The full question:

If God already knows, why pray? Critically compare the biblical and theological bases of the high and low views of divine providence, especially in relationship to prayer. Critically examine the potential this doctrine contains to encourage a passionate and consistent prayer life and explore the practical and pastoral implications of belief in God’s providence in relationship to prayer.

ABSTRACT

The high and low views of divine providence are quite different. Christianity has been divided over the most Scriptural understanding of how God operates with his created universe. Some believe God is self-limited to allow for the libertarian freedom of humanity such as Open Theism and Arminianism. Other hold that God does not limit his power and that humanity has voluntary freedom such as Classical Calvinism. There are objections to each point of view but more importantly prayer is impacted based on these beliefs about God’s providence. A Classical Calvinistic view of God’s providence is biblically and theologically sound. Furthermore, there are a plethora of reasons that this view encourages a passionate and consistent prayer life. There are also practical and pastoral implications that are drawn out of a high view of God’s providence when it comes to prayer.

1. Introduction

Two of the greatest distinguishing features between Christianity and other worldviews are the doctrines of providence and prayer.[1] Though the word providence is not found in Scripture[2] it is ‘central to the conduct of the Christian life’[3] and ‘has been used to summarise God’s ongoing relationship to his creation’[4]. This doctrine is ‘unmistakably’ taught in Scripture[5] for, as John Calvin was quite sure, God is no “idle” God.[6] It highlights God’s transcendence and his immanence, his power and his purpose, humanity’s freedom and history and their religious dependence in relation to one’s own responsibility.[7]

Yet, throughout history ‘one problem that has concerned thoughtful Christians when considering the nature of providence is the role of prayer’.[8] Without providence prayer is meaningless for ‘if God does not act in the world, it is hard to give a religiously viable account of the practice of prayer’.[9] Fatalism fails to explain why Jesus taught that we should ask, seek and knock (Matt. 7:7; Lk. 11:9-13).[10] Scripture is clear that God providentially controls his creation in a number of ways, one of which is ‘in giving answers to prayer’ (1 Sam. 1:19; Isa. 20:5, 6; 2 Chron. 33:13; Ps. 65:2; Lk 18:7, 8).[11] Though it is true that ‘prayer is to the Christian what breath is to life’, sadly ‘no duty of the Christian is so neglected’.[12] Only by considering the doctrine of providence and discovering more about God, will it be possible to more fully understand prayer[13]. Also, it is only by comprehending what Scripture says of prayer that it is possible to further know of God’s providence. For it seems evident that ‘the manner of man’s approach to God reveals his understanding of the manner of God’s approach to man’.[14] Therefore, it is vital to study these two doctrines in conjunction with each other even though some would contend that a high view of providence negates the need for petitionary prayer.[15] It is this essay’s contention that rather than depleting a Christian’s passion for prayer, a high view of providence invigorates one’s prayer life. This paper will begin by comparing the biblical and theological bases of the high and low views of divine providence particularly in relationship to prayer, then the doctrine of providence will be critically examined for the potential it has to encourage a passionate and consistent prayer life and, finally, the essay will explore what practical and pastoral implications arise from a belief in God’s providence.

2. High and Low Views of Divine Provdence

There are various distinctions between a high and low view of divine providence. Two stark differences are first, whether God takes a ‘risk’ in creation due to a limitation in his own sovereignty, and second, the nature of the freedom God gives to humanity. Two major views that contend God does limit himself are Open Theism and Free Will Theism. On the other hand, the classical Augustinian approach holds the high view of divine providence where there is no limitation in God’s ability to accomplish his purposes. The low view also holds to a ‘libertarian’ freedom for humanity while the high view would argue a ‘volitional’ view of human freedom. While Luther and Calvin maintained an Augustinian compatibilism, few theologians oppose libertarianism today, ‘except for self-conscious Calvinists’.[16] Tiessen provides eleven different views of providence and their relationship to prayer[17], while Thomas discusses the three views mentioned above as the major contentions on the doctrine of providence[18]. This paper will limit its exploration into these three major views, Open Theism, Free Will Theism, and Classical Calvinism. How each view impacts one’s understanding of prayer will be the major focus. It should be noted that in relationship to prayer and the various views of God’s providence the main kinds of prayer that are affected are petitionary and intercessory prayers which this essay will predominantly consider.

2.1 Open Theism

Brief Summary

Open Theism, otherwise known as Socianism, holds a plethora of different views. One key point is that God limits his control over humanity, for a libertarian free will, to allow for a genuine love or not for himself.[19] It is essentially the ability given by God ‘to choose to go this way or that way’.[20] Harkness points out that ‘one may believe in providence as the guiding, protective, loving care of God without believing that God predestines every event to happen as it does’.[21] The future is not known by God for the open theist argues that each person would otherwise not be free to choose if the decision is already known. So, ‘God, together with his creatures, faces an indeterminate future even though his resourcefulness is much greater than that of any creature’.[22] This becomes a battle ground where ‘God must work with, and battle against, other created beings’, even though he is the most powerful ‘each has some degree of genuine influence within the cosmos’.[23] To support the argument that the future holds the possibility of change, Boyd points to how even Jesus asked for the possibility of the crucifixion to be changed (Matt. 26:39, 42).[24] At the same time, open theists freely admit that there is a limit to libertarian freedom in that each individual is controlled to some degree by the circumstances around them. It is also clear that God is powerful to influence beings because he knows the past and the present. Swinburne points this out how this allows for the possibility that ‘a being who knows all the circumstances to predict human behaviour correctly most of the time, but always with the possibility that men may falsify those predictions’.[25] Boyd argues with the example of Peter’s betrayal that Jesus knew how he would react based on past events.[26] Some challenge a high view of providence as supporting an assumption that whatever happens is right, and also argue that Paul would not have given moral injunctions in his letters if God predestines every event of everyday living.[27]

Objections

It would be possible to spend an inordinate amount of time presenting counter arguments to Open Theism but here are just a few representative objections. The most significant difficulty this view encounters is the ‘coercion’ God can use to bring about his plans. In the case of Peter, God orchestrated events that led him eventually to deny Christ three times. This does not appear to allow for the self-deterministic freedom that open theism so strongly supports. Along with this, the Scriptural evidence in the case of Joseph, Job, prophecies and John’s vision in Revelation are difficult to square with such an open and possibly chaotic future. As Bird summarises:

Open theists genuinely believe that God will triumph over evil in the end; however, it would seem that the grounds for believing so, namely, the sovereignty of God, is eviscerated by their (re-)construction of the doctrine of God, whose relationship to the future remains “open”.[28]

How Prayer is Impacted

An Open Theists’ view of God’s providence impacts their understanding of prayer. They reject the concept that whatever is requested is received, but rather a dialogue ensues in which either God may be prevailed upon or ‘God can also prevail’ upon the one praying and get them to change their minds.[29] One’s failure to pray is devastating as some of God’s desires may not be realised without prayer. God takes a risk in giving humanity free will to pray. As Sanders says:

If God’s bringing about a certain state of affairs is contingent upon our prayer and our prayer is the result of our free will, then God is taking a risk that some particular good may not come about.[30]

God desires humanity’s input because he desires a loving relationship. In this view there is a great necessity and responsibility on humanity to pray. For, an open future with a dependent and changing God ‘lends urgency to our prayers for one another’.[31]

Objections

This view follows a logical sequence, but to suggest that ‘the purposes of God are frustrated and fail because we do not pray’ is putting James (4:2) in reverse. [32] It is no longer, ‘you do not have, because you do not ask’; instead, an Open Theist reads it as ‘God does not have, because you do not ask’. Rather, God decrees not only the ends but also the means of that end. From the opinion of a high view of providence, Helm notes, ‘if the prayer is decreed as a necessary part of the fulfilling of an end, then if the end is decreed so is the prayer decreed’.[33] The impression of a mutual relationship between equals does not seem to be the biblical view of God’s relationship with humanity.[34] One strong and logical critique of this view in relationship to prayer is given by Ware:

For every reassurance given about God’s supposed vast and infinite intelligence, one cannot remove from one’s mind this same God’s track record of less than perfect divine guidance, and God’s own horror about evil that he didn’t anticipate happening. Can we truly put our lives in the hands of this God? Can we pray with confidence, and without qualification, “Your will be done”?[35]

In the end, this view could imply that God is ‘impotent without the help of our prayers, which really is quite blasphemous, when you think about it for more than a moment’.[36] As Suk considers when he thinks of evil in the world, he embraces a ‘small’ God and thereby concludes God is ‘weak enough for me to suggest to others that, rather than ask God for help other than inspiration, we should now do what we ought’.[37] This is an end in which Open Theism could easily progress. Although the view of Openness is consistent, logical and upholds the importance of prayer, these objections raise the question of the plausibility of praying to a self-limited God.

2.2 Arminianism

Brief Summary

Another low view of divine providence is most commonly known as Arminianism.[38] This view differentiates from Open Theism predominantly with the belief that God has complete foreknowledge of the future (Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4), but in no way foreordains it.[39] God knows what will occur but not because he knew it was going to happen. Everything that occurs is because ‘God allows that to happen by an act of self-restriction; he could control creatures meticulously, but he chooses not to for the sake of genuinely loving, reciprocal relationships’.[40] The biblical evidence Olson presents for this view of libertarian free will is void because he believes it is assumed simply by the Bible calling for spiritual or moral decisions.[41] He considers the theological reasoning for such a view is the fact of sin and evil in the world, because without a libertarian free will God is responsible.[42] Therefore, ‘the rock of free will theism…is the revealed goodness of God throughout Scripture and especially in Jesus Christ’.[43] One proponent, Hasker, explains how it is possible to know an event will happen without interfering by pointing to a ‘logical order’ of dependent events, ‘by the ‘time’ God knows something will happen, it is ‘too late’ either to bring about its happening or to prevent it from happening’.[44] This view holds that God can act supernaturally ‘to keep his program of redemption going’, but this is rarely required.[45] The biblical examples of Joseph and Jesus demonstrate God’s ability to make choices apart from humanity, but these are ‘a special case because it was an important step in the redemptive program’.[46] Arminians believe God’s authority and will can be resisted. ‘Noncompatibilist’ free will is upheld for ‘God provides impulses that draw human’s free will in certain directions, but God also allows them to resist his drawings up to a point’.[47]

Objections

The simplest objection to a high view of God’s providence is that if God knows everyone’s future choices ‘then they are fixed and therefore predetermined by something…and if they are fixed, then they are not “free”…in the Arminian sense’.[48] As an Open Theist, Harkness, agrees that a libertarian freedom ‘by its very nature involves some measure of unpredictable spontaneity’.[49] This objection creates some inconsistency with an Arminian’s desire to uphold libertarian free will for humanity and also God’s complete knowledge of the future.

How Prayer is Impacted

An Arminian view of providence impacts one’s understanding of prayer. Such a view allows prayer to be efficacious. God acts in answer to petitionary prayer (1 Sam 1:5-20; Is 38:1-5).[50] The acknowledgement of God’s foreknowledge means God factors the prayer of people ‘into his own plan…within the general limitations…of God’s interventive action in the world’.[51] Cottrell understands prayer as not changing God’s plans now because in his foreknowledge and unchangeable decisions, ‘he was able to decide which prayer he would answer and which he would not answer from the very beginning’.[52] In a sense God does react, but he prearranged to act according to his foreknowledge. Such a view holds prayer as vitally important, not to change God’s mind, but because God will have taken it into his account as he knew that someone would pray and thus it would factor into his own decisions for the future he already knows.

Objections

The difficulty with holding an indeterministic view of free will in regards to prayer is that ‘then the consequences for human personal responsibility are alarming’.[53] God’s decisions for the outcomes in this world are still based largely on the libertarian free will of an individual to pray or not to pray. Hence, the burden of responsibility is overwhelming. When evil occurs that could have otherwise been prevented if God had foreseen the prayer of an intercessor praying ‘sufficiently fervently, or sincerely, or at sufficient length, for its removal’, then the weight can be too much to bear.[54] Rather, with a high view of providence, prayer is then ordained by God as the way in which God has already decreed. Helm concludes by helpfully noting, ‘the ‘burden of responsibility’ for the answering or not answering of intercessory prayers…is placed firmly upon shoulders wide and strong enough to bear it, the shoulders of God himself.’[55]

2.3 Classical Calvinism

Brief Summary

The main theological understanding that upholds a high view of God’s providence is Classical Calvinism[56]. Providence is understood in the Classical view as a doctrine that is more than just foreknowledge; God actively rules over his creation through preservation, concurrence and government, which he first foreordains.[57] Essentially, it is a ‘no-risk’ model of providence for, if God decrees it before it happens, ‘then it is impossible it should ever be otherwise’.[58] God accomplishes his immutable purpose because it is more than just ‘seeing’ the future but ‘his active and determined care to ensure that what he has promised for us actually does come to pass’.[59] This view is an exception in its advocacy of God’s unlimited control over everyday life. Alternatives, as some of the above show, hold that God can see everything but he is unable to do anything about it, ‘or his ability to see all possibilities but leaves it up to the free will of each individual, or his general control but not each specific situation’.[60]

The biblical evidence for this view is plentiful. God is sovereign over creation (Job 9:5-9; 37:6-13; Ps. 104:14, 21-29; 135:5-7; 147:8-15; Matt. 6:26; 10:29; Acts 14:17; Col 1:16-17), the history of humanity (1 Sam. 2:6; 1 Chron. 16:31; Ps. 47:7; Prov. 16:9; 21:1; Job 12:23; Isa. 10:12-15; 45:5; Dan. 2:21; James 4:13-15), “chance” (Prov. 16:33), human life (Job 14:5; Ps. 139:16; Jer. 1:5; Matt. 6:11; Acts 17:28; Gal. 1:15; Phil. 4:19) , free choices (Exod. 12:36; 2 Sam. 24:1; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; 1 Cor. 4:7; Phil. 2:13) and who will be saved (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31; Lk. 18:7; Jn. 6:44; Rom. 8:7-8, 29-33; 9:10-24; Eph. 1:4-5; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1).[61] The book or Ruth demonstrates ‘God’s providential control at a ‘macrocosmic level’ and a ‘microcosmic level’,[62] which encompasses both a general providence and a specific providence. Joseph also points to God’s sovereign control when he summarises his own life (Gen. 50:20). This God ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11) for ‘his own glory’[63]. Preservation is not creation, for ‘creation bring forth existence; preservation is persistence in existence’.[64] Hebrews (1:3) states that Jesus ‘upholds (φέρων) the universe by the word of his power’. This present participle indicates a continuous action that is being performed. God not only preserves but also governs ‘or directs all things in order that they accomplish his purposes’ (Ps. 103:19; Dan. 4:35; Rom. 8:28; 11:36).[65] The Bible affirms not only God’s complete sovereign control but also human moral freedom to choose (1 Sam. 13:13; Jer. 18:8, 10; Lk 22:22; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Rom. 10:11-13; Phil. 2:12), known as concurrence or compatibilism.[66] This freedom is not libertarian freedom but rather voluntary freedom. This is understood as ‘not the ability to do otherwise than one actually does but the ability to do that which one wishes’.[67] Though man is free, he is ‘not an autonomous law unto himself’.[68] God does not force humanity to do anything against his will. When someone sins it is their desire to do so, when someone rejects or accepts the gospel, this is their desire. Therefore, one is responsible for free choice (Jn. 12:48). God’s ‘comprehensive determinism’ is upheld with humanity’s volitional freedom. ‘Creatures do what they want to do but what they do is always within God’s over-all determination’.[69] Some attempt to define this concept as God being the ‘primary cause’ or ‘divine cause’ and humanity as ‘secondary causes’.[70] Frame most appreciates the operation of this world being compared to a book written by ‘a gifted novelist, who creates a story-world in which events have causes within the story, but in which every event is brought about by the volition of the author’.[71] Packer describes these two elements well in his book, ‘Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God’. He summarises these two concepts with, ‘Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent’.[72] Although this is the explanation in the Bible, ‘Scripture simply does not explain to us’ exactly how God accomplishes this.[73] Rather, these two concepts must be equally upheld to faithfully teach what is revealed in Scripture.

Objections

There are quite a number of objections to a high view of God’s providence. First, there is the argument against volitional freedom not being true freedom. It is argued that only libertarian free will protects God’s goodness. Olson goes so far as to say, ‘without it God would be virtually indistinguishable from the devil’.[74] Second, a low view of providence argues that it robs humanity of moral responsibility which in turn resigns humanity to their ‘fate’ and even causes an inability to work out what is good and what is evil.[75]

It is the conclusion of this paper that despite these objections levelled against such a view, volitional freedom and the supreme authority of God is the biblical and theological teaching God has given in his Word. Volitional freedom is enough to be morally responsible, as argued above, and rather than God’s almighty power resigning Christians to their ‘fate’, it gives every Christian confidence in an all-powerful God whose plans will never fail. This joy invigorates a believer to follow his plans.

How Prayer is Impacted

Prayer is impacted by a sovereign God who is in complete control because he is all-powerful with no limitations and can answer any prayer he so chooses. Without a completely sovereign and providential God prayer does not make sense.[76] It is the means of prayer that God has foreordained ‘to procure those things which He foreknew that He would grant to those who offered them’.[77] A Christian prays because God has not only decreed the ends but also the means.[78] This is what divides a ‘fatalist’ or ‘hyper-Calvinist’ from Classical Calvinism.[79] Does prayer change things with a God who has already decided the future? With this view of providence, prayer does not change God for he is immutable but prayer does change things, ‘and they change according to His sovereign will, which he exercises through secondary means and secondary activities’.[80] Prayer is efficacious if it is according to his will (1 Jn 5:14). Part of prayer is ‘asking God to come through on what he has already promised’.[81] Prayer is not the reason it is efficacious, but entirely because of the God ‘who controls all events in the world, who can do all things, who acts in accordance with the counsel of his will, and who hears and answers the prayers of his people’.[82] Charnock summarises this concept well:

Prayer doth not desire any change in God, but is offered to God that he would confer those things which he hath immutably willed to communicate; but he willed them not without prayer as the means of bestowing them…his immutability is the greatest encouragement.[83]

This high view of providence means the failure to pray cannot thwart God’s decrees; it does not prevent God doing from what he wants. This is a great comfort to one’s failure to always pray. At the same time, God’s revealed will, his commandments, is that his people should pray, ‘then certainly a failure to pray may involve disobedience’ (Josh. 9:14).[84] This is the aspect of humanity’s responsibility to obey. This combination of providential control and human responsibility once again plays out in prayer and it is a great encouragement to pray, as will be shown below.

Objections

One of the great objections to this understanding of prayer is that it removes the need and the responsibility to pray. The same objection applies to those who believe God elects from eternity past. Why evangelise if he has already chosen whom he will save? In the end, the answer is that God graciously chooses to involve humanity in the accomplishment of his purposes. It is an honour and a joy to be asked to participate in this grand plan. To be ‘covenant partners, not automatons or slaves’.[85] It is also a great burden of relief that the future is not in the hands of the one praying but in the hands of the all-powerful God. This frees a Christian to rest in God’s power rather than fret over their constant failures. It should inspire one to keep on asking and to keep on praying.[86] Erickson writes, ‘the certainty that God will accomplish something in no way excuses us from giving ourselves diligently to bringing about its accomplishment’.[87] Another objection is that Scripture clearly speaks of God changing his mind (Ex. 32:14; Jonah 3:10). Consequently, people question how a high view of providence can deny these clear statements. These instances in Scripture do not intimate that God regretted something he was about to do; rather they suggest his ‘sorrow for the consequences people must face as a natural result of their sin and the Lord’s justice in the world order’[88]. Cole helpfully notes,

We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose.[89]

Having critically examined a number of views on God’s providence and how they impact upon one’s view of prayer, this paper will now consider how a high view of providence is actually an encouragement to pray.

3. An Encouragement to Pray

In this entire discussion it is vital that one considers how the conclusion of a high view of providence encourages a passionate and consistent prayer life. Of course, there is always the potential to merely debate the doctrine of providence rather than exhorted on to pray, and this would surely be a disappointing outcome.[90] Instead, ‘a hearty belief in God’s providence is not a discouragement, but a spur to action’.[91] We should pray more passionately and more consistently the more we understand God’s control and our need for him. The more we depend on God, the more we will pray as an expression of our great trust in him.[92] What follows is a list of points that encourages a Christian to pray because of a high view of providence.

3.1 Thankfulness

One of the most significant features of a high view of providence is that it predisposes the believer to thankfulness in prayer. The bulk of this paper has considered petitionary prayer but Classical Calvinism, especially, encourages prayers of thanksgiving. This is because the knowledge of a providential God means ‘every benefit, every good and perfect gift, is an expression of the abundance of His grace’.[93] The more one grasps God’s complete sovereign power, the more they are filled with a thankful praise to God. Providence and prayer should also cause greater thankfulness because of what it reveals about God. It requires God to be a personal God rather than an impersonal force. As Harkness point out, ‘so basic to the reality of providence is the nature of God…a personal God is one of supreme intelligence, supreme goodness, and supreme creative and controlling power’.[94] This personal relationship of ‘Abba’ (Lk 10:21) is ‘at the heart of Jesus’ own life of prayer on earth’.[95] Finally, if prayer is a means to provide what God has already prepared, a Christian is reminded that it is all because of God; it all comes ‘from his hand’.[96] God is glorified rather than the person who prays. Providence inspires praise.

3.2 Immutable

It is an encouragement in prayer that God can in no way be manipulated or changed. This means that in humanity’s ignorance and lack of wisdom even if one asks for something that is not good for them, God will answer according to his will. He cannot be manipulated or cajoled. Some would presume that by thanking God for the answer to something beforehand may ‘somehow force God to give it to us’, but this ‘changes the prayer from a genuine, sincere request to a demand that assumes we can make God do what we want him to do’.[97] A Christian’s prayer will not be answered by manipulation for God is immutable. Rather, ‘God in love will answer by giving them something that is really better’.[98] An example of this is Paul when he prayed that the thorn in his flesh would be removed. Instead God answers ‘by strengthening him to carry on while the thorn remained’[99] (1 Cor. 12:7-10). It is impossible to push buttons or force God to answer through prayer. This is a comfort to Christians who realise they often fail to know exactly what is right in any given situation, but one can still pour their heart out in complete trust that God is still in control and will do what is best.

3.3 Desperation

Once one realises their utter dependence on God as the supreme authority this encourages prayer. This concept is difficult to accept for a culture that holds each individual as autonomous and independent of God. This is what J. Gresham Machen calls, ‘the awful transcendence of God’.[100] Yet such an understanding of God’s power should drive a desperation of dependence in prayer. This is why ‘biblical prayer is a cry to God out of the depths, a pouring out of the soul’ (1 Sam. 1:15; Ps. 88:1-2; 130:1-2; Lam. 2:19; Matt. 7:7-8; Phil. 4:6; Heb. 5:7).[101] An unlimited view of God’s power teaches dependence and desperation which ‘is at the heart of a praying life’.[102] This is indeed an encouragement to prayer.

3.4 Helps Humanity

Prayer is not there for humanity to inform God of what is happening on earth (Matt. 6:8). Instead, part of prayer is to help Christians to express their trust in God and so be changed. This should be an encouragement to prayer. The more one prays, the more they are ‘fully conformed to his ultimate purpose’.[103] It is not about an improved ‘mental attitude’ because it is not so much about ‘getting God to do our will as it is demonstrating that we are as concerned as is God that his will be done’ (Matt. 6:10).[104] Calvin provides two reasons to pray and how it helps humanity:

First, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor. Secondly, that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learnt to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.[105]

Once again this view of providence lives up to its potential in encouraging a passionate and consistent prayer life because it helps Christians be conformed to Christ. Surely, this encourages prayer.

3.5 Deeper Fellowship

The truths Scripture presents of the importance for one’s life to be pleasing to God in order to not be a hindrance to prayer should encourage deeper fellowship with God (Ps. 66:18; Prov. 15:8, 29; 28:9; 1 Pt. 3:7, 12; 1 Jn. 3:21-22).[106] The deeper one’s fellowship with God, the more desire there is to pray, for ‘the better you know God the more certain it is that you will pray to Him’.[107] This results in not only deeper fellowship with God but also other people. Harkness realises, ‘the greater outreach of the human heart to God, the closer fellowship of man with man and of man with God in the ties of personal communion thereby made more binding’.[108] This is an encouragement to pray more consistently.

3.6 Involvement

Another great encouragement to pray is that the all-powerful God desires his creatures to be involved ‘in activities that are eternally important’[109]. This points to the significance God places on humanity for ‘prayer is not only communication and communion with God, but also collaboration’.[110] This pushes one to pray in such a way that is not merely repetitive but personal because there is a ‘sense of one’s life having significance for an ultimate reality of an actively personal kind’.[111] It is a wonder to behold that the God who has planned the end from the beginning would decree that ‘the prayers of the saints are one of the major means He uses to accomplish His final goal’.[112] Even if the victory is certain, who would not want to be on the ground participating in the game? It makes the victory all the sweeter when the sweat has been poured out. Unchanging decrees should motivate prayer because a Christian is ordained to be the means to bring God’s great plan to fruition and this plan is good and wonderful and will be accomplished. Therefore, Scripture asks that Christ would come back even though it is clear he will whether one prays or not (Matt. 6:10; Rev. 22:12, 20).

3.7 Glory to God

Such a high view of God’s providence leads a Christian to realise that the entire purpose of life is to glorify God. Prayer is then realised as one means to glorify him.[113] This spurs on the Christian to pray for the extension of God’s Kingdom (Matt. 6:9). This again instils a more passionate prayer life.

3.8 Prayer is Effective

The fact that prayer is effective because God has ordained it to be part of the means to the accomplishment of his will should also inspire prayer. God answers prayer (Ex. 32:9-14; 2 Chron. 7:14; Lk 11:9-10; James 4:2; 1 Jn. 1:9). ‘If we pray little, it is probably because we do not really believe that prayer accomplishes much at all.’[114] God has ordained prayer to be effective and he answers it in his timing[115], this encourages a passionate and consistent prayer life.

It seems clear that a high view of God’s providence in no way diminishes prayer but rather encourages it. These are a just a few of the reasons why. God’s providence and prayer also contains some practical and pastoral implications which is where this paper will briefly turn.

4. Practical and Pastoral Implications

The practical and pastoral implications that flow out of this understanding of providence and prayer are wonderful in that it all points to a loving assurance that God is in control. Providence is one of the most reassuring doctrines and ‘most glorious truth because it is the basis upon which we can be certain that heaven will be ours’.[116] Despite everything that happens on this earth, God is in charge of it all. Prayer is then meaningful and effective which contains many practical and pastoral implications. The encouragements above are part of these implications but there are more situations that can be provided of examples where these two doctrines are addressed.

4.1 Moral Responsibility

First, it is important to help individuals realise their moral responsibility. As it has been stated above, Christians are commanded to pray and thereby should obey. It is a joyful responsibility but a responsibility, nonetheless. At the same time, we must also ask rightly (James 4:2-3).[117] In any practical or pastoral situation one can spur a Christian on to prayer and holiness because it is clear in Scripture that one is to pray.

4.2 Unanswered Prayer

Another pastoral area that is addressed in this view of providence and prayer, is when a Christian’s prayers go unanswered. Both Jesus and Paul are examples of this (Lk. 22:42; 2 Cor. 12;9-10), both asking for something but instead ‘something more needful was granted’.[118] The pastoral counsel is that every Christian can have confidence that ‘God will give us, not necessarily what we ask for, but what is best’ (e.g. Ps. 84:11).[119] People may feel like Job, ‘I cry out to you for help and you do not answer me’ (30:20) and this is the time to remind them of God’s complete control and goodness.

4.3 Pour Out the Soul

One final pastoral and practical implication for this view of providence and prayer is the wonder of being able to pour out one’s soul before the almighty God. He desires to hear his people and nothing we say will change his already perfect mind. We can ask for all our desires as children coming to our Father and know that he will always only do what is right. This is the freeing beauty of a high view of providence in relationship to prayer.

Conclusion

There are various views of God’s providence and each impact how one understands prayer. A high view of God’s providence seems to be the most biblical and theologically faithful approach. This view, rather than diminishing prayer, can only encourage it to be more passionate and consistent. God’s great providence is a great practical and pastoral support and comfort for his people in all the distresses of the world because he controls ‘all the wheels of motion’ and governs ‘the most eccentric creatures and their most pernicious designs to blessed and happy issues’[120] (Gen. 50:20). An all-powerful providential God is the great basis for a comforting and lasting enjoyment of conversing with the Creator and Sustainer knowing that he will bring to pass all of his plans and that a Christian can participate in his plans.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. H. H. Farmer, The World and God: A Study of Prayer, Providence and Miracle in Christian Experience (Great Britian: Collins, 1963), 122; Derek W. H. Thomas, What Is Providence? (Basics of the Reformed Faith; Phillipsburg, N. J.: P & R Publishing, 2008), 5.

  2. There is no word in Hebrew that is equivalent and the Greek word πρόνοια is only used ‘of human foresight (Acts 24:2; Rom. 13:14)’. T. H. L. Parker, ‘Providence of God’, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (eds. Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell; 3rd ed.; Grand Rapid, Mich: Baker Academic, 2017), 705.

  3. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2013), 359.

  4. Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith (ed. Jeff Purswell; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999), 142.

  5. Dennis W. Jowers, ‘Introduction’, in Four Views on Divine Providence (ed. Stanley N. Gundry; Counterpoints: Bible and Theology; Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011), 7.

  6. James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1990), 325.

  7. Milton U. Ferguson, ‘Prayer and Providence’, SJT 14/2 (1972): 21.

  8. Erickson, Christian Theology, 378.

  9. Anna Case-Winters, ‘Reflections on Providence and Prayer in an Age of Science’, Touchstone 36/2 (June 2018): 18.

  10. T. A. Noble, ‘Theology of Prayer’, in New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (ed. Martin Davie; 2nd ed.; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 697. France explains that Christ gives a clear exhortation to persistent prayer. R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 1:148.

  11. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1938), 168.

  12. R. C. Sproul, Does Prayer Change Things? (The Crucial Questions Series; Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 2.

  13. William Philip, Why We Pray (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 18.

  14. P. R. Baelz, Prayer and Providence: The Hulsean Lectures for 1966 (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1968), 7.

  15. One proponent of open theism states, ‘no event could take place differently from the way it in fact does, and no human agent could act differently from the way it in fact does, for that would falsify God’s infallible foreknowledge, which would be logically impossible.’ Vincent Brümmer, What Are We Doing When We Pray? A Philosophical Enquiry (London: SCM Press, 1984), 41. He believes this would make some forms of prayer meaningless.

  16. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (A Theology of Lordship; Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 2002), 2:139.

  17. Terrance L. Tiessen, Providence & Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

  18. Thomas, What Is Providence?, 17. He also includes Molinism, which this paper does not address.

  19. Gregory A. Boyd, ‘God Limits His Control’, in Four Views on Divine Providence (eds. Dennis W. Jowers and Stanley N. Gundry; Counterpoints: Bible and Theology; Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011), 189.

  20. Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 191–192.

  21. Georgia Harkness, The Providence of God (Nashville: Abigndon Press, 1960), 31.

  22. P. Helm, ‘Providence’, in New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (ed. Martin Davie; 2nd ed.; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 715.

  23. Gregory Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 20.

  24. Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 198.

  25. Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 176.

  26. Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 193.

  27. Harkness, The Providence of God, 30–32.

  28. Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 692.

  29. John Sanders, ‘Divine Providence and the Openness of God’, in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views (ed. Bruce A. Ware; Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 204.

  30. Sanders, “Divine Providence and the Openness of God,” 204.

  31. Sanders, “Divine Providence and the Openness of God,” 205.

  32. Paul Helm, ‘Responses to John Sanders: Response by Paul Helm’, in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views (ed. Bruce A. Ware; Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 245.

  33. Helm, “Response by Paul Helm,” 245.

  34. Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Contours of Christian Theology; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 150.

  35. Bruce A. Ware, ‘Responses to John Sanders: Response by Bruce A. Ware’, in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views (ed. Bruce A. Ware; Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 256.

  36. Philip, Why We Pray, 73.

  37. John D. Suk, ‘John Caputo on Getting God Off the Hook: Theodicy, Prayer, and Providence’, Touchstone 36/2 (June 2018): 46.

  38. There are various other terms that could be used (e.g. Simple Divine Foreknowledge, Patristic, Sem-Pelagian, Classical Free Will Theism etc.).

  39. John Feinberg et al., Predestination & Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom (eds. David Basinger and Randall Basinger; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 113.

  40. Roger E. Olson, ‘The Classical Free Will Theist Model of God’, in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views (ed. Bruce A. Ware; Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 155.

  41. Olson, “The Classical Free Will Theist Model of God,” 158.

  42. Olson, “The Classical Free Will Theist Model of God,” 158.

  43. Olson, “The Classical Free Will Theist Model of God,” 161.

  44. William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 57–58.

  45. Tiessen, Providence & Prayer, 132.

  46. Tiessen, Providence & Prayer, 133.

  47. Olson, “The Classical Free Will Theist Model of God,” 150.

  48. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 155.

  49. Harkness, The Providence of God, 119.

  50. Terrance L. Tiessen, Providence and Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 148.

  51. Tiessen, Providence & Prayer, 133.

  52. Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 367.

  53. Helm, The Providence of God, 158.

  54. Helm, The Providence of God, 159.

  55. Helm, The Providence of God, 159.

  56. Otherwise known as Augustinian or simply the Classical view.

  57. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics – Volume 2: God and Creation (ed. John Bolt; trans. by John Vriend; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004), http://rbdigital.oneclickdigital.com, (accessed May 9, 2019), 2:591.

  58. Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will ( 2; Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996), 12:134.

  59. Thomas, What Is Providence?, 6.

  60. Thomas, What Is Providence?, 7.

  61. William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (ed. Alan W. Gomes; 3rd ed.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub, 2003), 414; Thomas, What Is Providence?, 22–25; Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 146.

  62. Thomas, What Is Providence?, 8–9.

  63. Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English: 350th Anniversary Edition (ed. Rowland S Ward; Melbourne: New Melbourne Press, 1996), 70.

  64. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:591.

  65. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 151.

  66. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue (eds.), Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017), 220.

  67. Jowers, “Introduction,” 13–14.

  68. Sproul, Does Prayer Change Things?, 16.

  69. Tiessen, Providence and Prayer, 232. Dodds notes a similar concept with, ‘God’s action doesn’t diminish the contingency or freedom of the creature, but is rather its source’. Michael J Dodds, ‘Deus Providebit: Providence, Prayer, and Science’, Touchstone 36/2 (June 2018): 38.

  70. Framce and Bavinck question this analogy by removing God away from the events that occur when ‘even the smallest motion of the smallest object cannot occur without his government, preservation, and concurrence. He operates in and with the secondary causes, as well as by them’. Frame, The Doctrine of God, 2:155; Bavinck warns of the dangers of missing this point but supports this concept. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:610.

  71. Frame, The Doctrine of God, 2:288.

  72. J. I Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1961), 23.

  73. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 146.

  74. Olson, “The Classical Free Will Theist Model of God,” 154.

  75. Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (Joplin: College Press, 1984), 67, 84.

  76. Wayne R. Spear, The Theology of Prayer: A Systematic Study of the Biblical Teaching on Prayer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 20. Philip asks the same question, ‘What would be the point of praying, of asking God to do things and make things happen, if he didn’t decide and control all things, and if he wasn’t absolutely sovereign over every power and authority in this universe and every other?…Prayer to a God who wasn’t truly sovereign would indeed be a pointless exercise’. Philip, Why We Pray, 62–63.

  77. Augustine, ‘Church Fathers: City of God – Book V’, in Church Fathers, 426AD, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120105.htm, (accessed May 9, 2019), 10.

  78. Helm, The Providence of God, 154.

  79. Tiessen, Providence and Prayer, 270.

  80. Sproul, Does Prayer Change Things?, 15.

  81. J. G Millar, Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 18.

  82. Spear, The Theology of Prayer, 64.

  83. Stephen Charnock, Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God (New York: Robert Carter, 1874), 349–350.

  84. Helm, “Response by Paul Helm,” 245.

  85. D. G. Bloesch, ‘Prayer’, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (eds. Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell; 3rd ed.; Grand Rapid, Mich: Baker Academic, 2017), 691.

  86. This is essentially part of the argument of J. I. Packer when he unpacks this question. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.

  87. Erickson, Christian Theology, 376.

  88. James K. Bruckner, Exodus (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapid, Mich.: Baker Books, 2012), 285. He explains in the instance of Moses that the Hebrew word (נחם) is better understood as expressing ‘sorrow’.

  89. R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 227.

  90. Douglas F. Kelly, If God Already Knows, Why Pray? (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, 1989), 3.

  91. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 153.

  92. Thomas, What Is Providence?, 35.

  93. Sproul, Does Prayer Change Things?, 12.

  94. Harkness, The Providence of God, 18.

  95. Noble, “Theology of Prayer,” 697.

  96. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T McNeill; trans. by Ford Lewis Battles; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), sec. Book 3, chapter 20, section 3.

  97. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 166–167.

  98. J. I. Packer, ‘When Prayer Doesn’t “Work”’, Christianity Today 41/1 (January 1997): 29.

  99. Packer, “When Prayer Doesn’t ‘Work,’” 29.

  100. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009), 54.

  101. Bloesch, “Prayer,” 691.

  102. P.E. Miller, A Praying Life (Carol Stream, Ill.: NavPress, 2009), 114.

  103. Bloesch, “Prayer,” 691.

  104. Erickson, Christian Theology, 379.

  105. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, sec. Bookk 3, chapter 20, section 3.

  106. Grudem explains this concept well by noting that ‘there is much grace in the Christian life, but growth in personal holiness is also a route to much greater blessing, and that is true with respect to prayer as well’. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 164.

  107. Kelly, If God Already Knows, Why Pray?, 16.

  108. Harkness, The Providence of God, 143.

  109. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 159.

  110. Case-Winters, “Reflections on Providence and Prayer in an Age of Science,” 30.

  111. Farmer, The World and God, 122–123.

  112. Kelly, If God Already Knows, Why Pray?, 62.

  113. Gerald Lewis Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), 624.

  114. Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 159.

  115. John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 190.

  116. Thomas, What Is Providence?, 6.

  117. D. J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary (2nd ed.; Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015), 179.

  118. Erickson, Christian Theology, 379.

  119. Erickson, Christian Theology, 379.

  120. Flavel, The Mystery of Providence, 15.

 

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