The Confused Nature of Calvinistic Prayer

On John Piper's Desiring God site, Andrew Shanks writes a post, "Do We Participate in Our Own Salvation?" Much of the post is addressing the issue of sanctification. But that topic is used as a means of explaining that, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, salvation, like sanctification, is an impossible feat for any depraved sinner to obtain. As should be obvious, Arminians agree with this truth, and are always zealous to defend the same. Nestled in Shanks' explanation is a quote from Jonathan Edwards regarding God ordaining (decreeing) the means as well as the ends:
God decrees rain in drought because he decrees the earnest prayers of his people; or thus, he decrees the prayers of his people because he decrees rain. ... [W]hen God decrees to give the blessing of rain, he decrees the prayers of his people ... thereby there is a harmony between these two decrees. (Miscellanies #29, emphases added) (link)
Note the circular reasoning: God decrees the rain because God decrees the prayers of His people to pray for rain; God decrees the prayers of His people because God decrees to give rain. In other words, why did God decree the rain? Because He decreed for His people to pray for rain. Why did God decree for His people to pray for rain? Because He decreed to give rain. But there is a much deeper problem here than mere circular reasoning. Calvinistic determinism undermines the nature of prayer between the mortal and the sovereign and omnipotent God in whom he or she trusts.

First, however, let us note a blatant inconsistency in Calvinistic philosophy regarding prayer from what we discover in Scripture. If God has decreed every prayer we pray, then why do some believers pray for events that God does not bring to fruition in all those situations, like healing? In such cases, then, God, allegedly, in a Calvinistic framework, decreed the individual to pray for healing and yet denied the individual healing who died from his or her affliction. What kind of God decreed a prayer to be prayed that He, from eternity past, had no intention of answering?

Second, Jesus' half-brother James writes, "You do not have because you do not ask" (James 4:2, 3). If we allow Calvinism its consistency then this verse should read: "You do not have because God has decreed you not to ask." But that is not the intention of St James, whose point is painfully obvious, in that the believer is in lack because she fails to ask God for what is needed. No amount of Calvinistic theological-gymnastics can account for this fact. What of the means and ends here?

The real tragedy of the nature of prayer in Calvinistic theology is not only in the manner in which it undermines the motive and substance of prayer itself, as well as diminishes the integrity and image of God, but also in how it depletes the humanity of God's people. First, in the motive and substance of prayer, we ask God for what is needed, because we rely on Him to provide for those needs, and thus we develop our relationship with Him in trust and faithfulness. But if God has decreed our prayers, even the ones He does not answer, then we are not the ones actually praying -- God is praying to Himself through our lips. But how, exactly, does God accomplish bringing into our reality this eternal decree that we pray exactly what He decreed for us to pray?

While Calvinists render fantastical claims, at times, they fail to explain how God accomplishes His deterministic decrees. So, God has decreed what we pray, as the "ends" to a cause, because He has decreed the "means" of answering the prayers He has decreed we pray. But how does He get us to utter the words that He has decreed we utter? Calvinist Wayne Grudem insists that God influences our desires and decisions and Calvin proffers that God has decreed our thoughts and our very words (as referenced in the footnote below). But how does He accomplish this influencing of our desires and decisions? Moreover, why would God influence our desires and decisions to sin, since God has exhaustively decreed whatever comes to fruition? Just shy of divine mind control I fail to understand how God could meticulously decree what prayers we pray in the exact manner in which He has, from eternity past, decreed them to be prayed. Yet Calvinists insist that we are not puppets.

In the example granted by Edwards, God decreed to give rain, and in conjunction with that decree also decreed that His people pray for that rain that He previously decreed to give. But if God decreed to give the rain, what need is there for Him to have decreed that they pray for the rain that He already decreed to give? Does God, in the mind of the Calvinist, decree the prayer so that His people can confess that God answers prayer? But that seems rather inane, given that God is only answering the prayer that He decreed they pray. If God had not decreed the prayer, then the people would not have prayed, because God has also decreed what we think, feel or desire, and say, the manner in which we say it, or whether or not we say it. We are, then, the sock puppets of God in prayer. Consider the following from the Society of Evangelical Arminians:
It is one thing to claim that a predestined event is the cause of another when the one genuinely causes the other, but it is illegitimate to claim that, in a Calvinistic/deterministic system, prayer is a cause of anything. For prayer is asking God to do something. But the claim is that God predestines someone to ask Him to do the thing; God predestines the prayer and its content of asking God to do the thing God had already decided on doing, and predestines the person to ask Him to do it. In such a case, the person's request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably be considered a cause of God doing the thing. God had already decided to do it, and then irresistibly causes the person to ask Him to do it. In my opinion, Calvinism/determinism undermines a biblical concept of prayer. (link)
The main problem of Calvinistic philosophy, as it relates to theology proper and a biblical interpretation, is that it tends to create insurmountable problems for its own viability. Ask the Calvinist for a scriptural explanation or understanding that God has decreed our prayers and all he can offer is the echo of "God is sovereign." Well, yes, God is sovereign. But God's sovereignty does not entail strict, exhaustive determinism, in which context God has decreed what we think, say, and do. The Calvinist confuses and conflates sovereignty with determinism.

A clear indication that the Calvinist is in error regarding God having decreed our prayers is evinced within the writings of Scripture: from Jesus to Sts Paul, James and John, we are commanded to pray and to be faithful in praying. (cf. Matt. 6:9, 10, 11, 12, 13; 7:7; 21:22; Mark 11:24; John 14:13, 14; 15:7, 16b; Rom. 12:12; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6, 7; James 5:14, 15, 16; 1 John 5:14, 15) This, naturally, dismisses any notion that God has decreed that we pray; for if God has decreed our prayers, and this is the teaching of Jesus and others, then the command to pray is not only gratuitous but entirely counterproductive. God has, allegedly, decreed that we pray and what we pray. Hence there is no need for the commanding of us to being faithful in our prayers.

Ben Henshaw, responding to Calvinist Joe Rigney regarding prayer and God's sovereignty, rightfully argues against Rigney's comment to be a faithful character in God's story:
Interesting that he calls on us to "be a faithful character in God's story" as if we had any choice about what kind of character we will have or be in "God's story." Oh wait, I'll bet that his saying "Be a faithful character in God's story" is the ordained "means" for causing those [whom] God ordained to be "faithful character[s]" to [actually] be "faithful character[s]." But what of those God ordained to be unfaithful? Is this message not for them? If not, shouldn't we make that clear? If so, how can he call on those God ordained to be unfaithful to "be faithful" based, somehow, on the fact that this is God's story and He is the author and we should "Therefore [???], be a faithful character in God's story"? If God has written that they be unfaithful, then who is he to tell them to act or "be" contrary to what the author [i.e., God] has written [and decreed] for them to act or "be"? (link)
This attempt at being consistent within a Calvinist paradigm is why we insist that Calvinism creates its own insurmountable problems. This is how Henshaw can conclude: "Ahhh, but God has ordained him to say such seemingly nonsensical [and inconsistent] things because that is what God wrote him to say. And when I pray that God will help people see the absurdities of Calvinism, and reject it, why would God write me to pray such things? I'm so confused. But hey, God wrote me to be confused." (link) So, when we continually suggest that Calvinism is inherently problematic, the cause of its own philosophical and biblically-theological turmoil, we are merely highlighting the fact that Calvinism is not a practical theology, not a viably-philosophical option, and cannot be properly lived out in reality. The confused nature of prayer in Calvinism is but one example.


John Calvin insists: "That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what He has previously decreed with Himself, and brings to pass by His secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture" -- all of which, obviously, are used to support Calvin's errors; a fact which undermines the reality of hermeneutics, in that, Calvin interprets those "numberless clear passages of Scripture" by a particular method, one which his opponents reject as viable. See Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1. See also Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143; The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III. Of God's Eternal Decree: i., ii.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.