Why Does the Arminian Pray?

Jesus teaches His disciples to pray: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matt. 6:9, 10) But why are we taught to pray thusly? Why must we pray for God's will to be done on earth as it is being done in heaven? We shall discover in the post for Monday the entirely gratuitous nature of adopting a Calvinist view that God has decreed our prayers as a means of bringing into reality His already-decreed will. We might apply the same principle to Jesus' teaching here: if God's will shall be carried out, as the Calvinist believes, then praying for God's will to be done on earth as it is being perfectly carried out in heaven is excessive, pointless, causeless and altogether expendable.

Why does the Arminian pray? The proffered answer "Because Jesus commanded us to pray" will not do. For if we pray merely because we are commanded to pray then we morph prayer into a rote, meaningless, and fruitless practice. What is prayer, then? The Greek word used at Luke 11:1 for prayer is προσεύχεσθαι and regards towards an exchange, to wish, to interact with God, to petition, and is closely related to faith. (link) Prayer, then, is a communication with God that may include worship, adoration, thanksgiving and requests. Such requires faith that God is able to the performance of that which He is requested. Can prayer change a situation?

In Calvinism, no, prayer cannot change or effect any reality. God has already decreed all that shall come to pass -- in Calvinism, a situation will never change, since all future events are strictly and restrictively decreed to occur as God decreed them to occur. Prayer is essentially useless to the Calvinist. Prayer is merely a means to an end in Calvinism -- God superfluously decreed the prayer in order to bring to fruition, or into reality, that which He had already decreed to occur. St James, however, teaches us: "You do not have, because you do not ask." (James 4:2) The point should be plain and obvious: if the individual would ask then the individual would obtain. (cf. Mark 11:24; John 14:13) In a biblical theology, prayer effects our reality, by the faithfulness and effectual work of God.

Note, as well, that James adds: "You ask and do not have, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:3) He did not convey: "You ask and do not have, because God did not decree for you to have that for which you ask." The problem is even more severe for the Calvinist, though, as the prayer-amiss was, allegedly, decreed by God if we are to be consistent within a Calvinist ideology. Regardless, James implicitly argues against such errors, stating: "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." (James 5:16) Can prayer change our circumstances? E.M. Bounds, in his many works on prayer, writes the following:
The men of olden times who wrought well in prayer, who brought the largest things to pass, who moved God to do great things, were those who were entirely given over to God in their praying. God wants, and must have, all that there is in man, in answering his prayers. He must have whole-hearted men through whom to work out His purposes and plans concerning men. God must have men in their entirety. No double-minded man need apply. No vacillating man can be used. No man with a divided allegiance to God, and the world and self, can do the praying that is needed.1
That is written like a faithful Arminian man of God. But does this comport accurately with the teachings of Scripture? Again James teaches: "Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest." (James 5:17, 18) Here we discover cause and effect: Elijah prays (cause) and the rain ceases (effect); Elijah prays again (cause) and the rain pours down (effect). We might suggest that Elijah is merely the instrumental means to the effect, since God is the primary cause of whether or not the rain pours forth from the sky. But we must not miss the point of the author: prayer changes our reality.

I believe this is why Jesus commands us to pray to the Father: "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matt. 6:10) We are privileged to participate in the glorious will of God being executed on earth and among other mortals. This in no sense indicates that God is relying on us in order to work in the earth. Rather, this is a glorious invitation to be part of His work, and to be proactively fulfilling righteousness or, rather, justice in the earth by performing good works for others in making the world a proper place for His coming kingdom. Every act of helping the oppressed, the abused, and the helpless is an expression of God's justice.

Prayer must be uttered "from a heart that is right toward God. There is no guarantee that God will hear every prayer (Ps. 66:18; Prov. 1:28; Isa. 1:15; 59:2). For the most part, the 'rightness' that God requires in prayer is 'a broken and contrite heart' (Ps. 51:17; cf. Isa. 66:20)."2 Why does God not listen to or answer every request uttered by the mortal? Because God, according to His exhaustive knowledge, understands what is best for us. If God is "for" us (Rom. 8:31), then His desire is for us to benefit from prayer, and at times we benefit when we are denied our requests.

Will we not receive good from God if we do not ask in a proper way? St Paul writes: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." (Rom. 8:26, 27) Notice two significant aspects about prayer: 1) we do not know how to pray as we ought; because of this, 2) the Holy Spirit within us intercedes for us to the Father. But there is more. Not only does the Spirit of God intercede for (pray for) us but so, too, does Jesus (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). So, both the Spirit and Christ pray on our behalf, and this leads to an uncontested truth: God has not decreed our prayers nor our lack of prayers.

If God had, from eternity past, decreed our prayers, then St Paul would be mistaken to suggest that we do not pray, or do not know how to pray, as we ought, since those prayers would be God-ordained and constructed just as God had ordained them to be. Prayer originates in our heart. This is how E.M. Bounds can state: "Holiness is wholeness, and so God wants holy men [and women], ... whole-hearted and true, for His service and for the work of praying."3 The apostle commands: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." (1 Tim. 2:1, 2) He then adds: "I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument." (1 Tim. 2:8) The apostle in no sense whatsoever assumes that these believers will pray thusly, or that their prayers were already decreed by God, else his instructions are gratuitous, redundant, and meaningless.

We pray because we love the Lord, we need the Lord, and God is the only Being in the universe who change our situation when such is required. The appeal of James to fervent prayer (James 5:16, 17, 18) ought to be noted, too, as should Jesus' encouragement to continual or tenacious praying (Luke 18:1-8) and also that of the apostle Paul (1 Thess. 5:17). "Prayer is not primarily about changing the psychological state or the heart of the one praying, but rather about God changing the circumstances of the one praying."4 The old saying "Prayer changes things" is only a reality in an Arminian or a non-Calvinistic frame of reference. For in an Arminian context, a circumstance can be changed by God through the prayer of an individual (cf. Isa. 38:1-6), and is not "set in stone" due to a theological a priori that God, from eternity past, has decreed every minutiae of our existence. Even though God already foreknows what we shall pray, He possesses such knowledge not because He decreed what we shall pray, but from His sole essence as God.


1 E.M. Bounds, "The Essentials of Prayer: Prayer Takes in the Whole Man," in E.M. Bounds on Prayer, Hendrickson Christian Classics (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 6.

2 The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 1348.

3 Bounds, 6.

4 Baker, 1348.


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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.