Pastor John’s new book is about the precious doctrine of God’s providence. And the title is simply Providence (you can now order the title from our friends at Westminster Books for just $19.99). God sustains and governs over everything he makes, leading all things to their appointed end. He reveals this remarkable truth to us in thousands of texts in the Bible. It’s all over the place. By welcoming us into this incredible revealed reality, God calls us to see and savor this for ourselves. He wants us to treasure his providence so much that it brings tangible change to how we live and how we think and how we pray. On Wednesdays, we focus on these implications. We’re looking at ten of them. Last time, in episode 1592, we looked at how treasuring God’s providence is a spiritual and theological vaccination against man-centered theology. That was implication number seven. Today we turn to prayer. Here with implication number eight is Pastor John.
We’re talking about the effects, or the benefits or blessings, of seeing and savoring the providence of God. Even though in my experience, they are all wonderful, nevertheless it feels to me that this one that I’m going to talk about right now is one of the most amazing and precious and wonderful effects of knowing and loving the all-pervading providence of God. It’s this: it gives us the confidence that God has the right and the power to answer prayer, especially prayer that asks for people’s hearts and minds to be changed.
Our Only Hope
In his New Testament letter, James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2–3). That means that things really do not happen that would have happened if we had prayed. In other words, God has ordained that we pray, that we ask, and he has ordained that things happen because we ask, precisely because we ask — not coincidence, but because “you don’t have, because you don’t ask.”
“Prayer is part of the plan for how God accomplishes his purposes in the world.”
Prayer is one of the great wonders of the world. That God would plan for his own sovereign hand to be moved by the prayers of his creatures is amazing. There are mysteries in it, but these mysteries have never stopped the simplest saint or the most highly educated Christian scholar from weaving the thread of prayer into the whole fabric of their lives. As Paul said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). There have always been simple folk and highly educated folk who have done this without-ceasing kind of weaving and praying in their lives.
Maybe you can tell that I am taking one of the common objections to God’s providence and turning it upside down into a wonderful blessing of providence. Maybe you noticed that. The objection says, “Well, there’s no point in praying since, according to the doctrine of providence, God has all things planned anyway.”
But just a little thought would show you that God has planned millions of human acts every day that cause other acts to happen, without which those other acts would not happen. A carpenter’s nail sinks into the board flush because God planned for a hammer to hit it soundly. A student makes an A on a test because God planned for the student to study. A jet flies from New York to Los Angeles because God planned for fuel to be available, and wings to stay put, and engines to thrust, and a pilot to know what he’s doing. In none of these cases do we say that the cause was pointless — a hammer, the studying, the fuel, the wing, the engine, the pilot.
Neither is prayer pointless. It’s one of the God-ordained causes of things that God plans to do. Prayer is part of the plan for how God accomplishes his purposes in the world. In fact, the all-embracing, all-pervasive, unstoppable providence of God is the only hope for making our most heartfelt prayers effective. Let me say that again: It’s our only hope. The providence of God is our only hope for making our most heartfelt prayers effective. If God doesn’t have the power and the right and the authority to change things like people’s hearts, what’s the point in praying about the things that matter most to us? It’s precisely his providence that gives us hope that he has the right to do this.
What Only God Can Do
What’s your greatest longing? What’s your most heartfelt desire or prayer? My guess is that, for almost all of us, it involves somebody’s change. Probably, it is the salvation of someone you love — at least, that’s the case for many of us — or it may be the liberation of your own soul from some sinful bondage.
When you pray that God would save your loved one or liberate you from bondage to sin, what are you asking God to do? You are asking him to do what he promised to do in the new covenant, which Jesus, according to Luke 22:20, bought, secured, guaranteed with his own blood — which is, by the way, why we pray all of our prayers in Jesus’s name.
- We pray Ezekiel 11:19: “God, take out of their flesh the heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”
- We pray Deuteronomy 30:6: “Lord, circumcise their hearts, circumcise my heart, so that they will love you, so that I will love you.”
- We pray Ezekiel 36:27: “Father, put your Spirit within them, and cause them to walk in your statutes.”
- We pray 2 Timothy 2:25–26: “Lord, grant them repentance and the knowledge of the truth, so that they may escape from the snare of the devil.”
- We pray Acts 16:14: “Father, open their hearts, so that they may believe the gospel.”
The only people who can pray like that consistently are people who believe that saving faith, sanctifying faith, transforming faith, liberating faith is a gift, a work of providence.
Praying Beyond Belief
Many people do not believe this. Millions of Americans have been taught not to believe this because they believe that human beings have the power of ultimate self-determination at the point of conversion. God doesn’t have it; they have it. In other words, God can woo sinners like a man woos a fiancée. God can woo sinners, but he cannot create their faith, they say. Man must have the final, decisive say, they say. At the point when faith comes into existence, man, not God, is decisive. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that’s what the Bible teaches. I believe in the providence of God at that very point and its decisive, sovereign power.
My point here is that people who believe that false teaching cannot 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 an effective influence, a successful influence that takes away the sinner’s ultimate self-determination — not their accountability, just their ultimate self-determination — or they are praying for a less-than-effective (how should we say it?), a non-successful influence, some kind of nudging: “But don’t take over, God; don’t be decisive; don’t be sovereign. Just do some wooing, but don’t be effective.” Which, of course, is not praying for their conversion.
So, they must either give up these prayers, these people who pray that way — they must give up praying that God would convert people — or give up ultimate human self-determination, or go on acting inconsistently, which millions do, praise God. Many people pray way better than they believe.
Powerful in Prayer
Prayer is a spectacular gift. No one believed more firmly than Paul that humans do not have the final say in their conversion. We don’t, God does. It is all of grace, sovereign grace. He said in Romans 9:16, “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
“The all-embracing providence of God does not make prayer a problem; it makes prayer powerful.”
Nevertheless, probably no one prayed with more tears and more urgency than Paul for the conversion of sinners. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart,” he said, “for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2–3). “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). He prayed this way because he knew that the new birth is not a mere decision of humans but a miracle from God. “With man this is impossible,” Jesus said, “but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
So, my conclusion is this: The all-embracing providence of God does not make prayer a problem; it makes prayer powerful. It makes prayer the wonderful gift that it is. Oh, let us be a praying people.