For the Bookshelf: On Prayer—Conversation with God
December 24, 2018—John Calvin was the great Protestant reformer from France, who ultimately pastored the church in Geneva. During his Christian journey and ministry as a reformed pastor, he wrote and frequently revised the classical work of theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion. His detail and insights are inspired. In the third book of the Institutes, Chapter 20 is dedicated to prayer. It is one of the two longest chapters by Calvin. The second longest is the chapter on faith. On Prayer: Conversation with God is a book which brings together Calvin’s teachings on prayer by following the sections as listed in the Institutes. This exposition of Chapter 20 is preceded by an essay written by I. John Hesselink, a Calvin scholar. Hesselink provides insights into Calvin’s development of his discussion on prayer. This book also includes several samples of prayers written by Calvin. The end of chapter 20 contains Calvin’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Hesselink comments, “The chapter on prayer in the Institutes is not so much a theology of prayer as a handbook on how to pray properly.”
According the Calvin, prayer is “the chief exercise of faith.” That certainly raises the importance of prayer for both daily living and hope of salvation. But prayer and faith are inseparably entwined. As he said, “On the one hand, faith is the foundation and necessary condition of genuine prayer. On the other hand, prayer sustains and strengthens faith.”
Calvin describes four ways for framing prayer:
- “That we be disposed in mind and heart as is suitable for those who enter into conversation with God.”
- “That in our own petitions we always have a sense of our own insufficiency…. The presupposition for lawful prayer is a spirit of repentance…” Repentance is critical for prayer as we seek the correct attitude when coming before our Holy God. Calvin prioritizes, “The plea for forgiveness of sins as the most important part of prayer.” He additionally comments, “We pray in vain unless we bring faith and repentance…”
- “That anyone who stands before God to pray, in his humility giving glory completely to God, abandon all thought of his own glory…” Humility before God is the correct attitude because we are the creation who can never understand the Creator. When we recognize our own humility, we realize the praise we owe our Creator and should lift to God continuously. We should never tire of praise. “The tongue has been assigned the task of proclaiming the glory of God…”
- “We should nevertheless be encouraged to pray for a sure hope that our prayer will be answered.” This is a reflection of our faith and hope. We must have confidence that God will answer us.
There are other points from Calvin which we must understand for our practice of prayer. Christ is the critical link for our prayers. The role of Christ as the mediator allows that “God can listen to no prayers without the intercession of Christ.” And the Holy Spirit is important. “The Spirit must prescribe our manner of praying…” Ronald Wallace writes that for Calvin, “The heart and the goal of prayer is communion with God.” And finally, Calvin warns that, “To neglect going to God and requesting his goodness is like neglecting a treasure hidden in the field.”
The reflections on Calvin’s teachings on prayer, in On Prayer, are helpful when considering our own development of personal devotional practices. The exposition and simplification provided are very helpful when compared to reading Institutes directly.
Calvin, John. On Prayer: Conversation with God. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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