John Calvin on Prayer

Rev. Dr. Victor ShepherdRev. Dr. Victor Shepherd is the Minister, Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, Schomberg, ON, and Professor, Tyndale University College & Seminary, Professor Ordinarius, University of Oxford, and Adjunct Professor, Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto.

No one in the history of Christian thought has written on prayer as much as John Calvin. Few have approached him in sensitivity and profundity. Fewer still have understood the social/psychological situation from which he wrote everything: the refugee who knows that life is precarious, political rulers can't be trusted, betrayal is always at hand; above all, an outer and inner homelessness that will dissipate only in the eschaton as the City of God, long promised God's people, is made theirs eternally.

"Prayer," says Calvin, "is an intimate conversation of the pious with God."1 Yet such intimacy never indulges sentimentality or presumptuousness, for piety (a favourite word in Calvin's theological vocabulary) is everywhere "that reverence [i.e., fear] joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces."2 Obviously, such intimate conversation is never to be confused with saccharine "palsy-walsyness." At the same time, the force of "intimate" isn't to be diminished: through prayer believers do meet God himself — "in person" — and thereby "experience" (another word in Calvin's theological vocabulary that the Reformed tradition reads past too quickly) 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 principal activity of faith believers "receive God's benefits."3

That God's benefits or blessings are sorely needed is never in doubt, for we are "destitute and devoid of all good things." By "all good things" Calvin, it must be noted, isn't speaking morally; he's always aware that fallen humankind, "totally depraved" in fact, is capable of a moral good essential to the preservation of the social order. Rather, Calvin is speaking theologically; he denies that fallen humans are capable of Kingdom-good, that righteousness which pleases God and glorifies him. For these "good things" we must go "outside ourselves" and get them "elsewhere." "Elsewhere," of course, is Jesus Christ. He alone is that "overflowing spring" given us for our eternal good. Needless to say, the "good things" aren't things at all; they are, rather, the promises of God vouchsafed to all believers — since, as will be made evident below, believers are characterized by that long-promised One, Jesus the Messiah, who gathers up in himself and ever remains the guarantor of all the promises of God. Believers can count on "good things" through prayer in so far as they continue to acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the good who comes to his people as the fulfillment of the Father's promises.

The fact that Christ, the overflowing spring, is gift in no way diminishes believers' need to seek in him what they have learned through the gospel to be vested in him. Calvin is unyielding here: prayer is anything but lackadaisical passivity or cavalier somnambulism; 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 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 crave, prayer is nonetheless a human act or activity that believers must undertake with unrelenting ardour. Our importuning God, while never to be confused with badgering, attests our seriousness. In addition, as a "sacrifice of worship" it becomes what all the God-appointed sacrifices of old were: the vehicle of God's blessing descending upon us. Apart from such ceaseless importuning, our faith can legitimately be suspected of being "sleepy or sluggish."

God bids his people to ask of him all that he has promised, even commands them to do this. Since God has enjoined his people to pray, and since God has promised to be "easily entreated and readily accessible," not to pray is to advertise oneself as disobedient and distrustful.

Not to pray would also be folly in light of believers' fragility amidst a turbulent world. Their inherent vulnerability means that any slackness in prayer can only mean that they have imperilled themselves. Such peril must be sensed rather than taught, for "words fail to explain how necessary prayer is." Ever the refugee at heart because in fact, Calvin's pronouncement is as laconic as it is plaintive: "The only stronghold of safety is in calling upon [God's] name."

What's more, as the saints pray to God they "call upon him to reveal himself as wholly present to us." Calvin's expression is intriguing here as he struggles to persuade readers of prayer's efficacy. While the omnipresent God is scarcely absent, and while the indivisible could never be partially present, Calvin awkwardly attempts to assure believers that as they pray, God will become startlingly vivid to them, and vivid to them through prayer as vivid in no other way. The outcome will be nothing less than "an extraordinary repose and peace to our consciences" — in the midst of insecurities and treacheries, it must always be remembered, that harass God's people relentlessly.

Having grounded prayer in the command and promise of God, and having exposed the folly of that human fragility which declines prayer, Calvin adduces six reasons for prayer.

The first is "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." There is plainly a godly habituation to which all believers should aspire.

The second is that their hearts entertain no desire or wish that would render them ashamed before God.

The third is that their hearts may ever be attuned to thanksgiving, since they know that every blessing comes from him.

The fourth is that their spiritual alertness may be enhanced as they recognize answers to prayer and subsequently come to meditate "more ardently" on the kindness that alone supplies their need.

The fifth is that they may delight still more in all that they know their prayer has obtained for them.

The sixth is that they may confirm God's generosity and care for them by "use and experience"; i.e., their heart-owned experience of God's answer to prayer and the use they make of what he has given them in turn authenticates the efficacy of prayer, the promises of God, and the reality of their being "in Christ."

Calvin sums up the six reasons by insisting that as they pray, even amidst circumstances dreadful enough to find them groaning (in other words, amidst circumstances that allow for no natural conclusion that God loves them), their praying becomes the occasion wherein they are persuaded afresh of God's love for them.

Whereupon Calvin proceeds to expound his four "rules" of prayer.

Rule One: Those who pray must be reverently single-minded. Realistically Calvin recognizes that God's people, attacked by assaults from without and anxieties from within, can scarcely rid themselves of all worries and distractions, only then to contend with God. In fact these inescapable assaults and anxieties will be part of the content of their prayers. Nevertheless, the mind should aspire to a "purity worthy of God" as it endeavours to contemplate him. Such contemplation can occur only if the mind is "raised above itself." This in turn happens as we behold the "majesty" or grandeur of God. And as the apprehension of God's grandeur takes believers out of themselves, it is never inappropriate for them to lift their hands in prayer, for such a bodily gesture is an aid to raising their mind to him whose holiness is enthralling and whose grandeur can free them from captivity to their mundane predicament without thereby inducing neurotic denial of their pain.

The aforementioned unfolds into a cumulative dynamic: the saints pray to God in their burdened state, pleading with him to fulfill the promises he has made to them; as God answers prayer, they are moved to greater eagerness and ardour in seeking him; their intensified zeal and fortified confidence find him in turn dealing with them "more generously." It all burgeons into an upward spiral that leaves believers ever more ardent, blessed, and grateful.

In none of this, however, is it to be thought that they have God on a string, that he is merely the means to their end. He answers prayer only in conformity both to his name (nature) and to believers' need for sanctity. God never confirms his people in those desires that are childish or ungodly.

Always insisting upon prayer as vigorous human activity; always deploring any suggestion of passivity, indolence or inertia, Calvin maintains that believers' engagement with God presupposes "keenness of mind" followed by "affection of heart." Several matters are to be noted here.

1) Keenness of mind is essential since prayer is an exercise of faith, and faith presupposes an understanding of the gospel, however elemental. "Faith," so-called, that is devoid of understanding is no better than superstition. Moreover, keenness of mind is crucial with respect to believers' apprehension of the nature of the promises and their discernment of answers to prayer.

2) Affection of heart is essential or else faith is reduced to ideation, something that "flits about in the top of the brain,"4 however doctrinally correct. The heart must always be "affected" or else the assimilation of doctrinal abstraction will become a substitute for loving God "in person."

3) Affection of heart can only follow keenness of mind. Anything else confuses faith with sentimentality. God can be loved only as his nature is apprehended, however rudimentarily. Calvin's careful balance here anticipates the strength of the seventeenth-century Puritan movement even as it highlights both the one-sided cerebralism of post-Calvin Reformed Scholasticism and the one-sided Romanticism of Reformed Neo-Protestantism (Schleiermacher).

Calvin admits that if the mind is to be "raised above itself" in appropriate keenness and the heart be genuinely affected, the Holy Spirit must come to the aid of the saints. Never losing touch with the harshness of human existence, Calvin ungrudgingly acknowledges that even the godliest, afflicted with atrocious suffering, are overcome with "blind anxieties" that 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 Spirit never substitutes for them. Calvin is adamant on this point. The Holy Spirit is God; the saints are human; however Spirit-assisted, prayer is always their activity. In short, while the Spirit's assistance can be counted on to foster in them what they can't achieve themselves, the Spirit isn't given so as to "hinder or hold back our effort." Once again the picture Calvin gives of the person at prayer is anything but a bucolic "Now 1 lay me down to sleep." It is rather 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: Those who pray must be aware of their insufficiency. How aware? They must possess "a burning desire to attain" what they most sorely lack. (Calvin's deployment of "burning" in the Second Rule and "groaning" in the first alike attest the ardour and anguish found in true prayer.) Calvin's vehemence here says much. Whether prayer be free or liturgical, it must never be casual or indifferent or perfunctory, "as if discharging a duty to God" where such duty discharged is light years removed from prayer's characteristic intimate conversation with God in person. Calvin abhors the non-reverent habituation born of a "cold heart" and mindlessness wherein they "do not ponder what they ask." In other words, these slackers are both thoughtlessly and frigidly reciting prayers but not praying.

Such people, 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 thinking either that they are not sinners or not thinking that they are sinners. Calvin's subtlety shouldn't be overlooked here: both spiritual ignorance and spiritual drowsiness are alike reprehensible, and reprehensible to the same extent.

Displaying no little familiarity with the human psyche, Calvin admits that moods fluctuate in God's people as much as in others. Therefore their constancy in prayer is governed not by their mood but rather by a recollection that they never get beyond the neediness that forever keeps them beggars before God. If they are prone to doubt this, they need only recall the dangers that beset them on all sides, not to mention the temptations that never cease molesting them (including the temptation to slacken in prayer). Those who quibble over the necessity of praying constantly are most surely exposing themselves to, if they haven't already succumbed to, "hypocrisy and wily falsehoods before God."

One feature of the saints' burning awareness of their insufficiency is their awareness that new creatures though they are in Christ, the "old" man or woman still clings to them. In light of their two-fold determination (even as their determination in Christ is definitive), only the repentant can rightly be said to pray. Self-examination, then, born of Spirit-quickened self-perception, can bring them to that penitence which Calvin advances as alike the preparation for prayer and its commencement.

Rule Three: Humbled through their awareness of their residual depravity, God's people divest themselves of their own glory, eschew all notions of their own worth, and give glory to God alone. Putting aside all self-assurance, their one assurance is God's never-failing care for them.

At this point Calvin returns to a theme found in Rule Two; namely, confession of guilt and the forgiveness from God by which the saints are reconciled to him. For only as they are reconciled to God will they receive anything from God; only as they are pardoned will they find God propitious.

Few words in Calvin's theology loom larger than the lattermost. To say that God is propitious is to say that he is fatherly, benevolent, merciful. Believers know God to be propitious inasmuch as they have benefited from propitiation. Propitiation is the averting of the divine wrath at the divine initiative. It must be distinguished from expiation, the bearing of sin and the bearing of it away. Expiation presupposes propitiation; propitiation grounds expiation. God can forgive sin only because his anger has been dealt with. Calvin never suggests anything else. In his exposition of prayer he characteristically insists that 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 virtually a sustained amplification of it.

In this regard Calvin maintains that as often as they pray, believers should recall and confess before God not only the atomistic sins they have committed but even the sinnership that infects them systematically. (Here he adduces Psalm 51:5.) In other words, God's mercy — received and enjoyed — alone allows them to approach God and plead with him as Father instead of cowering before him as just judge. The forgiveness of sin underlies their commerce with heaven at all times. Only their conviction concerning God's mercy assures them that their prayers will be heard.

Rule Four: Knowing that the aforementioned appeasement is operative, God's people may and must pray with confident hope. Once again, their confidence here presupposes anything but an unrealistic and therefore ridiculous denial of the upheavals that harass them. Calvin admits that the predicament of believers — it is nothing less than cosmic threat — can find them "troubled by the greatest unrest" and "almost out of their senses." Even here, however, their apprehension of God's goodness fosters hope for their deliverance. In fact godly prayer arises from awareness of both predicament and promised provision, even as prayer contains both: honestly they lay before God their predicament in its perplexity and horror, and expectantly they look to God to "extend his helping hand."

Detractors, of course, are always eager to scoff: prayer must be vain since the results are so very meagre when compared to the ardour and expectation of those who pray. Calvin maintains there to be no point in arguing with the "empty imagination" of detractors. No common ground between believer and sceptic can be found to facilitate an apologetic argument. Apparent frustration in prayer (adequate refutation of the entire economy of faith, say unbelievers) finds believers praying still. Since "no one can well perceive the power of faith unless he feels it by experience in his heart," and since such power is precisely what believers do feel deeper than any seeming contradiction of faith, an apology for prayer is superfluous for believers and unconvincing for their detractors. While prayer is rightly such only if it is "grounded in unbroken assurance of hope," Calvin's point is that assurance of hope is the orbit in which believers live and struggle. Absence of hope, he adds, would mean that prayers are "vainly cast upon the air."

Who among even the godliest can claim to exemplify all that Calvin has prescribed for God's people? Whose hope bears no trace of secretly harboured dubiety? While the demarcation between believers and unbelievers is absolute (albeit known only to God), the prayers of believers are in truth "a mixture of faith and error." Their apprehension of God and his will for them, while certainly real, never approaches comprehension. Their repentance, while sincere (i.e., as sincere as they can make it), remains riddled with self-interest and in any case is never commensurate with their depravity. While Spirit-sensitized believers "feel the depths of evil" within them, the sin that lurks in them is more hideous than they can imagine. In short, their faith remains shot through with unbelief. Therefore it is a singular instance of God's mercy that he promises to hear them even where he finds "neither perfect faith nor repentance."

Then 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, "the power of his death avails as an everlasting intercession in our behalf… . he alone bears to God the petitions of the people." In the mediator all the intercessions of the church 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."


  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 3.20.16.
  2. Ibid, 1.2.1.
  3. Ibid, 3.20.1. Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations in the remainder of this article are taken from 3.20.
  4. Ibid, 3.2.36.