7/21/2017 4:45:12 PM
Why Pray if God is Sovereign in Salvation?
I recently was talking with another believer who was struggling to persevere in praying for the lost. This dilemma arose out of trying to understand if our prayers matter in the salvation of others. How is the tension resolved between the free-will of man to reject God, and the sovereignty of God in saving souls? Have you ever been at such an impasse? Why pray if God has already chosen who He intends to save? Do you wonder if your prayers make a difference?
I must state up front that these topics fill shelves upon shelves in theological libraries! And a brief article in a newsletter can only scratch the surface. But I believe each of us has these lingering thoughts and would welcome any Scriptural insights to address this important question: Should I pray for God to save people?
We know God is the King on the throne (Psalm 11:4), ruling over the whole universe (Psalm 45:6, 47:8). We know that as an all-powerful (Job 42:2, Psalm 115:3) and all-knowing ruler (Genesis 6:5, Psalm 139:4), He hears all the thoughts of every person (Psalm 33:13-15, Proverbs 15:3). But not all thoughts are prayers, and not all prayers are requests. So for the sake of discussion, let's focus just on prayers of petition or request.
Scriptures declare that God is not obligated to respond to the requests of unbelievers (Psalm 34:16, Proverbs 15:29, Proverbs 1:22-33, Proverbs 21:27). But, God hears the prayers of all believers (Matthew 6:6, Psalm 34:15). These prayers must be according to God's Word, and in alignment with His character (Matt 6:9-13: Luke 11:2-4, Hebrews 4:15). As a sober reminder, if a believer is in sin, his prayers may be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). On a side note, we are commanded to pray directly to God the Father (Matthew 6:9). We pray only through the Son, our High Priest and Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 4:15). And we pray with the help and intercession of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26-27). We should never pray "through" or "to" anyone else, ever!
When we pray, we are petitioning the sovereign King and waiting for the King to answer. Our petitions should be thoughtful, according to His Will and Word and with the right motive (James 4:1-3). This perspective eliminates a lot of incorrect thinking on prayer. I would suggest that prayer is about changing your mind and your will to conform to God's mind and His will. Jesus exemplifies this perfectly in Luke 22:41-42 when He knelt down and began to pray, saying, "Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done."
And this brings us to the crux of the question, “Do our prayers change the mind of God?”
There are several passages that seem to reveal God changing His mind after a prayer. For example, Moses prayed to God to spare Israel after the golden calf incident and the Scriptures says, “So the Lord changed His mind” (Exodus 32:11-14). But Scripture helps us understand the meaning with two other parallel passages, Numbers 14:13–23 and Deuteronomy 9:25–29. In these accounts, the phrase “the Lord changed his mind” is not mentioned, but what we read is the Lord pardoning Israel with some temporal consequences, including disallowing them from entering the promised land and punishing them for the golden calf (Exodus 32:11-14). There is another aspect we must consider regarding “God changing His Mind” and this is the decrees of God. A decree is a final decision by the Lord that cannot be changed. These are sworn promises (Genesis 22:16-18, Ps 110:4, Jeremiah 4:28, Ezekiel 24:14). God will never change His mind on these decrees/promises. The New Covenant is one of these decrees. The Exodus 32 context was not a decree to destroy Israel. Thus, there is room for God to choose to punish or pardon. A good example of this principle is expressed in Jeremiah 18:6–8 “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. “At one moment, I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.” God was threatening but did not decree their destruction. The threat was real, but God in His mercy had an implied condition. And should this condition be fulfilled; the threat would be removed. Moses’ prayer, which was according to God’s promises and character fulfills this condition. Moses’ intercessory prayer on Israel’s behalf was accepted by God resulting in their pardon with some temporal consequences. So, did Moses’ prayer change God’s mind? No. Moses fulfilled an implied condition through prayer, and God kept His word.
There are many other examples of God relenting in Scripture, but in each case, it’s not changing His decree, but fulfilling a stated or implied condition. Jonah’s proclamation to the Ninevites and the forty-day window included an implied condition that if they repented within the forty days, God would relent. So how do we know if something is decreed or implied? We search the Scripture for an explicit decree, promise or implication.
Let’s bring this full circle. Should we in love pray for the lost, even those who may not be the elect? Since we do not know who the elect are, I answer with a resounding “YES.” Scripture makes it clear that although God chooses who is to be saved, God does not decree anyone to hell, except for one exception, the son of perdition (Psalm 41:9, John 17:12). Scripture describes Jesus calling Israel to repentance and faith, pleading, even at times with tears (Matthew 23:37, Luke 19:41–44, John 3:16–21). If this is Jesus’ example to us, can we justify such hard-heartedness toward any sinner, when we were once in the same desperate and deplorable condition? Additionally, after Jesus was crucified, through Peter at Pentecost, God offered repentance again to those who participated in Jesus’ crucifixion directly and indirectly (Acts 2:36–40). Lastly, praying for someone’s salvation is a way to cultivate compassion and love of Christ in your life which should lead to being more evangelistic. When we pray we should be on alert for an opportunity to share the Gospel to fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20.
In closing, if we see prayer in the right light, then we can pray like Elijah or Paul. May you persevere in praying to the King, petitioning the King and patiently waiting on the King.
If you have some additional thoughts on prayer and this article, please email me: john@ProclaimingTheGospel.org.