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If God is Sovereign, Why Pray (Part 3)

Expository Thoughts
Expository Thoughts
2011 2 Nov

[Editor's Note: Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here]

By Matt Waymeyer

4. God actually does respond to our prayers.

The fourth reason that believers should pray is that God not only can but actually does change the course of history in response to prayer. Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7). As Wayne Grudem points out, Jesus “makes a clear connection between seeking things from God and receiving them. When we ask, God responds” (systematic theology, 377).

Scripture is filled with examples of God granting to His people what they have requested in their prayers of petition and intercession. 1 Chronicles 1:10 records the prayer of Jabez in which he said, “Oh that Thou wouldst bless me indeed, and enlarge my border, and that Thy hand might be with me, and that Thou wouldst keep me from harm, that it may not pain me!” In response to Jabez’s prayer, “God granted him what he requested” (v. 10b). In Exodus 32:10, God told Moses of His intentions to destroy the people of Israel because of their idolatry. But Moses interceded on behalf of Israel (Exodus 32:11), and in response to his prayer God relented and did not destroy them (Exodus 32:14). And as James records, God responded to the earnest prayers of Elijah in both initiating and ending a three-and-a-half-year drought (James 5:17; also see Genesis 18:22; Genesis 32:26; Daniel 10:12; Amos 7:1; Acts 4:29; Acts 10:31; and Acts 12:5).

At the same time that we acknowledge that God is sovereign, we must also acknowledge that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16; cf. James 4:2). Neither of these truths can be denied, and neither should be emphasized to detriment of the other. In fact, immediately after answering the question of how to pray in Luke 11:2, Jesus goes on to answer the question of why to pray by giving two reasons—because God rewards diligence in prayer by granting requests (Luke 11:5), and because God delights in giving good gifts to His children (Luke 11:11).

In the words of Richard Pratt, “Prayer is a powerful human effort that can significantly affect not only the lives of individuals but the very course of world history” (pray with your eyes open, 112). This truth, no doubt, should be a powerful motive for the children of God to pray. As Grudem writes:

If we were really convinced that prayer changes the way God acts, and that God does bring about remarkable changes in the world in response to prayer…then we would pray much more than we do. If we pray little, it is probably because we do not really believe that prayer accomplishes much at all (systematic theology, 377).

5. God has ordained prayer as a means by which He accomplishes His eternal purposes.

At this point, some may wonder how it is that Scripture can teach both that God providentially brings all things to pass in conformity with His eternal purpose and that the prayers of men can have a significant affect in the unfolding of world history. The seeming contradiction between these two truths vanishes, however, when one realizes that “the same God who has decreed the end has also decreed that His end shall be reached through His appointed means, and one of these is prayer” (a.w. pink, the sovereignty of god, 167). In other words, God in His infinite wisdom was pleased to ordain prayer to be a means through which He accomplishes His good pleasure in and through His creation. As Pink writes:

God has decreed that certain events shall come to pass, but He has also decreed that these events shall come to pass through the means He has appointed for their accomplishment. God has elected certain ones to be saved, but He has also decreed that these ones shall be saved through the preaching of the Gospel. The Gospel, then, is one of the appointed means for the working out of the eternal counsel of the Lord; and prayer is another. God has decreed the means as well as the end, and among the means is prayer (ibid., 171).

Understanding this relationship between the sovereignty of God and the prayers of men begins with recognizing the comprehensive nature of God’s eternal purpose. Richard Pratt writes:

God’s plan is so comprehensive that it not only includes the final destinies of things but also includes the secondary, creaturely processes that work together to accomplish these ends. For instance, God does not simply ordain light to shine on the earth each day; He also employs the sun, the moon, the stars, and countless other things to accomplish that end. God does not merely determine that someone will recover from a disease; He uses doctors and medicine to accomplish the healing. As the playwright of history, God did not simply write an ending for the book of time. He wrote every word on every page so that all events lead to the grand finale (Pray With Your Eyes Open, 109-10).[1]

In other words, the “all things” which God works out “according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11) includes the means that He uses to bring about His ultimate ends. God uses the sun to bring light to the earth, He uses doctors to restore people to health, and He uses prayer to bring about many things He has purposed in eternity past.

When someone wants to cross the street safely, he uses the crosswalk and looks both ways before doing so; when he desires his family members to turn to Christ for salvation, he seeks to proclaim the gospel to them; when he desires to provide for his family, he works hard at his place of employment. And in the same way, when he desires such-and-such to happen, he prays to God to bring it about, recognizing that prayer is one of the means through which God brings about His purposes here on earth.[2]

Several examples in Scripture illustrate that God has ordained prayer as a means to accomplish His eternal plans. Let’s consider three of them. First, when Abraham sojourned in Gerar in Genesis 20:1, he lied and told King Abimelech that Sarah was his sister, at which time Abimelech took Sarah into his harem of wives (v. 2). In response, God closed all the wombs of the household of Abimelech and threatened the king with further judgment if he did not restore Sarah to Abraham (vv. 7, 17). However, at the same time that God warned Abimelech of this judgment, He also told him, “[Abraham] is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live” (v. 7). In other words, God revealed to the king that His plan was for Abraham to pray and intercede for the King so that divine judgment would be withdrawn. Then, in verse 17, God’s preordained plan came to pass: “And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children.”

A second example is found at the end of the book of Job, where God addressed Job’s friend, Eliphaz the Temanite, saying:

I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly (Job 42:7b-8a; NIV)

Then, as verse 9 reveals, Eliphaz “did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer” (NIV). From this it is clear that God not only ordained that His wrath toward Eliphaz would be turned aside, but He also ordained that the means He would use to accomplish that end would include the intercessory prayer of His servant Job.

A third and final example of God’s ordination of prayer as a means to accomplish His end is found in God’s promise to Israel of future restoration in Jeremiah 29:1. In verse Jeremiah 29:11, the Lord told Israel that He knew the plans that He had for her. In other words, the God who knew the end from the beginning was not unaware of what He had purposed for Israel’s future. He continued by telling Israel that His plans were “for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). What will happen in the future when God’s plan unfolds and He providentially brings it to pass? He continued:

“Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile” (vv. 12-14).

God will restore His people in response to their prayers, but these prayers—rather than being an intrusion into God’s eternal plan—are actually part of God’s plan. Both the means and the end—the prayers and the restoration—have been ordained by Him and will be brought to pass by Him (cf. Ezekiel 36:37).

Prayers of intercession should not be thought of as attempts to alter the eternal purposes of God. As Pratt writes, “Trying to alter the eternal decrees of God through prayer is like trying to reach the moon on a trampoline; it is impossible. Our petitions cannot interrupt God’s plan for the universe anymore than a trampoline can break the power of earth’s gravity” (pray with your eyes open, 109). Instead, prayer should be understood as “one of the many secondary causes through which God fulfills His plan” (ibid., 110).

It is obvious, then, that you don’t need to deny the sovereignty of God in order to be committed to a life of fervent prayer. For this kind of prayer life begins with an obedient submission to the command of God and the example of Christ; it flows out of the recognition that God is able and willing to respond to the prayers of His children; and it rests in the assurance that God has sovereignly ordained prayer as a means to accomplish His purposes.

            [1] According to D. A. Carson: “If I pray right, God is graciously working out his purposes in me and through me, and the praying, though mine, is simultaneously the fruit of God’s powerful work in me through his Spirit. By this God-appointed means I become an instrument to bring about a God-appointed end. If I do not pray, it is not as if the God-appointed end fails, leaving God somewhat frustrated. Instead, the entire situation has now changed, and my prayerlessness, for which I am entirely responsible, cannot itself escape the reaches of God’s sovereignty, forcing me to conclude that in that case there are other God-appointed ends in view, possibly including judgment on me and on those for whom I should have been interceding” (a call to spiritual reformation: priorities from paul and his prayers, 165).

           [2]According to C. Samuel Storms: “Divine sovereignty does not preempt prayer, nor does prayer render God’s choice contingent. The God who is pleased to ordain the salvation of sinners, based solely on his good pleasure, is no less pleased to ordain that he will save them in response to the prayers of others whom he has previously saved via the same means” (“Prayer and Evangelism under God’s Sovereignty,” in still sovereign: contemporary perspectives on election, foreknowledge, and grace, 316).