Book 3 - Chapter 20
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God.
Summary: Calvin begins his discussion of prayer by reminding his readers that since we, as human beings, are incapable of saving ourselves, then we have to seek that saving power elsewhere. We can find that power and more outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ who “…offers all happiness in place of our misery; all wealth in place of our neediness;” (pg. 850). And it is by prayer that we can have access to this “overflowing spring” of God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ. Calvin compares people who do not turn to God to find these gifts to a person who neglects “…a treasure, buried and hidden in the earth, after it had been pointed out to him” (pg. 850). He continues that “it is therefore by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches that are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father…so true it is that we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon” (pg. 851).
At this point, Calvin take up the question of, “Is prayer…superfluous?” (pg. 851). “But, someone will say, does God not know, even without being reminded, both in what respect we are troubled and what is expedient for us, so that it may seem superfluous that he should be stirred up by our prayers-as if He were drowsily blinking or even sleeping until aroused by our voice?” (pg. 852). Calvin’s response to this line of questioning is that prayer is not for God’s sake (meaning to get God to be aware of our needs) as it is for our sake (to keep us oriented to God and to recognize the good that God has done for us). He adds that prayer is a duty that will keep our faith from being “sloppy or sluggish” (pg. 852) as we lay our desires before God. Calvin then offers the following reasons to pray. And I will let Calvin speak for himself.
First, that “…our hearts might be fired with a…burning desire ever to seek, love and serve God, while we become accustomed to seek him as to a sacred anchor. Second, that there may enter into our hearts no desire or wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make with him as a witness, while we learn to set all of our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts. Thirdly, that we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayers remind us come from his hand. Fourthly, moreover, that having obtained what we are seeking, and being convinced that he has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently. Fifthly, that at the same time we embrace with greater delight those things where we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers. Finally, that…experience may…confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises never to fail us…but also extends his hand to help his own…” (pg. 852).
And what about those times when our prayers are not immediately answered? “On account of these things, our most merciful Father, although he never either sleeps or idles, still very often gives the impression of one sleeping or idling in order that he may thus train us…to seek, ask and entreat him to our great good” (pg. 853). Calvin finishes this section with a reminder that God is always willing “to hear our groanings that he may better prove his love for us” (pg. 853).
Reflection: For all of Calvin’s rather dogmatic theology, he offers us an image of a God whose love for us is overwhelming and who desires that we be in relationship with God through prayer. Prayer is the channel, or highway, if you will, by which God’s love for us and our love for God travel back and forth. It is the place where our desires and God’s plans meet. When we fail to pray, we fail to discover all that God has planned for us and we miss out on the comfort of heart and mind that can be ours.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this article we will examine the First Rule of Prayer: Reverence.
Summary: Reverence, for Calvin, begins with focusing on the act of prayer and on God as the object of our prayer. This focus is intended to free us "...from carnal cares and thoughts by which it (the mind) can be called or led away from right and pure contemplation of God.." (pg. 853). If people are able to set aside these thoughts and cares, then they will be able to be lifted and carried beyond themselves into the very presence of God. Calvin wants to make sure however that his readers understand that this focus does not have to be so complete that people set aside all thoughts of what is happening in their lives. He understands that it is in fact appropriate that we lift to God those cares and concerns that occupy our minds. Even so, we are to "...rid ourselves of all alien and outside cares, by which the mind itself a wanderer, is borne about hither and thither, drawn away form heaven and pressed down to earth" (pg. 845). Our prayers then are to "...rise to a purity worthy of God" (pg. 854).
Next, Calvin, emphasizes the responsibility of coming before God with the right attitude (reverence). When people pray they are to apply all of their faculties (heart, mind, soul) and efforts, so that they are not distracted. He writes, that "...nothing is more contrary to reverence for God than the levity that marks an excess of frivolity utterly devoid of awe” (pg. 854). And so even when people find themselves with their minds wandering down a variety of paths not focused on God or their prayers are broken altogether, they need to redouble their efforts at concentrating on connecting with God. This redoubling for Calvin is a sign of respect to God who has shown God's kindness by inviting us "...into intimate conversation" (pg. 854). Thus he writes that the only persons "...who duly and properly gird themselves to pray are those who are so moved by God's majesty..." (pg. 854).
The third part of being reverent is not asking for more than God allows. That even though God calls human beings to pour out their hearts, and promises to act on our prayers, God will not yield to inappropriate requests. Calvin says that "...for many rashly, shamelessly, and irreverently...present before his throne whatever in dreams has struck their fancy...such that they thrust upon God all...their desires…that they would be ashamed to acknowledge before men” (pg. 855). In other words, God is not a prayer answering machine that responds to whatever requests we make. And in fact God desires that our requests be in line with God’s own will for our lives.
So how then are we able to maintain our focus and offer appropriate prayers? Or in Calvin’s words, show reverence? The answer is that the Holy Spirit helps us. “Therefore, in order to minister to this weakness, God gives us the Spirit, as our teacher in prayer, to tell us what is right and to temper our emotions” (pg. 855). Thus, according to Calvin, we have no excuse not to pray, believing that we cannot do it well enough. But instead, we are to trust that the Spirit will guide us.
Reflection: Prayer for Calvin, is sacred gift. and as such it is not to be taken lightly. It is a sacred gift that allows us to encounter the divine in an intimate and loving way. It allows us to move beyond our ordinary humanness and connect with God, our creator and redeemer. Thus we are to engage in it in ways that honor God for offering us this opportunity.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this article we will examine the Second Rule of Prayer: that we pray with a sincere desire and with penitence.
Summary: Calvin begins with these words, “Let this be the second rule: that in our petitions we ever sense out own insufficiency, and earnestly pondering how we need all that we seek, join with this prayer an earnest – nay, burning – desire to attain it” (pg. 856). The reason for this kind of attitude in prayer is that Calvin had witnessed so many people perfunctorily praying; praying as if it were a duty which one had to accomplish rather than a true pouring out of an individual’s heart to God. He writes, “…still it appears as if they perform this duty from habit, because their hearts are meanwhile cold, and they do not ponder what they ask. Indeed, a general and confused feeling of their need leads them to prayer, but it does not arouse them …to seek the relief of their poverty” (pg. 856). In fact, Calvin believes that many people pray for what they know they will receive without prayer or perhaps, that they already possess, which to Calvin is not what prayer ought to be all about. Instead it ought to be about what we truly need.
He continues this line of reasoning when he urges people not to think that God is pleased by our devotional practices in and of themselves. Instead of mumbling “prayers without meditation” (pg. 857), people are to present themselves before God requesting those things that they yearn for “…with a sincere affection of the heart” (pg. 857). This is especially true when people seek things for others rather than for themselves.
The reasons to pray can be found both in times of need and in times of plenty. Calvin reminds his readers that in those moments when “…troubles, discomforts, fears and trials of all sorts press us” (pg. 857) the more open God is to hearing us, as if “God were summoning us to himself” (pg. 857). He also makes it clear that even in the best of times, there are still needs which we are to bring before God. “A certain man had abundant wine and grain…(and these should)…not hinder him from praying for his daily bread” (pg. 857). Another reason for continual praying is that we need forgiveness. “For when should the many sins of which we are conscious allow us to nonchalantly stop praying…for pardon” (pg. 857-8).
Part of this focused praying is repentance, meaning turning from the life we are now living and turning toward God. In fact, Calvin claims that if we don’t turn our hearts to God in repentance, then we risk God closing God’s ears to us because we are not turned to God. It is a reciprocal relationship. So when we do turn to God, Calvin claims that God will be near to us and we will receive from God what we need.
Reflection: Calvin would not be happy with many of the understandings of prayer put forward by much of the church in our day. There are pastors who claim that God must do what we ask (Word of Faith) or that there are “prayer principles” which will guarantee that we receive that for which we ask. Neither of these contemporary views on prayer match Calvin’s. He sees prayer as an intimate encounter with the Living God who, on the one hand, invites us into relationship and is open to giving us what we sincerely request, but on the other is completely sovereign and will not willy-nilly give us whatever we ask for. This calls on us to be very thoughtful and focused about how we pray and what we pray for.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this article we will examine the Third Rule: We yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly ask for forgiveness.
Summary: Calvin begins this third rule of prayer by focusing on humility. “To this let us join a third rule; that anyone who stands before God to pray, in his humility giving glory to God, abandon all thought of his own glory…lest if we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit, we should become vainly puffed up…” (pg. 859). Humility matters because it not only puts us in the proper frame of mind (trusting in God’s love and grace rather than in our own goodness) but it also insures that we understand the relationship between ourselves and God; God is God and is perfect and we are human and are not. Where this humility leads us then is to a “humble and sincere confession of guilt” (pg. 860). For Calvin, confession is the opportunity to reset our relationship with God. It is our chance to reconcile to God after we have sinned and fallen short of what God expects of us. This process also allows us to approach God with open hearts, because we have received forgiveness.
Calvin wants people to see that confession is not to be offered merely to obtain forgiveness for the symptoms of sin (specific acts that we have done or have not done) but that it is intended to get at the root cause of sin. What this means is that we pray that God will change our inner most selves such that we find Christ at the center of our lives. “For it would be absurd to wish the effect (a particular sin) to be removed while the cause remained. We must guard against imitating sick folk, who, concerned solely with the treatment of symptoms neglect the root of the disease” (pg. 861). Both of these prayers (specific and transformative) need to be based, once again, on humility before and trust in the gracious mercy of God.
At this point Calvin runs into a problem, though he doesn’t admit it. The problem is that in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, King David and others imply that God ought to forgive them because their lives are exemplary. Calvin offers examples from Psalm 86:2, “Keep my life, for I am good” and from King Hezekiah, “Remember…O Lord, I beseech thee, how I have walked before you in truth…and have done what is good in thy sight” (2 Kings 20:3). The speakers/writers seek God’s forgiveness based on works rather than pure mercy. Calvin’s response is two-fold. First, he believes that these writers have already asked for mercy (at some point) and are now operating in the reality of that forgiveness. Second, Calvin believes that they offer these prayers when they are under attack by others; others whose lives and actions are completely opposed to God’s will. In a sense the speakers/writers see themselves as good by comparison rather than good in and of themselves. Calvin can thus conclude, “…we would assert that his assurance that his prayers will be answered rests solely upon God’s clemency, apart from…personal merit” (pg. 862).
Reflection: As Presbyterians we take Calvin’s injunction to seek forgiveness seriously by offering, in worship, a prayer of both corporate and personal confession. We believe, as Calvin does, that this action sweeps away all that stands between ourselves and God (even if but for a moment) and allows us to connect with God on a deeper level. In terms of the Psalms, I believe that Calvin somewhat over reaches in an attempt to make everything fit neatly into his theology. Even so, while I believe some of the Psalmists believe that their merit ought to earn them God’s forgiveness, they also understand such forgiveness is only possible because God is a forgiving God.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this article we will examine the Fourth Rule: We pray with confident hope.
Summary: This section is the conclusion of Calvin’s “level one” teaching on prayer. He will later spend time looking at Jesus’ role in prayer and at the Lord’s prayer, but here he wraps up his basic discussion. He does so through a series of observations.
Observation one reminds us that our faith should encourage us “…to pray by a sure hope that our prayers will be answered” (pg. 862). This faith is the belief that God loves us and forgives us, such that God not only hears, but responds to our prayers. In addition, faith should encourage us to pray not only when everything appears to be going our way but, even more so, when we find ourselves in times of distress. “But for the saints the occasion that best stimulates them to call upon God is when…they are troubled by their greatest need…” (pg. 863).
Observation two is that prayers are to be based in hope. Calvin puts it this way. “If we would pray fruitfully, we ought therefore to grasp with both hands this assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins with his own voice…for only that prayer is acceptable to God which is…grounded in unshaken assurance of hope” (pg. 865). Though Calvin is clear that we may not always get what we ask for, he is clear that we are to always hope for that for which we pray.
Observation three is that God commands us to pray. While this may appear to be a bit odd, that we are commanded to pray, Calvin reminds his readers that prayer is the connection between ourselves and God, and when we neglect it, we disconnect ourselves from the fuel that keeps our ardor with God alive and brightly burning. Thus God desires to hear from us that God might offer us all that we need.
Observation four is that all of our prayers are grounded in God’s promises. Calvin writes, “It is strange that by promises of such great sweetness that many of us prefer to wander through mazes…rather than to embrace God’s generosity, freely given to us” (pg. 867). His point being that God has promised us love, forgiveness, guidance and support and that we can either connect to these gifts through prayer, or simply wander through life trying to find them on our own.
Observation five is that God hears all prayers. Calvin believes that all prayers, and not just those of Christians, with faith, not only reach the ears of God but that God often answers them. “And one Psalm clearly teaches that prayers which do not reach heaven by faith still are not without effect…yet from the outcome (of prayers from non-Christians) proves that God is gracious towards them” (pg. 870-1). God does this to show God’s mercy to non-Christians as well as to encourage believers to pray even more.
Observation six is that we obtain all that we obtain in prayer because of God’s forgiveness. Calvin believes that because God forgives and reconciles us, that regardless of the perfection, or imperfection of our hearts, or the perfection or imperfection of our prayers, those prayers will be heard and acted upon by God.
Reflection: If one goes into a Christian bookstore, one will find multiple books on prayer purporting to tell us how make sure we get what we pray for, as if there is some magic formula we can use. Calvin reminds us that prayer is not magic, but that is it an intimate conversation with our Creator. And we pray so that we can find forgiveness, direction, encouragement and help. Prayer was at the heart of Calvin’s life, and I hope it will be at the heart of ours as well.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this article we will examine Jesus as our intercessor with God.
Summary: Even though in current times, we believe that we can pray directly to God and be heard, the issue of who could intercede with God (meaning who could speak to the holy and perfect God on behalf of sinful human beings) was one which was hotly debated during the Reformation. The Medieval Roman church had created a wide array of intercessors ranging from the parish priest, to Mary, to the saints. Each of these, when prayed through (as in the case of the parish priest) or to (in the case of Mary and the saints), would take a person’s prayers, get God’s ear, and pass them on. It was believed that an ordinary person, really had no chance of having their prayers heard on their own. The Reformation changed this intercessor equation. Jesus was the only intercessor and so individuals could pray directly to God, through Jesus. This is where Calvin begins this chapter.
Calvin reminds his readers that God, as the holy one, cannot be approached unaided, but that God, wishing to be approached (which Calvin has said is the entire purpose of prayer) “…has given us his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord to be our advocate and mediator with him, by whose guidance we may confidently come to him…trusting that nothing we ask in his name will be denied us, as nothing can be denied to him (Jesus) by the Father” (pg. 874). He elaborates by noting that “For as soon as God’s majesty comes to mind, we cannot but tremble…until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dread…into a throne of grace” (pg. 875). Even though, earlier in this chapter, Calvin claims that God hears and sometimes answers all prayers (even those of non-Christians), he states here that “…it is incontrovertibly clear that those who call upon God’s name in another name than that of Christ…have no promise of obtaining anything” (pg. 875).
Christ’s intercession and mediation has been, according to Calvin, eternally present. What this means is that the prayers of God’s people (the Hebrews/Jews of the Old Testament) were brought to God, by Jesus just as ours are. “Hence we infer that God was from the beginning appeased by Christ’s intercession, so that he received the petitions of the godly” (pg. 876). Even so, Christians are to pray in Jesus’ name because God’s grace is more “resplendent” today than it was in the past, and so Christ is deserving of us praying through him. Calvin drives this point home by saying that we cannot and should not try going to God directly, rather than through Christ because Christ alone can mediate for us.
Calvin draws this section to a close by arguing against the concept of praying to the saints so that they will intercede for us. His argument can be summed up in two sentences. “Furthermore, it is obvious that this superstition has arisen from a lack of faith. For either they were not content with Christ as pleader or they entirely deprive him of this credit” (pg. 887). In other words, either Jesus is sufficient to intercede for us, or he is not.
Reflection: The idea that we must pray through Jesus in order to be heard by God, might seem as odd as to us as praying to the saints seemed to Calvin. What we need to remember is that Calvin viewed God as so holy that God was unapproachable, except through Jesus. I believe it is possible for us to approach God directly because it was God who loved the world, who sent Jesus and the Spirit, and it is God that Jesus tells us we can address as “Abba” or “dad.” So, we pray in Jesus’ name because he is the one who made a new relationship possible, not because otherwise God will not hear us.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this section Calvin discusses kinds of prayer: private and public.
Summary: Calvin previously examined prayers of confession and so here he turns to prayers of petition and thanksgiving. He sees these prayers working together. He says that “In asking…we pour out our desires before God, seeking those things which make for…his glory…and those benefits which (work) to our own advantage” (pg. 888). We do this because God is a generous God who “…does not cease to heap benefit upon benefit in order to impel us…to gratefulness. In short we are so well-nigh overwhelmed by so great and plenteous an outpouring of…so many and mighty miracles…that we can never lack reason and occasion for praise and thanksgiving” (pg. 888). It would seem a bit ungrateful, Calvin implies, if we were to receive and use all that God gives us in response to our prayers, without saying words of thanks. In addition, these prayers ought to flow out of a sense of love for God and not out of fear.
Calvin then turns to the “necessity and danger of public prayer” (p. 890). While Calvin believes firmly in private prayer he is somewhat reluctant to offer the same endorsement to public prayer in church. He doesn’t, first because those prayers cannot be constant. Unlike an individual who can be in constant prayer, the church only meets at those times and in those places upon which the people agree, thus its prayers are intermittent. He doesn’t, second because public prayer can either be for show, or can be an excuse for people to not engage in private prayer. Even so, churches can be “…stirred up to more frequent use of prayer (especially if) it is alerted to some major need” (pg. 891).
He expands on these ideas when he notes that prayer in the church should not be the kind of prayer that tries to wear God down with “vain repetitions” intended to “wrest something from God by beating upon his ears with a garrulous flow of talk, as if he could be persuaded as men are” (pg. 891). For Calvin this was a constant source of irritation, that people offered up the “same little prayers” or used a “great mass of words” or prayed in such a way as to not “miss the world’s applause” (pg. 891). Prayer, for Calvin, whether it be private or public, was supposed to come from “…the heart within, which is poured out and laid open before God” (pg. 892).
Another form of public prayer for Calvin was singing. He strongly commended singing which flowed from the heart. “Moreover since the glory of God ought to shine in the several parts of our bodies, it is especially fitting that the tongue has been assigned and destined for this task, both through singing and speaking” (pg. 894). Calvin also pointed out that singing was part of the earliest worship practices of the Apostolic church. Even so, he warns that “…our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds are to the spiritual meaning of the words” (pg. 895)
Finally, Calvin expressed his desire that all prayer be in the language of the people, because prayer is for the edification of the whole church and not just for the leaders.
Reflection: Calvin’s comments about prayer are as germane today as they were when he wrote them. Prayer has been and continues to be, more a private than a public matter. It is a conversation between ourselves and God; one born out of love and gratitude. Public prayer still tends to be problematic and prone to excess (excess words and pomposity). Even so, when properly done, public prayer can link the hearts and minds of a community into single heart and voice before Christ.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this section Calvin begins an in-depth look at the Lord’s Prayer.
Summary: Calvin believes that the Lord’s Prayer is a necessity for us. “Now we must learn not only a more certain way of praying but also the form itself; namely that which the Heavenly Father has taught us through his beloved Son, in which we may acknowledge his boundless goodness and clemency…for he prescribed a form for us in which he set forth as in a table all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need to ask…that we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange…since we are asking in his words” (pg. 897). The prayer, in Calvin’s understanding is divided into six petitions. The first three are about God’s glory and the second three deal with our own need.
“Our Father” – Calvin sees these opening words as pointing to Christ. “For in calling God, “Father”, we put forward the name “Christ.” With what confidence would anyone address God as “Father?” Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the honor of a son of God unless we had been adopted as children of grace in Christ” (pg. 899)? In other words we have been adopted as brothers and sisters of Christ who was and is the Son of God, and thus we become children of God as well, allowing us to speak to God as our Father.
The upshot of this is that we can come to God as those who are free “…from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father. Therefore, he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called children of God” (pg. 899). He continues, “But just as he surpasses all men in goodness and mercy, so is his love greater and more excellent than all our parent’s love. Hence, though all earthly father, should divest themselves of all feelings of fatherhood and forsake their children, he will never fail us” (Pg. 899). In other words, even if earthly fathers forsake their children, God would never do so because God is “…not only a father but far the best and kindest of all fathers…” (pg. 900).
By addressing God as “Our Father” we are not only connected to God but to all who call upon God in the same way; they are our brothers and sisters. Calvin writes that this connection to God and to one another ought to create a “…great feeling of brotherly love to be among us, since by the same right of mercy…we are equally children of such a father” (pg. 901). This familial connection is not only one in the local church but extends to “...all men who dwell on earth” (pg. 901).
“Our Father in heaven.” Calvin wants his readers to understand that this language does not mean that God resides only in heaven, but instead is “…set beyond all place, so that when we would seek him we must rise above all perception of body and soul...is lifted beyond all chance of either corruption or change…and holds together the entire universe and controls it by his might” (pg. 903). In summary then we are to give God the glory God deserves because of God’s love and care and our adoption as God’s children.
Reflection: Even though Calvin has a very high and sometimes stern view of God, we can also see here his sense that God’s love is an ever-present and life-transforming power. Perhaps this is where we ought to start with the Lord’s Prayer, that we are reminded that God is the constant love that always enfolds and forgives us; that even when all others fail us, we can turn to God and find the one who is there for us and with us.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this section Calvin offers an in-depth look at the Lord’s Prayer. In the previous article we examined “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Here we look at the first three (out of six) petitions which make up the prayer.
Summary: Holy be your name (Petition 1): Calvin wants his readers to understand that we are to give God’s name (and by extension God’s own self) the honor God so richly deserves. We are to do so because in God we see “…might, goodness, wisdom, righteousness, mercy, truth…” (pg. 904). All of which means that we are to speak of God with great reverence, rather than using God’s name as a “profanity.” We can demonstrate God’s holiness by offering words of praise as well as by giving God, God’s own due, meaning that our lives are ordered in the way God has taught us in Jesus Christ.
Thy Kingdom Come (Petition 2): The Kingdom of God for Calvin, exists wherever people deny themselves and the world and then pledge themselves to God in order to “…aspire to a heavenly life” (pg. 905). This allows God, through the Spirit to reorient people’s lives to God’s will and shape their actions to God’s rule. Thus, when we pray this petition, we are asking God not only to align our hearts and minds with God’s will but “…to bring all men’s minds and hearts into voluntary obedience” to God’s will as well. This reorienting work will be done by God directly, as well as indirectly through the church. Calvin encourages the planting of churches in order that people can come to know what it means to follow God and see God’s “…light and truth” (pg. 906).
Thy Will be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven (Petition 3): In this petition Calvin begins by making a distinction between God’s secret will and God’s will or desire, to which we as human beings ought to align ourselves. God’s secret will for Calvin is God’s will which “…controls all things and directs them to his will” (pg. 906). This is a reminder for us that Calvin views God as completely sovereign, meaning everything that happens in the world happens exactly as God directs it to happen. At the same time Calvin believes that we can choose how we orient our hearts to what God is doing in our lives. And what we ought to desire is that God “…rule us according to his decision” thereby creating “new hearts and minds in us…” (pg. 907).
Conclusion: Calvin wraps us the first part of the prayer (the first three petitions) with some concluding remarks. First, he reminds us that we are to begin our prayers by keeping God’s glory before our eyes, while setting aside our needs for later. Second, we are to realize that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will, will be done regardless of any “…thought or desire or petition of ours” (pg. 907). Even so we ought to still pray for them because it demonstrates that we are servants and children of God.
Reflection: It might be helpful for us to look at these petitions from the point of view of First Century Judaism. To pray that God’s Kingdom come was asking God to complete God’s work of restoring creation to its original form; one in which people loved God, loved neighbor and cared for God’s creation. It was more than an internal reorientation of people’s hearts (though that is part of it). It was asking that God fulfill God’s promises to save the world in the here and now.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this section Calvin offers an in-depth look at the Lord’s Prayer. In the previous article, we examined “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Here we look at the final three (out of six) petitions which make up the prayer.
Calvin begins by reminding his readers that prayer always begins with the first three petitions; petitions that draw us into God’s presence. Only after having done so do we then turn to our own needs.
Summary: Give us this day our daily bread (petition 4) –There are four aspects to this petition. The first is that it allows us to see that it is God who provides and that we ought to seek and receive in an attitude of thankfulness. Second, this petition is not simply about food but it is about “…all things in general that our bodies have need to use…not only for food and clothing but also for everything that God perceives to be beneficial to us…” (pg. 908). Third, this portion of the prayer is a reminder that we ought not to be anxious about our lives because God cares not only for our souls but also for our physical lives. Fourth, that we are to only ask for what we need for this day (even when we have plenty in store) as a means of trusting that God will care for us daily.
Forgive us our debts (petition 5) – Calvin begins by explaining why we use the term debts. “He (Jesus) calls sins debts because we owe penalty for them…” (pg. 910). In a sense, it is like a spiritual balance sheet where sin creates a debit to our account, and somehow we need to find a credit to offset it. The good news is that this credit is provided by Jesus who offers us the credit free of charge, thereby cancelling a debt we could never pay. Even so, Calvin argues that we need to be continually praying for forgiveness because “…it pleases God gradually to restore his image in us in such a manner that some taint always remains in our flesh…” (pg. 911). So even though we know that we are going to be forgiven, we need to seek it daily, to be continually reoriented to God. Though many churches use trespasses instead of debts, the concept is the same…we have transgressed God’s law/will and need to be forgiven for it.
As we forgive others – Calvin describes forgiving others in this way. “…namely as we spare and pardon all who have in any way injured us, either treating us unjustly in deed or insulting us in word...this rather is our forgiveness: willingly to cast from the mind wrath, hatred, desired for revenge, and willingly to banish from oblivion the remembrance of injustice” (pg. 912). Calvin even goes so far as to say that if we do not do these things to the best of our ability then we are asking God not to forgive us. “This indeed, is to petition him not to do it to us unless we ourselves do it” (pg. 912). He adds a note however, that our forgiving others does not earn us God’s forgiveness. As noted above, that forgiveness is a gift.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (petition 6) – Calvin understands how difficult it can be to be faithful to God and describes the two main types of temptations. The first is that of lusting after power, riches and the like. The second, is giving up hope when things go badly. Both, he implies, will lead us away from God. Thus, we pray that God will equip us, through the Spirit, with everything that we need to stay the course.
Reflection: The second half of the prayer reminds us that we are people who need. We need sustenance. We need forgiveness. We need to forgive. We need support. The second half of the prayer also reminds us that God desires to give us these things; that God desires that we live whole, abundant lives, that reflect the blessings all human beings are supposed to have. Thus, we are encouraged to pray for them, believing that God wants us to have them.
In this chapter Calvin offers us an in-depth look at prayer. Though people often think of Calvin as a dry, intellectual theologian, he was in fact a man deeply devoted to prayer. His faith was not merely intellectual, but driven by a desire to personally connect with God. In this section Calvin concludes his examination of the Lord’s Prayer in particular and prayer in general.
Summary: Calvin concludes his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer by reminding his readers about the importance of public prayer. “…that the prayers of Christians ought to be public, and to look to the public edification of the church and the advancement of believers’ fellowship. For each man does not pray that something be given to him privately, but all of us in common ask for our bread, forgiveness of sins, not be led into temptation and to be freed from evil” (pg. 916). Thus, for Calvin, the Lord’s Prayer has a place in the worship life of the community because it binds us all together in one common prayer before God. In addition, this prayer is appropriate for worship because it is “…in all respects so perfect that any extraneous or alien thing added to it, which cannot be related to it, is impious and unworthy to be approved by God. For in this summary (the prayer itself) he has set forth what is worthy of him, acceptable to him, necessary for us, in effect what he would willingly grant” (pg. 916).
Even so, Calvin makes it clear that the prayer “…does not bind us to its form of words but its content” (pg. 917). He intends two things by his statement. The first is that there are many prayers in scripture and many prayers that the Spirit will lead believers to pray, and these prayers are good and right. Second, he means “only this: that no man should ask for, expect, demand, anything at all except what is included, by way of summary, in this prayer; and though the words be utterly different, yet the sense ought not to vary” (pr. 917). He concludes, “Here nothing is left out that ought to be thought of in praises to God, nothing that ought to come into man’s mind for his own welfare…to sum up, let us remember that this is the teaching of Divine Wisdom, teaching that it willed and willing what was needful” (pg. 917).
Before he concludes his teaching on prayer, Calvin touches on three subjects. The first is the question of when to pray. He believes that it is important to “set apart certain hours for this exercise” including “when we arise in the morning, before we begin our daily work, when we sit down to a meal, when by God’s blessing we have eaten, when we are getting ready to retire” (pg. 917-18). The second is that we should remember that our prayers are not intended to “bind God to particular circumstances, or to prescribe at what time, in what place, or in what way he is to do anything” (pg. 918). In other words, we are to trust that God will fulfill God’s promises in God’s time and God’s way. The third is that just because our prayers are not answered in the manner and timing that we ask, it does not mean that God has not heard our prayers. Thus, we are not to cease praying when our prayers are not responded to as we please. As Calvin puts it, “…we shall be sure that even though he does not appear, he is always present to us, and will in his own time declare how he has never had deaf ears to our prayers…” (pg. 918).
Reflection: A friend of mine once said that God answers prayers in three ways; yes, no and wait. This makes sense when we see prayer as simply talking to God. It is a conversation into which God invites us in order that our hearts can be regularly attuned to God’s love, forgiveness and purpose. It is our opportunity to pour out to God our thanks, our needs and our concerns for others and for the world. My prayer is that you will discover the value and joy of these conversations as you open yourself to God.