Prayer: learning from Calvin

woman praying_0

In his excellent new book “Prayer”, Tim Keller (chapter 7) summarises John Calvin’s four “rules” of prayer. This inspired me to read the original chapter on prayer in the great French reformer’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, and I have not been disappointed. Calvin’s guidance is deep and heartwarming.

Calvin starts with the great question people ask “Why do we need to pray to God at all?” “Does he not know what our difficulties are, and what we need, until aroused by the sound of our voice?”

He replies that “those who argue thus forget the end for which our Lord taught us to pray. it was not so much for his sake as for ours…That our heart may be enflamed with love for and trust in him…that wrong desires may be kept from us as we learn to place our wishes in his sight…that we may be prepared to receive all good things with gratitude.”1

Calvin’s four “rules” for prayer follow, but they are not so much “rules” as attitudes of heart, without which prayer is impossible.

1. Reverence for God

(Psalm 25:1 “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul”.)

Those who engage in prayer do so only when they are “so impressed with the majesty of God that they do so free from all earthly cares and affections”2. We cannot “grovel in the mire” if we want to experience fellowship with God on High.

This also, says Calvin, sets us free from praying for the wrong things. Whilst God encourages us to pour out our hearts over what troubles us (in that sense, anything is on the agenda), prayer is not giving rein to unwise or selfish desires. Rather our respect for God’s glory and greatness means that we approach with his will and desires on our hearts, not our own. “This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

At this point Calvin is making the same point as in the (Anglican) Homily 19 written around the same time, where we are urged to pray first for spiritual needs and then material ones (“seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will  be given to you” Matthew 6:33).

2. Sense of need

(Psalm 50:15 “Call on me in the day of trouble”.)

Casually coming out with words, without a heartfelt desire to be heard and helped by God, is not prayer. Never enter God’s presence without a strong desire to obtain what you ask3, says Calvin. He is not saying that I always have to feel desperate to pray – we can equally pray when joyful, he notes (James 5:13 “Is any of you in trouble? Let them pray. Is any joyful? Let them sing psalms”). But prayer must come from a sense of empty-handedness before God.

We are told to pray “at all times” (Ephesians 6:18) and this reminds us that, even if we are rich and well-fed, we must constantly thank God for the rain, sun and harvests that have given us food to eat and clothing to wear.

Repentance is a vital aspect of sensing need. Approaching God as if we deserve to be given access to his throne is a sign of spiritual complacency often warned against in Scripture: “these people draw near to me with their mouth, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). But approaching with hearts desperate for forgiveness leads to confidence, “Whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments” (1 John 3:22).

3. Sense of unworthiness

(Daniel 9:18: “We do not present our requests because we are righteous, but because you are merciful.”)

The proud or “vain” heart thinks it approaches God as His equal, having a right to be heard because of my status or abilities. Calvin warns that this is a grave mistake, and gives an impressive number of examples of people of faith in the Bible who pray with humility at their own sinfulness or weakness, and yet are heard by God. Confidence in prayer increases as self-confidence decreases. His point is that we are heard not because we are clever or righteous, but because God is gracious and merciful. David says in Psalm 25:18 “Look upon my affliction and pain, and forgive my sins”.

4. Confidence of success

(Mark 11:24:”Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it shall be yours.”)

We may need to beware self-confidence when we pray, but we can be confident that God hears us.

Some say it is arrogant to be certain that God hears our prayers, that we should rely on the prayers of “saints” more holy that us, but this assurance in prayer, says Calvin, is simply Christian faith in action. Just as our confidence in being reconciled to God rests not on our moral uprightness but Christ’s death for us, our assurance of being heard rests not on our spiritual perfection but on Christ’s opening the way for us into God’s presence.

“So then let us approach the throne of grace boldly that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our our time of need” (Hebrew 4:16). Jesus, our great high priest, intercedes for us (Hebrew 7:25). The Anglican Homily on Prayer  emphasizes the same point, that “Jesus Christ is the mediator between us and God” (quoting 1 Timothy 2:5, a key verse also to Calvin).

It is actually an act of defiance NOT to pray: Psalm 50:15 is an open invitation to anyone – “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you”. We may feel embarrassed by our unworthiness to come into His presence, or inadequate to pray compared to “saints” we admire, but the door is open, and “it would be presumptuous to go forward into the presence of God, had he not anticipated us by his invitation”4.

How strange that we neglect prayer, and take its promises so coldly, when it is so openly and universally offered to us if we will just come in reverent, empty-handed humility. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are saved” (Proverbs 18:10). “Ask and you will receive” (Matthew 7:7).

Calvin’s caveat: “rules” are there to be broken

“We may not be as godly as patriarchs, prophets, or apostles” says Calvin. Our attitudes of heart may often be weak. We may pray with hearts that are at times worldly, self-reliant and proud. “But if we trust the promises of God”, he finishes, “we are in respect of the privilege of prayer their equals.”5


Read Psalm 25 slowly, making its praise of God and its cries to Him your own.

1 Calvin, Institutes III.20.3

2 Institutes III.20.5

3 Institutes III.20.6

4 Institutes III.20.13

5 Institutes III.20.14


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Rector of Holy Trinity, Norwich, since Sept 2017, writing on pastoring, preaching, resourcing discipleship, and apologetics/philosophy.

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