Romans 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Does Prayer Really Change Things?

In his book Christian Theology, Millard Erickson puts forth the proposition that prayer really changes nothing with respect to God’s eternal purposes. He wrote, “prayer does not change what he [God] has purposed to do.” That seems to fly in the face of the contemporary Christian conception of prayer. Take for example the huge commercial success of the little book, The Prayer of Jabez. Modern Christian society has fallen for the notion that prayer is a method to talk God into doing what we want Him to do. As I read the mantra authored by Wilkenson it reminded me of Macbeth’s hags – except instead of conjuring spirits with, “double, double, toil and trouble,” he suggests we conjure God’s Spirit with “bless me Lord indeed.” The idea that man by the force of his finite will can change the eternal purposes of Almighty God elevates man to a higher plane than God. How is that different from Satan’s temptation of Eve in the Garden: “you can be like God”?

When most modern teachers attempt to show how to pray, they mishandle the Word of God and site examples where God supposedly changed His mind based on the prayer of a believer. The text where Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites for God not to destroy them after their worship of the golden calf is frequently cited. When they use this passage as a proof-text, they never consider the fact that if God had destroyed them, He would have been unfaithful to His promises. Since God cannot break His Word, it would have been impossible for Him to do anything but affirmatively answer Moses’ prayer. God was using the intercession of His servant Moses to solidify Moses’ pastoral compassion and care for his people. God was going to preserve His chosen people no matter what Moses did. God used Moses’ intercession to conform Moses to His will. Intercession doesn’t change the One being entreated, it changes the interceder.

Abraham’s apparent bidding war with the Angel of the Lord over His destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is another proof-text often cited. Abraham asked the pre-incarnate Christ if He would destroy the righteous with the wicked. He then seemingly began to talk Him out of destroying the city if there were 50, then 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10 righteous people living there. The question is – did Abraham’s superb skills in the art of persuasion convince God of how unreasonable He was to destroy the city if there were righteous people there? Or was God longsuffering in teaching Abraham how He was just in the destruction He was about to rain down on the tremendously wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham learned a lot in that encounter – he’s the one who changed. He learned of God’s justice and he learned of His mercy. God also taught Abraham He was merciful in saving Lot and his daughters even though they had absolutely no effect on the culture in which they had steeped themselves.

A third proof-text is James 5:16b, “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” I have heard this verse used in every sense from “name it claim it” (or as a pastor once said, “gab it, grab it”), to a treatise on fervency, to how to get God to do what you want Him to do. I have never heard this verse used in the context with which it is given. Prayer is an essential part of the Christian walk, which is the subject of James’ epistle. The problem comes in interpreting what the “much” is that effective, fervent prayer avails. I would contend, and I think Erickson would agree, that prayer doesn’t avail God of His immutability. It also doesn’t avail Him of His eternal plan, His decree, or His foreknowledge. However, I would say that prayer avails man of his ineffectiveness. It also avails him of his tepidness and his unrighteousness. Prayer doesn’t change God – He doesn’t need changing. He is perfect and immutable. We, on the other hand, are depraved creatures who, although created in the image of God, are marred by sin. We are marred to the point that even our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. We are the ones who need changing. Even after we have been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Bible tells us we have to strive to attain the mind of Christ. We still have an old nature to battle. Prayer changes the one who needs changing, not the One who doesn’t.


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