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Of Prayer—A Perpetual Exercise of Faith. The Daily Benefits Derived from It. by John Calvin

Of Prayer—A Perpetual Exercise of Faith. The Daily Benefits Derived from It.

by John Calvin

John Calvin
A Picture of Calvin
Translated by Henry Beveridge
The principal divisions of this chapter are, --
I. Connection of the subject of prayer with the previous chapters. The
nature of prayer, and its necessity as a Christian exercise, sec. 1, 2.
II. To whom prayer is to be offered. Refutation of an objection which
is too apt to present itself to the mind, sec. 3.
III. Rules to be observed in prayer, sec. 4-16.
IV. Through whom prayer is to be made, sec. 17-19.
V. Refutation of an error as to the doctrine of our Mediator and
Intercessor, with answers to the leading arguments urged in support of
the intercession of saints, sec. 20-27.
VI. The nature of prayer, and some of its accidents, sec. 28-33.
VII. A perfect form of invocation, or an exposition of the Lord's
Prayer, sec. 34-50.
VIII. Some rules to be observed with regard to prayer, as time,
perseverance, the feeling of the mind, and the assurance of faith, sec.
1. A general summary of what is contained in the previous part of the
work. A transition to the doctrine of prayer. Its connection with the
subject of faith.
2. Prayer defined. Its necessity and use.
3. Objection, that prayer seems useless, because God already knows our
wants. Answer, from the institution and end of prayer. Confirmation by
example. Its necessity and propriety. Perpetually reminds us of our
duty, and leads to meditation on divine providence. Conclusion. Prayer
a most useful exercise. This proved by three passages of Scripture.
4. Rules to be observed in prayer. First, reverence to God. How the
mind ought to be composed.
5. All giddiness of mind must be excluded, and all our feelings
seriously engaged. This confirmed by the form of lifting the hand in
prayer. We must ask only in so far as God permits. To help our
weakness, God gives the Spirit to be our guide in prayer. What the
office of the Spirit in this respect. We must still pray both with the
heart and the lips.
6. Second rule of prayer, a sense of our want. This rule violated, 1.
By perfunctory and formal prayer 2. By hypocrites who have no sense of
their sins. 3. By giddiness in prayer. Remedies.
7. Objection, that we are not always under the same necessity of
praying. Answer, we must pray always. This answer confirmed by an
examination of the dangers by which both our life and our salvation are
every moment threatened. Confirmed farther by the command and
permission of God, by the nature of true repentance, and a
consideration of impenitence. Conclusion.
8. Third rule, the suppression of all pride. Examples. Daniel, David,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch.
9. Advantage of thus suppressing pride. It leads to earnest entreaty
for pardon, accompanied with humble confession and sure confidence in
the Divine mercy. This may not always be expressed in words. It is
peculiar to pious penitents. A general introduction to procure favour
to our prayers never to be omitted.
10. Objection to the third rule of prayer. Of the glorying of the
saints. Answer. Confirmation of the answer.
11. Fourth rule of prayer, -- a sure confidence of being heard
animating us to prayer. The kind of confidence required, viz., a
serious conviction of our misery, joined with sure hope. From these
true prayer springs. How diffidence impairs prayer. In general, faith
is required.
12. This faith and sure hope regarded by our opponents as most absurd.
Their error described and refuted by various passages of Scripture,
which show that acceptable prayer is accompanied with these qualities.
No repugnance between this certainty and an acknowledgment of our
13. To our unworthiness we oppose, 1. The command of God. 2. The
promise. Rebels and hypocrites completely condemned. Passages of
Scripture confirming the command to pray.
14. Other passages respecting the promises which belong to the pious
when they invoke God. These realised though we are not possessed of the
same holiness as other distinguished servants of God, provided we
indulge no vain confidence, and sincerely betake ourselves to the mercy
of God. Those who do not invoke God under urgent necessity are no
better than idolaters. This concurrence of fear and confidence
reconciles the different passages of Scripture, as to humbling
ourselves in prayer, and causing our prayers to ascend.
15. Objection founded on some examples, viz., that prayers have proved
effectual, though not according to the form prescribed. Answer. Such
examples, though not given for our imitation, are of the greatest use.
Objection, the prayers of the faithful sometimes not effectual. Answer
confirmed by a noble passage of Augustine. Rule for right prayer.
16. The above four rules of prayer not so rigidly exacted, as that
every prayer deficient in them in any respect is rejected by God. This
shown by examples. Conclusion, or summary of this section.
17. Through whom God is to be invoked, viz., Jesus Christ. This founded
on a consideration of the divine majesty, and the precept and promise
of God himself. God therefore to be invoked only in the name of Christ.
18. From the first all believers were heard through him only: yet this
specially restricted to the period subsequent to his ascension. The
ground of this restriction.
19. The wrath of God lies on those who reject Christ as a Mediator.
This excludes not the mutual intercession of saints on the earth.
20. Refutation of errors interfering with the intercession of Christ.
1. Christ the Mediator of redemption; the saints mediators of
intercession. Answer confirmed by the clear testimony of Scripture, and
by a passage from Augustine. The nature of Christ's intercession.
21. Of the intercession of saints living with Christ in heaven. Fiction
of the Papists in regard to it. Refuted. 1. Its absurdity. 2. It is
nowhere mentioned by Scripture. 3. Appeal to the conscience of the
superstitious. 4. Its blasphemy. Exception. Answers.
22. Monstrous errors resulting from this fiction. Refutation. Exception
by the advocates of this fiction. Answer.
23. Arguments of the Papists for the intercession of saints. 1. From
the duty and office of angels. Answer. 2. From an expression of
Jeremiah respecting Moses and Samuel. Answer, retorting the argument.
3. The meaning of the prophet confirmed by a similar passage in
Ezekiel, and the testimony of an apostle.
24. 4. Fourth papistical argument from the nature of charity, which is
more perfect in the saints in glory. Answer.
25. Argument founded on a passage in Moses. Answer.
26. Argument from its being said that the prayers of saints are heard.
Answer, confirmed by Scripture, and illustrated by examples.
27. Conclusion, that the saints cannot be invoked without impiety. 1.
It robs God of his glory. 2. Destroys the intercession of Christ. 3. Is
repugnant to the word of God. 4. Is opposed to the due method of
prayer. 5. Is without approved example. 6. Springs from distrust. Last
objection. Answer.
28. Kinds of prayer. Vows. Supplications. Petitions. Thanksgiving.
Connection of these, their constant use and necessity. Particular
explanation confirmed by reason, Scripture, and example. Rule as to
supplication and thanksgiving.
29. The accidents of prayer, viz., private and public, constant, at
stated seasons, &c. Exception in time of necessity. Prayer without
ceasing. Its nature. Garrulity of Papists and hypocrites refuted. The
scope and parts of prayer. Secret prayer. Prayer at all places. Private
and public prayer.
30. Of public places or churches in which common prayers are offered
up. Right use of churches. Abuse.
31. Of utterance and singing. These of no avail if not from the heart.
The use of the voice refers more to public than private prayer.
32. Singing of the greatest antiquity, but not universal. How to be
33. Public prayers should be in the vulgar, not in a foreign tongue.
Reason, 1. The nature of the Church. 2. Authority of an apostle.
Sincere affection always necessary. The tongue not always necessary.
Bending of the knee, and uncovering of the head.
34. The form of prayer delivered by Christ displays the boundless
goodness of our heavenly Father. The great comfort thereby afforded.
35. Lord's Prayer divided into six petitions. Subdivision into two
principal parts, the former referring to the glory of God, the latter
to our salvation.
36. The use of the term Father implies, 1. That we pray to God in the
name of Christ alone. 2. That we lay aside all distrust. 3. That we
expect everything that is for our good.
37. Objection, that our sins exclude us from the presence of him whom
we have made a Judge, not a Father. Answer, from the nature of God, as
described by an apostle, the parable of the prodigal son, and from the
expression, Our Father. Christ the earnest, the Holy Spirit the
witness, of our adoption.
38. Why God is called generally, Our Father.
39. We may pray specially for ourselves and certain others, provided we
have in our mind a general reference to all.
40. In what sense God is said to be in heaven. A threefold use of this
doctrine for our consolation. Three cautions. Summary of the preface to
the Lord's Prayer.
41. The necessity of the first petition a proof of our unrighteousness.
What meant by the name of God. How it is hallowed. Parts of this
hallowing. A deprecation of the sins by which the name of God is
42. Distinction between the first and second petitions. The kingdom of
God, what. How said to come. Special exposition of this petition. It
reminds us of three things. Advent of the kingdom of God in the world.
43. Distinction between the second and third petitions. The will here
meant not the secret will or good pleasure of God, but that manifested
in the word. Conclusion of the three first petitions.
44. A summary of the second part of the Lord's Prayer. Three petitions.
What contained in the first. Declares the exceeding kindness of God,
and our distrust. What meant by bread. Why the petition for bread
precedes that for the forgiveness of sins. Why it is called ours. Why
to be sought this day, or daily. The doctrine resulting from this
petition, illustrated by an example. Two classes of men sin in regard
to this petition. In what sense it is called, our bread. Why we ask God
to give it to us.
45. Close connection between this and the subsequent petition. Why our
sins are called debts. This petition violated, 1. By those who think
they can satisfy God by their own merits, or those of others. 2. By
those who dream of a perfection which makes pardon unnecessary. Why the
elect cannot attain perfection in this life. Refutation of the
libertine dreamers of perfection. Objection refuted. In what sense we
are said to forgive those who have sinned against us. How the condition
is to be understood.
46. The sixth petition reduced to three heads. 1. The various forms of
temptation. The depraved conceptions of our minds. The wiles of Satan,
on the right hand and on the left. 2. What it is to be led into
temptation. We do not ask not to be tempted of God. What meant by evil,
or the evil one. Summary of this petition. How necessary it is.
Condemns the pride of the superstitious. Includes many excellent
properties. In what sense God may be said to lead us into temptation.
47. The three last petitions show that the prayers of Christians ought
to be public. The conclusion of the Lord's Prayer. Why the word Amen is
48. The Lord's Prayer contains everything that we can or ought to ask
of God. Those who go beyond it sin in three ways.
49. We may, after the example of the saints, frame our prayers in
different words, provided there is no difference in meaning.
50. Some circumstances to be observed. Of appointing special hours of
prayer. What to be aimed at, what avoided. The will of God, the rule of
our prayers.
51. Perseverance in prayer especially recommended, both by precept and
example. Condemnatory of those who assign to God a time and mode of
52. Of the dignity of faith, through which we always obtain, in answer
to prayer, whatever is most expedient for us. The knowledge of this
most necessary.
FROM the previous part of the work we clearly see how completely
destitute man is of all good, how devoid of every means of procuring
his own salvation. Hence, if he would obtain succour in his necessity,
he must go beyond himself, and procure it in some other quarter. It has
farther been shown that the Lord kindly and spontaneously manifests
himself in Christ, in whom he offers all happiness for our misery, all
abundance for our want, opening up the treasures of heaven to us, so
that we may turn with full faith to his beloved Son, depend upon him
with full expectation, rest in him, and cleave to him with full hope.
This, indeed, is that secret and hidden philosophy which cannot be
learned by syllogisms: a philosophy thoroughly understood by those
whose eyes God has so opened as to see light in his light (Ps. 36:9).
But after we have learned by faith to know that whatever is necessary
for us or defective in us is supplied in God and in our Lord Jesus
Christ, in whom it hath pleased the Father that all fulness should
dwell, that we may thence draw as from an inexhaustible fountain, it
remains for us to seek and in prayer implore of him what we have
learned to be in him. To know God as the sovereign disposer of all
good, inviting us to present our requests, and yet not to approach or
ask of him, were so far from availing us, that it were just as if one
told of a treasure were to allow it to remain buried in the ground.
Hence the Apostle, to show that a faith unaccompanied with prayer to
God cannot be genuine, states this to be the order: As faith springs
from the Gospel, so by faith our hearts are framed to call upon the
name of God (Rom. 10:14). And this is the very thing which he had
expressed some time before, viz., that the Spirit of adoption, which
seals the testimony of the Gospel on our hearts, gives us courage to
make our requests known unto God, calls forth groanings which cannot be
uttered, and enables us to cry, Abba, Father (Rom. 8:26). This last
point, as we have hitherto only touched upon it slightly in passing,
must now be treated more fully.
To prayer, then, are we indebted for penetrating to those riches which
are treasured up for us with our heavenly Father? For there is a kind
of intercourse between God and men, by which, having entered the upper
sanctuary, they appear before Him and appeal to his promises, that when
necessity requires they may learn by experiences that what they
believed merely on the authority of his word was not in vain.
Accordingly, we see that nothing is set before us as an object of
expectation from the Lord which we are not enjoined to ask of Him in
prayer, so true it is that prayer digs up those treasures which the
Gospel of our Lord discovers to the eye of faith. The necessity and
utility of this exercise of prayer no words can sufficiently express.
Assuredly it is not without cause our heavenly Father declares that our
only safety is in calling upon his name, since by it we invoke the
presence of his providence to watch over our interests, of his power to
sustain us when weak and almost fainting, of his goodness to receive us
into favour, though miserably loaded with sin; in fine, call upon him
to manifest himself to us in all his perfections. Hence, admirable
peace and tranquillity are given to our consciences; for the straits by
which we were pressed being laid before the Lord, we rest fully
satisfied with the assurance that none of our evils are unknown to him,
and that he is both able and willing to make the best provision for us.
But some one will say, Does he not know without a monitor both what our
difficulties are, and what is meet for our interest, so that it seems
in some measure superfluous to solicit him by our prayers, as if he
were winking, or even sleeping, until aroused by the sound of our
voice? [1] Those who argue thus attend not to the end for which the
Lord taught us to pray. It was not so much for his sake as for ours. He
wills indeed, as is just, that due honour be paid him by acknowledging
that all which men desire or feel to be useful, and pray to obtain, is
derived from him. But even the benefit of the homage which we thus pay
him redounds to ourselves. Hence the holy patriarchs, the more
confidently they proclaimed the mercies of God to themselves and others
felt the stronger incitement to prayer. It will be sufficient to refer
to the example of Elijah, who being assured of the purpose of God had
good ground for the promise of rain which he gives to Ahab, and yet
prays anxiously upon his knees, and sends his servant seven times to
inquire (1 Kings 18:42); not that he discredits the oracle, but because
he knows it to be his duty to lay his desires before God, lest his
faith should become drowsy or torpid. Wherefore, although it is true
that while we are listless or insensible to our wretchedness, he wakes
and watches for us and sometimes even assists us unasked; it is very
much for our interest to be constantly supplicating him; first, that
our heart may always be inflamed with a serious and ardent desire of
seeking, loving and serving him, while we accustom ourselves to have
recourse to him as a sacred anchor in every necessity; secondly, that
no desires, no longing whatever, of which we are ashamed to make him
the witness, may enter our minds, while we learn to place all our
wishes in his sight, and thus pour out our heart before him; and,
lastly, that we may be prepared to receive all his benefits with true
gratitude and thanksgiving, while our prayers remind us that they
proceed from his hand. Moreover, having obtained what we asked, being
persuaded that he has answered our prayers, we are led to long more
earnestly for his favour, and at the same time have greater pleasure in
welcoming the blessings which we perceive to have been obtained by our
prayers. Lastly, use and experience confirm the thought of his
providence in our minds in a manner adapted to our weakness, when we
understand that he not only promises that he will never fail us, and
spontaneously gives us access to approach him in every time of need,
but has his hand always stretched out to assist his people, not amusing
them with words, but proving himself to be a present aid. For these
reasons, though our most merciful Father never slumbers nor sleeps, he
very often seems to do so, that thus he may exercise us, when we might
otherwise be listless and slothful, in asking, entreating, and
earnestly beseeching him to our great good. It is very absurd,
therefore, to dissuade men from prayer, by pretending that Divine
Providence, which is always watching over the government of the
universes is in vain importuned by our supplications, when, on the
contrary, the Lord himself declares, that he is "nigh unto all that
call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth (Ps. 145:18). No
better is the frivolous allegation of others, that it is superfluous to
pray for things which the Lord is ready of his own accord to bestow;
since it is his pleasure that those very things which flow from his
spontaneous liberality should be acknowledged as conceded to our
prayers. This is testified by that memorable sentence in the psalms to
which many others corresponds: "The eyes of the Lord are upon the
righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry" (Ps. 34:15). This
passage, while extolling the care which Divine Providence spontaneously
exercises over the safety of believers, omits not the exercise of faith
by which the mind is aroused from sloth. The eyes of God are awake to
assist the blind in their necessity, but he is likewise pleased to
listen to our groans, that he may give us the better proof of his love.
And thus both things are true, "He that keepeth Israel shall neither
slumber nor sleep" (Ps. 121:4); and yet whenever he sees us dumb and
torpid, he withdraws as if he had forgotten us.
Let the first rule of right prayer then be, to have our heart and mind
framed as becomes those who are entering into converse with God. This
we shall accomplish in regard to the mind, if, laying aside carnal
thoughts and cares which might interfere with the direct and pure
contemplation of God, it not only be wholly intent on prayer, but also,
as far as possible, be borne and raised above itself. I do not here
insist on a mind so disengaged as to feel none of the gnawings of
anxiety; on the contrary, it is by much anxiety that the fervour of
prayer is inflamed. Thus we see that the holy servants of God betray
great anguish, not to say solicitude, when they cause the voice of
complaint to ascend to the Lord from the deep abyss and the jaws of
death. What I say is, that all foreign and extraneous cares must be
dispelled by which the mind might be driven to and fro in vague
suspense, be drawn down from heaven, and kept grovelling on the earth.
When I say it must be raised above itself, I mean that it must not
bring into the presence of God any of those things which our blind and
stupid reason is wont to devise, nor keep itself confined within the
little measure of its own vanity, but rise to a purity worthy of God.
Both things are specially worthy of notice. First, let every one in
professing to pray turn thither all his thoughts and feelings, and be
not (as is usual) distracted by wandering thoughts; because nothing is
more contrary to the reverence due to God than that levity which
bespeaks a mind too much given to license and devoid of fear. In this
matter we ought to labour the more earnestly the more difficult we
experience it to be; for no man is so intent on prayer as not to feel
many thoughts creeping in, and either breaking off the tenor of his
prayer, or retarding it by some turning or digression. Here let us
consider how unbecoming it is when God admits us to familiar
intercourse to abuse his great condescension by mingling things sacred
and profane, reverence for him not keeping our minds under restraint;
but just as if in prayer we were conversing with one like ourselves
forgetting him, and allowing our thoughts to run to and fro. Let us
know, then, that none duly prepare themselves for prayer but those who
are so impressed with the majesty of God that they engage in it free
from all earthly cares and affections. The ceremony of lifting up our
hands in prayer is designed to remind us that we are far removed from
God, unless our thoughts rise upward: as it is said in the psalm, "Unto
thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul" (Psalm 25:1). And Scripture
repeatedly uses the expression to raise our prayers meaning that those
who would be heard by God must not grovel in the mire. The sum is, that
the more liberally God deals with us, condescendingly inviting us to
disburden our cares into his bosom, the less excusable we are if this
admirable and incomparable blessing does not in our estimation outweigh
all other things, and win our affection, that prayer may seriously
engage our every thought and feeling. This cannot be unless our mind,
strenuously exerting itself against all impediments, rise upward.
Our second proposition was, that we are to ask only in so far as God
permits. For though he bids us pour out our hearts (Ps. 62:8), he does
not indiscriminately give loose reins to foolish and depraved
affections; and when he promises that he will grant believers their
wish, his indulgence does not proceed so far as to submit to their
caprice. In both matters grievous delinquencies are everywhere
committed. For not only do many without modesty, without reverence,
presume to invoke God concerning their frivolities, but impudently
bring forward their dreams, whatever they may be, before the tribunal
of God. Such is the folly or stupidity under which they labour, that
they have the hardihood to obtrude upon God desires so vile, that they
would blush exceedingly to impart them to their fellow men. Profane
writers have derided and even expressed their detestation of this
presumption, and yet the vice has always prevailed. Hence, as the
ambitious adopted Jupiter as their patron; the avaricious, Mercury; the
literary aspirants, Apollo and Minerva; the warlike, Mars; the
licentious, Venus: so in the present day, as I lately observed, men in
prayer give greater license to their unlawful desires than if they were
telling jocular tales among their equals. God does not suffer his
condescension to be thus mocked, but vindicating his own light, places
our wishes under the restraint of his authority. We must, therefore,
attend to the observation of John: "This is the confidence that we have
in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us"
(1 John 5:14).
But as our faculties are far from being able to attain to such high
perfection, we must seek for some means to assist them. As the eye of
our mind should be intent upon God, so the affection of our heart ought
to follow in the same course. But both fall far beneath this, or
rather, they faint and fail, and are carried in a contrary direction.
To assist this weakness, God gives us the guidance of the Spirit in our
prayers to dictate what is right, and regulate our affections. For
seeing "we know not what we should pray for as we ought," "the Spirit
itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be
uttered" (Rom. 8:26) not that he actually prays or groans, but he
excites in us sighs, and wishes, and confidence, which our natural
powers are not at all able to conceive. Nor is it without cause Paul
gives the name of groanings which cannot be uttered to the prayers
which believers send forth under the guidance of the Spirit. For those
who are truly exercised in prayer are not unaware that blind anxieties
so restrain and perplex them, that they can scarcely find what it
becomes them to utter; nay, in attempting to lisp they halt and
hesitate. Hence it appears that to pray aright is a special gift. We do
not speak thus in indulgence to our sloths as if we were to leave the
office of prayer to the Holy Spirit, and give way to that carelessness
to which we are too prone. Thus we sometimes hear the impious
expression, that we are to wait in suspense until he take possession of
our minds while otherwise occupied. Our meaning is, that, weary of our
own heartlessness and sloth, we are to long for the aid of the Spirit.
Nor, indeed, does Paul, when he enjoins us to pray in the Spirit (1
Cor. 14:15), cease to exhort us to vigilance, intimating, that while
the inspiration of the Spirit is effectual to the formation of prayer,
it by no means impedes or retards our own endeavours; since in this
matter God is pleased to try how efficiently faith influences our
Another rule of prayer is, that in asking we must always truly feel our
wants, and seriously considering that we need all the things which we
ask, accompany the prayer with a sincere, nay, ardent desire of
obtaining them. Many repeat prayers in a perfunctory manner from a set
form, as if they were performing a task to God, and though they confess
that this is a necessary remedy for the evils of their condition,
because it were fatal to be left without the divine aid which they
implore, it still appears that they perform the duty from custom,
because their minds are meanwhile cold, and they ponder not what they
ask. A general and confused feeling of their necessity leads them to
pray, but it does not make them solicitous as in a matter of present
consequence, that they may obtain the supply of their need. Moreover,
can we suppose anything more hateful or even more execrable to God than
this fiction of asking the pardon of sins, while he who asks at the
very time either thinks that he is not a sinner, or, at least, is not
thinking that he is a sinner; in other words, a fiction by which God is
plainly held in derision? But mankind, as I have lately said, are full
of depravity, so that in the way of perfunctory service they often ask
many things of God which they think come to them without his
beneficence, or from some other quarter, or are already certainly in
their possession. There is another fault which seems less heinous, but
is not to be tolerated. Some murmur out prayers without meditation,
their only principle being that God is to be propitiated by prayer.
Believers ought to be specially on their guard never to appear in the
presence of God with the intention of presenting a request unless they
are under some serious impression, and are, at the same time, desirous
to obtain it. Nay, although in these things which we ask only for the
glory of God, we seem not at first sight to consult for our necessity,
yet we ought not to ask with less fervour and vehemency of desire. For
instance, when we pray that his name be hallowed -- that hallowing
must, so to speak, be earnestly hungered and thirsted after.
If it is objected, that the necessity which urges us to pray is not
always equal, I admit it, and this distinction is profitably taught us
by James: " Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let
him sing psalms" (James 5:13). Therefore, common sense itself dictates,
that as we are too sluggish, we must be stimulated by God to pray
earnestly whenever the occasion requires. This David calls a time when
God "may be found" (a seasonable time); because, as he declares in
several other passages, that the more hardly grievances, annoyances,
fears, and other kinds of trial press us, the freer is our access to
God, as if he were inviting us to himself. Still not less true is the
injunction of Paul to pray "always" (Eph. 6:18); because, however
prosperously according to our view, things proceed, and however we may
be surrounded on all sides with grounds of joy, there is not an instant
of time during which our want does not exhort us to prayer. A man
abounds in wheat and wine; but as he cannot enjoy a morsel of bread,
unless by the continual bounty of God, his granaries or cellars will
not prevent him from asking for daily bread. Then, if we consider how
many dangers impend every moment, fear itself will teach us that no
time ought to be without prayer. This, however, may be better known in
spiritual matters. For when will the many sins of which we are
conscious allow us to sit secure without suppliantly entreating freedom
from guilt and punishment? When will temptation give us a truce, making
it unnecessary to hasten for help? Moreover, zeal for the kingdom and
glory of God ought not to seize us by starts, but urge us without
intermission, so that every time should appear seasonable. It is not
without cause, therefore, that assiduity in prayer is so often
enjoined. I am not now speaking of perseverance, which shall afterwards
be considered; but Scripture, by reminding us of the necessity of
constant prayer, charges us with sloth, because we feel not how much we
stand in need of this care and assiduity. By this rule hypocrisy and
the device of lying to God are restrained, nay, altogether banished
from prayer. God promises that he will be near to those who call upon
him in truth, and declares that those who seek him with their whole
heart will find him: those, therefore, who delight in their own
pollution cannot surely aspire to him.
One of the requisites of legitimate prayer is repentance. Hence the
common declaration of Scripture, that God does not listen to the
wicked; that their prayers, as well as their sacrifices, are an
abomination to him. For it is right that those who seal up their hearts
should find the ears of God closed against them, that those who, by
their hardheartedness, provoke his severity should find him inflexible.
In Isaiah he thus threatens: "When ye make many prayers, I will not
hear: your hands are full of blood" (Isaiah 1:15). In like manner, in
Jeremiah, "Though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them"
(Jer. 11:7, 8, 11); because he regards it as the highest insult for the
wicked to boast of his covenant while profaning his sacred name by
their whole lives. Hence he complains in Isaiah: "This people draw near
to me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me; but have
removed their heart far from men" (Isaiah 29:13). Indeed, he does not
confine this to prayers alone, but declares that he abominates pretense
in every part of his service. Hence the words of James, "Ye ask and
receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your
lusts" (James 4:3). It is true, indeed (as we shall again see in a
little), that the pious, in the prayers which they utter, trust not to
their own worth; still the admonition of John is not superfluous:
"Whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his
commandments" (1 John 3:22); an evil conscience shuts the door against
us. Hence it follows, that none but the sincere worshippers of God pray
aright, or are listened to. Let every one, therefore, who prepares to
pray feel dissatisfied with what is wrong in his condition, and assume,
which he cannot do without repentance, the character and feelings of a
poor suppliant.
The third rule to be added is: that he who comes into the presence of
God to pray must divest himself of all vainglorious thoughts, lay aside
all idea of worth; in short, discard all self-confidence, humbly giving
God the whole glory, lest by arrogating anything, however little, to
himself, vain pride cause him to turn away his face. Of this
submission, which casts down all haughtiness, we have numerous examples
in the servants of God. The holier they are, the more humbly they
prostrate themselves when they come into the presence of the Lord. Thus
Daniel, on whom the Lord himself bestowed such high commendation, says,
"We do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousness
but for thy great mercies. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord,
hearken and do; defer not, for thine own sake, O my God: for thy city
and thy people are called by thy name." This he does not indirectly in
the usual manner, as if he were one of the individuals in a crowd: he
rather confesses his guilt apart, and as a suppliant betaking himself
to the asylum of pardon, he distinctly declares that he was confessing
his own sin, and the sin of his people Israel (Dan. 9:18-20). David
also sets us an example of this humility: " Enter not into judgment
with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified"
(Psalm 143:2). In like manner, Isaiah prays, "Behold, thou art wroth;
for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved. But
we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as
filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the
wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name,
that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy
face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. But now,
O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and
we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore, O Lord,
neither remember iniquity for ever: Behold, see, we beseech thee, we
are all thy people." (Isa. 64:5-9). You see how they put no confidence
in anything but this: considering that they are the Lord's, they
despair not of being the objects of his care. In the same way, Jeremiah
says, "O Lord, though our iniquities testify against us, do thou it for
thy name's sake" (Jer. 14:7). For it was most truly and piously written
by the uncertain author (whoever he may have been) that wrote the book
which is attributed to the prophet Baruch, [2] "But the soul that is
greatly vexed, which goeth stooping and feeble, and the eyes that fail,
and the hungry soul, will give thee praise and righteousness, O Lord.
Therefore, we do not make our humble supplication before thee, O Lord
our God, for the righteousness of our fathers, and of our kings."
"Hear, O Lord, and have mercy; for thou art merciful: and have pity
upon us, because we have sinned before thee" (Baruch 2:18, 19; 3:2).
In fine, supplication for pardon, with humble and ingenuous confession
of guilt, forms both the preparation and commencement of right prayer.
For the holiest of men cannot hope to obtain anything from God until he
has been freely reconciled to him. God cannot be propitious to any but
those whom he pardons. Hence it is not strange that this is the key by
which believers open the door of prayer, as we learn from several
passages in The Psalms. David, when presenting a request on a different
subject, says, "Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my
transgressions; according to thy mercy remember me, for thy goodness
sake, O Lord" (Psalm 25:7). Again, "Look upon my affliction and my
pain, and forgive my sins" (Psalm 25:18). Here also we see that it is
not sufficient to call ourselves to account for the sins of each
passing day; we must also call to mind those which might seem to have
been long before buried in oblivion. For in another passage the same
prophet, confessing one grievous crime, takes occasion to go back to
his very birth, "I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother
conceive me" (Psalm 51:5); not to extenuate the fault by the corruption
of his nature, but as it were to accumulate the sins of his whole life,
that the stricter he was in condemning himself, the more placable God
might be. But although the saints do not always in express terms ask
forgiveness of sins, yet if we carefully ponder those prayers as given
in Scripture, the truth of what I say will readily appear; namely, that
their courage to pray was derived solely from the mercy of God, and
that they always began with appeasing him. For when a man interrogates
his conscience, so far is he from presuming to lay his cares familiarly
before God, that if he did not trust to mercy and pardon, he would
tremble at the very thought of approaching him. There is, indeed,
another special confession. When believers long for deliverance from
punishment, they at the same time pray that their sins may be pardoned;
[3] for it were absurd to wish that the effect should be taken away
while the cause remains. For we must beware of imitating foolish
patients who, anxious only about curing accidental symptoms, neglect
the root of the disease. [4] Nay, our endeavour must be to have God
propitious even before he attests his favour by external signs, both
because this is the order which he himself chooses, and it were of
little avail to experience his kindness, did not conscience feel that
he is appeased, and thus enable us to regard him as altogether lovely.
Of this we are even reminded by our Saviour's reply. Having determined
to cure the paralytic, he says, "Thy sins are forgiven thee;" in other
words, he raises our thoughts to the object which is especially to be
desired, viz. admission into the favour of God, and then gives the
fruit of reconciliation by bringing assistance to us. But besides that
special confession of present guilt which believers employ, in
supplicating for pardon of every fault and punishment, that general
introduction which procures favour for our prayers must never be
omitted, because prayers will never reach God unless they are founded
on free mercy. To this we may refer the words of John, "If we confess
our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse
us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Hence, under the law it was
necessary to consecrate prayers by the expiation of blood, both that
they might be accepted, and that the people might be warned that they
were unworthy of the high privilege until, being purged from their
defilements, they founded their confidence in prayer entirely on the
mercy of God.
Sometimes, however, the saints in supplicating God, seem to appeal to
their own righteousness, as when David says, "Preserve my soul; for I
am holy" (Ps. 86:2). Also Hezekiah, "Remember now, O Lord, I beseech
thee how I have walked before thee in truth, and with a perfect heart,
and have done that which is good in thy sight" (Is. 38:2). All they
mean by such expressions is, that regeneration declares them to be
among the servants and children to whom God engages that he will show
favour. We have already seen how he declares by the Psalmist that his
eyes "are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry"
(Ps. 34:16) and again by the apostle, that "whatsoever we ask of him we
obtain, because we keep his commandments" (John 3:22). In these
passages he does not fix a value on prayer as a meritorious work, but
designs to establish the confidence of those who are conscious of an
unfeigned integrity and innocence, such as all believers should
possess. For the saying of the blind man who had received his sight is
in perfect accordance with divine truth, And God heareth not sinners
(John 9:31); provided we take the term sinners in the sense commonly
used by Scripture to mean those who, without any desire for
righteousness, are sleeping secure in their sins; since no heart will
ever rise to genuine prayer that does not at the same time long for
holiness. Those supplications in which the saints allude to their
purity and integrity correspond to such promises, that they may thus
have, in their own experience, a manifestation of that which all the
servants of God are made to expect. Thus they almost always use this
mode of prayer when before God they compare themselves with their
enemies, from whose injustice they long to be delivered by his hand.
When making such comparisons, there is no wonder that they bring
forward their integrity and simplicity of heart, that thus, by the
justice of their cause, the Lord may be the more disposed to give them
succour. We rob not the pious breast of the privilege of enjoying a
consciousness of purity before the Lord, and thus feeling assured of
the promises with which he comforts and supports his true worshippers,
but we would have them to lay aside all thought of their own merits and
found their confidence of success in prayer solely on the divine mercy.
The fourth rule of prayer is, that notwithstanding of our being thus
abased and truly humbled, we should be animated to pray with the sure
hope of succeeding. There is, indeed, an appearance of contradiction
between the two things, between a sense of the just vengeance of God
and firm confidence in his favour, and yet they are perfectly
accordant, if it is the mere goodness of God that raises up those who
are overwhelmed by their own sins. For, as we have formerly shown
(chap. iii. sec. 1, 2) that repentance and faith go hand in hand, being
united by an indissoluble tie, the one causing terror, the other joy,
so in prayer they must both be present. This concurrence David
expresses in a few words: "But as for me, I will come into thy house in
the multitude of thy mercy, and in thy fear will I worship toward thy
holy temple" (Ps. 5:7). Under the goodness of God he comprehends faith,
at the same time not excluding fear; for not only does his majesty
compel our reverence, but our own unworthiness also divests us of all
pride and confidence, and keeps us in fear. The confidence of which I
speak is not one which frees the mind from all anxiety, and soothes it
with sweet and perfect rest; such rest is peculiar to those who, while
all their affairs are flowing to a wish are annoyed by no care, stung
with no regret, agitated by no fear. But the best stimulus which the
saints have to prayer is when, in consequence of their own necessities,
they feel the greatest disquietude, and are all but driven to despair,
until faith seasonably comes to their aid; because in such straits the
goodness of God so shines upon them, that while they groan, burdened by
the weight of present calamities, and tormented with the fear of
greater, they yet trust to this goodness, and in this way both lighten
the difficulty of endurance, and take comfort in the hope of final
deliverance. It is necessary therefore, that the prayer of the believer
should be the result of both feelings, and exhibit the influence of
both; namely, that while he groans under present and anxiously dreads
new evils, he should, at the same times have recourse to God, not at
all doubting that God is ready to stretch out a helping hand to him.
For it is not easy to say how much God is irritated by our distrust,
when we ask what we expect not of his goodness. Hence, nothing is more
accordant to the nature of prayer than to lay it down as a fixed rule,
that it is not to come forth at random, but is to follow in the
footsteps of faith. To this principle Christ directs all of us in these
words, " Therefore, I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when
ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them" (Mark
11:24). The same thing he declares in another passage, "All things,
whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Matth.
21:22). In accordance with this are the words of James, "If any of you
lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and
upbraideth not, and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith,
nothing wavering" (James 1:5). He most aptly expresses the power of
faith by opposing it to wavering. No less worthy of notice is his
additional statement, that those who approach God with a doubting,
hesitating mind, without feeling assured whether they are to be heard
or not, gain nothing by their prayers. Such persons he compares to a
wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed. Hence, in another
passage he terms genuine prayer "the prayer of faith" (James 5:15).
Again, since God so often declares that he will give to every man
according to his faith he intimates that we cannot obtain anything
without faith. In short, it is faith which obtains everything that is
granted to prayer. This is the meaning of Paul in the well known
passage to which dull men give too little heed, "How then shall they
call upon him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they
believe in him of whom they have not heard?" "So then faith cometh by
hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:14, 17). Gradually
deducing the origin of prayer from faith, he distinctly maintains that
God cannot be invoked sincerely except by those to whom, by the
preaching of the Gospel, his mercy and willingness have been made
known, nay, familiarly explained.
This necessity our opponents do not at all consider. Therefore, when we
say that believers ought to feel firmly assured, they think we are
saying the absurdest thing in the world. But if they had any experience
in true prayer, they would assuredly understand that God cannot be duly
invoked without this firm sense of the Divine benevolence. But as no
man can well perceive the power of faith, without at the same time
feeling it in his heart, what profit is there in disputing with men of
this character, who plainly show that they have never had more than a
vain imagination? The value and necessity of that assurance for which
we contend is learned chiefly from prayer. Every one who does not see
this gives proof of a very stupid conscience. Therefore, leaving those
who are thus blinded, let us fix our thoughts on the words of Paul,
that God can only be invoked by such as have obtained a knowledge of
his mercy from the Gospel, and feel firmly assured that that mercy is
ready to be bestowed upon them. What kind of prayer would this be? "O
Lord, I am indeed doubtful whether or not thou art inclined to hear me;
but being oppressed with anxiety I fly to thee that if I am worthy,
thou mayest assist me." None of the saints whose prayers are given in
Scripture thus supplicated. Nor are we thus taught by the Holy Spirit,
who tells us to "come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may
obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16); and
elsewhere teaches us to "have boldness and access with confidence by
the faith of Christ" (Eph. 3:12). This confidence of obtaining what we
ask, a confidence which the Lord commands, and all the saints teach by
their example, we must therefore hold fast with both hands, if we would
pray to any advantage. The only prayer acceptable to God is that which
springs (if I may so express it) from this presumption of faith, and is
founded on the full assurance of hope. He might have been contented to
use the simple name of faith, but he adds not only confidence, but
liberty or boldness, that by this mark he might distinguish us from
unbelievers, who indeed like us pray to God, but pray at random. Hence,
the whole Church thus prays "Let thy mercy O Lord, be upon us,
according as we hope in thee" (Ps. 33:22). The same condition is set
down by the Psalmist in another passage, "When I cry unto thee, then
shall mine enemies turn back: this I know, for God is for me" (Ps.
56:9). Again, "In the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and
will look up" (Ps. 5:3). From these words we gather, that prayers are
vainly poured out into the air unless accompanied with faith, in which,
as from a watchtower, we may quietly wait for God. With this agrees the
order of Paul's exhortation. For before urging believers to pray in the
Spirit always, with vigilance and assiduity, he enjoins them to take
"the shield of faith," " the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the
Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph. 6:16-18).
Let the reader here call to mind what I formerly observed, that faith
by no means fails though accompanied with a recognition of our
wretchedness, poverty, and pollution. 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 no other access
to him. Genuine prayer is not that by which we arrogantly extol
ourselves before God, or set a great value on anything of our own, but
that by which, while confessing our guilt, we utter our sorrows before
God, just as children familiarly lay their complaints before their
parents. Nay, the immense accumulation of our sins should rather spur
us on and incite us to prayer. Of this the Psalmist gives us an
example, "Heal my soul: for I have sinned against thee" (Ps. 41:4). I
confess, indeed, that these stings would prove mortal darts, did not
God give succour; but our heavenly Father has, in ineffable kindness,
added a remedy, by which, calming all perturbation, soothing our cares,
and dispelling our fears he condescendingly allures us to himself; nay,
removing all doubts, not to say obstacles, makes the way smooth before
And first, indeed in enjoining us to pray, he by the very injunction
convicts us of impious contumacy if we obey not. He could not give a
more precise command than that which is contained in the psalms: "Call
upon me in the day of trouble" (Ps. 50:15). But as there is no office
of piety more frequently enjoined by Scripture, there is no occasion
for here dwelling longer upon it. "Ask," says our Divine Master, "and
it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be
opened unto you" (Matth. 7:7). Here, indeed, a promise is added to the
precept, and this is necessary. For though all confess that we must
obey the precept, yet the greater part would shun the invitation of
God, did he not promise that he would listen and be ready to answer.
These two positions being laid down, it is certain that all who
cavillingly allege that they are not to come to God directly, are not
only rebellious and disobedient but are also convicted of unbelief,
inasmuch as they distrust the promises. There is the more occasion to
attend to this, because hypocrites, under a pretense of humility and
modesty, proudly contemn the precept, as well as deny all credit to the
gracious invitation of God; nay, rob him of a principal part of his
worship. For when he rejected sacrifices, in which all holiness seemed
then to consist, he declared that the chief thing, that which above all
others is precious in his sight, is to be invoked in the day of
necessity. Therefore, when he demands that which is his own, and urges
us to alacrity in obeying, no pretexts for doubt, how specious soever
they may be, can excuse us. Hence, all the passages throughout
Scripture in which we are commanded to pray, are set up before our eyes
as so many banners, to inspire us with confidence. It were presumption
to go forward into the presence of God, did he not anticipate us by his
invitation. Accordingly, he opens up the way for us by his own voice,
"I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The Lord is my God"
(Zech. 13:9). We see how he anticipates his worshippers, and desires
them to follow, and therefore we cannot fear that the melody which he
himself dictates will prove unpleasing. Especially let us call to mind
that noble description of the divine character, by trusting to which we
shall easily overcome every obstacle: O thou that hearest prayer, unto
thee shall all flesh come" (Ps. 65:2). What can be more lovely or
soothing than to see God invested with a title which assures us that
nothing is more proper to his nature than to listen to the prayers of
suppliants? Hence the Psalmist infers, that free access is given not to
a few individuals, but to all men, since God addresses all in these
terms, "Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and
thou shalt glorify me" (Ps. 50:15). David, accordingly, appeals to the
promise thus given in order to obtain what he asks: "Thou, O Lord of
hosts, God of Israel, hast revealed to thy servant, saying, I will
build thee an house: therefore hath thy servant found in his heart to
pray this prayer unto thee" (2 Sam. 7:27). Here we infer, that he would
have been afraid but for the promise which emboldened him. So in
another passage he fortifies himself with the general doctrine, "He
will fulfil the desire of them that fear him" (Ps. 145:19). Nay, we may
observe in The Psalms how the continuity of prayer is broken, and a
transition is made at one time to the power of God, at another to his
goodness, at another to the faithfulness of his promises. It might seem
that David, by introducing these sentiments, unseasonably mutilates his
prayers; but believers well know by experience, that their ardour grows
languid unless new fuel be added, and, therefore, that meditation as
well on the nature as on the word of God during prayer, is by no means
superfluous. Let us not decline to imitate the example of David, and
introduce thoughts which may reanimate our languid minds with new
It is strange that these delightful promises affect us coldly, or
scarcely at all, so that the generality of men prefer to wander up and
down, forsaking the fountain of living waters, and hewing out to
themselves broken cisterns, rather than embrace the divine liberality
voluntarily offered to them (Jer. 2:13). "The name of the Lord," says
Solomon, "is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it, and is
safe." (Pr. 18:10) Joel, after predicting the fearful disaster which
was at hand, subjoins the following memorable sentence: " And it shall
come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall
be delivered." (Joel 2:32) This we know properly refers to the course
of the Gospel. Scarcely one in a hundred is moved to come into the
presence of God, though he himself exclaims by Isaiah, "And it shall
come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are
yet speaking, I will hear." (Is. 65:24) This honour he elsewhere
bestows upon the whole Church in general, as belonging to all the
members of Christ: "He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I
will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him." (Ps.
91:15) My intention, however, as I already observed, is not to
enumerate all, but only select some admirable passages as a specimen
how kindly God allures us to himself, and how extreme our ingratitude
must be when with such powerful motives our sluggishness still retards
us. Wherefore, let these words always resound in our ears: "The Lord is
nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in
truth" (Ps. 145:18). Likewise those passages which we have quoted from
Isaiah and Joel, in which God declares that his ear is open to our
prayers, and that he is delighted as with a sacrifice of sweet savour
when we cast our cares upon him. The special benefit of these promises
we receive when we frame our prayer, not timorously or doubtingly, but
when trusting to his word whose majesty might otherwise deter us, we
are bold to call him Father, he himself deigning to suggest this most
delightful name. Fortified by such invitations it remains for us to
know that we have therein sufficient materials for prayer, since our
prayers depend on no merit of our own, but all their worth and hope of
success are founded and depend on the promises of God, so that they
need no other support, and require not to look up and down on this hand
and on that. It must therefore be fixed in our minds, that though we
equal not the lauded sanctity of patriarchs, prophets, and apostles,
yet as the command to pray is common to us as well as them, and faith
is common, so if we lean on the word of God, we are in respect of this
privilege their associates. For God declaring, as has already been
seen, that he will listen and be favourable to all, encourages the most
wretched to hope that they shall obtain what they ask; and,
accordingly, we should attend to the general forms of expression,
which, as it is commonly expressed, exclude none from first to last;
only let there be sincerity of heart, self-dissatisfaction, humility,
and faith, that we may not, by the hypocrisy of a deceitful prayer,
profane the name of God. Our most merciful Father will not reject those
whom he not only encourages to come, but urges in every possible way.
Hence David's method of prayer to which I lately referred: "And now, O
Lord God, thou art that God, and thy words be true, and thou hast
promised this goodness unto thy servant, that it may continue for ever
before thee" (2 Sam. 7:28). So also, in another passage, "Let, I pray
thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to thy word
unto thy servant" (Psalm 119:76). And the whole body of the Israelites,
whenever they fortify themselves with the remembrance of the covenant,
plainly declare, that since God thus prescribes they are not to pray
timorously (Gen. 32:13). In this they imitated the example of the
patriarchs, particularly Jacob, who, after confessing that he was
unworthy of the many mercies which he had received of the Lord's hand,
says, that he is encouraged to make still larger requests, because God
had promised that he would grant them. But whatever be the pretexts
which unbelievers employ, when they do not flee to God as often as
necessity urges, nor seek after him, nor implore his aid, they defraud
him of his due honour just as much as if they were fabricating to
themselves new gods and idols, since in this way they deny that God is
the author of all their blessings. On the contrary, nothing more
effectually frees pious minds from every doubt, than to be armed with
the thought that no obstacle should impede them while they are obeying
the command of God, who declares that nothing is more grateful to him
than obedience. Hence, again, what I have previously said becomes still
more clear, namely, that a bold spirit in prayer well accords with
fear, reverence, and anxiety, and that there is no inconsistency when
God raises up those who had fallen prostrate. In this way forms of
expression apparently inconsistent admirably harmonize. Jeremiah and
David speak of humbly laying their supplications [5] before God (Jer.
42:9; Dan. 9:18). In another passage Jeremiah says "Let, we beseech
thee, our supplication be accepted before thee, and pray for us unto
the Lord thy God, even for all this remnant" (Jer. 42:2). On the other
hand, believers are often said to lift up prayer. Thus Hezekiah speaks,
when asking the prophet to undertake the office of interceding (2 Kings
19:4). And David says, "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as
incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Ps.
141:2). The explanation is, that though believers, persuaded of the
paternal love of God, cheerfully rely on his faithfulness, and have no
hesitation in imploring the aid which he voluntarily offers, they are
not elated with supine or presumptuous security; but climbing up by the
ladder of the promises, still remain humble and abased suppliants.
Here, by way of objection, several questions are raised. Scripture
relates that God sometimes complied with certain prayers which had been
dictated by minds not duly calmed or regulated. It is true, that the
cause for which Jotham imprecated on the inhabitants of Shechem the
disaster which afterwards befell them was well founded; but still he
was inflamed with anger and revenge (Judges 9:20); and hence God, by
complying with the execration, seems to approve of passionate impulses.
Similar fervour also seized Samson, when he prayed, " Strengthen me, I
pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the
Philistines for my two eyes" (Judges 16:28). For although there was
some mixture of good zeal, yet his ruling feeling was a fervid, and
therefore vicious longing for vengeance. God assents, and hence
apparently it might be inferred that prayers are effectual, though not
framed in conformity to the rule of the word. But I answer, first, that
a perpetual law is not abrogated by singular examples; and, secondly,
that special suggestions have sometimes been made to a few individuals,
whose case thus becomes different from that of the generality of men.
For we should attend to the answer which our Saviour gave to his
disciples when they inconsiderately wished to imitate the example of
Elias, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of" (Luke 9:55). We
must, however, go farther and say, that the wishes to which God assents
are not always pleasing to him; but he assents, because it is
necessary, by way of example, to give clear evidence of the doctrine of
Scripture, viz., that he assists the miserable, and hears the groans of
those who unjustly afflicted implore his aid: and, accordingly, he
executes his judgments when the complaints of the needy, though in
themselves unworthy of attention, ascend to him. For how often, in
inflicting punishment on the ungodly for cruelty, rapine, violence,
lust, and other crimes, in curbing audacity and fury, and also in
overthrowing tyrannical power, has he declared that he gives assistance
to those who are unworthily oppressed though they by addressing an
unknown deity only beat the air? There is one psalm which clearly
teaches that prayers are not without effect, though they do not
penetrate to heaven by faith (Ps. 107:6, 13, 19). For it enumerates the
prayers which, by natural instinct, necessity extorts from unbelievers
not less than from believers, and to which it shows by the event, that
God is, notwithstanding, propitious. Is it to testify by such readiness
to hear that their prayers are agreeable to him? Nay; it is, first, to
magnify or display his mercy by the circumstance, that even the wishes
of unbelievers are not denied; and, secondly, to stimulate his true
worshippers to more urgent prayer, when they see that sometimes even
the wailings of the ungodly are not without avail. This, however, is no
reason why believers should deviate from the law divinely imposed upon
them, or envy unbelievers, as if they gained much in obtaining what
they wished. We have observed (chap. iii. sec. 25), that in this way
God yielded to the feigned repentance of Ahab, that he might show how
ready he is to listen to his elect when, with true contrition, they
seek his favour. Accordingly, he upbraids the Jews, that shortly after
experiencing his readiness to listen to their prayers, they returned to
their own perverse inclinations. It is also plain from the Book of
Judges that, whenever they wept, though their tears were deceitful,
they were delivered from the hands of their enemies. Therefore, as God
sends his sun indiscriminately on the evil and on the good, so he
despises not the tears of those who have a good cause, and whose
sorrows are deserving of relief. Meanwhile, though he hears them, it
has no more to do with salvation than the supply of food which he gives
to other despisers of his goodness.
There seems to be a more difficult question concerning Abraham and
Samuel, the one of whom, without any instruction from the word of God,
prayed in behalf of the people of Sodom, and the other, contrary to an
express prohibition, prayed in behalf of Saul (Gen. 18:23; 1 Sam.
15:11). Similar is the case of Jeremiah, who prayed that the city might
not be destroyed (Jer. 32:16 ff). It is true their prayers were
refused, but it seems harsh to affirm that they prayed without faith.
Modest readers will, I hope, be satisfied with this solution, viz.,
that leaning to the general principle on which God enjoins us to be
merciful even to the unworthy, they were not altogether devoid of
faith, though in this particular instance their wish was disappointed.
Augustine shrewdly remarks, "How do the saints pray in faith when they
ask from God contrary to what he has decreed? Namely, because they pray
according to his will, not his hidden and immutable will, but that
which he suggests to them, that he may hear them in another manner; as
he wisely distinguishes" (August. de Civit. Dei, Lib. xxii. c. 2). This
is truly said: for, in his incomprehensible counsel, he so regulates
events, that the prayers of the saints, though involving a mixture of
faith and error, are not in vain. And yet this no more sanctions
imitation than it excuses the saints themselves, who I deny not
exceeded due bounds. Wherefore, whenever no certain promise exists, our
request to God must have a condition annexed to it. Here we may refer
to the prayer of David, "Awake for me to the judgment that thou hast
commanded" (Ps. 7:6); for he reminds us that he had received special
instruction to pray for a temporal blessing. [6]
It is also of importance to observe, that the four laws of prayer of
which I have treated are not so rigorously enforced, as that God
rejects the prayers in which he does not find perfect faith or
repentance, accompanied with fervent zeal and wishes duly framed. We
have said (sec. 4), that though prayer is the familiar intercourse of
believers with God, yet reverence and modesty must be observed: we must
not give loose reins to our wishes, nor long for anything farther than
God permits; and, moreover, lest the majesty of God should be despised,
our minds must be elevated to pure and chaste veneration. This no man
ever performed with due perfection. For, not to speak of the generality
of men, how often do David's complaints savour of intemperance? Not
that he actually means to expostulate with God, or murmur at his
judgments, but failing, through infirmity, he finds no better solace
than to pour his griefs into the bosom of his heavenly Father. Nay,
even our stammering is tolerated by God, and pardon is granted to our
ignorance as often as anything rashly escapes us: indeed, without this
indulgence, we should have no freedom to pray. But although it was
David's intention to submit himself entirely to the will of God, and he
prayed with no less patience than fervour, yet irregular emotions
appear, nay, sometimes burst forth, -- emotions not a little at
variance with the first law which we laid down. In particular, we may
see in a clause of the thirty-ninth Psalm, how this saint was carried
away by the vehemence of his grief, and unable to keep within bounds.
"O spare me, [7] that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be
no more" (Ps. 39:13). You would call this the language of a desperate
man, who had no other desire than that God should withdraw and leave
him to relish in his distresses. Not that his devout mind rushes into
such intemperance, or that, as the reprobate are wont, he wishes to
have done with God; he only complains that the divine anger is more
than he can bear. During those trials, wishes often escape which are
not in accordance with the rule of the word, and in which the saints do
not duly consider what is lawful and expedient. Prayers contaminated by
such faults, indeed, deserve to be rejected; yet provided the saints
lament, administer self-correction and return to themselves, God
Similar faults are committed in regard to the second law (as to which,
see sec. 6), for the saints have often to struggle with their own
coldness, their want and misery not urging them sufficiently to serious
prayer. It often happens, also, that their minds wander, and are almost
lost; hence in this matter also there is need of pardon, lest their
prayers, from being languid or mutilated, or interrupted and wandering,
should meet with a refusal. One of the natural feelings which God has
imprinted on our mind is, that prayer is not genuine unless the
thoughts are turned upward. Hence the ceremony of raising the hands, to
which we have adverted, a ceremony known to all ages and nations, and
still in common use. But who, in lifting up his hands, is not conscious
of sluggishness, the heart cleaving to the earth? In regard to the
petition for remission of sins (sec. 8), though no believer omits it,
yet all who are truly exercised in prayer feel that they bring scarcely
a tenth of the sacrifice of which David speaks, "The sacrifices of God
are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt
not despise" (Ps. 51:17). Thus a twofold pardon is always to be asked;
first, because they are conscious of many faults the sense of which,
however, does not touch them so as to make them feel dissatisfied with
themselves as they ought; and, secondly, in so far as they have been
enabled to profit in repentance and the fear of God, they are humbled
with just sorrow for their offenses, and pray for the remission of
punishment by the judge. The thing which most of all vitiates prayer,
did not God indulgently interpose, is weakness or imperfection of
faith; but it is not wonderful that this defect is pardoned by God, who
often exercises his people with severe trials, as if he actually wished
to extinguish their faith. The hardest of such trials is when believers
are forced to exclaim, "O Lord God of hosts, how long wilt thou be
angry against the prayer of thy people?" (Ps. 80:4), as if their very
prayers offended him. In like manner, when Jeremiah says "Also when I
cry and shout, he shutteth out my prayers (Lam. 3:8), there cannot be a
doubt that he was in the greatest perturbation. Innumerable examples of
the same kind occur in the Scriptures, from which it is manifest that
the faith of the saints was often mingled with doubts and fears, so
that while believing and hoping, they, however, betrayed some degree of
unbelief. But because they do not come so far as were to be wished,
that is only an additional reason for their exerting themselves to
correct their faults, that they may daily approach nearer to the
perfect law of prayer, and at the same time feel into what an abyss of
evils those are plunged, who, in the very cures they use, bring new
diseases upon themselves: since there is no prayer which God would not
deservedly disdain, did he not overlook the blemishes with which all of
them are polluted. I do not mention these things that believers may
securely pardon themselves in any faults which they commit, but that
they may call themselves to strict account, and thereby endeavour to
surmount these obstacles; and though Satan endeavours to block up all
the paths in order to prevent them from praying, they may,
nevertheless, break through, being firmly persuaded that though not
disencumbered of all hinderances, their attempts are pleasing to God,
and their wishes are approved, provided they hasten on and keep their
aim, though without immediately reaching it.
But since no man is worthy to come forward in his own name, and appear
in the presence of God, our heavenly Father, to relieve us at once from
fear and shame, with which all must feel oppressed, [8] has given us
his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to be our Advocate and Mediator, that
under his guidance we may approach securely, confiding that with him
for our Intercessor nothing which we ask in his name will be denied to
us, as there is nothing which the Father can deny to him (1 Tim. 2:5; 1
John 2:1; see sec. 36, 37). To this it is necessary to refer all that
we have previously taught concerning faith; because, as the promise
gives us Christ as our Mediator, so, unless our hope of obtaining what
we ask is founded on him, it deprives us of the privilege of prayer.
For it is impossible to think of the dread majesty of God without being
filled with alarm; and hence the sense of our own unworthiness must
keep us far away, until Christ interpose, and convert a throne of
dreadful glory into a throne of grace, as the Apostle teaches that thus
we can "come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy,
and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16). And as a rule has
been laid down as to prayer, as a promise has been given that those who
pray will be heard, so we are specially enjoined to pray in the name of
Christ, the promise being that we shall obtain what we ask in his name.
"Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name," says our Saviour, "that will I
do; that the Father may be glorified in the Son;" " Hitherto ye have
asked nothing in my name; ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may
be full" (John 14:13; 16:24). Hence it is incontrovertibly clear that
those who pray to God in any other name than that of Christ
contumaciously falsify his orders, and regard his will as nothing,
while they have no promise that they shall obtain. For, as Paul says
"All the promises of God in him are yea, and in him amen;" (2 Cor.
1:20), that is, are confirmed and fulfilled in him.
And we must carefully attend to the circumstance of time. Christ
enjoins his disciples to have recourse to his intercession after he
shall have ascended to heaven: "At that day ye shall ask in my name"
(John 16:26). It is certain, indeed, that from the very first all who
ever prayed were heard only for the sake of the Mediator. For this
reason God had commanded in the Law, that the priest alone should enter
the sanctuary, bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on his
shoulders, and as many precious stones on his breast, while the people
were to stand at a distance in the outer court, and thereafter unite
their prayers with the priest. Nay, the sacrifice had even the effect
of ratifying and confirming their prayers. That shadowy ceremony of the
Law therefore taught, first, that we are all excluded from the face of
God, and, therefore, that there is need of a Mediator to appear in our
name, and carry us on his shoulders and keep us bound upon his breast,
that we may be heard in his person; And secondly, that our prayers,
which, as has been said, would otherwise never be free from impurity,
are cleansed by the sprinkling of his blood. And we see that the
saints, when they desired to obtain anything, founded their hopes on
sacrifices, because they knew that by sacrifice all prayers were
ratified: " Remember all thy offerings," says David, "and accept thy
burnt sacrifice" (Ps. 20:3). Hence we infer, that in receiving the
prayers of his people, God was from the very first appeased by the
intercession of Christ. Why then does Christ speak of a new period ("at
that day") when the disciples were to begin to pray in his name, unless
it be that this grace, being now more brightly displayed, ought also to
be in higher estimation with us? In this sense he had said a little
before, "Hitherto ye have asked nothing in my name; ask." Not that they
were altogether ignorant of the office of Mediator (all the Jews were
instructed in these first rudiments), but they did not clearly
understand that Christ by his ascent to heaven would be more the
advocate of the Church than before. Therefore, to solace their grief
for his absence by some more than ordinary result, he asserts his
office of advocate, and says, that hitherto they had been without the
special benefit which it would be their privilege to enjoy, when aided
by his intercession they should invoke God with greater freedom. In
this sense the Apostle says that we have "boldness to enter into the
holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath
consecrated for us" (Heb. 10:19, 20). Therefore, the more inexcusable
we are, if we do not with both hands (as it is said) embrace the
inestimable gift which is properly destined for us.
Moreover since he himself is the only way and the only access by which
we can draw near to God, those who deviate from this way, and decline
this access, have no other remaining; his throne presents nothing but
wrath, judgment, and terror. In short, as the Father has consecrated
him our guide and head, those who abandon or turn aside from him in any
way endeavour, as much as in them lies, to sully and efface the stamp
which God has impressed. Christ, therefore, is the only Mediator by
whose intercession the Father is rendered propitious and exorable (1
Tim. 2:5). For though the saints are still permitted to use
intercessions, by which they mutually beseech God in behalf of each
other's salvation, and of which the Apostle makes mention (Eph. 6:18,
19; 1 Tim. 2:1); yet these depend on that one intercession, so far are
they from derogating from it. For as the intercessions which, as
members of one body we offer up for each other, spring from the feeling
of love, so they have reference to this one head. Being thus also made
in the name of Christ, what more do they than declare that no man can
derive the least benefit from any prayers without the intercession of
Christ? As there is nothing in the intercession of Christ to prevent
the different members of the Church from offering up prayers for each
other, so let it be held as a fixed principle, that all the
intercessions thus used in the Church must have reference to that one
intercession. Nay, we must be specially careful to show our gratitude
on this very account, that God pardoning our unworthiness, not only
allows each individual to pray for himself, but allows all to intercede
mutually for each other. God having given a place in his Church to
intercessors who would deserve to be rejected when praying privately on
their own account, how presumptuous were it to abuse this kindness by
employing it to obscure the honour of Christ?
Moreover, the Sophists are guilty of the merest trifling when they
allege that Christ is the Mediator of redemption, but that believers
are mediators of intercession; as if Christ had only performed a
temporary mediation, and left an eternal and imperishable mediation to
his servants. Such, forsooth, is the treatment which he receives from
those who pretend only to take from him a minute portion of honour.
Very different is the language of Scripture, with whose simplicity
every pious man will be satisfied, without paying any regard to those
importers. For when John says, "If any man sin, we have an advocate
with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1), does he mean
merely that we once had an advocate; does he not rather ascribe to him
a perpetual intercession? What does Paul mean when he declares that he
"is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for
us"? (Rom. 8:32). But when in another passage he declares that he is
the only Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), is he not referring
to the supplications which he had mentioned a little before? Having
previously said that prayers were to be offered up for all men, he
immediately adds, in confirmation of that statement, that there is one
God, and one Mediator between God and man. Nor does Augustine give a
different interpretation when he says, "Christian men mutually
recommend each other in their prayers. But he for whom none intercedes,
while he himself intercedes for all, is the only true Mediator. Though
the Apostle Paul was under the head a principal member, yet because he
was a member of the body of Christ, and knew that the most true and
High Priest of the Church had entered not by figure into the inner veil
to the holy of holies, but by firm and express truth into the inner
sanctuary of heaven to holiness, holiness not imaginary, but eternal
(Heb. 9:11, 24), he also commends himself to the prayers of the
faithful (Rom. 15:30; Eph. 6:19; Col. 4:3). He does not make himself a
mediator between God and the people, but asks that all the members of
the body of Christ should pray mutually for each other, since the
members are mutually sympathetic: if one member suffers, the others
suffer with it (1 Cor. 12:26). And thus the mutual prayers of all the
members still labouring on the earth ascend to the Head, who has gone
before into heaven, and in whom there is propitiation for our sins. For
if Paul were a mediator, so would also the other apostles, and thus
there would be many mediators, and Paul's statement could not stand,
'There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ
Jesus;' (1 Tim. 2:5) in whom we also are one (Rom. 12:5) if we keep the
unity of the faith in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3)," (August. Contra
Parmenian, Lib. ii. cap. 8). Likewise in another passage Augustine
says, "If thou requirest a priest, he is above the heavens, where he
intercedes for those who on earth died for thee" (August. in Ps. 94).
We imagine not that he throws himself before his Father's knees, and
suppliantly intercedes for us; but we understand with the Apostle, that
he appears in the presence of God, and that the power of his death has
the effect of a perpetual intercession for us; that having entered into
the upper sanctuary, he alone continues to the end of the world to
present the prayers of his people, who are standing far off in the
outer court.
In regard to the saints who having died in the body live in Christ, if
we attribute prayer to them, let us not imagine that they have any
other way of supplicating God than through Christ who alone is the way,
or that their prayers are accepted by God in any other name. Wherefore,
since the Scripture calls us away from all others to Christ alone,
since our heavenly Father is pleased to gather together all things in
him, it were the extreme of stupidity, not to say madness, to attempt
to obtain access by means of others, so as to be drawn away from him
without whom access cannot be obtained. But who can deny that this was
the practice for several ages, and is still the practice, wherever
Popery prevails? To procure the favour of God, human merits are ever
and anon obtruded, and very frequently while Christ is passed by, God
is supplicated in their name. I ask if this is not to transfer to them
that office of sole intercession which we have above claimed for
Christ? Then what angel or devil ever announced one syllable to any
human being concerning that fancied intercession of theirs? There is
not a word on the subject in Scripture. What ground then was there for
the fiction? Certainly, while the human mind thus seeks help for itself
in which it is not sanctioned by the word of God, it plainly manifests
its distrust (see s. 27). But if we appeal to the consciences of all
who take pleasure in the intercession of saints, we shall find that
their only reason for it is, that they are filled with anxiety, as if
they supposed that Christ were insufficient or too rigorous. By this
anxiety they dishonour Christ, and rob him of his title of sole
Mediator, a title which being given him by the Father as his special
privilege, ought not to be transferred to any other. By so doing they
obscure the glory of his nativity and make void his cross; in short,
divest and defraud of due praise everything which he did or suffered,
since all which he did and suffered goes to show that he is and ought
to be deemed sole Mediator. At the same time, they reject the kindness
of God in manifesting himself to them as a Father, for he is not their
Father if they do not recognize Christ as their brother. This they
plainly refuse to do if they think not that he feels for them a
brother's affection; affection than which none can be more gentle or
tender. Wherefore Scripture offers him alone, sends us to him, and
establishes us in him. "He," says Ambrose, "is our mouth by which we
speak to the Father; our eye by which we see the Father; our right hand
by which we offer ourselves to the Father. Save by his intercession
neither we nor any saints have any intercourse with God" (Ambros. Lib.
de Isaac et Anima). If they object that the public prayers which are
offered up in churches conclude with the words, through Jesus Christ
our Lord, it is a frivolous evasion; because no less insult is offered
to the intercession of Christ by confounding it with the prayers and
merits of the dead, than by omitting it altogether, and making mention
only of the dead. Then, in all their litanies, hymns, and proses where
every kind of honour is paid to dead saints, there is no mention of
But here stupidity has proceeded to such a length as to give a
manifestation of the genius of superstition, which, when once it has
shaken off the rein, is wont to wanton without limit. After men began
to look to the intercession of saints, a peculiar administration was
gradually assigned to each, so that, according to diversity of
business, now one, now another, intercessor was invoked. Then
individuals adopted particular saints, and put their faith in them,
just as if they had been tutelar deities. And thus not only were gods
set up according to the number of the cities (the charge which the
prophet brought against Israel of old, Jer. 2:28; 11:13), but according
to the number of individuals. But while the saints in all their desires
refer to the will of God alone, look to it, and acquiesce in it, yet to
assign to them any other prayer than that of longing for the arrival of
the kingdom of God, is to think of them stupidly, carnally, and even
insultingly. Nothing can be farther from such a view than to imagine
that each, under the influence of private feeling, is disposed to be
most favourable to his own worshippers. At length vast numbers have
fallen into the horrid blasphemy of invoking them not merely as helping
but presiding over their salvation. See the depth to which miserable
men fall when they forsake their proper station, that is, the word of
God. I say nothing of the more monstrous specimens of impiety in which,
though detestable to God, angels, and men, they themselves feel no pain
or shame. Prostrated at a statue or picture of Barbara or Catherine,
and the like, they mutter a Pater Noster; [9] and so far are their
pastors [10] from curing or curbing this frantic course, that, allured
by the scent of gain, they approve and applaud it. But while seeking to
relieve themselves of the odium of this vile and criminal procedure,
with what pretext can they defend the practice of calling upon Eloy
(Eligius) or Medard to look upon their servants, and send them help
from heaven, or the Holy Virgin to order her Son to do what they ask?
[11] The Council of Carthage forbade direct prayer to be made at the
altar to saints. It is probable that these holy men, unable entirely to
suppress the force of depraved custom, had recourse to this check, that
public prayers might not be vitiated with such forms of expression as
Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis -- St Peter, pray for us. But how much
farther has this devilish extravagance proceeded when men hesitate not
to transfer to the dead the peculiar attributes of Christ and God?
In endeavouring to prove that such intercession derives some support
from Scripture they labour in vain. We frequently read (they say) of
the prayers of angels, and not only so, but the prayers of believers
are said to be carried into the presence of God by their hands. But if
they would compare saints who have departed this life with angels, it
will be necessary to prove that saints are ministering spirits, to whom
has been delegated the office of superintending our salvation, to whom
has been assigned the province of guiding us in all our ways, of
encompassing, admonishing, and comforting us, of keeping watch over us.
All these are assigned to angels, but none of them to saints. How
preposterously they confound departed saints with angels is
sufficiently apparent from the many different offices by which
Scripture distinguishes the one from the other. No one unless admitted
will presume to perform the office of pleader before an earthly judge;
whence then have worms such license as to obtrude themselves on God as
intercessors, while no such office has been assigned them? God has been
pleased to give angels the charge of our safety. Hence they attend our
sacred meetings, and the Church is to them a theatre in which they
behold the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10). Those who transfer to
others this office which is peculiar to them, certainly pervert and
confound the order which has been established by God and ought to be
inviolable. With similar dexterity they proceed to quote other
passages. God said to Jeremiah, "Though Moses and Samuel stood before
me, yet my mind could not be toward this people" (Jer. 15:1). How (they
ask) could he have spoken thus of the dead but because he knew that
they interceded for the living? My inference, on the contrary, is this:
since it thus appears that neither Moses nor Samuel interceded for the
people of Israel, there was then no intercession for the dead. For who
of the saints can be supposed to labour for the salvation of the
peoples while Moses who, when in life, far surpassed all others in this
matter, does nothing? Therefore, if they persist in the paltry quibble,
that the dead intercede for the living, because the Lord said, "If they
stood before me," (intercesserint), I will argue far more speciously in
this way: Moses, of whom it is said, "if he interceded," did not
intercede for the people in their extreme necessity: it is probable,
therefore, that no other saint intercedes, all being far behind Moses
in humanity, goodness, and paternal solicitude. Thus all they gain by
their cavilling is to be wounded by the very arms with which they deem
themselves admirably protected. But it is very ridiculous to wrest this
simple sentence in this manner; for the Lord only declares that he
would not spare the iniquities of the people, though some Moses or
Samuel, to whose prayers he had shown himself so indulgent, should
intercede for them. This meaning is most clearly elicited from a
similar passage in Ezekiel: "Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and
Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their
righteousness, saith the Lord God" (Ezek. 14:14). Here there can be no
doubt that we are to understand the words as if it had been said, If
two of the persons named were again to come alive; for the third was
still living, namely, Daniel, who it is well known had then in the
bloom of youth given an incomparable display of piety. Let us therefore
leave out those whom Scripture declares to have completed their course.
Accordingly, when Paul speaks of David, he says not that by his prayers
he assisted posterity, but only that he "served his own generation"
(Acts 13:36).
They again object, Are those, then, to be deprived of every pious wish,
who, during the whole course of their lives, breathed nothing but piety
and mercy? I have no wish curiously to pry into what they do or
meditate; but the probability is, that instead of being subject to the
impulse of various and particular desires, they, with one fixed and
immoveable will, long for the kingdom of God, which consists not less
in the destruction of the ungodly than in the salvation of believers.
If this be so, there cannot be a doubt that their charity is confined
to the communion of Christ's body, and extends no farther than is
compatible with the nature of that communion. But though I grant that
in this way they pray for us, they do not, however, lose their
quiescence so as to be distracted with earthly cares: far less are
they, therefore, to be invoked by us. Nor does it follow that such
invocation is to be used because, while men are alive upon the earth,
they can mutually commend themselves to each other's prayers. It serves
to keep alive a feeling of charity when they, as it were, share each
other's wants, and bear each other's burdens. This they do by the
command of the Lord, and not without a promise, the two things of
primary importance in prayer. But all such reasons are inapplicable to
the dead, with whom the Lord, in withdrawing them from our society, has
left us no means of intercourse (Eccles. 9:5, 6), and to whom, so far
as we can conjecture, he has left no means of intercourse with us. But
if any one allege that they certainly must retain the same charity for
us, as they are united with us in one faith, who has revealed to us
that they have ears capable of listening to the sounds of our voice, or
eyes clear enough to discern our necessities? Our opponents, indeed,
talk in the shade of their schools of some kind of light which beams
upon departed saints from the divine countenance, and in which, as in a
mirror, they, from their lofty abode, behold the affairs of men; but to
affirm this with the confidence which these men presume to use, is just
to desire, by means of the extravagant dreams of our own brain, and
without any authority, to pry and penetrate into the hidden judgments
of God, and trample upon Scripture, which so often declares that the
wisdom of our flesh is at enmity with the wisdom of God, utterly
condemns the vanity of our mind, and humbling our reason, bids us look
only to the will of God.
The other passages of Scripture which they employ to defend their error
are miserably wrested. Jacob (they say) asks for the sons of Joseph,
"Let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers, Abraham and
Isaac" (Gen. 48:16). First, let us see what the nature of this
invocation was among the Israelites. They do not implore their fathers
to bring succour to them, but they beseech God to remember his
servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their example, therefore, gives no
countenance to those who use addresses to the saints themselves. But
such being the dulness of these blocks, that they comprehend not what
it is to invoke the name of Jacob, nor why it is to be invoked, it is
not strange that they blunder thus childishly as to the mode of doing
it. The expression repeatedly occurs in Scripture. Isaiah speaks of
women being called by the name of men, when they have them for husbands
and live under their protection (Isa. 4:1). The calling of the name of
Abraham over the Israelites consists in referring the origin of their
race to him, and holding him in distinguished remembrance as their
author and parent. Jacob does not do so from any anxiety to extend the
celebrity of his name, but because he knows that all the happiness of
his posterity consisted in the inheritance of the covenant which God
had made with them. Seeing that this would give them the sum of all
blessings, he prays that they may be regarded as of his race, this
being nothing else than to transmit the succession of the covenant to
them. They again, when they make mention of this subject in their
prayers, do not betake themselves to the intercession of the dead, but
call to remembrance that covenant in which their most merciful Father
undertakes to be kind and propitious to them for the sake of Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob. How little, in other respects, the saints trusted to
the merits of their fathers, the public voice of the Church declares in
the prophets "Doubtless thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant
of us, and Israel acknowledge us not; thou, O Lord, art our Father, our
Redeemer" (Isa. 63:16). And while the Church thus speaks, she at the
same time adds, " Return for thy servants' sake," not thinking of
anything like intercession, but adverting only to the benefit of the
covenant. Now, indeed, when we have the Lord Jesus, in whose hand the
eternal covenant of mercy was not only made but confirmed, what better
name can we bear before us in our prayers? And since those good Doctors
would make out by these words that the Patriarchs are intercessors, I
should like them to tell me why, in so great a multitude, [12] no place
whatever is given to Abraham, the father of the Church? We know well
from what a crew they select their intercessors. [13] Let them then
tell me what consistency there is in neglecting and rejecting Abraham,
whom God preferred to all others, and raised to the highest degree of
honour. The only reason is, that as it was plain there was no such
practice in the ancient Church, they thought proper to conceal the
novelty of the practice by saying nothing of the Patriarchs: as if by a
mere diversity of names they could excuse a practice at once novel and
impure. They sometimes, also, object that God is entreated to have
mercy on his people "for David's sake" (Ps. 132:10; see Calv. Com.).
This is so far from supporting their error, that it is the strongest
refutation of it. We must consider the character which David bore. He
is set apart from the whole body of the faithful to establish the
covenant which God made in his hand. Thus regard is had to the covenant
rather than to the individual. Under him as a type the sole
intercession of Christ is asserted. But what was peculiar to David as a
type of Christ is certainly inapplicable to others.
But some seem to be moved by the fact, that the prayers of saints are
often said to have been heard. Why? Because they prayed. "They cried
unto thee" (says the Psalmist), "and were delivered: they trusted in
thee, and were not confounded" (Ps. 22:5). Let us also pray after their
example, that like them we too may be heard. Those men, on the
contrary, absurdly argue that none will be heard but those who have
been heard already. How much better does James argue, "Elias was a man
subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it
might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three
years and six months. And he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and
the earth brought forth her fruit" (James 5:17, 18). What? Does he
infer that Elias possessed some peculiar privilege, and that we must
have recourse to him for the use of it? By no means. He shows the
perpetual efficacy of a pure and pious prayer, that we may be induced
in like manner to pray. For the kindness and readiness of God to hear
others is malignantly interpreted, if their example does not inspire us
with stronger confidence in his promise, since his declaration is not
that he will incline his ear to one or two, or a few individuals, but
to all who call upon his name. In this ignorance they are the less
excusable, because they seem as it were avowedly to contemn the many
admonitions of Scripture. David was repeatedly delivered by the power
of God. Was this to give that power to him that we might be delivered
on his application? Very different is his affirmation: "The righteous
shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me" (Ps.
142:7). Again, "The righteous also shall see, and fear, and shall laugh
at him" (Ps. 52:6). "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and
saved him out of all his troubles" (Ps. 34:6). In The Psalms are many
similar prayers, in which David calls upon God to give him what he
asks, for this reason, viz., that the righteous may not be put to
shame, but by his example encouraged to hope. Here let one passage
suffice, "For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a
time when thou mayest be found" (Ps. 32:6, Calv. Com.). This passage I
have quoted the more readily, because those ravers who employ their
hireling tongues in defense of the Papacy, are not ashamed to adduce it
in proof of the intercession of the dead. As if David intended anything
more than to show the benefit which he shall obtain from the divine
clemency and condescension when he shall have been heard. In general,
we must hold that the experience of the grace of God, as well towards
ourselves as towards others, tends in no slight degree to confirm our
faith in his promises. I do not quote the many passages in which David
sets forth the loving-kindness of God to him as a ground of confidence,
as they will readily occur to every reader of The Psalms. Jacob had
previously taught the same thing by his own example, "I am not worthy
of the least of all thy mercies, and of all the truth which thou hast
showed unto thy servant: for with my staff I passed over this Jordan;
and now I am become two bands" (Gen. 32:10). He indeed alleges the
promise, but not the promise only; for he at the same time adds the
effect, to animate him with greater confidence in the future kindness
of God. God is not like men who grow weary of their liberality, or
whose means of exercising it become exhausted; but he is to be
estimated by his own nature, as David properly does when he says, "Thou
hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth" (Ps. 31:5). After ascribing the
praise of his salvation to God, he adds that he is true: for were he
not ever like himself, his past favour would not be an infallible
ground for confidence and prayer. But when we know that as often as he
assists us, he gives us a specimen and proof of his goodness and
faithfulness, there is no reason to fear that our hope will be ashamed
or frustrated.
On the whole, since Scripture places the principal part of worship in
the invocation of God (this being the office of piety which he requires
of us in preference to all sacrifices), it is manifest sacrilege to
offer prayer to others. Hence it is said in the psalm: "If we have
forgotten the name of our God, or stretched out our hands to a strange
god, shall not God search this out?" (Ps. 44:20, 21). Again, since it
is only in faith that God desires to be invoked, and he distinctly
enjoins us to frame our prayers according to the rule of his word: in
fine, since faith is founded on the word, and is the parent of right
prayer, the moment we decline from the word, our prayers are impure.
But we have already shown, that if we consult the whole volume of
Scripture, we shall find that God claims this honour to himself alone.
In regard to the office of intercession, we have also seen that it is
peculiar to Christ, and that no prayer is agreeable to God which he as
Mediator does not sanctify. And though believers mutually offer up
prayers to God in behalf of their brethren, we have shown that this
derogates in no respect from the sole intercession of Christ, because
all trust to that intercession in commending themselves as well as
others to God. Moreover, we have shown that this is ignorantly
transferred to the dead, of whom we nowhere read that they were
commanded to pray for us. The Scripture often exhorts us to offer up
mutual prayers; but says not one syllable concerning the dead; nay,
James tacitly excludes the dead when he combines the two things, to
"confess our sins one to another, and to pray one for another" (James
5:16). Hence it is sufficient to condemn this error, that the beginning
of right prayer springs from faith, and that faith comes by the hearing
of the word of God, in which there is no mention of fictitious
intercession, superstition having rashly adopted intercessors who have
not been divinely appointed. While the Scripture abounds in various
forms of prayer, we find no example of this intercession, without which
Papists think there is no prayer. Moreover, it is evident that this
superstition is the result of distrust, because they are either not
contented with Christ as an intercessor, or have altogether robbed him
of this honour. This last is easily proved by their effrontery in
maintaining, as the strongest of all their arguments for the
intercession of the saints, that we are unworthy of familiar access to
God. This, indeed, we acknowledge to be most true, but we thence infer
that they leave nothing to Christ, because they consider his
intercession as nothing, unless it is supplemented by that of George
and Hypolyte, and similar phantoms.
But though prayer is properly confined to vows and supplications, yet
so strong is the affinity between petition and thanksgiving, that both
may be conveniently comprehended under one name. For the forms which
Paul enumerates (1 Tim. 2:1) fall under the first member of this
division. By prayer and supplication we pour out our desires before
God, asking as well those things which tend to promote his glory and
display his name, as the benefits which contribute to our advantage. By
thanksgiving we duly celebrate his kindnesses toward us, ascribing to
his liberality every blessing which enters into our lot. David
accordingly includes both in one sentence, "Call upon me in the day of
trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me" (Ps. 50:15).
Scripture, not without reason, commands us to use both continually. We
have already described the greatness of our want, while experience
itself proclaims the straits which press us on every side to be so
numerous and so great, that all have sufficient ground to send forth
sighs and groans to God without intermission, and suppliantly implore
him. For even should they be exempt from adversity, still the holiest
ought to be stimulated first by their sins, and, secondly, by the
innumerable assaults of temptation, to long for a remedy. The sacrifice
of praise and thanksgiving can never be interrupted without guilt,
since God never ceases to load us with favour upon favour, so as to
force us to gratitude, however slow and sluggish we may be. In short,
so great and widely diffused are the riches of his liberality towards
us, so marvellous and wondrous the miracles which we behold on every
side, that we never can want a subject and materials for praise and
To make this somewhat clearer: since all our hopes and resources are
placed in God (this has already been fully proved), so that neither our
persons nor our interests can prosper without his blessing, we must
constantly submit ourselves and our all to him. Then whatever we
deliberate, speak, or do, should be deliberated, spoken, and done under
his hand and will; in fine, under the hope of his assistance. God has
pronounced a curse upon all who, confiding in themselves or others,
form plans and resolutions, who, without regarding his will, or
invoking his aid, either plan or attempt to execute (James 4:14; Isaiah
30:1; Isaiah 31:1). And since, as has already been observed, he
receives the honour which is due when he is acknowledged to be the
author of all good, it follows that, in deriving all good from his
hand, we ought continually to express our thankfulness, and that we
have no right to use the benefits which proceed from his liberality, if
we do not assiduously proclaim his praise, and give him thanks, these
being the ends for which they are given. When Paul declares that every
creature of God "is sanctified by the word of God and prayers" (1 Tim.
4:5), he intimates that without the word and prayers none of them are
holy and pure, word being used metonymically for faith. Hence David, on
experiencing the loving-kindness of the Lord, elegantly declares, "He
hath put a new song in my mouth" (Ps. 40:3); intimating, that our
silence is malignant when we leave his blessings unpraised, seeing
every blessing he bestows is a new ground of thanksgiving. Thus Isaiah,
proclaiming the singular mercies of God, says, "Sing unto the Lord a
new song" (Is. 42:10). In the same sense David says in another passage,
"O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise"
(Ps. 41:15). In like manner, Hezekiah and Jonah declare that they will
regard it as the end of their deliverance "to celebrate the goodness of
God with songs in his temple" (Is. 38:20; Jonah 2:10). David lays down
a general rule for all believers in these words, "What shall I render
unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of
salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord" (Ps. 116:12, 13). This
rule the Church follows in another psalm, "Save us, O Lord our God, and
gather us from among the heathen, to give thanks unto thy holy name,
and to triumph in thy praise" (Ps. 106:47). Again, " He will regard the
prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer. This shall be
written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be
created shall praise the Lord." "To declare the name of the Lord in
Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem" (Ps. 102:18, 21). Nay, whenever
believers beseech the Lord to do anything for his own name's sake, as
they declare themselves unworthy of obtaining it in their own name, so
they oblige themselves to give thanks, and promise to make the right
use of his lovingkindness by being the heralds of it. Thus Hosea,
speaking of the future redemption of the Church, says, "Take away all
iniquity, and receive us graciously; so will we render the calves of
our lips" (Hos. 14:2). Not only do our tongues proclaim the kindness of
God, but they naturally inspire us with love to him. "I love the Lord,
because he hath heard my voice and my supplications" (Ps. 116:1). In
another passage, speaking of the help which he had experienced, he
says, "I will love thee, O Lord, my strength" (Ps. 18:1). No praise
will ever please God that does not flow from this feeling of love. Nay,
we must attend to the declaration of Paul, that all wishes are vicious
and perverse which are not accompanied with thanksgiving. His words
are, "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let
your requests be made known unto God" (Phil. 4:6). Because many, under
the influence of moroseness, weariness, impatience, bitter grief and
fear, use murmuring in their prayers, he enjoins us so to regulate our
feelings as cheerfully to bless God even before obtaining what we ask.
But if this connection ought always to subsist in full vigour between
things that are almost contrary, the more sacred is the tie which binds
us to celebrate the praises of God whenever he grants our requests. 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 sacrifice of praise to God continually"
by Christ (Heb. 13:15), reminds us, that without the intervention of
his priesthood our lips are not pure enough to celebrate the name of
God. Hence we infer that a monstrous delusion prevails among Papists,
the great majority of whom wonder when Christ is called an intercessor.
The reason why Paul enjoins, "Pray without ceasing; in everything give
thanks" (1 Thess. 5:17, 18), is, because he would have us with the
utmost assiduity, at all times, in every place, in all things, and
under all circumstances, direct our prayers to God, to expect all the
things which we desire from him, and when obtained ascribe them to him;
thus furnishing perpetual grounds for prayer and praise.
This assiduity in prayer, though it specially refers to the peculiar
private prayers of individuals, extends also in some measure to the
public prayers of the Church. These, it may be said, cannot be
continual, and ought not to be made, except in the manner which, for
the sake of order, has been established by public consent. This I
admit, and hence certain hours are fixed beforehand, hours which,
though indifferent in regard to God, are necessary for the use of man,
that the general convenience may be consulted, and all things be done
in the Church, as Paul enjoins, "decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40).
But there is nothing in this to prevent each church from being now and
then stirred up to a more frequent use of prayer and being more
zealously affected under the impulse of some greater necessity. Of
perseverance in prayer, which is much akin to assiduity, we shall speak
towards the close of the chapter (sec. 51, 52). This assiduity,
moreover, is very different from the BATTOLOGIAN (Greek -- English
"yammering"), vain speaking, which our Saviour has prohibited (Matth.
6:7). For he does not there forbid us to pray long or frequently, or
with great fervour, but warns us against supposing that we can extort
anything from God by importuning him with garrulous loquacity, as if he
were to be persuaded after the manner of men. We know that hypocrites,
because they consider not that they have to do with God, offer up their
prayers as pompously as if it were part of a triumphal show. The
Pharisee, who thanked God that he was not as other men, no doubt
proclaimed his praises before men, as if he had wished to gain a
reputation for sanctity by his prayers. Hence that vain speaking, which
for a similar reason prevails so much in the Papacy in the present day,
some vainly spinning out the time by a reiteration of the same
frivolous prayers, and others employing a long series of verbiage for
vulgar display. [14] This childish garrulity being a mockery of God, it
is not strange that it is prohibited in the Church, in order that every
feeling there expressed may be sincere, proceeding from the inmost
heart. Akin to this abuse is another which our Saviour also condemns,
namely, when hypocrites for the sake of ostentation court the presence
of many witnesses, and would sooner pray in the market-place than pray
without applause. The true object of prayer being, as we have already
said (sec. 4, 5), to carry our thoughts directly to God, whether to
celebrate his praise or implore his aid, we can easily see that its
primary seat is in the mind and heart, or rather that prayer itself is
properly an effusion and manifestation of internal feeling before Him
who is the searcher of hearts. Hence (as has been said), when our
divine Master was pleased to lay down the best rule for prayer, his
injunction was, "Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy
door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth
in secret shall reward thee openly" (Matth. 6:6). Dissuading us from
the example of hypocrites, who sought the applause of men by an
ambitious ostentation in prayer, he adds the better course -- enter thy
chamber, shut thy door, and there pray. By these words (as I understand
them) he taught us to seek a place of retirement which might enable us
to turn all our thoughts inwards and enter deeply into our hearts,
promising that God would hold converse with the feelings of our mind,
of which the body ought to be the temple. He meant not to deny that it
may be expedient to pray in other places also, but he shows that prayer
is somewhat of a secret nature, having its chief seat in the mind, and
requiring a tranquillity far removed from the turmoil of ordinary
cares. And hence it was not without cause that our Lord himself, when
he would engage more earnestly in prayer, withdrew into a retired spot
beyond the bustle of the world, thus reminding us by his example that
we are not to neglect those helps which enable the mind, in itself too
much disposed to wander, to become sincerely intent on prayer.
Meanwhile, as he abstained not from prayer when the occasion required
it, though he were in the midst of a crowd, so must we, whenever there
is need, lift up "pure hands" (1 Tim. 2:8) at all places. And hence we
must hold that he who declines to pray in the public meeting of the
saints, knows not what it is to pray apart, in retirement, or at home.
On the other hand, he who neglects to pray alone and in private,
however sedulously he frequents public meetings, there gives his
prayers to the wind, because he defers more to the opinion of man than
to the secret judgment of God. Still, lest the public prayers of the
Church should be held in contempt, the Lord anciently bestowed upon
them the most honourable appellation, especially when he called the
temple the "house of prayer" (Isa. 56:7). For by this expression he
both showed that the duty of prayer is a principal part of his worship,
and that to enable believers to engage in it with one consent his
temple is set up before them as a kind of banner. A noble promise was
also added, "Praise waiteth for thee, O God, in Sion: and unto thee
shall the vow be performed" (Ps. 65:1). [15] By these words the
Psalmist reminds us that the prayers of the Church are never in vain;
because God always furnishes his people with materials for a song of
joy. But although the shadows of the law have ceased, yet because God
was pleased by this ordinance to foster the unity of the faith among us
also, there can be no doubt that the same promise belongs to us -- a
promise which Christ sanctioned with his own lips, and which Paul
declares to be perpetually in force.
As God in his word enjoins common prayer, so public temples are the
places destined for the performance of them, and hence those who refuse
to join with the people of God in this observance have no ground for
the pretext, that they enter their chamber in order that they may obey
the command of the Lord. For he who promises to grant whatsoever two or
three assembled in his name shall ask (Matth. 18:20), declares, that he
by no means despises the prayers which are publicly offered up,
provided there be no ostentation, or catching at human applause, and
provided there be a true and sincere affection in the secret recesses
of the heart. [16] If this is the legitimate use of churches (and it
certainly is), we must, on the other hand, beware of imitating the
practice which commenced some centuries ago, of imagining that churches
are the proper dwellings of God, where he is more ready to listen to
us, or of attaching to them some kind of secret sanctity, which makes
prayer there more holy. For seeing we are the true temples of God, we
must pray in ourselves if we would invoke God in his holy temple. Let
us leave such gross ideas to the Jews or the heathen, knowing that we
have a command to pray without distinction of place, "in spirit and in
truth" (John 4:23). It is true that by the order of God the temple was
anciently dedicated for the offering of prayers and sacrifices, but
this was at a time when the truth (which being now fully manifested, we
are not permitted to confine to any material temple) lay hid under the
figure of shadows. Even the temple was not represented to the Jews as
confining the presence of God within its walls, but was meant to train
them to contemplate the image of the true temple. Accordingly, a severe
rebuke is administered both by Isaiah and Stephen, to those who thought
that God could in any way dwell in temples made with hands (Isa. 66:2;
Acts 7:48).
Hence it is perfectly clear that neither words nor singing (if used in
prayer) are of the least consequence, or avail one iota with God,
unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart. Nay, rather they
provoke his anger against us, if they come from the lips and throat
only, since this is to abuse his sacred name, and hold his majesty in
derision. This we infer from the words of Isaiah, which, though their
meaning is of wider extent, go to rebuke this vice also: "Forasmuch as
this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do
honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear
toward me is taught by the precept of men: therefore, behold, I will
proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous
work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and
the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid" (Isa. 29:13).
Still we do not condemn words or singing, but rather greatly commend
them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them. For in
this way the thought of God is kept alive on our minds, which, from
their fickle and versatile nature, soon relax, and are distracted by
various objects, unless various means are used to support them.
Besides, since the glory of God ought in a manner to be displayed in
each part of our body, the special service to which the tongue should
be devoted is that of singing and speaking, inasmuch as it has been
expressly created to declare and proclaim the praise of God. This
employment of the tongue is chiefly in the public services which are
performed in the meeting of the saints. In this way the God whom we
serve in one spirit and one faith, we glorify together as it were with
one voice and one mouth; and that openly, so that each may in turn
receive the confession of his brother's faith, and be invited and
incited to imitate it.
It is certain that the use of singing in churches (which I may mention
in passing) is not only very ancient, but was also used by the
Apostles, as we may gather from the words of Paul, "I will sing with
the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also" (1 Cor.
14:15). In like manner he says to the Colossians, "Teaching and
admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs,
singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16). In the
former passage, he enjoins us to sing with the voice and the heart; in
the latter, he commends spiritual Songs, by which the pious mutually
edify each other. That it was not an universal practice, however, is
attested by Augustine (Confess. Lib. ix. cap. 7), who states that the
church of Milan first began to use singing in the time of Ambrose, when
the orthodox faith being persecuted by Justina, the mother of
Valentinian, the vigils of the people were more frequent than usual;
[17] and that the practice was afterwards followed by the other Western
churches. He had said a little before that the custom came from the
East. [18] He also intimates (Retract. Lib. ii). that it was received
in Africa in his own time. His words are, "Hilarius, a man of
tribunitial rank, assailed with the bitterest invectives he could use
the custom which then began to exist at Carthage, of singing hymns from
the book of Psalms at the altar, either before the oblation, or when it
was distributed to the people; I answered him, at the request of my
brethren." [19] And certainly if singing is tempered to a gravity
befitting the presence of God and angels, it both gives dignity and
grace to sacred actions, and has a very powerful tendency to stir up
the mind to true zeal and ardour in prayer. We must, however, carefully
beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the
spiritual meaning of the words. Augustine confesses (Confess. Lib. x.
cap. 33) that the fear of this danger sometimes made him wish for the
introduction of a practice observed by Athanasius, who ordered the
reader to use only a gentle inflection of the voice, more akin to
recitation than singing. But on again considering how many advantages
were derived from singing, he inclined to the other side. [20] If this
moderation is used, there cannot be a doubt that the practice is most
sacred and salutary. On the other hand, songs composed merely to tickle
and delight the ear are unbecoming the majesty of the Church, and
cannot but be most displeasing to God.
It is also plain that the public prayers are not to be couched in Greek
among the Latins, nor in Latin among the French or English (as hitherto
has been every where practised), but in the vulgar tongue, so that all
present may understand them, since they ought to be used for the
edification of the whole Church, which cannot be in the least degree
benefited by a sound not understood. Those who are not moved by any
reason of humanity or charity, ought at least to be somewhat moved by
the authority of Paul, whose words are by no means ambiguous: "When
thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room
of the unlearned say, Amen, at thy giving of thanks, seeing he
understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks, but
the other is not edified" (1 Cor. 14:16, 17). How then can one
sufficiently admire the unbridled license of the Papists, who, while
the Apostle publicly protests against it, hesitate not to bawl out the
most verbose prayers in a foreign tongue, prayers of which they
themselves sometimes do not understand one syllable, and which they
have no wish that others should understand? [21] Different is the
course which Paul prescribes, "What is it then? I will pray with the
spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also; I will sing with
the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also:" meaning by
the spirit the special gift of tongues, which some who had received it
abused when they dissevered it from the mind, that is, the
understanding. The principle we must always hold is, that in all
prayer, public and private, the tongue without the mind must be
displeasing to God. Moreover, the mind must be so incited, as in ardour
of thought far to surpass what the tongue is able to express. Lastly,
the tongue is not even necessary to private prayer, unless in so far as
the internal feeling is insufficient for incitement, or the vehemence
of the incitement carries the utterance of the tongue along with it.
For although the best prayers are sometimes without utterance, yet when
the feeling of the mind is overpowering, the tongue spontaneously
breaks forth into utterance, and our other members into gesture. Hence
that dubious muttering of Hannah (1 Sam. 1:13), something similar to
which is experienced by all the saints when concise and abrupt
expressions escape from them. The bodily gestures usually observed in
prayer, such as kneeling and uncovering of the head (Calv. in Acts
20:36), are exercises by which we attempt to rise to higher veneration
of God.
We must now attend not only to a surer method, but also form of prayer,
that, namely, which our heavenly Father has delivered to us by his
beloved Son, and in which we may recognize his boundless goodness and
condescension (Matth. 6:9; Luke 11:2). Besides admonishing and
exhorting us to seek him in our every necessity (as children are wont
to betake themselves to the protection of their parents when oppressed
with any anxiety), seeing that we were not fully aware how great our
poverty was, or what was right or for our interest to ask, he has
provided for this ignorance; that wherein our capacity failed he has
sufficiently supplied. For he has given us a form in which is set
before us as in a picture everything which it is lawful to wish,
everything which is conducive to our interest, everything which it is
necessary to demand. From his goodness in this respect we derive the
great comfort of knowing, that as we ask almost in his words, we ask
nothing that is absurd, or foreign, or unseasonable; nothing, in short,
that is not agreeable to him. Plato, seeing the ignorance of men in
presenting their desires to God, desires which if granted would often
be most injurious to them, declares the best form of prayer to be that
which an ancient poet has furnished: "O king Jupiter, give what is
best, whether we wish it or wish it not; but avert from us what is evil
even though we ask it" (Plato, Alcibiad. ii). This heathen shows his
wisdom in discerning how dangerous it is to ask of God what our own
passion dictates; while, at the same time, he reminds us of our unhappy
condition in not being able to open our lips before God without dangers
unless his Spirit instruct us how to pray aright (Rom. 8:26). The
higher value, therefore, ought we to set on the privilege, when the
only begotten Son of God puts words into our lips, and thus relieves
our minds of all hesitation.
This form or rule of prayer is composed of six petitions. For I am
prevented from agreeing with those who divide it into seven by the
adversative mode of diction used by the Evangelist, who appears to have
intended to unite the two members together; as if he had said, Do not
allow us to be overcome by temptation, but rather bring assistance to
our frailty, and deliver us that we may not fall. Ancient writers [22]
also agree with us, that what is added by Matthew as a seventh head is
to be considered as explanatory of the sixth petition. [23] But though
in every part of the prayer the first place is assigned to the glory of
God, still this is more especially the object of the three first
petitions, in which we are to look to the glory of God alone, without
any reference to what is called our own advantage. The three remaining
petitions are devoted to our interest, and properly relate to things
which it is useful for us to ask. When we ask that the name of God may
be hallowed, as God wishes to prove whether we love and serve him
freely, or from the hope of reward, we are not to think at all of our
own interest; we must set his glory before our eyes, and keep them
intent upon it alone. In the other similar petitions, this is the only
manner in which we ought to be affected. It is true, that in this way
our own interest is greatly promoted, because, when the name of God is
hallowed in the way we ask, our own sanctification also is thereby
promoted. But in regard to this advantage, we must, as I have said,
shut our eyes, and be in a manner blind, so as not even to see it; and
hence were all hope of our private advantage cut off, we still should
never cease to wish and pray for this hallowing, and everything else
which pertains to the glory of God. We have examples in Moses and Paul,
who did not count it grievous to turn away their eyes and minds from
themselves, and with intense and fervent zeal long for death, if by
their loss the kingdom and glory of God might be promoted (Exod. 32:32;
Rom. 9:3). On the other hand, when we ask for daily bread, although we
desire what is advantageous for ourselves, we ought also especially to
seek the glory of God, so much so that we would not ask at all unless
it were to turn to his glory. Let us now proceed to an exposition of
the Prayer.
[22] Augustine in Enchiridion ad Laurent. xxx. 116. Pseudo-Chrysost. in
Homilies on Matthew, hom. xiv. See end of sec. 53.
[23] "Dont il est facile de juger que ce qui est adjousté en S.
Matthieu, et qu'aucuns ont pris pour une septieme requeste, n'est qu'un
explication de la sixieme, et se doit a icelle rapporter;"--Whence it
is easy to perceive that what is added in St Matthew, and which some
have taken for a seventh petition, is only an explanation of the sixth,
and ought to be referred to it.
The first thing suggested at the very outset is, as we have already
said (sec. 17-19), that all our prayers to God ought only to be
presented in the name of Christ, as there is no other name which can
recommend them. In calling God our Father, we certainly plead the name
of Christ. For with what confidence could any man call God his Father?
Who would have the presumption to arrogate to himself the honour of a
son of God were we not gratuitously adopted as his sons in Christ? He
being the true Son, has been given to us as a brother, so that that
which he possesses as his own by nature becomes ours by adoption, if we
embrace this great mercy with firm faith. As John says, "As many as
received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to
them that believe in his name" (John 1:12). Hence he both calls himself
our Father, and is pleased to be so called by us, by this delightful
name relieving us of all distrust, since nowhere can a stronger
affection be found than in a father. Hence, too, he could not have
given us a stronger testimony of his boundless love than in calling us
his sons. But his love towards us is so much the greater and more
excellent than that of earthly parents, the farther he surpasses all
men in goodness and mercy (Isaiah 63:16). Earthly parents, laying aside
all paternal affection, might abandon their offspring; he will never
abandon us (Ps. 27:10), seeing he cannot deny himself. For we have his
promise, "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your
children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good
things to them that ask him?" (Matth. 7:11). In like manner in the
prophet, "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not
have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will
not I forget thee" (Isaiah 49:15). But if we are his sons, then as a
son cannot betake himself to the protection of a stranger and a
foreigner without at the same time complaining of his father's cruelty
or poverty, so we cannot ask assistance from any other quarter than
from him, unless we would upbraid him with poverty, or want of means,
or cruelty and excessive austerity.
Nor let us allege that we are justly rendered timid by a consciousness
of sin, by which our Father, though mild and merciful, is daily
offended. For if among men a son cannot have a better advocate to plead
his cause with his father, and cannot employ a better intercessor to
regain his lost favour, than if he come himself suppliant and downcast,
acknowledging his fault, to implore the mercy of his father, whose
paternal feelings cannot but be moved by such entreaties, what will
that "Father of all mercies, and God of all comfort," do? (2 Cor. 1:3).
Will he not rather listen to the tears and groans of his children, when
supplicating for themselves (especially seeing he invites and exhorts
us to do so), than to any advocacy of others to whom the timid have
recourse, not without some semblance of despair, because they are
distrustful of their father's mildness and clemency? The exuberance of
his paternal kindness he sets before us in the parable (Luke 15:20; see
Calv. Comm). when the father with open arms receives the son who had
gone away from him, wasted his substance in riotous living, and in all
ways grievously sinned against him. He waits not till pardon is asked
in words, but, anticipating the request, recognizes him afar off, runs
to meet him, consoles him, and restores him to favour. By setting
before us this admirable example of mildness in a man, he designed to
show in how much greater abundance we may expect it from him who is not
only a Father, but the best and most merciful of all fathers, however
ungrateful, rebellious, and wicked sons we may be, provided only we
throw ourselves upon his mercy. And the better to assure us that he is
such a Father if we are Christians, he has been pleased to be called
not only a Father, but our Father, as if we were pleading with him
after this manner, O Father, who art possessed of so much affection for
thy children, and art so ready to forgive, we thy children approach
thee and present our requests, fully persuaded that thou hast no other
feelings towards us than those of a father, though we are unworthy of
such a parent. [24] But as our narrow hearts are incapable of
comprehending such boundless favour, Christ is not only the earnest and
pledge of our adoption, but also gives us 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.
The instruction given us, however, is not that every individual in
particular is to call him Father, but rather that we are all in common
to call him Our Father. By this we are reminded how strong the feeling
of brotherly love between us ought to be, since we are all alike, by
the same mercy and free kindness, the children of such a Father. For if
He from whom we all obtain whatever is good is our common Father
(Matth. 23:9), everything which has been distributed to us we should be
prepared to communicate to each other, as far as occasion demands. But
if we are thus desirous as we ought, to stretch out our hands and give
assistance to each other, there is nothing by which we can more benefit
our brethren than by committing them to the care and protection of the
best of parents, since if He is propitious and favourable nothing more
can be desired. And, indeed, we owe this also to our Father. For as he
who truly and from the heart loves the father of a family, extends the
same love and good-will to all his household, so the zeal and affection
which we feel for our heavenly Parent it becomes us to extend towards
his people, his family, and, in fine, his heritage, which he has
honoured so highly as to give them the appellation of the " fulness" of
his only begotten Son (Ephesians 1:23). Let the Christian, then, so
regulate his prayers as to make them common, and embrace all who are
his brethren in Christ; not only those whom at present he sees and
knows to be such, but all men who are alive upon the earth. What God
has determined with regard to them is beyond our knowledge, but to wish
and hope the best concerning them is both pious and humane. Still it
becomes us to regard with special affection those who are of the
household of faith, and whom the Apostle has in express terms
recommended to our care in everything (Gal. 6:10). In short, all our
prayers ought to bear reference to that community which our Lord has
established in his kingdom and family.
This, however, does not prevent us from praying specially for
ourselves, and certain others, provided our mind is not withdrawn from
the view of this community, does not deviate from it, but constantly
refers to it. For prayers, though couched in special terms, keeping
that object still in view, cease not to be common. All this may easily
be understood by analogy. There is a general command from God to
relieve the necessities of all the poor, and yet this command is obeyed
by those who with that view give succour to all whom they see or know
to be in distress, although they pass by many whose wants are not less
urgent, either because they cannot know or are unable to give supply to
all. In this way there is nothing repugnant to the will of God in those
who, giving heed to this common society of the Church, yet offer up
particular prayers, in which, with a public mind, though in special
terms, they commend to God themselves or others, with whose necessity
he has been pleased to make them more familiarly acquainted.
It is true that prayer and the giving of our substance are not in all
respects alike. We can only bestow the kindness of our liberality on
those of whose wants we are aware, whereas in prayer we can assist the
greatest strangers, how wide soever the space which may separate them
from us. This is done by that general form of prayer which, including
all the sons of God, includes them also. To this we may refer the
exhortation which Paul gave to the believers of his age, to lift up
"holy hands without wrath and doubting" (1 Tim. 2:8). By reminding them
that dissension is a bar to prayer, he shows it to be his wish that
they should with one accord present their prayers in common.
The next words are, WHICH ART IN HEAVEN. From this we are not to infer
that he is enclosed and confined within the circumference of heaven, as
by a kind of boundaries. Hence Solomon confesses, "The heaven of
heavens cannot contain thee" (1 Kings 8:27); and he himself says by the
Prophet, "The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool" (Isa.
56:1); thereby intimating, that his presence, not confined to any
region, is diffused over all space. But as our gross minds are unable
to conceive of his ineffable glory, it is designated to us by heaven,
nothing which our eyes can behold being so full of splendour and
majesty. While, then, we are accustomed to regard every object as
confined to the place where our senses discern it, no place can be
assigned to God; and hence, if we would seek him, we must rise higher
than all corporeal or mental discernment. Again, this form of
expression reminds us that he is far beyond the reach of change or
corruption, that he holds the whole universe in his grasp, and rules it
by his power. The effect of the expressions therefore, is the same as
if it had been said, that he is of infinite majesty, incomprehensible
essence, boundless power, and eternal duration. When we thus speak of
God, our thoughts must be raised to their highest pitch; we must not
ascribe to him anything of a terrestrial or carnal nature, must not
measure him by our little standards, or suppose his will to be like
ours. At the same time, we must put our confidence in him,
understanding that heaven and earth are governed by his providence and
power. In short, under the name of Father is set before us that God,
who hath appeared to us in his own image, that we may invoke him with
sure faith; the familiar name of Father being given not only to inspire
confidence, but also to curb our minds, and prevent them from going
astray after doubtful or fictitious gods. We thus ascend from the only
begotten Son to the supreme Father of angels and of the Church. Then
when his throne is fixed in heaven, we are reminded that he governs the
world, and, therefore, that it is not in vain to approach him whose
present care we actually experience. "He that cometh to God," says the
Apostle, "must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them
that diligently seek him" (Heb. 11:6). Here Christ makes both claims
for his Father, first, that we place our faith in him; and, secondly,
that we feel assured that our salvation is not neglected by him,
inasmuch as he condescends to extend his providence to us. By these
elementary principles Paul prepares us to pray aright; for before
enjoining us to make our requests known unto God, he premises in this
way, "The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing" (Phil. 4:5, 6).
Whence it appears that doubt and perplexity hang over the prayers of
those in whose minds the belief is not firmly seated, that "the eyes of
the Lord are upon the righteous" (Ps. 34:15).
The first petition is, HALLOWED BE THY NAME. The necessity of
presenting it bespeaks our great disgrace. For what can be more
unbecoming than that our ingratitude and malice should impair, our
audacity and petulance should as much as in them lies destroy, the
glory of God? But though all the ungodly should burst with sacrilegious
rage, the holiness of God's name still shines forth. Justly does the
Psalmist exclaim, "According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto
the ends of the earth" (Ps. 48:10). For wherever God hath made himself
known, his perfections must be displayed, his power, goodness, wisdom,
justice, mercy, and truth, which fill us with admiration, and incite us
to show forth his praise. Therefore, as the name of God is not duly
hallowed on the earth, and we are otherwise unable to assert it, it is
at least our duty to make it the subject of our prayers. The sum of the
whole is, It must be our desire that God may receive the honour which
is his due: that men may never think or speak of him without the
greatest reverence. The opposite of this reverence is profanity, which
has always been too common in the world, and is very prevalent in the
present day. Hence the necessity of the petition, which, if piety had
any proper existence among us, would be superfluous. But if the name of
God is duly hallowed only when separated from all other names it alone
is glorified, we are in the petition enjoined to ask not only that God
would vindicate his sacred name from all contempt and insult, but also
that he would compel the whole human race to reverence it. Then since
God manifests himself to us partly by his word, and partly by his
works, he is not sanctified unless in regard to both of these we
ascribe to him what is due, and thus embrace whatever has proceeded
from him, giving no less praise to his justice than to his mercy. On
the manifold diversity of his works he has inscribed the marks of his
glory, and these ought to call forth from every tongue an ascription of
praise. Thus Scripture will obtain its due authority with us, and no
event will hinder us from celebrating the praises of God, in regard to
every part of his government. On the other hand, the petition implies a
wish that all impiety which pollutes this sacred name may perish and be
extinguished, that everything which obscures or impairs his glory, all
detraction and insult, may cease; that all blasphemy being suppressed,
the divine majesty may be more and more signally displayed.
The second petition is, THY KINGDOM COME. This contains nothing new,
and yet there is good reason for distinguishing it from the first. For
if we consider our lethargy in the greatest of all matters, we shall
see how necessary it is that what ought to be in itself perfectly known
should be inculcated at greater length. Therefore, after the injunction
to pray that God would reduce to order, and at length completely efface
every stain which is thrown on his sacred name, another petition,
containing almost the same wish, is added, viz., Thy kingdom come.
Although a definition of this kingdom has already been given, I now
briefly repeat that God reigns when men, in denial of themselves and
contempt of the world and this earthly life, devote themselves to
righteousness and aspire to heaven (see Calvin, Harm. Matth. 6). Thus
this kingdom consists of two parts; the first is, when God by the
agency of his Spirit corrects all the depraved lusts of the flesh,
which in bands war against Him; and the second, when he brings all our
thoughts into obedience to his authority. This petition, therefore, is
duly presented only by those who begin with themselves; in other words,
who pray that they may be purified from all the corruptions which
disturb the tranquillity and impair the purity of God's kingdom. Then
as the word of God is like his royal sceptre, we are here enjoined to
pray that he would subdue all minds and hearts to voluntary obedience.
This is done when by the secret inspiration of his Spirit he displays
the efficacy of his word, and raises it to the place of honour which it
deserves. We must next descend to the wicked, who perversely and with
desperate madness resist his authority. God, therefore, sets up his
kingdom, by humbling the whole world, though in different ways, taming
the wantonness of some, and breaking the ungovernable pride of others.
We should desire this to be done every day, in order that God may
gather churches to himself from all quarters of the world, may extend
and increase their numbers, enrich them with his gifts, establish due
order among them; on the other hand, beat down all the enemies of pure
doctrine and religion, dissipate their counsels, defeat their attempts.
Hence it appears that there is good ground for the precept which
enjoins daily progress, for human affairs are never so prosperous as
when the impurities of vice are purged away, and integrity flourishes
in full vigour. The completion, however, is deferred to the final
advent of Christ, when, as Paul declares, "God will be all in all" (1
Cor. 15:28). This prayer, therefore, ought to withdraw us from the
corruptions of the world which separate us from God, and prevent his
kingdom from flourishing within us; secondly, it ought to inflame us
with an ardent desire for the mortification of the flesh; and, lastly,
it ought to train us to the endurance of the cross; since this is the
way in which God would have his kingdom to be advanced. It ought not to
grieve us that the outward man decays provided the inner man is
renewed. For such is the nature of the kingdom of God, that while we
submit to his righteousness he makes us partakers of his glory. This is
the case when continually adding to his light and truth, by which the
lies and the darkness of Satan and his kingdom are dissipated,
extinguished, and destroyed, he protects his people, guides them aright
by the agency of his Spirit, and confirms them in perseverance; while,
on the other hand, he frustrates the impious conspiracies of his
enemies, dissipates their wiles and frauds, prevents their malice and
curbs their petulance, until at length he consume Antichrist "with the
spirit of his mouth," and destroy all impiety "with the brightness of
his coming" (2 Thess. 2:8, Calv. Comm.).
Though this depends on his kingdom, and cannot be disjoined from it,
yet a separate place is not improperly given to it on account of our
ignorance, which does not at once or easily apprehend what is meant by
God reigning in the world. This, therefore, may not improperly be taken
as the explanation, that God will be King in the world when all shall
subject themselves to his will. We are not here treating of that secret
will by which he governs all things, and destines them to their end
(see chap. xxiv. s. 17). For although devils and men rise in tumult
against him, he is able by his incomprehensible counsel not only to
turn aside their violence, but make it subservient to the execution of
his decrees. What we here speak of is another will of God, namely, that
of which voluntary obedience is the counterpart; and, therefore, heaven
is expressly contrasted with earth, because, as is said in The Psalms,
the angels "do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word"
(Ps. 103:20). We are, therefore, enjoined to pray that as everything
done in heaven is at the command of God, and the angels are calmly
disposed to do all that is right, so the earth may be brought under his
authority, all rebellion and depravity having been extinguished. In
presenting this request we renounce the desires of the flesh, because
he who does not entirely resign his affections to God, does as much as
in him lies to oppose the divine will, since everything which proceeds
from us is vicious. Again, by this prayer we are taught to deny
ourselves, that God may rule us according to his pleasure; and not only
so, but also having annihilated our own may create new thoughts and new
minds so that we shall have no desire save that of entire agreement
with his will; in short, wish nothing of ourselves, but have our hearts
governed by his Spirit, under whose inward teaching we may learn to
love those things which please and hate those things which displease
him. Hence also we must desire that he would nullify and suppress all
affections which are repugnant to his will.
Such are the three first heads of the prayer, in presenting which we
should have the glory of God only in view, taking no account of
ourselves, and paying no respect to our own advantage, which, though it
is thereby greatly promoted, is not here to be the subject of request.
And though all the events prayed for must happen in their own time,
without being either thought of, wished, or asked by us, it is still
our duty to wish and ask for them. And it is of no slight importance to
do so, that we may testify and profess that we are the servants and
children of God, desirous by every means in our power to promote the
honour due to him as our Lord and Father, and truly and thoroughly
devoted to his service. Hence if men, in praying that the name of God
may be hallowed, that his kingdom may come, and his will be done, are
not influenced by this zeal for the promotion of his glory, they are
not to be accounted among the servants and children of God; and as all
these things will take place against their will, so they will turn out
to their confusion and destruction.
Now comes the second part of the prayer, in which we descend to our own
interests, not, indeed, that we are to lose sight of the glory of God
(to which, as Paul declares, we must have respect even in meat and
drink, 1 Cor. 10:31), and ask only what is expedient for ourselves; but
the distinction, as we have already observed, is this: God claiming the
three first petitions as specially his own, carries us entirely to
himself, that in this way he may prove our piety. Next he permits us to
look to our own advantage, but still on the condition, that when we ask
anything for ourselves it must be in order that all the benefits which
he confers may show forth his glory, there being nothing more incumbent
on us than to live and die to him.
By the first petition of the second part, GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY
BREAD, we pray in general that God would give us all things which the
body requires in this sublunary state, not only food and clothing, but
everything which he knows will assist us to eat our bread in peace. In
this way we briefly cast our care upon him, and commit ourselves to his
providence, that he may feed, foster, and preserve us. For our heavenly
Father disdains not to take our body under his charge and protection,
that he may exercise our faith in those minute matters, while we look
to him for everything, even to a morsel of bread and a drop of water.
For since, owing to some strange inequality, we feel more concern for
the body than for the soul, many who can trust the latter to God still
continue anxious about the former, still hesitate as to what they are
to eat, as to how they are to be clothed, and are in trepidation
whenever their hands are not filled with corn, and wine, and oil (Ps.
4:8): so much more value do we set on this shadowy, fleeting life, than
on a blessed immortality. But those who, trusting to God, have once
cast away that anxiety about the flesh, immediately look to him for
greater gifts, even salvation and eternal life. It is no slight
exercise of faith, therefore, to hope in God for things which would
otherwise give us so much concern; nor have we made little progress
when we get quit of this unbelief, which cleaves, as it were, to our
very bones.
The speculations of some concerning supersubstantial bread seem to be
very little accordant with our Saviour's meaning; for our prayer would
be defective were we not to ascribe to God the nourishment even of this
fading life. The reason which they give is heathenish, viz., that it is
inconsistent with the character of sons of God, who ought to be
spiritual, not only to occupy their mind with earthly cares, but to
suppose God also occupied with them. As if his blessing and paternal
favour were not eminently displayed in giving us food, or as if there
were nothing in the declaration that godliness hath "the promise of the
life that now is, and of that which is to come" (1 Tim. 4:8). But
although the forgiveness of sins is of far more importance than the
nourishment of the body, yet Christ has set down the inferior in the
prior place, in order that he might gradually raise us to the other two
petitions, which properly belong to the heavenly life, -- in this
providing for our sluggishness. We are enjoined to ask our bread, that
we may be contented with the measure which our heavenly Father is
pleased to dispense, and not strive to make gain by illicit arts.
Meanwhile, we must hold that the title by which it is ours is donation,
because, as Moses says (Levit. 26:20, Deut. 8:17), neither our
industry, nor labour, nor hands, acquire anything for us, unless the
blessing of God be present; nay, not even would abundance of bread be
of the least avail were it not divinely converted into nourishment. And
hence this liberality of God is not less necessary to the rich than the
poor, because, though their cellars and barns were full, they would be
parched and pine with want did they not enjoy his favour along with
their bread. The terms this day, or, as it is in another Evangelist,
daily, and also the epithet daily, lay a restraint on our immoderate
desire of fleeting good -- a desire which we are extremely apt to
indulge to excess, and from which other evils ensue: for when our
supply is in richer abundance we ambitiously squander it in pleasure,
luxury, ostentation, or other kinds of extravagance. Wherefore, we are
only enjoined to ask as much as our necessity requires, and as it were
for each day, confiding that our heavenly Father, who gives us the
supply of to-day, will not fail us on the morrow. How great soever our
abundance may be, however well filled our cellars and granaries, we
must still always ask for daily bread, for we must feel assured that
all substance is nothing, unless in so far as the Lord, by pouring out
his blessing, make it fruitful during its whole progress; for even that
which is in our hand is not ours except in so far as he every hour
portions it out, and permits us to use it. As nothing is more difficult
to human pride than the admission of this truth, the Lord declares that
he gave a special proof for all ages, when he fed his people with manna
in the desert (Deut. 8:3), that he might remind us that "man shall not
live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth
of God" (Matth. 4:4). It is thus intimated, that by his power alone our
life and strength are sustained, though he ministers supply to us by
bodily instruments. In like manner, whenever it so pleases, he gives us
a proof of an opposite description, by breaking the strength, or, as he
himself calls it, the staff of bread (Levit. 26:26), and leaving us
even while eating to pine with hunger, and while drinking to be parched
with thirst. Those who, not contented with daily bread, indulge an
unrestrained insatiable cupidity, or those who are full of their own
abundance, and trust in their own riches, only mock God by offering up
this prayer. For the former ask what they would be unwilling to obtain,
nay, what they most of all abominate, namely, daily bread only, and as
much as in them lies disguise their avarice from God, whereas true
prayer should pour out the whole soul and every inward feeling before
him. The latter, again, ask what they do not at all expect to obtain,
namely, what they imagine that they in themselves already possess. In
its being called ours, God, as we have already said, gives a striking
display of his kindness, making that to be ours to which we have no
just claim. Nor must we reject the view to which I have already
adverted, viz., that this name is given to what is obtained by just and
honest labour, as contrasted with what is obtained by fraud and rapine,
nothing being our own which we obtain with injury to others. When we
ask God to give us, the meaning is, that the thing asked is simply and
freely the gift of God, whatever be the quarter from which it comes to
us, even when it seems to have been specially prepared by our own art
and industry, and procured by our hands, since it is to his blessing
alone that all our labours owe their success.
The next petition is, FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS. In this and the following
petition our Saviour has briefly comprehended whatever is conducive to
the heavenly life, as these two members contain the spiritual covenant
which God made for the salvation of his Church, "I will put my law in
their inward parts, and write it on their hearts." "I will pardon all
their iniquities" (Jer. 31:33; 33:8). Here our Saviour begins with the
forgiveness of sins, and then adds the subsequent blessing, viz., that
God would protect us by the power, and support us by the aid of his
Spirit, so that we may stand invincible against all temptations. To
sins he gives the name of debts, because we owe the punishment due to
them, a debt which we could not possibly pay were we not discharged by
this remission, the result of his free mercy, when he freely expunges
the debt, accepting nothing in return; but of his own mercy receiving
satisfaction in Christ, who gave himself a ransom for us (Rom. 3:24).
Hence, those who expect to satisfy God by merits of their own or of
others, or to compensate and purchase forgiveness by means of
satisfactions, have no share in this free pardon, and while they
address God in this petition, do nothing more than subscribe their own
accusation, and seal their condemnation by their own testimony. For
they confess that they are debtors, unless they are discharged by means
of forgiveness. This forgiveness, however, they do not receive, but
rather reject, when they obtrude their merits and satisfactions upon
God, since by so doing they do not implore his mercy, but appeal to his
justice. Let those, again, who dream of a perfection which makes it
unnecessary to seek pardon, find their disciples among those whose
itching ears incline them to imposture, [25] (see Calv. on Dan. 9:20);
only let them understand that those whom they thus acquire have been
carried away from Christ, since he, by instructing all to confess their
guilt, receives none but sinners, not that he may soothe, and so
encourage them in their sins, but because he knows that believers are
never so divested of the sins of the flesh as not to remain subject to
the justice of God. It is, indeed, to be wished, it ought even to be
our strenuous endeavour, to perform all the parts of our duty, so as
truly to congratulate ourselves before God as being pure from every
stain; but as God is pleased to renew his image in us by degrees, so
that to some extent there is always a residue of corruption in our
flesh, we ought by no means to neglect the remedy. But if Christ,
according to the authority given him by his Father, enjoins us, during
the whole course of our lives, to implore pardon, who can tolerate
those new teachers who, by the phantom of perfect innocence, endeavour
to dazzle the simple, and make them believe that they can render
themselves completely free from guilt? This, as John declares, is
nothing else than to make God a liar (1 John 1:10). In like manner,
those foolish men mutilate the covenant in which we have seen that our
salvation is contained by concealing one head of it, and so destroying
it entirely; being guilty not only of profanity in that they separate
things which ought to be indissolubly connected; but also of wickedness
and cruelty in overwhelming wretched souls with despair -- of treachery
also to themselves and their followers, in that they encourage
themselves in a carelessness diametrically opposed to the mercy of God.
It is excessively childish to object, that when they long for the
advent of the kingdom of God, they at the same time pray for the
abolition of sin. In the former division of the prayer absolute
perfection is set before us; but in the latter our own weakness. Thus
the two fitly correspond to each other -- we strive for the goal, and
at the same time neglect not the remedies which our necessities
In the next part of the petition we pray to be forgiven, "as we forgive
our debtors;" that is, as we spare and pardon all by whom we are in any
way offended, either in deed by unjust, or in word by contumelious
treatment. Not that we can forgive the guilt of a fault or offence;
this belongs to God only; but we can forgive to this extent: we can
voluntarily divest our minds of wrath, hatred, and revenge, and efface
the remembrance of injuries by a voluntary oblivion. Wherefore, we are
not to ask the forgiveness of our sins from God, unless we forgive the
offenses of all who are or have been injurious to us. If we retain any
hatred in our minds, if we meditate revenge, and devise the means of
hurting; nay, if we do not return to a good understanding with our
enemies, perform every kind of friendly office, and endeavour to effect
a reconciliation with them, we by this petition beseech God not to
grant us forgiveness. For we ask him to do to us as we do to others.
This is the same as asking him not to do unless we do also. What, then,
do such persons obtain by this petition but a heavier judgment? Lastly,
it is to be observed that the condition of being forgiven as we forgive
our debtors, is not added because by forgiving others we deserve
forgiveness, as if the cause of forgiveness were expressed; but by the
use of this expression the Lord has been pleased partly to solace the
weakness of our faith, using it as a sign to assure us that our sins
are as certainly forgiven as we are certainly conscious of having
forgiven others, when our mind is completely purged from all envy,
hatred, and malice; and partly using as a badge by which he excludes
from the number of his children all who, prone to revenge and reluctant
to forgive, obstinately keep up their enmity, cherishing against others
that indignation which they deprecate from themselves; so that they
should not venture to invoke him as a Father. In the Gospel of Luke, we
have this distinctly stated in the words of Christ.
The sixth petition corresponds (as we have observed) to the promise
[26] of writing the law upon our hearts; but because we do not obey God
without a continual warfare, without sharp and arduous contests, we
here pray that he would furnish us with armour, and defend us by his
protection, that we may be able to obtain the victory. By this we are
reminded that we not only have need of the gift of the Spirit inwardly
to soften our hearts, and turn and direct them to the obedience of God,
but also of his assistance, to render us invincible by all the wiles
and violent assaults of Satan. The forms of temptation are many and
various. The depraved conceptions of our minds provoking us to
transgress the law -- conceptions which our concupiscence suggests or
the devil excites, are temptations; and things which in their own
nature are not evil, become temptations by the wiles of the devil, when
they are presented to our eyes in such a way that the view of them
makes us withdraw or decline from God. [27] These temptations are both
on the right hand and on the left. [28] On the right, when riches,
power, and honours, which by their glare, and the semblance of good
which they present, generally dazzle the eyes of men, and so entice by
their blandishments, that, caught by their snares, and intoxicated by
their sweetness, they forget their God: on the left, when offended by
the hardship and bitterness of poverty, disgrace, contempt,
afflictions, and other things of that description, they despond, cast
away their confidence and hope, and are at length totally estranged
from God. In regard to both kinds of temptation, which either enkindled
in us by concupiscence, or presented by the craft of Satan's war
against us, we pray God the Father not to allow us to be overcome, but
rather to raise and support us by his hand, that strengthened by his
mighty power we may stand firm against all the assaults of our
malignant enemy, whatever be the thoughts which he sends into our
minds; next we pray that whatever of either description is allotted us,
we may turn to good, that is, may neither be inflated with prosperity,
nor cast down by adversity. Here, however, we do not ask to be
altogether exempted from temptation, which is very necessary to excite,
stimulate, and urge us on, that we may not become too lethargic. It was
not without reason that David wished to be tried, [29] nor is it
without cause that the Lord daily tries his elect, chastising them by
disgrace, poverty, tribulation, and other kinds of cross. [30] But the
temptations of God and Satan are very different: Satan tempts, that he
may destroy, condemn, confound, throw headlong; God, that by proving
his people he may make trial of their sincerity, and by exercising
their strength confirm it; may mortify, tame, and cauterize their
flesh, which, if not curbed in this manner, would wanton and exult
above measure. Besides, Satan attacks those who are unarmed and
unprepared, that he may destroy them unawares; whereas whatever God
sends, he "will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye
may be able to bear it." [31] Whether by the term evil we understand
the devil or sin, is not of the least consequence. Satan is indeed the
very enemy who lays snares for our life, [32] but it is by sin that he
is armed for our destruction.
Our petition, therefore, is, that we may not be overcome or overwhelmed
with temptation, but in the strength of the Lord may stand firm against
all the powers by which we are assailed; in other words, may not fall
under temptation: that being thus taken under his charge and
protection, we may remain invincible by sin, death, the gates of hell,
and the whole power of the devil; in other words, be delivered from
evil. Here it is carefully to be observed, that we have no strength to
contend with such a combatant as the devil, or to sustain the violence
of his assault. Were it otherwise, it would be mockery of God to ask of
him what we already possess in ourselves. Assuredly those who in
self-confidence prepare for such a fight, do not understand how bold
and well-equipped the enemy is with whom they have to do. Now we ask to
be delivered from his power, as from the mouth of some furious raging
lion, who would instantly tear us with his teeth and claws, and swallow
us up, did not the Lord rescue us from the midst of death; at the same
time knowing that if the Lord is present and will fight for us while we
stand by, through him "we shall do valiantly" (Ps. 60:12). Let others
if they will confide in the powers and resources of their free will
which they think they possess; enough for us that we stand and are
strong in the power of God alone. But the prayer comprehends more than
at first sight it seems to do. For if the Spirit of God is our strength
in waging the contest with Satan, we cannot gain the victory unless we
are filled with him, and thereby freed from all infirmity of the flesh.
Therefore, when we pray to be delivered from sin and Satan, we at the
same time desire to be enriched with new supplies of divine grace,
until completely replenished with them, we triumph over every evil. To
some it seems rude and harsh to ask God not to lead us into temptation,
since, as James declares (James 1:13), it is contrary to his nature to
do so. This difficulty has already been partly solved by the fact that
our concupiscence is the cause, and therefore properly bears the blame
of all the temptations by which we are overcome. All that James means
is, that it is vain and unjust to ascribe to God vices which our own
consciousness compels us to impute to ourselves. But this is no reason
why God may not when he sees it meet bring us into bondage to Satan,
give us up to a reprobate mind and shameful lusts, and so by a just,
indeed, but often hidden judgment, lead us into temptation. Though the
cause is often concealed from men, it is well known to him. Hence we
may see that the expression is not improper, if we are persuaded that
it is not without cause he so often threatens to give sure signs of his
vengeance, by blinding the reprobate, and hardening their hearts.
These three petitions, in which we specially commend ourselves and all
that we have to God, clearly show what we formerly observed (sec. 38,
39), that the prayers of Christians should be public, and have respect
to the public edification of the Church and the advancement of
believers in spiritual communion. For no one requests that anything
should be given to him as an individual, but we all ask in common for
daily bread and the forgiveness of sins, not to be led into temptation,
but delivered from evil. Moreover, there is subjoined the reason for
our great boldness in asking and confidence of obtaining (sec. 11, 36).
Although this does not exist in the Latin copies, yet as it accords so
well with the whole, we cannot think of omitting it.
EVER. Here is the calm and firm assurance of our faith. For were our
prayers to be commended to God by our own worth, who would venture even
to whisper before him? Now, however wretched we may be, however
unworthy, however devoid of commendation, we shall never want a reason
for prayer, nor a ground of confidence, since the kingdom, power, and
glory, can never be wrested from our Father. The last word is AMEN, by
which is expressed the eagerness of our desire to obtain the things
which we ask, while our hope is confirmed, that all things have already
been obtained and will assuredly be granted to us, seeing they have
been promised by God, who cannot deceive. This accords with the form of
expression to which we have already adverted: "Grant, O Lord, for thy
name's sake, not on account of us or of our righteousness." By this the
saints not only express the end of their prayers, but confess that they
are unworthy of obtaining did not God find the cause in himself and
were not their confidence founded entirely on his nature.
All things that we ought, indeed all that we are able, to ask of God,
are contained in this formula, and as it were rule, of prayer delivered
by Christ, our divine Master, whom the Father has appointed to be our
teacher, and to whom alone he would have us to listen (Matth. 17:5).
For he ever was the eternal wisdom of the Father, and being made man,
was manifested as the Wonderful, the Counsellor (Isa. 11:2; 9:6).
Accordingly, this prayer is complete in all its parts, so complete,
that whatever is extraneous and foreign to it, whatever cannot be
referred to it, is impious and unworthy of the approbation of God. For
he has here summarily prescribed what is worthy of him, what is
acceptable to him, and what is necessary for us; in short, whatever he
is pleased to grant. Those, therefore, who presume to go further and
ask something more from God, first seek to add of their own to the
wisdom of God (this it is insane blasphemy to do); secondly, refusing
to confine themselves within the will of God, and despising it, they
wander as their cupidity directs; lastly, they will never obtain
anything, seeing they pray without faith. For there cannot be a doubt
that all such prayers are made without faith, because at variance with
the word of God, on which if faith do not always lean it cannot
possibly stand. Those who, disregarding the Master's rule, indulge
their own wishes, not only have not the word of God, but as much as in
them lies oppose it. Hence Tertullian (De Fuga in Persecutione) has not
less truly than elegantly termed it Lawful Prayer, tacitly intimating
that all other prayers are lawless and illicit.
By this, however, we would not have it understood that we are so
restricted to this form of prayer as to make it unlawful to change a
word or syllable of it. For in Scripture we meet with many prayers
differing greatly from it in word, yet written by the same Spirit, and
capable of being used by us with the greatest advantage. Many prayers
also are continually suggested to believers by the same Spirit, though
in expression they bear no great resemblance to it. All we mean to say
is, that no man should wish, expect, or ask anything which is not
summarily comprehended in this prayer. Though the words may be very
different, there must be no difference in the sense. In this way, all
prayers, both those which are contained in the Scripture, and those
which come forth from pious breasts, must be referred to it, certainly
none can ever equal it, far less surpass it in perfection. It omits
nothing which we can conceive in praise of God, nothing which we can
imagine advantageous to man, and the whole is so exact that all hope of
improving it may well be renounced. In short, let us remember that we
have here the doctrine of heavenly wisdom. God has taught what he
willed; he willed what was necessary.
But although it has been said above (sec. 7, 27, &c.), that we ought
always to raise our minds upwards towards God, and pray without
ceasing, yet such is our weakness, which requires to be supported, such
our torpor, which requires to be stimulated, that it is requisite for
us to appoint special hours for this exercise, hours which are not to
pass away without prayer, and during which the whole affections of our
minds are to be completely occupied; namely, when we rise in the
morning, before we commence our daily work, when we sit down to food,
when by the blessing of God we have taken it, and when we retire to
rest. This, however, must not be a superstitious observance of hours,
by which, as it were, performing a task to God, we think we are
discharged as to other hours; it should rather be considered as a
discipline by which our weakness is exercised, and ever and anon
stimulated. In particular, it must be our anxious care, whenever we are
ourselves pressed, or see others pressed by any strait, instantly to
have recourse to him not only with quickened pace, but with quickened
minds; and again, we must not in any prosperity of ourselves or others
omit to testify our recognition of his hand by praise and thanksgiving.
Lastly, we must in all our prayers carefully avoid wishing to confine
God to certain circumstances, or prescribe to him the time, place, or
mode of action. In like manner, we are taught by this prayer not to fix
any law or impose any condition upon him, but leave it entirely to him
to adopt whatever course of procedure seems to him best, in respect of
method, time, and place. For before we offer up any petition for
ourselves, we ask that his will may be done, and by so doing place our
will in subordination to his, just as if we had laid a curb upon it,
that, instead of presuming to give law to God, it may regard him as the
ruler and disposer of all its wishes.
If, with minds thus framed to obedience, we allow ourselves to be
governed by the laws of Divine Providence, we shall easily learn to
persevere in prayer, and suspending our own desires wait patiently for
the Lord, certain, however little the appearance of it may be, that he
is always present with us, and will in his own time show how very far
he was from turning a deaf ear to prayers, though to the eyes of men
they may seem to be disregarded. This will be a very present
consolation, if at any time God does not grant an immediate answer to
our prayers, preventing us from fainting or giving way to despondency,
as those are wont to do who, in invoking God, are so borne away by
their own fervour, that unless he yield on their first importunity and
give present help, they immediately imagine that he is angry and
offended with them and abandoning all hope of success cease from
prayer. On the contrary, deferring our hope with well tempered
equanimity, let us insist with that perseverance which is so strongly
recommended to us in Scripture. We may often see in The Psalms how
David and other believers, after they are almost weary of praying, and
seem to have been beating the air by addressing a God who would not
hear, yet cease not to pray because due authority is not given to the
word of God, unless the faith placed in it is superior to all events.
Again, let us not tempt God, and by wearying him with our importunity
provoke his anger against us. Many have a practice of formally
bargaining with God on certain conditions, and, as if he were the
servant of their lust, binding him to certain stipulations; with which
if he do not immediately comply, they are indignant and fretful,
murmur, complain, and make a noise. Thus offended, he often in his
anger grants to such persons what in mercy he kindly denies to others.
Of this we have a proof in the children of Israel, for whom it had been
better not to have been heard by the Lord, than to swallow his
indignation with their flesh (Num. 11:18, 33).
But if our sense is not able till after long expectation to perceive
what the result of prayer is, or experience any benefit from it, still
our faith will assure us of that which cannot be perceived by sense,
viz., that we have obtained what was fit for us, the Lord having so
often and so surely engaged to take an interest in all our troubles
from the moment they have been deposited in his bosom. In this way we
shall possess abundance in poverty, and comfort in affliction. For
though all things fail, God will never abandon us, and he cannot
frustrate the expectation and patience of his people. He alone will
suffice for all, since in himself he comprehends all good, and will at
last reveal it to us on the day of judgment, when his kingdom shall be
plainly manifested. We may add, that although God complies with our
request, he does not always give an answer in the very terms of our
prayers but while apparently holding us in suspense, yet in an unknown
way, shows that our prayers have not been in vain. This is the meaning
of the words of John, "If we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask,
we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him" (1 John
5:15). It might seem that there is here a great superfluity of words,
but the declaration is most useful, namely, that God, even when he does
not comply with our requests, yet listens and is favourable to our
prayers, so that our hope founded on his word is never disappointed.
But believers have always need of being supported by this patience, as
they could not stand long if they did not lean upon it. For the trials
by which the Lord proves and exercises us are severe, nay, he often
drives us to extremes, and when driven allows us long to stick fast in
the mire before he gives us any taste of his sweetness. As Hannah says,
"The Lord killeth, and maketh alive; he bringeth down to the grave, and
bringeth up" (1 Sam. 2:6). What could they here do but become
dispirited and rush on despair, were they not, when afflicted,
desolate, and half dead, comforted with the thought that they are
regarded by God, and that there will be an end to their present evils.
But however secure their hopes may stand, they in the meantime cease
not to pray, since prayer unaccompanied by perseverance leads to no

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