; repr., Cape Coral, FL: Founders
Press, 2006). More typical are the following works where prayer is only briefly
mentioned: Daniel L. Akin, ed., A Theology for the Church, rev. ed. (Nashville: B & H,
2014); Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols.
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003–2008); Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic
Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012); James Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of
the Christian Religion, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962); Lewis Sperry
Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (1947–1948; repr., Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993);
Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Geanies House,
UK: Mentor, 2005); Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 2013); John M. Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2013);
Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011); John Miley, Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (1893;
repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989); William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed.
Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2003); Augustus Hopkins Strong,
8th ed., 3 vols. in 1 (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1907); H. Orton Wiley, Christian
Theology, 3 vols. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1949). Norman Geisler’s Systematic
Theology is a good example of this tendency to give little space to prayer in recent
theological texts. In Geisler’s 4-volume work that is comprised of more than 2,600
pages, outside of a 7-page discussion of “prayers for the dead,” the indexes point to just
six other pages where prayer is mentioned in passing. Geisler’s mammoth work contains
no general discussion of the topic of prayer.
The systematic theologies by Charles Hodge, Wayne Grudem, and Robert
Reymond are exceptions to this general trend. Hodge’s work contains an 18-page
discussion of the subject; Grudem’s includes a 21-page chapter on prayer; and
Reymond’s has a 10-page section on “Prayer as a Means of Grace” (Charles Hodge,
Systematic Theology, 3 vols. [repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 3:692–709; Wayne
Grudem, Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], 376–96; Robert L.
Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith [Nashville: Thomas Nelson,
1998], 967–76). However, even the discussions by Hodge, Grudem, and Reymond
combined are considerably shorter than that found in the 1559 edition of Calvin’s
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 5
This article will examine what Calvin said about the topic of prayer
as well as his actual practice of prayer, and it will seek to demonstrate
that prayer was a major component of Calvin’s life, public ministry, and
theology. As several writers have pointed out, in his Institutes Calvin was
not so much interested in developing a theory of prayer, nor even a theology of prayer, as he was in presenting practical instructions about how
to pray.6
Despite the common image of Calvin as an ivory tower theorist, Calvin was keenly interested in helping fellow believers learn to
pray more effectively, and this desire comes through quite clearly in
what he said about prayer. As it turns out, much of what Calvin said
about prayer is still relevant and profitable for believers today.
Echoing James 1:17, Calvin affirmed that every good gift comes
from God the Father whom he described as “the master and bestower of
all good things.”7
Calvin viewed prayer as the divinely intended means
by which believers can “reach those riches which are laid up for us with
the Heavenly Father.”8
The image of God as a benevolent Father is
quite common in Calvin’s writings. In fact, David Calhoun has suggested that “Calvin’s favorite picture of prayer is that of God’s adopted
children calling upon him as their heavenly Father.”9
Calvin saw God as
a benevolent Father who sovereignly and graciously gives good gifts to
his children in accordance with his eternal plan.
One might wonder why believers should bother praying to their Father if he already knows and has predestined all things. Calvin affirmed
both God’s omniscience and the doctrine of predestination, but such
beliefs in no way undercut his confidence in the value of prayer.10 As
Calvin understood it, God has instructed his people to pray “not so
much for his own sake as for ours.”11 In his commentary on the synoptic Gospels, Calvin explained,
Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things
unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as
though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they
Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, trans. Harold Knight (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1956), 156; Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2008), 234; Jae Sung Kim, “Prayer in Calvin’s Soteriology,”
in Tributes to John Calvin, ed. David W. Hall (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2010), 354.
Calvin, Institutes 3.20.1.
Ibid., 3.20.2.
David B. Calhoun, “Prayer: ‘The Chief Exercise of Faith,’” in A Theological Guide
to Calvin’s Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R,
2008), 349.
10Charles Partee, “Prayer as the Practice of Predestination,” in Calvinus Servus
Christi, ed. Wilhelm H. Neuser (Budapest: Presseabteilung des Ráday-Kollegiums,
1988), 245–56.
11Calvin, Institutes 3.20.3.
6 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in
meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their
anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and
for others, all good things.12
While prayer does not inform an omniscient God of anything, it is
a gift that God has given to his people for their good and his glory. Expanding on this idea of prayer being good for God’s people, Calvin offered six somewhat overlapping reasons why believers should engage in
the practice of prayer.
The first reason Calvin put forward for why believers should approach God in prayer is so “that our hearts may be fired with a zealous
and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become
accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.”13 In
other words, Calvin saw prayer as having a sanctifying effect on those
who pray. Prayer is an admission that God is greater than the person
engaged in prayer, and it is a reminder of one’s dependence upon God
for all things. In prayer, one turns to God as the ultimate source of help
in the difficulties of life.
The second reason Calvin suggested for prayer is “that there may
enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be
ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes
before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts” to God.14 Elsewhere, Calvin described prayer as “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.”15 If prayer is the expression of one’s desires to God, then regular prayer should cause one to guard his desires
lest they become a source of guilt and shame when poured out before a
holy God. Frequent times of prayer help the believer to focus his longings on things that please God.
The third reason for prayer that Calvin proposed is “that we be
prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand.”16 As
Calvin affirmed, God generously blesses his children with good gifts,
and regular times of prayer are a means of acknowledging that God is
the source of all such gifts. God gives many good gifts to his children
prior to and apart from their asking, but intentionally and specifically
12John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and
Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1 (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 314.
13Calvin, Institutes 3.20.3.
15John Calvin, Instruction in Faith (1537), trans. and ed. Paul T. Fuhrmann
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 56–57. See also the discussion in Bruce A.
Ware, “The Role of Prayer and the Word in the Christian Life
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 7
praying for what one needs both pleases God and prepares the believer
to praise God for the blessings that follow the prayer of faith. The act of
praying prepares the believer to respond with thankfulness to the gifts
that come from God’s hand.
Calvin’s fourth reason for prayer is closely related to the third. Calvin noted that “having obtained what we were seeking, and being convinced that he has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate
upon his kindness more ardently.”17 Answered prayer reminds the believer of God’s character, especially his goodness and his generosity.
And in turn, answered prayers stir up the believer to praise and thank
God for what he has done in answer to prayer.
The fifth reason for prayer is that it causes God’s people to “embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have
been obtained by prayers.”18 If prayer is a means by which God gives
good gifts to his children, then the act of praying for such gifts causes
those gifts to be appreciated all the more as one realizes that they have
been granted by God in response to prayer. Gifts that have been received in answer to prayer are a source of greater delight as one ponders
that the Creator of the universe has heard and granted the request that
was offered up in prayer.
The sixth and final reason for prayer which Calvin suggests is “that
use and experience may, according to the measure of our feebleness,
confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises
never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at
the very point of necessity, but also that he ever extends his hand to
help his own, not wet-nursing them with words but defending them
with present help.”19 Prayer reminds the believer that God providentially works in the world he has made. Any view of God’s providence
that leads one to think prayer is unnecessary is not true Calvinism. It is
a false Calvinism that stands in direct contrast to the Reformer’s
thought. In fact, Calvin strongly rebuked those who used God’s providence as an excuse not to pray when he wrote, “Therefore they act with
excessive foolishness who, to call men’s minds away from prayer, babble
that God’s providence, standing guard over all things, is vainly importuned with our entreaties.”20 For Calvin, prayer is a confession that God
providentially rules over all things and that he is willing and able to act
on behalf of his children.
These six reasons for prayer tell us a good deal about what Calvin
believed prayer could accomplish and why the believer should give himself to the practice of prayer. However, over and above these six reasons,
Calvin seems to have seen one overarching reason why Christians
should pray. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes, Calvin began his
8 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
discussion of prayer with this telling statement:
From those matters so far discussed, we clearly see how destitute and
devoid of all good things man is, and how he lacks all aids to salvation.
Therefore, if he seeks resources to succor him in his need, he must go outside himself and get them elsewhere…. After we have been instructed by
faith to recognize that whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God,
and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father willed all the fullness of
his bounty to abide so that we may all draw from it as from an overflowing
spring, it remains for us to seek in him, and in prayers to ask of him, what
we have learned to be in him.21
Calvin rightly recognized that believers are not sufficient in themselves to live as they ought, and he viewed prayer as the divinely appointed means by which Christians may obtain from God the ability to
obey his commands. To fail to seek from God the help that one needs
and that God is able to provide, Calvin pointed out, is as foolish as neglecting a great resource that one knows about and desperately needs.
As he put it, “To know God as the master and bestower of all good
things, who invites us to request them of him, and still not go to him
and not ask of him—this would be of as little profit as for a man to neglect a treasure, buried and hidden in the earth, after it had been
pointed out to him.”22 Calvin’s overarching motivation for prayer is
simply that prayer is the divinely intended means of securing from God
what the believer needs in order to live as he ought.
If prayer is a great resource available to all Christians, and Calvin
certainly believed that it was, then it should not be approached carelessly or without proper consideration. In prayer, one addresses the omnipotent and infinitely holy God based on the merits of Christ. Calvin
rightly viewed prayer as a very serious activity. In addition to the six
reasons for prayer discussed above, Calvin proposed four rules or guidelines for proper prayer. These guidelines were not intended to be hard
and fast rules that guaranteed one was praying correctly or that one’s
prayers would be answered. Rather they represented a general attitude
that should characterize the believer as he approaches God in prayer.23
These guidelines, Calvin believed, could help keep one from sinning in
the very act of praying and could direct the believer’s prayers so that
they would bring much glory to God.
Calvin suggested, first, that those who pray “be disposed in mind
and heart as befits those who enter conversation with God.”24 In other
21Ibid., 3.20.1.
22Ibid. See also Ware, “The Role of Prayer and the Word,” 76–77.
23François Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet (1963; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 254.
24Calvin, Institutes 3.20.4.
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 9
words, in view of God’s majesty believers should approach God reverently or in a proper state of mind. Elsewhere, Calvin described prayer as
“an intimate conversation of the pious with God,” but he warned believers that such intimate conversation must still be marked by “reverence and moderation.”25 The fact that believers enjoy the privilege of
addressing God in prayer does not mean they should approach God
casually. God is not one’s peer. Although God has invited his children
to call him Father, the difference between believers and God is infinitely
greater than that between children and their earthly fathers. God is the
Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Therefore, the believer’s prayers
should never be marked by irreverence or a casual attitude as if one was
talking over the fence to a neighbor.
When approaching God in prayer, Calvin said, the believer should
seek to rid his mind of all “alien and outside cares.”26 Such cares might
distract the believer from the greatness of God and the seriousness of
addressing one’s Maker. Calvin acknowledged the common struggle of
wandering thoughts that believers often face while engaged in prayer.
He admitted that “no one is so intent on praying that he does not feel
many irrelevant thoughts stealing upon him, which either break the
course of prayer or delay it by some winding bypath.”27 Calvin believed
that the harder one found it to focus on prayer, the more one needed to
pursue such a focus. Focused prayer requires significant effort, but it is
an effort worth making.28
Calvin further noted that in bringing requests to God, one must
concentrate on asking for things that are in keeping with God’s majesty
and will. He lamented the fact that in prayer people often ask God for
whatever comes to mind regardless of how appropriate or inappropriate
the request might be.29 In his commentary on Matthew 17:19, Calvin
stated, “As nothing is more at variance with faith than the foolish and
irregular desires of our flesh, it follows that those in whom faith reigns
do not desire every thing without discrimination, but only that which
the Lord promises to give.”30 When praying, one must remember who
is being addressed, and one should only pray for things that are pleasing
to God.
Calvin confessed that “because our abilities are far from able to
match such perfection, we must seek a remedy to help us.”31 That
25Ibid., 3.20.16.
26Ibid., 3.20.4.
27Ibid., 3.20.5.
28D. B. Garlington, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Prayer: An Examination of Book 3,
Chapter 20 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Baptist Review of Theology 1
(1991): 24.
29Calvin, Institutes 3.20.5.
30John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and
Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 2 (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 326–27.
31Calvin, Institutes 3.20.5.
10 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
remedy, Calvin believed, was to be found in the person and work of the
Holy Spirit. Calvin admitted that “to pray rightly is a rare gift.”32 And
yet he believed that “praying rightly” is something that every believer
should seek to do in the power of the Spirit. In this life, no one will ever
pray apart from the vestiges of sin. “But,” Calvin noted, “God tolerates
even our stammering and pardons our ignorance whenever something
inadvertently escapes us; as indeed without this mercy there would be
no freedom to pray.”33 Fallen sinners will never pray perfectly, but those
who know God should seek to approach him with a reverent attitude.
Second, Calvin said that when we pray we should “ever sense our
own insufficiency, and earnestly pondering how we need all that we
seek, join with this prayer an earnest—nay, burning—desire to attain
it.”34 Believers should not pray out of mere habit or sense of duty.
Rather, God is most pleased when his children pray to him out of a
profound sense of need recognizing their complete dependence upon
him. As Stephen Matteucci has pointed out, “We are not praying to an
equal for a little help to get us through, we are praying to the sovereign
and holy God to sustain us in everything.”35
Calvin was greatly disturbed by the fact that people often approach
God in prayer “for the sake of mere performance” and that in doing so
they often ask for things they either already have or know will come to
them apart from prayer.36 According to Calvin, prayers of that sort are
an expression of depraved indifference rather than an evidence of dependent faith. A believer’s prayers should be marked by urgency and a
realization that the one praying is completely dependent on God for the
things being sought in prayer. Ronald Wallace helpfully summarized
Calvin’s understanding of prayer when he wrote, “Prayer is the genuine
cry of the human heart for help in the midst of circumstances that cannot be met by merely human resources.”37 When Christians approach
God in prayer they are talking to the one who can do what no one else
can do, and their prayers should reflect their confidence in God’s gracious omnipotence. Little prayers suggest little faith in the God who
answers prayer.
If believers find their prayers marked by indifference or apathy,
Calvin said, they must “wrestle with their own coldness.”38 Calvin believed that God has instilled in his creatures the knowledge that prayer
33Ibid., 3.20.16.
34Ibid., 3.20.6.
35Stephen Matteucci, “A Strong Tower for Weary People: Calvin’s Teaching on
Prayer,” Founders Journal 69 (Summer 2007): 22.
36Calvin, Institutes 3.20.6.
37Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (Edinburgh and
London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), 280.
38Calvin, Institutes 3.20.16.
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 11
should flow from an uplifted mind, and in keeping with this, Calvin
encouraged the practice of praying with uplifted hands. He noted that
the practice of physically lifting up one’s hands in prayer has been
common in all ages and among all people, including those of his own
day.39 Calvin thought such an expression rightly reflected the believer’s
sense of dependence.
In his third guideline, Calvin suggested that in prayer believers
should put away all pride and self-assurance.40 Calvin believed that “the
beginning, and even the preparation, of proper prayer is the plea for
pardon with a humble and sincere confession of guilt.”41 He further
argued that no one should “hope that he will obtain anything from God
until he is freely reconciled to him.”42 Rightly ordered prayer is filled
with and predicated upon sincere repentance.43 For Calvin, presumption is a great enemy of God-honoring prayer. God does not owe his
fallen creatures anything. In prayer, believers must always approach
God as those begging for mercy, not those demanding what they are
And fourth, Calvin explained that having been “cast down and
overcome by true humility, we should be nonetheless encouraged to
pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered.”44 Believers should
pray with a confident hope that God will hear and answer their prayers.
Those who pray without expecting God to answer actually provoke
God to anger.45 Discussing Calvin’s view, Ware rightly noted that
prayer is the “acid-test” or the real proof of one’s faith. “In other words,
without prayer, faith simply cannot be genuine or real.”46 Prayer must
be combined with faith in God, and that faith should be rooted in the
promises of God revealed in Scripture. As Calvin explained, “Our
prayers depend upon no merit of ours, but their whole worth and hope
of fulfillment are grounded in God’s promises, and depend upon
them.”47 Although God does not owe humans anything, he is a good
Father who graciously gives good gifts to his children. Therefore, as
Calvin put it, “we should deplore our distresses before him, as children
unburden their troubles to their parents.”48
40Ibid., 3.20.8.
41Ibid., 3.20.9.
43Ibid., 3.20.16.
44Ibid., 3.20.11.
46Ware, “The Role of Prayer and the Word,” 79.
47Calvin, Institutes 3.20.14. See also John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of
Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. 1 (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), xxxvii.
48Ibid., 3.20.12.
12 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
According to Calvin, believers must approach God reverently, earnestly, and humbly, but they should also approach him confidently—
not confident in themselves, but fully confident in the fact that God is
good, wise, and generous. Calvin did not view God as a stingy miser
who only grudgingly answers the prayers of his people. Rather, he saw
God as a good and generous Father ready to hear and answer his children when they call out to him.
Although Calvin laid out these four rules or guidelines for prayer,
he confessed that God is not obligated to answer prayer based on conformity to such rules, nor is he prevented from answering prayers that
are offered up imperfectly.49 In fact, Calvin admitted that “even ungodly wailings sometimes do some good.”50 And yet, God’s ability to
answer prayers based on his sovereign will does not mean that believers
should pray carelessly. Whether praying in private or publicly in the
church, the four rules which Calvin put forward were intended to help
Christians pray in a way that pleases God.51 Whatever their station, believers should pray “surely persuaded that, although not freed of all hindrances, their efforts still please God and their petitions are approved,
provided they endeavor and strive toward a goal not immediately attainable.”52
In his Institutes, Calvin followed up his discussion of the four rules
for prayer with an extended discussion of the Lord’s Prayer as a model
to be followed. Calvin believed that “we cannot even open our mouths
before God without danger unless the Spirit instructs us in the right
pattern for prayer.”53 This God-honoring pattern for prayer, Calvin
thought, could be found in the example which Jesus gave in reply to the
disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
Calvin viewed what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer as consisting of six main petitions.54 The first three he described as having to
do with God’s glory, and the last three he saw as concerned with the
care of ourselves or with things that God would want the believer to ask
for his or her own benefit.55 These things requested for the believer’s
benefit have primarily to do with one’s spiritual welfare rather than with
49Ibid., 3.20.16.
50Ibid., 3.20.15.
51Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed. (Nashville: Broadman,
2013), 238.
52Calvin, Institutes 3.20.16.
53Ibid., 3.20.34.
54Ibid., 3.20.35. See also Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:316.
55Calvin, Institutes 3.20.35.
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 13
temporal comfort.56 Calvin saw this twofold division among the six petitions as somewhat parallel to the two tables of the law.57 Calvin did
not think that the Lord’s Prayer was given in order to specify the exact
words which believers should use. As he put it, when the believer prays
“the words may be utterly different, yet the sense ought not to vary.”58
According to Calvin, the Lord’s Prayer was intended to guide the believer’s desires so that he might offer up petitions that are pleasing to
In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ begins by addressing God as “our Father in heaven” (Matt 6:9).60 Calvin noted that this form of address
acknowledges both God’s fatherly love and his infinite power.61 As a
model for believers to follow, it expresses great confidence in the access
that God’s children have to the Father through Christ and in the
boundless power of the one addressed. The title “Father” suggests that
the believer—the one praying—has been made a child of God and a
brother of God’s eternal son.62 In keeping with this, Calvin asked,
“Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the
honor of a son of God unless we had been adopted as children of grace
in Christ? He, while he is the true Son, has of himself been given us as a
brother that what he has of his own nature may become ours by benefit
of adoption if we embrace this great blessing with sure faith.”63 According to Calvin, this father-son relationship means that the believer cannot seek help elsewhere lest he imply that his heavenly Father is either
unable or unwilling to provide what his children need.64 Addressing
God as one’s Father in heaven declares the believer’s confidence in
God’s greatness and his goodness. In short, it acknowledges both his
ability and his readiness to answer the cries of his children.
The first petition of the Lord’s prayer is that God’s name would be
hallowed or sanctified (Matt 6:9). According to Calvin, this petition is
an expression of the believer’s desire to see God’s name magnified as it
deserves to be.65 He explained,
We should wish God to have the honor he deserves; men should
never speak or think of him without the highest reverence. To this is opposed the profanity that has always been too common and even today is
56Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:316.
58Calvin, Institutes 3.20.49.
59Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:316.
60Unless otherwise noted, all biblical citations are taken from the NIV.
61Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:317.
62Calvin, Institutes 3.20.21 and 36.
63Ibid., 3.20.36.
65Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:318.
14 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
abroad in the world. Hence, the need of this petition, which ought to have
been superfluous if even a little godliness existed among us…. Here we are
bidden to request not only that God vindicate his sacred name of all contempt and dishonor but also that he subdue the whole race of mankind to
reverence for it.66
This petition is both an expression of the believer’s desire to see
God glorified and a request that God would suppress all impiety and
cause his glory to shine forth more brightly.
Calvin understood the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“your
kingdom come”) as an extension of the first so that the two are similar
but somewhat complementary. Calvin defined God’s kingdom as the
reign of God in the lives of his people. He saw this reign as having two
parts, namely, the correction of all desires of the flesh which are contrary to God’s will and then the shaping of all thoughts in obedience to
his will.67 This petition, therefore, is a request that God bring men’s
hearts and minds into conformity to his own desired will. As Calvin saw
it, this request has universal implications. Calvin explained what such a
rule entails: “God sets up His kingdom by humbling the whole world,
but in different ways. For he tames the wantonness of some, [and]
breaks the untamable pride of others.”68 This is a request that God will
save and sanctify the elect while crushing his enemies and frustrating
their rebellious efforts. Such a request, Calvin thought, would necessarily tend to cause the one praying to pull back from worldly corruptions
and all that stands opposed to God’s rule in this world.69
The third petition concerning God’s glory is a request that God’s
will be done on the earth even as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10). Again this
petition is not far removed from the first two, for the honoring of God’s
name and the spread of his kingdom are surely a part of seeing his will
done on the earth. The reference to God’s will here is not a reference to
his secret will but rather his declared will.70 It is a request that God so
move his creatures that they gladly obey and submit to him.71 Calvin
explained, “It is a prayer, that God may remove all the obstinacy of
men, which rises in unceasing rebellion against him, and may render
them gentle and submissive, that they may not wish or desire any thing
but what pleases him, and meets his approbation.”72 While Calvin recognized that the entire world would not be brought into full submission
to God’s will in this age, he still felt that it was appropriate to make a
general request that God’s declared will be fulfilled on the earth. Such a
66Calvin, Institutes 3.20.41.
67Ibid., 3.20.42.
70Ibid., 3.20.43.
71Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:321.
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 15
prayer expresses the believer’s desire to see all rebellion against his Lord
suppressed and, in fact, transformed into glad obedience.
The second half of the Lord’s Prayer—petitions four through six—
have to do primarily with requests that concern the needs of God’s people. The fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is that God would “give us
today our daily bread” (Matt 6:11). Likely influenced by a number of
church fathers, Calvin’s contemporary Desiderius Erasmus (1466–
1536) interpreted this “bread” figuratively as referring to “the bread of
[God’s] heavenly teaching.”73 Calvin rejected this interpretation in favor
of a more literal view that interprets this as a request for temporal sustenance.74 Calvin viewed this request for “daily bread” as a synecdoche
pointing to “all that is necessary for the present life.”75 He explained,
“By this petition we ask of God all things in general that our bodies
have need to use under the elements of this world [Gal. 4:3], not only
for food and clothing but also for everything God perceives to be beneficial to us, that we may eat our daily bread in peace.”76 Calvin believed
that by entrusting one’s temporal welfare to God, one is prepared to
look to God for the greater needs of the soul as well.
The fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer is that God would “forgive
us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). The
debts mentioned here are not pecuniary of course, yet they do indicate
the liability to punishment that follows transgression against a holy
God. Calvin explained this monetary-like language, when he wrote, “In
Matthew, sins are called debts, because they expose us to condemnation
at the tribunal of God, and make us debtors; nay more, they alienate us
73Erasmus paraphrased this petition as “Nourish, Father, what you have begotten.
Provide for us so that we might not lack the bread of your heavenly teaching, in order
that, by its daily consumption, we might be strengthened and become mature, and
invigorated to fulfil your commands” (Desiderius Erasmus, Paraphrase on Matthew,
trans. and annot. Dean Simpson, in Collected Works of Erasmus [Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 2008], 45:117–18). See also Hilmar M. Pabel, Conversing with God:
Prayer in Erasmus’ Pastoral Writings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 138– 42. Dean Simpson implies that Erasmus may have been following the interpretative lead
of Cyprian, Jerome, and Augustine, each of whom saw multiple meanings in this
request for “bread” (Erasmus, Paraphrase on Matthew, 45:118, n. 28). See also
Tertullian who interpreted this request as referring to Christ the “Bread of Life”
(Tertullian, On Prayer, ch. 6, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:683).
Generally speaking, during the Medieval period Catholic interpreters followed the
western church fathers in attributing multiple meanings to this “bread.” Luther initially
interpreted this “bread” as having multiple meanings, but by the time he produced his
catechisms he had come to understand this “bread” as referring primarily, if not
exclusively, to the means of physical nourishment. Calvin, along with Melanchthon,
Bucer, Beza, and several other Protestant Reformers, consistently viewed this bread as
referring to whatever is necessary for physical sustenance (Pabel, Conversing with God,
138; Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Lord’s Prayer [Saint Louis:
Concordia, 2011], 117–44).
74Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:322–23.
75Ibid., 1:323.
76Calvin, Institutes 3.20.44.
16 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
entirely from God, so that there is no hope of obtaining peace and favour except by pardon.”77 In another place Calvin wrote that these sins
are called debts “because we owe penalty for them,” which penalty we
are completely unable to pay on our own.78 This petition is a request
that God would forgive the debts that we owe to the Father because of
our rebellion against him. To this request for forgiveness, a certain condition is also added: “as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
As Calvin pointed out, “No one may presume to approach God and ask
forgiveness, who is not pure and free from all resentment.”79 Our forgiveness of others is in no way the cause of our own forgiveness, but we
should not ask God to forgive us while we refuse to forgive those who
have committed offenses against us.80
The sixth and final petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a request that
God would not “lead us into temptation” but rather would “deliver us
from the evil one” (Matt 6:13). Calvin acknowledged that some interpreters have split this petition into two distinct requests. He rejected
that view, noting that “the nature of the subject makes it manifest, that
it is one and the same petition.”81 Calvin interpreted this petition as a
confession of our weakness and a request that God would shelter us
from the assaults of Satan.82 Calvin noted that the word “temptation” is
often used in Scripture to describe any kind of trial.83 The request here
is not asking that one be sheltered from every kind of trial, including
those trials that God uses to help produce godly character. Instead, it is
a request that God protect the believer from inward temptations that
may encourage the commission of sin. The “evil one” mentioned in this
prayer could be a reference to Satan, as Chrysostom took it, or it could
be a reference to sin in general. Calvin did not have a strong leaning one
way or the other.84 Instead he observed that the end result was essentially the same. Apart from God’s deliverance, God’s people are in constant danger from Satan and the deceitfulness of sin.85
Calvin saw the Lord’s Prayer as the perfect model for believers to
follow as they seek to conform their prayers to God’s will. He did not
think that it was given in order to be mindlessly repeated as some kind
of mantra, though under his direction it was frequently recited in
French during Genevan worship services.86 Instead of a mantra, Calvin
77Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:326.
78Calvin, Institutes 3.20.45.
79Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:327.
80Calvin, Institutes 3.20.45.
81Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:327.
82Ibid., 1:328.
84Calvin, Institutes 3.20.46.
85Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:329.
86According to Robert M. Kingdon, the Lord’s Prayer was sometimes recited twice
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 17
viewed the Lord’s Prayer as providing an example of how believers
should approach God and what kinds of petitions they should bring to
their “Father in heaven.”
Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about Calvin’s personal
prayer life. In fact, apart from the preface to his commentary on the
Psalms, Calvin said very little about himself in general. Based on what
Calvin taught about prayer, it is clear that Calvin considered prayer a
very important part of the believer’s walk with God. But the details of
his own private prayer life remained just that—private.
We do know somewhat more about Calvin’s public prayer life, particularly as it was exercised in the church in Geneva. Although Calvin
affirmed the sovereignty of God in salvation, he also believed that God
uses means to help bring people to himself. And he held that alongside
the Scriptures and the sacraments, public prayer plays an important role
in drawing people to God.87 For this reason, under Calvin’s direction,
prayer was a prominent part of the worship services in Geneva.
In Calvin’s day, church services of one type or another took place
nearly every day of the week. Daily attendance was not required, but
Genevans were expected to attend church services at least twice a week,
on Sunday and then again on Wednesday. Wednesday, especially, was
set apart as a day of prayer.88 Wednesdays were considered a partial
holiday in Geneva, and most businesses did not open until after worship services had concluded.89
Although Genevan church services in the years preceding Calvin’s
reform included prayer, such prayers were typically spoken in Latin, a
language which many parishioners did not fully understand.90 After the
implementation of Calvin’s reforms, public prayer was spoken in the
vernacular and became not only a means by which the preacher addressed God but also a part of the service intended to instruct those
listening in the pews. Under Calvin’s direction, public prayer took on a
new didactic function.
during the course of a Sunday worship service (Kingdon, “The Genevan Revolution in
Public Worship,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin n.s. 20 [1999]: 276, 328).
87Wulfert de Greef, “Calvin as Commentator on the Psalms,” in Calvin and the
Bible, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 97.
88Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 135; Kingdon,
“Genevan Revolution in Public Worship,” 274.
89Elsie Anne McKee, ed. and trans., John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (New
York: Paulist Press, 2001), 157; Thomas A. Lambert, “Preaching, Praying and Policing
the Reform in Sixteenth-Century Geneva” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of
Wisconsin-Madison, 1998), 306.
90Karin Magg and John D. Witvliet, eds. Worship in Medieval and Early Modern
Europe (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 49–50, 55; Robert
M. Kingdon, ed., Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, trans. M.
Wallace McDonald, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 194.
18 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
On Sundays just prior to the sermon in a Genevan church, the
preacher typically offered up a prayer for illumination asking God to
help him preach the word faithfully and accurately.91 Then after the
sermon, the preacher would offer a lengthy prayer of intercession on
behalf of his listeners, and he would exhort them to pray along with
him. This prayer typically was ended with a recitation of the Lord’s
Prayer or an expanded paraphrase of the same.92 Wednesday prayer
services were similar though the prayer of intercession was often replaced by a general exhortation for the hearers to turn from their sin.
However, even this additional exhortation was usually followed by another, more general, prayer by the preacher.93
Many of Calvin’s public prayers were recorded and have been preserved in the published texts of his sermons as well as in his commentaries. In keeping with his preference for “lucid brevity,” most of Calvin’s
prayers are substantial but not overly long. Not surprisingly, they cover
a wide range of topics. In addition to describing the work of God, Calvin frequently prayed for four groups of people: civil officials, church
leaders, church members, and those outside the church.
From time to time, Calvin offered up prayers for the civil officials
in Geneva. He interpreted 1 Timothy 2:1–2 as an exhortation for believers to engage in public prayer for kings, magistrates, and other gov- ernment officials.94 Calvin understood civil government as appointed by
God for the preservation and promotion of both peace and godliness.95
He thought that even if government officials were not providing such
benefits, believers were still obligated to pray for them, and in fact, he
suggested that believers should pray that such unjust officials would
“begin to impart to us those benefits of which they formerly deprived
us.”96 He himself prayed that the civil officials in Geneva would be endued with God’s Spirit, would acknowledge Christ’s lordship, and
would seek to serve Christ by exalting his reign within their sphere of
influence.97 While teaching through the book of Micah, Calvin offered
up the following prayer:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, inasmuch as it pleases you for
the image of your justice to shine in princes and magistrates, whom you
have armed with the sword that they may rule in your name, grant us the
grace that this blessing might also shine openly among us, that by this sign
91Lambert, “Preaching, Praying and Policing,” 326.
92Ibid., 326–27.
93Ibid., 327.
94John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans.
William Pringle, vol. 21 (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 49–53.
95Ibid., 51–52.
96Ibid., 52.
97See, e.g., the “Prayer after the Sermon” recorded in Calvin’s Sermons on the
Beatitudes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2006), 83–84.
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 19
you might witness that you are not only favorable toward us, but also have
cared for our salvation, and have watched over our welfare and well-being.
And may you so enlighten us by your Word, that it may never become obscured among us because of any depraved or inordinate cupidity, but may
it ever retain its pure clarity, that we might walk in the right path of salvation, which you provide and ordain, until at last being gathered in your
heavenly kingdom, we might enjoy this eternal inheritance which you
have acquired for us though the blood of your only-begotten Son, our
Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.98
In addition to praying for civil authorities, Calvin also prayed for
those who served as church leaders in Geneva. He prayed that church
leaders would be led by the Holy Spirit and would be faithful ministers
who admonish the wayward while feeding the hungry.99 He asked God
to enable those who preach to be filled with divine power for the good
of God’s people. For example, as he taught from Micah chapter three,
Calvin prayed,
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, since you have willed for us to be
governed by the preaching of your Holy Word, grant that those who are
charged with fulfilling this office may be increasingly endued with your
heavenly power, that they might not attempt anything of their own, but
with all their power truly employ themselves in service to you and to us,
and that we might truly become the temple of your majesty, all the days of
our life, that we might finally one day come into your heavenly sanctuary,
to which you daily invite us, since you have opened that door, once and
for all, through the blood of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus
Christ. Amen.100
Similarly, Calvin prayed for the churches in Geneva to be “delivered from the mouths of ravening wolves and hirelings.”101 More specifically, he prayed for the people in the churches to be controlled by
the Spirit of God and wholly submitted to his Word. Calvin prayed
that God’s people would have an appetite to hear and obey the Scriptures. Such obedience would ultimately lead to the glory of God.102
Calvin’s public prayers frequently included strong expressions of
grief over sin. He confessed that apart from God’s abundant grace,
God’s people would be lost and worthy of divine condemnation.103 For
this reason, he often asked God to forgive his people for their sin
against him.104 For example, Calvin prayed,
98John Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. Benjamin Wirt Farley
(Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2003), 153.
99Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes, 84.
100Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, 183.
101Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes, 84.
102Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, 48.
103John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 3, Jonah, Micah,
Nahum, trans. John Owen (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 114.
104Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes, 83.
20 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, seeing that since antiquity it has
always pleased you to extend your grace toward your people, as perverse
and rebellious as they were; and that you have never ceased to exhort them
to repentance, but have always taken them by your hand through your
prophets; grant us also your grace today, that your same Word may resound in our ears; and, if at first we should not profit from your holy
teaching as we ought; nonetheless, do not reject us; but by your Spirit
subdue and so reign over our minds and affections, that being truly humbled and brought low, we give you the glory that your majesty is due; so
that being clothed by your love and fatherly favor, we may submit ourselves totally to you, while at the same time embracing that goodness
which you have provided and offered us in our Lord Jesus; that we might
never doubt again that you alone are our Father, until that day that we rejoice in your heavenly promise, which has been acquired for us by the
blood of your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
At times, Calvin also offered up more general prayers for “all men
everywhere.” Despite the oft-depicted caricature of Calvin as a man
who believed in predestination at the expense of evangelism, Calvin
actually expressed great interest in seeing the lost converted.106 From the
pulpit in Geneva, Calvin prayed for the lost to be enlightened by God’s
Spirit and brought to saving faith in Christ. He prayed that such would
take place for the good of those converted and so that they might worship God within the body of Christ. For example, as part of a longer
prayer, Calvin said,
Next we pray, most gracious God and merciful Father, for all men
generally. Since you desire all men to acknowledge you as Saviour of the
world, through the redemption won by our Lord Jesus Christ, may those
who do not know him, being in darkness and captive to ignorance and error—may they by the light of your Holy Spirit and the preaching of your
gospel, be led into the way of salvation, which is to know you, the only
true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. May those whom you
have already visited with your grace, and enlightened by the knowledge of
your Word, grow in all goodness, enriched by your spiritual blessing, so
that together we may all worship you with heart and voice, giving honour
and homage to Christ, our Master, King and Lawgiver.107
Calvin offered up thousands of public prayers over the course of
several decades, and the content of such prayers surely ranged further
than can be fully summarized in a few pages. However, among those
prayers that have been preserved, one most frequently finds Calvin acknowledging God’s power and goodness and praying for the spiritual
good of civil authorities, church leaders, church members, and ultimately all people in general. In addition to teaching about prayer in the
105Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, 48.
106For a helpful discussion of Calvin’s missionary vision, see Michael A. G. Haykin
and C. Jeffrey Robinson Sr., To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and
Legacy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).
107Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes, 84–85.
John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer 21
Institutes and elsewhere, Calvin used the pulpits of Geneva to provide
believers with a model of healthy prayer that glorifies God by acknowledging him as the source of spiritual vitality and the giver of all good
Contrary to the claims of some opponents of Calvinism, a Calvinistic worldview does not make prayer “practically meaningless.”108 Calvin
himself was very interested in encouraging believers to pray and in
teaching them how to pray in a way that would glorify God. Calvin
spent a significant section of the Institutes explaining why believers
should pray to God with the overarching reason being that prayer is the
means God has ordained for believers to receive help to live as they
ought. Calvin believed that the importance of prayer calls for serious
thought to be given as to how one should pray, and so he suggested
helpful guidelines drawn from Scripture to help a believer pray in a way
that will please God.
Calvin viewed the Lord’s Prayer as a model of how believers should
approach God in prayer. As he saw it, the Lord’s Prayer encompasses
the kinds of petitions God’s people should bring to their heavenly Father. Although Calvin did not think the Lord’s Prayer should be mindlessly repeated, he did think it was quite proper to recite the Lord’s
Prayer in public worship. Often, in his public prayers, Calvin would
conclude by repeating the Lord’s Prayer. Thankfully, many of Calvin’s
public prayers were written down in texts that have survived to the present day. A quick survey of his public prayers suggests that Calvin often
prayed on behalf of various groups of people including government officials, church leaders, church members, and even “all men in general.”
Calvin’s prayers were certainly directed to God, but they also served as a
means by which Calvin endeavored to teach the people of Geneva how
to pray to their Father in heaven. Despite the claims of some, Calvin
was a pastor-theologian who was keenly interested in seeing God’s people learn to pray, for he believed that when God’s people fail to pray
they are as foolish as a man who neglects a treasure hidden in the earth
after it has been pointed out to him.109
108Cox, Not One Little Child, 88.
109Calvin, Institutes 3.20.1.


“For this is the will of God, even your sanctification.” 1 Thessalonians 4:3

The word sanctification signifies to consecrate and set apart to a holy use: thus they are sanctified people who are separated from the world, and set apart for God’s service. Sanctification has a privative and a positive part.

I. A privative part, which lies in the purging out of sin. Sin is compared to leaven, which sours; and to leprosy, which defiles. Sanctification purges out “the old leaven.” Though it does not take away the life of sin—yet it takes away the love of sin.

II. A positive part, which is the spiritual refining of the soul; which in Scripture is called a “renewing of our mind,” and a “partaking of the divine nature.” The priests in the law were not only washed in the great laver—but adorned with glorious apparel. Exodus 28:2. Just so, sanctification not only washes from sin—but adorns with purity.

What is the NATURE of sanctification?

It is a principle of grace savingly wrought, whereby the heart becomes holy, and is made after God’s own heart. A sanctified person bears not only God’s name—but his image. In opening the nature of sanctification, I shall lay down these seven positions:

(1.) Sanctification is a SUPERNATURAL thing; it is divinely infused. We are naturally polluted, and to cleanse, God takes to be his prerogative. “I am the Lord, who sanctifies you.” Weeds grow by themselves. Flowers must be planted and cultivated. Sanctification is a flower of the Spirit’s planting, therefore it is called, “The sanctification of the Spirit.” 1 Pet 1:2.

(2.) Sanctification is an INTERNAL thing; it lies chiefly in the heart. It is called “the adorning the hidden man of the heart.” 1 Pet 3:4. The dew wets the leaf—but the sap is hidden in the root. Just so, the religion of some consists only in externals—but sanctification is deeply rooted in the soul. “In the hidden part you shall make me to know wisdom.” Psalm 51:6.

(3.) Sanctification is an EXTENSIVE thing: it spreads into the whole man. “May the God of peace sanctify you wholly.” As original corruption has depraved all the faculties—”the whole head is sick, the whole heart faint,” no part sound, as if the whole volume of blood were corrupted; just so, sanctification goes over the whole soul. After the fall, there was ignorance in the mind; but in sanctification, we are “light in the Lord.” After the fall, the will was depraved; there was not only impotence to good—but obstinacy. In sanctification, there is a blessed pliableness in the will, with the will of God. After the fall, the affections were misplaced on wrong objects; in sanctification, they are turned into a sweet order and harmony—the grief placed on sin, the love on God, the joy on heaven. Thus sanctification spreads itself as far as original corruption; it goes over the whole soul. “May God of peace sanctify you wholly.” He is not a sanctified person who is good only in some part—but who is all over sanctified; therefore, in Scripture, grace is called a “new man,” not a new eye or a new tongue—but a “new man.” Col 3:10. A good Christian, though he is sanctified but in part—yet in every part.

(4.) Sanctification is an intense and ARDENT thing. Its properties burn within the believer. “Fervent in spirit.” Rom 12:2. Sanctification is not a dead form—but it is inflamed into zeal. We call water hot, when it is so in the third or fourth degree. Just so, he is holy whose true religion is heated to some degree, and his heart boils over in love to God.

(5.) Sanctification is a BEAUTIFUL thing. It makes God and angels fall in love with us. “The beauties of holiness.” Psalm 110:3. As the sun is to the world, so is sanctification to the soul, beautifying and bespangling it in God’s eyes. That which makes God glorious must needs make us so. Holiness is the most sparkling jewel in the Godhead. “Glorious in holiness.” Sanctification is the first fruit of the Spirit; it is heaven begun in the soul. Sanctification and glory differ only in degree. Sanctification is glory in the seed; and glory is sanctification in the flower. Holiness is the quintessence of happiness.

(6.) Sanctification is an ABIDING thing. “His seed remains in him.” He who is truly sanctified, cannot fall from that state. Indeed, mere seeming holiness may be lost—colors may wash off. Sanctification may suffer an eclipse. “You have left your first love.” True sanctification is a blossom of eternity. “The anointing which you have received, abides in you.” He who is truly sanctified can no more fall away, than the angels which are fixed in their heavenly orbs.

(7.) Sanctification is a PROGRESSIVE thing. It is growing; it is compared to seed which grows: first the blade springs up, then the ear, then the ripe corn in the ear. Such as are already sanctified may be more sanctified. Justification does not admit of degrees; a believer cannot be more elected or justified than he is—but he may be more sanctified than he is. Sanctification is still increasing, like the morning sun, which grows brighter to the full meridian. Knowledge is said to increase, and faith to increase. Col 1:10; 2 Cor 10:5. A Christian is continually adding an inch to his spiritual stature. It is not with us as it was with Christ, who received the Spirit without measure; for Christ could not be more holy than he was. We have the Spirit only in measure, and may be still augmenting our grace; as Apelles, when he had drawn a picture, would be still mending it with his pencil. The image of God is drawn but imperfectly in us, therefore we must be still mending it, and drawing it in more lively colors. Sanctification is progressive; if it does not grow—it is because it does not live. Thus you see the nature of sanctification.

What are the COUNTERFEITS of sanctification?

There are things which look like sanctification—but are not.

(1.) The first counterfeit of sanctification is MORAL VIRTUE. To be just, to be temperate, to have a kind demeanor; not to have one’s escutcheon blotted with ignominious scandal, is good—but not enough; it is not sanctification. A field-flower differs from a garden-flower. Many heathen have attained to morality; as Cato, Socrates, and Aristides have. Civility is but nature refined; there is nothing of Christ there, and the heart may be foul and impure. Under these beautiful leaves of civility the worm of unbelief may be hidden! A moral person has a secret antipathy against grace: he hates vice, and he hates grace as much as vice. The snake has a beautiful color—but a sting. A person adorned and cultivated with moral virtue, has a secret spleen against sanctity. The Stoics who were the chief of the moralized heathens, were the bitterest enemies Paul had. Acts 17:18.

(2.) The second counterfeit of sanctification is SUPERSTITIOUS DEVOTION. This abounds in Popery; adorations, images, altars, vestments, and holy water—are far from sanctification. This religious frenzy does not put any intrinsic goodness into a man, it does not make a man better. If the legal purifications and washings, which were of God’s own appointing, did not make those who used them more holy; and the priests, who wore holy garments, and had holy oil poured on them—were not more holy without the anointing of the Spirit; then surely those superstitious innovations in religion, which God never appointed, cannot contribute any holiness to men. A superstitious holiness costs no great labor; there is nothing of the heart in it. If to count over a few beads, or bow to an idol, or sprinkle themselves with holy water were sanctification, and all that is required of those who should be saved—then hell would be empty, none would go there!

(3.) The third counterfeit of sanctification is HYPOCRISY; when men make a pretense of that holiness which they have not. As a comet may shine like a star—a luster may shine from their profession, which dazzles the eyes of the beholders. “Having a form of godliness—but denying the power.” These are lamps without oil; whited sepulchers, like the Egyptian temples, which had beautiful outsides—but within were filled with spiders and vermin. The apostle speaks of true holiness, Eph 4:24; implying that there is holiness which is spurious and sham. “You have a name to live—but are dead;” like pictures and statues which are destitute of a vital principle. “Clouds without water.” They pretend to be full of the Spirit—but are empty clouds.

This show of sanctification is a self-delusion. He who takes copper instead of gold, wrongs himself; the most counterfeit professor deceives others while he lives—but deceives himself when he dies! To pretend to holiness when there is none, is a vain thing. What were the foolish virgins the better, for their fine lamps, when they lacked oil? What is the lamp of profession, without the oil of saving grace? What comfort will a show of holiness yield at last? Will painted gold enrich? Will painted wine refresh him who is thirsty? Will painted holiness be a cordial at the hour of death? A pretense of sanctification is not to be rested in. Many ships, that have had the name of ‘the Hope’, ‘the Safeguard’, ‘the Triumph’, have been dashed and destroyed upon rocks. Just so, many who have had the name of saints—have been cast into hell.

(4.) The fourth counterfeit of sanctification is RESTRAINING grace—when men forbear vice, though they do not hate it. This may be the sinner’s motto, “Gladly I would—but I dare not.” The dog has a mind to the bone—but is afraid of the cudgel. Just so, men have a mind to lust—but conscience stands as the angel, with a flaming sword, and affrights them. They have a mind to revenge—but the fear of hell is a curb-bit to check them. There is no change of heart; sin is curbed—but not cured. A lion may be in chains—but is a lion still.

(5.) The fifth counterfeit of sanctification is COMMON grace—which is a slight, transient work of the Spirit—but does not amount to conversion. There is some light in the judgement—but it is not humbling. There are some checks in the conscience—but they are not awakening. This looks like sanctification—but is not. Men have convictions wrought in them—but they break loose from them again, like the deer, which, being shot, shakes out the arrow. After conviction, men go into the house of mirth, and take the harp to drive away the spirit of sadness—and so all dies and comes to nothing.

Wherein appears the NECESSITY of sanctification? In six things:

(1.) God has called us to it. “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3. We are called to goodness, as well as glory. “God has not called us to uncleanness—but unto holiness.” We have no call to sin; we may have a temptation—but no call to sin; no call to be proud, or unclean; but we have a call to be holy.

(2.) Without sanctification, there is no evidencing our justification. Justification and sanctification go together. “But you are sanctified—but you are justified.” “Pardoning iniquity,” Micah 7:18; there is justification. “He will subdue our iniquities,” 5:19; there is sanctification. “Out of Christ’s side came blood and water;” blood for justification; water for sanctification. Such as have not the water out of Christ’s side to cleanse them, shall never have the blood out of his side to save them.

(3.) Without sanctification we have no title to the new covenant. The covenant of grace is our charter for heaven. The condition of the covenant is, “That God will be our God.” But who are savingly interested in the covenant, and may plead the benefit of it? Sanctified people only. “A new heart will I give you, and I will put my Spirit within you, and I will be your God.” If a man makes a will, none but such people as are named in the will, can lay claim to the will. Just so, God makes a will and testament—but it is limited to such as are sanctified; and it is high presumption for anyone else to lay claim to the will.

(4.) There is no going to heaven without sanctification. “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” God is a holy God, and he will allow no unholy creature to come near him. A king will not allow a man with plague-sores to approach into his presence. Heaven is not like Noah’s ark—where the clean beasts and the unclean entered. No unclean beasts come into the heavenly ark; for though God allows the wicked to live awhile on the earth, he will never allow heaven to be pestered with such vermin! Are they fit to see God—who wallow in wickedness? Will God ever lay such vipers in his bosom? “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” It must be a clear eye that sees a bright object: only a holy heart can see God in his glory. Sinners may see God as an enemy—but not as a friend! They will have an affrighting vision of him—but not a beatific vision! They will see the flaming sword—but not the mercy-seat! Oh then, what need is there of sanctification!

(5.) Without sanctification all our holy things are defiled. “Unto those who are defiled, is nothing pure.” Under the law, “If one of you is carrying a holy sacrifice in his robes and happens to brush against some bread or stew, wine or oil, or any other kind of food—will it also become holy?” No, the holy sacrifice would not purify the other things—but it would be polluted by those things. Hag 2:12, 13. This is an emblem of a sinner’s polluting his holy offering. A foul stomach turns the best food into ill humours. Just so, an unsanctified heart pollutes prayers, alms, and sacraments. This evinces the necessity of sanctification. Sanctification makes our holy things accepted. A holy heart is the altar, which sanctifies the offering; if not to our satisfaction, yet to God’s acceptance.

(6.) Without sanctification we can show no sign of our election. 2 Thess 2:13. Election is the cause of our salvation, sanctification is our evidence. Sanctification is the ear-mark of Christ’s elect sheep.

What are the SIGNS of sanctification?

First, such as are sanctified, can remember a time when they were unsanctified. “Once we too were foolish and disobedient. We were misled by others and became slaves to many wicked desires and evil pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy. We hated others, and they hated us. But then God our Savior showed us his kindness and love. He saved us, not because of the good things we did, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins and gave us a new life through the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:3-5. We were in our blood, and then God washed us with water, and anointed us with oil. Ezek 16:9. Those trees of righteousness which blossom and bear almonds, can remember when they were like Aaron’s dry rod—not one blossom of holiness growing. A sanctified soul can remember when it was estranged from God through ignorance and vanity—and when free grace planted this flower of holiness in it.

A second sign of sanctification is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit which dwells in us.” An unclean spirit dwells in the wicked and carries them to pride, lust, revenge; the devil enters into these swine! But the Spirit of God dwells in the elect, as their guide and comforter. The Spirit possesses the saints. God’s Spirit sanctifies the imagination, causing it to mint holy thoughts; and sanctifies the will by putting a new bias upon it, whereby it is inclined to godliness. He who is sanctified, has the influence of the Spirit, though not the essence of the Spirit.

A third sign of sanctification is an antipathy against sin. “I hate every wrong path.” Psalm 119:104. A hypocrite may leave sin—yet love it; as a serpent casts its coat—but keeps its sting! But a sanctified person can say he not only leaves sin—but loathes it. In a sanctified soul, there is a holy antipathy against sin; and antipathies can never be reconciled. Because a man has an antipathy against sin—he cannot but oppose it, and seek the destruction of it.

A fourth sign of sanctification is the spiritual performance of duties, with the heart, and from a principle of loveThe sanctified soul prays out of a love to prayer. A man may have gifts to admiration; he may speak as an angel dropped out of heaven—yet he may be carnal in spiritual things; his services may not come from a renewed principle, nor be carried upon the wings of delight in duty. A sanctified soul worships God in the Spirit. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrificesacceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 2:5. God judges not of our duties by their length—but by the love from which they spring.

A fifth sign is a holy life. “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” 1 Peter 1:15. Where the heart is sanctified, the life will be holy. The temple had gold without, as well as within. A coin has the king’s image and superscription stamped on it. Just so, where there is sanctification, there is not only God’s image in the heart—but a superscription of holiness written in the life. Some say they have good hearts—but their lives are wicked. “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness.” If the water is foul in the bucket, it cannot be clean in the well. “The king’s daughter is all glorious within.” Psalm 45:13. There is holiness of heart. “Her clothing is of wrought gold.” There is holiness of life. Grace is most beautiful, when its light so shines that others may see it; this adorns true religion, and makes proselytes to the faith.

A sixth sign is steadfast resolution. He is resolved never to part with his holiness. Let others reproach it—he loves it the more. Let water be sprinkled on the fire—it burns the more. He says, as David, when Michal reproached him for dancing before the ark, “If this is to be vile—I will yet be more vile!” Let others persecute him for his holiness, he says as Paul, “None of these things move me!” He prefers sanctity before safety; and had rather keep his conscience pure than his skin whole. He says as Job, “My integrity I will hold fast, and not let it go!” He will rather part with his life, than his conscience.

Use one: The main thing a Christian should look after, is sanctification. This is “the one thing needful.” Sanctification gives us a pure complexion, it makes us as the heavens, bespangled with stars. Sanctification is our nobility, by it we are born of God, and partake of the divine nature. Sanctification is our riches, therefore compared to rows of jewels, and chains of gold. Canticles 1:10. Sanctification is our best certificate for heaven. What evidence have we else to show? Have we knowledge? So has the devil. Do we profess religion? Satan often appears in Samuel’s mantle, and transforms himself into an angel of light. But our certificate for heaven is sanctification. Sanctification is the first fruits of the Spirit; the only coin that will pass current in the other world. Sanctification is the evidence of God’s love. We cannot know God’s saving love by his giving us health, riches, or success; but only by the drawing his image of sanctification on us, by the pencil of the Holy Spirit—it is known.

Oh the misery of such as are destitute of a principle of sanctification! They are spiritually dead. Eph 2:1. Though they breathe—yet they do not live. The greatest part of the world remains unsanctified. “The world lies in wickedness.” That is, the major part of the world. Many call themselves Christians—but blot out the word ‘saints’. You may as well call him a man—who lacks reason; as him a Christian—who lacks grace.

Some are buoyed up to such a height of wickedness, that they hate and deride sanctification. They hate it. It is bad to lack holiness—it is worse to hate it. They embrace the form of religion—but hate the power. As the vulture hates sweet smells—so they hate the the perfume of holiness. They say in derision, ‘These are your holy ones!’ To deride sanctification argues a high degree of atheism, and is a black brand of reprobation. Scoffing Ishmael was cast out of Abraham’s family; and such as scoff at holiness shall be cast out of heaven!

Use two: Above all things pursue after sanctification. Seek grace more than gold. “Keep her, for she is your life!”

What are the chief INDUCEMENTS to sanctification?

(1.) It is the will of God that we should be holy. “This is the will of God—your sanctification.” As God’s Word must be the rule, so his will must be the reason of our actions. This is the will of God—our sanctification. Perhaps it is not the will of God we should be rich—but it is his will that we should be holy. God’s will is our warrant.

(2.) Jesus Christ has died for our sanctification. Christ shed his blood to wash off our impurity. The cross was both an altar and a laver. “Our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Titus 2:13-14. If we could be saved without holiness, Christ needed not have died. Christ died, not only to save us from wrath—but from sin!

(3.) Sanctification makes us resemble God. It was Adam’s sin—that he aspired to be like God in omniscience; but we must endeavor to be like him in sanctity. It is a clear glass—in which we can see a face; it is a holy heart—in which something of God can be seen. Nothing of God can be seen in an unsanctified man—but you may see Satan’s picture in him. Envy is the devil’s eye, hypocrisy his cloven foot; but nothing of God’s image can be seen in him. “Just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written–Be holy, because I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:15-16.

(4.) Sanctification is that which God bears a great love to. God is not drawn to any person’s outward beauty, great abilities, noble blood, or worldly grandeur. But he is drawn to a heart embellished with holiness! Christ never admired anything but the beauty of holiness. He slighted the glorious buildings of the temple—but admired the woman’s faith, and said, “O woman, great is your faith.” As a king delights to see his image upon a piece of coin; so where God sees his likeness—he gives his love. The Lord has two heavens to dwell in—and the holy heart is one of them!

(5.) Sanctification is the only thing which makes us differ from the wicked. God’s people have his seal upon them. “The foundation of God stands sure, having this seal—The Lord knows those who are his. And, Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” 2 Tim 2:19. The godly are sealed with a double seal—a seal of election, “The Lord knows who are his;” and a seal of sanctification, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” This is the name by which God’s people are known, “The people of your holiness.” Isa 63:18. As chastity distinguishes a virtuous woman from a harlot, so sanctification distinguishes God’s people from others. “You have received an anointing from the Holy One.” I John 2:20.

(6.) It is as great a shame to have the name of a Christian—yet lack sanctity—as to have the name of a steward and lack fidelity; or the name of a virgin, and lack chastity. It exposes true religion to reproach—to be baptized into the name of Christ while unholy, and to have eyes full of tears on a sabbath, and on a week-day eyes full of adultery! To be so devout at the Lord’s table, as if they were stepping into heaven; and so profane the day after, as if they came out of hell! To have the name of ‘Christian’ while living unholy, is a scandal to true religion, and makes the ways of God to be evil spoken of.

(7.) Sanctification fits for heaven. “Who has called us to glory and virtue.” Glory is the throne, and sanctification is the step by which we ascend to it. As you first cleanse the vessel, and then pour in the wine; just so, God first cleanses us by sanctification, and then pours in the wine of glory. Solomon was first anointed with oil, and then was a king. First God anoints us with the holy oil of his Spirit, and then sets the crown of happiness upon our head. Pureness of heart and seeing God are linked together. Matt 5:8.

How may sanctification be ATTAINED?

(1.) Be conversant in the word of God. “Sanctify them through your truth.” John 17:17. The Word is both a mirror to show us the spots of our soul, and a laver to wash them away. The Word has a transforming virtue in it; it irradiates the mind, and consecrates the heart.

(2.) Get faith in Christ’s blood. “Having purified their hearts by faith.” She in the gospel, who touched the hem of Christ’s garment, was healed. A touch of faith purifies! Nothing can have a greater force upon the heart, to sanctify it, than faith. If I believe Christ and his merits are mine—how can I sin against him? Justifying faith does that in a spiritual sense, which miraculous faith does—it removes mountains, the mountains of pride, lust, envy. True faith, and the love of sin, are inconsistent.

(3.) Breathe after the Spirit. “The sanctification of the Spirit.” The Spirit sanctifies the heart, as the storm purifies the air, and as fire refines metals. The Spirit at work, generates his own likeness. The Spirit stamps the impression of its own sanctity upon the heart, as the seal prints its likeness upon the wax. The Spirit of God in a man perfumes him with holiness, and makes his heart a picture of heaven.

(4.) Associate with sanctified people. They may, by their counsel, prayers, and holy example, be a means to make you holy. As the communion of saints is in our creed, so it should be our company. “He who walks with the wise shall be wise.” Association begets assimilation.

(5.) Pray for sanctification. Job propounds a question. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” God can do it! Out of an unholy heart—he can produce grace! Oh! make David’s prayer your own, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Lay your heart before the Lord, and say, “Lord, my unsanctified heart pollutes all it touches. I am not fit to live with such a heart, for I cannot honor you; nor die with such a heart, for I cannot see you. Oh create in me a new heart! Lord, consecrate my heart, and make it your temple, and your praises shall be sung there forever!”

Use three: Has God brought a clean thing out of an unclean? Has he sanctified you? Wear this jewel of sanctification with THANKFULNESS. “Always thanking the Father, who has enabled you to share the inheritance that belongs to God’s holy people, who live in the light.” Colossians 1:12. Christian, you could defile yourself—but you could not sanctify yourself. But God has done it—he has not only chained up sin—but changed your nature—and made you as a king’s daughter—all glorious within! He has put upon you the breastplate of holiness, which, though it may be shot at, can never be shot through.

Are there any here who are sanctified? God has done more for you than for millions, who may have many temporal blessings—but are not sanctified. He has done more for you than if he had made you an earthly king! Are you sanctified? Heaven is begun in you—for happiness is nothing but the quintessence of holiness. Oh, how thankful should you be to God! Do as that blind man in the gospel did after he had received his sight, who “followed Christ, glorifying God.” Make heaven ring with God’s praises!

The Puritan View of Holiness

The Puritans wrote a great deal about how to live a sanctified life. Little of what they preached and wrote contains anything unique or strange, measured by their doctrinal heritage. What is special about the Puritan view of holiness is its fullness and balance, rather than its distinctive shape.

The Puritan classic definition of sanctification is well known; we find it in The Westminster Shorter Catechism, questions 35 and 36:

”What is Sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.

”What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification? The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification are:

  • assurance of God’s love
  • peace of conscience
  • joy in the Holy Ghost
  • increase of grace
  • and perseverance therein to the end.”

From these two questions it is obvious that sanctification in the Puritan mind encompasses all Christian living—the entire process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It is a process which begins at the moment of the new birth, and presses on throughout the entire life of the believer until his last breath. The Puritans wanted to see people growing up into strong assurance of God’s love, great peace of conscience, and authentic joy in the Holy Spirit. They said that the way to receive these blessings is through Spirit-worked sanctification. They advised their people: If you don’t seek sanctification, you not only dishonor God, but you also impoverish your own spiritual life.

What did they actually mean by sanctification? Here are four elements in the Puritan view.

Universal and moral renewal
First, sanctification for the Puritans is a divine work of renewal, involving a radical change of character. It springs from a regenerated heart, which is something deeper than any psychoanalyst or counselor could ever reach. God works in the heart, and out of the change of heart comes a new character.

This work of renewal is (using Puritan language) universal. This means that it touches and affects every area of the person’s entire life. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4:4-5 that everything is to be sanctified—every sphere of life.

Holiness is an inward thing that must fill our heart, our core being, and it is an outward thing that must spill over into every detail of our lives. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Many Puritans preached on that text. Sanctification is to be universal.

But sanctification is also moral, said the Puritans. By this they meant that it would produce moral fruits, the very fruits we read of in Galatians 5—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Had you asked a Puritan—what really do these fruits mean when you combine them all together?—he would have said that they represent the moral profile of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

That is what the Spirit is doing in sanctification. He is patterning the believer after the profile of Christ. He is reproducing Christ’s qualities in the lives of His own people. God’s people are those in whom the “Christ nature” (the sum total of all that His human life was) finds new, albeit imperfect, expression. That is the Puritan concept of sanctification.

True repentance
Second, sanctification for the Puritans consists of repentance and righteousness—the two-sided activity of turning from sin to obedience. Repentance, said the Puritans, is turning from sin, and it is a lifelong activity. We must repent every day of our lives, and as we do so, we must also turn to righteousness.

Repentance, they said, is a work of faith. Without the Holy Spirit there is no repentance. The Puritan concept of repentance goes much deeper than mere remorse, or than saying, “I am sorry.” The Puritan idea of repentance certainly starts with remorse, but it goes deeper into an essential change of life. Repentance is an actual turning. It is a hating the things I loved before, and a loving the things I hated before.

Repentance involves mortification, said the Puritans, and vivification. By mortification they meant putting the sword through sin; killing sin; putting sin to death, as the apostle says in Romans 6. By vivification they meant coming alive to righteousness, and giving ourselves more and more to practice and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.

A holy war
Third, Puritan sanctification is progressive, operating through conflict. The Puritans said conflict is inescapable in sanctification, because indwelling sin remains in the Christian, to his great sorrow. It engages him in great warfare and many battles. Indwelling sin works from the inside, the Puritans said, while the world exerts ungodly pressure from the outside. The devil, who plays the role of ring- leader, wants to take those outside pressures and use them along with the internal pressure to regain lost territory. So, although a person conquered by the Holy Spirit seeks to expand and gain the territory of sanctification universally in his life, the devil together with the world and the indwelling old nature, form a front-line of battle in the soul. A holy war is raging.

That is why Bunyan called his book, The Holy War. Sanctification involves conflict with myself, with my flesh, with the world, and with Satan. If a Christian is not battling with sin, the Puritans would say that person should question whether he is a Christian at all.

One Puritan painted this picture. He said that to be a Christian is to walk a narrow, straight path. On both sides of the path there are hedges. Behind those hedges Satan has all the powers of evil at his disposal. He uses his army of demons, and even our internal inconsistencies, and our proneness to fall into backsliding. He uses all these things as arrows, and every step we take along the spiritual pilgrimage he shoots through and over the hedge, aiming at our feet, our heart, our hands, and our eyes. Every step of the way is a battle.

Accepting a struggle
Thomas Watson said the way to heaven is “sweating work.” There is a battle raging, but the work of sanctification, happily, will advance. Sanctification is not stagnant. The Puritans employed Paul’s words of 2 Corinthians 3:18, that we will be changed from one glory to another if we walk in the Spirit. So the true Christian is one who accepts that there will be conflict, but at the same time rests in the truth that the ultimate victory is his. He may lose many skirmishes, but the war will be won, because he is in Christ. The Holy Spirit will lead him, and he will increasingly advance.

However, there is a snag, said the Puritans, because the Christian will often not be able to see any progress in himself. One Puritan said that a woman who dusts her furniture may think she has cleaned away all the dust, until the sunlight shines into her room revealing all the remaining dust. So the more the Sun of righteousness shines in our hearts, even though we may be growing in holiness (and others may see it), we shall see increasingly the motives of our heart.

The important question is not—”Do I view myself as growing more and more holy?” but—”When I look back in my life, say three or five years ago, does Christ mean more to me today than He did then? And do I think less of myself today than I did then? Is Christ increasing and am I decreasing? Am I growing in appreciation of Christ, and in self-depreciation?” This is the Puritan way of examining ourselves with regard to holiness.

Another Puritan way of evaluating progress in holiness is to ask how we are currently battling with temptation. If we are not battling the forces pressing in upon our flesh, we are backsliding. In order, therefore, to make progress the believer must pray at the throne of grace: “Help me to be strong today, Lord. Help me to be pure today. Help me to do righteousness today.” This is the constant desire of the Christian who is making progress in sanctification.

The inner, private person
Fourth, Puritan sanctification is imperfect though invincible. In this life it is never complete. Our reach will always exceed our grasp. Many people do not understand the Puritans at this point. They think that they are introspective, or that they lead us into legalistic bondage, and even into spiritual depression. This is not true.

The Puritans certainly had a very profound concept of sin and of righteousness, while many of their modern detractors have a dreadfully low concept of sin and righteousness. The Puritans felt the imperfection of their sanctification, precisely because they had God’s standard of righteousness before them. They did not compare themselves with their neighbor, but with God’s holy law. Righteousness for the Puritan was motivational in character. What lives inside of you is important. What you do and say reflects who you are within.

One Puritan said, what a man is in private, that is what a man really is in the sight of God. They would want us to ask ourselves: What do you think about? What motivates you? Are you really motivated by love to God? Are you motivated by Samaritanship to others, loving them, doing good to them, and laying out yourselves for their benefit and spiritual welfare? This is the heart of a Puritan righteousness. With this high concept of holiness they naturally felt deeply their imperfections. Perhaps this is nowhere more vividly expressed than in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s questions and answers on the ten commandments. Read them if you will and notice how precise they are, how they probe the heart and how they insist you must love God and your neighbor as yourself.

When, therefore, you read about how Puritans bemoaned themselves, and when you see in their diaries how they grieved over their own wretchedness, remember they are comparing themselves to the perfect God and to His holy law. They were men and women who truly felt Paul’s groaning: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man . . . O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?” They felt their need to flee to Christ every day to be washed afresh. And that is the root of all genuine holiness. Such holiness is invincible. It will never die, but will one day be perfected in and with Christ forever.

This article was adapted from an address given by Dr. Beeke at the Metropolitan Tabernacle School of Theology in 1998, and printed in Sword & Trowel.