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Should You Pray for God to Save Your Loved Ones?

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Calvinists hear Arminian friends ask this question all the time. It’s usually intended as a rhetorical question. In other words, it’s really a statement: If you believe that your unbelieving friend is dead in sin until God unilaterally regenerates him or her, and that God has unconditionally chosen whom he will save, then what’s the point? Que sera, sera: Whatever will be, will be.

Of course, this is a terrific objection to hyper-Calvinism, but misses its Reformed target. Our confessions teach that God works through means. Though the Father has chosen unconditionally some from our condemned race for everlasting life in his Son, the elect were not redeemed until he sent his Son “in the fullness of time,” and they are not justified until the Spirit gives them faith in Christ through the gospel. To invoke Paul’s argument (on the heels of teaching unconditional election), “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:14-15, 17).

For years now, I’ve reversed this rhetorical question, asking, Why would anyone pray for the conversion of their loved one if God were not sovereign in dispensing his grace? Arminians shouldn’t pray for God to save their loved ones, because God could reply, “Look, I’ve done my part; now the ball is in your court.” Yet, I note, Arminians are typically no less zealous in praying for the salvation of the lost than Calvinists. We’re at one on our knees.

Not so quickly, says Roger Olson, a distinguished Baptist professor and author of Arminian Theology. By now, readers of this blog may know that my friend Roger and I have been engaged in conversations about these things. He wrote, Against Calvinism, and I wrote For Calvinism, and we have taken up these issues in person as part of our White Horse Inn “Conversations” series. We’re both trying to understand each other’s views charitably, if nevertheless critically. In that spirit, the following…

In a recent post, Roger stirred up a hornet’s nest by suggesting that “Arminians should not pray to God to save their friends and loved ones.” It may be that one is using “save” differently. However, “Normal language interpretation would seem to me to indicate that asking God to save someone, without any qualifications, is tantamount (whatever is intended) to asking God to do the impossible (from an Arminian perspective).”

He adds, “So, if a person asks me about such praying I will lead off the discussion with ‘What do you intend for God to do?’ If the person says ‘I am asking God to intervene in their life to force them to repent and believe’ I will say ‘That’s not possible’ and explain why.”

(Now, Roger, I do have to quibble here: Who on earth, including the staunchest Calvinist, is going to mean by that, “I am asking God…to force them to repent and believe”? Again, you have to look at our confessions for our views on the subject and they all unanimously teach that in effectually calling us the Spirit does not coerce or force our will, but frees it from its bondage to sin and death. Faith is entirely the gift of God and entirely the free response of a human being who has been made alive by the Spirit through the gospel.)

Roger’s point is that an Arminian who prays this kind of prayer is acting like a Calvinist, but in fact asking God to “force them to repent and believe” is not a Calvinist way of praying.

Having said that, I do think that Roger has consistency on his side when it comes to his own position. “‘Lord, save my friend’ (without qualification) normally reflects monergism, not synergism.” (Since Paul said that “my heart’s prayer to God for [fellow Jews] is that they may be saved” [Rom 10:1], I’m delighted now to find that this is yet another proof-text for monergism!)

Professor Olson is not being picky, going around telling fellow Arminians not to pray for folks; he just wants their prayer to be consistent with their theology. He explains, “If I hear my pastor or Sunday School teacher or a student pray something like ‘God, please save so-and-so’ I will probably go to that person and inquire what they meant and suggest changing the words in the future to match the intended meaning. Why? Because public prayers also teach. People hearing a pastor or Sunday School teacher or student pray such a prayer will probably get the wrong idea (unless the prayer was intended monergistically).”

I’m glad that most Arminians are not consistent on this point. Since God does use means (including our prayers) to accomplish his purposes, it is a good thing indeed that Christians of any stripe are asking God to bring their loved ones—and ours—to saving faith in Christ, just as God used the prayers of all sorts of people in our case. And it’s a good thing that God can in fact answer that prayer, isn’t it?
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  • Dr. Horton, here's a challenge which I owe to Roger Olson. The teaching of orthodox Calvinism, as I understand it, is that God has determined all that comes to pass. Further, He has done so for the purpose of glorifying Himself; this is ultimately what He takes pleasure in. Further still, His purpose in reprobating some is to glorify his justice. The implication does seem to be that this is what he is "pleased" to do.
    How do you square this with Ezekiel 33:11? Here, God swears by Himself that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that the wicked repent and live. The solemnity of the passage (God is here taking an oath) surely indicates that this is God's deepest desire, which would rule out a characterization of this as being only God's preceptive, rather than decretive, will. Doesn't this clash with the Calvinist belief that God takes pleasure in glorifying his justice in the death of the wicked, that is, the choice of some to condemnation?

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  • Guest - Joseph

    @John Harutunian I have a question, how do Roger Olsen and his Arminian followers respond to this part of scripture? I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. Proverbs 1:26-28
    I believe it is Arminians that take Ezekiel 33:11 to mean everything and to trump every part of scripture that says other wise of Gods Holy character.

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  • Guest - Joseph

    @John Harutunian how about Psalm 2:4? 4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
    How about Psalm 37:13?
    but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.

    Is that a form of Pleasure? Yes or no? See in the past for 25 years I was raised Arminian, but I recognized that Arminian theology willfully ignores passages in scripture that contradict on what they perceive on what is Holy, not what scripture says about Gods good character. Does God laugh at the wicked yes or no? What does scripture say? What do Arminians say? Ezekiel 33:11 does not contradict if taken in its context, and if one pays attention to which audience the message was meant for.

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  • Guest - John Harutunian

    Joseph, thanks for the questions. First, I wouldn't call myself an Arminian (I'm probably some kind of a synergist). But my position is close enough to that of Arminius to make your Biblical citations a problem for me. Here's my attempt at a solution.
    We would all agree that the Psalms are poetry. We would also agree that not all statements made in a poetic context are intended literally. Hence I'd suggest that the references to God "laughing" and "scoffing" at the wicked are anthropomorphisms. Christ, Who is God's supreme revelation, never laughed at those who rejected Him, though He did threaten then with severe punishment.
    Similarly, Proverbs is a collection of inspired folk sayings. Each folk saying reveals a certain legitimate perspective on the truth. But a given proverb isn't necessarily an absolute and full statement of truth. Proverbs 26:5 tells us to answer a fool according to his folly; yet the verse immediately preceding tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly. There is wisdom in both courses of action, presumably depending on the circumstances.
    Now, contrast this kind of revelation with what you read in Ezekiel. At the very opening of the book, the writer claims, "the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God" (chapter 1, verse 1). More to the point, God precedes His statement in Ezekiel 33:11 with a solemn oath. He swears by Himself, saying,
    "As I live...I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live."
    This is why I assign more interpretive weight to Ezekiel 33:11 than to passages which appear to teach the contrary.

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  • Guest - John Harutunian

    Another point. We are told in the Gospels that Christ wept over Jerusalem. Weeping over someone's condition and laughing at him are awfully hard to reconcile. So, again because I consider Christ to be God's supreme revelation, I attribute anthropomorphic significance to the passages in the Psalms, and would see Christ's response as the divine norm.

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