Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism
Question 117. What are the requisites of that prayer, which is acceptable to God, and which he will hear?
Answer. First, that we from the heart pray to the one true God only, who hath manifested himself in his word, for all things he hath commanded us to ask of him: secondly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of his divine majesty: thirdly, that we be fully persuaded that he, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as he has promised us in his word.
Question 118. What hath God commanded us to ask of him?
Answer. All things necessary for soul and body; which Christ our Lord has comprised in that prayer he himself has taught us.
The conditions of acceptable prayer:
1. Directed to the true God.
1. That it be directed to the true God, or that the true God be called upon, who has revealed himself in the church by the word delivered by the Prophets and Apostles, and by the work of creation, preservation and redemption. This true God now is the eternal Father, Son and Holy Ghost. “As we have received” said Basil, “so have we been baptized, and as we have been baptized, so do we believe, and as we believe, so do we worship the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.“
2. A knowledge of the divine commandment.
2. The second requisite of acceptable prayer, is a knowledge of the divine commandment. Without the commandment of God we doubt in regard to our being heard. The person, however, that has an eye to the divine command, rests fully assured that his prayers are acceptable to God; because the worship which God requires of us, in his word, cannot be other wise than pleasing to him. When we pray, therefore, we ought so to think and resolve, I call upon thee, because thou, hast commanded me.
3. A knowledge of what we ought to ask God.
3. A knowledge of the things which we ought to ask at the hands of God, is also necessary to effectual prayer. God does not desire us to direct vague and wandering petitions to him, being uncertain what we would pray for. A king would consider himself derided and mocked if any one were to kneel before him, without knowing what to ask at his hands. So God will have us consider and think what things we should ask of him, if we would pray unto him and not mock him when we come into his presence. We, however, do not know what we should ask. It is for this reason that Christ has prescribed a form of prayer, which contains the sum and substance of the things which we should pray for To sum up the whole in as few words as possible, we would say, we should pray for things which we are certain are approved of by God, and promised. These consist of two kinds—such as are spiritual and temporal, both of which God desires us to ask at his hands. Spiritual things, because they are necessary to our salvation, and temporal things, 1. That the desire of them may exercise our faith, and confirm our confidence in regard to our obtaining such things as are spiritual. The reason is, because no one can expect good things of God, except he be reconciled to him. 2. That we may consider and reflect upon the providence of God, knowing that these small and comparatively unimportant things do not come fortuitously.
4. A true desire.
4. There must be a true desire for those things which we ask of God, if our prayers are heard. God will not have our prayer to be feigned, or hypocritical—they must come from the heart, and not merely from the lips. God wills us to pray with an earnest desire of the heart, for it is not the words of the mouth, but the sighs and groans of the heart, that constitute true prayer, as the Lord said unto Moses, “Wherefore criest thou unto me?” when Moses, nevertheless, said nothing. (Ex. 14:15.) Hence an ardent desire is to be made the general and chief thing in the definition of prayer.
5. A knowledge and sense of our own want.
5. A knowledge and sense of our own want. This should be the spring or fountain from which all our desires should proceed; for what any one does not feel himself greatly in need of, that he will not ardently desire. All of us now stand in need of God.
6. True humility.
6. True humility with an acknowledgement of our want. We should cast ourselves before the divine Majesty as humble suppliants. God is under no obligation to us. All of us, too, were the enemies of God before our conversion. God now does not hear sinners; that is, such proud sinners as the Pharisee was, who prayed standing in the highest seat in the temple. Hence, true humility, penitence, and conversion are necessary to acceptable prayer. The promises of God, too, have respect merely to such as are converted. No one can pray in faith without conversion to God; and without faith, no one can have any assurance of being heard, nor does he receive what he desires.
7. Knowledge of, and trust in, Christ the Mediator.
7. A knowledge of Christ the Mediator, and trust in him, are likewise necessary, in order that we may rest assured that both we and our prayers please God, not on account of any worthiness on our part, but only for the Mediator’s sake. It was in this way that Daniel prayed and asked to be heard for the Lord’s sake. (Dan. 9:17.) Christ also commands us to pray to the Father in his name. Our prayers should be placed upon our altar, even Christ. So shall they be acceptable to God.
8. Confidence of being heard by God.
8. Confidence of being heard. As it respects the former condition, faith is necessary in order that we may be fully persuaded that we are just before God, and that he is reconciled to us in Christ. Here faith or confidence of being heard is necessary, inasmuch as this cannot exist independent of the former. “Because ye are sons, God hath put forth the Spirit of his Son, into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” “Without faith, it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Gal. 4:6. Heb. 11:6.)
We must, however, here observe in respect to this confidence of being heard, that there is a difference in the things which are to be prayed for. Some gifts are necessary to salvation, as are those which are spiritual; whilst there are others—such as are temporal—without which we may be saved. The former are to be simply and positively desired with full confidence that we shall as certainly receive them, as we ask them specially at the hands of God. The latter are indeed to be sought and desired, but with the condition of the will of God, that he will confer them upon us, if they contribute to his glory, and are profitable to us; or that he will confer upon us other and better things, either now or hereafter as may seem best in his sight. We should in praying for these things imitate the example of the leper, who said, “Lord if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” (Matt. 8:2.) It is in this way that the faithful present their prayers before God, and desire to be heard, inasmuch as we oftentimes pray for things which, perhaps, would be more injury than advantage to us, if God were to hear and grant our requests.
Obj. He who asks doubtingly does not ask in faith, and is not heard. We seek temporal blessings with doubt, inasmuch as we pray for them conditionally. Therefore, we do not ask them in faith.
Ans. The major proposition is either particular, or else it is not true. For the nature of faith does not demand that we be fully assured in reference to temporal blessings, but merely in reference to spiritual blessings, such as the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, which are necessary to salvation. Respecting temporal benefits, it is sufficient if faith submit itself to the word of God, and desire and pray for such things as are profitable for us. We also deny the truth of the minor proposition; for although we do pray conditionally for temporal blessings, yet we do not simply doubt in regard to our obtaining them. We believe that we shall obtain from God the temporal blessings which we ask at his hand, if they contribute to our salvation, and do not desire to be heard, if they would be injurious to us. We, therefore, notwithstanding ask in faith, when we submit to the word of God and acquiesce in his will, and pray to be heard according to the good pleasure of our heavenly Father. For faith submits itself to every word and desire of God. But the will and pleasure of God consist in this, that we desire and pray for spiritual things simply, and for temporal things conditionally, and that we be fully persuaded that we shall receive the former particularly; and the latter in as far as they contribute to the glory of God and our salvation. Praying in this way, we do not doubt in regard to our being heard.
9. Knowledge and confidence in God’s promises.
9. A knowledge of the divine promise, with confidence in it. God promises that he will hear those who call upon him, observing the conditions which we have now specified. “Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver thee.” “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer, and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” (Ps. 50:15. Is. 65:24.) Without this promise, that we shall be heard in what we ask of God, there is no faith; and without faith, prayer is of no avail. Except we have faith in the divine promises, and have a regard to them in our prayers, they will not avail us any thing, neither can we desire any thing with a good conscience. Confidence in the divine promise produces an assurance of being heard, and of our salvation, which assurance kindles in us a desire of calling upon God, and of making supplication to him.
Difference between the prayers of the godly and the ungodly.
From the conditions which we have specified as being necessary to constitute acceptable prayer, it readily appears what a great difference there is between the prayers of the godly and the ungodly. The godly desire to observe all these conditions in drawing near to God in prayer: the ungodly, on the other hand, either neglect all of them, or else they observe one or two of these conditions, and fall short as it respects the rest. Some commit an error, as it were, in the very threshold, having an incorrect knowledge of the nature and will of God, and so violate the very first condition necessary to acceptable prayer—some err in the things which they pray for, in that they pray for things that are evil, uncertain, and not approved of by God—some ask blessings of God hypocritically—some ask without any consciousness or sense of the want of the blessings for which they pray—some have no confidence in Christ the mediator—some ask that they may be heard in the things which they pray for, and yet persist in sin—some ask things necessary for salvation, and yet do it with distrust, whilst others again address prayers to God, and yet never think of the divine promise, and therefore ask without faith, and so receive no answer to their prayers.