Calvin's Four Rules of Prayer
Reading through some old notes on Calvin's Institutes made me realize what always gets dropped when life feels like one giant game of whirlyball: prayer. Calvin says that if we do not pray, we are like a man who "neglect[s] a treasure, buried and hidden in the earth, after it had been pointed out to him" (3.20.1). "So true is it," Calvin explains, "that we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord's gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon" (ibid.). The metaphor is apt: digging is hard work, but digging for a treasure known to be there is worth the effort.
Then Calvin offers four rules for prayer--four rules for when we need the basics all over again. The first rule of prayer, according to Calvin, is reverence for the one to whom we pray. We need to remember that we address our Almighty Creator and Father through the mediation of the exalted Lord by the power of the Spirit who searches "even the depths of God" (1 Cor 2:10). Just work through the opening sections over at www.matthewhenry.org to learn this first and vital step.
The second rule, Calvin says, is realizing just how needy we are before God. Too often people offer prayers while their "hearts are . . . cold, and they do not ponder what they ask" (3.20.6); even worse, "for the sake of mere performance men often beseech God for many things that they are dead sure will, apart from his kindness, come to them from some other source" (ibid.). (Just when we are crushed with conviction, Calvin offers a word of sympathy: "If anyone should object that we are not always urged with equal necessity to pray, I admit it" [3.20.7]. Even the great Calvin struggled at times to pray!)
The first two rules of prayer (reverence for God and a keen sense of neediness) naturally lead to a third: humility. The humble prayer casts away all smugness or pretension and rests wholly in God's mercy to sinners. For this reason, Calvin argues, it is fitting that we begin our prayers to God by repenting of individual sins. As the Westminster Confession puts it, we are to repent of "particular sins, particularly" (WCF 15:5). Do you do this, out loud if necessary?
Finally, a fourth rule: "we should be . . . encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered" (3.20.11). Such confidence is the antithesis of pride, since we are to trust in God's goodness even as we revere his holiness.
It should be clear by now that the Institutes' four rules for prayer (reverence, a deep sense of need, humility, and trust) cohere: knowing God as he has revealed himself magnifies our helplessness; and the humility that results takes God at his Word that he will hear the prayers of his children. The crux, according to Calvin, is this: if prayer is to do us any good, we must place our entire trust in God's self-revealed character, promises, and faithfulness.
Friend, the more we are overwhelmed by our own unworthiness before God and the myriad, sometimes agonizing, circumstances of life, the more we ought "to grasp with both hands" (3.20.12) the assurance that God will hear and answer our cries for help. Biblical faith, after all, does not teach us to approach God as slaves, but to pour out our hearts "as children unburden their troubles to their parents" (ibid.).
*This post is an adaptation of a post published at Reformation21 in August 2011.