The argument goes like this, “If everything is predestined, why pray?” In my experience this is posed more as a criticism than a question… an indictment more than inquiry. Honestly, this has been a difficult hurdle for me even though I know the arguments and they never quite satisfied me.

Early on, the best answer came to me from T.W. Hunt who I had breakfast with in seminary. He had written for the Southern Baptist Convention a discipleship study called Prayer Life. It was being used across the convention and that morning he asked to “take breakfast” with me and two friends.

I took advantage of the opportunity and asked him, “Can you help me understand prayer and the sovereignty of God?”[1] This was his answer…

All genuine prayer originates with God as a burden on the heart of the believer to pray. Since the believer doesn’t know how to pray as they should, the Holy Spirit intercedes for them according to God’s will (Ro 8:26-27). But since the believer has no right to go before God’s throne on their own, they pray in Jesus name (Jn 13:14-15, 15:16). Thus the Trinity participates when we pray and the prayer returns to God the Father where it originated and is always answered affirmatively.

While his answer satisfied me to a degree, there were still many questions in my mind… many personal issues… many things I couldn’t bring myself to understand. And so I continued to wrestle with the issue of prayer and predestination since it is undeniable both are found in Scripture.

Over the course of time through prayer, study, reflection, reading, and listening to others… I’d like to present the following for consideration regarding prayer and predestination. I wish I was smart enough to have come up with this on my own, but “there is nothing new under the sun”[2] and so there are many others who over time contributed to the thoughts presented below.[3]

The passage that most caused me trepidation regarding predestination (God’s sovereignty) and prayer is from Isaiah 46:9-11 where God says the following…

Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand… 11 I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

This is probably the pinnacle passage of God’s sovereignty in the affairs of men. There is nothing in those verses that gives so much as a nod to man’s will, choices, or the necessity of prayer. In fact, it seems to eliminate the need to pray. I thought, “IF this is true, then my prayers are meaningless.” After all, God is immutable (Does not change) so what God has willed will come to pass so why pray? As it is written…

Numbers 23:19 God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?

Job 23:13 But He is unchangeable, and who can turn Him back? What He desires, that He does. 14 For He will complete what He appoints…

Malachi 3:6 For I the Lord do not change…

James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

However, I couldn’t get away from what is also written in James 5:16, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (KJV). So I knew that somehow the providence of God and His sovereignty did not negate the call to pray… I just couldn’t pull the two together.

I didn’t reveal my struggle regarding predestination and prayer to anyone, I needed to work through it and come to a conclusion I was comfortable with. I had done this before with several other doctrines and I knew if I kept at it God would help me either understand better or increase my faith.

And so we come to this point of examination and presentation regarding prayer. I now have a working theory (Not anything new), three cases in point, and my conclusion.

Working Theory: Prayer is an integral part of the sovereign working of God in human lives.

Case in Point 1: 1 Samuel 12:19-23

Israel had rebelled against God over and over again. They rejected God and instead worshiped the idols of Baal and Ashtaroth. The tipping point came when they rejected God as their King and wanted a human king to be over them like other nations. The prophet Samuel told them if they’d follow God all would be well with them, but if not… God would punish them.

The people pleaded with Samuel to pray to God… to ask God not to kill them (1 Samuel 12:19). Samuel replied, “The Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself” (1 Samuel 12:22).

Samuel knew God’s plan (Sovereignty), so he told them (Paraphrased)… “Don’t worry… I know God’s plan. He has chosen you to be His people. Don’t be all bothered. Don’t be anxious. You will not die.” There is the sovereignty of God. There is the plan of God that had been set in place in eternity past. It couldn’t and wouldn’t be negated… defeated… or fail.

Now, even though God’s plan for Israel was firmly set in place… even though there was no chance of it not happening… Samuel says this in 1 Samuel 12:23

Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.

Was God’s plan in place? Yes. Was there any chance of it not happening? No. Does it then follow that prayer was not needed or necessary? NO! Samuel understood that his prayer AND teaching about God were necessary! He wanted his prayer to be in line with God, His will, and people.

Working Theory: Prayer is an integral part of the sovereign working of God in human lives.

Case in Point 2: Romans 9-11

In all the New Testament Romans 9 is probably most filled with the providence and sovereignty of God. This chapter is replete with how Isaiah 46:9-11 looks regarding the Jews. Consider Romans 9

11 Though they (Jacob and Esau) were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might stand… 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 18 So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills. 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?

Many prefer those words had not been inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by Paul. Often I have struggled with them myself and watched as others just could not bring themselves to embrace what they mean. I had to eventually take God at His word. I learned to live with unbearable tension between what I wanted to believe and what contradicted what I believed. YET…

Even though Paul wrote and believed what is quoted above… which would seem to negate the need or necessity of prayer… Paul writes this next…

Romans 10:1 My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek… 11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected His people? By no means!

Paul is not theologically schizophrenic, he understands the marriage of God’s sovereignty and prayer! God’s will… set from the foundation of the world… does not negate praying, it confirms it![4]

Working Theory: Prayer is an integral part of the sovereign working of God in human lives.

Case in Point 3: Luke 22:31-34

Just before Jesus was arrested, He told Peter that Satan had demanded to sift him like wheat. Reading between the lines, Jesus was telling Peter that He was going to allow what Satan wanted to do.

Now, Jesus is the Son of God… God Himself. As such He knew that Peter would make it through the test. Christ knew Peter would not ultimately fail but would lead the early church after He ascended to heaven. If anyone would not need to pray knowing what the outcome would be it is God… Jesus Himself!

However, notice what Jesus said to Peter closely in Luke 22:31-32

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.

Jesus presents an important truth: God’s sovereignty does NOT negate the necessity, honor, and privilege of prayer! If anything, that God is sovereign encourages us to pray!

While it is not always possible to answer every question we have or alleviate what we think are contradictions, that does not require us to abandon God’s truths. If we could understand God He would no longer be God! Paul wrote it this way in Romans 11:33-34

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”

“Just because we don’t see how something CAN be true doesn’t mean it ISN’T true.”[5] Is God sovereign? Yes! Does that mean we don’t pray? No! If anything it enjoins us to pray all the more.

Conclusion: Prayer is an integral part of the sovereign working of God in human lives.

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[1] New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary circa 1988.

[2] Ecclesiastes 1:9

[3] The Holy Spirit, Tim Keller, John Piper, John MacArthur, et al.

[4] Hebrews 4:2; Revelation 13:8; 17:8.

[5] Tim Keller.