During the month of October, Reformed Christians often remember and give thanks to God for the Protestant Reformation. At that time in history, many practices in the church needed to be reformed. Prayer was one such practice. In John Calvin’s great work The Necessity of Reforming the Church, he wrote about the need for reforming the practice of prayer.
Calvin identified two ways that the biblical practice of prayer had become deformed. First, people had been taught to pray to saints and angels, not to God the Father through Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5). God’s people were praying to and through the wrong mediators and not in Jesus’ name.
Second, people were praying in the wrong way—namely, with a complete lack of confidence that God would hear them. Faith is the foundation of prayer, and without trust that Christ will intercede for them, it is not surprising that people became unsure whether had God heard their prayers. Furthermore, the facts of the gospel are the foundation of faith. Without a knowledge of God’s Word, people were uncertain of His promises and therefore could not pray with confidence. To make matters worse, public prayers were offered in Latin, which was incomprehensible to most people. God’s people therefore prayed without confidence or understanding.
The Reformers learned and taught prayer as directed by the Holy Spirit in God’s Word. Calvin wrote, “There is scarcely any subject on which the Holy Spirit more carefully prescribes than on the proper method of prayer.” So, how should God’s people pray, according to His Word? We can identify four biblical principles of prayer.
First, we must pray with the reverent preparation of the mind (Heb. 12:28–29). If we are to approach our heavenly Father in glory, our hearts and minds must be prepared to meet Him. We cannot come with unfocused minds. We must approach God with reverence and awe. Second, we must approach God with a “true realization of our needs.” The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in Luke 18:9–14 is that the tax collector truly realized his need; the Pharisee did not. We must recognize that we are completely dependent on God for all our needs. Third, we must approach God with “humility” (Isa. 66:2). The first two principles lead to the third, because if we know who God is and know our absolute need before Him, we cannot help but come to Him in humility. Finally, we must come before God confidently. We come not to a far-off, dispassionate God but to a loving heavenly Father to whom we have been brought near by the Spirit of Christ (John 16:23–27).
Does the success of our prayers rest on our perfect application of these principles? No, our confidence is in Christ, our Advocate. As Belgic Confession 26 puts it, “We call on the heavenly Father through Christ, our only Mediator . . . being assured that we shall obtain all we ask of the Father in his name” (see John 14:6; Heb. 4:14–16; 7:24–25; 10:19, 22). Praise God for the reformation of prayer.