Monday, July 11, 2011

Calvinists and Prayer

Question: If God has predestined all that will occur, then why bother to pray?
I recently saw this contention on another blog, and thought it would be worth touching upon for a moment. The basic idea is that if everything is predestined to happen, or God has arranged everything to happen, then what sense does it make for Calvinists to pray?

Firstly, I would bring forward that this contention is as erroneous as the contention that it's nonsensical for Calvinists to evangelize (see my post here). Just as we don't know who God's sheep are, yet we are called to deliver the gospel so that hearing they may believe (cf. Rom 10:14), so we do not know what God's will and design in our life is, hence we pray because we are called to do so as Christians.

We must recognize that, contrary to what many Word of Faith preachers teach, prayer does not put any obligation upon God to act. If God so desires, He may not even listen to prayer. An example is found in God's words to the prophet Isaiah: "when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen" (Isa 1:15). And again through the prophet Jeremiah: "do not pray for this people...for I will not listen when they call to Me" (Jer 11:14). We see God again refusing to answer a prayer when Elijah prays that God might take his life (1 Kings 19:4) and yet God does not. Likewise, God does not need prayer as permission to act, just as He graciously raises the sun and brings the rain for the wicked, though they may never pray for either (cf. Matt 5:45). God is able to act contrary to the absence of prayer, and the presence of prayer does not place upon God an obligation to act.

Secondly, I would like to present a situation in scripture where a clearly predestined event was prayed about:
And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will." [Matt 26:39]

"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 purpose predestined to occur." [Acts 4:27-28]
On the one hand, it was said by the apostles that the episode of our Lord's passion was predestined to happen; yet on the other hand, our Lord prayed that it would not happen. According to the opening contention, there was absolutely no point in this prayer. The argument at the beginning of this post could therefore well be used against our Lord Jesus Christ.

There are some responses people have tried to use against this, which I will address now:

1) Christ was not omniscient at the moment. This argument is simply nonsensical. Christ had hinted at or foretold His oncoming torture, crucifixion and death many times before (Matt 9:15, 10:38, 12:38-40, 16:21, 20:17-19). Likewise, Christ was well aware of what was about to happen, hence the words in His prayer: "let this cup pass." This cup refers to the passion, which could only be said if Christ was fully aware of what was about to happen. Christ could not have - save for a spell of madness - suddenly stopped being omniscient regarding His oncoming pain and death, especially when such knowledge was driving Him to prayer (this is established in verse 38).

2) "Predestined" doesn't mean it was set in stone to happen outside anyone's control. This is, however, a new definition of "predestined," and avoids some clear facts from the text itself:

a) The apostles had previously cited Psalm 2:1-2. They then identify this as a Messianic prophecy of what happened during the passion of our Lord. In other words, it was foretold to happen from ages past. God had decreed long ago that it should happen. The betrayal of the Messiah by His own people and His abuse and death at the hands of a foreign power were not mere chance - God had decreed long ago they would happen. To suggest there was a possibility it could not have happened is to suggest that it is possible for God to prophesy falsely.

b) The apostles clearly pray to God that Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles and Jews had done "whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur." The active party in this predestination was God's hand and God's purpose - God was completely sovereign over the situation. This was not a matter of individual events working out in such a way that God just happened to come out on top, nor was this God reacting to a continuous series of sticky situations and managing to work things out - God was completely in charge, because He had ordained long ago that all this would happen, and intended to see it through. Pilate, Herod, Judas, the Sanhedrin and all the people may have believed they were acting independently, but so did the king of Assyria in regards to all his conquests, and he was rebuked by God with the question: "Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it?" (Isa 10:15).

Thirdly, many people, even after all this, will still contend that it is illogical to believe some prayers don't come true because God does not to will it to happen. I respond that it is perfectly logical given what is established. We know that God is the only one who can answer prayers, and have affirmed that God is likewise under no obligation to fulfill the requests given through prayer. Therefore, the only thing that can possibly be dependent upon whether or not our prayers are fulfilled is the will of God. This is why our Lord prayed: "yet not as I will, but as You will." Everything else (our walk in our spiritual life, how we pray, how long we pray, etc.) is secondary.

If we deny the sovereignty of God's will in regards to prayer, we put the focus of prayer on ourselves rather than God. If we do this, then we turn God into a walking welfare check that is out to please our every whim. I would hope, God willing, that this kind of mindset is something even non-Calvinists would seek to avoid in regards to their thoughts on prayer.