If God Is Sovereign, Why Do We Still Pray?

The Bible is unambiguous — God is sovereign, and we are responsible.

The question of how our prayers play a meaningful part in things with a sovereign God is really a subset of the question of our responsibility for faith if God is wholly sovereign.

Why We prayThat bigger issue can often seem problematic. It’s an apparent contradiction, because the Bible is very clear that both things are true. First, the Bible is absolutely clear that we are responsible for our sins. We must repent, and we have a responsibility to do so in response to the command of the gospel.

That was Jesus’s repeated message right from the start of his earthly ministry: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).

It was the apostles’ message, likewise, after him: “Repent . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” cried Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). All through the apostolic ministry the same refrain was heard: “Repent! Turn from your sins!” There is absolutely no doubt about that command.

There is absolutely no doubt that true repentance comes only through the sheer sovereign call of God’s saving grace.

Yet, second, the Bible is equally clear that we cannot do this very thing that we are commanded to do unless God, by his sovereign power, should cause us to repent. Repentance is something that God alone can give.

Acts 5:31 says that Jesus was raised so that God might “give repentance” and forgiveness to his people. Ephesians 2:1 is just as plain when Paul is describing the process of salvation. He says, “You were dead in your transgressions.” Well, dead people cannot bring themselves to life, can they? They can’t do anything. Only God’s power can do that.

As Jesus himself said, it is through his sovereign call alone that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). There is absolutely no doubt that true repentance comes only through the sheer sovereign call of God’s saving grace.

From a biblical standpoint, both things are true. It’s not either God is really sovereign, and therefore he must call people unto salvation, or we are really responsible and therefore must repent. The Bible is unambiguous; both are affirmed without doubt. God is sovereign, and we are responsible. A higher reasoning than the mere “wisdom of men” is at work.

That doesn’t mean it is illogical. Nor does it mean that we can’t grasp anything at all about how this can be so. In fact, we can. We can see how this works out, to a degree at least, even in our own experience of life, because the fact is that responsibility is not incompatible with authority; it actually flows from it.

Human beings, according to the Bible, are wholly responsible for their actions, and that is not at all incompatible with God’s sovereign authority.

Notice that I am using the language of responsibility rather than of free will, which is a different thing altogether. Free will, in the sense of human beings being totally and utterly free (sometimes called “libertarian freedom”) to do exactly and totally as they please against God’s sovereign will, is not a biblical concept. That would be absolutely at odds with a truly sovereign God.

Human beings, according to the Bible, are wholly responsible for their actions, and that is not at all incompatible with God’s sovereign authority.

All true responsibility, when you think about it, actually presupposes a relationship of authority. It is authority that confers responsibility, and therefore also dignity and value, on people. If your boss gives you a task and says to you, “Now, look, John, I’m going to make you responsible for this,” you don’t say, “Oh, I can’t possibly be held responsible for this because my boss has the authority.”

It’s because he has the authority to make you responsible that you are therefore responsible. That’s why you can be held accountable; you wouldn’t be responsible at all unless he had the authority to make you so.

It is in this same way that the Bible talks about our responsibility before a sovereign God with respect to his sovereign salvation. Salvation begins with God. He is sovereign; he has all the authority, and therefore he makes us responsible to respond to his command. He makes us responsible to his call of salvation.

God speaks his saving word, and we will express either submission to that word or rebellion against it. We will respond either with what the Bible calls “the obedience of faith” or with the disobedience of unbelief, but either way we are fully responsible to God because he has sovereignly given us the responsibility to obey.

Biblical logic says, “God is sovereign; therefore, not only can I pray but I must pray and I will pray.

So the Bible’s understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation is not an either/or reasoning, but a both/and reasoning, which means that we can never say, “Oh, if God’s sovereign, I don’t need to repent. If I’m elect, well, I’ll be saved because God’s sovereign.”

Nor can we ever say, “Oh, well, it’s not my fault. I can’t respond if I’m not elect, so how can God possibly hold me responsible?” No! Acts 17:30 tells us that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” His sovereign authority calls every single human being to account.

It should be no surprise, then, to discover that it is just the same when we think about prayer. We can never say, “God is sovereign, so we never need to pray,” or, “God is sovereign so there’s no point in praying.” No. Biblical logic says, “God is sovereign; therefore, not only can I pray but I must pray and I will pray.

Just as it is both/and in the Bible’s logic of God’s sovereignty in our salvation, so it is similarly both/and when we think more specifically about the Bible’s logic of the sovereignty of God and our prayer.

Content adapted from Why We Pray by William Philip, ©2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

William Philip
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  • Martin Hughes

    ‘God holds us responsible for what we do even though he controls what we do’. Ho hum.

    • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

      The Triune Godhead is not composed of the three Fates of Greek mythology.

      • Martin Hughes

        That is a very cryptic comment. I hadn’t thought of the Fates as holding people responsible, so I don’t entirely see where they fit into the picture. If there are forces that control who we are or what we do, especially intelligent forces, they seem to bear some responsibility.

        • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

          You’re confusing the Fates — who controlled the thread of life of every mortal from birth to death — with the Furies: spirits of justice and vengeance that pursued and punished those responsible for their wrongdoings.
          Neither are found in Judeo-Christianity.

          • Martin Hughes

            Oh come on Joe that’s not fair. I said that the Fates (whom you brought into the discussion, not me) did not hold people responsible – I didn’t ‘confuse them with the Furies’ by saying that they did. We can discuss Greek tragedy if you like but it seems like a rather different topic. Well, I suppose that problems of divine justice crop up in all religious systems and I do not say that they cannot be solved. I don’t so far see that they are satisfactorily solved by the combination of control and holding responsible that is proposed here.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            Don’t the Fates and the Furies both control and hold us responsible, respectively?
            But again, neither are found in Judeo-Christianity.

          • Martin Hughes

            I thought that the argument in Wiliam Philip’s article was exactly that we are controlled and held responsible by a single agency, God: that was what I was doubting. Perhaps I misunderstand Mr. Philip, but you don’t say that.
            If you now say that these two roles (for which you use the same words as I do) existed but were separate in paganism there’s certainly an element of truth in what you say, though we’d have to consider the role of the greater gods as well as of lesser supernatural beings like Furies. I don’t think pagans were conscious of divine sovereignty’s being as overwhelming when it comes to the value (rather than the length; think of Sarpedon’s speech in the Iliad about death in battle) of our lives or of what happens to us in the next world as it can sometimes seem to be in Christianity. Maybe they hadn’t thought things through as well as we have.
            I’m sure that pagan theology is still a very interesting topic but I still don’t see that it helps very much with evaluating William Philip on Christian ideas. Are you saying that the problem I have exists only within a pagan set of ideas? – maybe, but you don’t explain.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            I doubt pagan theology would allow for a triune god, much less conceive of one that is sovereign and who holds us responsible for our actions, hence the Fates and Furies.

            But as for us being controlled, I didn’t notice any strings on Jesus as he agonized in the garden of gethsemane about his upcoming crucifixion. He certainly wanted not to drink that cup, but in the end submitted his will to that of the Father (Luke 22:39-44).

          • Martin Hughes

            Well, you may deny in the light of that example or others, that God is ‘sovereign’ over our lives to the extent of determining what is good or bad about them overall: but it seemed to me that Mr. Philip affirms that and that there is a problem about God’s holding us responsible in that event.
            Maybe I misunderstand him and maybe the problem is any case not insuperable.I can’t see what impact the triune nature of God has on the problem of his sovereignty over the world.
            Those who accord God or the gods or the Fates sovereignty over our lives as wholes do not necessarily say that these agencies determine every decision that we make.
            I can’t quite make out whether you are saying that the problem arises only within non-Christian religions – or that it doesn’t arise in those religions, at least not in paganism, at all. I wouldn’t agree immediately with the first – after all, this whole discussion is based on Philip’s presentation of Christianity. I think forms of it do arise within paganism.
            While I’m about it I’d add that I think that the atheists, with their iron chain of cause and effect (well, some of them demur about it) face the same problem too. The system both controls us absolutely and gives inexorable rise to whatever reproaches and blame we face because of what we are inexorably caused to do. Religions pose a lot of serious problems but on the whole we do not get rid of those problems when we abandon religion, only face them in different forms.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            It doesn’t appear that Phillips has a problem about a sovereign God holding us responsible.

            “Human beings, according to the Bible, are wholly responsible for their actions, and that is not at all incompatible with God’s sovereign authority.

            “All true responsibility, when you think about it, actually presupposes a relationship of authority. It is authority that confers responsibility, and therefore also dignity and value, on people. If your boss gives you a task and says to you, ‘Now, look, John, I’m going to make you responsible for this,’ you don’t say, ‘Oh, I can’t possibly be held responsible for this because my boss has the authority.’

            “It’s because he has the authority to make you responsible that you are therefore responsible. That’s why you can be held accountable; you wouldn’t be responsible at all unless he had the authority to make you so.”

  • Geoff, God of Biscuits

    That’s nice. Prove it.

  • Sam

    Hear, hear.