There is no theological issue more complicated than the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. And this is no mere academic question, for our understanding here (or lack thereof) significantly affects such practical areas as evangelism and prayer.

Prompted by an ongoing correspondence regarding predestination and free will, a friend asked me these thought-provoking questions:

  • If God already knows what will happen (and what choices will be made, etc.), can He change the outcome?
  • What is the purpose of prayer?
  • Can our prayers for someone’s salvation actually make a difference? In a way, I don’t want my salvation to hinge on other people’s prayers, yet neither do I want my prayers to accomplish nothing.

What follows is a slightly edited version of my response to my friend…

These thought-provoking questions cut to the heart of the issue. They place one in a theological quandary familiar to many. You want prayer to make a difference, yet you don’t want such a tremendous matter as your soul’s eternal salvation to rest ultimately in the prayers of fallible people. Those two concerns represent the two opposite and extreme positions so many adopt, but which we must carefully avoid.

On one side we have the extreme of determinism, or fatalism. This position basically says with Doris Day, “Que será, será; whatever will be, will be.” It reasons, “Since God is sovereign and in control, it doesn’t matter whether I pray or not. God knows His elect, and He will save them without my help. He will do His will regardless of what I do or fail to do.” On the other side of the issue, there are those who insist that “prayer changes things”, and that God is actually limited to our prayers. They believe He either can’t or won’t work except in response to prayer.

Both of the above positions are partly true. The problem is not in what they affirm but in what they deny. While it’s true that God is sovereign and will accomplish His will, it’s not true that I don’t need to pray. And while it is true that prayer changes things, it is not true that God is limited by my prayers. Our tendency is to take only one side of the truth and misuse it. We either sacrifice God’s sovereignty on the altar of human responsibility, or vice versa. In either case, our mistake lies in emphasizing a biblical truth without regarding its intended function. The Scriptures clearly teach that God is sovereign in all things:

  • God “works all things after the counsel of His own will” (Ephesians 1:11).
  • God does His will “among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:35).
  • “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).

On the other hand, the Bible also clearly and forcefully affirms man’s responsibility. In the realm of prayer, for example, we read that:

  • “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
  • “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2).
  • “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
  • In nearly every one of his letters, Paul requests prayer and reports of his own intercession for his fellow believers (e.g. Ephesians 1:16-23; 3:14-21; 6:18-20).
  • Paul prayed for the salvation of his fellow Jews: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).

So how do we fit these two seemingly contradictory sides of Scripture together into one coherent paradigm? We must realize the following three things.

  1. God’s unchangeable nature does not cancel out His personal interaction with humanity.

God is immutable, or unchangeable. Psalm 102:27 declares of Him, “You are the same, and your years have no end.” God Himself says, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachai 3:6). Hebrews 13:8 tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” God knows all things from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-11), and He does not change His eternal will. If He did, His wisdom or knowledge would be deficient. We must not rob God of His omniscience in our attempt to safeguard prayer’s effectiveness.

But then you might remember instances in Scripture where God did “change His mind” in response to prayer. For example, after the children of Israel committed idolatry in worshiping the golden calf, God said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:9-10). The next three verses record Moses’ prayerful response for God to remember His promises to the patriarchs and turn away His anger. Then verse 14 says, “The Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.”

Does this mean that God changed His mind about something He had planned to do from eternity? Does this text imply that God is not all-knowing? I don’t think so. The Scriptures often speak of God “regretting” something. For example, 1 Samuel 15:10-11 says, “The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’ And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.” But in the very same chapter, we also read, “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (v. 29). So there is a sense in which God does regret and thus change His mind, and there is another sense in which He does not. God doesn’t experience regret or change His mind in exactly the same ways we do.

God does not change because of a flaw in His nature. When Scripture says that God regrets something or changes His mind, we must understand those texts to speak of God’s moral and personal response to people and events considered in themselves; it is not a response based on some deficiency in His knowledge or a change in His eternal will or purpose. God’s unchangeableness does not cancel out His personal interaction with human beings.

  1. Prayer is one of God’s ordained means of accomplishing His purposes.

The example of Moses given above is a perfect illustration. Consider also Daniel’s prayers for the end of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. According to Daniel 9:2, he knew that God had promised release after seventy years, but this didn’t keep him from praying! Rather, it motivated him to pray. As Daniel 9:3 says, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”

We learn from this that the true function of God’s promises is always to motivate us to action, never to lull us into inactivity. God wants us to pray, but not because He can’t act without us praying. As John Piper points out, God wants us to pray that He might be glorified (John 14:13) and that we might be satisfied in Him (John 16:24).

  1. If we deny God’s sovereignty over human choices and events, insisting that God will not infringe upon man’s freedom, we actually do more damage to prayer than when we assert God’s sovereign freedom.

Why should we ask God to save someone if He has already done all He can or will to save them? Should we not be focused solely on begging the person to comply with God? Or are we to pray things like, “Lord, please help Jim believe the gospel, but don’t touch his free will” while Jim’s biggest problem is his rebellious will bent on sin? Denying God’s ability or authority to rule over the wills of men does not help prayer. It hinders prayer. Of course, a mystery still remains. We can’t fully explain how God’s sovereignty interrelates with man’s will, but we know that we can’t deny either.

So, my friend, if we stick to the Scriptures, it seems that both of your concerns are answered. “Can we pray that someone will be saved and it actually make a difference?” Absolutely. God has commanded His people to pray, and He uses our prayers to accomplish His purposes and glorify His name.

“Does this mean that the salvation of someone’s soul hinges on my prayers for them?” No. A person’s salvation hinges on Christ’s death on their behalf and the Holy Spirit’s work in applying salvation to their heart. But neither do my prayers “accomplish nothing.” For just as my hand animates and moves the glove I wear, so God animates and moves people to accomplish His purposes. The glove is not determinative; I am. But the glove is involved because it is filled with my hand. My prayers are not determinative; God is. But I am involved if I am filled with God’s Spirit.