Institutes of the Christian Religion

John Calvin

"The Rules of Right Prayer"
Volume II:853-870, §§4-14

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First Rule: reverence, 4-5

4. Devout detachment required for conversation with God

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. This we shall indeed attain with respect to the mind if it is freed from carnal cares and thoughts by which it can be called or led away from right and pure contemplation of God, and then not only devotes itself completely to prayer but also, insofar as this is possible, is lifted and carried beyond itself. Now I do not here require the mind to be so detached as never to be pricked or gnawed by vexations, since, on the contrary, great anxiety should kindle in us the desire to pray. Thus we see that God's saintly servants give proof of huge torments, not to say vexations, when they speak of uttering their plaintive cry to the Lord from the deep abyss, and from the very jaws of death [cf. Ps. 130:1]. But I say that 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 from heaven, and pressed down to earth. I mean that it ought to be 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.

5. Against undisciplined and irreverent prayer

These two matters are well worth attention: first, whoever engages in prayer should apply to it his faculties and efforts, and not, as commonly happens, be distracted by wandering thoughts. For nothing is more contrary to reverence for God than the levity that marks an excess of frivolity utterly devoid of awe. In this matter, the harder we find concentration to be, the more strenuously we ought to labor after it. For no one is so intent on praying that he does not feel many irrelevant thoughts stealing upon him, which either break the course of prayer or delay it by some winding bypath. But here let us recall how unworthy it is, when God admits us to intimate conversation, to abuse his great kindness by mixing sacred and profane; but just as if the discourse were between us and an ordinary man, amidst our prayers we neglect him and flit about hither and thither.

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. And the rite of raising the hands means that men remember they are far removed from God unless they raise their thoughts on high. As it is also said in the psalm: "To thee . . . I have lifted up my soul" [Ps. 25:1; cf. 24:1, Vg.]. And Scripture quite often uses this expression, "to lift up prayer" [e.g., Isa. 37:4], in order that those who wish God to hear them may not settle down "on their lees" [cf. Jer. 48:11; Zeph. 1:12]. In short, the more generously God deals with us, gently summoning us to unburden our cares into his bosom, the less excusable are we if his splendid and incomparable benefit does not outweigh all else with us and draw us to him, so that we apply our minds and efforts zealously to prayer. This cannot happen unless the mind, stoutly wrestling with these hindrances, rises above them.

We have noted another point: not to ask any more than God allows. For even though he bids us pour out our hearts before him [Ps. 62:8; cf. Ps. 145:19], he still does not indiscriminately slacken the reins to stupid and wicked emotions; and while he promises that he will act according to the will of the godly, his gentleness does not go so far that he yields to their willfulness. Yet in both, men commonly sin gravely; for many rashly, shamelessly, and irreverently dare importune God with their improprieties and impudently present before his throne whatever in dreams has struck their fancy. But such great dullness or stupidity grips them that they dare thrust upon God all their vilest desires, which they would be deeply ashamed to acknowledge to men. . . . God does not allow his gentle dealing to be thus mocked but, claiming his own right, he subjects our wishes to his power and bridles them. For this reason, we must hold fast to John's statement: "This is the confidence we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us" [1 John 5:14].

The Holy Spirit aids right prayer

But because our abilities are far from able to match such perfection, we must seek a remedy to help us. As we must turn keenness of mind toward God, so affection of heart has to follow. Both, indeed, stand far beneath; nay, more truly, they faint and fail, or are carried in the opposite direction. 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 temper our emotions. For, "because we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit comes to our help," and "intercedes for us with unspeakable groans" [Rom. 8:26]; not that he actually prays or groans but arouses in us assurance, desires, and sighs, to conceive which our natural powers would scarcely suffice. And Paul, with good reason, calls "unspeakable" these groans which believers give forth under the guidance of the Spirit; for they who are truly trained in prayers are not unmindful that, perplexed by blind anxieties, they are so constrained as scarcely to find out what it is expedient for them to utter. Indeed, when they try to stammer, they are confused and hesitate. Clearly, then, to pray rightly is a rare gift. These things are not said in order that we, favoring our own slothfulness, may give over the function of prayer to the Spirit of God, and vegetate in that carelessness to which we are all too prone. In this strain we hear the impious voices of certain persons, saying that we should drowsily wait until he overtake our preoccupied minds. But rather our intention is that, loathing our inertia and dullness, we should seek such aid of the Spirit. And indeed, Paul, when he enjoins us to pray in the Spirit [1 Cor. 14:15], does not stop urging us to watchfulness. He means that the prompting of the Spirit empowers us so to compose prayers as by no means to hinder or hold back our own effort, since in this matter God's will is to test how effectually faith moves our hearts.

Second Rule: We pray from a sincere sense of want, and with penitence, 6-7

6. The sense of need that excludes all unreality

Let this be the second rule: that in our petitions we ever sense our own insufficiency, and earnestly pondering how we need all that we seek, join with this prayer an earnest--nay, burning--desire to attain it. For many perfunctorily intone prayers after a set form, as if discharging a duty to God. And although they admit it to be a necessary remedy for their ills, because it would be fatal to lack the help of God which they are beseeching, still it appears that 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, as it were in present reality, to seek the relief of their poverty. Now what do we account more hateful or even execrable to God than the fiction of someone asking pardon for his sins, all the while either thinking he is not a sinner or at least not thinking he is a sinner? Unquestionably something in which God himself is mocked! Yet, as I have just said, mankind is so stuffed with such depravity that 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, or already lie in their possession.

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. Indeed, even though in those things which we seek only to God's glory we do not seem at first glance to be providing for our own need, yet it is fitting that they be sought with no less ardor and eagerness. When, for example, we pray that "his name be sanctified" [Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2], we should, so to speak, eagerly hunger and thirst after that sanctification.

7. Is prayer at times dependent upon our passing mood?

If anyone should object that we are not always urged with equal necessity to pray, I admit it. And to our benefit James gives us this distinction: "Is anyone among you sad? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing" [James 5:13 p.]. Therefore common sense itself dictates that, because we are too lazy, God pricks us the more sharply, as occasion demands, to pray earnestly. David calls this a "seasonable time" [Ps. 32:6; 31:6, Vg.] because, as he teaches in many other passages [e.g., Ps. 94:19], the more harshly troubles, discomforts, fears, and trials of other sorts press us, the freer is our access to him, as if God were summoning us to himself.

At the same time Paul's statement is no less true, that we must "pray at all times" [Eph. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:17]. 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. A certain man has abundant wine and grain. Since he cannot enjoy a single morsel of bread apart from God's continuing favor, his wine cellars and granaries will not hinder him from praying for his daily bread. Now if we should consider how many dangers at every moment threaten, fear itself will teach us that we at no single time may leave off praying.

Still, we can better recognize this fact in spiritual matters. For when should the many sins of which we are conscious allow us nonchalantly to stop praying as suppliants for pardon of our guilt and penalty? When do temptations yield us a truce from hastening after help? Moreover, zeal for the Kingdom of God and his glory ought so to lay hold on us, not intermittently but constantly, that the same opportunity may ever remain ours. It is therefore not in vain that constancy in prayer is enjoined upon us. I am not yet speaking of perseverance, of which mention will be made later; but Scripture, admonishing us to "pray constantly" [1 Thess. 5:17], accuses us of sloth, for we do not realize how much we need this attentiveness and constancy. By this rule, hypocrisy and wily falsehoods toward God are debarred from prayer--indeed, are banished far away! God promises that "he will be near to all who call upon him in truth" [Ps. 145:18, cf. Comm.], and states that those who seek him with all their heart will find him [Jer. 29:13-14]. For this reason, they who delight in their own foulness aspire not at all. Lawful prayer, therefore, demands repentance. Hence arises the commonplace in Scripture that God does not hearken to the wicked [John 9:31], and that their prayers [cf. Prov. 28:9; Isa. 1:15]--just as their sacrifices [cf. Prov. 15:8; 21:27]--are abominable to him. For it is right that they who bar their hearts should find God's ears closed, and that they who by their hardheartedness provoke his severity should not feel him conciliatory. In Isaiah he threatens in this way: "Even though you multiply your prayers, I will not listen; for your hands are full of blood" [Isa. 1:15, cf. Vg.]. Again, in Jeremiah: "I cried out . . . and they refused to listen; . . . they will cry out in return, and I will not listen." [Jer. 11:7, 8, 11.] For he counts it the height of dishonor for wicked men, who all their lives besmirch his sacred name, to boast of his covenant. Consequently, in Isaiah he complains, when the Jews "draw near to him with their lips . . . their hearts are far from him" [Isa. 29:13 p.]. He does not, indeed, restrict this to prayers alone but declares that falsity in any part of his worship is abhorrent to him. That statement of James applies here. "You seek, and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions" [James 4:3]. It is indeed true, as we shall again see a little later, that the prayers poured out by the godly do not depend upon their worthiness; yet John's warning is not superfluous: "We receive from him whatever we ask because we keep his commandments" [1 John 3:22], while a bad conscience closes the door to us. From this it follows that only sincere worshipers of God pray aright and are heard. Let each one, therefore, as he prepares to pray be displeased with his own evil deeds, and (something that cannot happen without repentance) let him take the person and disposition of a beggar.

Third Rule: We yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon, 8-10

8. We come as humble suppliants for mercy

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. We have repeated examples of this submission, which levels all haughtiness, in God's servants; each one of whom the holier he is, the more he is cast down when he presents himself before the Lord. Thus spoke Daniel, whom the Lord himself commended with so great a title: "We do not pour forth our prayers unto thee on the ground of our righteousnesses but on the ground of thy great mercy. O Lord, hear us; O Lord, be kindly unto. Hear us, and do what we ask . . . for thine own sake . . . because thy name is called upon over thy people, and over thine holy place" [Dan. 9:18-19, cf. Vg.]. Nor does he, by a devious figure of speech, as some men do, mingle with the crowd as one of the people. Rather he confesses his guilt as an individual, and as a suppliant takes refuge in God's pardon, as he eloquently declares: "When I had . . . confessed my sin and the sin of my people" [Dan. 9:20 p.]. David also enjoins this humility by his own example: "Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for no man living is righteous before thee" [Ps. 143:2; cf. Comm. and Ps. 142:2, Vg.]. In such a form, Isaiah prays: "Behold, thou wert wroth, for we sinned. . . . The world is founded upon thy ways, therefore we shall be saved. . . . And all of us have been full of uncleanness, and all our righteousnesses like a filthy rag; we all have faded like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, scatter us. There is no one who calls upon thy name, who bestirs himself to take hold of thee. For thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast made us to melt away in the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, thou art our potter and we are the work of thy hand. Be not angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold now, consider, we are all thy people" [Isa. 64:5-9, cf. Comm.].

Observe that they depend on no assurance whatever but this alone: that, reckoning themselves to be of God, they do not despair that he will take care of them. Likewise, Jeremiah: "Though our iniquities testify against us, act . . . for thy name's sake" [Jer. 14:7]. For some unknown author, whoever he may be, has written these very true and holy words attributed to the prophet Baruch: "The soul that is sorrowful and desolate for the greatness of her evil, bowed down and feeble, . . . the hungry soul, and the eyes that fail give glory . . . to thee, O Lord. It is not for the righteousnesses of the fathers that we pour out our prayers before thee, and beg mercy in thy sight, O Lord our God" [Baruch 2:18-19 p., cf. Vg.]; but because thou art merciful, "be merciful unto us, for we have sinned before thee" [Baruch 3:2].

9. The plea for forgiveness of sins as the most important part of prayer

To sum up: the beginning, and even the preparation, of proper prayer is the plea for pardon with a humble and sincere confession of guilt. Nor should anyone, however holy he may be, hope that he will obtain anything from God until he is freely reconciled to him; nor can God chance to be propitious to any but those whom he has pardoned. Accordingly, it is no wonder if believers open for themselves the door to prayer with this key, as we learn from numerous passages of The Psalms. For David, asking for something else than remission of his sins, says: "Remember not the sins of my youth, and my transgressions; according to thy mercy remember me, for thy goodness' sake, O Lord" [Ps. 25:7]. Again: "See my affliction and my toil, and forgive all my sins." [Ps. 25:18 p.] Also, in this we see that it is not enough for us to call ourselves to account each day for recent sins if we do not remember those sins which might seem to have been long forgotten.

For the same prophet, elsewhere having confessed one grave offense, on this occasion even turns back to his mother's womb, in which he had contracted the infection [Ps. 51:5], not to extenuate the guilt on the ground of corruption of nature but that, in gathering up the sins of his whole life, the more rigorously he condemns himself, the more easily entreated he may find God. But even though the saints do not always beg forgiveness of sins in so many words, if we diligently ponder their prayers that Scripture relates, we shall readily come upon what I speak of: that they have received their intention to pray from God's mercy alone, and thus always have begun with appeasing him. For if anyone should question his own conscience, he would be so far from daring intimately to lay aside his cares before God that, unless he relied upon mercy and pardon, he would tremble at every approach.

There is also another special confession when suppliants ask release from punishments. It is that at the same time they may pray for the pardon of their sins. For it would be absurd to wish the effect to be removed while the cause remained. We must guard against imitating foolish sick folk, who, concerned solely with the treatment of symptoms, neglect the very root of the disease. We must make it our first concern that God be favorable toward us, rather than that he attest his favor by outward signs, because he wills to maintain this order, and it would have been of small profit to us to have him do us good unless our conscience, feeling him wholly appeased, rendered him altogether lovely [Cant. 5:16]. Christ's reply also reminds us of this; for after he had decided to heal the paralytic, "Your sins," he said, "are forgiven you" [Matt. 9:2]. He thus arouses our minds to that which we ought especially to desire: that God may receive us into grace; then, that in aiding us he may set forth the fruit of reconciliation.

But besides that special confession of present guilt, with which believers plead for the remission of every sin and penalty, the general preface that gains favor for prayers must never be passed over, for unless they are founded in free mercy, prayers never reach God. John's statement can be applied to this: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive . . . , and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" [1 John 1:9, Vg.]. For this reason, under the law prayers had to be consecrated with blood atonement [cf. Gen. 12:8; 26:25; 33:20; 1 Sam. 7:9] in order that they should be accepted, and that the people should thus be warned that they were unworthy of so great a privilege of honor until, purged of their defilement, they derived confidence in prayer solely from God's mercy.

10. Reference to one's own righteousness?

Now the saints sometimes seem to shout approval of their own righteousness in calling upon God for help. For example, David says: "Keep my life, for I am good" [Ps. 86:2 p.]; and similarly, Hezekiah: "Remember . . . O Lord, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth . . . and have done what is good in thy sight" [2 Kings 20:3 p.; cf. Isa. 38:3]. By such expressions they mean nothing else but that by their regeneration itself they are attested as servants and children of God to whom he promises that he will be gracious. He teaches through the prophet, as we have already seen, that his eyes "are upon the righteous, his ears toward their prayers" [Ps. 34:15; cf. 33:16, Vg.]. Again, through the apostle John: "We shall receive . . . whatever we ask if we keep his commandments" [1 John 3:22 p.]. In these statements he does not set the value of prayer according to the merits of works, but he is pleased to establish the assurance of those who are fully aware of guileless uprightness and innocence, as all believers ought to be. Indeed, what the blind man whose sight was restored says in John's gospel--that God does not listen to sinners [John 9:31]--has been drawn from the very truth of God, provided we understand "sinners" in the customary usage of Scripture, as all persons who slumber and repose in their own sins without any desire for righteousness. For no heart can ever break into sincere calling upon God that does not at the same time aspire to godliness. To such promises, then, correspond the saints' attestations, in which they mention their purity or innocence in order that they may feel, what all God's servants should hope for, made manifest to themselves.

Again, while they are before the Lord comparing themselves with their enemies, from whose iniquity they long to be delivered by his hand, they are commonly found using this sort of prayer. Now it is no wonder if in this comparison they put forward their own righteousness and simplicity of heart in order that, from the equity of the cause itself, they might the more move the Lord to provide them with assistance. The godly man enjoys a pure conscience before the Lord, thus confirming himself in the promises with which the Lord comforts and supports his true worshipers. It is not our intent to snatch this blessing from his breast; rather, we would assert that his assurance his prayers will be answered rests solely upon Gods clemency apart form all consideration of personal merit.

Fourth rule: We pray with confident hope, 11-14

11. Hope and faith overcome fear

The fourth rule is that, 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. These are indeed things apparently contrary: to join the firm assurance of God's favor to a sense of his just vengeance; yet, on the ground that God's goodness alone raises up those oppressed by their own evil deeds, they very well agree together. For, in accordance with our previous teaching that repentance and faith are companions joined together by an indissoluble bond, although one of these terrifies us while the other gladdens us, so also these two ought to be present together in prayers. And David briefly expresses this agreement when he says: "I through the abundance of thy goodness will enter thy house, I will worship toward the temple of thy holiness with fear" [Ps. 5:7]. Under God's goodness he includes faith, meantime not excluding fear. For not only does his majesty constrain us to reverence but through our own unworthiness, forgetting all pride and self-confidence, we are held in fear.

But "assurance" I do not understand to mean that which soothes our mind with sweet and perfect repose, releasing it from every anxiety. For to repose so peacefully is the part of those who, when all affairs are flowing to their liking, are touched by no care, burn with no desire, toss with no fear. But for the saints the occasion that best stimulates them to call upon God is when, distressed by their own need, they are troubled by the greatest unrest, and are almost driven out of their senses, until faith opportunely comes to their relief. For among such tribulations God's goodness so shines upon them that even when they groan with weariness under the weight of present ills, and also are troubled and tormented by the fear of greater ones, yet, relying upon his goodness, they are relieved of the difficulty of bearing them, and are solaced and hope for escape and deliverance. It is fitting therefore that the godly man's prayer arise from these two emotions, that it also contain and represent both. That is, that he groan under present ills and anxiously fear those to come, yet at the same time take refuge in God, not at all doubting he is ready to extend his helping hand. It is amazing how much our lack of trust provokes God if we request of him a boon that we do not expect.

Prayer and faith

Therefore nothing is more in harmony with the nature of prayers than that this rule be laid down and established for them: that they not break forth by chance but follow faith as guide. Christ calls this principle to the attention of all of us with this saying: "I say unto you, whatever you seek . . . , believe that you will receive it, and it will come to you" [Mark 11:24 p.] He confirms the same statement in another place: "Whatever you ask in prayer, believing . . . ," etc. [Matt. 21:22]. James is in accord with this: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men simply and without reproaching. . . . Let him ask in faith, with no wavering" [James 1:5-6 p.]. There, opposing faith to wavering, he most appropriately expresses the force of faith. Nonetheless, what he adds must also be noted: that they who in doubt and perplexity call upon God, uncertain in their minds whether they will be heard or not, will gain nothing [cf. James 1:7]. He even compares these persons to waves that are driven and tossed hither and thither by the wind [James 1:6]. Hence, in another passage, James calls what is right and proper "the prayer of faith" [James 5:15]. Then, since God so often affirms that he will give to each one according to his faith [Matt. 8:13; 9:29; Mark 11:24], he implies that we can obtain nothing apart from faith.

To sum up, it is faith that obtains whatever is granted to prayer. Such is the meaning of Paul's famous statement, which the unwise too little regard: "How will anyone call upon him in whom he has not believed? And who will believe unless he has heard?" [Rom. 10:14 p.]. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God." [Rom. 10:17.] For, deducing step by step the beginning of prayer from faith, he plainly asserts that God cannot be sincerely called upon by others than those to whom, through the preaching of the gospel, his kindness and gentle dealing have become known--indeed, have been intimately revealed.

12. Against the denial of certainty that prayer is granted

Our opponents do not at all ponder this requirement. Therefore, when we enjoin believers to be convinced with firm assurance of mind that God is favorable and benevolent to them, they think we are saying the most absurd thing of all. Still, if they made any use of true prayer, they would really understand that without that firm sense of the divine benevolence God could not be rightly called upon. Since no one can well perceive the power of faith unless he feels it by experience in his heart, what point is there is arguing with men of this stripe, who clearly show that they have never had anything but an empty imagination? For the value and need of that assurance, which we require, is chiefly learned from calling upon him. He who does not see this shows that he has a very insensate conscience. Let us, then, pass over this class of blind persons, and cleave firmly to the statement of Paul's: God cannot be called upon by any except those who have learned of his mercy from the gospel [Rom. 10:14], and have surely been persuaded that it has been prepared for them.

Now what sort of prayer will this be? "O Lord, I am in doubt whether thou willest to hear me, but because I am pressed by anxiety, I flee to thee, that, if I am worthy, thou mayest help me." This is not the way of all the saints whose prayers we read in Scripture. And the Holy Spirit did not so instruct us through the apostle, who enjoins us to "draw near to the heavenly throne . . . with confidence, that we may receive . . . grace" [Heb. 4:16 p.]; and when he teaches elsewhere that we have boldness and access in confidence through faith in Christ [Eph. 3:12]. 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, and all the saints teach by their example. For only that prayer is acceptable to God which is born, if I may so express it, out of such presumption of faith, and is grounded in unshaken assurance of hope. He could have been content with the simple mention of faith, yet he not only added confidence but also fortified it with freedom or boldness, that by this mark he might distinguish from us the unbelievers, who indeed indiscriminately mingle with us in our prayers to God, but by chance. The whole church prays in this way in the psalm: "Let thy mercy be upon us, even as we have hoped in thee" [Ps. 33:22, Comm.]. Elsewhere the prophet lays down the same condition: "In the day when I call, this I know, that God is with me" [Ps. 56:9, Comm.]. Likewise: "In the morning I will make ready for thee, and watch." [Ps. 5:3, see Comm.] From these words we conclude that prayers are vainly cast upon the air unless hope be added, from which we quietly watch for God as from a watchtower. Paul's order of exhortation agrees with these: for before he urges believers "to pray at all times in the Spirit" with watchfulness and perseverance [Eph. 6:18], he bids them first take up "the shield of faith, . . . the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" [Eph. 6:16-17].

Here let my readers recall what I said before: that faith is not at all overthrown when it is joined with the acknowledgment of our misery, destitution, and uncleanness. For however much believers may feel pressed down or troubled by a heavy weight of sins, not only bereft of all things that might obtain favor with God, but laden with many offenses that justly render him terrifying, nevertheless they do not cease to present themselves; and this feeling does not frighten them from betaking themselves to him, since there is no other access to him. For prayer was not ordained that we should be haughtily puffed up before God, or greatly esteem anything of ours, but that, having confessed our guilt, we should deplore our distresses before him, as children unburden their troubles to their parents. Moreover, the boundless mass of our sins should amply furnish us with spurs or goads to arouse us to pray, as the prophet also teaches us by his example: "Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee: [Ps. 41:4]. I, indeed, confess that in these darts there would be deadly stings if God did not help us. But according to his incomparable compassion, our most gracious Father has added a timely remedy, by which, calming all perturbation, assuaging cares, casting out fears, he may draw us gently to himself--nay, removing all rough spots, not to mention hindrances, he may pave the way.

13. God's command and promise as motive for prayer

First, bidding us pray, by the precept itself he convicts us of impious obstinacy unless we obey. Nothing could be commanded more precisely than what is stated in the psalm: "Call upon me in the day of tribulation" [Ps. 50:15; 49:15, Vg..]. But because among the duties of godliness the Scriptures commend none more frequently, I need not dwell longer on this point. "Seek," says the Master, "and you will receive; knock, and it will be opened unto you." [Matt. 7:7.] However, a promise is here also added to the precept, as is necessary; for even though all admit that the precept ought to be obeyed, still the majority would flee from God when he calls if he did not promise to be easily entreated and readily accessible.

When these two things have been established, it is certain that those who try to wriggle out of coming directly to God are not only rebellious and stubborn but are also convicted of unbelief because they distrust the promises. This is all the more noteworthy, since hypocrites on the pretense of humility and modesty haughtily despise God's precept and discredit as well his kindly invitation--even defraud him of the chief part of his worship. For having rejected sacrifices in which all holiness then seemed to rest [Ps. 50:7-13], he declares that to be called upon in the day of need is highest and precious above all else [Ps. 50:15]. Therefore, there are no colors of doubt, however alluring, that can excuse us. So then, all the passages that keep occurring in the Scriptures, in which calling upon God is enjoined upon us, are as so many banners set up before our eyes to inspire us with confidence. It would be rashness itself to burst into God's sight if he himself had not anticipated our coming by calling us. Therefore he opens a way for us in his own words: "I will say to them, 'You are my people'; they will say to me, 'Thou art our God'" [Zech. 13:9 p.]. We see how he precedes those who worship him, and would have them follow him, and thus not to fear for the sweetness of the melody that he himself dictates.

Especially let that noble title of God come to our minds, relying upon which we shall without trouble overcome all obstacles. "O God . . . thou who hearest prayer! To thee shall all flesh come." [Ps. 65:1-2.] For what is more lovely or agreeable than for God to bear this title, which assures us that nothing is more to his nature than to assent to the prayers of suppliants? From this the prophet infers that the door is open not to a few but to all mortals, for he addresses all in these words: "Call upon me in the day of affliction; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me" [Ps. 50:15]. According to this rule, David claims for himself the promise given him, that he may obtain what he seeks. "Thou, . . . O God, hast revealed to the ear of thy servant . . . ; therefore thy servant has found courage to pray." [2 Sam. 7:27, cf. Vg.] From this we conclude that he was fearful except insofar as the promise had encouraged him. So elsewhere he arms himself with this general doctrine: "He will do the will of those who fear him" [Ps. 145:19; 144:19, Vg.]. Indeed, we may note this in The Psalms: that if the thread of prayer were broken, transition is sometimes made to God's power, sometimes to his goodness, sometimes to the faithfulness of his promises. It might seem that David, by inserting these statements inopportunely, mutilates his prayers, but believers know by use and experience that ardor burns low unless they supply new fuel. Accordingly, among our prayers, meditation both on God's nature and on his Word is by no means superfluous. And so by David's example, let us not disdain to insert something that may refresh our languishing spirits with new vigor.

14. Men should pray confidently, without terror but with reverential fear

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. "The name of the Lord is an impregnable citadel," says Solomon: "the righteous man will flee to it and be saved." [Prov. 18:10 p.] But Joel, after he has prophesied the frightful ruin that threatens, adds this memorable sentence: "All that call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered" [Joel 2:32; Rom. 10:13]. This we know actually refers to the course of the gospel [Acts 2:21]. Scarcely one man in a hundred is moved to approach God. He himself proclaims through Isaiah: "You will call upon me and I shall hear you. Nay, before you call, I will answer you" [Isa. 65:24 p.]. Elsewhere he also vouchsafes this same honor to the whole church in common, as it applies to all the members of Christ. "He has called to me and I shall hearken to him; I am with him in tribulation to rescue him." [Ps. 91:15.] Still, it is not my purpose, as I have already said, to list every passage but to choose certain pre-eminent ones, from which we may taste how gently God attracts us to himself, and with what tight bonds our ungratefulness is bound when, amidst such sharp pricks, our sluggishness still delays. Accordingly, let these words ever resound in our ears: "The Lord is near to all who call upon him, who call upon him in truth" [Ps. 145:18; cf. 144:18, Vg.]. It is the same with the words we have quoted from Isaiah and Joel, with which God assures us that he is attentive to our prayers, and is even pleased as by a sacrifice of sweet savor when we "cast our cares upon him" [cf. 1 Peter 5:7; also Ps. 55:22; 54:23, Vg.]. We receive this singular fruit of God's promises when we frame our prayers without hesitation or trepidation; but, relying upon the word of him whose majesty would otherwise terrify us, we dare call upon him as Father, while he deigns to suggest this sweetest of names to us.

It remains for us, provided with such inducements, to know that we have from this enough evidence that he will hearken to us, inasmuch as our prayers depend upon no merit of ours, but their whole worth and hope of fulfillment are grounded in God's promises, and depend upon them, so that they need no other support, nor do they look about up and down, hither and thither. We must therefore make up our minds that, even though we do not excel in a holiness like that which is praised in the holy patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, yet because we and they have a common command to pray and a common faith, if we rely upon God's Word, in this we are rightly their fellows. For God, as has been seen above, declaring that he will be gentle and kind to all, gives to the utterly miserable, hope that they will get what they have sought. Accordingly, we must note the general forms, by which no one from first to last (as people say) is excluded, provided sincerity of heart, dissatisfaction with ourselves, humility, and faith are present in order that our hypocrisy may not profane God's name by calling upon him deceitfully. Our most gracious Father will not cast out those whom he not only urges, but stirs up with every possible means, to come to him. Hence arises David's way of praying, to which I have recently referred: "Behold, Lord, thou hast promised thy servant, . . . therefore thy servant has today taken heart and found what he might pray before thee. And now, O Lord God, thou art God, and thy words will be true. Thou hast spoken of these benefits to thy servant. Now begin and do it" [2 Sam. 7:27-29, cf. Vg.]. As also elsewhere: "Grant unto thy servant according to thy word." [Ps. 119:76 p.] And all the Israelites together, whenever they arm themselves by remembering the covenant, sufficiently assert that since God so enjoins, one is not to pray fearfully. In this they followed the examples of the patriarchs, especially Jacob, who, after he confessed himself to be less than the many mercies he had received at God's hand [Gen. 32:10], says that he is nevertheless encouraged to ask greater things because God had promised that he would do them [cf. Gen. 32:12-13].

But whatever pretenses unbelievers present, when they do not flee to God whenever necessity presses, do not seek him, and do not implore his help, they defraud him just as much of his due honor as if they made new gods and idols, since in this way they deny God is the author of every good thing. On the other hand, nothing is more effective to free the godly from every misgiving than to be fortified with this thought: there is no reason why any delay should hinder them while they obey the commandment of God, who declares that nothing pleases him more than obedience.

Hence what I have previously said is shown again in clearer light: that a dauntless spirit of praying rightly accords with fear, reverence, and solicitude, and it is not absurd if God raises those who lie prostrate. In this way expressions seemingly discordant beautifully agree. Jeremiah and Daniel say that they lay their prayers before God [Jer. 42:9; Dan. 9:18]. Elsewhere Jeremiah says: "Let our supplication fall before thee that the remnant of thy people may be pitied" [Jer. 42:2 p.]. On the other hand, believers are often said to "lift up prayer." So speaks Hezekiah, when he asks the prophet to intercede on his behalf [2 Kings 19:4]. And David longs to have his prayer rise up "as incense" [Ps. 141:2]. That is, although, persuaded of God's fatherly love, they gladly commit themselves to his safekeeping and do not hesitate to implore the assistance that he freely promises, still they are not elated by heedless confidence, as if they had cast away shame, but they so climb upward by the steps of the promises that they still remain suppliants in their self-abasement.

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