The Sovereignty of God in relation to Prayer
Tom Wilson, New Jersey, USA
Perhaps the most private sphere of the Christian’s life is his or her prayer life. Aspects of a man’s prayer life may be heard by others in the assembly prayer meetings or in family devotions, but the larger part of anyone’s prayer life is unseen by human eyes and not overheard by anyone. When we find seclusion and heaven notes, ‘Behold, he prayeth’, Acts 9. 11, it is then that we are able to express our thanksgivings; to lay our needs, concerns, and burdens before the Father; but there we also learn to bow to God’s sovereignty. At such times, when alone before God, the supplicant is less tempted to pray with himself, or make long prayers for a pretence, or because they think they might be heard for their much speaking.1
Even when in Jerusalem, where hundreds flocked to the temple to pray at the set hours of prayer, the Lord Jesus did not seek to regulate the Jewish practice of collective prayer, but, from His Sermon on the Mount until His last address on prayer was given in the Upper Room on that night in which He was betrayed, He taught earnest hearts to pray. On both occasions when He taught them the Disciple’s Prayer, often called the Lord’s Prayer, they heard Him expressly command that they include the statement, ‘Thy will be done’.2 On both occasions, they may not have fully gauged how demanding that simple statement was to be. It was to remain unqualified by conditions that might limit the cost to the petitioner and the divine response he or she would find acceptable. Later, in the Garden of Gethesmane, they would hear their Teacher pray, and note the inclusion of that memorable phrase, ‘Not as I will, but as thou wilt . . . thy will be done’.3 Only then, for the first, were they confronted, in an absolute sense, with the import of the will of God. Previously, they may have marvelled at David’s submission to God’s will, when he declined to choose how he should be disciplined for his sin in numbering the people. He had cried, ‘Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great’.4 David, rightly, left the matter with his God, but the parallel is faint with the One, who was without fault, yet was willing to face the immeasurable suffering of Calvary, because it was the will of His Father.
Not only was the Lord Jesus the great example of prayer within the will of God, but the Holy Spirit’s intercession for us is a present example of intercession ‘according to the will of God’; ‘He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God’, Rom. 8. 26-28. In making intercession for us, the Holy Spirit is acting to help our infirmities, but He acts according to the will of a sovereign God. The objector might challenge the relevance of the two examples of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the humble child of God. The New Testament scriptures qualify the child of God’s asking in prayer by the phrase ‘according to his will’. As we pray, we need to recall that God is sovereign and respect the will of God. We cannot pray for His blessing on an unequal yoke, or on some dubious business practice. Like Paul we might pray for the removal of some thorn in the flesh, but we need to realize that He may not remove it, but may give us grace to bear it. Many dear saints have proved the sweetness of the words Paul heard, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness’, 2 Cor. 12. 7-9. Paul’s example is also of great value for two reasons: firstly, we note that Paul prayed three times about his debilitating condition, and learn that the sovereign God answers, when He will; secondly, Paul was given an answer that allowed him to glory more than three times in his infirmities, because the power of Christ tabernacled upon him. The sovereign God met his need in a way that surpassed his expectation.
The same apostle had known, from the time the risen Lord arrested him on the road to Damascus, that it was the will of God that he should suffer great things for Christ’s name’s sake, Acts 9. 16. Soon afterwards, the disciples had to let him down in a basket over the city wall when men sought to assassinate him, v. 25. Much later, he would have entered into the unruly mob at Ephesus, but for the restraint of the disciples and the advice of some Asiarchs – the ruling class drawn annually from the wealthy aristocrats, 19. 30-31. Nonetheless, Paul was determined to make what was to be his last journey to Jerusalem, although the threats from Jewish adversaries did cause him to change his travel arrangements from Macedonia, 20. 3. En route to Jerusalem, he confided in the Ephesian elders, whom he had invited to meet him at Miletus, that they would see his face no more.
After that tearful parting, Paul’s company made for Caesarea, where a few days later, Agabus arrived, who prophesied that, on reaching Jerusalem, Paul would be arrested and bound by the Jews. The result was further tears that an adamant Paul declared were breaking his heart, 21. 10-13. Paul did not doubt the source of Agabus’ prophecy but was certain that he was moving in the will of God. Despite many objections raised and the evident grief it was causing, Paul was not dissuaded from what he was convinced was the will of God. He remained of the view that it was the will of God for him that he should suffer for Christ’s sake and that Jerusalem was on the pathway forward for the willing sufferer. Eventually, the whole company was able to say, ‘The will of the Lord be done’.
It fell to another apostle to write specifically about prayer and the sovereignty of God. In his First Epistle, John writes for the whole family of God. We learn in 1 John what John’s objectives are, as he writes under the guidance of the Spirit of God. As clearly as he stated at John chapter 20 verse 31, the purpose of the Gospel he penned – ‘that ye might believe’ – he explains that he writes to believers to assure them of eternal life and to strengthen their faith, 1 John 5. 13. He also addresses the question of ‘confidence’5 four times in his brief Epistle. Its first occurrence at chapter 2 verse 28 shows this confidence is the converse of shame. We also learn in that context that the Holy Spirit is our teacher, that we might abide in Christ. The results would be two: our having boldness (or confidence) now, and our not being ashamed before Him as His coming, 4. 17, which also has the day of assessment in view. We learn, ‘Herein is love made perfect with us’, 4. 17 JND, RV. Love has addressed every issue that would have denied us a righteous standing in that day, and we are in the good of it now, for ‘as he is, so are we in this world’.
The other two occurrences of ‘confidence’ or ‘boldness’ relate to prayer, 3. 21, where love is in action in our lives; 5. 14, where we cry to God. John strengthens faith by reminding us that our love for our brethren is the evidence that we have passed from death unto life. New life has that effect even to the extent that we accept the obligation to lay down our lives for the brethren, and, at the least, that we would minister to our poor brother, 3. 14-17. If our love for our brethren is not merely in word and on our tongue, but is seen in deed and in truth, then we are assured that our prayers will not be selfishly restricted to our needs and wants. John is assuring us that there will be clear evidence that we are keeping the commandments and doing the will of God. Where that evidence is seen, the prayers will be in the current of God’s will and be answered. If love is active, we know that ‘whatsoever we ask, we receive’, 3. 22.
At chapter 5 verse 14, ‘according to his will’, is explicit in the context. John underscores the sovereignty of God. He acknowledges that the God, whose glory transcends all who would dare to challenge His rights, has absolute power and sovereign freedom of action. He need not seek approval for, or explain, His actions. Yet we have confidence to speak to that God. If we ask according to His will, ‘he heareth us’. For our reassurance, John restates that He hears us, and adds that He will answer our petitions. John observes, by the Spirit, that there may be instances where particular sins become evident, about which it would not be God’s will that we pray, 5. 16.
In the Disciple’s Prayer, the disciples were taught to pray, ‘Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven’, Matt. 6. 10. As yet, the earth is still marked by rampant lawlessness, God’s word is despised and His will ignored. Nonetheless, there are those who own that He is sovereign, even when they pray. Heaven values every one of them, who says, ‘Thy will be done’.
- Luke 18. 11; Matt. 23. 14; 6. 7.
- Matt. 6. 10; Luke 11. 2.
- Matt. 26. 39, 42.
- 2 Sam. 24. 14.
- Greek parrhe-sia, 1 John 2. 28; 3. 21; 4. 17; 5. 14