Four Lessons on Prayer from John Calvin

John Calvin knew that prayer mattered. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin devotes a lengthy chapter to the theology and practice of prayer. He titled it “A Perpetual Exercise of Faith”, crediting prayer as a vital and constant part of a Christian’s life.

The chapter is organised around Calvin’s four rules of prayer, but I’m presenting his material a little differently. Based on the quotes I highlighted while reading, here are the key lessons he taught me about prayer.

1. The necessity of prayer

“For however much after our heart’s desire affairs may prosperously flow and occasion for happiness surround us on all sides, still there is no point of time when our need does not urge us to pray.”1

It’s easy to forget how desperately I need prayer when things are going well. But my feelings of self-sufficiency and control are merely an illusion that obscures reality. The smallest thing going wrong can snap me out that delusion.

The reality is that I’m utterly dependant on God. I’m only alive because he sustains each breath I take. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, I would still be dead in my sins. And if Jesus hadn’t died for me, I’d be facing eternal condemnation.

So I need him every day, every hour, and every minute.

Neglecting prayer is a denial of reality, but it’s also self-centred. When I don’t talk to God because my life is going well, I show that I think prayer is all about me. It’s actually central to our relationship with God. Prayer is how we adore, thank, and grow closer to him.

Calvin says it simply: “Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable.”2

2. The posture of prayer

“…prayer was not ordained that we should be haughtily puffed up before God, or greatly esteem anything of ours, but that, having confessed out guilt, we should deplore our distresses before him, as children unburden their troubles to their parents.”3

Since prayer is not about us, we must come in humility. The very act of prayer is a surrender. We kneel before God, confessing our need and guilt, and lay all our hope on his mercy.

The good news is that we don’t kneel as before a fearsome medieval king, who may lop off our heads at any moment. We come in humility to our good and generous Father, and unload all our burdens onto him. He has promised to bear them for us (1 Peter 5:6–7).

I also need to maintain that posture of humility when I don’t get what I’ve asked for in prayer. I trust the character of my sovereign God. If he has not granted me a request, it’s for my ultimate good. Calvin writes:

“For since many by peevishness, boredom, impatience, bitter grief, and fear are impelled to mumble when praying, he bids believers to so temper their emotions that while still waiting to obtain what they desire, they nonetheless cheerfully bless God.”4

3. The rhythm of prayer

“But although it has already been stated above that, lifting up our hearts, we should ever aspire to God and pray without ceasing, still, since our weakness is such that it has to be supported by many aids, and our sluggishness such that it needs to be goaded, it is fitting each one of us should set apart certain hours for this exercise. Those hours should not pass without prayer, and during them all the devotion of the heart should be completely engaged in it.”5

Calvin highlights two aspects of prayer here: regularity and focus. I think he is wise to recommend that we set aside specific times for prayer. It’s easy to brush this off by saying we pray constantly, or that we don’t want to be legalistic. But if I’m honest, my natural inclination is to neglect prayer when I haven’t put guardrails in place.

By having set hours of prayer, we are sure to commune with our God multiple times each day. Calvin’s recommends these hours: upon waking, before you begin your work, before sleep, and before and after each meal.

Lately, by God’s kindness, I’ve been growing to love my prayer time more. It’s been a joy to pray most morning and evenings, and often in the middle of the day too. Regular, consistent prayer truly is the only way to build a strong relationship with God.

In the last sentence of that quote, Calvin hits upon an important point about focus. Just as we don’t really engage with our friends if we’re scrolling through Facebook at the same time, we must guard against distraction when talking to God. He deserves our whole heart to be devoted to him, especially in prayer.

4. The joy of prayer

“It is strange that by promises of such great sweetness we are affected either so coldly or hardly at all, so that many of us prefer to wander through mazes and, forsaking the fountain of living waters, to dig out for ourselves dry cisterns (Jer. 2:13), rather than to embrace God’s generosity, freely given to us.”6

When we see God this way—as a fountain of living water—it seems ridiculous that we look anywhere else for help or satisfaction. Calvin understood prayer as a great joy, as a conduit of grace:

“It is, therefore, by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father.”7

It’s my fault when my prayer life is dry (as it so often has been). I can’t blame God for my distance. By pursuing pleasures other than my relationship with him, my tastebuds become dull to the sweetness of prayer.

Prayer is one way I cling to the promises of God. After reading my Bible, I’ll often plead with God to make me truly believe what I’ve read, so that it changes my heart and hands.

When we truly understand this wonderful privilege of prayer, it becomes our chief source of joy.

I’m sure Calvin’s prayer life wasn’t perfect. Nobody can claim that. We cannot fully shake off the burden of our selfishness, laziness, and sin. But we would do well to heed Calvin’s wise counsel about prayer. From his words, it seems that he has experienced better than most of us these words from the apostle Paul:

“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2)


  1. J.T. McNeill (ed.) Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1960, p. 857.
  2. Institutes, p. 851.
  3. Institutes, p. 861.
  4. Institutes, p. 890.
  5. Institutes, p. 917.
  6. Institutes, p. 867.
  7. Institutes, p. 851.

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