I was asked two questions recently and I thought I would share my response here.
1. Are there things God will not do without our participation? Does He “constrain” Himself in areas until we choose to partner/collaborate with Him? I know in Ephesians 1:11 it says “He works all things according to the counsel of His will.”
This is such a great question, because by this question we consider the real tension between some important truths: 1) God has always known and will always know everything that will ever happen from the beginning of the world as if it were yesterday (Isaiah 46:9-10) 2) what God knows must necessarily happen, nothing more, nothing less, or else it would mean He could be mistaken. Since God cannot be mistaken, the future is fixed for God, and is not full of various possibilities for Him 3) humans have finite knowledge and are given commands which imply we have choices to make, all of which makes the future seem full of possibilities for us, so it is for us, even though it is actually fixed for God which is true reality.
As Christians, we trust that the Bible is God’s Word, so we let it inform us on these things, even if they are hard to understand. In other words, we ought to be careful about coming up with philosophy to explain the mysteries of the Bible, especially in places where the Bible is actually very clear. Here is the Isaiah passage I cited above:
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying,‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isaiah 46:9-10).
Here is another one from Job:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2).
The Bible is full of passages like these, so it is good for us to accept that God knows all and will accomplish everything he desires. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)
The tension (for us) comes from our seeming ability to thwart God’s plans with our sin. However, our sin is not a surprise to God. It is clear that even our sinning was known before God even created the world. Thus all sin is used to accomplish God’s purposes. This is made most obvious by the killing of the Son of God, which was the plan from before the foundation of the world. The sin of the killing of Jesus was part of the plan of God before he even said “Let there be light.” Look at what the Apostle John says in Revelation about the book of life. The book of life of the lamb who was slain was written before the foundation of the world: “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Revelation 13:8
Again in the book of Acts we see that the sin of the killing of Jesus was sin that God didn’t just “use,” he ensured that it happened: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Acts 4:27 “Predestined” is translated a Greek word proorizo which plainly means to determine beforehand.
So, to answer the question, are there things God will not do without our participation? Yes, but that is because he will ensure our willing participation. An example of this truth is shown in the building of the Church. We know that God is the one building the church, and that nothing will stop it: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). At the same time, the building of the church is not accomplished without the participation of the people of God. For example, someone must preach: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). The Church is how God has decided to move in the world. If it were an actual possibility for all God’s people to never preach, that would mean it was possible that no one would believe, and the church would not “prevail.” Since God has stated he will in fact build His church, it is sure and certain. So God ensures that we will preach, and we will do it willingly.
I think this tension is resolved if we have a proper view of what it means to be a believer. A believer is truly a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I think sometimes we act as if this is just a metaphor, and that we’re not really new creations, just normal creations who now think Jesus is alive. But being a new creation is not a metaphor. Jesus shows us that this is a spiritual reality over and over with examples. Jesus is the one who said we must be “born again.” What an analogy! We go from being, “dead” (which is also not a metaphor but truly means “dead” Ephesians 2:1) to being “born again!” (John 3:1-7). A baby contributes nothing to its birth. It didn’t exist, and then it existed. Another example is the Spirit of God, or the Pneuma, which is the word for “wind” in Greek. “The wind (spirit/pneuma) blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (spirit/pneuma)” (John 3:8). Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones is another illustration of God making a new creation, his people.
All of this is to point out that God has made a decision to be gracious and merciful to dead sinners, and nothing will stop Him from doing that. He tells the dead to walk, and they obey. He doesn’t need our permission to be merciful. We often act as if faith is something everyone can just muster up inside themselves or not, when in reality, it is a gift God bestows and ensures. “To the saints … it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should … believe in him… ” (Philippians 1:1,29). And 2 Peter 1:1 shows that there is a kind of faith that is both “precious” and which is “received” not mustered up by anyone who wants it. “To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.” And Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
The choice (to have faith or not) isn’t the gift God gives, it’s the saving faith itself that is the gift.
So, now, consider Matthew 7:17 where Jesus says, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”
What does it mean that a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit? Have you ever thought of that? We like to think we are free to do whatever. But Jesus here is comparing us to trees. He is saying good trees cannot bear bad fruit. Here is yet another analogy given to us by Jesus to show that Christians truly are new creations; new creatures; Something different altogether from our fellow humans who are not believers. They cannot bear good fruit. We Christians cannot bear bad fruit. But what is the fruit referring to? Surely it doesn’t mean never sinning. No one is without sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). Jesus is making the point that when we are born again, we love God, and we will do what he commands. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15. That is not a threat; it’s a statement of fact. We can’t love God without the precious and received gift of saving faith, but once we receive that gift, we do love God, and we want to do what he commands because we’ve been healed. That’s what a good tree does. It’s not as if we don’t have any choices to make, but all people can only do what they want to do, and God has healed a Christians heart to work properly. He makes new trees out of us. He has changed our wants from wanting darkness to wanting light. So in a sense, we are bound to obey God. We have to do what we want. We have “become slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:18. We will obey God, because we do love him, because he has healed our dead hearts so that they will certainly work like they were designed. “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.” (Ezekiel 36:27) So our willing participation is a certainty, but this is not a coercion, but a healing of the heart to function properly, which God performs.
2. God’s sovereign, but we are still commanded to pray. I know there are biblical examples in the OT to someone’s prayers “changing” God’s mind. Does that still happen today?
I believe there are examples of what appears to be God changing his mind in Scripture, which I think is intentional in order to show us the importance of prayer and repentance. However, see these Scriptures:
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” (Numbers 23:29)
1 Samuel 15:29 affirms, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.”
Psalm 110:4 says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind.”
There are passages which at least seem as though God changes his mind in a sense but if we understand that God knows all and that his knowledge isn’t shifting about what He knows about the future, we know His mind doesn’t actually change, but that God is teaching something. I believe the passages we read about that seem as though God’s mind changes are threats for judgement that rightly produce reverence and a response from His people. His threats are conditional on a response from his people. In other words, God threatens judgment so that His people will pray or repent, which they do, and after which He “relents” from the judgment He announced would happen. In this way, His threats are not empty threats, but they accomplished God’s purposes to prevent what He would surely do if those conditions were not met. Again, the future seems open and full of possibilities for us, and that’s okay. Since God knows all, He doesn’t change his mind, but acts in His creation following certain conditions (which He does to display His glory, and He does for our joy and instruction).
Let’s go back to the first part of the question, which is really, “Why pray if God is sovereign?” I think this is answered in three ways, which I will explain in detail below: 1) God can answer any prayer 2) prayer is what God apparently wants us to do according to Scripture 3) If God owes us nothing, we should ask for everything.
Some ask, “If God is Sovereign, why pray?” A better question is, “Why pray if He isn’t sovereign?” God can answer any prayer. In other words, we can pray knowing that no one can thwart His plans. Sometimes we imagine that our sin can thwart God’s plans, but we forget that God can overcome our sin whenever He pleases. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” If God turns the heart of a king, how much more does he turn the heart of everyone else whenever He pleases? We often imagine that God is in control of everything but the human heart, but what matters more than the human heart in the world? If God isn’t in control of the human heart, what kind of control does He really have? Who cares if God controls the sea if He can’t answer a prayer to keep us safe from someone else’s sin? No, God is sovereign and is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” Ephesians 3:20.
Secondly, we ought to pray because prayer is what God apparently wants us to do according to Scripture. For reasons I think only God knows, He has decreed that He will move and act in the world (or not act) following the prayers of his people. He loves our prayers. They are like incense to Him. (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 8:4). Prayer “changes” things in that God truly moves after we pray. H.B. Charles wrote a book called “It Happens After Prayer.” That title alone is gold because it highlights the fact that God decided before the foundation of the world that he would act in creation, subsequent to, or after the faithful prayers of his people, who, being new creations, would certainly bear that good fruit of prayer.
This gives me more confidence to pray, not as though I’m “changing” God’s mind, but that I’m somehow participating in the history God knew all along, and that God is making the history that He would ensure would happen after my prayers. When we pray we can feel as though we’re writing history. I think that’s a good thing to feel, knowing we’re certainly changing what would otherwise come to pass if we hadn’t prayed. But instead of thinking of prayer as getting God to do something he didn’t plan on doing, we should instead think of even the moment of our prayer itself as a gift that God knew He would give before He created the world. Even when we pray, it is a holy, God preordained moment. If we are praying, we know it is a moment God has allowed, and which He said would precede his divine movement in the world.
Thirdly, if God is sovereign and owes us nothing, we have even more reason to ask for everything we want. God does not have to answer any prayer to be good. He has no obligation to do anything else for us to be gracious and merciful. He has given us Christ. His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). I think sometimes we imagine that because God knows the future, and He is good, and we are his children etc., therefore He will just give us what He knows we need without us needing to pray. It’s true that God promises to take care of us like the flowers (Luke 12:27). Yet in the passage where Jesus says God knows what we need is the very passage He is telling us we ought to pray! (Matthew 6) As for what we truly “need,” Paul, writing from prison of all places says, “I am well supplied” (Philippians 4:18) Elsewhere he says, “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless.” (1 Corinthians 4:11) And Job said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” Job 13:15. This has helped me to pray, because I have not suffered like Job and Paul, but I might suffer like they did, and yet God would still be good. So, I am encouraged even more to pray, because I don’t think God owes me anything. I pray then, for every little thing, because nothing else but life in Christ is promised to me, which is more than enough. Everything God answers in prayer then is grace upon grace.