A Strong Tower For Weary People:

Founders Journal 69 · Summer 2007 · pp. 19-24

A Strong Tower For Weary People:
Calvin’s Teaching On Prayer

Stephen Matteucci

Editor’s Note: In Mr. Matteucci’s original paper, he presented a creative and provocative theological interaction with Calvin’s doctrine of prayer at two further points. Space issues dictated their omission, but they are worthy of earnest commendation. One point was that we must see prayer as intrinsically causative of God’s decreed will as a means through which God works, much like He works forgiveness through the death of Christ, or works glorification through the resurrection of Christ. In The Lord’s Prayer we see that God expects to work His dominion in conjunction with the moral and spiritually mature desires and requests of His children. Another point is that we cannot pray in absolute abandon of any personal desire or in entire self-forgetfulness. God has bound up His glory, that is the full range of multifaceted demonstrations of His wisdom and holiness, in this world and the next in the well-being of His people and the completion of their joy. He is glorified in our unalterable happiness.

Prayer as a Manifestation of Piety

The modern caricature of John Calvin portrays him as a disembodied brain, an unfeeling logic machine that spits out hard doctrines without regard for the experience of the average Christian. As with any good caricature, this one has some resemblance to Calvin’s life: Calvin did deal with hard doctrines and he was logical. That, however, is where the resemblance ends. Calvin was a pastor and, while his writings are more theologically rich than the writings of today’s pastors, his overriding concern was to help Christians live for Christ, to move Christians forward in their life of piety towards God. According to Calvin, piety is “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”[1] Calvin’s theology, writes John T. McNeill—who edited Calvin’s Institutes—is “his piety described at length.”[2]

As a matter of fact, Calvin designed the Institutes to promote piety among his readers. The subtitle of the first edition (1536) read, “Embracing almost the whole sum of piety, & whatever is necessary to know of the doctrine of salvation: A work most worthy to be read by all persons zealous for piety.”[3] In his prefatory letter to King Francis I, Calvin says that his purpose “was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[4]

The personal piety of the Christian, however, was not the ultimate goal of Calvin’s work; piety was an indispensable means to the ultimate goal: the glory of God. In Cardinal Sadoleto’s letter to Geneva, he focused the attention of the Genevans on the necessity of attaining heaven. Calvin countered by admonishing that

it is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves. … I am persuaded, therefore, that there is no man imbued with true piety, who will not consider as insipid that long and labored exhortation to zeal for heavenly life, a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God.[5]

A man of piety, according to Calvin, seeks to glorify God and personal piety is God’s method of being glorified: “God has prescribed for us a way in which he will be glorified by us, namely piety.”[6]

As Calvin taught on prayer, then, his goal is to build up the prayer life of his readers as a way of advancing their personal piety so that they will glorify God in their lives. He encouraged Christians to pray, by emphasizing their great need for prayer, teaching them God’s great promises about prayer, and highlighting the many blessings to be found in prayer. The focus is firmly on the individual Christian on his knees before the Father and the relationship with God that is forged during those times of prayer.

Calvin’s goal of encouraging piety is demonstrated by his instruction on prayer. He devoted the longest chapter in the Institutes to teaching and encouraging Christians to pray. Flowing from his high view of God’s majesty and sovereignty, along with a healthy respect for man’s neediness before God, Calvin’s instructions about prayer have laid a firm foundation for the Christian’s walk for nearly 450 years. This article will focus on Calvin’s “rules” for prayer and show how they mirror his evangelical emphasis on Law and Gospel.

A Consistent Structure

The content of Calvin’s teaching on prayer is wonderfully consistent with his views of God and man and the world and sin in the rest of his theology. In Book One on the Institutes, Calvin explains that knowledge of God and knowledge of man are closely linked together and that a true knowledge of man is only possible if we first know God.

As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power—the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.[7]

After describing the majesty of God and the sinfulness of man, Calvin showed that redemption is possible only through the grace of God given through Jesus Christ. Calvin’s view of prayer adopts this same structure. The majesty and holiness of God make Him unapproachable by sinful man; reconciliation with this holy God comes only through the work of Jesus Christ, and we may only approach this throne of justice in the name of Jesus Christ. We approach God in prayer in the same way and on the same basis that we approach God for salvation—on the merits of Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone. Just as Calvin discussed the knowledge of God through His Word, man’s perversion of that knowledge, his spiritual inability, and the strict requirements of the Law before he discussed the person and work of Christ and the aid of the Holy Spirit, so he gave the high expectations that God has in our right approach to Him before he shows us the aid we have in Christ’s intercession and the gift of the Spirit. The four rules teach us that God cannot be approached lightly or formally or frivolously or coldly; God must be approached reverently, humbly, fervently, and hopefully. When expounding these rules, Calvin sets the standard high, so high that failure to keep these rules not only derails prayer, but could endanger the Christian’s soul.

Four Rules for Prayer

The first rule of right prayer is reverence. When we pray, Calvin writes, we must “be disposed in mind and heart as befits those who enter conversation with God.”[8] Reverent prayer is prayer with a mind “raised above itself that it may not bring into God’s sight anything our blind and stupid reason is wont to devise, nor hold itself within the limits of its own vanity, but rise to a purity worthy of God.”[9] Calvin asserted 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.”[10] Later in this section, Calvin warned against a wandering mind that is easily distracted, so reverence may merely be an encouragement to “apply oneself totally [to prayer], avoiding all distractions and wandering thoughts” and an instruction that “[c]oncentration must be sought after; one must learn to discipline one’s mind in prayer.”[11]

Calvin’s second rule requires that we desire the things we seek from God. On one level, this rule is a warning to those who recite prayers from habit, saying the words of a prayer without feeling any need for what is asked.[12] But, again, the language Calvin used is stronger, setting a higher standard:

A fault that seems less serious but is also not tolerable is that of others who, having been imbued with this one principle—that God must be appeased by devotions—mumble prayers without meditation. Now the godly must particularly beware of presenting themselves before God to request anything unless they yearn for it with sincere affection of heart, and at the same time desire to obtain it from him.[13]

What should we do if we do not have this kind of yearning? Should we put off praying? No, Calvin replied; consideration of our circumstances—whatever they are—should produce in us this deep feeling of need. If we are in severe trouble, the troubles themselves will make us feel our needs; and if we are living with an abundance of material wealth, we merely have to “consider how many dangers at every moment threaten” us in order for us to understand our great need for prayer. Thus, every circumstance of life “pricks us the more sharply … to pray earnestly,”[14] and so we have no excuse.

Calvin’s third rule warns us not to trust in our own resources to meet our needs, but to trust only in God:

To this let us join a third rule: that anyone who stands before God to pray, in his humility giving glory completely to God, abandon all thought 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 vainly puffed up, and perish at his presence.[15]

At one level, Calvin is telling us that pride before God is foolish; we are not praying to an equal for a little help to get us through, we are praying to the sovereign and holy God to sustain us in everything. Again, however, the language implies a warning, that “if we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit” we run the danger of perishing in the presence of God.

The person who stares straight into the wrath of God, should, according to Calvin, be “encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered.”[16] It sounds strange that a person who has contemplated God’s wrath could, at the same time, have a “firm assurance of God’s favor.”[17] While acknowledging the apparent contradiction, Calvin resolves it by an appeal to God’s goodness: although we deserve nothing but wrath from God, He chooses to give us what we need in answer to our prayers. So, Calvin’s fourth rule requires us to have a “sure hope that our prayer will be answered.”[18]

A Strong and Perfect Plea

After reading through these four rules, we may easily feel that prayer is impossible. If this is what is required by God to come into His presence, then it is safer to stay away from Him. But Calvin represented the true Christian with such a yearning for God that he cannot stay away and consistently sees prayer as his breath of life. “How much soever believers may feel that they are oppressed by a heavy load of iniquity, and are not only devoid of everything which can procure the favour of God for them, but justly burdened with many sins which make him an object of dread, yet they cease not to present themselves, this feeling not deterring them from appearing in his presence, because there is not other access to him.”[19]

Calvin understood that this reaction needs the full biblical remedy of evangelical encouragement. “What I have set forth on the four rules of right praying is not so rigorously required that God will reject those prayers in which He finds neither perfect faith nor repentance, together with a warmth of zeal and petitions rightly conceived.” In fact, Calvin continued, “No one has ever carried this out with the uprightness that was due.”[20]

The point of the four rules is not to make us good enough to approach God, but to show us that we will never be worthy, thus driving us to Jesus Christ: “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 intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace;”[21] “he is the only way, and the one access, by which it is granted us to come to God. … Thus Christ is constituted the only Mediator, by whose intercession the Father is for us rendered gracious and easily entreated.”[22]

And again he assured, “And as we have already shown that our prayers, which otherwise would be polluted, are sanctified by the intercession of Christ, so the Apostle, by enjoining us ‘to offer the sacrifices of praise to God continually’ by Christ (Heb. xiii.15), reminds us, that without the intervention of his priesthood our lips are not pure enough to celebrate the name of God.”[23] In ourselves, when properly under the impression of our sin and unworthiness to come to God, even in the supplication of prayer, we might still be timid of comprehending such infinite favor the Father has bestowed on us in the gift of His Son. He gave in addition, therefore “the Spirit as a witness of this adoption, that through him we may freely cry aloud, Abba, Father. Whenever, therefore, we are restrained by any feeling of hesitation, let us remember to ask of him that he may correct our timidity, and placing us under the magnanimous guidance of the Spirit, enable us to pray boldly.”[24]

With such encouragement—the triune God Himself urging and aiding us in prayer—no Christian should be hesitant to pray. Even as Christ’s merits and Holy Spirit’s mortifying power invite us to freedom from the Law’s condemnation and its intimidation as an unattainable standard of righteousness so that we may see it as a lovely promise of our future glory, even so, Christ’s intercession combined with the Spirit’s intercession transforms Calvin’s rules of prayer, induced from Scripture, into a promise that one day we shall be lost in wonder love and praise in perfect and unbroken consciousness of God’s rule, will, glory, presence, and perfect provision.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1.2.1.

2 John T. McNeill, quoted in Joel R. Beeke, “Calvin on Piety,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 125.

3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1536 Edition, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), cited in Joel R. Beeke, “Calvin on Piety,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 126.

4 Institutes, 9.

5 John Calvin and Jacopo Sadeleto, A Reformation Debate, John C. Olin, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1966, 1976), 58.

6 Cited in Joel R. Beeke, “Calvin on Piety,” 127.

7 Institutes, 1.1.2.

8 Institutes, 3.20.4.

9 Ibid.

10 Institutes, 3.20.5.

11 Bruce A. Ware, “The Role of Prayer and the Word in the Christian Life According to John Calvin,” Studia Biblica et Theologica (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary), 77.

12 “For many perfunctorily intone prayers after a set form, as if discharging a duty to God.” Institutes, 3.20.6.

13 Institutes, 3.20.6.

14 Institutes, 3.20.7.

15 Institutes, 3.20.8.

16 Institutes, 3.20.11.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Institutes, 3.20.12. [Beveridge translation]

20 Institutes, 3.20.16.

21 Institutes, 3.20.17.

22 Institutes, 3.20.19.

23 Institutes, 3.20.28. [Beveridge translation]

24 Institutes, 3.20.37. [Beveridge translation]