Posted by: joelrbeeke | August 26, 2008

John Calvin on Piety – Part Nine

Practical Dimensions

Although Calvin viewed the church as the nursery of piety, he also emphasized the need for personal piety. The Christian strives for piety because he loves righteousness, longs to live to God’s glory, and delights to obey God’s rule of righteousness set forth in Scripture.  God Himself is the focal point of the Christian life a  life that is therefore carried out in self-denial, particularly expressed in Christ-like cross-bearing.

For Calvin, such piety “is the beginning, middle, and end of Christian living.”  It involves numerous practical dimensions for daily Christian living, which are thoroughly explained in Calvin’s Institutes, commentaries, sermons, letters, and treatises. Here is a summary of what Calvin says on prayer, repentance, and obedience, as well as on pious Christian living in Chapters 6-10 of Book 3 of the Institutes of 1559.


Prayer is the principal and perpetual exercise of faith and the chief element of piety, Calvin says.  Prayer shows God’s grace to the believer even as the believer offers praises to God and asks for His faithfulness. It communicates piety both privately and corporately. Calvin devoted the second longest chapter of the Institutes (Book 3, Chapter 20) to prayer, providing six purposes for it: To fly to God with every need, to set all our petitions before God, to prepare us to receive God’s benefits with humble gratitude, to meditate upon God’s kindness, to instill the proper spirit of delight for God’s answers in prayer, and to confirm His providence.

Two problems are likely to surface with Calvin’s doctrine of prayer. First, when the believer obediently submits to God’s will, he does not necessarily give up his own will. Rather, through the act of submissive prayer, the believer invokes God’s providence to act on his behalf. Thus, man’s will, under the Spirit’s guidance, and God’s will work together in communion.

Second, to the objection that prayer seems superfluous in light of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, Calvin responds that God ordained prayer more for man as an exercise of piety than for Himself. Providence must be understood in the sense that God ordains the means along with the ends. Prayer is thus a means to receive what God has planned to bestow.  Prayer is a way in which believers seek out and receive what God has determined to do for them from eternity.

Calvin treats prayer as a given rather than a problem. Right prayer is governed by rules, he says. These include praying with:

  • a heartfelt sense of reverence
  • a sense of need and repentance
  • a surrender of all confidence in self and a humble plea for pardon
  • a confident hope.

All four rules are repeatedly violated by even the holiest of God’s people. Nevertheless, for Christ’s sake, God does not desert the pious but has mercy for them.

Despite the shortcomings of believers, prayer is required for the increase of piety, for prayer diminishes self-love and multiplies dependence upon God. As the due exercise of piety, prayer unites God and man—not in substance, but in will and purpose. Like the Lord’s Supper, prayer lifts the believer to Christ and renders proper glory to God. That glory is the purpose of the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer as well as other petitions dealing with His creation. Since creation looks to God’s glory for its preservation, the entire Lord’s Prayer is directed to God’s glory.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ “supplies words to our lips,” Calvin says.  It shows us how all our prayers must be controlled, formed, and inspired by the Word of God. Only this can provide holy boldness in prayer, “which rightly accords with fear, reverence, and solicitude.”

We must be disciplined and steadfast in prayer, for prayer keeps us in fellowship with Christ. We are reassured in prayer of Christ’s intercessions, without which our prayers would be rejected.  Only Christ can turn God’s throne of dreadful glory into a throne of grace, to which we can draw near in prayer.  Thus, prayer is the channel between God and man. It is the way in which the Christian expresses his praise and adoration of God, and asks for God’s help in submissive piety.


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