Prayer and God's Sovereignty
“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1, ESV)
A number of you have asked about a comment I made in Sunday morning’s sermon, and I thought I would try and clear up any confusion in our devotional today. The comment had to do with the relationship our prayers have with God’s decree. And it went something like this: “When God answers a Christian’s prayer, He does what He always planned to do, but would not have done had we not prayed. Prayer is as essential to God’s plan as the assassin’s bullet was on November 22, 1963 (when JFK died).”
Let’s work through this thought together. God’s decree covers all creatures, actions, and things from the greatest down to the least. This is taught throughout Scripture—
“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…” (Ephesians 1:11).
Speaking of the death of Christ in Jerusalem, Peter said,
“for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27–28).
These are just two verses, but there are many, many more.
To be clear, the sin Peter referred to belonged only to the hands of the wicked and godless men who crucified the Son of God (Acts 2:22-24). God, who is most holy and wise, can neither be the author nor the approver of sin. Yet “He is the ruler yet” when sin enters the world (See WCF Chapter V:4). There is much mystery here, but this truth cannot be denied.
What relationship does prayer have to God’s sovereign plan? The answer: Prayer is a necessary second cause in the accomplishment of God’s decree.
Let’s think about second causes for a moment. God is the first cause of every event on earth. Every good event comes down through God’s active decree (He is the giver of every good and perfect gift), and every evil event occurs through God’s permission, binding and ordering it unto His own holy ends. (WCF V:4). So for example at the cross, God sinlessly handled the sin of wicked men, ordering and directing this most heinous of acts to to save a world of sinners from their sins through that death. At the cross, God and wicked men worked at cross purposes: The wicked did what they did through hate, but God overruled their hate to fulfill the purposes of His love towards lost sinners.
God’s decree makes use of second causes. This should not surprise us. God used David’s skill and a pebble to kill mighty Goliath. He makes use of food to nourish our bodies and water to satisfy our thirst. When He sends rain on the earth, He uses the physics of the water cycle. Such physics represents God’s predictable, everyday providence. Unlike a miracle, we expect the water in the sea to evaporate, form clouds through a process of condensation, etc., and eventually precipitate upon the earth in the form of rain. These second causes are necessary to the fulfillment of God’s plan. To be sure, God can work above, against, and without these means at His pleasure (WCF 5:2-3), but when He stoops to use second causes, they are necessary to the fulfillment of His plan. For example: JFK would not have died by an assassin’s bullet had said assassin not pulled the trigger at the right time when his rifle was pointing in just the right direction. In God’s decree, there was a planned necessity for the bullet, and therefore without that bullet, for the first time in all human history, God’s decree would have been frustrated. But of course, this can never happen so it did not happen.
Here’s the important point I want you to take with you into the weekend. Our prayers are as essential in the fulfillment of God’s decree as the Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet was in the death of our President on that fateful day back in 1963. God has woven a planned necessity for our prayers into the accomplishment of His plans and purposes. Let’s say, for example, that God intended to save Jane Doe in our Church this Sunday morning through your prayer on Saturday night. Just like with the bullet that killed JFK, your prayer is an essential part of that process; it is not superfluous. If God has planned to save her through your prayer, He will not save her without your prayer. You must pray or she will not be saved. There can, therefore, be no “Let Go and let God” attitude when it comes to prayer— as if prayer amounted little more to a sanctified waste of time! Nothing could be further from the truth. Prayer really does move the hand that moves the world. But the movement of the world didn’t begin with our praying, it began with the God who from all eternity planned to move the world at just such a time and in just such a way through your prayer.
In the final analysis, beloved, God commands us to pray, and has given us many rich promises to encourage us when we do. When you call out, He really does hear and answer. Don’t let the devil deceive you into silence. God’s plan hangs on the prayers He has planned for your to pray. It’s really no different than God’s plan to nourish your body through the breakfast he planned for you to eat. You don’t sit at the breakfast table waiting for the breakfast to magically make its way into your stomach by God’s decree, do you? So don’t lose heart, call out to your heavenly Father. He really is listening and really is ready to work through the prayers you raise in Jesus’ Name.