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John Calvin on Prayer

In Book III of the Institutes of the Christian Religion , Calvin devoted a long chapter of 77 pages to prayer.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Reprinted from Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994], 1204-1207)

In Book III of the Institutes of the Christian Religion , Calvin devoted a long chapter of 77 pages to prayer. This chapter, XX, is titled On Prayer, the Principal Exercise of Faith, and the Medium of our daily reception of Divine Blessings. The title gives us a good summary of its contents; it will not be summarized here, but some aspects of it will concern us.

Man, Calvin held, has a problem: [W]e are stupid and insensible to our own miseries, but God vigilantly watches and guards us, and sometimes affords us unsolicited succor. This does not lessen our duty to pray to Him.1 Said Calvin:

We clearly perceive how utterly destitute man is of every good, and in want of all the means of salvation. Wherefore, if he seek for relief in his necessities, he must go out of himself, and obtain it from some other quarter.2

For Calvin, man's necessities have to do with his salvation and his growth in grace. This is a very different emphasis on prayer than is common today. For Calvin, Romans 10:13 , 14, 17, is an important text not only with reference to faith but also to prayer, for the two are very closely allied. Even as faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17 ), so too prayer is dependent on hearing, and the ability to hear comes from Scripture. Even as faith enables us to penetrate and understand the word of God, so too does prayer:

II. By means of prayer, then, we penetrate to those riches which are reserved with our heavenly Father for our use  prayer digs out those treasures, which the gospel of the Lord discovers to our faith . It is certainly not without reason that our heavenly Father declares, that the only fortress of salvation consists in invocation of his name; by which we call to our aid the presence of his providence, which watches over all our concerns; of his power, which supports us when weak and ready to faint; and of his goodness, which receives us into favor, though miserably burdened with sins; in which, finally, we call upon him to manifest his presence with us in all his attributes.3

Men today miss the primary point of this statement because they pass over its primary affirmation, namely, That the only fortress of salvation consists in invocation of his name . The early church, medieval man, and the Reformation man would have understood it. Paul knew what it meant when he wrote, in Philippians 2:9-11:

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Charles Buck (1771-1815), in his Theological Dictionary , defined Name of God thus:

By this term we are to understand, 1.God himself, Ps. 22.1; 2. His titles peculiar to himself, Ex. iii. 13, 14; 3. His word, Ps. v. 11, Acts ix. 15; 4. His works, Ps. viii. 1; 5. His worship, Ex. xx. 24; 6. His perfections and excellencies, Ex. xxxiv, 6. John xvii.26. The properties or qualities of his name are these : 1. A glorious name, Ps. lxxii.17; 2. Transcendent and incomparable, Rev. xix.16; 3. Powerful, Phil. ii. 10; 4. Holy and reverend, Ps. cxi; 5. Awful to the wicked; 6. Perpetual, Is. lv. 13.4

The Name
The correct reading of Philippians 2:9 is not a name, but the name. Name has a variety of Hebraic connotations; it stands for the person himself, and for his dignity and glory. We have an echo of this in the still slightly familiar police statement, Halt, in the name of the law. Name here means that all the power of the law is behind the command and will prosecute the offender. The name Jesus means God incarnate, He who became like us and endured the humiliation and shame of the cross and is now enthroned as King over all creation. J. J. Muller wrote:

The name of Jesus signifies Jesus Himself. According to the Hebrew usage of the word, the name gives expression to the very being itself, and designates a person as he is, and as he reveals himself.5

Hence, to invoke the Name of Jesus is to invoke His Person, power, and presence. Hence also to hold aloft the sign of an empty Cross is to invoke Him who has destroyed death and is King over kings, and Lord over all lords (1 Tim. 6:15 ). There is little such invocation of the Name in our time because there is little awareness of the reign and presence of the Great King, Jesus the Christ.

The Third Commandment tells us:

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. (Ex. 20:7)

The trivial invocation of God's, or Christ's, Name for emphasis or in profanity is therefore a sin. It is a contemptuous use of God's Name for our purposes rather than in terms of His word and glory.

On the other hand, all Christian action is to be in the Name of Jesus: And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him (Col. 3:17). All our speech, action, and prayer should be in His Name.

Believe on the Name
We can believe in the historicity of Scripture and the work and words of Jesus Christ; we can affirm Him to be Lord and Savior, but we place and posit a distance between first century Judea and ourselves, and between Christ in heaven and ourselves, unless we believe on the Name. Hence, in the New Testament, the summons is repeatedly phrased like this:

And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:21)
Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. (Acts 4:10)
Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

These are only a few of the many such references. The Name means the presence and power of God the Son. Failure to invoke it and to understand its meaning is to live with a sense of remoteness from God. The faith can be real enough, but it will be cold and weak. Hence it is that the summons is not only to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31 ), but to believe in the Name of the Lord:

And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. (1 John 3:23)
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. (1 John 5:13)

Our Lord makes it clear that it is not enough to do great works in His Name: we must do the will of my Father which is in heaven (Mt. 7:21 -23). Given this fact of obedience, we can then ask God in Christ's Name for those things needful:

And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name I will do it. (John 14:13-14)

To ask in His Name means to ask in terms of His Kingdom and our life in Him. To ask in His Name is to acknowledge His Lordship over us, and His Sovereign right to give as He ordains, much, little, or nothing, and to thank Him for everything.

We are commanded to pray in Jesus' Name ; Calvin rightly stressed the invocation of His Name as our only fortress of salvation.


1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , Book III, Chap XX: III, Vol. II. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), 95.

2. Ibid ., Book III, Chap. XX, I; Vol. II, 93.

3. Ibid ., Book III, Chap. XX, Vol. II, 94.

4. Charles Buck, A Theological Dictionary (Philadelphia: Joseph Woodward, 1826), 401.

5. Jac. J. Muller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 88.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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