The Romans worshiped the uncompassionate Fortuna, the goddess of chance who often appeared blind and veiled. Her ball of fortune could roll in any direction. Since she was guided by no set rule, her actions with men were capricious. All her gifts were randomly and frivolously handed out. “O Fortuna, like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing ever waning!” But as Christians, we can be greatly comforted to know our God is sovereign over all things and he has “unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1). Indeed, because the omniscient and omnipotent God is “infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being,” (WSC 4), his eternal plan is reasonable, intelligent, wise, unalterable, certain, and perfect. His plan not only comprehends and determines everything that happens, it includes all the means required to accomplish his desired purpose and goal. Nothing happens in isolation from his predetermined decree. Nothing happens by “chance,” or “fortune.” Indeed, one of the great mysteries and wonders of this amazing doctrine of predestination is that God works his sovereign will in such a way that even people’s free actions are part of that infallible and immutable plan. The Confession correctly states that God is not the author of sin nor does his plan take away from the will of the creature. Moreover, it doesn’t take anything away from “the liberty or contingency of second causes, but rather establishes” them.
Knowing God has sovereignly planned everything that happens and is controlling it is a comforting thing. It means that we are not tossed on some random sea of fate. Still, our hearts are frequently disturbed in this world because while theologically we know God is in control, not everything that happens in our lives always seem to be in his control. Indeed, quite frequently we are on the edge of darkness and confusion. Honestly, his ways are mysterious and his working in our lives is cloudy if not altogether contrary to what seems good. It is a hard pill to swallow that if God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, then my trials, my tears, my heartaches, my ill-health, and my job loss is part of God’s eternal decree. By faith, I can certainly take comfort in the knowledge that these hard providences come from the hand of a wise and loving God who delights to call himself our Father, yet my heart fears the unknown. I am uncomfortable with the pain. How, then, can I grow to trust God in his wise and loving plan?
Well, inasmuch as God has ordained all things for my good, so he has ordained prayer to be a means of grace to us. What that means is that the Holy Spirit works through prayer to strengthen and increase our faith, which was created in our hearts by the ministry of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. The Word of God teaches us the inexpressible nature and love of God in Christ Jesus. The Word of God teaches us how faithful God is in his promises. The Word of God instructs us on what to believe and how to act in a world that is up-side down and topsy-turvy. The Word of God teaches us that we were predestined to be adopted as children through Christ, that he has freely bestowed on us his grace and all spiritual blessings, that he has inseparably united us to Christ, that with him we are citizens of heaven, and that our true position is hidden with Christ in God (Eph. 1:1-7; 2:19; Rom. 8:35; Col. 3:1-2). By the Word we are bolstered in our faith to learn that He has not only chosen us as his beloved children, but he has granted us the privilege of suffering for his sake (Phil. 1:29), and his power is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
“As God has ordained all things for my good, so he has ordained prayer to be a means of grace to us.”
As we hear that Word, our hearts respond with gratitude and thus we lift our heart up in praise. We take the Word given to us, and we pray the promises back to God and the Spirit uses that to strengthen our faith. In prayer we commune with God as we humbly lay out our complaints, our questions, our concerns, and our needs. We don’t know why we have these hardships and difficulties in our lives, but our Father, who knows the end from the beginning, has ordained the purpose of these things. God hasn’t rolled his fortune ball out and it just happened to go this way instead of that. No, he is in control. But the good news doesn’t end with that, for God has also ordained the means to receiving peace in these anxious-giving moments (Phil. 4:6-7). Thus, he hears our prayers in Christ and answers them in ways that very often transcend our understanding.
We are seldom given the mind of God in our predetermined trials, but we are given the promise of his Word that “he works all things out for the good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Again, God gave us the promise, and he gave us the means to claim that promise: prayer. As we seek the Lord in prayer, he makes good on his promise. In prayer he shows himself over and over again to be our God. He demonstrates that he is pleased to take us as his people. Again, we may never come to know why God has predestined this thing or that in our lives, but the gift of prayer offered in faith is the door by which we come to the throne of grace and where we learn to rest in Christ and in God’s Word, power, wisdom, and love. We may not have to know the why of heartaches if we know who ordained them.
“The gift of prayer offered in faith is the door by which we come to the throne of grace and where we learn to rest in Christ and in God’s Word, power, wisdom, and love.”
Sometimes we pray for an answer and God does something entirely different. Indeed, his answers are frequently surprising and better than what we hoped for. We shouldn’t be surprised by that because we are people locked in time and space, and therefore we don’t know how to pray as we should (Rom. 8:26). God has determined before the foundation of the world that we should be glorified in Christ. Since we don’t know what we are going to be like until we see Christ face to face (cf. 1 Jn. 3:2), and since our eyes have yet to see all that God has prepared for those who trust in him (c.f., Isa. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9), our prayers will undoubtedly be shortsighted and small. But the Spirit of God searches our hearts and knows God’s great plans and thus he intercedes for the saints. Through prayer he also establishes communion between us and God, and he uses it to teach us humility and patience. Through prayer the Spirit causes our trust and hope to grow and helps us to see heaven from our earthly realm. Prayer, then, is intricately part of God’s predetermined plan, for he has ordained prayer to be a means by which he transforms us more and more into the image of his beloved Son who trusted his Father even unto the cross.
It is a very reassuring thing to know that prayer is a means of grace. However, another aspect to this matter of prayer and predestination is also that prayer offered in faith and in Jesus’ name becomes the grace of means. What I mean by this is that God has not only determined everything that will happen, but he has also ordained the means by how it will all happen. For example, from his prison in Rome, Paul reflected on Job’s suffering. Like Job, Paul expected to be strengthened and vindicated in his own suffering. But it is interesting that he wrote to the Philippians, “I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (1:19). Clearly, Paul expected God to use the prayers of the saints to give him the provision of the Spirit to deliver him. This comes out also in Philemon 22, where Paul exhorted his friend to “prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.” In 2 Corinthians 1:11 he tells the saints there that they are helping him in his ministry through their prayers. In Colossians 4:3 he also asks for prayer so that God would open doors of ministry for him and that he might preach the gospel with boldness. In other words, Paul fully believed that the whole church is involved in the mission and ministry of the gospel. Yes, he is sent to go out and preach it, but the prayers of the saints were the means by which he could do that with success and boldness. Would Paul be successful without their prayers? We don’t know because it was those prayers and the provision of the Spirit that God used to bring Paul’s success.
This is a very important understanding of prayer because we can easily fall into the trap that thinks that because God has sovereignly ordained everything that comes to pass, it is pointless and useless for us to pray. He doesn’t need me or my prayer for his will to be accomplished in this world. But again, God has determined both the ends and the means, and prayer is the means by which God blesses his people. On that note, James 4:2 very clearly tells us, “You do not have because you do not ask.” Of course, the next verse warns us to ask with right motives and desires, that is, to see God glorified. Earlier (1:5), James said we must also ask with faith. The point of 4:2 is that so many blessings are not given to us because we haven’t prayed for them! The lesson of this is that whoever wants help from God, and whoever depends on the prayers of the saints for help, really relies on the promise of God because it is God, in his wisdom, who put prayer and help intrinsically together. What God has joined together, then, let no one separate.
We pray confidently because we know that God has foreordained everything that comes to pass and because Christ defeated all his enemies, and ours, nothing can stay his hand or derail his plan. Again, we may not know what God’s eternal purpose in a particular matter is. We seek that knowledge through prayer, so, we pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray in Jesus’ name, recognizing our ignorance and weakness, but we are also trusting that our perfect faithful High Priest is interceding for us and perfecting our petitions as it were. We may not know the details of God’s predetermined plan, but our praying reflects our assertive hope that He not only has an immutable plan, he has all power and wisdom to accomplish it. And through our praying in the Spirit, we become co-laborers with Christ as he builds his church and establishes his inheritance in the saints, all to the glory of the Father, according to his wise and eternal counsel and immutable will.
by Rev. Michael L. Babcock