Prayer and the sovereignty of God

Adapted from Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer, Bible Speaks Today series (IVP, 2003), chapter 16.

If God knows all things – even the thoughts of our hearts – what do we hope to communicate in prayer? If God ordains all events as part of an eternal plan what do we hope to achieve through prayer? If God is sovereign why pray at all? Peter Baelz poses the question like this:

Suppose I were to ask my friends to pray for David Smith, who was undergoing an operation in a hospital at the other end of the land; for Charles Brown, who was going out as a Christian missionary to Polynesia. What would they do? No doubt many of them would utter, aloud or to themselves, some such words as, ‘God, help David Smith’, or ‘God, be with Charles Brown’. But what account of their actions would they give to an inquirer who asked them what, exactly, they thought they were doing? Were they informing an all-knowing God of their desires and needs? Were they persuading an unchanging God to change the course of nature and history? Were they prompting an all-loving God to an act of mercy and loving-kindness? Or if they said they were laying bare the depths of their own being to the pervasive love of God and in silent communion holding within this healing presence the one for whom they prayed, could this be anything more than a movement of the individual soul towards the divine, a flight of the alone to the Alone? When intercession is made, can God be said to act?[1]

a. God changes reality in response to prayer
Some people answer the question of the efficacy of prayer in the light of God’s sovereignty by saying that prayer only changes us – it does not change the world. It creates a change within the heart of the pray-er, but does not change reality. As I pray for peace I become a more peaceable person. Even some who would not articulate this as a theological position, in practice emphasise subjective change almost exclusively.

It is certainly true that prayer effects change in the pray-er and that this is an important part of biblical prayer. Paul himself prays that the Ephesian believers ‘may know [God] better … be enlightened in order to that [they] may know the hope to which God has called [them] …and his incomparably great power’ (17-19). He is not praying for hope or power per se, but for a greater awareness of hope and power. There is a very real sense in which prayer involves bowing before the will of our heavenly Father who knows what is best. We pray with Christ: ‘your will be done’.[2]

This is the truth of prayer – and it is an important truth – yet it is not the whole truth for prayer does effect change in the world. God acts in response to our prayers. God, for example, declares his intention to destroy the people of Israel, but refrains from doing so because of the prayers of Moses.[3] James suggests there are things God does not do because we do not pray: ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God’.[4] Although Paul prays for changed hearts in Ephesians 1, it is a change in the hearts of other people. Paul is not just opening himself up to change through the process of prayer. He is asking God to effect change in the world beyond the pray-er.

Indeed the Bible even speaks of God himself changing in response to prayer. Amos saw God preparing locusts and fire in judgment, but in response to Amos’ prayer ‘the Lord relented’.[5] This language involves an element of accommodation to our limited understanding. Elsewhere the Bible says that God does not change his mind: ‘He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind’. [6] But in recognising the anthropomorphic nature of this language we must not lose the meaning intended. God is open to the requests of his people. God responds to human activity[7] – especially the prayers of his people.

The Puritan Thomas Goodwin encourages Christians to look for answers to prayer in his book The Return of Prayers. He says: ‘when a man hath put up prayers to God, he is to rest assured, that God will in mercy answer his prayers; and to listen diligently, and observe how his prayers are answered’.[8] His book sets out how to discern God’s answers to prayer. Goodwin chides those who

through ignorance that this is at all a duty, or of any such importance, are careful only how to lade [load] in prayers enough, not expecting to find any of this bread cast upon the waters [Eccles. 11:1], until that great and general return of themselves, and all the world with joy bring their sheaves with them. Others, though at present, many of their prayers come home after a few days, and richly laden; yet through want of skill to read those bills of exchange which God often writes in an obscurer character, they lie unregarded by them.[9]

b. God is sovereign

Others make sense of the agency of human prayers by denying that God is sovereign or suggesting that his sovereignty is limited. From within evangelicalism the so-called ‘openness of God’ theology or ‘open theism’ represents a revision of the classical doctrine of God’s sovereignty along these lines. Clark Pinnock argues that God has limited his omnipotence to give his creatures genuine freedom.

God is not viewed as being completely in control and exercising exhaustive sovereignty. Though no other power can match God’s power, each has a degree of influence that it can exercise. The situation is pluralistic: there is no single and all-determining divine will that calls all the shots. God controls some things, but not everything.[10]

This involves risk: God can neither guarantee nor know the future since it is affected by our free decisions.

God freely enters into give and take relations with us which are genuine and which entail risk-taking on his part … According to open theism the future is partly settled and partly unsettled, partly determined and partly undetermined and, therefore, partly unknown even to God and it holds that God himself has a temporal aspect.[11]

Prayer according to this view is ordered by God as an expression of human freedom in the sense that there are blessings that God will only give if people freely choose to pray.[12] Even outside open theism, we find statements of popular theology such as: ’God has been hindered in His purposes by our lack of willingness. When we learn His purposes and make them our prayers we are giving Him the opportunity to act’.[13] Such language suggests that prayer is about giving God permission to act.

The Bible, however, suggests that God is completely sovereign. Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails’.[14] Paul says God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (11). Simon Gathercole points out that, while his will in this verse is (with Pinnock) defined as God’s will for salvation in Christ (9-10), it is hard to avoid the claim that (contra Pinnock) God works out everything – that God causes all things to pass.[15] Markus Barth reminds us that the purpose of the passage is to demonstrate that ‘this will was motivated by no factors outside God’[16] – it was determined before the creation of the world (4) solely because of the riches of God’s grace (7; 2:4,7) and in accordance with his pleasure and will (5, 9). He comments: ‘not even human need or anxiety appears as motivation of God’s work … what determines the course of God’s action is exclusively God’s good pleasure to love us’.[17]

God is sovereign not only over the general course of history, but also over the human heart.[18]The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases’.[19] His grace is not dependent on human actions.[20] God is portrayed as knowing the future not just in general terms, but in quite specific terms.[21]Before a word is on my tongue,’ says the Psalmist, ‘you know it completely, O Lord.[22] He continues: ‘All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be‘.[23] Both Joseph and Daniel interpret dreams that provide a detailed picture of the future God has planned.[24] This knowledge of the future makes God superior to other so-called gods.[25] As the Book of Common Prayer says: God’s ‘never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth’.[26]

Indeed there are some prayers – such as the request that a particular person might be converted – that it makes no sense if God is not sovereign over human hearts. It is because the God to whom we pray can work out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (11) that our prayers have such potency. The irony of open theism is that because God is not seen as fully sovereign, their treatment of prayer focuses not on objective change in the world, but on the process of ‘conversational love’[27] – a position similar to those who maintain God’s sovereignty by limiting the efficacy of prayer to the pray-er. We express our belief in God’s sovereignty most when we pray for we pray in the expectation that God can intervene in human lives and human history to bring about the things for which we pray. Instead of thinking of the sovereignty of God as that which impedes prayer, we should think of the sovereignty of God as the space in which prayer is efficacious.

c. The sovereignty of God and the efficacy of prayer

The Bible, then, claims both that God changes reality in response to our prayers and that God is sovereign. God is sovereign, but not in a way that compromises human responsibility and we are responsible, but not in a way that compromises God’s sovereignty.[28] We are free and God is more free.

Beyond these explicit biblical affirmations we should move cautiously. Yet, we can say that the claim that God changes reality in response to prayer need not be incompatible with his sovereignty if God’s response to prayer is part of his sovereign will. Just as when God sends rain he also sends clouds as the cause of that rain, so when he ordains events he can also ordain prayers as the cause of those events. This is not a limit to his sovereignty, but the ultimate expression of it. God is able to achieve his will in response to our prayers. ‘We do not pray in order to change the decree of divine providence,’ writes Thomas Aquinas, ‘rather we pray in order to acquire by petitionary prayer what God has determined would be obtained by our prayers’.[29] C. S. Lewis and P. T. Forsyth put it like this:

If our prayers are granted at all they are granted from the foundation of the world … If there is – as the very concept of prayer presupposes – an adaptation between the free actions of men in prayer and the course of events, this adaptation is from the beginning inherent in the great single creative act.[30]

If our prayers reach or move Him it is because He first reached and moved us to pray … The world was made by a freedom which not only left room for the kindred freedom of prayer, but which so ordered all things in its own interest that in their deepest depths they conspire to produce prayer … Our prayer is the momentary function of the Eternal Son’s communion and intercession with the Eternal Father … Our prayer is more than the acceptance by us of God’s will; it is its assertion in us … Prayer is that will of God’s making itself good … So when God yields to prayer in the name of Christ, to the prayer of faith and love, He yields to Himself who inspired it.[31]

When we ask why we should pray, we should not neglect the obvious answer: because God tells us to pray. God offers us prayer as a possibility and commands us to pray because he is a relational God who purposes to have a relationship with his people. It is not that God receives new data through our prayers, but that through our prayers information is clothed in love making it communication. God has ordained that he will be affected by our loving communication to him. This is a mystery – if God’s ways could be grasped by us then he would be less than God. From eternity he has woven our prayers into the cause and effect of the universe. It is prayer that makes the difference between biblical predestination and ism. God wants us to pray because he does not want to move us around like chess pieces on a cosmic chessboard. He wants a relationship with us. Amazingly God wants our co-operation. As Emil Brunner says:

Through God’s self-communication man becomes a ‘labourer together with God’ (1 Cor. 3:9) – a thought of such audacity that a man whose heart is rooted and grounded in the sovereignty of God as the foundation of all his faith scarcely dares to give it expression.[32]

So in the light of God’s sovereign will Paul prays. This means we cannot manipulate God in prayer. We cannot twist God’s arm by praying for a long time – God is sovereign and his will is unchanging. Yet God sovereignly chooses to use our passionate, persistent prayers as an appointed means by which things happen. In 2 Corinthians Paul writes: On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.[33] What he says literally is: ‘… as you co-operate on our behalf.’ In prayer we co-operate with God in his great plans of deliverance. Augustine said: ‘Without God we cannot; without us he will not’.[34]

[Prayer] is a genuine and actual sharing in the universal lordship of God. The will of God is not to preserve and accompany and rule the world … in such as way that He is not affected and moved by it, that He does not allow Himself to converse with it … God wills to converse with the creature, and to allow Himself to be determined by it in this relationship. His sovereignty is so great that it embraces both the possibility, and, as it is exercised the actuality, that the creature can actively be present and co-operate in His over-ruling … Permitted by God, and indeed willed and created by Him, there is the freedom of the friends of God concerning whom He has determined that without abandoning the helm for one moment He will still allow Himself to be determined by them.[35]


[1] Baelz, Prayer and Providence, pp. 13-14.

[2] Matt. 26:42.

[3] Ex. 33:12-17; Num. 14:11-20.

[4] Jas. 4:2.

[5] Amos 7:1-6.

[6] 1 Sam. 15:29; see also Num 23:19.

[7] See Jeremiah 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; Joel 2:13-14; Jonah 3:10; 4:2.

[8] Goodwin, The Return of Prayers, p. 3.

[9] Goodwin, The Return of Prayers, p. xx.

[10] Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Baker/Paternoster, 2001), p. 53.

[11] Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Baker/Paternoster, 2001), pp. 5, 13.

[12] For a response to open theism see Gerald Bray, The Personal God: Is the Classical Understanding of God Tenable? (Paternoster, 1998); Tony Gray and Christopher Sinkinson (eds.), Reconstructing Theology: A Critical Assessment of the Theology of Clark Pinnock (Paternoster: 2000) and Tiessen, Prayer and Providence.

[13] Gordon, Quiet Talks, p. 36.

[14] Prov. 19:21; see also Ps. 33:11.

[15] Simon Gathercole, ‘The New Testament and Openness Theism’ in Reconstructing Theology, op. cit., pp. 53-54.

[16] Barth, The Broken Wall, p. 65.

[17] Barth, The Broken Wall, p. 65.

[18] Ex. 4:21; 9:12; 10:1; Deut. 2:30; Josh. 11:20; 1 Kgs. 8:58; 1 Chr. 29:18; Ps. 105:25.

[19] Prov. 21:1.

[20] Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:9-21.

[21] Job 14:5; Ps. 22:1, 6-8, 14-18; John 21:18-19.

[22] Ps. 139:4.

[23] Ps. 139:16.

[24] Gen. 37:5-11; 40-41; Dan. 4; 7-12.

[25] Is. 41:21-23; 43:9; 44:7; 45:21.

[26] Collect for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, Book of Common Prayer.

[27] Clark H. Pinnock and Robert C. Brow, Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century (IVP/Paternoster, 1994), pp. 141-150 and Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, op. cit., p. 46.

[28] For example, Gen 50:20; Acts 4:27-28.

[29] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, 2a2ae.

[30] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 69.

[31] Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer, p. 14, 57-58, 87.

[32] Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III, p. 334.

[33] 2 Cor. 1:10b-11a.

[34] Cited in Bewes, Talking about Prayer, p. 43.

[35] Karl Barth, CD, III.3, p. 285.

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