Our church has recently been engaged in a study of God’s plan and purposes for prayer in one setting, while viewing R.C. Sproul’s “Chosen By God” in another setting. The time has been well-spent and is bringing spiritual fruit in the church body. We have found our minds being stretched as we consider these things. One of the questions that has been frequently asked was posed in an email from a church member. I thought it would be good to try to answer that question in a forum like this.
Since God sovereignly saves individuals then what is the purpose for praying for anyone to be saved?
God uses means to accomplish His divine purposes. For instance, God uses preaching to bring men and women to faith in Christ (Romans 10:14 ff). The ministry of the Apostle Paul was a ministry of preaching “the mystery of Christ” (cf. Rom. 16:25; Col. 4:3). In Colossians 4:3, Paul requests the prayers of the Colossian Christians in order “that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ…that I may make it clear…”. He was called to preach Christ in order to bring them to the obedience of faith in Christ (Rom. 1:5; 16:25-26). Faith in Christ is a gift from God (cf. Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 2:24-26) which comes through the agency of the Holy Spirit by means of the preached Word (cf. 2 Cor. 1:21; 2:8-10). However, Paul wanted to preach it clearly (even though it is the work of Holy Spirit). He doesn’t say, “Well, God is sovereign so it doesn’t matter if the message is clear or not, after all, God will save those He wants to save.” No, he calls on Christians to pray for an “open door” (we’ll talk about this in a moment) for the word to be clearly preached in order “to declare the mystery of Christ”. In other words, “Pray for God to open up a door for the clear preaching of Christ in order that people may come to faith in Christ!” How do I know that he was intending this prayer essentially to result in faith?
I know that because of the reference to the “open door”? That’s really fascinating. It’s been used before in Acts 14:27:
And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
This open door was the sovereign work of God that resulted from the divine appointment to salvation (cf. Acts 13:48; also cf. Acts 16:14) of many Gentiles. God opened a door of faith which caused those whom He had appointed to salvation to believe. Thus, when Paul asks the Colossian believers to pray for an open door for the clear proclamation of Christ, he is doing so not in spite of God’s sovereignty over salvation but rather, in line with it.
On one hand, to answer the question, we might just point to the injunction to pray for the salvation of the lost (cf. Rom. 10:1; Col. 4:3; 1 Tim. 2:1-3; Luke 10:2) and say that we pray for people to be saved because God commands it. On the other hand, we can look at these texts and see the indicative of prayer. What I mean is that we can see this not just as a command but as an insight into how God decides to save people. God decides to save people through the prayer and preaching of others.
Here are three helpful articles to explore the question more fully:
Does Prayer Change God’s Mind by R.C. Sproul
If God is Sovereign, Why Pray by R.C. Sproul
The Sovereignty of God and Prayer by John Piper