“Moreover it has been explained to you that our Lord generously offer himself to us in his Son Jesus Christ, promising us through him all happiness in place of our misery, all fulness in place of our poverty, and opening up to (in him) all his heavenly treasures and riches, so that our faith may wholly look to his precious Son, our expectation be wholly directed to him, and our hope rest entirely in him.”
John Calvin is obviously a man of heated debate. By merely mentioning his name the term Calvinism comes to mind, but that is not the goal of the discussion here. Rather, I am seeking to display some of the rich theological reflection that John Calvin has outside of the soteriological (meaning the study of salvation) debate that preoccupies most people who choose to discount this great Protestant theologian. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin offers a compelling and profound reflection on the purpose and nature of prayer. If we can stand to hear him out even though many disagree with him, I think that reading his words can be deeply formative and extremely helpful in aiding our understanding of prayer. The following essay is only an exposition of a few of the aspects of Calvin’s thought, and I hope that they might lead you to read further. All of the quotes used are taken from the Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Calvin begins his study of prayer at its very basis: God’s goodness and our need. In Christ we have presented unto us the savior, the New Adam who has come and seeks to reconcile all things to himself (Eph. 1). It is the goodness and love of God that moves him to dramatically intertwine himself into the human story. Seeing our desperate need for a savior, Christ was sent and died for us while we were still yet sinners (Rom. 5). In Christ, Calvin explains, we are now able to approach this throne of grace with confidence as Hebrews 4 tells us. Moreover, we need not be afraid of how God will respond to our neediness, sin, and poverty because Christ now represents us before the Father. Finally, Calvin points out that to not call out to God in need (whether spiritual, physical, etc.) “would get us nowhere.” He writes, “For once we have told the Lord of our pressing need, we have every cause to be at peace, for we know that nothing of our plight is hidden from whose goodwill to us is assured [Rom. 8:28], and whose power to assist us is unquestioned.”
Continuing on, Calvin addresses those who view prayer as superfluous because God is already fully aware of our situation and knows what will continue to happen. In refutation, he argues that “it is not for his [God’s] sake that he has ordained prayer but for ours.” The first benefit he discusses is that we may begin to love and revere God all the more as we constantly entreat him with our prayer. Prayer is not superfluous because it helps us realize how truly great God is as well as beginning to realize the goodness of grace more and more in light of this great God. Moreover, prayer prepares us for the benefits that we receive from God so that we may properly recognize and give thanks to God for everything good, for everything that is good is a gift from above (James 1). Calvin also believes that another purpose of prayer is that “God’s providence may… be confirmed and attested in our hearts.” This is obviously a nod to the Lord’s prayer wherein we are encouraged to bring our will gladly into keeping with the will of the Almighty Father. We ought not to try and rope in God’s favor and beseech his will to perfectly suit our will. Yes, we still make honest requests on our hearts. Nonetheless, we must not seek God only for those things, but also that our hearts may be changed so that we rely on his will and providence even if our request is unfulfilled.
We turn now to Calvin’s discussion of prayer as conversation with God, in which he begins with, “we must have that disposition of mind and heart as befits those who would converse with God.” This may cause us to question, appropriately so, what exactly does it mean to be “befit?” This does not mean an abandoning of emotion and concern for our lives; see that Calvin says, “zeal for prayer must be kindled in us by anguish and deep distress.” Rather, Calvin means that we are to approach God boldly, but nonetheless in reverence and awe of who he is, and setting our mind wholly upon him. After all, Christ does say that “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). This pureness of heart is realistically unattainable, and Christ is not asking his hearers to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and make ourselves pure. Rather, we have already been made pure in heart by the regeneration of the Spirit due to the redeeming of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. From this, we see that complete purity of thought is unfeasible for us, which is also why the Spirit was sent to us to relieve this infirmity of ours while we are praying (Rom. 8:26).
The next article written pertains to the necessity of faith when we approach God in prayer. Calvin references Romans 10:4, wherein Paul writes, “How will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” Here we see that prayer that is united in faith with the object of our faith is necessary. Referencing Matthew 8:13 and Mark 11:24, he continues, saying, “since the Lord often declares that to each man it will be done according to his faith, he signifies that without faith we obtain nothing.” This also speaks to the importance of preaching the good news to all that we meet so that they may, too, call upon God and respond in faith. Moreover, our faith should not be hindered by our sin or guiltiness before God because “prayer does not exist in order to elevate us in God’s sight or to commend what is in us; it exists so that we may admire our wretchedness and lament all our ills before him, as a child might in the presence of his father.” Our faith in God is not dependent, therefore, on mustering these feelings of assurance, but living in light of the finished work of Christ. Calvin is not arguing that we ought to feel this fervent faith emotionally, but rest assured in the work of Christ dictating our faith, who is after declared “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). We pray in faith because Christ has united us by his Spirit to the Father, which is not by our work but by the work of the sovereign Lord.
Calvin proceeds to discuss prayer in terms of command and promise. He discusses how Jesus, first of all, sets out the commandment on how to pray firstly in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). Jesus also commands in a plethora of other instances, using phrases such as “ask,” “come to me,” “seek me,” “turn back to me,” and “call upon me in the day of need” (Luke 11:9, Matt. 7:7; 11:28, Isa. 44:22, Psa. 50:15). In these commands given to us by Jesus, Calvin argues that “if, in all our necessities, we fail to approach him, to seek him and to request his aid, we both transgress his commandment and arouse his wrath no less than if we were to make other gods besides him or to forge idols.” This is a bold yet unique understanding of the commandments of Christ. Calvin here is arguing that if we do not respond in faith to the commands of Christ, then this transgression is equal in status to the third commandment (Exod. 20:7). However, Calvin notes that Jesus’ commands are “by means of exceedingly sweet promises.” The beauty we also finds lays bare in Calvin’s quoting of Joel 2:32, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The wrath must not be the reason that we turn to God. Rather, as Calvin points out, it is the sweetness of his promises that will ultimately draw us to God. How can we be assured of this? Is it our merit or our fervency that assures our prayer of salvation and subsequently of petition? Calvin emphatically answers this “no,” writing that “our expectation is wholly grounded on God’s promises and depends on them.” In the same way that “the Israelites supported their requests by appealing to the memory of the covenant made with Abraham,” so we appeal to the memory of the new covenant in Christ.
This leads to the final section I will be covering, which is the explanation of the reason that we pray in the name of Christ. As we all have a naturally broken relationship between us and God, we are unable to draw near to God in our own merit and power. Luckily, this is where Christ comes in as our Intercessor and Advocate (1 John 2:1, 1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 9:15). By invoking the name of Christ in our prayers, we realize that “the Father can refuse nothing to such an Intercessor.” We also, by confidently approaching God in Christ, realize that “God’s throne is the seat not only of majesty but of grace.” The idea of a single intercessor through Christ is something that played a part in the refutation of saints as intercessors which was done in the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin makes it abundantly clear here that nobody other than Christ ought to prayed in the name of. Calvin continues, “and since Jesus Christ by his intercession does not stop us from praying for each other in the church, so also we must agree all the church’s intercession should be directed and referred to his alone.” Intercession is thus described explicitly in Romans 8:4 that encourages the believer, saying, “he, being seated at the right hand of the Father, also interceded for us.” This, of course, is no job fit for the task of merely a human being, and this is where Calvin passionately declares Christ the “one mediator, who provides a way to God for all men.” We pray in Christ’s name because we possess the right to go before the Father represented in the finished work of Christ. We also pray in Christ’s name alone because he is the only suitable Advocate for our poverty and infirmities before God.
We see here a careful and very deliberative analysis of prayer and its purpose from the perspective of John Calvin. With the plethora of insights that we see here, we find that we only scratch the surface of the intriguing and rich ideas that Calvin offers. I hope that this may help us begin to see Calvin in a light outside of words such as predestination or providence, which he is so limited to nowadays. Furthermore, I hope we begin to realize that he was a Christian theologian compelled and consumed by the love that he had for God, as well as wanting to return all of glory back to his Creator. There will always be value in diving into a theologian whether we agree or disagree, and I hope that this gave you a glimpse of a different side of Calvin.