Part 1: Prayer Changes Things—Or Does It?

Exodus 32:1-14

Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of prayer from Exodus 32:1-14.

My brief is to speak on prayer. I am presenting something of a theology of prayer or of certain aspects of prayer. In this session, if I had to give a subtitle, it would be Prayer Changes Things.… Or Does It? Let us turn first of all to Exodus 32, and I shall read the first 14 verses.

Some years ago, I wrote a little book on the prayers of Paul. Since then, I have been toying with the wisdom of writing on the prayers of Moses, some of the prayers of Daniel, some of the prayers of David. There are so many excellent prayers in Scripture that teach us how to pray. In Exodus 32–34, there are four prayers of Moses that surface. To begin with, chapter 32, verses 1–14, especially the prayer in verses 11 and following.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’

So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord. So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people.

Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’ But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth”?

Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.” ’ Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Prayer changes things … or does it? If prayer changes things, how exactly are we to trust God’s sovereignty? If the course of events finally turns on the wisdom, perspicacity, perseverance, and intercessory fervor of our prayers, then apparently there are many things that could go on in one fashion that only go on because of our intercession.

So is prayer changing something then, and if so, does that mean God’s sovereign sway over the whole is so contingent on our intercession that God’s sovereignty itself cannot, finally, be trusted? I doubt if there are many here who can live with that interpretation of things.

On the other hand, if prayer doesn’t change things, if, in fact, exactly the course of events is all determined before the foundation of the earth, precisely why are we supposed to pray? If we simply have a formula, “Well, we pray because God has ordained not only the ends but also the means, so God has ordained that we pray.” Then somewhere along the line, the tenor of prayer in Scripture dissipates.

There is a passion in intercessory prayer in Scripture that does not feel like, “Okay, well I’m supposed to pray now to get this thing to come out right. I know this has been ordained from before the foundation of the earth. So here we go.” So now we pray. It just does not sound like that. Do you not hear, here and elsewhere in Scripture, the raw edge of almost intercessory desperation? So does prayer change things or does it not? On the face of it, one could make an initial case either way.

Prayer changes things. There’s Jacob wrestling with God, refusing to let God go until he, Jacob, receives a blessing. There’s David giving testimony in Psalm 40. Psalm 40 really needs to be read in conjunction with Psalms 37 to 39. In Psalm 37, there is this strong exhortation to “Wait, wait on the Lord.” In 38 and 39, there is instruction about how to wait on the Lord and testimony in that respect, and then in 40, testimony: “I waited, waited on the Lord; he heard me and delivered me. He set my feet on a hard place. He took me out of the miry bog.”

There’s Elijah, praying for drought and praying for rain. James reminds us, after all, that he was an ordinary man. He prayed fervently, and the Lord heard his prayers. Or the intercessory prayers of Moses, here, about which I’ll say more in a moment. Paul encouraging others to pray for him because there was a great door opened to him.

On the other hand, does prayer change things? Jesus taught us, in what we call the Lord’s Prayer, to ask, “Your will be done,” which sort of covers it, doesn’t it? In Gethsemane, the heart of his own prayer was, “Not as I will, but as you will.” Paul prays fervently three times for the removal of this messenger of Satan, this thorn in the flesh. Sometimes when Paul prays along such lines, people are healed. In this case, God simply adds grace. “Well, one way or the other, God answers, and God’s will will be done.”

Even those who cry, in an intercessory fashion, under the throne in Revelation 6 are basically told, “Well, you can ask for relief all you like for those who are still on earth, but the time is not right. When that time comes, it will come.” After all, isn’t God portrayed as “the one who does all things according to the counsel of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace”? “Not a bird falls from the heavens apart from his sanction.” Prayer changes things.

Or should we say prayer change us? That is often another formula that is used to address this sort of thing. Inevitably, there is truth to that, but if prayer simply changes us, why don’t we simply pray that God would change us? There are many instances in the Scripture where we are praying for something else. If we say that in such praying, the prayer changes us but does not affect the course of anything else, then it really does seem like a peculiarly twisted fashion in which to ask God to change us.

All of us struggle as to how to word such matters. Most of us here have been praying for quite a long time, and we have wondered how to put these things into words, have we not? Sometimes we push as far as we can, and our heads begin to hurt. Then we say, “Oh, blow it,” and just get on with praying … or not, as the case may be.

In one of the better books on the theology of prayer, Douglas Kelly’s lovely little book, If God Already Knows, Why Pray? (it’s well worth picking up and reading), Kelly tells the story of how he came to marry his wife. He was a shy lad who saw this Southern belle (in the United States, Southern means something a little different from what it means elsewhere) and was instantly captured, didn’t have the cheek to ask her out, so prayed she would become his wife for two flipping years, eventually popped the question, and she said, “Yes.”

This is not normal Western pattern of courtship; nevertheless, as he puts it in his book, “As the years turned over, there was lots of accumulating evidence that this marriage was, in fact, made in heaven.” Their personalities meshed. They produced children who grew in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Kelly says, “The prayer did not change God’s mind, but released the blessing.”

Well, I’m glad the blessing was released, for both their sakes, but that simply drops the tension we feel into a slightly different set of categories. You see it right away as soon as you ask the question, “If Kelly had not prayed, would the blessing have been released?” So you are back at this question of whether or not prayer changes things.

Now let me focus for just a few moments on one particularly challenging instance in Scripture, this first of four intercessory prayers in Exodus 32–34, before I try to outline three things to bear in mind when we wrestle with such questions. This setting, of course, in Exodus 32 is well-known. Moses has been up the mountain receiving the law. The Ten Commandments were given in chapter 20, instructions on how to build the tabernacle in the ensuing chapters, and so forth.

Moses has been away now for some time, and down below the people are saying, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses, we’re ready to write him off.” Exactly what kind of religious conceptions they held is really difficult to fathom. The ancient Egyptians had a god called Apis, who was shaped like a bullock, so they may have been drawn in that direction because of their long sojourn in Egypt.

From Aaron’s perspective, he saw something of syncretistic religion. After he has actually fashioned the calf, he says in verse 5, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” He still thinks that somehow he’s preserving covenantal faithfulness to Yahweh, but Yahweh now somehow imaged or presented as a calf.

So he is going to marry something of pagan influence, something of God’s self-disclosure, and form one happy religion that will keep everybody happy, but the Lord says to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.” The amount of divine self-distancing from the exodus is remarkable. Not, “My people, whom I brought up, have become corrupt,” but “Your people, whom you brought up, have become corrupt.”

If that happened in our normal relationships, I think we would say it’s almost as if God so wants to distance himself from them that he does not even want to say, “I know they’re my people.” He says, “Leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them.” It’s almost as if God knows that Moses will intercede, and “I don’t want you to bother me that way. Leave me alone.” “But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God.”

The nature of his arguments is stunning. “Lord, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?” Does Moses have to remind God of the ultimate realities? In fact, “God, I’m a little nervous about your reputation. If you wipe them out now, the Egyptians might infer that you took them away from the land of Goshen in order to have a big laugh at their expense.

You either weren’t strong enough or you weren’t good enough really to save them. You brought them out into the desert yourself in order to destroy them. Is that what you want the pagans to say? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Thus they have their own self-justification, their own last laugh, and the person who becomes most despised in all of this is you, O God. Is that what you want?” That’s the form of his argument.

“Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.” Then, as a second major theological thrust in the argumentation, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self.” As Hebrews reminds us, “There is no one greater by whom to swear.” “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them. It will be their inheritance forever.”

Implication: “Are you a promise-keeping God or are you not? That’s what you promised on oath in your own name. Will you keep your own covenantal promises or not?” That’s the structure of his argument, and we read, “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” This is one of about 40 passages where, in the Scripture, we’re told God relented, usually in connection with intercessory prayer.

Of course, in some theological circles it has generated what is nowadays called openness of God theology. If these were the only passages in the Bible we had to bear in mind when we think through how God responds to intercessory prayer, you have no doubts about how to answer the question, “Prayer change things … or does it?” On the face of it, it certainly seems to change things here.

Yet when one looks at these relenting passages, one soon discovers some remarkable anomalies. Here’s Amos 7: “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the late crops were coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, ‘Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!’ So the Lord relented.” So here is God giving Amos a vison of judgment to come. Amos intercedes, and God relents. The visionary prediction of what will be will not take place.

Next, “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: The Sovereign Lord was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, ‘Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!’ So the Lord relented. ‘This will not happen either,’ the Sovereign Lord said.” So once again, God has given Amos, the prophet, some sort of visionary experience of what is threatened. Amos intercedes; God relents.

Then, “This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line,’ I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.’ ”

Now in the flow of this passage, the intercession of Amos on the first two instances is really nothing more than the setup by which God finally says, “Stop interceding. It’s too late. A line has been passed.” That, of course, is found elsewhere in Scripture, where Samuel, for example, is told to stop interceding for Saul. It’s past a point of no return.

Or in 1 John 5 where there are certain people for whom we are not to intercede. A line has been crossed. I think something similar is going on in James 5 as well. In other words, you cannot suppose that you can definitively, decisively, on your own hook, change the course of history merely by interceding, and God is bound, then, to relent. In fact, it gets more complicated yet.

In Ezekiel, chapter 22, in a passage which, in fact, the Lord used in my own life in quite a decisive way at one point, we read these words, beginning at verse 27, “Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations.

They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says’—when the Lord has not spoken. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. ‘I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.’ ”

Now that’s dramatic. God is looking through the land for someone to intercede so that he would not destroy the land. Part of his theological condemnation is grounded in his sovereign perception that there is no one there to intercede, no one to teach the truth, no one to build up the wall. “I found no one.” If you take that back to Moses’ situation, God knows he has Moses with whom to reckon. God knows that. He has raised Moses up. He knows Moses will intercede, and he knows that he himself will relent.

In my own life, I was studying chemistry and mathematics. The course of my pilgrimage was laid out, as far as I was concerned. I was having a wonderful time at McGill, worked for the federal government for a bit in air pollution, and planned to go on to Cornell for organic synthesis when gradually the Lord began to tilt my heart in another direction.

One of the first steps came when a pastor asked me if I would serve as his apprentice one summer. I told him there were quite a lot of college-age young people in the church. He didn’t know us all very well, but he had mistaken me, perhaps because I was a PK. There were others who were heading into ministry; I was doing chemistry. I quite understood how he had mixed me up with others, but no thank you.

He said he hadn’t mixed me up with others, and he wanted me to do it. Anyway, we had a two-hour fight; I won. I didn’t do it, but it was the first time I began to think, “Maybe I should be thinking about the ministry.” Then I got into this research lab, and I found that my fellow chemists in the lab could be broken down into two groups.

There were those who were approaching retirement or general bitterness, one of the two, and who could hardly wait to get out of there. There were others for whom chemistry was god, and everything turned on writing the next grant proposal, the intricacies of the next project, and so on. I didn’t belong to either camp. I enjoyed the job. I had a blast. It was a great project, but at the same time, it was nowhere near my God. I was, after all, a Christian and was helping somebody up the valley trying to begin another church part-time.

At the end of that summer, I heard a missionary to Haiti preach on Ezekiel 22, where God says, “I sought for a man to stand in the gap before me for my people, but I found none.” Thus, the very fact that God had found none six centuries before Christ became God’s providential way of calling me 2,600 years later. You pause and you think about the intricacies of the pattern God is weaving in his sovereign providence.

Although Ezekiel didn’t have a clue who Don Carson was, God did, and the intricacies of God’s providence used that one declaration as a form of judgment in the historical setting where it is first given and became a means of a call in another life. How many other people have felt the impact of those words across the centuries? God is interweaving patterns beyond our conception, with only the finest, slimmest glimmerings of the intricacy of this pattern that God, in his sovereignty, is weaving. Now I want to come to three controlling theological reflections.

1. God is utterly, unqualifiedly sovereign.

We simply must not duck that truth. You cannot take Ephesians 1 seriously and duck that truth. “He works out all things according to his purpose, for the praise of his glorious grace.” If you don’t believe this, you can either resort to very, very clever exegesis or use a pair of scissors and cut out Romans 8:28 from your Bible. Those are your choices.

The texts of Scripture insist that he can turn the heart of kings anywhere he wants. If he can turn the hearts of leaders (and anyone else for that matter) anywhere he wants, then you cannot even suppose that God is sovereign over macro events, but at the level of individual human decisions, God has reserved a kind of special place there that is so tied to our independence, to our freedom, that God himself declares hands off and doesn’t quite know how it’s going to turn out. It’s very difficult to believe that in the light of biblical texts.

So far as our praying goes, this even means the Lord Jesus himself can teach us, “Be careful about rambling on in your prayers. God knows what you need before you ask him.” We’ll wrestle with that later in conjunction with other texts where the same Jesus equally teaches a parable to the end that we should always pray and not give up.

It’s complicated, but the very fact that Jesus himself can say, “Why are you rabbiting on as if you have to give instructions to the Almighty?” shows that, again, God understands full well that our praying is not to be conceived as something which somehow brings down blessings from heaven, which otherwise God would not have thought of, sort of slipped his notice. Moreover, we are not to fall back into some kind of deist perception of God. “Not a sparrow falls from the heavens apart from God’s sanction,” so Jesus insists.

Our family is not a family of serious birders, but we have, depending on the season of the year, three to five bird feeders in our garden. This time of the year, it’s four. We have hummingbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, the Illinois cardinal, four different species of woodpecker, five different species of sparrow, robins (which in North America are really a kind of thrush). At certain seasons of the year, the Baltimore oriole goes through, as do other migratory birds.

Then, every once in a while, a Cooper’s hawk comes over and takes out one of the mourning doves, but not without God’s sanction. Every once in a while, one of the less intellectually gifted of those birds flies into one of our windows and breaks its neck, but not apart from God’s sanction. Every once in a while, another pair of hummingbirds, which are terrifically territorial, comes in. You watch, for 20 minutes, a World War II hummingbird dogfight, never apart from God’s sanction.

From the movements of the galaxies to the tiniest subatomic particle, with a half-life of nanoseconds, nothing happens apart from God’s sanction. In fact, this side of the cross and resurrection, nothing happens apart from Christ’s sanction. He is the one who upholds all things by his powerful word. However we sort out our prayer lives, don’t ever lose this truth. God is utterly, unqualifiedly sovereign.

2. God is personal.

I do not think it is helpful or wise, here, to wander into an extended excursus on the treatment of personhood, a very difficult notion within the philosophy of religion. Rather, I presuppose a rather ad hoc, almost intuitive, approach. Persons think, have emotions, formulate thoughts, speak, interact with other persons, and sustain familial and other relationships (husband, wife, father, son, and so forth). They imagine.

At the heart of these persons, then, is interaction, relationship with other persons. When they stop interacting person-to-person, personally with other persons, inevitably they become corroded, twisted, lonely, resentful. One of the great truths about the one God is that in eternity past, the Father loved the Son. The Son loved the Father. God himself, though always and only and forever only one, was always a complex one and was never, therefore, isolated.

This God interacts with his image-bearers (that is, with us persons) personally, using the attributes of what we normally consider personhood. So there is speech, imagination, emotion, interaction, and the like. So when we first hear God addressing human beings, for example, there is a person-to-person connection you do not get when God simply says, “Let there be light,” and there is light.

After the fall, God says, “Adam, where are you?” In the light of all of Scripture, is this because God is putting in a request for information to which he otherwise does not have access? “Here, God, around this corner.” He is, nevertheless, using speech to address a person, even though God knows the answer to his own question. When Adam replies, “Well, I discovered I was naked, and I hid,” God asks another question. “How did you discover you were naked?” Did God not know?

Even the strongest voices within openness theology acknowledge, here, that God does know, because openness theologians say God does not know what happens in the future, but he certainly knows what happens in the present and what has happened in the past. He knows what Adam has done. He knows what Eve has done.

He knows, now, why he understands he is naked and ashamed, but God still asked the question. He interacts personally. As we run through Scripture, we discover that God is not only sovereign but God responds. He entreats. “Turn, turn. Why will you die? The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Turn to me, all you ends of the earth, and be saved.”

He is cuckolded. Hosea presents him as the betrayed husband, the cuckolded Almighty, a betrayed lover, an abandoned husband. He’s the God of relationships. He is angry. He is jealous. He feels compassion. He loves. As soon as we say these things, which are transparent on the very surface of Scripture.… This is not taking clever exegesis. These sorts of things are on the surface of Scripture.

As soon as we say these things, we immediately run into a difficulty, because in saying that God is a person we are using language that we use of all persons in our experience, and all persons in our immediate experience on this earth are finite, so that all of our personal relationships on this earth are with other finite persons, but God is presented as infinite; that is, transcending space and time, as utterly sovereign. What does personhood look like in God? The short answer is, “I don’t know.” The longer answer is my third point.

3. God is never less than all he is.

It is not as if he is sometimes sovereign and sometimes personal. It is not as if he is sometimes holy and sometimes loving. It is not as if God is sometimes sovereign and sometimes good. He is never less than all he is. Two things immediately follow. Now we come closer to our challenges, needs, privileges, and glories in prayer. The two things that follow are these:

A) There is admitted mysteriousness in all of this.

I say mysteriousness rather than mystery, because the term mystery is often used in translation of a Greek word mustÈrion, in some of our translations secret things of God. I don’t mean mystery in that sense. “Something hidden in times past but not disclosed” is the dominant New Testament usage. I mean there is mysteriousness about God and his attributes, things that are above our capacity to perceive.

For instance, all of our personal relationships amongst ourselves occur in time, in sequence. So if I ask a question, then after the question, another person responds with an answer, which may then trigger further reflection, which prompts me to ask another question, followed by further response. If the response is, from my perspective, really bad, I might respond with curtness, anger, or compassion, but in some ways, my personal response is a sequential thing, because both the other party and I are locked in time.

Gut God inhabits eternity, so what does it mean for God, the God of eternity, to interact with us, his image-bearers (also persons) who are locked in space and time? This is part of what Calvin means when he speaks of accommodation. God discloses himself to us in the personal categories we understand, even while Scripture itself happily announces that God inhabits eternity.

Again, we find ways to protect our theological speech from errors when we say God is utterly sovereign. He is utterly sovereign; therefore, in some sense, he stands behind absolutely everything. If we word it simply in those genetic categories, we smile happily and say, “Amen, Ephesians 1.”

But then when we tease out the implications and say, “Thus God stands behind Hitler and Pol Pot, and God stands behind the tsunami and war,” we instantly reflect, “Yes, there is some sense in which that must be true,” but surely to put it like that makes it sound as if God’s goodness is threatened, which is no less taught in Scripture than God’s sovereignty. Does not James 1 insist that “He is the God who has no shadow to him”?

This is a very well lit room, but if I put my hand over my nose, because there are spotlights coming from all directions and other ambient light around, there are shadows in various places. All of our finite light casts shadows. In other words, to all of our light side, there is a dark side, but God is the God who has no dark side.

That’s what James 1 says. He is good. He is always good. He is good, good, good, good. He is only good. He is never not good. God is never less than all he is. You must never think of God’s sovereignty somehow kicking in in such a way that now his goodness is diminished. So inevitably we construct speech, when we speak of God’s sovereignty, to say that though God is sovereign, he stands asymmetrically behind good and evil. That is, he does not stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way.

He stands behind good in such a way that the good is finally, ultimately, creditable to him as good. He stands behind evil in such a way that what is evil in the event is credited only to the secondary causalities. You say, “Now, Don, you’re getting far too philosophical for me.” Read Genesis. What I said is already there in Genesis 50 with respect to Joseph being shipped to Egypt. “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” In the very intentionalities of the brothers and of God there was a different end.

Suddenly, the whole discussion becomes very complex, does it not? Read Isaiah 10, verses 5 and following, where God says he uses the Assyrians as his battleax, as the sword of his wrath, as the saw by which he cuts up his people, but after he’s finished using them to chasten his people, just as tools, he will turn around and rend them, because they don’t recognize that God is sovereignly using them. So in their arrogance, he holds them accountable.

Suddenly, you perceive that in passage after passage after passage, God’s sovereignty is universally sweeping, but he stands behind good and evil asymmetrically, such that the evil is always creditable to secondary causalities without ever diminishing his sovereignty and the good is always creditable to him. Nowhere is that clearer than in the cross.

Hence we read in Acts 4, “Pontius Pilate and the chief priests, the rulers of the Jews, conspired together against your Holy Servant, Jesus. They did what your hand had determined beforehand should be done.” Although we use such language to protect our theological speech from errors, and rightly so, there are limits to how far we can push. Why, then, the fall at all? In the mystery of God’s counsel, he determines that it will be to disclose the fullness of his glory in his Son in due time, and beyond that, I cannot speak.

So we must never say something like, “We should pray as if God were an Arminian or a libertarian, and we should trust as if God were a Calvinist.” Those sorts of formulations are horrendous. I know what people are trying to protect, but they’re still very unfortunate expressions, because they suggest you can turn on and off God’s attributes depending on where you are. The reality is, God is never less than all he is. If that leads us to some mystery, then we bow our heads in worship. Finally, the second inference that flows from this …

B) We must allow each biblically revealed attribute of God (God’s sovereignty, God’s goodness, God’s compassion, God’s wrath) to function with respect to our prayer lives only as it functions within Scripture and in no other way.

This is the point to which I’ve been going. That is, precisely because we are on the edges of such a mysteriously rich, complex God inhabiting eternity we must take extra pains not to draw inferences from the attributes of God which, unwittingly, begin to diminish some other attribute of God. You must not do that.

For example, Philippians, chapter 2, a well-known passage. Here the apostle Paul writes to his readers, and he says in verse 12, “My dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Now here, God’s sovereignty in causing you to will and act is used as an incentive to working hard, not as an incentive to fatalism.

“Well, God, if you’re going to do it, you don’t need my help. You’re sovereign; you’ll just do what you want.” No. Precisely the reverse. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling precisely because it is God working within us both to will and to do everything according to his purpose.

So Jesus instructs us about the sparrows. That’s true; God is sovereign. Then you find him weeping over the city. The fact that God cares even for the sparrows is used by Jesus himself to encourage us to trust God in his sovereignty to look after even the most miniscule details in our lives. “Do you not know that you are worth more than many sparrows?” Jesus says. It is not used to induce prayerlessness on the grounds of some sort of divine fatalism.

Then Jesus weeps over the city in Luke’s gospel. Is this because somehow he now holds that his heavenly Father’s sovereignty is in abeyance, so he’s discouraged, or is it a function of his own heavenly Father’s compassion? “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.”

Jesus weeps over the city. Yes, yes, even in Gethsemane.… We focus all the time on the last part of the prayer, “Not my will but yours be done,” but never, ever forget the first part of the prayer. The Gospels show us that Jesus knows all through his ministry that he is heading to the cross. He knows that’s what the heavenly Father’s will is.

He has announced it to his own followers. He has predicted it again and again, in Matthew’s gospel, five times before the passion itself. He knows what the Father’s will is, and there you find him, in Gethsemane, saying, “Heavenly Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me.” I know he adds the second bit, and we glory in it, but to my mind what is really striking about that prayer is the first bit.

For although he knows what the Father’s will is … he knows he is going to the cross, he knows he comes as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, he knows he comes not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many … even in the agony of his prospective abandonment under the curse he begs that even now this cup should be taken from him.

This suggests that even in the mystery of the triune God there are degrees of personal relationship that must not be swept under the carpet of God’s sovereignty if the price that is paid is God’s personhood. So in our praying we must never allow biblical truths to function in ways that tend toward the destruction of other biblical truths. Never, ever appeal to God’s sovereignty, God’s sovereignty even in election, to diminish your zeal in intercessory prayer that God would have mercy.

Suppose God were to raise up amongst us prayer warriors who weep over London and Hull and Newcastle, desperate for God to relent? Yes, on the one hand our theology insists that we conclude, at the end of all of this: if this takes place, it is because it is God working within us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. If it does not take place, shame on us, even while the judgment itself falls within the sweep of God’s sovereign sway.

We sometimes hear stories like this: God is talking with the angels, and the angels are admiring God’s wonderful plan of redemption, now perfectly revealed in Christ Jesus. They ask him, “What is your plan to bring in all the number of the elect?” “Well, my sons and daughters, my regenerate people, they are the ones who will preach the gospel and carry the good news to the ends of the earth. By that means, people will be saved.” “Yes, but supposing they don’t do it?” God replies, “I have no other plan.”

Formally, that’s correct. Emotionally, it is profoundly mistaken because it sounds, now, as if God is somehow hostage to our obedience, whereas we still serve the Lord Christ who promises, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” So we return to the book of Esther. “God will save his people, but who knows whether or not God has raised you up for such a time as this?”

We should never, ever allow God’s sovereignty to function in our lives in such a way as to diminish the biblical mandate for intercessory prayer, pleading with a sovereign, holy God, even while we acknowledge full well that should we do so it is the fruit of God’s powerful Spirit at work within us. Let us pray.

We say, heavenly Father, with the disciples of old, “Teach us to pray.” For the glory of your dear Son, and for the good of his blood-bought people, we beseech you. In Jesus’s name, amen.


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The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

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Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

Get your free eBook »