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What does it mean to be "Reformed"? (8)


Although it may sound strange to many of you, consider what I believe to be the inescapable fact that (9) only the Reformed can consistently and sincerely pray for God to save souls.

Here is J. I. Packer again:

“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 to 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 Saviour. You ask God to work in them everything necessary for their salvation. You would not dream of making it a point in your prayer that you are not asking God actually to bring them to faith, because you recognize that that is something He cannot do. Nothing of the sort! When you pray for unconverted people, you do so on the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith. You entreat Him to do that very thing, and your confidence in asking rests upon the certainty that He is able to do what you ask. And so indeed He is: this conviction, which animates your intercessions, is God’s own truth, written on your heart by the Holy Spirit. In prayer, then . . . 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. Thus by your practice of intercession, no less than by giving thanks for your conversion, you acknowledge and confess the sovereignty of God’s grace. And so do all Christian people everywhere” (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, pp. 15-16).

On the assumption of libertarian freedom, precisely what may the non-Reformed ask God to do in and on behalf of an unregenerate person? One thing he may not ask is that God act on the soul with sufficient power and persuasion that the unbelieving heart believes, because, as John Piper explains, those who affirm the power of contrary choice “do not believe that God has the right to intrude upon a person’s rebellion, and overcome it, and draw that person effectually to faith and salvation. They do not believe that God has the right to exert himself so powerfully in grace as to overcome all the resistance of a hardened sinner. Instead they believe that man himself has the sole right of final determination in the choices and affections of his heart toward God. Every person, they say, has final self-determination in whether they will overcome the hardness of their hearts and come to Christ” (Pleasures of God, 217).

According to libertarianism, the most that God can do is restore in fallen people a measure of enabling grace. This being the case, the ultimate reason one person repents and another does not is to be found in them, not God. My question is this: Does enabling grace actually and effectually save anyone? The answer is, of course, No. It only makes it possible that each soul might believe. If that is the case, when an Arminian prays for the lost he is not really praying for God to act upon their souls or to influence their wills so as actually and effectually to bring them to saving faith and repentance, but only to act so as to make it possible for the soul itself to act in such a way that salvation will be the result.

Thus, according to the Arminian, God “does everything possible” to bring someone to faith short of actually bringing someone to faith. God persuades, motivates, inspires by the Spirit, enables, prepares, and graciously empowers. So what precisely is it that an Arminian is asking God to do? For him to act on such a will in any degree is to move it contrary to present preference. But how can this be done without depriving the will of “ultimate responsibility” for what it prefers? If the “self” must exercise ultimate “determination” for all present preferences, God can’t. And if God can’t, it is futile for us to ask him to. The Arminian contends that we are not asking God to “move” the will at all, but simply to give the will good reasons for choosing to move itself. But if such be true we are then not asking God to exert saving or converting or regenerating influence on the soul, which is precisely my point.

So again, what is it that we are petitioning God to do in an unbeliever’s soul when we intercede for their salvation? If God cannot be “ultimately responsible” for the transition of this soul from unbelief to belief, for what should one pray? One cannot pray that God effectually and efficaciously save this soul, for if God were to do so then “ultimate responsibility” would shift from the individual to God, something that is antithetical to the notion of self-determination.

The Arminian says that God may communicate by revelation or illumination reasons why Christianity is true, may orchestrate providentially an encounter or experience or sight that confirms the truth of Christianity. But how much communication is permitted? How clear can it be? How impressive is the evidence? How powerful is the encounter? According to libertarianism, all such inducements or acts of illumination or providential encounters must be ultimately ineffective, must fall short of actually causing the transition from unbelief to belief. Simply put, according to libertarianism, there is a definitive limit beyond which God cannot go in exerting influence on the way people think, feel, and choose. At no point can God exert such influence on the will of an individual that would invariably result in faith. God must be meticulously and scrupulously careful that his work of illumination is not too clear nor his arguments too convincing nor his reasoning too logical nor his love too appealing nor his conviction too painful nor his providential oversight of external circumstances too stunning.

It would appear that the non-Reformed have reduced prayer to the following: “Oh God, please do something ineffectual in John’s soul in such a way that you don’t bring him to act contrary to his current convictions.” But couldn’t we pray that God would “plant in the lost soul an inner unrest and longing for Christ?” Let me say two things in response to that question.

First, to say that in response to our prayers God might cause the unregenerate soul to experience “unrest” and “longing” implies that the soul, of its own accord, preference, and choice is, in fact, “at rest” without Christ and “longs” to remain in unbelief. Therefore, any action God might take in answering our prayer for that lost soul would be a violation of the soul’s self-determination to say No to Christ. In other words, you must ask yourself this question: “When I ask God to plant unrest and longing in an unregenerate soul, what exactly am I asking God to do?” It would seem that for God to do anything at all that might to any degree sway or influence the unbelieving heart to believe or the unwanting heart to want, is to violate or infringe upon the soul’s alleged right to determine itself. To influence the will to choose against its present choice is inconsistent with the belief in absolute free will and self-determination.

Second, if one should somehow overcome this first problem and conclude that it is, in fact, legitimate for God to “plant a longing” in an unregenerate person’s heart, another question must be answered: “How strong and powerful and persuasive can that longing be which you are praying that God plant in his heart?” As Piper notes, “there are two kinds of longings God could plant in an unbeliever’s heart. One kind of longing is so strong that it leads the person to pursue and embrace Christ. The other kind of longing is not strong enough to lead a person to embrace Christ. Which should he pray for? If we pray for the strong longing, then we are praying that the Lord would work effectually and get that person saved. If you pray for the weak longing, then we are praying for an ineffectual longing that leaves the person in sin (but preserves his self-determination)” (Pleasures of God, 219).

This would appear to mean that people who really believe that man must have the ultimate power of self-determination can’t consistently pray that God would convert unbelieving sinners. Why? “Because, if they pray for divine influence in a sinner’s life they are either praying for a successful influence (which takes away the sinner’s ultimate self-determination), or they are praying for an unsuccessful influence (which is not praying for God to convert the sinner). So either you give up praying for God to convert sinners or you give up ultimate human self-determination” (Pleasures of God, 219). It would appear that the non-Reformed must opt for the former.

A person in need of conversion is "dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1); he is "enslaved to sin" (Romans 6:17; John 8:34); "the god of this world has blinded his mind that he might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians. 4:4); his heart is hardened against God (Ephesians 4:18) so that he is hostile to God and in rebellion against God's will (Romans 8:7). If the individual has the ultimate responsibility of self-determination you cannot petition God to make him alive or release his will from bondage or enlighten his mind or soften his heart so that hostility is effectually replaced with affection and rebellion is actually turned to submission. But if God cannot do such things in the human soul, in what meaningful sense can it be said that God saves a soul in answer to your prayers for him?

Only the person who rejects human self-determination can consistently pray for God to save the lost. My prayer for unbelievers is that God will do for them what he did for Lydia: he opened her heart (which would have otherwise remained “closed”) so that she gave heed to what Paul said (Acts 16:14). I will pray that God, who once said, "Let there be light!", will by that same creative power utterly and effectually dispel the darkness of unbelief and "shine in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). I will pray that he will "take out their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh" (Ezek. 36:26). I will pray that they be born not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God (John 1:13). And in my praying I will try to "be kind and to teach and correct with gentleness and patience, if perhaps God may grant them repentance and freedom from Satan's snare" (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The only alternative, it would appear, is to ask God not to be successful in doing “everything possible” to win the sinner’s consent. We would be left asking God to diminish or moderate the appeal of Christ’s beauty lest he irresistibly overcome the sinner’s self-determination to remain in unbelief.

Thus, only the Reformed can consistently pray for God actually to save the lost.


Tammy, I completely understand why you feel this way. However, we must remember that the Arminian scheme has the same issue. In this scheme they believe God foreknew who would reject the saving mercies of Christ and who would not. God having this knowledge still created those who would end of up rejecting His Son. Why would God create them? We also have the problem of what happens to those born without having the opportunity to hear the proclamation of the apostolic gospel; we know this is according to His design and intention. (Acts 17.26) God never sends someone to hell who does not want to continue in their rebellion. We should be amazed at the depths of our depravity and be thankful for His mercy that snatched us out of our rebellion!

Sam, thanks for breaking down what it really means to be Reformed. I just couldn't continue to read and enjoy this series and without taking a moment to say, "Thanks."

Having a hard time believing that God created some to go to hell? Perhaps you would do well to hear the pronouncements of God himself in Romans 9:21-22 "Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use? But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction?" Did you take note of "prepared for destruction"? The clay doesn't prepare itself. It is "prepared". The POTTER prepares ALL the clay.

Tammy, you have raised a point that we all struggle to understand. My response to this is simply to say that no one will ever go to hell except those who deserve to. I say that because Scripture says it. As mysterious as hell may be, there is no injustice in it. That's where we ultimately must rest. Blessings!

Thanks for a great post. I am currently working through Pauline Epistles and looking to see if libertarian free will is consistent with Pauline Prayers. I have yet to find a good response to some of the above conclusions from well known Arminian authors. (Episcopius, Wesley, Watson, Pope, Miley, Oden etc.) On a side note, I did receive Kingdom Come on Monday and have been devouring it with an open Bible. I am through chapter 8 and have greatly appreciated all the labor you have put into this book. Trying to read Matt 24 without all the clinging traditions from my IHOP Historic Premillennialism was difficult to say the least, but I kept pushing them aside and was really able to see Matt 24 in a new light. Thanks!

I don't disagree with this, but I have a hard time believing that God created some to go to hell, which seems the logical conclusion. If we pray for God to enlighten someone and He doesn't , what else can one conclude? And probably from my own sinful thinking, some could say why pray then? Yet the scripture says that we ought to do just that and I agree . Blessings, Tammy

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