The question is often phrased with brutal honesty: “If the spiritual destiny of all people is fixed and certain from eternity past, why preach, why pray?”
I want to begin my answer to this question with the reminder of how the apostle Paul repeatedly speaks with perfect ease of both sovereign election and prayer for successful evangelistic outreach. 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.
I want to assert, on the one hand, that the success of the gospel depends on God’s elective decree. But I also want to assert, on the other hand, and with no less conviction, that its success depends on the prayers of Christian people like the Thessalonians in the first century and you and me today. One of the problems we face is that theologians have a way of “resolving” apparent conflicts that God is happy to let lie. They feel driven either to inflate the power of prayer, thereby making God contingent, or to exalt divine sovereignty so as to make prayer superfluous.
Paul’s handling of the problem is of a different order. He does not conclude from divine sovereignty in salvation that people need not bother interceding on his behalf. He declines to suggest that the certainty of the end precludes the necessity of means. Were you to have asked him, “Has God’s elective purpose guaranteed the salvation of its objects?” he would have happily said, “Yes.” Were you to have then suggested that certainty of this sort reduces prayer and evangelism to a religious charade, nice but not at all necessary, I can almost hear his angry me genoito! “May it never be!”
The apostle was following the example of his Lord, who on more than one occasion juxtaposed the certainty of eternal election with the urgency of gospel proclamation. In Matthew 11 Jesus extols divine sovereignty in determining who shall be the recipients of a saving knowledge of the Son virtually simultaneously with his urgent plea for sinners to seek their soul’s rest in him (vv. 25-30). Again, in John 10, Jesus openly invited belief in himself as the Messiah while declaring that those who rejected him did so because they “are not my sheep” (v. 26).
Jesus was not being theologically dishonest with his audience and neither was Paul with his. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not mutually exclusive propositions, except in the minds of those theologians who bristle at the thought of God ultimately deciding which, if any, hell-deserving sinners are saved.
What, then, did Paul expect the prayers of Christians to achieve? Wherein is found their moral and theological significance? Be it noted that neither Paul nor any other biblical author is suggesting that prayer can alter the pretemporal divine decree. Our prayers do not increase the number of the elect nor does our disobedience deprive God’s kingdom of those whom he otherwise wished to saved. Paul asks us to pray because he is persuaded that God does not will the salvific end apart from the specified means. Our mistake is in thinking that the divine decree makes an event certain irrespective of the causes and conditions (such as prayer) on which it depends. But the latter are encompassed in God’s sovereign purpose no less than the former.
So, let’s return to the original form of the question: “If the spiritual destiny of all people is fixed and certain from eternity past, why preach to them? Why pray for them?” This sort of inquiry prompted A. A. Hodge to ask another series of questions:
“If God has eternally decreed that you should live, what is the use of your breathing? If God has eternally decreed that you should talk, what is the use of your opening your mouth? If God has eternally decreed that you should reap a crop, what is the use of your sowing the seed? If God has eternally decreed that your stomach should contain food, what is the use of your eating” (Evangelical Theology, 92-93).
Hodge answers his own questions:
“In order to educate us, [God] demands that we should use the means, or go without the ends which depend upon them. There are plenty of fools who make the transcendental nature of eternity and of the relation of the eternal life of God to the time-life of man an excuse for neglecting prayer. But of all the many fools in the United States, there is not one absurd enough to make the same eternal decree an excuse for not chewing his food or for not voluntarily inflating his lungs” (93).
If God has graciously decreed that a certain soul shall in due course believe in Jesus Christ, we may be assured that he has also decreed that the gospel shall be presented to that person, either through preaching or in print or by some other medium. One must not assume that the ordained end (the salvation of the soul) will occur apart from the prescribed means (the preaching of the good news, which, I might add, is likewise ordained by God).
We must also remember that our responsibility to preach fervently, urgently, and universally is dependent neither upon our speculations as to who may or may not be elect nor upon our ability to comprehend the relationship between preaching and predestination. God’s command, not our curiosity, is the measure of our duty. Much to our chagrin, it is not a part of God’s revealed will in Holy Scripture to indicate who is and who is not elect. The names of those written in the Lamb’s book of life cannot be found by reading between the lines of Scripture. No such information is to be found nestled between Malachi and Matthew, or is tucked away in the notes of certain study Bibles, or is listed under the heading Elect in a concordance.
In Acts 18:9-10 we again see Paul’s approach to ministry based on this truth. There we read how the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision to encourage and fortify him for continued work in Corinth, notwithstanding heated opposition. “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” Paul might have responded to this information in several ways. He could have said to himself: “Well, now, I think I shall ask God for the names and addresses of his elect people so that it will save me the time and effort of having to preach to everyone.” Or perhaps he might have said: “It is good to know this, for it frees me to go elsewhere. After all, if they are God’s elect people, they will eventually come to faith whether I evangelize the city or not.”
But Paul did nothing of the sort. Far from being discouraged or dissuaded from his evangelistic zeal, far from being reduced to passive reliance on a secret sovereign decree, he immediately returned to the city and stayed for a year a half (v. 11). Precisely because he knew that God had sheep in Corinth, he labored there diligently. Nothing is more of a stimulus to evangelistic zeal and effort than the assurance of success, which the truth of sovereign election alone can give. Says Packer,
“So far from making evangelism pointless the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility – indeed, the certainty – that evangelism will be fruitful. Apart from it, there is not even a possibility of evangelism being fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign grace of God, evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen, and there would be no more complete waste of time under the sun than to preach the Christian gospel” (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 106).
Why? Because were it not for sovereign grace regenerating hearts and enabling the unbelieving to believe, heaven would remain forever barren of life. Apart from sovereign grace that makes us alive, we would do as well screaming at a corpse in the county morgue, “Rise up and live!”
Evangelism is possible and will bear fruit for one reason: God in sovereign grace is in the business of making alive and renewing hearts that they might love him whom they formerly despised. We may choose to exhaust ourselves preaching fluently, cogently, unceasingly, and sincerely, handing out tracts, organizing revival services, and availing ourselves of every conceivable opportunity to reach the lost. But “unless there is some other factor in the situation,” says Packer, “over and above our own endeavours, all evangelistic action is foredoomed to failure. This the fact, the brute, rock-bottom fact, that we have to face” (109).
Of course, that “over-and-above” factor is God’s electing grace. Evangelism is successful because God does what we cannot do. Paul returned to preach in Corinth because the sovereignty of God gave him “hope of success as he preached to deaf ears, and held up Christ before blind eyes, and sought to move stony hearts. His confidence was that where Christ sends the gospel there Christ has His people – fast bound at present in the chains of sin, but due for release at the appointed moment through a mighty renewing of their hearts as the light of the gospel shines into their darkness, and the Saviour draws them to Himself” (Packer, 116-17).
Let’s take one hypothetical example as a way of illustrating the relation of sovereignty to prayer. Let’s suppose that, unbeknownst to me, God has decreed that Jerry should come to saving faith in Christ on August 18, 2002. Suppose also, again without my knowledge, that God wills to regenerate Jerry and bring to him to faith on the eighteenth only in response to my prayer for him on the seventeenth. Of course, my prayer for Jerry should not be restricted to one day of the year. I am using these two specific days for the sake of illustration. Apart from my prayer on August eighteenth that Jerry be saved, he will remain in unbelief. Does this mean that God’s will for Jerry’s salvation on the eighteenth might fail should I forget or refuse to pray on the seventeenth (perhaps because of some misguided notion about divine sovereignty)? No.
We must remember that God has decreed or willed my praying on the seventeenth for Jerry’s salvation, which he intends to effect on the eighteenth. God does not will the end, that is, Jerry’s salvation on the eighteenth, apart from the means, that is, my prayer on the seventeenth. God ordains or wills that Jerry come to faith on August eighteenth in response to my prayer for his salvation on August seventeenth. If I do not pray on the seventeenth, he will not be saved on the eighteenth. But I most certainly shall pray on the seventeenth because God, determined to save Jerry on the eighteenth, has ordained that on the seventeenth I should pray for him.
Thus, from the human perspective, it may rightly be said that God’s will for Jerry is dependent upon me and my prayers, as long as it is understood that God, by an infallible decree, has secured and guaranteed my prayers as an instrument with no less certainty than he has secured and guaranteed Jerry’ faith as an end.
Someone may object at this stage by saying: “But if your prayer on August seventeenth is ordained or willed by God, why bother?” I bother because I do not know what God has ordained relative to my prayer life. I do not know what he has determined to accomplish by means of it. And it is inexcusably arrogant, presumptuous, and disobedient to suspend my prayers on the basis of a will that God has declined to disclose. What I do know is that he has commanded me to pray for this lost soul. Whether or not he has willed for Gary to believe in consequence of my prayer is not mine to know until after the fact (and perhaps not even then). But it must not, indeed cannot, be made the reason for praying for not praying before the fact.
Often when God wants to pour out his blessings he begins by awakening in his people an awareness of their great need, thereby provoking them to ask him for what he longs to give. Or, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “God has been pleased to constitute prayer to be antecedent to the bestowment of mercy; and he is pleased to bestow mercy in consequence of prayer, as though he were prevailed upon by prayer. When the people of God are stirred up to prayer, it is the effect of his intention to show mercy” (Jonathan Edwards, “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979], p. 116). Thus prayer becomes an effective way to obtain those blessings from God that God himself has foreordained to give to those who pray for them. D. A. Carson has expressed the same point in somewhat different terms:
“If I pray aright, 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, 165).
I have argued that Paul unequivocally affirmed the sovereignty of God in human affairs. I have also argued that he viewed prayer, particularly for the success of the evangelistic enterprise, as crucial. An excellent example of this is found in Romans 15:30-32. There Paul makes this request: “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there; so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.”
Such a statement may seem incongruous to some, appearing as it does in an epistle known principally for its emphasis on divine sovereignty. Paul, however, felt no discomfort in arguing that God had suspended the success of his journeys and mission on the prayers of his people. Without those prayers Paul was at a loss. His concern over a threat from the unbelieving Jews in Judea was well-founded (Acts 20-21). So, “his request for continued prayers was not merely a tactical maneuver to engage their sympathy, but a call for help in what he knew to be a matter of life and death” (Gordon P. Wiles, Paul’s Intercessory Prayers: The Significance of the Intercessory Prayer Passages in the Letters of St. Paul [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974], p. 269).
Paul also believed that the approval of his ministry was dependent, at least in part, on the prayers of these believers. Although it may at first appear odd that he feared his service might prove unacceptable, he had ample evidence that many regarded with suspicion his ministry to the Gentiles. So his request is understandable.
His plans to visit Rome and enjoy the fellowship of these saints were also dependent on prayer (1 Thess. 3:10-13). Important here is Paul’s reference to the will of God (v. 32). He does not presume to know if it was God’s determinate purpose to bring him to Rome in response to the Christians’ petitions. Subsequent history proved that it was, though his arrival there was not in the manner he had intended (see Acts 21:17-28:16). But clearly the apostle believed in prayer as a means employed by God in the effectual fulfillment of his will (see also, in this regard, Philemon 22; Phil. 1:19; 2 Cor. 1:8-11)
I encourage you to read my article, “Praying for God to Save the Lost” found elsewhere on this website.