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The Priority of Prayer: John Calvin Sermon

Author
Category Book Excerpts
Date September 4, 2023

Above all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, supplications and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and for those appointed to high office, so that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, in all godliness and decency.

(1 Timothy 2:1-2)

As long as we are busy doing good, the devil has less opportunity to draw us into his nets since he does not find us unoccupied. On the other hand those who indulge in idle fantasies are vulnerable to Satan, who is able to carry them this way and that with ease. That is why we see so much error in the world, and why so many fall victim to false and evil teaching. By nature we are inclined to vanity and we happily indulge this vice. Satan is thus much freer to draw us after him, so that we often notice that people who begin well not only turn back and retreat but become mortal enemies of God and of religion. Accordingly Paul now urges Timothy to make sure that the faithful strive with all their might to pray to God not only for themselves and for the church but for all mankind. Earlier he had spoken of many who were given to pointless curiosities from which no benefit could be had. Here, then, he provides a sure and appropriate remedy to shut the door to Satan: we are to think of those practices which meet with God’s approval.

Prayer is the first and foremost exercise expected of God’s children. It is by prayer that we test the genuineness of our faith, when we turn to our God and call upon his name, and when we do not think only about ourselves and our concerns but generally include all who are joined to us and who are in one way or another close to us. God has established the bond of unity between all men, so that they should acknowledge each other as brothers or else as neighbours. So in our prayers this is the practice we should follow: our prayers should not be concentrated only on ourselves or on our acquaintances; our love and concern should extend to everyone, whether great or small, whether intimate friends or strangers. Of course nothing stops us respecting those relationships which Scripture itself commends to us. If we want to pray to God for all men, we must begin with those who are united with us in faith and in obedience to the gospel, for they are members, so to speak, of God’s household. Nevertheless in our prayers for the faithful we should feel compassion and pity for helpless unbelievers who continue to walk in error and ignorance. We should entreat God to draw them to us, so that together we may be of the same mind. Such is Paul’s purpose in this passage—to show that God’s children should not spend their time in useless and unprofitable labours but should call on God that he might have a care for the salvation of all. Morning and evening this ought to be our task. The door will thus be shut to Satan. He will not be able to deceive men or to lead them into wicked and futile speculations. We have now to consider Paul’s words in detail: Before all else I urge that petitions, requests and prayers be made, and thanksgivings offered to God. In saying ‘before all else’ he emphasizes that we must have a special regard for prayer. These are words worth weighing.

As I have said, those who pray to God in a cold and careless way show that they have no faith, for it is here that faith proves itself. The true test of whether we have profited from the gospel is this: whether we are fervent in praying to God and have a compelling desire to pray night and day. The person who says that he trusts God and believes the gospel but who has no interest in prayer proves that he is a scoffer and a hypocrite. If we accept God’s promises and are certain of what he tells us, we will surely seek him out, for he undertakes to be our Father and Saviour, invites us to come to him and stretches forth his hand. All he asks is that, having been called to the knowledge of his truth, we beg him to fulfil the things which we hope to have from him. Those, therefore,whose mouth is closed and who are mindless or indifferent, show clearly that they have never savoured God’s promises. It is with good cause that Paul puts prayers and supplications ahead of everything else in God’s church. His point is that these must be our main preoccupation. That, then, is one lesson. Consider, however, what kind of Christianity we have. We see very few who strive in prayer to God. If we pray, it is done simply as a duty, for form’s sake. In short, it is like a performance devoid of any effectiveness or zeal. And if we are cool about prayers in public, think of what it is like when each of us is at home and in private! Since we have progressed so little in the practice of prayer to God, it should be obvious that we have not yet grasped the power of the gospel, that we possess scarcely one drop of faith and, even worse, that as far as we are able we smother what little light we have received. So let this be an incentive which helps us to pray, and may we go about it with more enthusiasm than we have so far shown. That is what Paul is urging us to do. In mentioning ‘petitions, supplications and prayers’, he means to emphasize a particularly important point. He could have said, more briefly, ‘Let prayer be offered and requests made.’ However, not content with one word only he uses three whose sense is the same. When Paul stresses an idea he seeks to impress it on us and to touch us more closely, as if to wake us up because we have grown much too sleepy.

We learn then from this passage not to relax too soon in the matter of prayer to God. We imagine that it is enough if we lift up our minds for a minute of our time. We should be more disciplined, and if we feel our thoughts wandering we should act so as to take ourselves captive. This is something we must train ourselves to do, for Paul thrice reins us in, as it were, in order to hold us down. ‘Pray to God!’ he says. How then shall we pray? He knows that we are always straying to one side or another. ‘Come back,’ he cries, ‘make known your requests!’ Then, perceiving that we are so erratic and that it is not enough to have said the same thing twice, he applies the reins a third time: ‘Make your prayers!’ Note that the Holy Spirit, speaking by the mouth of Paul, here remedies our frivolity, because he sees that we are hardly ever constant in prayer, and that when we do pray almost anything will distract us, for it is hard for us to be as firm and steadfast as we should be. Thus the apostle tells us to concentrate on prayer and to give ourselves strenuously to prayer and supplication, not only for ourselves and our own affairs but for the whole church and for everyone in general.

We turn now to those for whom Paul says we ought to pray: for all men, for kings and for those who are highly placed and in authority. When he bids us pray for all men, he means us to show love one to another, asking God to be merciful to all and to gather us together into the heavenly inheritance, for he has made and fashioned us in his own image. We must, I repeat, pray earnestly first of all for God’s church, and because we are joined to one another God allows and indeed commands us to feel all the more concern for each other. What other purpose does our common brotherhood serve? Paul naturally has no wish to do away with the close relationships which Scripture everywhere commends. Still, his meaning is that we should not only pray for the faithful who already have fellowship with us, but for all who are far off—for unhappy unbelievers. Although they seem distant and separated from us by a thick wall, we must feel pity that they are lost and should entreat God to draw them to himself.

Since this is so we must see how wicked it is if each of us seeks only his own profit and has no care or regard for his fellow-men. Our Lord did not create an infinite number of worlds in which we should each dwell apart, living for ourselves and for our personal advantage. He made us to be together, one with another. He intended us to live together, and therefore bound us to each other, reminding us that we must share with our neighbours. That was why he created us with the same nature. When I look at someone I am meant to discern my image in him, seeing myself in his person and recognizing myself in him. Even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that God’s image is impressed on every human being. So if we honour and reverence God in any way at all, we cannot scorn his image which is engraved on all men. We must remember what Scripture says: ‘No one hates his own flesh’ (Eph. 5:29). That would be monstrous, contrary to human nature. Now the word ‘flesh’ applies to all of us, both great and small, and to those who are furthest removed from us, just as the prophet Isaiah says (Isa. 58:7). God has brought us together on the condition that we each help our neighbour to the best of our ability and as our means allow.

This ought to be clear from the prayers we make to God, for this is the best way we can assist those who need our help. If I intend to serve those to whom God has bound me, I must of course consider the means I have to hand and I must act as the opportunity arises. Nevertheless the greatest good which we can do for men is to pray to God for them and to ask him for their salvation. It is precisely here that Paul bids all believers demonstrate their love. And if our concern must extend to unbelievers who have no common bond with us, what must we do for those who bear the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who share in the same baptism and who are members of the church? What thought should we give to them? If we are rebuked for forgetting or despising unbelievers and those outside Christ’s flock, what shall we say of those whom God explicitly commands us to love? Such is the duty which this text lays on us. We are to have a special regard for all who bear the name of Jesus Christ, to love them as brothers and to be joined and united with them. Otherwise we do not deserve to be reckoned by God as his children. For when we rend the body of Jesus Christ, what part and portion can we claim of that immortal heritage to which we are called? Do we not see that, if we are members of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, God has adopted us as his children, but only as we are joined to each other by brotherly love? If I separate myself from those whom God wills to be his, I do all I can to break apart the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I banish myself from the kingdom of heaven.

This is a truth which we all too often overlook, as we know from experience. Where is that unity among us which God has hallowed and which we should consider sacrosanct? Today we talk only of devouring one another. We fight like cats and dogs. Far from remembering that we are members of our Lord Jesus Christ, we act as if kindness had ceased to exist among us. Where do we find the honesty and sense of justice which are expected of us? Where is the compassion and sympathy we should show in helping one another? We see none of it, for we seem to have conspired to destroy the entire order which God has willed for us. Instead of caring for our brothers, endeavouring to do them good and ensuring their safety and well-being, we only want to bring them down and contrive their ruin. Can we not see that by doing this we profane God’s name, and that though we boast of being Christians we are nothing of the kind? We should thus be even more careful to heed Paul’s appeal that we pray for all men.

We ought also to pity the poor souls who are wandering to their doom, however undeserving they may be, however hostile to the church and however remote from us. May we be more mindful of these things than we have been in the past. The apostle, having urged us to make requests for all men, adds that we should particularly pray for kings and for those in high office. Here he stresses something which I have already said, that since God would have us serve each other, this must be our guiding thought, so that it becomes a spur to further action. If it is true that, through the agency of rulers, magistrates and government, we receive singular—I might even say, unimaginable—blessings from God, rulers are rightly commended to us and we should put them ahead of everyone else. That is what Paul means. Accordingly he briefly spells out the benefits which come to us from the civil order which God has established in the world: first, that we live in peace and tranquillity; second, that God is served and honoured; third, that men lead decent lives, so that being constrained by fear they avoid all excess and disorder.

Now Paul might have said much more, but the fact is that he has omitted nothing important in briefly sketching the advantages which we derive from earthly governments and from those appointed to run them. We should recognize, however, that in his own day he had a special reason for commending magistrates: all of them were enemies of the gospel who persecuted hapless Christians. They were murderers and godless men, bitter opponents, in a word, of true and pure religion. Believers might have thought that to pray for such as these made no sense. ‘What? You want me to pray for enemies of the truth who want to stamp out the gospel and all memory of our Lord Jesus Christ? For those who cruelly kill believers? It’s as if I were to wish a deadly plague on the church of God!’ Yet Paul makes it clear that this should not stop us praying for all magistrates. Why? We are not to consider their persons, whether they themselves today are faithful to their duty. We must rather think of the order willed by God. It can never be broken because of the malice of men; it cannot be completely abolished without some trace surviving. So although those who are in authority and who wield the sword of justice may behave badly, although they may commit injustice after injustice and wreak worse havoc than those who have no such office and responsibility, and although they may even be sworn enemies of God, we must nevertheless acknowledge that God has set up kingdoms, principalities and the seat of justice so that we may live peaceably in his fear and may lead decent lives. This, I say, cannot be swept away by
the wickedness of men.

We do indeed see that when tyrants reign, dreadful evils abound. Yet even this is more tolerable than if there were no order at all! Supposing we weigh on one side of the scales one tyrant, or many, who behave most brutally, robbing one man and killing another, and who commit many other heinous crimes in the name of justice; and on the other side let us put a people who have no leader, no magistrate or anyone in authority, a people where all are equal. We can be sure that there would be much greater and more terrible confusion when no one was supreme than if the worst possible tyranny prevailed. Why should that be? Because although ferocious devils might occupy the seat of justice and do all kinds of mischief, God does not permit them to overturn all justice: some vestige of good remains.

However, when we pray for those in high office, we do not do so for this reason alone. We pray in order that God may use them to help us enjoy the good things mentioned in our text. And when justice is abused, when theft and extortion occur and when instead of equity and decency, partiality, hatred and other such things flourish—well, we have to think about our sins, for all this is their fruit. God is paying us back with the coin we deserve. If we were worthy of living under his rule, it is certain that he would choose good authorities for us who would faithfully fulfil his commands. But since we are intractable and will not have him to rule over us, and since we are so incensed against him that we only want to throw off his yoke, he withdraws from us and remains aloof. At the same time he gives us the magistrates we deserve. If we know this we should first sigh and groan and bow our heads, for we are being punished for our sins. Then we should call upon God that he might raise up such magistrates as will restore justice among us, so that we may serve and worship him with one accord, may see an end to all unruly, base and evil conduct, may know peace and concord and no longer be like wild beasts. This is how we are to pray for magistrates and for all in authority. We pray, then, for magistrates in the same way as we are asked to intercede for all men generally. For if we see rulers who mistreat their subjects, who overturn the purity of the gospel, who are intent on trampling everything down and who have no time for religion, we should feel pity and compassion for those who, under them, suffer such distress. Thus the requests we make for kings and rulers are not simply for those who govern us. We must remember not only those under whom we live, but must pray for all who exercise rule. Note, however, that if we are to pray
for those who are unknown to us and who do not control our lives, how much more should we pray for those who protect us, to whom we owe obedience and whom God has placed over us!

We are to submit to them, as Scripture says (Rom. 13:1-6; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-15). It is true that we must give first place in our prayers to the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has priority over all principalities on earth, not only because his rule is supreme and because all loftiness and power must bow to it, but because it is the key to our ultimate happiness and deliverance. Nevertheless, since all the principalities on earth are like an image and symbol of Christ’s kingdom, we should cherish them and ask God to preserve and prosper them. (I am speaking more particularly of lawful kingdoms.) When each of us lives under a ruler or magistrate in a free city, he is to remember them in his prayers to God. Yet there is more. Let those who are ruled by tyrants pray especially for them, since they hold power and occupy the seat of justice. Why do I say that? ‘Pray to God for Babylon,’ says the prophet Jeremiah, ‘for in its peace you too have peace’ (Jer. 29:7). Here we see the Jews who had been carried off to Babylon—not that the Babylonians had any rights over them, but because God, for a time, had chosen to afflict them. So because God had allowed the Babylonians to rule over the Jews, they had to pray for the king and for the government of his realm. It is therefore clear what we must do when we have Christian magistrates who protect religion, the social order and the rule of justice. How much more fervent should we be in
commending them to God!

This is the pattern which we need to follow. We should recognize overall that, because God ordained government in this world, we must value it, which is why we pray for those who are our leaders and in authority. But let each of us pray for his own ruler or magistrates according to the order which prevails, having a special regard for them. Then if, thanks to the magistrates who govern us, religion grows and thrives, let God be honoured and served as is only right. Let there be calm and tranquillity. Let us realize that in this way God gives us further cause to pray that he might maintain this order and not allow it to decay, much less to perish, but that instead it might increase and go from strength to strength. This is what Paul had in mind when he bade us pray for those in authority.

Observe again what was said before: Paul sets before us the benefits which God liberally confers on us by the hand of magistrates, so that we feel all the more goodwill toward them. For we know just how proud we are until God tames us by his Holy Spirit and teaches us the meaning of humility. We would all love to be king over everyone else, and there is no one who does not believe that he deserves to be first before all others. So although we are persuaded that we cannot do without some sort of government, we cannot submit unless God presses us hard and forces us to see sense. Most people, admittedly, know that they are not capable of being rulers, and so they tolerate government. Yet they do not do so cheerfully unless God has taught them—for this is Paul’s point—that he has freely chosen those who rule us as ministers of his goodness, and that he is pleased to govern by their hand. Since God must be our head, he chooses whomever he wills, so that the responsibilities they exercise are his. If we are convinced of this we will willingly submit to the justice of those who rule; but until we concede this truth we will always be unmanageable.

Paul thus confronts us with the fact that thanks to those who govern us we may live together in peace and harmony, honestly and with godly fear. That is one point. So it is a terrible pestilence when men attempt to change things round and to overthrow the civil order. Such people must be mad: the devil has bewitched them. In our own time that is what some have tried to do. Under the pretext of Christianity they have sought to do away with all government in this world. They pretended of course to be spiritual men, but they were devils who were out to corrupt the whole human race, and to create such chaos that it would have been better for men to become brute beasts or werewolves than to suffer such confusion! They claim that our Lord Jesus Christ has renewed the world, and that his kingdom is spiritual, that there is no need for the spiritual sword, that force and coercion should no longer be used, and so on.* Can this be right? When it is said that Jesus Christ came to renew the world, is this renewal finished and completed in one day? Far from it! To grow in newness of life is the work of a lifetime. Jesus Christ indeed undertakes, as Scripture says, to make us new creatures (Isa. 65:17; 2 Cor. 5:17). Still, we are partly in thrall to our old skin, so that much of the old nature remains in us. Until, therefore, we are like the angels in paradise, we need some kind of order and restraint to keep us under control, until we are fully remade in the image of God. Paul teaches that we are to obey magistrates not only out of fear of punishment, since they have the sword in their hand, but because they are ministers of God’s grace whom we ought to honour and love. And if we reject them or speak ill of them, it is a wrong we do to God himself and not to mortal men. It is also proof of our ingratitude. Thus in the thirteenth chapter of Romans the apostle writes: ‘Whoever despises authority is a rebel against God’ (Rom. 13:2). Why? Because it is no accident that men now rule and that lords command as we see them do today; it is the mark of God’s providence. Hence we are to submit to magistrates, not for wrath’s sake but for the sake of conscience. We are doubly liable, however, in the sense that we are even worse rebels against God, and our ingratitude is all the more vile, if we do not obey good and faithful magistrates through whom God imparts his gifts to us. Our life would be worse than brutish if there was neither government nor authority over us. Notice, in conclusion, that Paul’s remarks cover everything that serves to preserve humankind. These things are singled out: ‘peace, religion and decency’. By peace he means to show that although men have the same nature, they could not manage unless there was something to rein them in. Wolves recognize each other in the forests and woods, as do the other wild animals. But our nature is so twisted that although we are created in God’s image, if God did not keep us in check we could scarcely tolerate our fellow-men for a single day! Clearly this is not something of which we are always aware, but, all things considered, we must admit that it is just as Paul says.

In the second place there is something even more deserving of our reverence and respect: godliness, when magistrates are committed to defending true religion. That, alas, is a duty not much practised nowadays, for those who now rule, instead of upholding God’s honour, suppress it and trample it underfoot. Yet it is the responsibility of rulers and magistrates to see that God is honoured and worshipped. Even the heathen knew this, blind wretches though they were, despite the fact that they replaced God’s proper worship with many evil superstitions and idolatries. Nevertheless they held it to be an evident and universal rule that some system of justice was needed to ensure that God was duly served. Since God has greatly honoured magistrates this way, let us not be slow for our part to render them the service which is asked of us, by obeying them and thus acknowledging the debt we owe them. The third thing which Paul mentions is decency. The word also has the sense of sobriety, signifying that the task of magistrates is to take due care that men do not become dissolute.** Unless they are watchful the distinction between right and wrong will vanish. None will blush at the evil they do and everything will go to the dogs. In short, men will forget their real nature unless the Lord by the hand of magistrates bestows his good gift on us. This should encourage us all the more to pray that he may preserve the civil order which he has established among us, and that, by his Holy Spirit, he may govern those whom he has placed in the seat of justice.

May he so guide them in all goodness and integrity as to show that he is master over them, and through them, over us, so that we in turn may honour and serve him with one accord. May his hand be continually stretched out to protect us, so that we may be kept in perfect peace as we submit to those who lead us. And may we look to that eternal kingdom which he has prepared for us, and which has been won for us by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now may we cast ourselves down before the face of our good God, acknowledging our faults and beseeching him to make us feel them all the more, so that, being ashamed of ourselves, we may turn to him, entreating his mercy and pardon for the many wrongs which we have done. May he be pleased from this time forth to correct all our trespasses and sins, to the end that we may seek to glorify his holy name and to shut the mouths of all who speak and do evil. And may each of us maintain peace and concord with his neighbour, so that we may live together in brotherly unity to serve the glory of our great God, in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

*The preacher may possibly have an attitude such as Castellio’s in mind, but a more likely target is the Anabaptists, who were required to renounce everything which lay outside ‘the perfection of Christ’, including recourse to the law, the swearing of oaths, the use of force and the exercise of temporal power. Cf. the following sermon, where Calvin argues that the exercise of political and judicial power is a valid Christian calling, without which civil society could not exist.

**The Greek text has semnotes, ‘gravity, dignified seriousness’: proper conduct befitting the godly.

 

 

This sermon was excerpted from John Calvin, Sermons on 1 Timothy, translated by Robert White. You can buy the book here.

Featured Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash.

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