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?