From time to time, people assert that if a person believes God has predestined all things then that person will necessarily tend to downplay the importance of prayer. But is that really true? Granted, we all pray less than we ought, but does belief in divine foreordination actually cause one to minimize the value of prayer? Let’s look briefly at John Calvin (1509–1564) as a test case. Calvin’s belief in the foreordination of all things is well known, and this might lead some to assume that Calvin placed little emphasis on the need for prayer. But those who think such have likely never read Calvin at any length.
Of the eighty chapters which appear in the standard English translation of Calvin’s Institutes the longest chapter is actually his chapter on the topic of prayer (3.20, 71 pp.). In agreement with James 1:17, Calvin believed that every good gift comes from God “the master and bestower of all good things” (3.20.1), and he viewed prayer as the means by which believers can “reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father” (3.20.2). The image of God as a benevolent Father is quite common in Calvin. In fact, David Calhoun has suggested that “Calvin’s favorite picture of prayer is that of God’s adopted children calling upon him as their heavenly Father” (Calhoun, “Prayer,” in Hall and Lillback, eds., A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, 349).
But why should God’s children pray to their Father if he already knows and has predestined all things? As Calvin saw it, God has instructed us to pray “not so much for his sake as for ours” (3.20.3). In keeping with this, Calvin offered six somewhat overlapping reasons why believers should engage in prayer. He explained, believers should pray…
- That our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.
- That there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.
- That we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand.
- That having obtained what we were seeking, and being convinced that he has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.
- That at the same time we embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers.
- That use and experience may, according to the measure of our feebleness, confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at the very point of necessity, but also that he ever extends his hand to help his own, not wet-nursing them with words but defending them with present help (3.20.3).
God is a good and generous Father. And as Calvin suggested, prayer is a means of reminding us of our dependence upon God and of his ability and willingness to provide what his children need.