The Sovereignty of God and Prayer

Several weeks ago at Bible Study on a Sunday morning, our teacher was teaching on election. While I agreed with what he was teaching I could also sense some resistance coming from some of the people in the class. There was some questions asked by a few of them, but they were bouncing all around the main point without really hitting it.

Since everything the teacher taught was directly from scripture, there was really no way for them to refute it, but they were bringing things up that bothered them such as what about lost loved ones or doesn’t this teaching lead to fatalism, etc. Fortunately, no one brought up the “robot” accusation. I took this in silence for about 15 minutes or so then I raised my hand. To my great surprise, the teacher called on me.

My question was something like this, “Since only the elect are saved and all of them will be saved, how do we pray for the lost?” Our teacher smiled and all of the hands in class went down. He replied that we are to indeed pray for the lost because we have no idea who the elect are. Also, the Bible commands that we pray for and witness to everyone that they may come to saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. God does not show us who will believe and who won’t. Therefore, the Gospel must go to everyone.

After class several people came up to me and shook my hand. A couple told me that I had asked the right question. I found that very humbling and I also came to understand, perhaps a little better than before, how that most believers aren’t as educated in doctrine as we would like for them to be. Also, the percentage of believers who actually walk through their days seeking the truth from God by drawing near to Him as much as possible is very low. That does not mean those who don’t aren’t genuine. Instead, it should show us how desperate the need is for good Biblical discipleship in our churches.

Below is an article by John Piper that addresses how we are to pray for the lost within the Sovereignty of God. Enjoy and be blessed – Mike Ratliff

by John Piper

I am often asked, “If you believe God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11) and that his knowledge of all things past, present, and future is infallible, then what is the point of praying that anything happen?” Usually this question is asked in relation to human decision: “If God has predestined some to be his sons and chosen them before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4,5), then what’s the point in praying for anyone’s conversion?”

The implicit argument here is that if prayer is to be possible at all man must have the power of self-determination. That is, all man’s decisions must ultimately belong to himself, not God. For otherwise he is determined by God and all his decisions are really fixed in God’s eternal counsel. Let’s examine the reasonableness of this argument by reflecting on the example cited above.

1. “Why pray for anyone’s conversion if God has chosen before the foundation of the world who will be his sons?” 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” (II 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).

Now I would like to turn the question back to my questioner: If you insist that this man must have the power of ultimate self-determination, what is the point of praying for him? What do you want God to do for Him? You can’t ask that God overcome the man’s rebellion, for rebellion is precisely what the man is now choosing, so that would mean God overcame his choice and took away his power of self-determination. But how can God save this man unless he act so as to change the man’s heart from hard hostility to tender trust?

Will you pray that God enlighten his mind so that he truly see the beauty of Christ and believe? If you pray this, you are in effect asking God no longer to leave the determination of the man’s will in his own power. You are asking God to do something within the man’s mind (or heart) so that he will surely see and believe. That is, you are conceding that the ultimate determination of the man’s decision to trust Christ is God’s, not merely his.

What I am saying is that it is not the doctrine of God’s sovereignty which thwarts prayer for the conversion of sinners. On the contrary, it is the unbiblical notion of self-determination which would consistently put an end to all prayers for the lost. Prayer is a request that God do something. But the only thing God can do to save a lost sinner is to overcome his resistance to God. If you insist that he retain his self-determination, then you are insisting that he remain without Christ. For “no one can come to Christ unless it is given him from the Father” (John 6:65,44).

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 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 “shine in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6). I will pray that He will “take out their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 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 with all 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” (II Timothy 2:24-26).

In short, I do not ask God to sit back and wait for my neighbor to decide to change. I do not suggest to God that He keep his distance lest his beauty become irresistible and violate my neighbor’s power of self-determination. No! I pray that he ravish my unbelieving neighbor with his beauty, that he unshackle the enslaved will, that he make the dead alive and that he suffer no resistance to stop him lest my neighbor perish.

2. If someone now says, “O.K., granted that a person’s conversion is ultimately determined by God’ I still don’t see the point of your prayer. If God chose before the foundation of the world who would be converted, what function does your prayer have?” My answer is that it has a function like that of preaching: How shall the lost believe in whom they have not heard, and how shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall they preach unless they are sent (Romans 10:14f.)? Belief in Christ is a gift of God (John 6:65; II Timothy 2:25; Ephesians 2:8), but God has ordained that the means by which men believe on Jesus is through the preaching of men. It is simply naive to say that if no one spread the gospel all those predestined to be sons of God (Ephesians 1:5) would be converted anyway. The reason this is naive is because it overlooks the fact that the preaching of the gospel is just as predestined as is the believing of the gospel: Paul was set apart for his preaching ministry before he was born (Galatians 1:15), as was Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). Therefore, to ask, “If we don’t evangelize, will the elect be saved?” is like asking, “If there is no predestination, will the predestined be saved?” God knows those who are his and he will raise up messengers to win them. If someone refuses to be a part of that plan, because he dislikes the idea of being tampered with before he was born, then he will be the loser, not God and not the elect. “You will certainly carry out God’s purpose however you act but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” (Problem of Pain chapter 7, Anthology, p 910, cf. p 80)

Prayer is like preaching in that it is a human act also. It is a human act that God has ordained and which he delights in because it reflects the dependence of his creatures upon Him. He has promised to respond to prayer, and his response is just as contingent upon our prayer as our prayer is in accordance with his will. “And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (I John 5:14). When we don’t know how to pray according to God’s will but desire it earnestly, “the Spirit of God intercedes for us according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27).

In other words, just as God will see to it that His Word is proclaimed as a means to saving the elect, so He will see to it that all those prayers are prayed which He has promised to respond to. I think Paul’s words in Romans 15:18 would apply equally well to his preaching and his praying ministry: “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles.” Even our prayers are a gift from the one who “works in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). Oh, how grateful we should be that He has chosen us to be employed in this high service! How eager we should be to spend much time in prayer!

By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: www.desiringGod.org. Email: mail@desiringGod.org. Toll Free: 1.888.346.4700.

36 thoughts on “The Sovereignty of God and Prayer

  1. Excellent post brother Mike.

    This seems to be the “sticking point” for many when dealing with the Sovereignty of God, and His providence in all things.

    It seems that people desire a sovereign God when they are in a fix, but disallow God that sovereignty when it comes to the arena of salvation. Of course our American ideology of democratic equality gets thrust onto God, and thus He becomes “unfair” if He dare dictate anything to His creation.

    I have struggled with this thought(God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility) at times, however you can never go wrong asking God to work His will.

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  2. Thanks for this, Mike!

    Unfortunately, I just had the “robot” conversation with someone this weekend. Ugh. Actually, we’ve been having the conversation for 18 months over email. Over all those months, I did not know that she is fully Pelagian. I thought I was dealing with some Semi-Pelagian/Arminian teachings. But a few days ago, she flat out said that she does not believe that the fall of man was total, that humans do not have a sin nature, and that people are basically good. This is someone who can quote Scripture with the best of them. It’s just that she twists it to her own destruction. She is very convincing on the surface.

    Anyway, Piper’s teaching is right on. In light of his reasoned argument from Scripture, how could anyone disagree? Yet, professing Christians would shoot down everything Piper just said. When I read something like that, I pass it on to my friend, but she finds a way to disagree with it. Oh, Lord, thank you for your grace and mercy to open eyes and ears and hearts!

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  3. This is something that my wife and I talked about just yesterday. We tossed around the notion that God seems “unfair” and then we began to discuss whether “unfair” is the same as “unjust.” Is it possible for God to be unfair? Why do we wish to declare that God cannot be “unfair.” I’ve never read this in the Bible. I’ve never seen anywhere, where it states that God is not unfair. So my question is two fold. What is “unfair?” What does that mean? And second, is it possible for God to be unfair?

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  4. Louis:

    If God was fair, we would all be sentenced to eternal death in hell for our sins. Mike has written at least two posts on this topic.

    https://mikeratliff.wordpress.com/2007/10/20/the-transformed-mindset/
    https://mikeratliff.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/repost-of-but-thats-not-fair/

    Here’s a quote:
    “God, the creator of everything, would be well within His rights to do nothing to save anyone of us. If He had done that, no one could argue and say God was not being fair by dooming all humankind to an eternity in Hell because of their sin. However, God is gracious.”

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  5. Louis,

    If God was fair we would ALL get what we deserve–eternity in hell. Thankfully God is gracious and merciful and has chosen to have mercy on a few–the elect.

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  6. Mike thanks for this excellent post.

    When the Israelites wanted a king just as other nations had, they were given one.
    Hos 13:11 I gave you a king in My anger, and took him away in My wrath.

    If God can be pursuaded to do something in His anger, surely He will hear the prayers of Christ’s own for those who are lost and answer these prayers in His love. This is a hope that I have for my friends and loved ones that are still lost. I continue to plead with my Lord that He open their eyes and hearts to Him, knowing His will shall be done.

    Also, David tells us, in Psalm 37:3 – 8

    Trust in the Lord and do good;
    Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.

    Delight yourself also in the Lord,
    And He shall give you the desires of your heart.

    Commit your way to the Lord,
    Trust also in Him,
    And He shall bring it to pass.

    He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light,
    And your justice as the noonday.

    Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him;
    Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
    Because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass.

    Cease from anger, and forsake wrath;
    Do not fret – it only causes harm.

    Amazing how the desires of your heart do change once you belong to Christ. Having the patience to wait on the Lord can be a struggle though;-)

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  7. One thing I noticed after embracing the doctrine of election is that my prayers for the unsaved to know Christ didn’t change in wording. I ask God to choose them, even when I was a believer in free will. With God there is no confinement of time. I don’t fully understand this, but He is just as much “there” before the foundation of the world as He is “here” now. It’s as if my prayer goes back to before the foundation of the world, before God has elected anyone. I also believe that those who are in our paths each day are there for the purpose of praying for them, be they saved or not. This, I believe, is part of praying always. I think once those who embrace the truth of election come to understand about praying for the lost they will see there was really no need of conflict over the matter.

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  8. Thanks Patrick! We have all strugled with that and probably will continue to do so whenever we become self-focused. I deeply desire to free from this, but that won’t happen until I’m with my Lord in Heaven. Oh, come soon Lord Jesus!

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  9. Carol,

    They try to shoot down all of Piper’s points, but it would have to be by taking scripture out of context and using man-focused philosophy. I contend that for anyone to grasp the Doctrines of Grace is a step into Christian maturity. Think about it like this. Those who do understand and grasp the Doctrines of Grace have a much higher understanding of God than those who don’t. Why anyone would think that Man is good is beyond me. Only by God working through any of us can we do anything good.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  10. Sherry C.,

    You are right, there should be no conflict at all. The problem arises when those who do not really understand the doctrine of election correctly misinterpret it to teach fatalism. We do not beleive that. God works through us to save His people, therefore, we must pray and preach Jesus.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  11. Sherry C:

    Well said. I have not heard it said better. It is a great boost to my prayer life knowing that, if I am praying in the Holy Spirit (Jude 1:20), my prayers are God working in me to pray his pleasure.

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  12. Seems like this is the topic that is being dicussed everywhere! We to were just dicussing this very thing with some friends. The ones who are questioning this are the ones in the pulpit! We get labeled Hypercalvinists and fatalists when we try to say that God is sovereign over ALL and that includes the vessels made for dishonor. They say, ‘oh no, He doesn’t control what they do at all, He just winds them up and lets them go’……… Right. Thanks for this Mike. We are going to send it to a ‘few’ people who need to read this that are standing in the pulpit!! BTW, yes we have our armour on………… 🙂

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  13. Paul,

    Let me know what the reaction will be when you get to Irresistable Grace. 🙂 I think John Piper handled this very well in this piece. I mean, why do the Synergists pray for people to be saved at all if God won’t change them to be saved. 🙂

    Keep you armor on guys. 🙂

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  14. Sorry, but Calvinism befuddles me. I don’t believe in a ‘limited’ atonement. I believe God purchased even the false prophets who choose to reject His atonement. I believe people can ‘believe’ for awhile and then stop believing. I believe God will say to the righteous man ‘you will live’ but if that righteous man ‘trusts in his own righteousness’ and does evil he will die in his sin. I believe that God will say to the wicked man ‘you will surely die’ but if ‘that man turns’ from his evil and does what is right and just, he will be saved.

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  15. When I was in the Word of Faith movement, I believed that my prayers actually “moved” God in a tangible way. If enough of us prayed a certain prayer, God *had* to listen and do what we asked.

    Now that I’m out of that mess, I see prayer in a completely different way. Now I see prayer as something that changes or moves *me*, not God. God already set everything into place and I can’t make Him do something that He has not already ordained. Instead, if I pray for someone’s salvation, it puts me in a place of humility and acknowledgment that God is in control. It’s not that my prayer causes God to save someone; it’s that God caused me to want to pray for someone because He wants to use that time of prayer for His purposes. Prayer changes and affects us and God can use it for His glory.

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  16. Rachel,

    You beliefs are the default beliefs that we take with us into our salvation based on our man-focused way of understanding things. It ignores the clear teaching from the Bible that CANNOT BE IGNORED that Jesus died for His sheep and no one else.

    This set of beliefs is actaully in UNBELIEF. That unbelief says that God is not Sovereign over Man.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  17. The more I study the Bible, the more it is clear that if there is one thing that is constantly under attack in our day, it is the sovereignty of God. Man seeks to elevate himself to a position where he is the x-factor or the constant in every equation.

    Unfortunately, that is wishful thinking. God is sovereign in all things. And believe me, without that, I wouldn’t hope for much.

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  18. Rachel,

    Although I hope I have gone far beyond what you actually meant, this is how I interpret what you wrote:

    “I believe God purchased even the false prophets”
    …but God was too weak to make the purchase sure and true.

    “I believe God will say to the righteous man ‘you will live’ but if that righteous man ‘trusts in his own righteousness’ and does evil he will die in his sin”
    …for God speaks falsely, and is unable to save him whom God has declared ‘will live’, for God does not have the final say, but man by his deeds determines whether he lives or dies, and nothing is determined by anything that Christ has purchased on the cross for them who ‘will live’, for that which Christ purchased was not sure and true.

    “I believe that God will say to the wicked man ‘you will surely die’ but if ‘that man turns’ from his evil and does what is right and just, he will be saved”
    …for the wicked man, if he decides to, is able to be right and just and turn from evil, and does not need the Father to draw him to Christ but can do it in his own free will, even though the will of the wicked man would never want to turn to Christ, for his will is from a wicked heart, and deep within that wicked, stony heart, is a hater of God.

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  19. The more man elevates himself the less God is feared. Without true reverence for God truth becomes whatever people want it to be.

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  20. Rachel, You need to read ‘The Sovereignty of God’ by A.W.Pink. I know people who use to think just like you and it changed their minds with facts.

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  21. Pingback: 2 Peter 2:1 and Universal Redemption « Possessing the Treasure

  22. So here is a dark question concerning prayer:

    The Lord’s Prayers has been held up as a model of how we are to pray. Why does Jesus instruct us to ask the Father “not to lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

    Personally, I think it keys into God’s sovereignty, but I was wondering what your take on it is.

    Also, did you do a home ministry in Frederick Co MD in the early 90’s?

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  23. dec and all, just to be clear Rachel was quoting Scripture without citing them and merely saying these VERSES were her beliefs. I googled them: they are 2 Peter 2:1, Ezekiel 33:7-9, 13-16, and 18-19. You seemed so defensive on God’s behalf due to what she was saying but they were His words and she was just attaching “I believe” onto them.

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  24. Sharon, Read the next article Mike posted the following day.
    It’s on 2 Peter 2:1. That should explain things better. 🙂

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  25. Sure will, thanks! I just saw someone was putting words into Rachel’s mouth that she REALLY didn’t say and wanted to clear that doozy up. 🙂

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  26. “You can’t ask that God overcome the man’s rebellion, for rebellion is precisely what the man is now choosing, so that would mean God overcame his choice and took away his power of self-determination.” I would like to answer the “what is the point of praying for him” question posed here. When I was saved, I remember vividly the night. Because before that night, I “believed” in God in a vague way being brought up to. But I was told that night for the first time that Jesus was standing at the door waiting for an answer from me (Rev. 3:20). What exciting news! I had no idea before that. For the first time, to me, Jesus was a real live Person and wanting a relationship with me! My point is that everyone is not (presently) choosing not to say yes to God. (Some are.) Some were given the choice and found sin to be more worthwhile. But some are just oblivious, before hearing the good news, to the fact that there IS a real option before them. “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). So we tell them and we pray for them so they will KNOW by the power of God! Praise Him! I concede it is a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit when a person comes to Jesus Christ, for He must reveal Himself and call them. There is no other way.

    “And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (I John 5:14). Praise the Lord He is “willing that none should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). So we pray.

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  27. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because [6] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, [7] for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8 Sharon God is Sovereign in all things. Notice we are predestined and called. God is good..Deb

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  28. Yes, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined.” We are “elect ACCORDING TO the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:2). Those who He foreknew He did predestinate. He is outside of time and we are in it. It blows my mind! We who believe and obey now are elect according to His foreknowledge of all – before we ever did one thing!…and “predestined to ADOPTION” (Ephesians 1:5). There is a realization of our inheritance coming in the future. Romans 8:19 &23, “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” Yes, we are predestined and called. Still “MANY are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Not all who are called are predestined to adoption, but all who are predestined are called. “God our Savior,” Timothy says in his first letter (2:3-4), “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God is good. Those who hear and believe will be saved. These are His elect, by His sovereign determination chosen for their faith. Someday we will all be together fellowshipping and praising Jesus, Deb! I can’t wait!

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  29. Sharon,
    Your arminian aren’t you. 🙂 Someday we will be together fellowshipping sister! Praise God!
    You said:
    These are His elect, by His sovereign determination chosen for their faith.
    We were just chosen because of his mercy. Nothing else. It’s all for his glory.

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  30. You’re Calvinist, aren’t you. 😉 We agree on this – it is all for his glory! God bless you, my sister in Christ!

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