John Calvin On Prayer


John Calvin (1509-1564) is mostly known for his theology, or for those who hate his theology, there is often an overemphasis on the execution of Servetus, as though Calvin should be the only fallen man who must be perfect. It is too often a cheap hypocritical excuse to not deal with the truth of Calvin’s doctrine. It is on such matters where one sees the importance of taking an historical perspective. When one does so, it is remarkable that this is the only glaring example of inconsistency. No one knew more than Calvin that he was far from perfect, an attitude which he brought to the activity of prayer. Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity stemmed as much from his own self-examination, as from what he observed, but most importantly how he understood the teaching of scripture. It has also been the goal of this writer to see Calvin’s teaching on prayer in the historical context of his time, reflecting on his agreements and disagreements with those who came before him, and as a polemic against the supposed errors of Rome.

Historical Context

There are many who want to look upon prayer and the devotional disciplines in the same way they view religion from an historical perspective, namely to come up with a generic understanding of prayer that will reflect the activity of humans generally. This is not something that Calvin would espouse. Calvin often referred to mystics, philosophers, and theologians who came before him, whether in agreement with some point but more often as a polemic against. Prayer and devotion was in fact a common point of philosophical discussion. Calvin’s first written work was a commentary on the stoic Seneca, who was not alone in criticizing prayer as the “babble that God’s providence, standing guard over all things is vainly importuned with entreaties.” (Inst. XX. 3. 853)

On the other hand, he often concurred with the church fathers, most notably Augustine, that prayer was simple conversation, albeit with reverence for the majesty of God Almighty, but also our Father. Jesus’ example of prayer begins by addressing God as Father (Mt. 6 Lk. 12), because in union with Christ we enjoy a familial relationship. It is also why Christ drew a comparison to the mercy and goodness exercised by earthy fathers, and how much more so with the perfection of the Father (Ibid., 853 ft. 6) Contrary to Seneca, and some calling themselves ‘Christian’, Calvin believed that without the doctrine of sovereign providence prayer was futile. It was more biblical and logical to posit that God predestines the means of prayer as well as the end of fulfillment, than to argue that prayer is profitable if God is not able to fulfill our requests. Though this is not the only reason to pray, it is a part of it, and what the Lord commands us to do, with confidence and thanksgiving.

The Institutes

In his Institutes, Calvin’s chapter on prayer is in fact the longest, eventually leading to a thorough exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. The first thing that Calvin emphasizes is the need for biblical saving faith (Ibid., 850-851). He then listed six reasons why prayer is not superfluous, and which act as prerequisites to biblical prayer. Firstly, we need a holy zeal to seek him with our love and service. Secondly, that anything unholy or distracting must be removed. Thirdly, that we come with an attitude of gratitude. Fourthly, that we approach the Father with confidence because we seek only that which is conducive to his will, as we find it in his word. Fifthly, that we delight in the answers given. Finally, that we give thanks that he has chosen in this way to fulfill his promises to his people (852).

Calvin then posits four rules, or what Wendel rightly calls an ‘attitude’ expressed with four conditions for its propriety. Echoing the second prerequisite above, we must be vigilant to have our minds disengaged “from all carnal solicitudes and cogitations” (Ibid., III.20.5, Wendel, 254). Wendel suggests that since there may be a danger of one viewing Calvin’s four rules in a purely human fashion, Calvin was mindful to turn to the necessary inspiration of the Spirit (Ibid., Inst. III.XX.855). Secondly, that “we must pray at all times” (Ibid., Wendel 254). “’The longing to see the coming of the Kingdom of God and his name glorified’ are all reasons sufficient to justify continual prayers.” (Wendel, 255) It is a mistake to only pray when one is in the mood. (Ibid., 857 Cf. Pss. 32:6; 94:19)

“Thirdly, “’that all those who present themselves before God in prayer divest themselves of all fantasies about their own glory.” (Ibid.) Calvin also wrote of humbly seeking penance (Ibid., 859) Again, it is important to see this word in its historical context. As Luther and others also pointed out, penance, like faith, is not a work that we are then rewarded for exercising, but rather Calvin is quick to guard the biblical doctrine of repentance, so that all is of grace, with no merit if our own. Thus, seeking forgiveness is the most important part (Ibid., 860), with no pleading based on our own merit (861) Finally, trust in the fulfillment of the LORD’s promises is needed. “To ask him for what we do not expect that he will wish or be able to give us is to provoke God to anger. 

Another important emphasis in Calvin concerning prayer is his doctrine of the covenant. “As the covenant begins with a solemn article containing the promise of grace, faith and prayer are required above all things, to the proper keeping of it.” (Lillback, 267). Lillback observed that Calvin saw the covenant motif in the Lord’s Prayer. The two members of Jeremiah 31 are contained in the Prayer, with two graces in the final two petitions. In the plea for forgiveness (Mt. 6:12), we find the two members of the law in the heart, and mercy in forgiveness, coupled with the protection of the Spirit as our aid (Jer. 31:33). Remembering the covenant enables his people to enjoin and entreat the LORD with confidence. Only his covenantal people are able to appeal to the promises of the covenant, while apostates do so in vain (Ibid. 268 Cf. Inst.III.XX.7,14,25 at 631, 639, and 650-651).

Our prayer, then, as in Matthew 21:22, will have to take faith as its guide. For there is no prayer that is pleasing to God but that which proceeds from such an assumption of faith and is founded upon such a certitude of hope.” (Ibid., Inst. III.20.4-12) In addition to his emphasis on the Spirit of God, and a teaching in close association with the doctrine of the covenant, is Calvin’s emphasis upon our union with Christ. Furthermore, the context involved passing on an inheritance of faith to the next generation, so that the saints commonly refer back to their fathers with whom the LORD had covenanted with in the past, looking ahead to their time. 

These all find their fulfillment in Jesus the Christ. “Now, since we have the Lord Jesus, in whose hand the everlasting covenant of mercy is not only made but confirmed to us, then whose name should we rather put forward in our prayers.” (Ibid., 269) Again, it is important to note the historical context that Calvin is interacting with. Rome had posited the belief that we should appeal to Mary or the saints who are past, as though we needed their intermediary compassion to hold sway with the Lord. Calvin responded to this with the biblical teaching that the Lord bids us to come to him directly, that his mercy is offered to us in the same way as it was to the saints who are now in his presence.

One particular aspect of the covenant which Calvin wanted to emphasize, and one that emphasizes God’s grace, is the importance of the promises contained therein. “And we ought carefully to observe the word covenant, by which the Prophet points out the greatness and excellence of this promises; for the promises are more extensive, and may be regarded as the stones of the building, while the foundation of it is the covenant, which upholds the whole mass.” (Ibid., 269 Cf. Isa. 59:21, VIII, iv, 270; CO XXXVII, XV, 351-353) Furthermore, it is the promises of the covenant of grace that gives God’s people their assurance” (Ibid., 269-270), for the promises are ratified and confirmed in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20), and sealed with his blood (Ibid. 270).

Inseparable from the covenant relationship and prayer in Calvin, as with Paul, is the doctrine of our union with Christ, through the Holy Spirit. John’s record of the so called ‘high priestly prayer’ is grounded in this union. At the time this was a doctrine that had been buried every bit as much as justification by faith, but one that also figures prominently in Paul and other of the biblical writers. “Put in simple terms, the doctrine of union with Christ teaches that the Holy Spirit joins believers to Jesus by faith, and that by virtue of this spiritual bond we receive both Christ Himself and all his benefits.” (Ryken in Ed. Parson, 191)

Catechal Instruction

In addition to the Institutes, the subject of prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer in particular also figure prominently in Calvin’s Geneva Catechism. Prayer is the third part of what Calvin deemed essential for every believer, following upon faith in Christ and the obedience consonant with the law. Again, he seeks to reject the place given by Rome to deceased saints as intermediaries, although he affirmed that the assistance of living saints was most valuable (235-238). At #239 Calvin affirms what is called ‘The Regulative Principle of Worship’ which holds that we are only permitted to include in our worship that which is specifically commanded, unlike Luther who believed that anything was allowed that was not specifically forbidden. To this end he stated that words may not be necessary, but that prayer does require understanding and the heart.” (241) It is with sincerity of heart that we are to lay claim to his covenantal promises (241). 

Words alone are not enough (242). Our disposition must be one of humility concerning our poverty, fully acknowledging that the Lord alone is able to provide. (243-244) Indeed, in the Lord’s Prayer we are to pray daily for his forgiveness, and practice the same. Calvin saw six petitions, three focused on the Father, and three focused on our relationship with others, while all are of course to our benefit. There is no room to treat of the whole of Calvin’s teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, either in the Institutes or the Geneva Catechism, and much of it is not unique from a historically Reformed perspective. However, there are a couple of items that are unique to Calvin and those of us who follow with him in the apostolic  tradition. The question is asked, “What do you understand by the Kingdom of God.” (Cat. #268) 

He answered that “It consists chiefly in two things that governs the elect, by his Spirit, and he destroys the reprobate, who obstinately refuse to give up themselves in obedience to him that it may be manifest to all that there is nothing able to resist his power.” Despite the reality of the reprobate, Calvin taught that it is to be the primary focus of the LORD’s people to pray “that the Lord would daily increase the number of believers, that he would enrich them constantly with fresh gifts of his Spirit until they shall be perfected. Moreover, that he would render his truth more luminous, and his righteousness more manifest, by scattering the darkness of Satan, and abolishing all iniquity.” (270)

Furthermore, concerning his will he wrote “That all creatures may be in submission to him and so depend on his pleasure that nothing may be done but by his will.” (271) Calvin was determined to go as far as scripture would lead him and no farther, and this is why he so clearly taught a biblical postmillennial vision of the power of the word to effect God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, with the ministry of the Spirit. This must be a view of the extent of our work, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus the Christ, not satisfied until the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea (Ps. 57:5; Hab. 2:14).

It is also significant to note that Calvin rejected the idea that the gift of tongues or languages continued. He was emphatic that there was no place for supposed prayer in an unknown language that has no impact on the understanding. That is nothing else, then trifling with God. Therefore, such hypocrisy should be removed from Christians (Catechism, #247). Singularity of heart means praying with confidence, if we are asking according to his will (Ibid., 248-249)We are to pray for the fulfillment of his promises acknowledging the reality that he is our all- sufficient Father, and that we pray in Jesus name alone (250-252). For Calvin, prayer must be lawful, that is, praying according to God’s will for us in his word, and this then leading to his treatment of the Lord’s Prayer (253-256). 

There is another emphasis in Calvin which in part was due to the hegemony of Rome and its teaching. Calvin taught that the whole church needs forgiveness, that none merit salvation, nor is there a purgatory that saints gone by can somehow aid those who follow in spending some of their merit for reduced time there (281). On the other hand, Calvin did see a place for living helpers in the church to aid us in our growth, including assisting us in the matter of prayer. The overarching point in the Lord’s prayer, and indeed in all prayer, is that it be in accord with God’s will as we find it in his word.

Other Writings

In his ‘Truth For All Time’ Calvin wrote what he had originally intended for the Institutes, namely “a brief outline of the Christian faith,” to be followed by his catechism. However, since the Institutes became what it is today, this little booklet took its place. In his teaching on prayer, in this introduction, he stressed firstly, the necessity of prayer (49-50). Secondly the meaning of prayer, which he gave with two points from scripture – “invocation (or request) and thanksgiving.” (51 Cf. Ps. 50:15), laying his greatest emphasis on the Lord’s Prayer (52-59). Finally, he stressed the need to persevere in prayer. The main point to draw on is that prayer be according to God’s word, and accepting of his sovereign providential will. “We let ourselves be governed by the good pleasure of divine providence. In fact, even if we have to go without everything, God will never abandon us.” (60-61)

Calvin’s Prayers Surrounding His Scriptural Exposition

Before moving on to Calvin’s treatment of the Lord’s Prayer, it is helpful to look at his prayers associated with his preaching of the word. The following was his common prayer which he uttered before his expositions. “May the Lord grant that we may engage in contemplating the mysteries of his heavenly wisdom with really increasing devotion, to his glory and to our edification.” (Edwards, 9) One can see four parts to this prayer, which very much reflect Calvin’s overall theology.

Firstly, Calvin’s favourite introductory word was ‘grant’, no doubt because he firmly believed that we only have what we have because the Lord grants it. Secondly, the goal was to have a greater understanding of the mysteries which the Lord may choose to reveal. Furthermore, Calvin understood that the goal was more than intellectual apprehension, for he prayed thirdly, that such knowledge must lead one to greater devotion. Finally, the primary motive was God’s glory and our accompanying edification. Calvin knew that for some the word would condemn them on the day of reckoning, but his goal was the former.

It is also important to note that Calvin had more specific criteria for his praying after his exposition, for he sought to pray for the application and fulfillment by the Lord’s people, of the truths just expounded. In no way ought the concluding prayer be of a common or generic nature. Since the Lord deemed it necessary to give us the whole of the biblical canon, each passage must therefore have something unique to say, or important enough to repeat. 

In Conclusion

Piper and Mathis note well the core of Calvin’s perspective on prayer. “Calvin believed that the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, teach us to combine prayer with our meditations on the promises and providences of God. Calvin therefore linked the doctrine of providence to prayer, stating that prayer was the way to keep trusting in God even in the most bitter afflictions-be it physical or spiritual.” (46) It may be fitting to conclude this brief study with a prayer of Calvin’s, which he wrote in concluding his treatment of the imprecatory Psalm 10:11-18, for he firmly believed that these Psalms were every bit as consistent with the new covenant as are all the rest, as calling for judgment not on personal enemies per se, but God’s enemies as pointed out in his word. 

“It should always be observed, that the use of praying is, that God may be the witness of all our afflictions; not that they would otherwise be hidden from him, but when we pour our hearts before him, our cares are hereby greatly lightened, and our confidence of obtaining our requests increases. Since it is the peculiar province of God to take cognisance of all wrongs, David says that it is impossible for God to shut his eyes when the ungodly are wrecklessly and without restraint committing their outrages.” (Heart Aflame, 22) Amen, so be it!

Works Consulted.

Calvin, John. Institutes, Vol. 1 Ed. McNeil Trans. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, MCMLX)

___________Geneva Catechism, Ed. Joshua Torrey (Bolton: [Grace For Sinners Books] 2017).

___________Heart Aflame (Philipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 1999).

___________Truth For All Time, (Edinburgh: Banner Of Truth, Trans. Stuart Olyott 2020 [1998]).

Lillback, Peter A. The Binding of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).

McKim, Donald K. Everyday Prayer with John Calvin (Philipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 2019).

Parsons, Burk Ed. John Calvin, A Heart For Doctrine & Devotion, (Lake Mary, FL.: Reformation Trust, 2008).

Piper, John, Mathis, David. With Calvin in the Theatre Of God, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

Wendel, Francois. Calvin, Origin and Development of His Religious Thought. Trans. Philip Mairet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997 [1950]).

Wileman, William. John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching, And His Influence, (Louisville: GLH Publishing, 2019 [1909]).

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