The Reformed faith is the proper, biblical expression of Christianity, yet at times our theology can get the best of us. This is no fault of biblical truth or true religion, but is a tendency of fallen man. Our thoughts are evil (Gen. 6:5). We pervert even the holiest of things into idolatry. In addition, our knowledge on this earth is dim compared to what we shall have in glory (1 Cor. 13:12). We frequently misunderstand or misapply the truths of God.
For example, how does God's sovereignty relate to our prayers? This question is frequently put along these lines: If God foreordains and controls all things, why should I pray for anything? Will God change his plans to meet my needs? Why should I petition the Lord to save my friends and neighbors if they have been elect or reprobate from all eternity?
On the one hand, God's will is immutable. On the other hand, the Bible instructs us to pray. Throughout Scripture, godly people bring their petitions before the Lord. Some prayed for health (Gen. 20:17; 2 Kings 20:1-5). Paul prayed that "by God's will" he might visit Rome (Rom. 15:30-32). Why make such petitions to the God who ordains all things?
We will approach this question from four perspectives: (1) God uses our prayers as part of his eternal plan. (2) Prayer is for our sake. (3) Praying is a natural and inseparable part of being united to Christ. (4) We are commanded to pray and promised that it is effective.
First, petitionary prayers can and should be made, not in spite of God's sovereignty, but precisely because of it. If we had a god who did not hear, know, and ordain all things, our prayers would be of little use (e.g., 1 Kings 18:27). Instead, we have a God who does hear our prayers. If we pray rightly, God promises to listen (2 Chron. 7:14-15). He not only hears, but also promises, to answer our prayers: "And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him" (1 John 5:14-15).
Because he knew that God was faithful to his promises, David said he could pray (2 Sam. 7:27). God, in his omnipotence and infinite grace, can and does do much more for us than we could ever ask of him. Of course, the difficulty is in knowing his will, but we can know his revealed will and must always strive to know it better (Ps. 1:1-2). When we petition the Lord, it is most appropriate to pray, "Your will be done" (Matt 6:10; 26:42). Whatever God may provide in answer to our petitions of him is in accordance with his will. It is in this way that his will is accomplished through our prayers. In Ezekiel 36:37, the Lord allows his people to ask for the very increase he wills to give. Likewise, Christ's disciples are to pray that God will send harvesters (Luke 10:2). So, we are to ask even for those things that God has promised, like our daily needs and forgiveness of sin (Matt. 6:11-12).
Second, God needs nothing from us. It is not he, but we, that benefit from prayer. God blesses those who make requests of him (2 Cor. 1:10-11). This is John Calvin's answer to our question in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.20.3). He lists six ways in which prayer benefits Christians:
Although the question of prayer and sovereignty may be very real to us at a philosophical or theological level, we must also recognize that whether we are to pray is not really in question. This is because of our third point. Prayer is an ever-present part of the Christian life. A non-praying Christian is an oxymoron. It is unlikely that any of us has met such a person, and if we do, we must immediately correct his grave misunderstandings.
Scripture does not cease to associate prayer with proper Christian worship and life. One of the earliest signs of Paul's conversion was his attention to prayer (Acts 9:11). When he wrote to Timothy, he expressed a desire that men should pray everywhere (1 Tim. 2:8). He even linked "praying at all times" with the armor of God as a means of our sanctification in being made more and more in the image of Christ (Eph. 6:18; cf. Shorter Catechism, Q. 88). This is why it is a Christian matter. It is a heart matter (Ps. 62:8). It is uniquely Christian and Trinitarian. Prayer is made to the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Matt. 6:9; Jude 20-25; Rom. 8:26). Prayer is so much a part of the Christian life that we are to "be constant in prayer" (Rom. 12:12). Calling out to the Lord for his grace is an immediate part of salvation and life in Christ (Rom. 10:9-13). So it continues to be throughout our Christian life.
One reason why we must pray is indisputable, and that is our last point: God commands us to pray. The Confession of Faith, 21.3, states, "Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men."
Prayer has always characterized God's people. Abraham prayed often, as did all the godly men and women who followed. Prayer is not one of the Ten Commandments, nor is it instituted in the law in the same sense as the Sabbath or marriage. It appears to be ingrained in the covenant relationship from the beginning. That Christians pray has already been seen in the examples given above.
Likewise, God has, through his holy Word, enjoined and commanded prayer on numerous occasions. We know that prayer is part of the worship that God requires, and that man, made in God's image, is by his very nature meant to pray to him (Ps. 65:2). Prayer is included in the apostle Peter's "teaching and fellowship" in Acts 2:42.
One of the clearest commands to pray is in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. In a series of instructions to the congregation, Paul adds the simple command to "pray without ceasing." Similarly, he says in Philippians 4:6, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Here we see that supplication itself is specifically part of the commandment. Jesus commanded those who would follow him that "they ought always to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1). God tells his people, "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me" (Ps. 50:14-15).
Notice in the last verse that the command is closely linked with a promise. Calvin notes that God's promise to answer prayers (Matt. 7:7) is crucial, since most of us, in our sin, would flee from the Holy One (e.g., Gen. 3:8) if he did not promise accessibility to him (Institutes, 3.20.13). Since we are commanded to pray and bring our petitions before the Lord, it would be a matter of rebellion, stubbornness, and unbelief to fail to pray. Job recognized that to sincerely ask "What good is it to pray?" is wicked (Job 21:14-15). Ultimately, God commands obedience and worship, and we joyfully give it, because he is worthy of it (Ps. 18:3). We pray to the sovereign God because he commands it and deserves it.
Why, then, should we pray when God ordains all things? We should pray because God's ultimate purpose includes our prayers. As a benefit of regular prayer, we will grow in grace (Ps. 138:3). Through prayer, God gives us every good and perfect gift (Jas. 1:17). Lastly, we say our prayers, including our petitions, with the sure knowledge that God deserves, commands, and answers them.
The author is a member of Grace OPC in Hamilton Township, N.J. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2006.