Looking to learn from John Calvin on prayer? You came to the right place.
Many books, sermons, and conferences are dedicated to prayer every year. The reason is simple: most Christians (including me) need a lot of help in this area.
You know some Bible verses on prayer. You’ve read a book or two, ask for help, and have grown in prayer over the years. This is very good.
But one thing you can do that a lot of Christians overlook is to go back to church history and study the lives and works of the great saints of the past.
And the person I have in mind is John Calvin.
Sadly, Calvin has a bad rep amongst many Christians. Some of the ill things said about him online are true; most of them are not. He was a brilliant writer and thinker and despite his flaws, there’s lots you can learn from him — especially on prayer.
In his famous book Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin outlines what he calls the five rules for “right” prayer.
John Calvin on Prayer: 5 Rules
Rule #1: Pray with reverence.
You should recognize (quickly) who God is, and who we are. “Now for framing prayer duly and properly, let this be the first rule: that we be disposed in mind and heart as befits those who enter conversation with God,” writes Calvin. Yes, our supplications matter. But we start with reverence.
Calvin adds: “Let us therefore realize that the only persons who duly and properly gird themselves to pray are those who are so moved by God’s majesty that, freed from earthly cares and affections, they come to it.” When you understand God’s bigness and your smallness, you’ll come to prayer with the right posture — namely, with reverence.
Rule# 2: Pray from a sincere sense of want, and with recognition of your insufficiency.
Prayer is a reminder that we are insufficient, and we are dependent on the all-sufficiency of Christ. Calvin uses the word “penitent” to describe the right attitude. To be “penitent” means to feel or express sorrow for sin. But Calvin also adds it’s okay to ask for things, if we ask with a sincere sense of want, and a right understanding of God.
“Let each one, therefore, as he prepares to pray, be displeased with his own evil deeds (something that cannot happen without repentance), and let him take the person and disposition of a beggar.”
Rule #3: Pray without confidence in yourself and humbly plead for pardon.
One sentence says it all. “Anyone who stands before God to pray, in his humility giving glory completely to God, should abandon all thoughts of his own glory, cast off all notion of his own worth, in fine, put away all self-assurance — lest if we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit, we should become mainly puffed up, and perish at his presence.”
Rule #4: Pray with confident hope in God.
“Thus cast down and overcome by true humility, we should be nonetheless encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered,” says Calvin.
Don’t let the first three rules discourage you. One of the bright spot’s of Calvin’s theology is his right understanding of the majesty of God. Yet, in this third step, Calvin is beginning to soften a little, and begin to allow us to pray according to our childlike stance with God.
He continues: “And although Satan tries to block all paths to prevent them from prayer, they should nonetheless break through, surely persuaded that, although not freed from all hindrances, their efforts still please God and their petitions are approved.”
Rule #5: Pray in Jesus’ name.
We pray in Jesus’ name not be to cliché, but because we recognize that Jesus is our advocate before the Father. “For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind, we cannot but tremble and be driven far away by the recognition of our own unworthiness, until Christ comes forward as the intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.”
Maybe you don’t like the word “rules.” Maybe tips, guide, or plan work better for you. That’s fine. Whatever you do, just get in the habit of praying regularly. Prayer is, after all, a crucial element of the Christian life. As Calvin says, “Prayer is the chief exercise of faith and the way in which we daily receive God’s benefits.”
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