I, for one, am disappointed that the Reformation 21 blog through the Institutes never included this upcoming week’s assignments. Since the topic from July 21 turns to prayer, it reminds me of something Dr. Sinclair Ferguson shared in a sermon available through SermonAudio.
Early on in his career, Dr. Ferguson was approached by a publisher to consider writing a book on prayer. Dr. Ferguson declined since he felt inadequate to write such a book at that time. The publisher asked if he could recommend anyone else who might be better suited for such a task, and after every name he mentioned, the publisher, rather sheepishly, told Dr. Ferguson that they had already approached that person, and that each one had also declined for the same reason. Dr. Ferguson noted that every one of the names he shared with the publisher (but graciously didn’t mention in his sermon) was a well-known minister or leader in the evangelical community.
Now Dr. Ferguson’s point in sharing this episode in his career was to underscore how common it is for Christians, even well-known leaders in the church, to feel inadequate when it comes to their prayer lives. And so if reading 3.20.1 through 3.20.17 of the Institutes convicts anyone of his or her shortcomings with regard to prayer, be encouraged that you are likely not alone.
Right at the outset of chapter 20 of book 3, Calvin lays out the absolute necessity of prayer in light of man’s spiritually destitute condition:
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.)
Calvin also gave a six-fold answer (marked by bold text below) to the objection that prayer is superfluous in light of God’s sovereignty, after noting that the Lord ordained prayer not so much for His own sake but for ours:
Wherefore, although it is true that while we are listless or insensible to our retchedness, he wakes and watches for use 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.
Upcoming Reading Assignments in the Institutes:
July 20: 3.19.13 – 3.19.16
July 21: 3.20.1 – 3.20.5
July 22: 3.20.6 – 3.20.10
July 23: 3.20.11 – 3.20.14
July 24: 3.20.15 – 3.20.17