If God Is Sovereign, Then Why Pray For People?

A few years ago received an email from a woman who attended The Crossing before she and her husband moved to a different city. She opens the email by telling me how she is leading a Bible Study with 12 women and only 4 of them are Christians. Then she writes this…

“If God has ultimately predestined each person before the beginning of the world, then why should I spend time on my knees and investing in all of these relationships of women and couples that don’t know Him? Again, I know it’s a lie but I can’t find the truth…. I am sacrificing what little time I have with my husband in hope that these women come to a saving faith in Christ. Why, if ultimately it isn’t their choice? I know God is sovereign and I know that it’s not for me to decide what is just and fair… but how should I as a believer be spending my time in a way that is pleasing to Him?”

Here’s my answer…

It is great to hear that God is using you in your new city. Your heart for people is as strong as ever, and you continue to ask good questions. I think the question you’re asking this: “If God sovereignly chooses or elects those who will believe in him, then why should I sacrifice my time to pray and share the gospel with people? After all, won’t he bring to faith those he has chosen whether or not I pray for them and share Christ with them.”

Let me take a stab at answering that question by giving you 7 reasons that prayer and outreach are compatible with God’s sovereign and unconditional election.

But first let me briefly define the term “unconditional election.” In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem defines it this way: “Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them [this is the reason it is called “unconditional”—God’s choice is not based on a person’s faith], but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.

1. God’s election motivated Paul to endure great suffering.

2 Timothy 2:10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

Now think for a moment about all that Paul endured. According to 2 Corinthians 11 he suffered imprisonments, countless beatings, and was often near death. On five different occasions he was subjected to 39 lashes by the Jewish authorities, three times he was beaten with rods, once he was shipwrecked. And the list goes on and on and on. So Paul believed that the normal way that the elect (those God has chosen for salvation) came to faith is through the labors of Christians and sometimes even through their sufferings.

2. God’s election motivates us to “stay the course” in ministry.

Acts 18:9-11 One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

Now if God’s election of some for salvation meant that our efforts and ministry didn’t matter, we’d expect Paul to say something to the effect of, “Well since God has people in this city, I guess that I will head somewhere else.” But Paul does the exact opposite. He stays and ministers another eighteen months. Why? Because he knows that divine election doesn’t in any way negate his need to minister to people.

3. God’s election doesn’t negate the significance of our choices.

Do you think that God knows when you will die? Of course you do because God knows all things before they happen. In Psalm 139:16 we learn that all of our days were written in God’s book before one of them ever happened. So let me ask you another question, “Why do you breathe. Or eat. Or look both ways before walking across a busy street” In other words, if God knows exactly when you will die, then why do you do the things that keep yourself alive? Aren’t those things rendered unnecessary by the fact that God has already established the day you will die?

My guess is that you’d say that you breathe and eat and take common cautions because those are the means that God uses to sustain your life. Intuitively, you understand that God’s sovereignty over your living and dying doesn’t render your actions useless, nor does it promote irresponsibility. Well in a similar way, God has already established who will come to faith in Jesus but prayer and personal outreach are the means he uses to bring about their faith. God’s sovereignty over salvation doesn’t render your ministry useless, nor does it lead to apathy if it is properly understood.

4. God’s election didn’t stop Jesus from calling people to faith.

Matthew 11:25-30 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus affirms that God hides truth to some and reveals it to others. And then in the very next verse, Jesus issues a call for people to come to him in faith. Jesus didn’t believe that God’s sovereignty in salvation alleviated Christians’ responsibility to share the gospel, nor did it alleviate a person’s responsibility to believe the gospel.

5. God’s election didn’t stop Paul from calling the church to pray for the progress of the gospel.

2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Thessalonians 3:1 Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.

Notice that within just a few verses of each other Paul could discuss the fact that salvation was due to God’s choosing and yet ask the church to pray for the success of his ministry efforts. So clearly the fact that God chooses (or elects) some for salvation didn’t lead him to prayerlessness.

6. God’s election actually motivates us to pray for people’s salvation.

If God does not sovereignly elect people to salvation, then it doesn’t make any sense to pray for their salvation. For just a moment let’s say that a person’s salvation is left up to him alone. In other words, God gives the person freedom to believe or not believe but he doesn’t cause them to believe. If that were the case, why would you pray and ask God to cause the person to believe? Why would you ask God to make the person a Christian?

It only makes sense to ask God to do things that you believe he does. If God doesn’t cause a person to believe the gospel, then don’t ask him to do just that. But here’s the rub: When you pray you often ask God to cause a friend, a classmate, or a family member to become a Christian. And rightly so. But what we find is that your prayers reveal that you believe that it is God and not the individual who ultimately determines whether someone believes the gospel.

Here’s how John Piper puts in The Pleasures of God…

“People who really believe that man must have the ultimate power of self-determination, can’t consistently pray that God would convert unbelieving sinners. Why? Because if they pray for divine influence in a sinner’s life, they are either praying for a successful influence (which takes away the sinner’s ultimate self-determination), or they are praying for an unsuccessful influence (which is not praying for God to convert the sinner). So either you give up praying for God to convert sinners or you give up ultimate human self-determination.”

7. God’s election should bring us great comfort and hope.

J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God…

“While we must always remember that it is our responsibility to proclaim salvation, we must never forget that it is God who saves. It is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument. We must not at any stage forget that. For if we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize.”

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