John Calvin (1509-1564) on the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

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Tonight in our Bible study/prayer group, as part of a series on prayer, we discussed Christ’s Parable of the Persistent Widow, also known as the Parable of the Unjust Judge. I was eager when I got home to read the comments of John Calvin (1509-1564) on this passage, and found them very edifying. Below is the biblical text (taken from the KJV), followed by Calvin’s comments:

Luke 18:1-8

1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; 2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: 3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. 4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; 5 Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. 6 And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. 7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? 8 I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?

Calvin comments:

“We know that perseverance in prayer is a rare and difficult attainment; and it is a manifestation of our unbelief that, when our first prayers are not successful, we immediately throw away not only hope, but all the ardor of prayer. But it is an undoubted evidence of our Faith, if we are disappointed of our wish, and yet do not lose courage. Most properly, therefore, does Christ recommend to his disciples to persevere in praying.

The parable which he employs, though apparently harsh, was admirably fitted to instruct his disciples, that they ought to be importunate in their prayers to God the Father, till they at length draw from him what He would otherwise appear to be unwilling to give. Not that by our prayers we gain a victory over God, and bend him slowly and reluctantly to compassion, but because the actual facts do not all at once make it evident that he graciously listens to our prayers. In the parable Christ describes to us a widow, who obtained what she wanted from an unjust and cruel judge, because she did not cease to make earnest demands. The leading truth conveyed is, that God does not all at once grant assistance to his people, because he chooses to be, as it were, wearied out by prayers; and that, however wretched and despicable may be the condition of those who pray to him, yet if they do not desist from the uninterrupted exercise of prayer, he will at length regard them and relieve their necessities.

The parties between whom the comparison is drawn are, indeed, by no means equal; for there is a wide difference between a wicked and cruel man and God, who is naturally inclined to mercy. But Christ intended to assure believers that they have no reason to fear lest their persevering entreaties to the Father of mercy should be refused, since by importunate supplication they prevail on men who are given to cruelty. The wicked and iron-hearted judge could not avoid yielding at length, though reluctantly, to the earnest solicitations of the widow: how then shall the prayers of believers, when perseveringly maintained, be without effect? If exhaustion and weakness are felt by us when we give way after a slight exertion, or if the ardor of prayer languishes because God appears to lend a deaf ear, let us rest assured of our ultimate success, though it may not be immediately apparent. Entertaining this conviction, let us contend against our impatience, so that the long delay may not induce us to discontinue our prayers.

7. And shall not God avenge his elect?That judge, whom Christ has described to us as altogether desperate, as not only hardened against the contemplation of God, but so entirely devoid of shame, that he had no anxiety about his reputation, at length opened his eyes to the distresses of the widow. We have no reason to doubt that believers will derive, at least, equal advantage from their prayers, provided they do not cease to plead earnestly with God. Yet it must be observed that, while Christ applies the parable to his subject, he does not make God to resemble a wicked and cruel judge, but points out a very different reason why those who believe in him are kept long in suspense, and why he does not actually and at once stretch out his hand to them: it is because he forbears. If at any time God winks at the injuries done to us longer than we would wish, let us know that this is done with a fatherly intention—to train us to patience. A temporary overlooking of crimes is very different from allowing them to remain for ever unpunished. The promise which he makes, that God will speedily avenge them, must be referred to his providence; for our hasty tempers and carnal apprehension lead us to conclude that he does not come quickly enough to grant relief. But if we could penetrate into his design, we would learn that his assistance is always ready and seasonable, as the case demands, and is not delayed for a single moment, but comes at the exact time.

But it is asked, How does Christ instruct his disciples to seek vengeance, while he exhorts them on another occasion, pray for those who injure and persecute you, (Matthew 5:44). I reply: what Christ says here about vengeance does not at all interfere with his former doctrine. God declares that he will avenge believers, not for the purpose of giving a loose rein to their carnal affections, but in order to convince them that their salvation is dear and precious in his sight, and in this manner to induce them to rely on his protection. If, laying aside hatred, pure and free from every wicked desire of revenge, and influenced by proper and well-regulated dispositions, they implore divine assistance, it will be a lawful and holy wish, and God himself will listen to it. But as nothing is more difficult than to divest ourselves of sinful affections, if we would offer pure and sincere prayers, we must ask the Lord to guide and direct our hearts by his Spirit. Then shall we lawfully call on God to be our avenger, and he will answer our prayers.

8. When the Son of man shall come.By these words Christ informs us that there will be no reason to wonder if men shall afterwards sink under their calamities: it will be because they neglect the true remedy. He intended to obviate an offense which we are daily apt to take, when we see all things in shameful confusion. Treachery, cruelty, imposture, deceit, and violence, abound on every hand; there is no regard to justice, and no shame; the poor groan under their oppressors; the innocent are abused or insulted; while God appears to be asleep in heaven. This is the reason why the flesh imagines that the government of fortune is blind. But Christ here reminds us that men are justly deprived of heavenly aid, on which they have neither knowledge nor inclination to place reliance. They who do nothing but murmur against the Lord in their hearts, and who allow no place for his providence, cannot reasonably expect that the Lord will assist them.

Shall he find faith on the earth? Christ expressly foretells that, from his ascension to heaven till his return, unbelievers will abound; meaning by these words that, if the Redeemer does not so speedily appear, the blame of the delay will attach to men, because there will be almost none to look for him. Would that we did not behold so manifest a fulfilment of this prediction! But experience proves that though the world is oppressed and overwhelmed by a huge mass of calamities, there are few indeed in whom the least spark of faith can be discerned. Others understand the word faith to denote uprightness, but the former meaning is more agreeable to the context.”

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) on the great comfort to be found in Christ’s Gethsemane prayer

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“The godly may take great comfort in this, that Christ has as their high priest offered up such strong cries to God. You that have good evidence of your being believers in Christ, and his true followers and servants, may comfort yourselves in this, that Christ Jesus is your high priest, that that blood, which Christ shed in his agony, fell down to the ground for you, and that those earnest cries were sent up to God for you, for the success of his labours and sufferings in all that good you stood in need of in this world, and in your everlasting happiness in the world to come. This may be a comfort to you in all losses, and under all difficulties, that you may encourage your faith, and strengthen your hope, and cause you greatly to rejoice. If you were under any remarkable difficulties, it would be a great comfort to you to have the prayers of some man that you looked upon to be a man of eminent piety, and one that had a great interest at the throne of grace, and especially if you knew that he was very earnest and greatly engaged in prayer for you. But how much more may you be comforted in it, that you have an interest in the prayers and cries of the only-begotten and infinitely worthy Son of God, and that he was so earnest in his prayers for you, as you have heard!”

– Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Christ’s Agony (Sermon on Luke 22:44)

Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) on the effect of intercessory prayer

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“There was once in a village, where there had been a revival in religion, a man who was a confirmed infidel. Notwithstanding all the efforts of the minister and many Christian people, he had resisted all attempts, and appeared to be more and more confirmed in his sin. At length the people held a prayer meeting specially to intercede for his soul. Afterwards God put it into the heart of one of the elders of the church to spend a night in prayer in behalf of the poor infidel. In the morning the elder rose from his knees, saddled his horse, and rode down to the man’s smithy. He meant to say a great deal to him, but he simply went up to him, took him by the hand, and all he could say was, “O sir! I am deeply concerned for your salvation. I am deeply concerned for your salvation. I have been wrestling with God all this night for your salvation.” He could say no more, his heart was too full. He then mounted on his horse and rode away again. Down went the blacksmith’s hammer, and he went immediately to see his wife. She said, “What is the matter with you?” “Matter enough,” said the man, “I have been attacked with a new argument this time. There is elder B_______ has been here this morning; and he said,” I am concerned about your salvation.’ Why, now, if he is concerned about my salvation, it is a strange thing that I am not concerned about it.” The man’s heart was clean captured by that kind word from the elder; he took his own horse and rode to the elder’s house. When he arrived there the elder was in his parlor, still in prayer, and they knelt down together. God gave him a contrite spirit and a broken heart, and brought that poor sinner to the feet of the Saviour.”

– Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), Conversion, Sermon 45

Johann Habermann (1516-1590): Prayer of a School Child for the Holy Spirit

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Johann Habermann (1516-1590), praised by his contemporaries as a talented Old Testament exegete, joined the Lutheran church in 1540. In 1565, Habermann published his most important work, Christliche Gebet für alle Not und Stende der gantzen Christenheit, known in English as Morning and Evening Prayers for All Days of the Week, a prayer-book that assigned prayers for various Christian needs to each day of the week. Within fifteen years after its publication, the book had become widely circulated in Protestant circles, and was available in Latin, English, and French translations. Many contemporary Protestant prayer-books still include some adapted versions of Habermann’s prayers. The prayer below is for meant for school children, but I reckon it is also very appropriate (with slight alteration) for older students and scholars:

Prayer of a School Child for the Holy Spirit.

O my dear Lord, Jesus Christ, I thank Thee, that to the present day, Thou ordainest church and school ordinances and regulations, and hast given unto my parents and me grace, that I too may be thus trained. I beseech Thee, fill me with Thy Holy Spirit, that I may ever obey my dear parents and teachers, who only seek my welfare. Give unto me a docile heart, that I may learn my catechism, noble arts and language, and thus increase in godliness, wisdom, understanding, and every virtue. O my dear Lord Jesus Christ, create in me a pure, chaste, and modest heart. May I ever serve Thee in upright faith and true fear, and love Thee from all my heart. Subdue in me all evil lusts. Endow me with Thy Holy Spirit. Help me to continue in true humility. Grant me an obedient heart, to honor my parents according to Thy commandment, and neither anger nor grieve them. May they live long on this earth, and protect Thou and preserve them from disease, evil, and harm. Be gracious unto us and merciful. Bless us in body and soul, now and forevermore. Amen.

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556): Prayer for a grasp of the Scriptures

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Most people who grew up in Afrikaans churches (not only the Dutch Reformed Church) are familiar with the song:

Lees jou Bybel; bid elke dag, bid elke dag, bid elke dag,

Lees jou Bybel; bid elke dag

En jy sal groei, groei, groei

Translated into English as:

Read your Bible; pray every day, pray every day, pray every day

Read your Bible; pray every day

And you will grow, grow, grow

While this is the simplest of songs and is taught to small children, it contains two of the most essential elements of the Christian life: the daily studying of Scripture and prayer. The English Reformer Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) combines these two in a prayer for a grasp of the Scriptures, or alternatively, for Scripture’s grasp on us:

“Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our saviour Jesus Christ.”

– Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), Collects, Second Sunday in Advent

For Cranmer, the touchstone or reference point for wisdom is “all holy Scriptures.” He prays that we would not only hear the Scriptures as words, but “inwardly digest” them as the Word by which we may be comforted (i.e. strengthened). Cranmer views the Bible as providing both the grounds for our patience and the fuel for our strengthening. Such patience and strengthening are able to take us by the instrumentality of hope right up to the threshold of our present lives. After we cross this threshold, we shall receive the “everlasting life” promised in the last phrase. Cranmer invites us to love the Bible and learn it, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the cause for which it was written: our patience and our comfort.

Our prayers and God’s covenantal promises

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By Jake Griesel

John Calvin regarded the command to pray and God’s promises as the two pillars of prayer (cf. Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xx.13-14).  In this regard he points inter alia to Matt. 7:7 “Ask (command) and it shall be given you (promise)” Here Christ teaches us, says Calvin, not only what we are supposed to do (pray) but also promises us that our prayers are never in vain. God’s promises grant us great assurance in our prayer lives.

Our prayers and the lesson from the Psalms

If we want to learn how to pray, we must inter alia go to the Psalms. The Psalms have been called the “school of prayer.” In the Psalms we find ourselves in the inner room (Matt. 6:6) of the Old Covenant. There we see how believers in the Old Covenant prayed in their inner rooms. But that is not all. We must especially remember that the prayers in the Psalms were not merely human prayers, but were inspired by the Holy Spirit, who after all inspired the Holy Scriptures and therefore also the Psalmist’s prayers, whether it be David or someone else. Therefore spending time in the Psalms means that we find ourselves in the Holy Spirit’s “school of prayer.” He is the One who teaches us to pray in the Psalms. One thing about the Psalms is especially noteworthy here: the role which God’s covenant plays therein. The poets sang about God’s covenant; they rejoiced in it. Just think of Psalm 105:8 He hath remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations. And this we find also in the prayers of the Psalms. When the Psalmists prayed, they did not pray aimlessly, but appealed to what the LORD had promised in his covenant. To give one example, Asaph prayed in Psalm 74:20, “Have respect unto the covenant., thereby making an appeal to God’s covenant. Many other prayers in the Psalms, though not necessarily containing the word “covenant” (Heb: berith), nonetheless also allude to God’s covenantal promises, such as in Psalm 88:11 where the sons of Korah prayed: Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?”, or in Psalm 143:1 where David prayed: “Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications: in thy faithfulness answer me, and in thy righteousness.” The Psalmists knew that they could depend on God’s promises and faithfulness. The believer’s plea is never in vain when founded upon God’s promises. The LORD is faithful and will perform that which he has promised.

Our prayers and the baptismal form of our church

Now we must connect the instruction in the Psalms to ourselves in our day. We are, after all, also children of the covenant/promise (Gal. 3:29; 4:28). The Lord has indeed also made his covenant with us. He has given us a great treasury of promises. We not only may, but indeed should also appeal to these promises, being assured that God will hearken unto us when we appeal to what he has promised.

In this regard I’d like to refer to the baptismal form of our church – the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (Afrikaans: Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk). In our baptismal form, we find a summary of what God has promised us, which is linked to the Trinitarian formula in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost(Matt. 28:19). These promises are discussed below:

Promise #1: Dat Hy ons Vader is wat ons liefhet en vir ons sorg (That He is our Father who loves us and cares/provides for us)

We were baptized in the Name of the Father. As our Father, He desires to provide us with all good things and avert evil or work it together for our good (Rom. 8:38). We should therefore not doubt when we pray that God will provide for us – He promised to do this, and his faithfulness and promises never fail. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea (Psalm 46:2). When we therefore pray for his Paternal care and protection, we may know without doubt that our lives are in the omnipotent hands of our heavenly Father who loves us. This does not mean that no evil (illness, loss, etc.) will cross our paths. The Lord has nowhere promised this to us. What we can indeed know, however, is that we never face our trials and tribulations without our heavenly Father’s providential care and that he will ultimately work all of these to our good. This he does indeed promise (again, Rom. 8:38), and this promise certainly is an uninterrupted fountain of comfort to us believers while we dwell as pilgrims in this world.

Promise #2: Dat Jesus Christus ons Verlosser is (That Jesus Christ is our Redeemer)

Our forgiveness is also no dubious matter, because when we were baptized in the Name of the Son, God thereby promised that it is his will to wash us clean of our sins in the precious blood of his Son. Children of God often struggle with doubt: “Will God ever forgive me for this great sin which I have committed?” But we ought not to stand with eyes fixed on the greatness of our sins, but rather to fix our eyes firmly on the greatness of God’s faithfulness which he has promised us in Jesus Christ. As John Newton once said, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour”. As great as our sins may be, Christ is an infinitely greater Saviour.

Promise #3: Dat die Heilige Gees in ons woon, van ons nuwe mense maak en ons lei (That the Holy Spirit dwells in us, makes new people out of us and leads us)

When we were baptized in the Name of the Holy Spirit, God promised to ingraft us into Christ by his Holy Spirit, and grant us faith, repentance, sanctification and obedience by his Holy Spirit. If we then struggle with a certain sin or wavering faith, we do not therefore have to doubt that God will grant us his Holy Spirit if we ask him in prayer. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matt. 7:7).

Christ and assurance in our prayers

Why is it so certain that the Lord will perform that which he has promised? Why can we pray with so much confidence regarding the Lord and his promises? Is it because any merit we may have which secures these promises? Certainly not. No, if we look to ourselves, we look to corruption, severe fallibility and, ultimately, a hopeless cul-de-sac. We then immediately abrogate all of God’s promises. We can then not depend on any of his promises. When we look to ourselves, therefore, the deepest sense of doubt and despair overcomes us. But “all the promises of God in him [Christ] are yea, and in him Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20); these promises are true and sure and fixed not because of us, but because of Jesus Christ, and in him. That is why, whenever we pray, we pray in Jesus’ Name.

Prayer and faith in God’s promises

The Lord promises us great and amazing things in his covenant, but this covenant also demands our response: We must repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). Whoever does not do this, also does not receive the fulfilment of God’s promises. The same counts for our prayers: we must pray in faith, otherwise we will not receive, as James so clearly teaches us (1:6-7). Many believers struggle with doubt and wavering faith. But this also we may confess to the Lord and pray for faith. And then there is no need for any doubt: he will grant us faith according to his promise. After all, faith itself is a gift from God, and is not of ourselves (Eph. 2:8). God’s covenant does include a condition that needs to be fulfilled from our side, but this condition is granted us and fulfilled by God on our behalf, by the granting of faith and repentance through the Holy Spirit – not only in regeneration, but also in sanctification and perseverance. Therefore we can say with Augustine:

Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis“Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt” (Augustine, Confessions, X.29).

Philip Ryken: The effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on their length

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When I became a Christian I heard many godly men exhort me to spend long periods in prayer. Some recommended waking up early to pray, and for some time when I stayed in the hostel on the university campus I used to do exactly this with a small group of other young men – every Wednesday morning we all prayed together early in the morning for about an hour. I’ve also read many accounts of great Christians who have spent hours upon hours in prayer – which has no doubt benefited Christ’s church. As wonderful and beneficial as longer prayers are, I think we have to be careful when it comes to this topic. We’ve always got to remember not to judge prayers based on how long they are. The essence of true prayer is a believing heart calling upon the Father through Christ by the Holy Spirit (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 45). In fact, Jesus told us not to heap up empty phrases when we pray, thinking that we will be heard for our many words (Matt. 6:7). And the pattern for prayer that he gave us is pretty short (Matt. 6:9-13). In this regard, I appreciate how Philip Ryken discussed this in his book When You Pray:

“Knowing God as Father means…you can keep prayer simple. When children need something from their fathers, they do not hire a lawyer, draft a formal petition, or get down on their knees, they just ask. That is why Christian prayers are straightforward. The prayers of pagans tend to be overly complicated, but when Christians pray, they pray to their Father.”

“As a general rule, the prayers of God’s children are short and sweet. Martin Luther (1483-1546) once said, ‘Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning…Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan.’ Indeed, one of the striking things about most biblical prayers is their brevity. It is hard to find a prayer anywhere in the Bible that when read aloud would be more than five minutes long.”

“Some Christians measure spirituality by the amount of time a person prays. True, there is plenty of teaching in Scripture about being devoted to the life of prayer. Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and the apostle Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). However, the effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on the length of our prayers.”

“God does not need any lengthy explanations. If you find that your prayer life is too weak, is it possibly that you are trying to make things too complicated? Our prayers must be fervent, of course, and they ought to be frequent, but they do not need to be fancy.”

– Philip Ryken, When You Pray, p. 30-31

God’s people all have different personalities and temperaments. Some can pray for hours on end with great fervency. Others pray short fervent prayers throughout the day. The point is that we pray often, from the heart, to our Father in heaven. The saint that prays for hours is not more spiritual than the saint that prays frequent, brief, heart-felt prayers.