If God Is Sovereign, Then Why Do We Still Pray?

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Biblical logic says, “God is sovereign. Therefore, not only CAN I pray, but I MUST and WILL pray." William Philip examines why.

The question of how our prayers play a meaningful part in things with a sovereign God is really a subset of the question of our responsibility for faith if God is wholly sovereign.

That bigger issue can often seem problematic. It’s an apparent contradiction, because the Bible is very clear that both things are true. First, the Bible is absolutely clear that we are responsible for our sins. We must repent, and we have a responsibility to do so in response to the command of the gospel.

That was Jesus’s repeated message right from the start of his earthly ministry: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).

It was the apostles’ message, likewise, after him: “Repent . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” cried Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). All through the apostolic ministry the same refrain was heard: “Repent! Turn from your sins!” There is absolutely no doubt about that command.

There is absolutely no doubt that true repentance comes only through the sheer sovereign call of God’s saving grace.

Yet, second, the Bible is equally clear that we cannot do this very thing that we are commanded to do unless God, by his sovereign power, should cause us to repent. Repentance is something that God alone can give.

Acts 5:31 says that Jesus was raised so that God might “give repentance” and forgiveness to his people. Ephesians 2:1 is just as plain when Paul is describing the process of salvation. He says, “You were dead in your transgressions.” Well, dead people cannot bring themselves to life, can they? They can’t do anything. Only God’s power can do that.

As Jesus himself said, it is through his sovereign call alone that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). There is absolutely no doubt that true repentance comes only through the sheer sovereign call of God’s saving grace.

From a biblical standpoint, both things are true. It’s not either God is really sovereign, and therefore he must call people unto salvation, or we are really responsible and therefore must repent. The Bible is unambiguous; both are affirmed without doubt. God is sovereign, and we are responsible. A higher reasoning than the mere “wisdom of men” is at work.

That doesn’t mean it is illogical. Nor does it mean that we can’t grasp anything at all about how this can be so. In fact, we can. We can see how this works out, to a degree at least, even in our own experience of life, because the fact is that responsibility is not incompatible with authority; it actually flows from it.

Human beings, according to the Bible, are wholly responsible for their actions, and that is not at all incompatible with God’s sovereign authority.

Notice that I am using the language of responsibility rather than of free will, which is a different thing altogether. Free will, in the sense of human beings being totally and utterly free (sometimes called “libertarian freedom”) to do exactly and totally as they please against God’s sovereign will, is not a biblical concept. That would be absolutely at odds with a truly sovereign God.

Human beings, according to the Bible, are wholly responsible for their actions, and that is not at all incompatible with God’s sovereign authority.

All true responsibility, when you think about it, actually presupposes a relationship of authority. It is authority that confers responsibility, and therefore also dignity and value, on people. If your boss gives you a task and says to you, “Now, look, John, I’m going to make you responsible for this,” you don’t say, “Oh, I can’t possibly be held responsible for this because my boss has the authority.”

It’s because he has the authority to make you responsible that you are therefore responsible. That’s why you can be held accountable; you wouldn’t be responsible at all unless he had the authority to make you so.

It is in this same way that the Bible talks about our responsibility before a sovereign God with respect to his sovereign salvation. Salvation begins with God. He is sovereign; he has all the authority, and therefore he makes us responsible to respond to his command. He makes us responsible to his call of salvation.

God speaks his saving word, and we will express either submission to that word or rebellion against it. We will respond either with what the Bible calls “the obedience of faith” or with the disobedience of unbelief, but either way we are fully responsible to God because he has sovereignly given us the responsibility to obey.

Biblical logic says, “God is sovereign; therefore, not only can I pray but I must pray and I will pray.

So the Bible’s understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation is not an either/or reasoning, but a both/and reasoning, which means that we can never say, “Oh, if God’s sovereign, I don’t need to repent. If I’m elect, well, I’ll be saved because God’s sovereign.”

Nor can we ever say, “Oh, well, it’s not my fault. I can’t respond if I’m not elect, so how can God possibly hold me responsible?” No! Acts 17:30 tells us that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” His sovereign authority calls every single human being to account.

It should be no surprise, then, to discover that it is just the same when we think about prayer. We can never say, “God is sovereign, so we never need to pray,” or, “God is sovereign so there’s no point in praying.” No. Biblical logic says, “God is sovereign; therefore, not only can I pray but I must pray and I will pray.

Just as it is both/and in the Bible’s logic of God’s sovereignty in our salvation, so it is similarly both/and when we think more specifically about the Bible’s logic of the sovereignty of God and our prayer.


By William Philip

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