This is the full lecture notes of the Reformed Talk on Invoking the Presence of God’s Providence: Providence and Prayer in John Calvin’s Thought and Writings held on March 11, 2023, at Reformed Community of Life Church.
Assuredly it is not without cause our heavenly Father declares that our only safety is in calling upon his name, since by it we invoke (call to our aid) the presence of his providence to watch over our interests…[John Calvin, Institutes. 3.20.1]
To invoke God is to call earnestly for or appeal to God.
Preliminary: Many people know John Calvin (1509–1564) as a theologian and biblical scholar, and sadly, for some others as a murderer. But how about as a ‘counselor’?
[(W. Robert Godfrey, “Chapter 7: The Counselor to The Afflicted,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 83.] “…Calvin saw himself preeminently as a pastor, and all his efforts ultimately served the needs of pastoral ministry. And as a pastor, he often offered advice and counsel to those who had spiritual, emotional, or physical needs. Those who knew him well counted him a faithful and helpful pastor and friend in their various circumstances of life. In many ways, Calvin’s counsel rested on his doctrine of providence.
The profound nature of his understanding of God’s providence was the foundation of the character of his counsel to troubled Christians.
Teaching: God’s providence as His all-embracing governance and special care for His people is the foundation of our sweet communion with Him through the Son by the Spirit.
- Proclaiming the Necessity of God’s Providence
- Invoking the Presence of God’s Providence
- Applying the Benefits of God’s providence.
Understanding the Necessity of God’s Providence
[Burk Parsons, “The Providence of God,” in Derek Thomas “For A New Reformation”; John Tweeddale. John Calvin (Afterword by R. C.Sproul) (pp. 275-276). Crossway. Kindle Edition.] The providence of God is one of the most overwhelming and liberating doctrines that humanity has had the privilege and burden of beholding, though by a mere glimpse… in his wisdom the Lord has set the matter of his providence before our eyes, and insofar as he has removed the blindfolds from our sight, the Lord has summoned us to himself that we might “trust, invoke, praise, and love him” as he has revealed himself to us.
- Providence as inseparable from Creation
[Book 1 Chapter 16 Heading] The world, created by God, [is] still cherished and protected by Him. Each and all of its parts [are] governed by His providence. God’s providence is purposeful and all-embracing.
[Helseth in Four Views: Divine Providence, 32] He created a universe that is simultaneously both distinct from and yet, utterly dependent on him for its existence from one moment to the next. The idea of an independent creature is nonsense.
Calvin rejects the idea of deism that says “God exists and created the world, but beyond that, God has no active engagement in the world except the creation of human reason.” God is actively involved in His creation. Heb 11:3
[John Calvin, Institutes, I.16.1] “It was cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator, who completed his work once for all, and then left it… without proceeding to his Providence, we cannot understand the full force of what is meant by God being the Creator… faith must penetrate deeper. After learning that there is a Creator, it must forthwith infer that he is also a Governor and Preserver, and that, not by producing a kind of general motion in the machine of the globe as well as in each of its parts, but by a special providence sustaining, cherishing, superintending, all the things which he has made, to the very minutest, even to a sparrow.”
[John Calvin, Institutes, I.16.4] “[God is not a]…Deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks on at what is taking place in the world, but one by which he, as it were, holds the helms and overrules all events.”
Point: It is impossible to understand the weight and truthfulness of God’s Creatorhood without embracing His providential activity in His creation. Creation and providence are inseparable!
Psalms 33:6, 13, 16 (king), 18 (His eye on those who fear Him), Acts 17:28 (‘In him we live and move and have our being’). Matthew 10:29-31 (But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.)
[John Calvin, Institutes, I.16.1] David, after briefly premising that the world was created by God, immediately descends to the continual course of Providence, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens framed, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth;” immediately adding, “The Lord looketh from heaven, he beholdeth the children of men,” (Psa 33: 6, 13, &c.)
- Providence as God’s governing of all things by His counsel
[B.C. #11] God executes His decree by His work of creation and providence.
John Calvin asserted that God’s providence is against the limited opinion of philosophers that “all the parts of the world are invigorated by the secret inspiration of God.”
Modern-day understanding: God is just up there, and He exercises universal providence.
[John Calvin, Institutes, I.16.3] God is deemed omnipotent, not because he can act though he may cease or be idle, or because by a general instinct, he continues the order of nature previously appointed (against philosophers); but because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so overrules (regulates) all things that nothing happens without his counsel. (i.e. ordained power – God has the power to carry out His will)
Psalms 115: 3 says Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. In this verse, Calvin comments, “for it would be senseless to interpret the words of the prophet after the manner of the philosophers, that God is the first agent because he is the beginning and cause of all motion…” (Battle’s 1.16.3)
According to Calvin, general mankind can easily affirm Acts 17:28 (‘In him, we live and move and have our being’) but not Psalm 104:27-30 (These all look to you, to give them their food in due season…) because, “they are far from that earnest feeling of grace which he commends because they do not at all taste God’s special care, by which alone his fatherly favor is known.”
Point: God governs/regulates all things by His counsel for the sake of His elect.
- Providence as God’s special care for His people
What is the holy meditation of Divine Providence? I. All events happen by the ordination of God. II. All things contribute to the advantage of the godly. III. The hearts of men and all their endeavours are in the hand of God. IV. Providence watches for the safety of the righteous. V. God has a special care of his elect.
[John Calvin, Institutes, I.17.6] The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded, that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eye to him as the principal cause of events… he will have no doubt that a special providence is awake for his preservation, and will not suffer anything to happen that will not turn to his good and safety.
Psa 55:22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
1Pe 5:6-7 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
Psa 91:1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
Isa 49:15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
[John Calvin, Institutes, I.17.6] …the chief aim of the historical books of Scripture is to show that the ways of his saints are so carefully guarded by the Lord.
The Baptist Catechism, Question #14 What are God’s works of providence? God’s works of providence are his most holy,¹ wise,² and powerful preserving³ and governing all his creatures, and all their actions. ⁵ ³ Hebrews 1:3
Point: God’s work of comprehensive “purposeful and all-embracing” providence inevitably flows from his work of creation as an execution of His decrees.
God’s providence is his watchful, effective, active, ceaseless, total, detailed, personal, loving, wise, and holy governing of this world. – David Calhoun, “Lesson 6, The Doctrine of Providence” (lecture at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, 2006).
Issue: Why should we pray if God already decreed and comprehensively govern and control all things?
Answer: We respond to the issue above with a question: Since God is sovereign, why should we not pray? If we are not certain that God can accomplish His will, why should we still pray? The providence is the groundwork or foundation of prayer. It is the reason to pray.
Invoking the Presence of God’s providence
Note: John Calvin discussed the doctrine of providence in Book 1 Chapters 16-18 (1559), in previous editions of his book (1541) Providence and Predestination are combined in one chapter (8), followed by a chapter on prayer (9). In the final edition of his Institutes, the section on prayer (3.20) comes before his sections on predestination (four sections 21-24). But his chapter on prayer is the longest chapter, longer than the four sections on predestination combined. “In that one chapter he gives more space to prayer than to predestination in the Institutes, a fact that should surely cause some to reconsider easy stereotypes of Calvin’s religion (W.R. Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. Chapter 10, Section: Providence and the Psalter)”
- Prayer as the principal exercise of faith – For Calvin, the central exercise of faith is prayer, not because prayer takes priority over obedience to God’s word but rather because it is a summation of the exercise of faith. The man of faith and obedience is the man of prayer.
[Joel Beeke] “The true test of faith lies in prayer, for we cannot pray to God without faith.” “Prayer is the only way to invoke God’s providence. It is faith that obtains whatever is granted in prayer.”
Faith and prayer are inseparable.
“If B. B. Warfield, the great Princeton theologian, was right to call Calvin the theo-logian of the Holy Spirit, it is even more right to call him the theo-logian of faith. He writes of the character of faith (Chapter 2), the fruit of faith in sanctification (Chapters 3–10) and in justification (Chapters 11–19), the exercise of faith in prayer (Chapter 20)…” ~ Chapter 11, Calvin and the Institutes
[John Calvin 3.20.2] Assuredly it is not without cause our heavenly Father declares that our only safety is in calling upon his name, since by it we invoke (call to our aid) the presence of his providence to watch over our interests, of his power to sustain us when weak and almost fainting, of his goodness to receive us into favour, though miserably loaded with sin; in fine, call upon him to manifest himself to us in all his perfections (Battle’s: we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us.)
[Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:8] God reveals himself to us in his word, that we may call upon him; and this is the chief exercise of faith.
- Prayer as an ordained means of fulfilling God’s will
[Joel Beeke, Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer. Ch. 2 – John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God] Bruce Ware summarizes Calvin’s view of effective prayer as follows: “While prayer never coerces God to act other than his infinite wisdom has willed, it nevertheless is one important and necessary condition which must be present for certain aspects of God’s work to be carried out. Prayer, then, is not contrary to divine sovereignty but is a divinely ordained instrument functioning within the sphere of God’s sovereign wisdom and power in carrying out his will.”
We do not force God to act against his will through prayer.
[Joel Beeke, Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer. Ch. 2 – John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God] Prayer does not change God or His decrees for three reasons: (1) God is immutable; (2) God’s good pleasure governs everything; and (3) God is in control of everything, including our prayers. If prayer could change God or His decrees, the human will would usurp from God at least part of His control of history, which would deny God’s all-controlling grace and would destroy our faith. Rather, “prayer is something we do with God’s help on the basis of what God has done for us in eternal election.”
[Joel Beeke] “…through the act of submissive prayer, the believer invokes God’s providence to act on his behalf. Thus, under the Spirit’s guidance, man’s will and God’s will work together… Our prayers do not get in the way of providence because God, in His providence, ordains the means along with the end. Prayer is thus a means ordained to receive what God has planned to bestow… Prayer is a way in which believers seek and receive what God has determined to do for them from eternity.”
- Prayer as God’s drawing of His people to Himself
Calvin saw four “rules” of prayer. First, in prayer our heart and mind set aside all other matters and give themselves over to conversation with God. Second, in asking, we must truly feel our wants and believe that the Lord is the supplier thereof. This means a faith in God’s absolute government, for otherwise we will look to ourselves to supply our needs. To be prayerless means to be without faith in God, and it manifests a trust in ourselves as our self-supplier. Third, this means divesting ourselves of all vain-glorious thoughts. It is man’s desire to be his own god (Gen. 3:5) which leads him to war against rather than communion with God, and it is this same spirit of autonomy which makes man prayerless. Fourth, we are prayerless unless we believe that God can and will supply our needs
God commands us to pray. And in the first place, when he (God) enjoins us to pray, the commandment itself implies a charge of impious contumacy (stubborn refusal), if we disobey it. No command can be more precise than that in the psalm: “Call upon me in the day of trouble.”… it is evident that all those who turn their backs on God, or do not directly approach him, are not only guilty of disobedience and rebellion, but also convicted of unbelief; because they distrust the promises… https://chalcedon.edu/resources/articles/providence-and-prayer
Ponder: The One who controls all things loves me and knows me.
- Prayer as a sweet communion with God
[John Bunyan, Prayer. 13] “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to His Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”
[Joel Beeke] It is, therefore, by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father. For there is a communion of men with God….
[Joel Beeke, Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer. Ch. 2 – John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God] – “Calvin considered prayer as holy and familiar conversation with God, our heavenly Father; reverently speaking, it is family conversation, or even intimate covenantal conversation in which the believer confides in God as a child confides in his father.”
Six Purposes of prayers [Joel Beeke summarizing Calvin’s purposes in prayer]
1. To fly to God with every need and gain from Him what is lacking in ourselves to live the Christian life.
2. To learn to desire wholeheartedly only what is right as we place all our petitions before God.
3. To prepare us to receive God’s benefits and responses to our petitions with humble gratitude.
4. To meditate on God’s kindness to us as we receive what we have asked for.
5. To instill the proper spirit of delight for God’s answers in prayer.
6. As we pray, we should come to God as our Heavenly Father, knowing that He delights to hear from His children.
- Prayer as Trinitarian focused
[John Calvin Commentary on Eph 2:18] We are permitted to draw near to God… by one Spirit; who leads and guides us to Christ, and “by whom we cry, Abba, Father,” (Romans 8:15,) for hence arises the boldness of approach.
[Sermon on 1 Timothy 2:8] Apart from Christ, it is “folly and rashness for mortals to presume to address God.”
[Joel Beeke, Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer. Ch. 2 – John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God: The Trinitarian Focus of Prayer] Prayer originates with the Father, is made possible through the Son, and is worked out in the soul by the Spirit, through whom it returns via Christ to the Father. The triune God gives, hears, and answers prayer.
Point: Knowing God’s all-embracing providence does not discourage a Christian but bids him fly to the presence of the Father through the Son by the Spirit as His only safety and joy. Prayer is sweeter because the loving God completely exercises His sovereignty through providence.
Applying the Benefits of God’s Providence:
- Let us daily depend on God’s providence through prayer
[Joel Beeke] Prayer is the outpouring of the soul, the deepest root of piety, the bedrock of assurance. Prayer is the most important part of the Christian life; it is the lifeblood of every true believer.
Prayer is “an emotion of the heart within, which is poured out and laid open before God.”
[W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. Chapter 10: Calvin as Pastoral Counselor] knowing that God directs all things will lead his people to more frequent and heartfelt prayer… The Psalms teach Christians to combine, meditating on the promises and providences of God with prayer.
[John Calvin, Preface on his commentary on the book of Psalms] “…we renounce the guidance of our own affections, and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose our life according to his will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him.”
[Rushdoony’s Systematic Theology in Two Volumes, p. 151] Thus, the more we grow in grace and prayer, the more deeply our daily lives move in terms of the providence of God.
- Let us persistently call upon God despite life’s bitterest afflictions.
John Calvin lost his wife after being married to her for 9 years. Their only child died a few days after his birth. Idelette had many miscarriages. “Afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us because they proceed from him.”
“…it is by prayer that we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us. Hence comes an extraordinary peace and repose to our consciences. For having disclosed to the Lord the necessity that was pressing upon us, we even rest fully in the thought that none of our ills is hid from him who, we are convinced, has both the will and the power to take the best care of us.” (Battle’s Translation, 851)
- Let us frequently appeal to him in prayer since our plight is not hidden from Him.
John Piper, in his book “Providence”, concluded (pp.694-711) by providing ten examples of the effects that knowing and loving God’s providence –the all-embracing, all-pervasive, invincible, purposeful sovereignty of God– will have in a Christian’s life. God’s providence may bring us joy or sorrow but may we see and savor the greatness and beauty of God in His mysterious yet wise, perfect, and loving providence. Here are # 5 & # 8:
Seeing and savoring this providence helps us be patient and faithful amid the most inexplicable circumstances of life.
Seeing and savoring this providence makes us confident that God has the right and the power to answer prayer that people’s hearts and minds would be changed.
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. (Psa 57:2)
References: Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Beveridge and Battle’s Translation); John Calvin’s Commentaries on Psalms, Ephesians, 1 Timothy; Joel Beeke, Taking Hold of God – John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God; Rushdoony, Systematic Theology Vol 1; Gunry & Jowes, Four Views: Divine Providence; Bunyan, Prayer.