The Reformed Roots of "Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship" by Hughes Old

by Daniel L. Sonnenberg, 2003. 

The prayers of the Lord’s Day in the Reformed tradition have been shaped by a number of writers since the 16th century. Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer has drawn together the principles and content of these prayers in a way that can be adapted to the modern worship service. This paper will examine several of these writers to discover the roots of Dr. Old’s pattern of prayer. In each section, I will begin with a summary of Old’s understanding of each particular type of prayer. This will be followed by how this type of prayer was understood or developed by other authors in the Reformed tradition such as John Calvin, William Perkins, the authors of The Westminster Directory, Matthew Henry, Samuel Miller and B. M. Palmer.[FOOTNOTE]

A reference to Samuel Miller’s Thoughts on Public Prayer (1849) provides a suitable introduction before we discuss the prayers individually. In the chapter “Characteristics of a Good Public Prayer,” we find a number of characteristics of public prayer that appear not in just one particular place but throughout the entirety of Leading in Prayer. Miller says that good public prayer should make abundant use of Scriptural language, should be appropriate to the occasion, should be orderly, yet not too formal or always in the same order, dignified and general in plan, comprehensive yet without too much detail, and should include adoration, confession, thanksgiving, petition and intercession in an orderly, distinct arrangement, which, though varied in arrangement, should not be thoughtlessly intermixed. Old seems to have applied these principles wholeheartedly.


The Invocation in Leading in Prayer serves as the opening prayer for the service of worship. Old points out that most of the Psalms begin with an Invocation. The Latin word invocare connotes calling upon, appealing to, or invoking in prayer. Old includes six elements that he feels are essential to an invocation: 1) the naming of God to whom we pray; 2) the hallowing of God’s name; 3) claiming God as our God; 4) praying in the name of Jesus; 5) the request that our worship be inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit and received through the intercession of Christ, that is, Trinitarian prayer; and concluding with, 6) a full Trinitarian doxology. Following are two examples of the naming of the God we are invoking. The first one uses the familiar Old Testament name “LORD”: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.” The second uses another name for God: “Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock; you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth.” Jesus’ example teaches us to use the name “Father” when we call on God. He taught his disciples to say, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” This verse serves also an example of the second and third elements above, the hallowing of God’s name and claiming him as our God. The fourth element necessary to Invocation is praying in the name of Jesus. Jesus taught his disciples to ask “in his name”: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Fifth, in the Invocation we should request that our worship be inspired by the Holy Spirit and received through Christ’s intercession. Not only do we worship by the power of the Spirit, that is, “in Spirit and truth,” but we worship through Christ who “entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” Finally, Old states that we should conclude our Invocation with a Trinitarian doxology. He points out that most prayers found in Scripture conclude more simply “in the name of Jesus” but he appeals for a “more festive” fully Trinitarian doxology to conclude the prayer. An example of the simpler form is found in the conclusion of the prayer in Acts 4:30: “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

John Calvin, in The Form of Church Prayers (Geneva, 1542) began the service very simply, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Amen.” This he did before moving on to the Confession. This short, simple sentence seems to include several of the elements found in Old’s Invocation. First is the naming of God, “in the name of the Lord.” Second is the hallowing of the name, “who made heaven and earth.” Third is the claiming of God as our God, “our help is in the name…”

In The Westminster Directory (1644) we find headings for prayer similar to those of Dr. Old’s. Corresponding to his Invocation we find an opening Prayer of Approach. In this prayer, God’s greatness and man’s unworthiness are acknowledged, with requests for “Pardon, Assistance and Acceptance in the whole service to be performed and for a Blessing” on the portion of the Word about to be read in the name and mediation of Christ.

In Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer (1712), his Address to God and Adoration of Him corresponds to Old’s Invocation. Here, Henry addresses and adores God, praises and acknowledges Him as Creator, Protector, Benefactor, Ruler of all, professes Him as our God, requests the powerful assistance and influence of the Spirit of grace and professes entire reliance on Christ alone for acceptance with God and comes in His name. All six of Old’s elements are found.

Table 1 (to be added).

 Miller says that a good prayer should close with a doxology. Doxology is found at the conclusion of Old’s Prayer of Invocation and again after the Benediction. Miller says further that God should be addressed with a variety of titles in conformity with the petitions that follow them. This element is found specifically in Old’s Prayer of Invocation and generally in all his prayers. In his treatment of the Parts of Prayer, B. M. Palmer’s Theology of Prayer (1894) refers to adoration as homage given to God in view of his “majesty, blessedness, and glory” which fills one’s soul with reverence and awe. Adoration focuses on God’s being and nature. Praise focuses on His works, that which is manifested outwardly by Him.

Prayers of Confession and Supplication

Prayers of confession and supplication are found throughout Scripture, both in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, but also in the prophets and narrative literature, and in both the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament. Old writes that a “full diet of prayer” should include: 1) lamentations; 2) confessions of sin; 3) supplications for forgiveness; and, 4) petitions for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He makes a further subdivision of the category of lamentations. He identifies five types of lamentations: 1) confessing our sins; 2) bemoaning to God our personal sufferings and sorrows; 3) prayers of complaint; 4) grieving the sins of others; and, 5) complaints of persecutions and hardships. An example of a lamentation-complaint is found in Psalms 42-43. “My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ …Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men.” Psalm 51 is a good example of a confession of sin and supplication for forgiveness. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge…Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

John Calvin provides a Confession which includes both confession of sin and supplication for forgiveness. In addition, he requests an increasing measure of the grace of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of righteousness. William Perkins (1592) briefly identifies the deficiencies and sins of the people as one of the two subjects of prayer.

Corresponding to Old’s Prayer of Confession and Supplication, Westminster supplies what is called the Prayer before the Sermon. This is a prayer including confession of sin, supplication for deliverance and (optionally) intercessions for others. The intercessions may be placed after the sermon if desired. In the prayers of confession and supplication, the minister prays for the “original” sins of men, that is, acknowledging the sin of Adam in each of us. He also prays for the “actual” sins of men, that is, the sins which we commit ourselves. A catalogue of examples of these sorts of sins are supplied. Secondly, prayers of supplication follow in which the petitioners draw near the throne of God in hopes of a “gracious Answer” to their pleas for deliverance, for the assurance of God’s love and further sanctification by the Holy Spirit.

Matthew Henry separates Confession of Sin and Petition and Supplication into two sections. Under the first heading he confesses the original corruption of Adam and our depravity that flows from it; our present disposition to evil and reluctance to do good; our neglect of our duty; our actual transgressions in thought word and deed; and our repentance of sin and resolve to do better in the future. Under the second heading he requests the pardoning of all our sins; reconciliation with God, an inner sense of that reconciliation; and the operation of God’s grace to strengthen, equip, enable, direct, make wise, comfort, preserve, deliver, and fit us for heaven. The following table shows Henry’s correspondence with Old’s categories itemized above.

Table 2 (to be added).

In the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus appears as the Great High Priest, interceding for his disciples. He prayed not only for the disciples he was preparing to leave behind, but also for those who would believe through them, that is, for all believers on this side of the cross. But Christ’s ministry of intercession did not end there. The resurrected and ascended Christ continues this ministry at the right hand of the Father. Our prayers of intercession, according to Old, continue this earthly ministry of intercession which Christ gave to the Church. As a community in public prayer, we pray for the community and its concerns: for the coming Kingdom, the progression of the gospel, the reformation of society, and the growth of the Church.

The Apostle Paul wrote instructions to Timothy on the order of public worship: “I urge, then…that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life…This is acceptable in the sight of God who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Historically, this has been understood by the Church to mean that public prayer should include petitions for those responsible for government, for preserving the peace in the world, for the general welfare of society, and for the spreading of the gospel among all the peoples of the world. Moreover, Paul gives instructions for public prayer in at least two other places in his Epistles. He instructs the Ephesian Church to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests…always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth…that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel…” Similarly, to the Colossians he writes “…pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ…” Old points out that by the fourth century, most of the churches had a definite list of what they should pray for based on Jesus’ and Paul’s instructions: 1) the Church; 2) the ministry; 3) people in special need; and, 4) civil authorities. However, because this practice later disappeared from the Roman Mass, the Reformers sought to restore it.

John Calvin placed what he referred to as the Common Prayers after the sermon. His prayer includes all five elements found in Old’s Prayer of Intercession. Old seems to have rearranged Calvin’s order to flow more logically. In one place, Calvin prays for “all the churches,” not while he’s praying for his local church, but while he’s praying for pastors. Specifically, he prays that all the churches will be protected from mercenary “wolves” who seek their own profit. Similarly, Calvin prays for the preaching of the gospel, not while he’s praying for the pastors, but while he’s praying for “all men.” See the chart below for these variations. McKee points out that Calvin’s prayer concludes with an extended paraphrase of the Lord’s prayer.

William Perkins says that “the (second) subject of prayer should be…the blessings they (the people) stand in need of.” He cites 1 Tim. 2.1 “I urge….that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone…” and Tertullian, who urges prayer for “emperors” and for the welfare of the state and its subjects, for quietness and long life for all. He groups these items under six headings he finds in the Lord’s Prayer: 1) God’s glory; 2) God’s kingdom, 3) our obedience; 4) the preservation of life; 5) the forgiveness of sins; and, 6) the strengthening of the spirit. These seem to correspond roughly with Old’s headings listed below, though not as closely as several of the others.

In the Intercessions of Westminster the same five categories are found as those in Old, though in a slightly different order. Old’s order is: 1) the church; 2) the ministry; 3) all people; 4) civil authority; and, 5) special needs. Westminster’s pattern is 1) all people; 2) the ministry; 3) civil authority; 4) special needs; and, 5) the church. Westminster adds a further prayer for the minister when the Intercessions are offered before the sermon.

Matthew Henry’s Intercession and Supplication to God for Others corresponds to Old’s Prayers of Intercession. Here again we find a close correspondence with Old’s elements as seen in the following table. Old’s correspondence to Reformed writers of the past shows up especially well in this prayer. Calvin and Westminster are included in the table as well for the sake of comparison.

Table 3 (to be added).
Miller says that a good prayer should include a particular reference to the spread of the Gospel and that the prayer after the sermon (presumably the Intercessions) should seek to apply the preceding message tenderly and affectionately. Both these elements appear in Old’s Prayers of Intercession. For B. M. Palmer, Intercession involves three things: 1) obedience to the last five commandments; 2) a stewardship of our earthly responsibilities; and in part, 3) the fellowship of the saints.

Prayers of Thanksgiving

Old begins by drawing a distinction between praise and thanksgiving. Though the two are sometimes synonymous as in Psalm 100:4, more often they are distinct from one another. Praise, he says, results when the worshiper experiences a sense of awe in God’s presence. Thanksgiving, by contrast, is the worshiper’s acknowledgment of receiving God’s blessings. Therefore, it seems logical to Old to express praise at the outset of the service, and, after receiving the blessing of the sermon and sacraments, to express thanksgiving. Patterns for the prayers of thanksgiving come from several sources in Scripture. The Psalms include both votive and national thanksgivings. A votive thanksgiving is a public expression of thanks to God for answering the supplicant’s prayer during a time of distress. They are personal and particular, as exemplified in the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. A national thanksgiving recounts the mighty acts of God in Israel’s salvation history such as in Psalm 136. These national prayers were utilized during the major feasts of Israel. Other examples of prayers of thanksgiving include the Hebrew berakah or benediction, “Bless the Lord,” or “Blessed art thou,” exemplified in Psalm 103. These psalms commonly begin and end with a benediction or blessing to God surrounding the main body of the psalm. A third source of prayers of thanksgiving in Scripture is found in Paul’s Epistles. At the beginning of Ephesians 1.3-10 we find, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” At the beginning of Colossians 1.2-20 Paul writes, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” In Philippians 1.3 we find, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Another example of a thanksgiving prayer is found in the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever…” based on David’s prayer of thanksgiving in 1 Chron. 29:11-12: “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory…Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom…” Old notes that the prayer of thanksgiving at the end of the service emphasizes the benefits of our redemption, and reflects God’s glory. As we bless God, we reflect His blessing of us.

As was mentioned above, Calvin seems to have reserved the Prayer of Thanksgiving for only those Sundays when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. Therefore, his prayer focused on two things. The first is a thanksgiving, the second is a petition. He thanks God for the benefits derived from partaking in the Communion, then asks God not to let him forget what they have just done.

Following the Sermon in Westminster we find the Prayer after the Sermon. This prayer corresponds to Old’s Prayer of Thanksgiving in its location and thrust. First, thanksgiving is offered for “the saving benefits of the Gospel: Election, Vocation, Adoption, Justification, Sanctification, and the hope of Glory.” Second, the main points of the sermon and their application are emphasized. This is followed by the Lord’s Prayer, also corresponding to Old’s pattern.

Matthew Henry’s Thanksgiving for the Mercies of God also corresponds to Old’s Prayers of Thanksgiving. Henry encourages us to be particular in our thanksgiving to God: for how God has shown us His goodness in His word, and for the many instances of His goodness. The latter includes two sub-categories: 1) the goodness of His providence relating to our physical bodies and the life that now is: and, 2) the goodness of His grace relating to our souls, and the life that is to come. In Old’s Prayers of Thanksgiving, we find both of these. Those prayers based on votive thanksgiving psalms focus more on this present life and particular examples of deliverance, whereas those based on the Lord’s Prayer and Epistle texts focus more the soul and the life to come. Both types reflect God’s glory as we bless Him for blessing us. B. M. Palmer regards Thanksgiving as appreciation for mercies given.

Benedictions and Doxologies

A benediction is a blessing given to the people by the minister in the name of the Lord. These are often followed by a doxology or short attribution of praise. First, we will look at benedictions. The most notable benediction found in Scripture is the so-called “Aaronic Benediction” in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” These are the words God gave to Moses for the priests to use in blessing the people of Israel after the sacrifice was offered in worship. A second type of benediction found in Scripture is the so-called “Apostolic Benediction”: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Another New Testament blessing is the so-called “Covenantal Benediction”: “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” A fourth kind of blessing is the so-called “Peace Benedictions.” There are at least three. The first is, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” The second is, “The God of peace be with you all. Amen.” The third is, “Peace to the brothers, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The pattern of benediction-doxology is found in Scripture beginning in Genesis. “…and he (Melchizedek) blessed Abram, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth’ (benediction). ‘And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand’”(doxology). Many other examples of doxologies are found in the Psalms. For instance, one of the shortest is “Praise be to God.” One of the longest is the entirety of Psalm 150, possibly as a final doxology to the whole of the book of Psalms. Other examples from the Psalms include: Pss. 145:21; 68:35b; 8:1,9; 135:19-20; 100:1-5; 103:20-22; 41:13; and, 72:18-19. Two other examples of doxologies in Scripture are found in Revelation. The first is, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.” The second is the response to the heavenly Lamb of God by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” when they sing: “‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’”

Calvin concluded his service with the Aaronic Benediction from Numbers 6. In Westminster, after the singing of a final Psalm, unless the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, the service is concluded with a Blessing which corresponds to Old’s Benediction. The directions are simply stated “let the Minister dismisse the Congregation with a solemne Blessing.” We do not know what words might have been indicated here except possibly to refer back to the Westminster’s predecessor, the Book of Common Worship, which concludes with “The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and the love of God, and of his son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God almighty, the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost, be among you, and remain with you always. Amen (spellings adapted for the modern reader).”

Matthew Henry concludes the service with a doxology, but instead of preceding it with a benediction as Old does, he prescribes a prayer which sums up all the previous requests and recommends us to the protection and guidance of God’s grace. The doxology, he says, should give honor and glory to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and end with “an affectionate Amen.” Matthew Henry follows this with the Lord’s Prayer.


The roots of Old’s Leading in Prayer are found in a number of works spanning four centuries in the Reformed tradition. He seems to have drawn on principles from later works like Palmer and Miller, while drawing heavily for his form and content especially from Matthew Henry and secondarily from Calvin and the Westminster Directory. There seems to be the greatest degree of agreement among the various writers in regard to the Prayers of Intercession. As mentioned earlier, Old noted that the Church came to an agreement on the elements of this prayer very early in its history. This seems to have been the primary prayer of the Church, and the Reformed tradition has restored and maintained the prayer’s importance in the life of its churches. Second in terms of agreement among these writers seems to be the Prayers of Confession and Supplication followed by the Prayers of Thanksgiving, Invocation, and Benedictions and Doxology in descending order. The churches of the Reformed tradition have sought to remain true to Scripture in their practice of prayer through the years. As a result, they have developed forms that seek to cover the range of the prayers found in Scripture for use in their worship on the Lord’s Day. Hughes Old provides us with a resource that draws on many of the works cited, but in a fresh, reproducible, modern style that will serve as a model and resource for meditation and the formulation of our own prayers in the churches for years to come.


Henry, Matthew. A Method for Prayer. Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Heritage, 1994.

McKee, Elsie. Calvin: The Form of Church Prayers, Strassburg Liturgy (1545). Vol. 2, The Complete Library of Christian Worship, ed. Robert E. Webber, Nashville: Star Song, 1994.

Miller, Samuel. Thoughts on Public Prayer. Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1985.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Palmer, B. M. Theology of Prayer as Viewed in the Religion of Nature and in the System of Grace. Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1980.

Perkins, William. The Art of Prophesying, revised ed. Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 1994.

Thompson, Bard, ed. Liturgies of the Western Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

Originally written for Hughes Oliphant Old’s, course “Leading in Prayer,” Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, March 2003.


Categories: Reformed theology, Seminary writings

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