Yes. Yes. Yes.
Not long ago I became privy to a conversation between two other folks that, in part, included me and my teaching about God’s role in saving others. The comment in the conversation, which was admittedly made in passing, went something like this: “Philip believes in the sovereignty of God, so he doesn’t pray for the lost or thinks prayer does anything”
My initial reaction after hearing about this conversation was anger. How could someone who knew me even in a cursory sense make such a profoundly wrong statement about me and my theology? Then my emotion changed to thankfulness. At least this person was paying attention to things that were being said and was attempting to reconcile various aspects of the faith. It is a perfectly legitimate conclusion to draw. If God controls everything, why pray?
Here are a couple of quick reasons why I, and every other Christian, should pray for the lost. And why we should pray earnestly, everyday, without ceasing.
1. Divine Sovereignty does not negate human responsibility. By divine sovereignty, I mean that God is in complete control of his universe, including the areas of grace and salvation. God alone saves and without him “shining the light” into the darkness of the human heart, folks will not come to faith. By human responsibility I mean that we as human beings are responsible for our actions, under God, who has shown us His will for our lives. Many things of God we will never know or understand, but He has nevertheless decreed – these things are sometimes referred to as “God’s will of decree” or His “secret will.” When we sing the old hymn “We will understand it better by and by” we are acknowledging the secret will of God. Other things of God, called his “will of desire” or “revealed will,” He has made known to us. It is in these things that we must faithfully respond and have responsibility. So, even though God is sovereign and ordains all things, we nevertheless are responsible for being faithful to His revealed will. What might at first seem to be a contradictory message is repeated, multiple times, in the Bible, sometimes in the very same verse! Take, for example, this verse from the Gospel of Luke:
“The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” Luke 22:22
The first sentence demonstrates the sovereignty of God. Jesus will be crucified because God has decreed it from eternity past – there is no way Jesus will not be on that cross; God has ordained it to happen so it will happen! When God said, “Let there be light,” there was no way the light was not going to shine. And yet, notice the second sentence. “That man,” meaning of course Judas, is under the worst kind of woe, so that it would have been better if he had never been born. Even though there was no way for it not to happen, Judas was still responsible for his actions. Judas has no way out by saying, “hey wait a minute, God in His sovereignty decreed this, so don’t I get a pass?” Of course not, you don’t get a pass for betraying the Son of God, just as we do not get a pass for betraying Him today. (and by the way, Judas did not say that. He knew full well that he was responsible for his actions, which is what drove him to suicide).
This is just one of a thousand examples of how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility work hand-in-hand. As J.I. Packer says, they are “friends” to one another. For the Christian who might say, “well that doesn’t make sense so I won’t believe it,” I would simply ask, “does the Trinity make sense?” It is interesting how every person who calls themselves a Christian will sign off on the truthfulness of the Trinity, which is by far the most seemingly contradictory and complex doctrine, but will go to war over the confusing nature of sovereignty vs. responsibility. Either God is not fully sovereign or we can’t be responsible, because any other option doesn’t make sense they will say. They rightfully believe the Trinity because Scripture clearly teaches it, regardless of its difficulty to grasp. Yet, they will refuse to accept the sovereignty/responsibility issue despite it being taught even more clearly than the Trinity.
2. God has commanded us to pray and evangelize. As it relates to evangelism, prayer is distinctly tied to the Great Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. We pray for God to save others because in so doing, God is glorified and Christ exalted. We also pray for God to save others because we love our neighbor and desire nothing more than for them to come to faith in Christ Jesus. Since God has revealed that his sovereign blessings come in part through prayer, we are not in a position to reason the power of prayer away. “You have not, because you ask not.” “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you: For everyone who asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened.” And of course, “Go, make disciples.” These things tie in with the human responsibility element from above; they have been revealed to us by God, and so we best be getting about the business of doing them. They are not given for us to create problems by placing one over and against another, they are given for us to obey, embrace, and enjoy.
To put it simply, God has said to pray because he answers prayer and blesses those who do. Prayer does not “change” God (He is immutable) nor does it alter his sovereignty, but God does act and ordain based on the prayers of His saints There are many people in my life who I am in dreadful fear for because of their lack of faith in God and his son Jesus Christ. Do I dare simply sit back on the couch and say, “God, you are sovereign, so I hope you do something.” As Paul would say, “May it never be!” I certainly do hope God does something, but I am praying for them daily. And I need to be more willing to share with them my concerns and the truthfulness of the gospel. After all, “how then will they call on Him of whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”