If God is sovereign, why pray?
Pastor Geoff Willour 7/4/12
One of the objections that might be raised against the biblical-reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty in election is the objection that if God has already unconditionally and unchangeably chosen whom He will save (namely, the elect), and has likewise already determined whom He will pass by in the operations of His saving grace (namely, the non-elect or reprobate), then why bother to pray for the salvation of unbelievers and the spread of the gospel? An objector might say something like this: “If the elect are already guaranteed salvation, and if the number of the elect and the number of the non-elect is already so fixed and determined that it cannot be changed or altered, then why bother to pray for the salvation of our unsaved friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives? After all, if they are elect, God will save them no matter what because their salvation is guaranteed by God’s eternal decree; but if they are not of the elect then there is nothing that can be done about it, for that too has already been fixed by the Divine decree.” However, one of the false inferences that seems to undergird these types of objections to the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election is the inference that the biblical-reformed view of election means that God’s elect will be saved “no matter what”. But this is not (nor has it ever been) the Reformed or Calvinistic view; rather, it is a caricature of the Reformed view.
The biblical-reformed faith does not teach that elect sinners will be saved “no matter what”. Rather, what the Reformed view (often called “Calvinism”) does teach (and has always taught) on this subject is that God in His mysterious providence uses means to bring His elect to saving faith in Christ and to keep them in that faith. Yes, the decree of God guarantees that all elect sinners will be saved and kept unto the end in a state of salvation. But that very same decree requires (and guarantees) that such elect sinners will be both saved and kept in a state of saving grace by the Divinely-appointed means of grace. These means of grace are the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. God especially uses the means of the Word to effectually call His elect to saving faith in Christ and repentance unto life. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” In other words, the elect are not saved apart from hearing and believing the gospel; rather, through means of the reading or hearing of the gospel the Holy Spirit so works in the hearts of God’s elect that they freely respond to that gospel with true saving faith and repentance unto life. They are begotten again by the Word of truth (James 1:18) in accordance with God’s sovereign will and good pleasure; they are not born again apart from the Word but by means of the Word as the proclamation of that Word is blessed by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, when it comes to prayer, while our sovereign God works all things according to the counsel of His sovereign will (Ephesians 1:11), in His mysterious providence He uses our prayers to accomplish His sovereign purposes. While it is beyond our finite human capacity to understand how He does this, somehow God chooses to use our prayers for the salvation of the lost to bring the elect amongst them to Christ.
One final problem to this potential objection that I will mention. It is a defective objection because it can be turned on its head. As a Reformed believer (or “Calvinist”) I might just as well object to the non-Reformed (or “Arminian”) view of conditional election by saying: “If God is not sovereign in the realm of human salvation (in other words, if salvation is ultimately up to man’s libertarian free-will choices), then why bother to pray for unbelievers? After all, God, being omniscient, already knows in advance who will accept Christ and who will reject Christ. Furthermore, God has already done all He can do to save sinful man while at the same time guarding man’s libertarian free will. He has loved everyone equally, and equally desires the salvation of all. He sent His Son to die for everyone equally, thus making salvation possible for everyone. Furthermore, He has sent His Spirit to woo and draw all men unto Himself. So what more can we ask Him to do for the unsaved in our lives? If we pray for God to save them, aren’t we implicitly asking God to override or violate their free will (something that God would never do according to the Arminian view of things)?” Thus, I hope the reader can see that the same types of objections could be raised against Arminian and other non-Reformed views as could be raised against the Reformed and Calvinistic view.
The truth is that God’s absolute sovereignty in human salvation and the doctrine of unconditional election are the only solid basis and foundation for the practice of Christians praying for the salvation of the lost. It takes a miracle of omnipotent grace to raise a lost, fallen, totally-depraved rebel sinner from spiritual death to newness of life in Christ. Only the all-sovereign God of the Bible can bring sinners to faith in Christ. All of the earnest preaching in the world, all of the “new measures” invented by the ingenuity of man, all of the emotional manipulation (50 measures of “Just As I Am” with the pastor pleading for sinners to come forward to the altar, etc.) could never bring a single sinner to Christ. Only if God bares His holy arm and in sovereign grace blesses the preaching and teaching of His Word will sinners be soundly converted to Christ and kept in Him. Only if we believe in such a God of sovereign grace may we have confidence as we intercede for the souls of the unsaved in our lives. It is because God is sovereign in human salvation that we pray for the lost.