By Clyde Manschreck, Professor of History, Duke University
The most conspicuous aspect of the prayers of the
early Protestant reformers from 1520 to1575 is a confident trust
in God's providence: God is master of history. This trust is stronger
than the belief that ultimately God will prevail; the reformers
were convinced of the active participation of God in affairs of
Martin Luther believed that he was an instrument in the hands of
god, and this imbued his life with a fearlessness such as history
has seldom witnessed. Trusting in God for guidance and strength,
he defied the pope and hostile secular authorities, burned the papal
bull that condemned him, hurled a sack of biblical promises before
the Lord when his closest friend Melanchthon appeared about to die,
and at Worms said: "Here I stand, God help me; I cannot do
otherwise." Luther once pictured himself as the ace trump which
the Lord was holding in a game of cards with the pope. This was
not an exaltation of himself but a statement of his trust in divine
direction. This conviction is clearly visible in every prayer.
The same aspect is seen again and again in the prayers of John Calvin,
Philip Melanchthon, and the English reformers--so much so, for example,
that Calvin's great doctrines of sovereignty and election have sometimes
been interpreted as determinism. Calvin believed that plagues, wars,
famines, and other distresses were the work of God, either to punish
us for sin or to teach us through chastisement the ways of righteousness.
That we may not harden our hearts in these sufferings but turn with
true repentance and obedience to God is a constant note in the prayers
of Calvin. This belief in God's direct participation in this world's
affairs is also that of Melanchthon and of the English reformers.
Their belief represents a broadening of the meaning of the first
part of the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in God the Father Almighty"¾for
"Father" meant Author, Creator, and Maker; and "Almighty"
meant all-controlling and all-governing as well as all-powerful.
Indeed, the Creed was often used as a prayer, a practice which Melanchthon
For sheer liturgical beauty and biblical conformity the prayers
of the English reformers can hardly be equaled. Thomas Cranmer,
Nicholas Ridley, Myles Coverdale, and many others who were influenced
by the continental reformers, have left us a legacy of public and
private prayers that have inspired trust throughout the world, for
much of their work was embodied in the English Book of Common Prayer.
Cranmer and Ridley sealed their invocations by giving their lives
at the stake; Coverdale did much of his work in exile and lived
though turbulent times to see the fruit of his Bible translations.
Theirs was a trust in God upon which they wagered all they had.
Such belief in the providence of God gave the reformers an unusual
dimension of life, a sense of history, and a feeling for the unreachable
height and depth of God's care which is evident in their lives.
In the twentieth century such trust may seem unsophisticated, but
it is an interpretation of God's hand in history that inspired their
prayers to profundity and assurance. They did not countenance the
nebulous belief that men, or chance or a chain of causes might be
the motivating force of history. The reformers did not pretend to
understand everything about God's providence, but even the mystery
of what they did not know was a means of glorifying God. With a
trust that even death could not break, for the bonds of death had
been shattered in Christ's resurrection, the reformers laid before
God their every need. They did not believe all their petitions would
be answered as they wished, but they prayed in trust that God would
exceed their expectations and give what in his infinite wisdom and
loving care would be best for them.
While this trust in the providence of God is basic in the reformers'
prayer-life, there are elements in their prayers which speak eloquently
of their relationship to God. Luther's prayers reflect a warmth,
beauty, and fierceness that remind one of Jeremiah, the psalmists,
and Elijah. The background of Luther's struggle for salvation by
faith alone, of his Tower experience in which he knew that his sins
where forgiven not for what he had done but for the sake Christ,
is a part of every invocation. It breaks through as the theme of
a symphony breaks through the orchestral variations to give form
to the entire piece.
For Luther prayer depends on the Word of God. Without this revelation
man does not know what God has done in Christ; without the Word,
by which the Holy Spirit illumines the heart of man, faith can hardly
be nourished; and without faith, there can be no prayer. Using the
word as his standard, Luther retained or rejected many of the ancient
prayers and other liturgical forms of the church. If a form was
true to the Word of God, then it could be freely used.
Luther was in this the reformer who wanted to purify and cleanse,
rather than revolutionize and innovate. He did not crave something
new; he sought only to restore the ancient collects and prayers
to their proper and correct usage. Some of his prayers, and some
of the prayers of the English reformers (for he strongly influenced
them at this point), are very much like those which were used in
the early and medieval church. But they have been carefully edited.
One does not find invocation of the saints, nor injunctions to work
righteousness, nor any suggestion that man's salvation is other
than by faith, for Luther used the Word as his guide, and these
things he did not find in Scripture.
Prayer for Luther is not counting many beads or pages, but fixing
our minds upon some pressing need, desiring it with all earnestness
and exercising such faith that we do not doubt that we shall be
heard. Faith makes our position so acceptable to God that it will
be granted, or something better will be given. "Therefore I
tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it,
and you will" (Mark 11:24). If we bring nothing before God
and desire nothing from him, we engage not in prayer but in mockery.
So, says Luther, speak specifically with God, mention some present
need, command it to his mercy and doubt not that the prayer is heard,
even as he has promised. We cannot prescribe how God shall answer
our prayer, or when or where, but if we believe and trust, our heavenly
Father will not give us a scorpion when we ask for an egg, nor a
stone when we ask for bread (Luke 11:9ff).
If faith is weak and we cannot fully trust, comments Luther, we
are to pray anyway, and in humbly confessing our weakness to God
we will be strengthened more and more. Even the apostles prayed,
"Lord, increase our faith." Rather than despair over our
little faith, we should thank God that he has revealed this to us.
Furthermore, we are to pray without ceasing, not that we must speak
continuously, but that in our attitude and daily living we are to
express our abiding trust in God. We may also feel that we are too
unworthy to pray, but we must remember that God has commanded us
to call upon him and has promised to hear us, not because we are
worth, but because he is gracious, for giving us our iniquities.
We begin prayer not with pride in our works and ourselves but with
faith and trust in God's favor. If our sin is to be cured, we must
not run from god but to him. We would be in a terrible plight if
we felt worthy before God and recognized no need or trouble. God
refuses to hear only those who are unwilling to be in need of is
grace (Treatise on Good Works).
Because of the great depth and turmoil of Luther's spiritual experience,
his prayers pulsate with all the inner emotion and conviction of
one whose sins have been forgiven, whose burden has been lifted
by the mercy of God in Christ. This personal element gives his prayers
freshness and yet an age-old appeal as universal and as strong as
the desire of men to be freed from sin and death. His trust in God's
care rests on faith, and faith rises from the Holy Spirit revealing
God's mercy in Christ.
With all that Luther said about prayer Calvin would agree. Trust,
for example, is so essential to prayer that where it is lacking
there is no divine worship and favor cannot be found with God only
alienation. This trust comes not so much from Calvin's system of
thought runs the fundamental presupposition that God is sovereign.
It gives his prayers a remarkably intellectual ring. Calvin usually
began his lectures with a set prayer and ended them with an extemporaneous
invocation. Yet every single spontaneous prayer fits into his outlook
with an amazing consistency, for each is controlled by the idea
of God's sovereignty. His prayers are heartfelt outpourings of a
man imbued with the Holy Spirit, full of confidence and trust in
the majesty and power of God.
While faith and the Word cannot justly be separated, Calvin centralizes
the Word rather than salvation by faith alone. It was in the Word
that he found sovereignty and faith. For Calvin, as for Luther,
the Word is the only foundation of prayer. "No prayer is genuine
which does not spring from faith, and that comes by the Word of
God" (see Romans 10:17). Calvin adds that "none can invoke
God save those who have been taught by his Word to pray." Mere
reading of the Word is not enough; the Holy Spirit must open the
meaning so that true faith and trust in God can be ours. Without
the Word we cannot know God, and without knowing and trusting him
we cannot pray, for God and God alone is to be invoked.
Although at times we may feel too unworthy to pray, we have the
commands, the promises of God, and Christ as our Mediator "who
opens up a way for us so that we are not at all anxious about obtaining
favor." We ought always to pray in Christ's name, not that
we must specifically say "in the name of Christ," but
rather that we must ask according to the revelation which is made
Calvin considered the Lord's Prayer the model for all invocation.
We may pray with other words, but this is the only right standard
of prayer. This form, prescribed by the Lord himself, tells us all
that it is lawful to desire of him, all that is beneficial to us,
and all that it is necessary to ask.
It would be disappointing if in his theological masterpiece Calvin
did not discuss prayer. But he knew the intimate place of prayer
in the public and private life of every Christian, so he could not
and did not omit a formal discussion of prayer. It will be found
in Book III, Chap. 20, of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.
It is not a section that was added to the Institutes as Calvin revised
and enlarged it over a period of twenty-five years, but one that
was included in the first edition which contained six chapters on
law, faith, prayer, the sacraments, spurious sacraments, and Christian
In his discussion of prayer as the "principal exercise of our
faith and the medium of our daily reception of divine blessings,"
Calvin lays down four major rules which are as applicable today
as they were in the sixteenth century.
First, the heart and mind must be properly composed for entering
the conversation with God. We must apply all our faculties and attention
to it, not allowing our minds to wander. It is an indignity, when
God admits us to his presence, for us to become inattentive and
to take mental excursions. We must rid our minds of all impediments
and concentrate on our conversation with him. If achieving such
composure for conversation with God seems impossible to us in view
of our weakness and sin, we are not to be discouraged, for "God
gives us the Spirit to be the director of our prayers, to suggest
what is right, and to regulate our affections." This does not
mean that we are to wait in indolent supine-ness till he calls our
minds from other engagement and draws us to himself, but rather
that we, recognizing our sloth, may implore the assistance of the
Second, in our supplications we should be conscious of our needs
and ardently expect them to be filled. "God promises that he
will be near to all who call upon him in truth, and declares he
will be found by those who seek him with their whole heart."
In the Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Calvin says that we must
feel our want and misery with grief and anxiety, and burn with an
earnest and vehement desire to obtain God's grace when we come before
him in prayer, for otherwise we do not show proper honor to God.
But our anxiety and misery must not obscure the trust that God shall
hear us and obtain whatever is expedient for us, even as the Scriptures
indicate (Matt. 21:22; Mark 11:24). Prayer is the means whereby
"we penetrate to those riches which are reserved with our heavenly
Father for our use."
Prayer "digs out those treasures which the gospel of the Lord
discovers to our faith." Even though God knows beforehand what
we need and desire, we are still to petition, for by doing so we
acknowledge him as the Author of all that is desired and found useful
by men, and in ourselves nourish our faith through seeing what God
does for us.
Third, in presenting ourselves to God we must renounce every ides
of out own glory, our own merits, and relinquish all confidence
in ourselves, giving all glory entirely to God. Not because we are
righteous are we to pout out our prayers and ask mercy of God, but
because God is merciful and has promised to have mercy upon us.
Our prayer should begin with a supplication for pardon and a humble
confession of guilt. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful
and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness"
(I John 1:9).
Fourth, although prostrated with humility, we should nevertheless
fervently pray with a certain hope of obtaining our requests. God
visits his displeasure upon sin, but this must not deter us or cause
us to seek refuge other than in God, for God is propitious and benevolent
as well as just. Only the prayers that arise from faith and are
founded on an undaunted assurance of hope are acceptable to God.
Calvin continues his discussion with comments on some of the common
difficulties of prayer. If we are indolent and wavering in our decision
to pray, let us remember that God commands us to petition. If we
do not ask God to help us in our extremities, we are defrauding
him of his due honor and denying him to be the Author of all blessings.
If we cannot abide by the rules of prayer and consider that perfection
in prayer is utterly beyond us, then let us remember that no man
is perfect and that God bears with our lisping and pardons our ignorance,
if only we be sincere and humble. None of us are free from doubt
and unbelief, but with God's grace we can push on, correcting ourselves,
striving to surmount obstacles.
To deliver us from shame and fear before majesty of God we have
been given a Mediator, the only Son of God and he is the only way
of access by which we are permitted to approach God. To invoke saints
is to be in idolatry. If we do not have facility of speech, let
us remember that God is not pleased with vain repetitions. He does
not forbid us to pray long and frequently, but we must not feel
that with garrulous loquacity of human persuasion we are influencing
God. Nor are we to continue our supplications to either private
or public occasions. Both are needed. For the sake of fellowship,
we are to pray in public; but since we are ourselves the true temples
of God we must also pray within ourselves.
And finally, we are to persevere in prayer, despite trials, temptations,
suffering, and various kinds of extremities which God may visit
upon us, for we must not abandon the certain hope that God regards
us with favor and will put an end to our present evils. "Without
constant perseverance in prayer, we pray to no purpose.
Philip Melanchthon was one of the most devout men of his day, so
much so that Byron centuries later referred to him in Don Juan as
the "saintly Melanchthon." When the sixteenth-century
woodcut artists sought to suggest the character of the lovable Evangelist
Luke, they drew the unmistakable likeness of Melanchthon. Even those
who took issue with him did not impugn his piety. That this leader
of the Protestant Reformation is no more widely known is not due
to any lack of greatness of thought or of character in Melanchthon
but to a quirk of history which saw him twisted and torn by contending
factions, both of which claimed him in part, but neither of which
could altogether claim the truths he expounded.
Melanchthon's prayers mirror his character and thoughts, more so
than is the case with Luther and Calvin. As Melanchthon addresses
the Searcher of all hearts one sees revealed the heart of Melanchthon.
And one glimpses here the essence of his thought on the church,
the Trinity, the necessity of faith, the ministry, ecumenicity,
sin, and the providence of God.
When Karl Barth said that to be a Christian and to pray are one
and the same, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit is the source of both,
he could not have made a more trenchant statement of Melanchthon's
views of the relation of the Christian to prayer. With an emphasis
on the Holy Spirit and the church, Melanchthon declared that true
prayer can come only from those on whom the Spirit has descended-the
church. Others may attempt to pray, but unless the Spirit is within
them revealing the mercy of God and imbuing them with the assurance
that his mercy is for them, they only mumble.
Melanchthon's emphasis on the Trinity gives his prayers a certain
majesty, stateliness, and universalism that one does not find in
other contemporary prayers, not even in the prayers of Calvin. Melanchthon
characteristically includes in his opening address a supplication
directed to all three persons of the godhead, but because he considered
Father, son, and Holy Spirit equal and co-eternal, he also addressed
only one member of the Trinity. This awareness of the Trinitarian
idea which permeates all of Melanchthon's invocations immediately
stamps his prayers with a flavor of historicity and ecumenicity,
for the Trinity emerged out of the early church and is expressed
in the age-old creeds, and it was one doctrine that both Protestants
and Roman Catholics of the century accepted.
Melanchthon's prayers clearly express the conviction that man is
unable to initiate or to consummate conversion. Were it not for
the Holy Spirit, reconciliation in Christ, the divine gift of faith,
sinful man would be lost in the "mad sea of human errors,"
frustrated, sees a confidence born not of man's seeking God but
of God's seeking man with such love that "he gave his only
begotten Son," and again with such love that "while we
were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Melanchthon's confidence
is not in man but in God, for not because of what we do but "for
Christ's sake the guilt of the one who repents is freely forgiven."
For Christians today one of the puzzling characteristics of Melanhthon's
view of prayer is his injunction to pray for material things, a
belief which he shared divine Creation and Calvin. This is born
of his belief in divine Creation and Providence. "All things
come of God" was for Melanchthon not merely a liturgical response
but a belief that Father gives us both material and spiritual nurture
God and not man is the source of all we have. Not to petition God
and not to thank him for his gifts bestowed would be for Melanchthon
an admission that man thinks he is the source of that which he hews
Melanchthon begins his essay on prayer by saying, "True prayer
must be directed to the God who has revealed himself in his given
Word and in his son Jesus Christ whom he sent into the world."
Since this revelation is impossible without the faith that is engendered
by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit becomes the moving force behind all
true invocation. True prayer does not come from natural reason,
even though natural reason might be aware of God and the promises
of God, can find no personal assurances that prayers are heard.
Without this living relationship, prayer is for Melanchthon nothing
more than empty monologue, psychological introspection, or vain
Every Christian, therefore, should have a prayer which reminds him
of revelation and the promise. This can be best accomplished, says
Melanchthon, if we remember five things:
First, the God we invoke. We must think about the revelation in
Christ, for Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except
through me." In the Word and in the Word alone we behold the
mercy of the God who loved so much that he sent his only-begotten
Second, the command to pray. God himself commands us to pray. Not
to honor God, not to beseech him, not to except help from him in
time of trouble, and not to offer thanks for benefits received is
to commit sin as surely as to murder, to steal, or to commit adultery.
If we waver, let us remember the commandments.
Third, why God hears us. We are heard not because we are sinners,
for God does not hear sinners, but be cause our sins been forgiven
in Christ. This forgiveness or reconciliation must precede everything.
All other blessings are secondary. Although we may and should ask
for material things, we should "seek first the kingdom of God."
Without forgiveness we stand before God naked and condemned. Melanchthon
reiterates this again and again. "Before any other thing we
should ask for reconciliation, for all asking is in vain if we are
not in faith reconciled."
Fourth, the practical need to stimulate faith. One reason for asking
God for material gifts is that by seeing material gifts bestowed
we may be stimulated to believe that our sins are truly forgiven
and that death has been conquered for us. The heart calling on God
in time of need learns by faith to rest in God, expecting all things,
heavenly and earthly, from him.
Fifth, the things we desire in prayer. Before all other gifts we
should ask for reconciliation. "Faith asking forgiveness and
assuring us that we are accepted for Christ's sake must light the
way for all other petitions." Then we should petition God for
all those things necessary to our vocations and permitted by the
commandments of God. And God wishes us to ask specifically "that
we may know that God is not only good in himself but also tat he
is good to us." Material gifts do not come by mere chance or
accident: they are given by God in his own way to sustain life and
preserve the church
After giving examples of prayers embodying the views he sets forth,
Melanchthon speaks of the utter sincerity that must be present in
prayer and of the obedience that must accompany our words of thanksgiving.
"Let the heart and tongue agree." Melanchthon rises to
a climax of trust, which he acknowledges is difficult and often
incomprehensible, and then concludes with a simple expression of
gratitude to the Giver of all blessings and a plea that God will
rule us with his Holy Spirit now and forever.
There is a depth of feeling in Melanchthon's prayers that hauntingly
suggests man's final limitation-death. This is especially apparent
after Augsburg in 1530, when Melanchthon began to realize as poignantly
as a human being can that men do not order affairs, that the counsels
of men are not final, that all flesh is as grass, and yet that all
things are possible with God, even the conquest of death. From this
time on a deep sense of personal worship, thanksgiving, and reliance
on God for the completion of his kingdom and fulfillment of his
promises become manifest. Without God, the fruit of man's wisdom
and effort is ultimately nothing. Abandoned by God, man flounders
in a sea of frustration. But with God all things are possible. In
Melanchthon's prayers beats the heart of a man who trusts in the
providence and ultimate triumph of God.
Melanchthon's prayers have much of what one would expect to find
in Luther and Calvin, but one misses in Luther "the Lord high
and lifted up" and in Calvin the Christ "who loved us
while we were yet sinners." Luther's great contribution to
prayer flows from his personal anxiety and discovery of "salvation
by faith alone"; Calvin's stems from his magnificent intellectual
keystone "the sovereignty of God." Melanchthon joins both,
not because he sought to do so in a conscious, rational synthesis,
but because it was the experience of his life.
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