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John Calvin and the Life of Prayer


John Calvin on the Life of Prayer[1]


[1]         What do you believe?   What do you really believe?   Please note that I haven’t asked you to tell me what you say you believe. We all like to think that there’s no discrepancy between what we say we believe and what in truth we do believe. But as a matter of fact there exists in all of us a discrepancy – smaller in some people but larger in most – between what we believe and what we say we believe.

For a long time now I’ve been convinced that what we really believe about God, about the gospel, about ourselves is indicated by what we pray for. If others could peer into our heart they would see immediately how we understand God, what we expect from him, what we hope for concerning ourselves and the church and the world.

Many of Calvin’s prayers have been preserved.   They admit us to his heart. What we are privileged to see of Calvin’s heart through perusing his prayers we find reflected repeatedly in Calvin’s head.   In other words, Calvin’s theology of prayer and his practice of prayer are far more consistent than we find in most Christians.

There’s something else we should know about Calvin and prayer: our beloved foreparent in the Reformed expression of the faith has written more on prayer than anyone else in the history of the church.  While no one has written as much, many have written at length.  Few, however, come close to him in sensitivity and profundity.         This shouldn’t surprise us, in view of the inner and outer situation from which Calvin wrote everything; namely, the situation of the refugee. From the time of his conversion in 1534 until his death in 1564 Calvin was haunted by his awareness that he was a refugee.   Like any refugee, he knew that life is precarious; political rulers are treacherous; betrayal at the hands of the church is ready-to-hand. Above all, the refugee is possessed of an inner and outer homelessness that will disappear only in the eschaton as the City of God , long promised God’s people, is made theirs eternally.


[2]         “Prayer”, writes Calvin, “is an intimate conversation of the pious with God.”  Intimate, yes, but never presumptuous; intimate, yes, but never sentimental or saccharine. “An intimate conversation of the pious with God”? Yes, but the piety of the pious isn’t religiously “smarmy” or sickly sweet.  While “piety” is a pejorative term today, it’s one of Calvin’s richest words, for everywhere in his theology piety is “that reverence [or fear] joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”[2]   In other words, just because we are the beneficiaries of all that God has wrought on our behalf in the cross of his Son, we are constrained to love God in gratitude, and reverence (fear) God in adoration. Piety, then, has nothing to do with religious sentimentality or “palsy-walsyness.”         At the same time, the force of “intimate” should never be reduced: through prayer believers do meet God himself – “in person”, says Calvin. Thereby they “experience” (another rich word in Calvin’s vocabulary that the Reformed tradition reads past too quickly in its headlong flight into near-rationalism); they “experience” that God’s promises are more than a verbal declaration. Categorically Calvin states that “prayer is the chief exercise of faith”, and by means of this chief exercise believers “receive God’s benefits.”

Calvin knew that we shall ever need God’s benefits or blessings, for we are “destitute and devoid of all good things.”   When Calvin speaks of “all good things” we must be sure to understand that he isn’t speaking moralistically.         He’s always aware that fallen humankind, “totally depraved” for sure, nonetheless remains capable of that moral good essential to the preservation of the social order.  Not speaking moralistically, Calvin everywhere speaks theologically: he denies that fallen humans are capable of the good, Kingdom-good, the righteousness that is nothing less than right relationship with God, which right relationship pleases God and glorifies him.   For these “good things,” says Calvin, we must go “outside ourselves” and receive them from “elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere,” of course, is Jesus Christ.  Christ alone is that “overflowing spring” given us for our eternal good. Since Christ alone is this, the “good things” of which Calvin speaks aren’t things at all. Rather they are all the promises of God vouchsafed to believers, which promises are gathered up in the one, grand promise that comprehends them all and guarantees them all. This one, grand promise, of course, is Jesus, the One who has fulfilled God’s covenant with humankind on our behalf.  Believers can count on “good things” through prayer in so far as they continue to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the good, the blessing, who comes to his people as the fulfilment of all the Father’s promises.

While Calvin characteristically insists that Christ is the overflowing spring and therefore sheer gift, the fact that Christ is gift never diminishes our need to seek in him what we have learned through the gospel to be stored up in him. Calvin is unyielding here. While Christ remains gift, prayer is anything but lackadaisical passivity or cavalier sleepiness. Believers must resolutely “dig up” by prayer the treasures of God’s promises as surely as someone, informed of treasure buried in a field, will profit from such treasure only if she pursues it.  While “dig up” never has, for Calvin, the force of pry out of or coax from a grudging and reluctant deity what desperate people need and crave, prayer nonetheless remains a human activity that believers must undertake with unrelenting ardour.  To be sure, we don’t badger God or pester him; still, we must importune him relentlessly – otherwise it can only be concluded that we aren’t serious. Reflecting yet again the seriousness of persistent prayer, Calvin speaks of prayer as a “sacrifice of worship,” insisting prayer to be what the God-appointed sacrifices of old were; namely, a human activity that is yet the vehicle of God’s blessing descending upon us.   Unless we importune God unrelentingly, says Calvin, our faith can legitimately be suspected of being “sleepy or sluggish.”

Calvin, as is his custom, reads scripture so very closely as to note that while prayer is God’s appointed means of meeting our needs, our needs are never the ground of prayer.  Prayer is grounded in the command of God.         Ultimately we are to pray not because we are ceaselessly needy, but rather because God’s command and claim are ceaselessly operative.   Moreover, since the God who commands us to pray is never a tyrant or an ogre but is rather “easily entreated and readily accessible,” not to pray is simply to advertise ourselves as disobedient and distrustful.

In addition, not to pray would also be the height of folly in light of our frailty and fragility in the midst of a turbulent world.   Any slackness in prayer could only mean that we had stupidly imperilled ourselves. Such peril, Calvin notes, has to be intuited or sensed rather then taught, since “words fail to explain how necessary prayer is.”         As is the case with mystery of any sort, words may point to a profundity whose depths forever find such words insufficient, but words can never do justice to the profundity they attempt to describe.   The peril of prayerlessness, then, is a peril sensed by the spiritually alert rather than a peril taught by the verbally adept.  A refugee like Calvin characteristically sensed the peril of prayerlessness, and for this reason could write, tersely and plaintively in equal measure, “The only stronghold of safety is in calling upon [God’s] name.”

Whenever we do call upon God’s name we “call upon him to reveal himself as wholly present to us.”  Calvin’s expression here is intriguing as he struggles to persuade us of prayer’s efficacy.  Since God is omnipresent, could he ever be absent?  Since God is indivisible, could he ever be partially present?   What Calvin is struggling to say, however awkwardly, is that we may be assured that as we pray, God will become startlingly vivid to us, and more vivid to us through prayer than through any other means, however vivid. The outcome of our vivid awareness of God’s presence will be nothing less than “an extraordinary repose and peace to our consciences” – in the midst of all the insecurities and treacheries, it must be remembered, that continue to harass God’s people.


[3]         We have seen Calvin ground prayer in the command and promise of God. We have seen Calvin highlight the human frailty and fragility that renders slackness concerning prayer folly. We have noted Calvin’s insistence that the heart senses or intuits the folly of indifference concerning prayer before the head reasons about all of this. At the same time, Calvin is never one to neglect the head.  And so now we turn to the six reasons Calvin brings forward concerning the place of prayer in the Christian life.

Reason One: We are to pray in order “that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love and serve [God], while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.” Plainly Calvin regards prayer as a habit to which all believers should aspire.   And plainly there is but one anchor, the sacred anchor, despite the plethora of human needs.

Reason Two: We are to pray in order that our hearts, preoccupied with the Kingdom and its righteousness, might never be distracted or deflected, might never be co-opted for anything less than the King himself. As long as our hearts desire him, says Calvin, our hearts will desire nothing that would render us ashamed before God.

Reason Three: We are to pray in order that our hearts may ever be attuned to thanksgiving, since we know that every blessing comes from God (and since, of course, we are grateful above all for the blessing, our eternal salvation given to us from the One who didn’t spare his own Son.)

Reason Four: We are to pray in order to enhance our spiritual alertness as we are increasingly enabled to recognize answers to prayer. What’s more, as we recognize answers to prayer we shall subsequently come to meditate “more ardently” on the kindness that alone supplies our need. (“More ardently,” of course, underlines Calvin’s insistence that prayer is a vigorous activity requiring resilience, perception and persistence; anything, in other words, but a “Now I lay me down to sleep” thoughtlessness undertaken at day’s end when we are too fatigued to do little more than mumble mindlessly before weariness renders us unconscious.)

Reason Five: We are to pray in order that we may delight still more in all that we know our praying has obtained for us.   (Once again, delighting in God is a feature of Calvin’s theology that has found its way into his Puritan successors but has not found its way, it would appear into his successors in many other areas of the Reformed tradition. Two hundred years after Calvin, John Wesley maintained that of all the privileges that unbelievers forfeit, one of the greatest privileges they renounce is sheer, simple, delight in God. If Calvin had been heard characteristically promoting believers’ delight in God, the word “dour” wouldn’t come to mind as soon as the word “Presbyterian” is heard; and if Calvin had been heard characteristically promoting our delight in God, a more charismatic expression of the faith would have found a home in the Presbyterian tradition, and such charismatic expression would thereby have been preserved from an inherent tendency to unbiblical one-sidedness and shallowness.)

Reason Six: We are to pray in order that we may confirm God’s generosity and care for us “by use and experience.”         Here Calvin means that our heart-discerned and heart-owned experience of God’s answer to prayer, together with the use we make of our experience of God; all this in turn authenticates and endorses the efficacy of prayer and the promises of God, even as it confirms us in the truth and reality of our being “in Christ.”

Calvin sums up the six reasons for prayer by insisting that as we pray, even amidst circumstances dreadful enough to find us groaning (in other words, amidst circumstances that allow for no natural conclusion that God loves us), our praying becomes the occasion wherein we are persuaded afresh – all “evidence” to the contrary – that God loves us more than we can say but not more than we now know.


[4] Having articulated the six reasons for prayer, Calvin proceeds to develop his four “rules” of prayer.

Rule One: When we pray we must be reverently single-minded. Calvin, of course, is always realistic (refugees, we must remember, aren’t permitted the luxury of fantasy or escapism of any sort.)   Realistically, then, Calvin is aware that God’s people are attacked by assaults from without and by anxieties from within.  He’s aware that we can never rid ourselves of all anxieties and distractions, only thereby and only then creating “open space” wherein we may contend with God. Our inescapable assaults and anxieties will have to become the “stuff” (or at least part of the “stuff”) of our daily prayers.  Even so, our minds should aspire to a “purity worthy of God” as we endeavour to contemplate him.  Such contemplation is possible only if the mind is “raised above itself.”

The mind can’t raise itself above itself, however, in light of the assaults and anxieties that harass us – unless we behold the “majesty” or grandeur of God. As we apprehend the grandeur of God we are taken out of ourselves, above ourselves. So very realistically and profoundly are we lifted above ourselves that it’s entirely appropriate for us to lift our hands in prayer, says Calvin in a Pentecostal recognition the Reformed tradition appears not to admit, for raised hands help us in turn to raise our mind yet higher to him whose holiness is enthralling and whose grandeur frees us from our captivity to our mundane predicament with its relentless pain, even as all this occurs without neurotic denial of our pain.

What Calvin has just stated we should linger over; we should savour its cumulative dynamic. We who are God’s people cry out to God in our burdened state, pleading with him to fulfill in us the promises he has made to us and guaranteed for us in Christ. As God answers prayer, we are moved to greater eagerness and ardour in seeking him. Our newly intensified zeal and fortified confidence find him in turn dealing with us “more generously.” It all swells into an upward spiral that leaves believers ever more ardent, blessed and grateful.

At no time, however, are we ever to think that we have God on a string, that prayer is a ready-to-hand means of manipulating God, that we have discovered the tool whereby we can render God the means to our end. God doesn’t answer prayer simply on account of our petition; he answers prayer, rather, only in conformity to his name (that is, his nature) and in accord with our need for sanctity. God never confirms his people in those desires that are childish or ungodly.

Calvin, we have seen already, always maintains prayer to be a vigorous human activity; he always deplores any suggestion of passivity, indolence or inertia. For this reason he maintains that our engagement with God presupposes “keenness of mind” followed by “affection of heart.”   Several matters are to be noted here.

[a] Keenness of mind is essential since prayer is an exercise of faith, and faith presupposes an understanding of the gospel, some understanding of the gospel, however elemental.  “Faith” so-called, that is devoid of understanding is no better than superstition or idolatry.   What’s more, keenness of mind is crucial with respect to our awareness of the nature of God’s promises and our discernment of answers to prayer.

[b] Affection of heart is no less needed than keenness of mind, for without affection of heart “faith” so-called will be reduced to ideation, something that Calvin quaintly says “flits about in the top of the brain”, the mere shuffling of intellectual furniture, however doctrinally correct. Our heart must always be “affected” or else the mere assimilation of doctrine (doctrine being abstract by definition) will become a substitute for the concreteness of loving God “in person.”

[c] Affection of heart, we must note, can only follow keenness of mind. If affection of heart were to precede keenness of mind, “faith” so-called would be no more than sentimentality.  God can be loved (love being the affective dimension of faith) only as God’s nature is apprehended, however rudimentarily.

Calvin’s insistence on this exquisitely fine balance of mind and heart anticipates one of the strengths of the Seventeenth Century Puritan movement even as it exposes the one-sided cerebralism of post-Calvin Reformed Scholasticism and the equally one-sided romanticism of Reformed Neo-Protestantism (specifically, the theological liberalism of Schleiermacher, who, we should remember, was Reformed, not Lutheran, and who spawned an ever-burgeoning theological liberalism that reduced the church to nothing more than the world talking to itself albeit with a religious vocabulary.)

Calvin admits that if our mind is to be “raised above itself” with appropriate keenness and the heart is to be genuinely affected, the Holy Spirit must come to our aid. Calvin, as noted earlier, never loses touch with the harshness of human existence, and therefore he is always quick to acknowledge that the godliest people, when afflicted with atrocious suffering, are overcome with “blind anxieties” that so consume them as to leave them unable to voice in prayer what God’s people should be articulating.  Even when they “try to stammer they are confused and hesitate;” their pain beclouds their understanding and stifles their cry. Only the Holy Spirit can help them – even though the Holy Spirit never substitutes for them.

Calvin is adamant on this point.  The Holy Spirit is God; the saints are human; however Spirit-assisted prayer may be, prayer is always our activity. In short, while the assistance of the Holy Spirit can be counted on to foster and facilitate in us what we can’t achieve ourselves, the Spirit is never given so as to “hinder or hold back our effort.”         Once again the picture Calvin gives of the Christian at prayer is anything but a hands-folded hibernation.  Rather it’s the picture of Abraham, of Job, of Jacob contending with God, wrestling in such a way as to exemplify the patriarch’s “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26)


Rule Two: When we pray we must be aware of our insufficiency. How aware must we be? Calvin says we must possess “a burning desire to attain” what we most sorely lack.  Calvin’s vocabulary here says much: his use of “burning” in the second rule and “groaning” in the first reminds us of the ardour and anguish found in true prayer. Calvin’s vehemence is telling. Whether prayer be free or liturgical, it must never be casual or indifferent or perfunctory “as if discharging a duty to God.”    Merely “discharging a duty” is light-years removed from prayer’s characteristic intimate conversation with God in person.   Calvin simply abhors the non-reverent, tuned-out practice born of a “cold heart” and an equally non-reverent mindlessness wherein people “do not ponder what they ask.”         In other words, slackers may recite prayers frigidly and thoughtlessly but they fall short of praying.

Such slackers, Calvin is quick to point out, may possess a vague sense of their need, but they lack the gospel-quickened focus to target “the relief of their poverty.” He illustrates his point by referring to ersatz worshippers who ask for pardon for sin while secretly thinking that they aren’t sinners – or while not thinking that they are sinners.         Calvin’s subtlety here is noteworthy: both spiritual ignorance (‘thinking they aren’t sinners’) and spiritual drowsiness (‘not thinking they are sinners’) are alike reprehensible, and reprehensible to the same extent.

Like all able theologians, Calvin is thoroughly acquainted with human psychology. He knows that moods fluctuate in God’s people as much as in others.  Therefore our constancy in prayer is governed not by our mood but rather by our recollection that however strong we may appear to ourselves at times, in truth we are weak; we never get beyond the neediness that forever keeps us beggars before God.   If we are prone to doubt this, we need only recall the dangers that beset us on all sides, not to mention the temptations that never cease to molest us – including the temptation to slacken in prayer.   If we quibble over the necessity of praying constantly we are most surely exposing ourselves to “hypocrisy and wily falsehoods before God” – if we haven’t already succumbed to such hypocrisy and falsehood.

One feature of the burning awareness of our insufficiency is our awareness that new creatures though we are in Christ, the “old” man or woman still clings to us. In light of the truth that we are new creatures in Christ definitively even as the old creature still haunts us, we need always to repent.  And in fact, says Calvin, only the repentant can rightly be said to pray. Self-examination, then, born of Spirit-quickened self-perception, can bring us to that penitence which Calvin maintains to be both the preparation for prayer and the commencement of prayer.


Rule Three: When we pray we must ever recall our residual depravity (the “old” creature of sin who continues to dog the “new” creature in Christ); and recalling our residual depravity, we must divest ourselves of our own glory.         We must cast away all notions of our own worth.  We must give glory to God alone.   Putting aside all self-assurance, we must content ourselves with the one assurance of God’s never-failing care for us.

At this point in his major exposition of prayer Calvin returns to a theme found in Rule Two; namely, confession of guilt and the forgiveness from God by which we are reconciled to God.  For only as we are reconciled to God shall we receive anything from God; only as we are pardoned shall we find God propitious.

“Propitious”: few words in Calvin’s theology loom larger than this word. When Calvin speaks of God as propitious he means that God is fatherly, benevolent, merciful. Believers know God to be propitious inasmuch as we have benefited from propitiation. Propitiation, a word sadly out of fashion in the church today despite its frequent occurrence in scripture, is simply the averting of God’s wrath at God’s initiative. Propitiation must be distinguished from expiation, the bearing of sin and the bearing of it away. Expiation presupposes propitiation. Or to say the same thing, propitiation grounds expiation.  God can bear sin away only because his anger has first been dealt with. Calvin never suggests anything else. In his major exposition of prayer Calvin repeats a theme that is found everywhere in his theology; namely, Christ’s death has “appeased” the Father.  Calvin’s theology is steeped in the nature and force of propitiation, and his Commentary on Hebrews is a sustained amplification of it.

In this regard Calvin maintains that as often as we, Christ’s people, pray, we should recall before God not only the atomistic sins we’ve committed but even the sinnership that continues to infect us systemically. Quoting Psalm 51:5 – “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” – Calvin insists that only God’s mercy, received and enjoyed, allows us to approach God confidently and plead with him as Father instead of cowering before him as just judge.  The forgiveness of sins underlies our commerce with heaven at all times. Only our conviction of God’s mercy – his propitious fatherliness born of propitiation – assures us that our prayers are going to be heard.


Rule Four: Knowing that God is propitious, merciful, fatherly, we must always pray with confident hope.  Once again, our confidence here has nothing to do with an unrealistic and therefore ridiculous denial of the upheavals that harass us. While Calvin insists that prayer isn’t prayer unless it is undertaken in confident hope, he never pretends that Christ’s people are to work themselves up into pretending that suffering hasn’t engulfed them.  Calvin is too wise ever to hint, however slightly, that confident expectation in prayer means that people are left expecting themselves to be superhuman – a psychological burden, we know today, that keeps therapists and pharmacists forever employed.  Calvin admits that believers can be “troubled by the greatest unrest;” so very troubled, in fact, as to be “almost out of their senses.” Even here, however, our apprehension of God’s goodness fosters hope for our deliverance. In fact godly prayer arises from the twofold awareness of both our predicament and God’s promised provision. Not only does prayer arise from this twofold awareness, all genuine prayer contains this twofold awareness: honestly we lay before God our predicament in its perplexity and horror, while expectantly we look to God to “extend his helping hand.”

Scoffers, of course, are always nearby.  Scoffers relish pointing out that prayer must be pointless since the results appear meagre when compared to the ardour and expectation of those who pray. Wisely Calvin avoids being drawn into playing any game on the territory that scoffers have staked out. Instead he insists there to be no point in disputing with the “empty imagination” of detractors. There is simply no common ground between believer and scoffing sceptic that can serve as the starting point of an apologetic argument for prayer.  To be sure, all believers have undergone apparent frustration in prayer. While unbelievers shout “Reason enough to abandon the entire economy of faith,” such apparent frustration merely finds believers praying still, and praying with undiminished expectation.

Always a theologian of the heart (a feature of Calvin’s thought too readily overlooked not only by foes but even by friends who one-sidedly depict him as a theologian of the head), Calvin maintains that believers “perceive the power of faith” just because they “feel it by experience in their heart.”   More to the point, believers feel the power of faith by experience in their heart more deeply than they feel the seeming contradictions of faith. Because their experience of God’s promise and fatherly care is deeper than their experience of outer torment at the hands of the world and inner torment at the hands of sin, an apologetic argument for prayer would only be superfluous for believers and unpersuasive for unbelievers.   While prayer is rightly such only if it is “grounded in unbroken assurance of hope”, Calvin points out that assurance of hope is precisely the orbit and atmosphere in which Christ’s people live and struggle, look to God and rejoice in him.  Absence of hope, Calvin concludes, would only point to absence of faith; which is to say, absence of hope would only mean that prayers, so-called, are “vainly cast upon air.”


[5] Is there any Christian, anywhere, who claims to exemplify everything that Calvin prescribes for Christ’s people?         Can even the godliest claim that their praying displays a confident expectation without trace of secretly harboured dubiety?   While Calvin, following scripture, insists that the line distinguishing believer and unbeliever is absolute (albeit known only to God), Calvin also insists that the prayers of even the godliest are in truth “a mixture of faith and error.”   Our apprehension of God and his way with us, while certainly real and adequate, is never exhaustive. Our apprehension of God, in other words, while trusting and true, never approaches comprehension (as if we had mastered God and his way with us.) Our repentance, while certainly sincere (i.e., as sincere as we can make it), remains riddled with self-interest; and in any case, our repentance is never commensurate with our depravity. While Spirit-sensitized believers “feel the depths of evil” within them, in truth the sin that still lurks in us more hideous than we can imagine. In short, even the godliest person’s faith remains shot through with unbelief.         Therefore it is a singular instance of God’s mercy that he promises to hear us even when finds in us “neither perfect faith nor repentance.”

Plainly even the most ardent believers can present themselves to God only as they cling to Jesus Christ as advocate and mediator.  Only the propitiating mediator can “change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.”   More specifically, says Calvin, “the power of [Christ’s] death avails as an everlasting intercession in our behalf.…[Christ] alone bears to God the petitions of the people.”

In the mediator all the intercessions of Christ’s people are gathered up and rendered effectual. He who is the promise of God and in whom all God’s promises are fulfilled is the sole, sufficient guarantor that these promises are now operative among God’s people.   Not surprisingly, then, Calvin climaxes his exposition on prayer with the insistence that the saints must ever embrace Jesus Christ “with both arms.”


A Prayer of Calvin’s on the Matter of Prayer[3]

Grant, Almighty God, that as you not only invite us continually by the voice of your gospel to seek you, but also offer to us your Son as our Mediator, through whom an access to you is open, that we may find you a propitious Father, – O grant that relying on your kind invitation we may through life exercise ourselves in prayer; and as so many evils disturb us on all sides and so many wants distress and oppress us, may we be led more earnestly to call on you, and in the meanwhile be never wearied in this exercise of prayer; until having been heard by you throughout life, we may at length be gathered to your eternal kingdom where we shall enjoy that salvation which you have promised us, and of which you also daily testify to us by your gospel, and be forever united to your only-begotten Son of whom we are now members; that we may be partakers of all the blessings which he has obtained for us by his death.  Amen.



Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                     July 2006


[1] Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations are from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 3.20.16.

[2] Ibid, 1.2.1.

[3] Devotions and Prayers of John Calvin, Charles E. Edwards, ed., [ Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1976] p. 39