“THE CHIEF EXERCISE OF FAITH”: JOHN CALVIN AND THE PRACTICE OF PRAYER

“THE CHIEF EXERCISE OF FAITH”:
JOHN CALVIN AND THE
PRACTICE OF PRAYER
by
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,
1
Dr. Aloisi is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Detroit Baptist
Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI.
2
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
work.4
Calvin’s chapter on prayer in the Institutes is also, interestingly,
longer than any discussion of prayer found in any modern systematic
theology.
5
3
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),
l–li.
4
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.
5
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
Institutes.
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.
SIX REASONS WHY BELIEVERS SHOULD PRAY
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
6
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.
7
Calvin, Institutes 3.20.1.
8
Ibid., 3.20.2.
9
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.
14Ibid.
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
17Ibid.
18Ibid.
19Ibid.
20Ibid.
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.
FOUR GUIDELINES FOR PRAYER
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
32Ibid.
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
due.
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
39Ibid.
40Ibid., 3.20.8.
41Ibid., 3.20.9.
42Ibid.
43Ibid., 3.20.16.
44Ibid., 3.20.11.
45Ibid.
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
THE LORD’S PRAYER AS A MODEL FOR BELIEVERS
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
God.59
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.
57Ibid.
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.
64Ibid.
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.
68Ibid.
69Ibid.
70Ibid., 3.20.43.
71Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:321.
72Ibid.
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.
83Ibid.
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.”
CALVIN’S PRACTICE OF PRAYER
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.
105
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
gifts.
CONCLUSION
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.

Author: speakingthetruthinloveblog

Just a sinner saved by the Grace and Mercy of God