I have a very high view of God’s sovereignty. I believe God is in control of everything and He has predestined every event that takes place and every fact that is a fact. Holding this view, and being vocal about it, has prompted lots of people, both Christian and non-Christian, to ask me: “If God’s so sovereign, why do you pray?”
At first glance this seems like a pretty legit question. If God has already preplanned everything that’s going to take place, then aren’t you wasting your time in asking Him to change His mind and His plans? If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, to mention just two of his divine attributes, then He knows His plan perfectly and He is strong enough to bring it to fruition. Doesn’t that cast some shade on your idea of prayer? Why bother with praying?
Before I give some answers, it’s important for us to address some assumptions and to define some stuff First. For a definition of Divine Sovereignty Let’s use Bruce A. Ware’s, “God exhaustively plans and meticulously carries out his perfect will as he alone knows is best, regarding all that is in heaven and on earth, and he does so without failure or defeat, accomplishing his purposes in all of creation from the smallest details to the grand purposes of his plan for the whole of the created order.”* Boom.
We also need a quick preliminary talk about prayer. The mode of prayer which is assumed by the question and thus will be fleshed out in this post is that of Petitionary Prayer. So what the heck is petitionary prayer? Again Bruce A. Ware has thrown us a line, petitionary prayer is “Requesting or petitioning God, on behalf of oneself or others, to act in some specific manner in order to bring about some specific result, where the action and result are seen as brought about by God’s own will and action while they are also, in certain instances, casually tied to the petition that was brought before God and requested of him.”** There are lots and lots of reasons to pray, and there are several different ways to pray, but we’ll just be focusing on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and petitionary prayer in this post.
Now that we’ve defined our terms let’s get into it. There are a couple of things I’d like to say in response to this question but my best answer is to ask my questioner a question. If you don’t believe that God is sovereignly controlling everything, why would YOU pray. Think about it, if God isn’t in control, then why pray to Him? If God isn’t able to change your circumstances then why bother asking Him to? Instead of wasting your time, you better go take things into your own hands because apparently He’s done all He’s able to do or wants to do. If He doesn’t have a plan, why would you pray to have your will conformed to His, like the Bible’s tells you to? If the sovereign God presented to us in The Bible isn’t actually in control, then we don’t get to say “everything happens for a reason”.
Usually this is pretty eye opening for my questioners and although I think I’ve taken away my interlocutor’s basis for raising their question from their own point of view, I still have to answer the question for myself. There is still, at least on the surface, an apparent contradiction between believing that God has sovereignly ordained all things that come to pass and the belief that our prayers matter. So let’s talk.
To think that God’s sovereign plan makes our prayers useless is to misunderstand God’s ordination. To ordain is to decree, rule, order, command, enjoin, appoint, anoint, install, induct, pronounce etc… The Bible is clear that God ordains “the ends”, that is the results, the facts, that which happens in space and time. “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.” (Psalm 33:8-11) God spoke and it came to be and continues to stand firm. His plans are so sure that they continue to all the generations of men. What He says will happen WILL happen.
King Nebuchadnezzar learned this Psalm’s lesson the hard way. The king was haughty and proud, he didn’t heed God’s warnings and so God took his reason away from him. For years he lived with the beasts of the field and ate grass like an ox. When God restored King Nebuchadnezzar’s reason back to him, the king blessed and praised and honored the Most High God saying: “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”‘ (Daniel 4:34-35). Nebuchadnezzar learned to fear the LORD and stand in awe of Him because he had felt the sovereign work of God’s plan. God had ordained the ends, that Nebuchadnezzar would give his praise to God instead of himself, but He also ordained the means which led to those ends, the loss of his reason and living as a wild animal for a period of time.
The biblical doctrine of foreordination is not like the fate of the stoics. It’s not like the fate in Disney’s Hercules movie where the three crazy ladies all share an eyeball and reveal future events which are dictated by some impersonal force called fate. Neither is it like The Matrix where Neo is fated to be the one and fated to end up in the same predicament as all his predecessors regardless of the decisions he made leading up to it. There are different views on fate. One major view is that things are just bound to happen, it doesn’t matter what you think, it doesn’t matter what you do, the end result will be the same no matter what. Another major view of fate is a hard deterministic view where choice is merely an illusion and everything follows necessarily from the material causes that precedes it. None of these views of fate represent the Christian understanding of predestination.
In the Christian view, God is in control, He has planned everything that will come to pass based on the counsel of his own will. He has determined all the events of history including the actions of his creatures. Our will’s do matter, our choices matter, so much so that God uses our choices to bring about his plan. We make our choices, ordained by God, not out of compulsion or against our will’s but out of the desires of our hearts.
Theologian John Calvin helps us understand the biblical point of view: “For we do not with the Stoics imagine a necessity consisting of a perpetual chain of causes, and a kind of involved series contained in nature, but we hold that God is the disposer and ruler of all things- that from the remotest eternity, according to his own wisdom, he decreed what he was to do, and now by his power executes what he decreed. Hence we maintain that, by his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined.”*** and else where he says: “Let the Stoics have their fate; for us, the free will of God disposes all things.”****
Simply put, the personal God of the Bible ordains the ends as well as the means. The ends and the means are equally important in God’s plan, because well, He planned it that way! It didn’t have to be that way. God doesn’t need us for anything, but He has purposed to use people as His agents for accomplishing many of His ends. If God plans for you to pray for your brother and share the gospel with him in order to achieve the end goal of him becoming a Christian, then the means are just as important as the result. Did you save your brother? Well, no, salvation belongs to the Lord and He has mercy on whomever He has mercy. God saved him, but He chose to use you as the means by which your brother is saved. He decreed from eternity past what He was going to do and now by His power He is executing his decree, and each of us have a role to play in His plan, because He purposed it that way.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks a lot about Christians being predestinated unto salvation (the ends):
“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4)
“In love he predestinated us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph1:5)
“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11)
“Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Eph. 1:18-19)
But Paul also talks briefly about being predestined to good works (the means), meaning our actions have been planned out by God to bring about things and events in His plan. Let’s look at Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” God has preplanned good works for us to do that we should actually do to accomplish his plans. We have already heard how God’s plans cannot be thwarted, they will continue from generation to generation because no one can stay His hand. So God will accomplish all that He has set out to, and as far as we’re involved, we will do all that He’s planned for us to do. Proverbs 21:1 says that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” God can harden people in their sin in order to accomplish His desires, and He can turn people’s hearts as well. Before you get too bent out of shape, don’t we Christians constantly beg God to change our hearts and the hearts of our loved ones? Don’t we continually ask Him to conform our will to His? We ask to have our minds transformed so that we can think in obedience to Christ as we walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh. So keep that in mind.
“Ok, Park. You’ve thrown out a lot of big words at us, we’ve talked about Hercules and John Calvin and you threw up a lot of proof texts about predestination. Get to the point!” Alright, alright. Here it is, God has planned everything that comes to pass. His plan cannot fail. He has a purpose for everything that happens, even when we mean things for evil God purposes them for good. Look at Joseph in Genesis 50:20 when he says to his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today”. Or look at Jesus’ death on the cross, the worst evil ever, the only sinless human in history was wrongfully tortured and killed, but God took the worst evil and brought about the greatest good ever: salvation for mankind and redemption for the universe.
God ordains the ends as well as the means.
So why do I pray to a sovereign God? Because He has prepared good works for me before the foundation of the earth that I should walk in them. He has planned for my prayers to accomplish things, both internally in my heart and externally in the world around me. God tells us to pray for the lost and persuade them with the gospel, we are tools in God’s hands. We are some of His chosen means by which He has planned to make things happen. Perhaps the sixth thousand and fifth prayer I pray for my brother will be the one God uses to change my brothers heart and lead him to faith in Christ. I don’t know God’s hidden will, but I do know His revealed will, He tells us about the good works we ought to walk in and He tells us that we are part of His master plan of redemption.
I pray because my prayers matter, God has planned for some of them to be answered and others to be rejected or left unanswered for His own purposes but I know that what ever the case, He is working all things for my good because I love Him (Romans 8:28) and I only love Him because He first loved me (1 John 4:19) and used someone else’s prayers and actions to lead me to the cross of Jesus Christ.
I have a very high view of God’s sovereignty but no higher than the Bible’s own view.
Since God is sovereign, our prayers matter.
*Bruce A. Ware, “Prayer and the Sovereignty of God” in For the Fame of God’s Name, Ed. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor (Crossway 2010) 128
**Bruce A. Ware, “Prayer and the Sovereignty of God” in For the Fame of God’s Name, Ed. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor (Crossway 2010) 129
***John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. I.16.8., in Calvin at the Centre, Paul Helm. (Oxford University Press 2011) 242
****John Calvin, “Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God”, in Calvin at the Centre, Paul Helm (Oxford University Press 2011
Hey Parker, great blog! Loved your explanation of how God in His soveriegnty listens to our prayers as the means to accomplish the ends of His will. This verse comes to mind: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 5:16-18) It is no doubt God’s will is that we confess or sins and be healed. Calvin, who obviously holds a high view of God’s sovereignty, offers this commentary on these verses: “17 Elias [Elijah] was a man. There are innumerable instances in Scripture of what he meant to prove; but he [James] chose one that is remarkable above all others; for it was a great thing that God should make heaven in a manner subject to the prayers of Elias, so as to obey his wishes. Elias kept heaven shut by his prayers for three years and a half; he again opened it, so that it poured down abundance of rain. Hence appeared the wonderful power of prayer. Well known is this remarkable history, and is found in 1 Kings 17 and 1 Kings 18. And though it is not there expressly said, that Elias prayed for drought, it may yet be easily gathered, and that the rain also was given to his prayers.
But we must notice the application of the example. James does not say that drought ought to be sought from the Lord, because Elias obtained it; for we may by inconsiderate zeal presumptuously and foolishly imitate the Prophet. We must then observe the rule of prayer, so that it may be by faith. He, therefore, thus accommodates this example, — that if Elias was heard, so also we shall be heard when we rightly pray. For as the command to pray is common, and as the promise is common, it follows that the effect also will be common.
Lest any one should object and say, that we are far distant from the dignity of Elias, he places him in our own rank, by saying, that he was a mortal man and subject to the same passions with ourselves. For we profit less by the examples of saints, because we imagine them to have been half gods or heroes, who had peculiar intercourse with God; so that because they were heard, we receive no confidence. In order to shake off this heathen and profane superstition, James reminds us that the saints ought to be considered as having the infirmity of the flesh; so that we may learn to ascribe what they obtained from the Lord, not to their merits, but to the efficacy of prayer.” (http://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/james/5.htm)
I know that’s a bit long, but I figured you would appreciate reading Calvin’s thoughts on prayer!
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First of all, thank you for writing this — it was an interesting and thoughtful piece, and this is the first time I’ve seen anyone address this question directly since it first occurred to me way back forever ago in high school. Most of what you’re saying seems to add up, but I’m still trying to piece together part of it. The example you give of praying for someone’s salvation, while of course quite meritorious, doesn’t really strike me as necessarily being representative of a typical petitionary prayer for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s for someone else’s benefit, and secondly it’s directed explicitly at furthering the (apparent, per scripture) aim of God for mankind in general. Many, if not most prayers people tend to offer don’t really fall into either category necessarily, but are for more worldly (not to say selfish) things, such as safety during a turbulent plane ride, recovery from a disease, or getting a promotion at work. So on one hand, it might be nice to see how you would work through a different, perhaps slightly less lofty, example just for the sake of being a bit more representative. Moreover, though, I can’t help but wonder to what extent the specific act of praying for someone’s salvation — something that within the Calvinist tradition is generally held to be especially foreordained — is really in the same category as other things a person might pray for to begin with in terms of the possibility for it to change. So certainly, if you’ve prayed for someone’s salvation and God gives your prayer the OK, then this would mean a) that the person had not been destined for hell and b) that perhaps God would take this chance to make you the instrument for his plan. But what if, say, you’ve prayed to recover from smallpox at the age of 90? Is your survival or death from the disease foreordained like the person’s ultimate salvation, or is God open to changing that around? And to the extent you’re only explicitly praying for that recovery (and not, necessarily, any wider purpose — such as spreading the gospel upon your survival), to what extent is a prayer that doesn’t explicitly ask to make a person an instrument for God’s wider plan capable of finding an answer? Would God entertain such prayers? Are they valid? These are a few questions I’m left with — but either way thank you for your perspective here.