Our glorious, sovereign God created and controls the universe in a way that uses the prayers of His saints to accomplish His eternal purposes. Thus, He sovereignly uses their prayers to release His preordained blessings, and by this means to manifest His glory in, through, and over all things. The Bible clearly teaches both that God is fully sovereign over every aspect of reality, visible and invisible, and that He carries out His predestined plan in a significant measure through the intercessions of the church.
While limited human minds have never been able fully to comprehend exactly how these two Biblical truths fit together (i.e. divine sovereignty and effectual believing prayer), it is precisely when both truths are held together in faith that the most powerful praying springs forth and the greatest glory descends. This leads us to a crucial principle: True piety never makes the limits of its own understanding the measure of what it will believe and practice, but rather firmly holds to all that Scripture teaches, even when the combination of some truths is rather mysterious. For instance, the oneness and “threeness” of God; the two natures of Christ in one person; and the relationship of predestination and effectual prayer are all plainly taught in Scripture as joint realities, but Scripture never explains exactly how they are two sides of the same truth. Perhaps it would take mental capacities as big as God’s to take it all in, and that is not our position.
But it is our position gladly to accept and hold together in our faith and action that which Scripture has joined together. From that kind of intelligent submission to God’s truth flows fruitful lives and the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Let us examine two illustrations of this true piety which maintains together both sides of a truth taught in the Bible (such as God’s total sovereignty and the believer’s need to pray for blessing) and makes that the foundation of its action. We will look at an example of this sort of powerful and fruitful piety in the Old Testament, and then at one in the New.
In Daniel 9:2, the prophet had been studying Jeremiah 25, and understood by it that God had promised to allow His chastened people to return home to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. Daniel (who had been deported as a young man from Jerusalem to Babylon) counted up his years in that pagan culture and realized that as God’s predetermined clock was ticking away, it soon would be time to go home. That, we might say, was the side of God’s sovereignty, including His predestined purposes and changeless promises.
Because Daniel believed this side of the truth so strongly (that what Jeremiah, by divine inspiration, declared God would do in the future could be nothing but thoroughly true), the elderly saint began praying in profoundest fervency for God to fulfill His promises. He did not think that since God had a predetermined plan for the blessing of His people, a plan no power could ever thwart, that he therefore could relax and do nothing, believing that God would handle it anyway. On the contrary, the prophet understood that the promises of God are given to His people so that they can pray them into execution. As C.H. Spurgeon once wrote, effectual prayer is essentially crying out to God: “Lord, do as thou hast said!” And that is exactly what Daniel did (see Dan. 9:3–19).
There is no indication that Daniel asked the Lord why He did not directly carry out His promises without working through the prayers of the saints. Neither did he argue that since God is certainly all-powerful, He can have no need of or use for believers’ prayers as a channel through which He releases divine power to win His victories. Chapter 10 of Daniel indicates that Daniel was so certain that his prayers were part of God’s plan to fulfill His promises to bless Israel that he fasted and prayed for three solid weeks until the answer came. The angel told Daniel that the saint’s prayers for God’s predetermined blessings to be released upon Israel had been used to help him win a battle against unseen evil powers, which were trying to prevent the execution of God’s promises to His captive people (see Dan. 10:2–14).
When believers pray for God to fulfill His promises, something is going on that is much bigger than they can ever imagine. Their prayers penetrate areas they have never gone, and make amazing changes in realms they scarcely realized existed. That may be part of what God means when He instructs us through Jeremiah, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (33:3).
The New Testament illustrates with equal clarity how the sovereignty of God includes prayer as a central aspect of its victorious outworking. In Revelation 6, we see the martyred saints, clothed now in beautiful white robes in the glories of heaven, interceding with the Lord to avenge and bless His suffering church on earth (v. 10). The Lord dealt with their requests very tenderly, telling them that while it was His definite will to do so, they must wait a while, until the right moment came (v. 11). By Revelation 8, the hour had struck for these intercessions of the saints to be directly answered. Evidently, intercession of other saints by this time had been added to those of chapter 6. Now the combined praying of many saints had fulfilled what the sovereign plan intended, and as the prayers of the saints ascended to God (8:4), the angel cast fire into earth (8:5), causing stupendous judgment to fall on the enemies of the Lord.
God hears and answers every prayer that is in accordance with His eternal plan. He uses those prayers to activate both specific blessings and judgments included in His covenant design. But God alone is in charge of when the predetermined time is right to execute the details of His plan on the wings of His people’s pleading of the divine promises. Daniel had to intercede for three weeks; the saints in Revelation 6 had to wait for an indefinite period of time. But perhaps their prayers could be thought of as something like the sands falling into the bottom half of the hourglass. Their prayers are used by God to get everything in line for the unleashing of His power on earth.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God in the flesh, He who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” into whose hands “all authority … in heaven and on earth” is committed, has taught us just this. In Luke 18:1–8, Jesus encourages His people to keep on praying precisely when they seem to be getting nowhere, telling of a widow who kept going before an unjust judge until he finally relented. Jesus concludes by saying: “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily” (vv. 7–8a).
In the words of Andrew Murray: “Let no delay shake our faith. Of faith it holds good: first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. Each believing prayer brings a step nearer the final victory. Each believing prayer helps to ripen the fruit and bring us nearer to it; it fills up the measure of prayer and faith known to God alone; it conquers the hindrances in the unseen world; it hastens the end.
“Child of God! Give the Father time. He is long-suffering over you. He wants the blessing to be rich and full, and sure; give Him time, while you cry day and night. Only remember the word: ‘I say unto you, He will avenge them speedily.’”
Because God exercises sovereign power over all things, He is able and determined to fulfill the requests of His elect. That is the way He carries out in time His program that was laid out from all eternity. He reveals His promises to His people; He creates faith in their hearts to believe those promises; He puts them in difficult situations in which they need to pray; and He sends His Spirit to stir them up to do so (see Rom. 8:14–16).
Thus, it is true that when there is much prayer, we can expect in our obedience much blessing, and when there is little prayer, we can expect little blessing. But that does not render the future uncertain in the slightest, or make God a hostage to prayerless Christians. He knows exactly how to get them praying for His blessings and judgments to be released on schedule.
One of the Puritans said: “The prayers of the saints are the beginning of the execution of the predetermined purposes of God.” Our place as believers is never to attempt to pry into the secret counsel of God as though we could discern what lies ahead. Our place is to be constantly at the mercy seat, pleading His promises. That will be our ordained part in shaping the future, for “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).