Relying on a Sovereign God in Supplication
Devoted to Prayer Seminar
Objectives for this hour:
- Answer questions about the place of prayer in God’s purpose.
- If God knows everything, has planned everything, and controls everything, why should we pray? In other words, what good is prayer?
- If God is sovereign, is God to blame for my lack of prayer?
How does our activity, in particular our praying, work with His sovereignty? If God is sovereign then does is really matter what I do? Why, then, should I pray? If God is sovereign, then isn’t He responsible for my prayerlessness? If God is sovereign, then shouldn’t I let go and let God?
Two Ground Rules
It is possible to misunderstand or misapply the truths about God’s sovereignty, taking it conclusions that God does not draw.
Because of that and other possible firestorms, let me offer a couple preliminary thoughts. First, we want to be careful and accurate when we talk about these things. We do best to speak about God’s sovereignty and supplication (asking Him for things or to do things) from Scripture, adopting the perspective of God’s Word. God is aware of the difficulties and tensions in some of these discussions; He wrote the Book.
We want to say everything that God says, and say nothing that He doesn’t say. Both errors are easy, both errors cause significant damage, and both errors come from pride. If God revealed it, He means for us to know it, believe it, obey it, and worship Him for it. He has not revealed unnecessary or unhelpful truth. All Scripture is profitable, even the deep and difficult things. To edit God, to act as if we know better than Him what His people need or can handle, is to give ourselves too much credit.
But when we solve every apparent problem with our own logic, when our own position practically forces us to deny another truth, we have gone too far, and have essentially put words into God’s mouth. Here is another display of pride, overstepping our place.
We want to study diligently, pray for Him to open the eyes of our hearts, and be as precise as possible in speaking about His truth.
Second, we must trust and obey the clear things, even if we do not fully understand them. We can know truly, even if we don’t know fully. And if something is true, we’re to believe it, and be humbled by it.
True, as finite creatures, even those in whom the Holy Spirit has brought the mind of Christ, we’re not promised a grasp how all of it fits together in the mind of the infinite God. For that matter, we do not walk by sight, or by human philosophy, but by faith. I cannot prove how God created the heavens and earth out of nothing.
In the next hour, I’m not expecting to open a secret door, hidden to theologians for two thousand of years, and prove how God is sovereign and responds to the prayers of His people. But it is true, we must believe it, and I think there are some helpful ways we can think about it.
Two Wrong Approaches
There are two errors, two extremes to avoid. The typical problem in most evangelical churches may not be the primary problem for us.
First, we are not hyper-Calvinists, that is, we are not those who believe that we have zero responsibility and that the only acceptable prayers are confession or adoration. If we do not ask, seek, and knock, then we disobey our Lord by refusal to follow His Son’s example and instructions. The apostles, from whom we learn the doctrines of grace, were not prayer slackers. You’d think Paul, the author of Romans 9 and Ephesians 1, wouldn’t have prayed so much if it didn’t matter. Some of the greatest theologians (Augustine, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards), preachers (Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield) and missionaries (Hudson Taylor), that loved God’s sovereignty throughout church history, have had no problem praying and urging others to do the same.
But second, we are also not Arminians, that is, we do not believe it is our job to inform God or to change God’s mind or to empower God (as if that were even possible in light of our finiteness and His infiniteness). J.I. Packer in his classic book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, (only 126 pages):
[I]t is not right when we take it on us to do more than God has given to do. It is not right when we regard ourselves as responsible for securing converts, and look to our own enterprise and techniques to accomplish only what God can accomplish. (29)
The Sovereign Process
So how are we to think about the relationship between prayer and the sovereignty of God? One helpful approach is to consider that just as God decided His story (salvations, sanctifications, glorifications, and everything else), He also chose when, where, and how those things would happen. He exerts control over the process, not merely the end of the process. God uses means (impersonal action or system to bring about a desired result), agents (persons that takes an active role in producing a desired result), and instruments (tools or implements used to accomplish a desired result).
For example, God saves people. The means of sovereign salvation is the gospel. The gospel is the power of God to salvation (Romans 1:16). Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:13-17)
The agent of sovereign salvation is the Holy Spirit, convicting the world of sin (John 16:8), making us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:5), taking away hearts of stone and creating hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:22-32).
And we are the instruments of sovereign salvation, disciple-makers, preachers of the good news.
God uses means to the end of saving His elect (including prayer). He also uses means to the ends of sanctifying His elect (including prayer) and bringing His kingdom to earth. When you cut your T-bone with a steak knife, who or what is cutting it? Yes. You are cutting it, but you’ve chosen to use an instrument to accomplish your desired end of having pieces small enough to fit in your mouth. The knife is a tool, but you supply the force and the direction. So God chose, by Himself, to use us and our prayers as tools in the work of accomplishing His will.
My mind and experience, keep me from blaming God when I don’t pray. Here’s the rub: our conscience compels us to pray. Moment by moment, prayer feels like my choice and my responsibility and my work. I hear no voices telling me what to do; I have no plug that delivers energy; I see no strings pulled by a puppet master. I am not a robot. In fact, being a robot would be easier. I think and choose and feel, and too many times, I don’t do what I already know I supposed to do. I have no feasible (let alone biblical) reason whatsoever to blame my lack of prayer on my ignorance of the order of God’s eternal decrees and what pair of socks He really wanted me to wear. For whatever I don’t understand, I know prayerlessness is my fault.
So how are we to think about God’s sovereignty and our prayers? What are the implications of Calvinism on supplication?
Another helpful approach is to consider that the Bible presents things from different perspectives. For example, sometimes Scripture introduces a point of view previous to an event, other times God’s Word explains an event in hindsight. Before and after perspectives can be found throughout Scripture, sometimes in the very same context. In addition to different time perspectives, maybe most significantly, sometimes the Bible presents us with the human perspective, sometimes we are exposed to the divine perspective.
Take the story of Joseph and his brothers. We read about the brothers’ bitterness, anger, and jealously that caused them to sell their brother into slavery (though initially they wanted to kill him). They weren’t moved by some impersonal force, causing them to act against their wills. They did exactly what they wanted, and they meant it for evil. They were responsible for their actions in every way.
But the very same event, from a different perspective, shows us something else, something bigger. His brothers meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. He was in control at every step, having ordained it and worked all things according to His will. In so doing, God used the wickedness of the brothers to spare a nation.
Does that mean it was acceptable what the brothers did? Did God’s end justify their means? By no means! Okay, well, didn’t they do what God wanted? Yes. So God is responsible for their evil? By no means!
Every Christian who recites Romans 8:28 is living in the Calvinist perspective. From the human side, there it is usually impossible to see or believe that sin or evil, or the vanity and frustrations under the sun, could possibly be working for anyone’s good. But we trust God works in our midst, even when not so visible.
We have to, if we’re going to understand the cross. The crucifixion of Christ was the most outrageous, offensive, unjust evil every committed. The religious leaders feared and hated Jesus. The Romans were similarly glad to get rid of Him. But Jesus wears the title, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He came to save His people from their sins, and that involved sacrificial death. Was God sovereign in Jesus’ death? Herod had no power that wasn’t give to him. The pieces of wood that made a cross did not crack or split apart because God’s careful, sustaining providence. The point is, God plans and uses means, even ill-intentions, to accomplish His purposes. It depends which vantage point we watch from.
I say all that to say, things look different depending on our perspective.
So it is with our prayers. As with bringing the elect to faith, God uses means to His end of conforming His people into the image of Christ. From our perspective, prayer takes desire and dependence and discipline and determination. From God’s perspective, prayer (as with any other element of our salvation and sanctification) is from Him and through Him and to Him.
Sovereignty Is No Supplication Hindrance
Look again at Matthew 6:8. We skipped over this point in the second session. I’ve wrestled and fought with this phrase in my head. Here is the question: why is God’s foreknowledge the reason against vain repetitions and empty phrases?
It seems like the logical line of reasoning would be: 1) Gentiles depend on their prayers to make the difference, but 2) prayers themselves aren’t the difference makers, 3) God already knows, therefore 4) don’t worry about praying.
The first three are Jesus’ own argument, but not the fourth. The Gentiles do depend on their prayers. Prayers themselves aren’t the difference makers. God does already know, therefore, ask anyway! Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Therefore, pray like this!
The reason we don’t need to make silly or superficial repetition is because the success of our prayer doesn’t depend on our prayers. The reason we don’t have to parrot back little prayer ditties is because God already knows and is in control. Prayer is intended for us to recognize that God is the changer. It should focus our attention on Him. It is in our depending, trusting, believing, and hoping in Him that He is glorified!
It is exactly because He knows what we need prior to our asking that we can confidently ask Him. His omniscience, that is, His perfect understanding of all things, including things past, present, and future, gives us reason to depend on Him.
Prayer never informs God of something He didn’t already know. Prayer never empowers God to do something He couldn’t already do. Prayer never changes God to do something He wasn’t planning to do.
Everyone Prays Like God Is Sovereign
What does a prayer to an unsovereign God even sound like? I can’t imagine why people pray who think that God does not know the future, let alone those who think that God no plans, He sits and waits along with us. I also don’t understand how people hope God will do something if they think He’s only able to do it if they ask. If the outcome of events depends on me that much, why not cut out the middle man and just get down to it?
Unless God is sovereign, all prayer is, at best, uncertain. I suppose it’s not meaningless prayer to a unsovereign God any more than commiserating with someone who can’t do something about the problem. But prayer cannot be relied upon, there is no confidence in prayer, unless God can do something.
Isn’t this is the most good news when it comes to the lost, our unsaved family and friends? The sovereignty of God and prayer in the discussion of salvation is perhaps the most important arena. We preach because God is sovereign; preaching is foolishness without the power of God. We pray because God is sovereign; we’re wasting our time if He can’t or won’t use His power. J.I. Packer:
You pray for the conversion of others. In what terms, now, do you intercede for them? Do you limit yourself to asking that God will bring them to a point where they can save themselves, independently of Him? I do not think you do. I think that what you do is pray in categorical terms that God will, quite simply and decisively, save them: that He will open the eyes of their understanding, soften their hard hearts, renew their natures, and move their wills to receive the Savior. (15) In prayer, then (and the Christian is at his sanest and wisest when he prays), you know that it is God who saves men; you know that what makes men turn to God is God’s own gracious work of drawing them to Himself; and the content of your prayers is determined by this knowledge. (15)
The act of prayer itself concedes that the ultimate determination is God’s. There is little reason to pray to a somewhat-potent or depende-potent God, but great reason to pray to an omnipotent One.
What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist they they reject it….The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it. (16-17)
What About All Those Passages?
I believe passages such as Exodus 32:14, where Moses begs God not to destroy Israel, and Jeremiah 26:19, where Hezekiah asks God not to destroy Judah, passages that talk about the Lord “relenting” (ESV) or “changing His mind” (NAS) are presenting things from the human perspective.1
In each of those contexts:
- God uses of means, and planned the means of the person’s prayers.
- From the human perspective, it seems as if God changes, but there’s no reason to question the other clear passages. (cf. Numbers 23:19)
- Each of these examples should spur us to pray more!
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
- According to Scripture, God is omniscient, sovereign, and loves His glory.
- According to Scripture, God commands us to pray.
- According to Scripture, God promises/delights to hear and answer our prayers for our joy.
- Even if we don’t understand how it works, we are to worship God by praying because it maximizes His glory and our joy.
He lets us in. God purposes to hang parts of His plan on our prayers. As one example, consider Ezekiel 36.
Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited. Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it. 37 “Thus says the Lord GOD: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. Like the flock for sacrifices,like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 36:33–38)
I get excited when I see seasons where I’ve been moved to pray. We ought to ask boldly and expectantly. When you pray, watch out.
- Study to know God more.
- Ask according to His revealed will. Give thanks to Him for whatever happens as His sovereign/secret will.
- Don’t dull the sword of God’s sovereignty because it cuts.
- Don’t dishonor God with weak praying. In other words, don’t let your theology make you smarter than the Bible.