Prayer and God’s Sovereignty: Do Our Prayers Change God’s Mind? by R. C. Sproul

One of those perennial questions that all Calvinists face from time to time and that you hear quite frequently is: If God is sovereign, then why pray? If that is the case, would not prayer be a superfluous activity, at best an exercise in meditation or some form if inspiring soliloquy? I am sure we have all had to wrestle with this question at times. Moreover, I think that it is not unlike a similar question that Calvinists also hear frequently. That is, if God is sovereign and predestination is true, why should we be involved in evangelism?

Why Pray? Why Evangelize?

In seminary I had the privilege of being in one of Dr. John Gerstner’s classrooms when he was holding forth on the subject of predestination. After he had given his lecture he began his Socratic method of discourse and started to ask up questions. That class was a seminar of about eighteen men, and we were in a semicircle. I was sitting on one end, and he started on the other end by asking that gentleman, “Now, sir, if predestination is true, why should we be involved in evangelism?”

The student looked up at Gerstner and said, “I don’t know.”

Gerstner went down the line to the next fellow, who said, “Beats me.”

The next student said, “I always wondered about that myself, Dr. Gerstner.”

Our professor kept going around the semicircle, knocking us off one by one, and I was sitting over there in the corner feeling like Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues. Plato had raised the difficult question. He had heard from all the lesser stars. Now Socrates was to give the lofty answer to the impenetrable mysteries of the question that had been raised. I was frightened. Finally Dr. Gerstner came to me. “Well, Mr. Sproul, if predestination is true, why should we be involved in evangelism?”

I slid down in the chair and prefaced my answer with all kinds of apologies, saying to him, “Well, Dr. Gerstner, I know this isn’t what you’re looking for, and I know that you must be seeking for some profound, intellectual response which I am not prepared to give. But just in passing, one small point that I think we ought to notice here is that God does command us to be involved in evangelism.”

Dr. Gerstner laughed and said, “Yes, Mr. Sproul. God does command us to be involved in evangelism. And of course, Mr. Sproul, what could be more insignificant than the fact that the Lord of glory, the Savior of your soul, the Lord God omnipotent, has commanded you to be involved in evangelism?” I got the point in a hurry! So it is with prayer. One reason to pray is that we are commanded to pray. But in addition to being commanded to pray we are also given the privilege of prayer. Prayer for the Christian is both a duty and an unspeakable privilege.

About ten years ago, I had an experience with another theologian—Dr. Nicole—regarding this question. At that time, whenever students at Gordon College asked me questions about prayer I would say to them, “Well, the way I do it is this: I preach like a Calvinist, but I pray like an Arminian.” I said this in Dr. Nicole’s presence, and I looked at him to see what he would say. He looked at me in his warm fashion and said, “Brother Sproul, I think perhaps that God would be more pleased if you would preach like a Calvinist and pray like a Calvinist as well.” I did not forget that! And I thought I had better learn what it means to pray like a Calvinist.

When I began to pay attention to what Calvin had written on the question of prayer, I noticed something very unusual. As I turned to the Institutes I found that Calvin prefaces his treatment of the doctrine of election and predestination (Book III, chapter 21) with a lengthy treatment of the nature and significance of prayer. I have always required that students in my courses on Calvin read Book III, chapter 20, of the Institutes before they even start the first chapter of Book I, so that they should be disarmed of the host of prejudices that surround the figure of John Calvin and that they might see the warmth of his heart and the passion that he had to converse in dialogue with his Creator and Lord.

Let me give a brief quotation from that chapter. Calvin writes, “But, someone will say, does God not know, even without being reminded, both in what respect we are troubled and what is expedient for us, so that it may seem in a sense superfluous that he should be stirred up by our prayers—as if he were drowsily blinking or even sleeping until he is aroused by our voice? But they who thus reason do not observe to what end the Lord instructed his people to pray, for he ordained it not so much for his sake as for ours.”

So the first point in response to the question, “Does prayer change things?” is simply this: Yes, indeed prayer changes things. If nothing else, it changes us. When we come into the presence of God in conversation with him, one of the immediate benefits of that conversation is what happens to us.

The essence of prayer is adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. What happens to a person who comes daily and regularly to the throne of grace with a broken and a contrite heart? Does God’s forgiveness change him? What happens to the heart that experiences gratitude and in the posture of prayer is able to recall what God has done for him? Does a grateful heart change a person? Certainly. People are changed through spending time with God.

Spiritual Treasures

But what of the thorny question concerning that kind of prayer we call supplication? What about intercession? Calvin again, in his own style, says that when we are involved in intercession and supplication we are actively involved in digging up those treasures that God has stored up for us in heaven. I like that image. The business of prayer, the prayer of supplication, is digging up those treasures that God has laid away for us. Do you remember what James said? “You have not, because you ask not” (James 4:2).

Prayer Unlimited

Certainly the New Testament finds no conflict between the sovereignty of God and the effectual power of supplication for his people. But is there any sense in which God’s sovereignty limits the power of prayer? Or is the power of prayer unlimited? I know that when we see answers to our prayers right before our eyes we often get very excited and sometimes overstate our position. We try to encourage everybody to pray, and we sometimes make statements like: “The power of prayer is limitless! We can do anything if we just pray right!” But that is not true. In our enthusiasm and zeal for the power of prayer we sometimes get carried away and attribute to prayer more power than it actually has. Prayer is powerful and rich. But God’s sovereignty places certain limitations on our prayers.

Not too long ago a woman asked me in class, “Mr. Sproul, does prayer change God’s mind?” Do you notice the difference between that question and the question we are dealing with here? It is one thing to ask, “Does prayer change things?” It is quite another thing to ask, “Does prayer change God’s mind?” I looked at the woman and said, “I don’t think so, if you mean by the mind of God his determinate counsel, his eternal decrees.”

I would never presume to ask God to change his eternal decrees. For example, it is foolishness to think that our prayers could change the ultimate blueprint of the plan of redemption. Suppose we went before the throne of grace and said to God, “We would ask you, please, never to send Jesus back to this planet.” Do you think we could change God’s mind? God has decreed that his Son will return in glory, and if you pray against that from now until kingdom come, he still will come. So there are certain limitations. People have said to me, “If we really want to change the world, shouldn’t we get together and pray for the conversion of Satan?” Do not waste your time! The Word of God has made it clear that God has other plans for Satan. Besides, he does not have a mediator. So how could he be saved even if we did pray for him? These are, I hope, obvious illustrations of the way in which God’s sovereignty does at least to some degree limit our prayers.

Another thing that I think we need to look at is the question of the relationship between my will and the will of God. We understand that creatures in this world are volitional beings. We have wills of our own. We have desires and requests and the ability to exercise those desires and make those requests at the throne of grace. But when we are dealing with God, we also think of God as a volitional being. We talk of our freedom, but it is limited by God’s freedom. Do we think for a moment that if there is a conflict of interests between the will of God and my will, my will could possibly prevail? Certainly not! But this is the way the humanist thinks in our day, and these humanistic views often infiltrate the Christian community. A fundamental postulate of humanism is that God’s sovereignty may never impinge upon or overrule human freedom. The Calvinist looks at it another way: man is free, but his freedom can never overrule God’s sovereignty. Do you see the difference? It is a radical difference. It is the difference between God and no God, when it comes right down to it.

Again, we often hear Christians say, “I believe that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman and will never intrude into the life of a person without an invitation.” But that is a monstrous lie! And I am glad that it is a lie, because if God the Holy Spirit had not intruded upon me, if God the Holy Spirit had not come into my heart before I ever thought of inviting him, I would not be a Christian.

Was the Holy Spirit a gentleman with Jeremiah? Jeremiah said, “O God, you have overwhelmed me, and I am overwhelmed.” Jeremiah knew that he was overwhelmed. He never asked to be overwhelmed, but God overwhelmed him. He overwhelmed him in the power and efficacy of his freedom, freedom to take this fallen and destroyed creature and bring him from death into life. If God waited for us to ask him for every droplet of mercy and grace that we receive, we would be spiritually impoverished.

Again, prayer cannot manipulate God. I sometimes hear Christians saying, “If you pray like this or that or if you claim this or that, God is obliged to answer your prayer.” I hear them say, “If I claim the answer to my prayer before I have any evidence that God is pleased to give it to me [I am not talking about an explicit promise in God’s Word], God will grant it.” I see them stand up before others in church and say, “I know that God is going to do such and such for me,” and it sounds like an exercise in faith. Moreover, it sounds as if (now that they have said it publicly) God is going to get a bad reputation if he doesn’t do it. But God does not have to do it.

You cannot manipulate God. You cannot manipulate him by incantations, repetition, public utterances, or your own predictions. God is sovereign. So when you bring your requests to God he may say Yes, and he may say No.

If It Be Your Will

This raises the next big question—the relationship of the will of God and the will of man. Is it proper to pray, “Not my will, but yours be done”? There are evangelicals who believe that to say “If it be your will” in the context of prayer is unbelief. But if that is unbelief, then our Lord was guilty of unbelief in the Garden of Gethsemane, for he came to his Father in precisely this way. It is as simple as that. So if it is proper and fitting for our Lord to pray that way, it is certainly proper and fitting for us to pray that way.

I must add, however, there are times when we should not say, “If it be your will.” There are times where God has made it abundantly clear that, if we do certain things, he will do certain things. In these cases we do not have to say, “If it be your will.” He has revealed that it is his will.

Let me illustrate what I am talking about. I was out in California a few years ago, and a little old woman came up to me in a spirit of great distress. She said, “Mr. Sproul, would you please help me? I’m desperately trying to figure out the will of God for my life. Can you please help me?”

I said, “Well, what’s your problem?”

She said, “I’ve been married to a man for over forty years, and all the time I’ve been married to him I’ve been a Christian. He’s never been a Christian. He still isn’t a Christian. He’s been a good husband as far as the world is concerned. He’s provided a living. He’s been wonderful to the children. He’s been faithful to me. He tolerates my religious devotion. But the things that are precious to me are not important to him, and the things that are vital to him are not important to me. I can’t stand another day of this incompatibility. So two weeks ago I left my husband. Now every night he’s been calling me on the phone, and he’s been weeping and saying, ‘Oh, Mabel, come home. I can’t live without you after forty-two years.’ I don’t know what to do. I can’t go back to him, but I can’t stand his weeping and crying. Please help me find the will of God in this matter.”

I said, “I’ll solve your problem. The first thing to do is stop praying.”

“What do you mean?”

I said, “You can stop because God has already answered your question. What does the Bible say on the question of the marriage of a believer and an unbeliever? If the unbeliever wants to depart, let him go. But if he doesn’t want to depart, the believer must not depart. God’s will is that you go back to your husband.”

Suddenly this woman’s sweet demeanor changed to outright fury. She looked at me and she said, “You wouldn’t say that if you had to live with him!”

I answered, “Well, I don’t know what I would say or what I wouldn’t say. But, you see, you didn’t ask me what I would do if I were in your situation. It’s quite possible that if I had been unequally yoked to an unbeliever twenty-five, thirty, or forty years ago, I would have broken God’s law long before you have. I might have bailed out in sin years ago. But you did not ask me what I would do in the frailty of my fallen nature. You asked me what the will of God is.”

That woman did not want to know what the will of God is. She wanted God to change his mind. She wanted God to change his prescriptive will. She wanted God to set aside his commandment for his people and make a special case for her. And you know, she was even telling her friends that the Lord had led her to leave her husband, that she had prayed about it and felt peace. That peace did not come from God the Holy Spirit. She was praying against God’s sovereignty, not within it.

I must add, however, that this woman was a Christian and that she eventually came to herself and went home, because she had ears to hear.

Last year I saw a television program on which a certain gentleman was being interviewed. He had become very prosperous by running a brothel which had by this time been open for something like eight years. The news commentator was asking him how he ever became involved in prostitution in the first place, and he said, “Well, I was tired of scratching about for a living, and I decided that I should try some new enterprises. I thought of opening up a brothel and hiring prostitutes to work for me. I made a covenant with God. I said, ‘God, if you will bless my business for ten years, then after ten years I will give you the rest of my life in service.’ And look how God has prospered me.” He was serious, absolutely serious. He had asked God to bless him in his business of prostitution, and he thought God had blessed him. But he prayed against what is the clear revelation of God’s Word.

I say all this in order to point out that when the biblical writers give us statements such as, “If two people agree on anything, it will be done,” or “Seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened,” these statements must be understood as they are qualified by other passages. We have to be careful how we deal with them.

Personal Petitions

God has invited us to come to him with our personal requests. We are to come with our supplications in a spirit of humility, as Calvin says, and yet with confidence. That is the ironic posture of prayer, the attitude of humility and boldness.

Many people come into the pastor’s study and say, “Oh, please pray for me. I’m driven to despair by guilt.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Well, I did such and such.” They then tell of a dark crime they have committed.

“Have you asked God to forgive you?”

“Yes, I’ve prayed for forgiveness many times, but I still feel guilty.”

“Let’s pray one more time.”

“Why should we pray one more time? I’ve already prayed many times, and I still feel guilty. One more time is not going to do any good.”

“Wait a minute. You’ve prayed for God to forgive you for that sin. This time I’m going to ask God to forgive you for something else.”


“For your arrogance.”

“Arrogance? Now wait a minute. I may be guilty of stealing, murder, anger and adultery, but I am certainly humble enough to ask God to forgive me.”

“But does God say that if you confess your sins he will forgive you your sins?”

“Yes, he says that.”

“Does God lie? Are you suggesting for a minute that the God of heaven and earth, in whom there is no shadow of turning whatsoever, could possibly make a promise to you that he would break and violate? Are you attributing to him the same characteristics of covenant-breaking that are so typical of you? How dare you suggest that the God of glory would break an explicit promise to his people! Let’s get down and pray again, because you are determining your confidence of forgiveness on the basis of your feelings rather than on what God has said in his Word.” Do you see? People confuse forgiveness and the feeling of forgiveness, just as they confuse guilt and guilt feelings. So while we pray with humility, we also are to pray with confidence that what God has promised he will certainly do. We know that if we confess our sins, God is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

God’s Hidden Counsel

Finally, what about the big problem? What about the problem of what theologians call concurrence, the relationship between the ultimate providence of God and our human desires and activities? What about God’s hidden counsel? I am not talking now about what he reveals, but about what he chooses to keep hidden. Does not Calvin say, “All events so proceed from his determinate counsel that nothing happens fortuitously”? Does not Augustine say, “In a certain sense God wills everything that takes place”? Does not Basil, that great Calvinist, say, “Fortune and chance are heathen terms, the meaning of which ought not to occupy pious minds”? Here is where the crunch comes. And that is really what this question is about. Does prayer change things? What we really want to know is the connection between what the philosophers call secondary causality and primary causality. What is the relationship?

I can answer that question, and I can answer it clearly and easily: I do not know. I have not a clue!

I used to worry about that. So I went to college and took all the courses I could take in religion. But nobody seemed to know the answer to that question. I went to seminary. I even studied under John Gerstner, and I figured that if anybody would know the answer to that question, he would. I asked him. And he said, “I don’t know.” I went to Europe to see Dr. Berkhouwer, and I asked him. He said, “I don’t know.” In fact, I have not been able to find any university that offers courses in the secret counsels of God. So when I say that “there is just one thing I do not understand,” I am not playing Columbo. I am not pretending that I do not know only to unravel the riddle for you ten minutes later. I really do not know. And all the raincoats in the world are not going to give me the answer.

But I do know that God is sovereign. I know that he invites me to bring my petitions to him, those that are not against his prescribed will. I am invited to come into his presence, and more than that, I am even provided with a mediator who intercedes for me day and night, carrying my weak, stuttering petitions to the very presence of God. I am assisted by God’s Spirit, who does know something of the secret counsels of God and who aids me in prayer. As a result, whenever I am not sure what the will of God is, I come with what the Father has given me and I leave my request with him. That is when I say, “Not my will but your will be done.”

In the final analysis, that is the only answer I can give beyond what Luther said when he declared, “If God told me to eat the dung off the street, not only would I eat it, but I would know that it was good for me.” That was not a stupid statement. That was a statement from a man who knew the trustworthiness of God and who was not afraid of his sovereignty. He knew that anything that God wills in the ultimate sense is redemptive, and he trusted him to that end. This was not blind trust. It was not a leap of faith. It was trust that had been acquired over a period of time in a life which had repeatedly witnessed the manifestation of God’s perfect trustworthiness.

So you ask me about God’s hidden counsel? I say with Luther, “Let God be God.” I say with Calvin, “Wherever God has closed his holy mouth I will desist from inquiry, but where he has spoken I will speak.” The Bible says that the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but that the things which he has revealed belong to us and to our seed forever.

Excerpt from “Prayer and God’s Sovereignty.” Our Sovereign God: Addresses Presented to the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, 1974–1976. James M. Boice, ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977.

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