If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?

Have you ever asked yourself, “If God is sovereign, if He knows all things, why pray?” This is a very common question. Very common. Usually it’s phrased, “If God already knows all things and knows what we need before we ask, why pray?” This is what our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:7-8). Then, immediately after saying this, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer. Why would Jesus tell us to pray after saying the Father knows what we need before we ask?

The Apostle Paul says something similar in his letter to the Ephesian church. In Ephesians 1:11, Paul says God “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” In other words, God has what theologians call an eternal decree, a plan that covers all things, and God is working all things according to the plan; nothing and no one can deviate from that plan. Then not five verses later, Paul says, “I do not cease to give thanks for you making mention of you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:16). If God is working all things according to the counsel of His will, why pray?

These are not insignificant questions. On the surface, it does seem like a futile effort to speak to someone who already knows what you’re going to say and what you need. Even more baffling is the notion that Jesus prayed a lot. On several occasions, the Gospels tell us that Jesus would withdraw to an isolated place to pray (Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; 11:1). Why would Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, and Second Person of the Trinity, need to pray? Two immediate answers come to mind: (1) He is modelling the kind of life His disciples should lead, and (2) He prayed because He knew of the power of prayer.

In Reformed Theology, we refer to prayer as a means of grace. What we mean by this is prayer is a vehicle through which God dispenses grace to His people. Typically, there are three means of grace: (1) The reading and preaching of the word of God; (2) the administration of the sacraments; and (3) prayer. Even though God knows all things and is working all things out according to His eternal decree, God chooses to work through means. For example, we believe that God has chosen before the foundation of the world all those who would be saved (Ephesians 1:4). If that’s the case, why evangelize? Because evangelism is the means through which those whom God elected come to salvation. Again, the Apostle Paul affirms both poles of this paradox. In Romans 9, he lays out an ironclad argument that God is sovereign in the salvation of people and concludes by saying, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens” (Romans 9:18). Then in the very next chapter Paul will say, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). Paul understood that God chooses the ends and the means. God chooses those who will be saved, and He chooses how they will be saved, namely, through evangelism. 

The same thing can be said of prayer. We pray because prayer is a God-ordained means through which He works His eternal decree. In James 5:13-18, the apostle exhorts his readers to pray. If someone is suffering, pray. If someone is cheerful, sing psalms (a form of prayer). If one is sick, call the elders and let them pray. He then says in v. 16, “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16, NLT). James then goes on to speak of the prayers of Elijah. He prayed and the rain ceased for three and a half years, then he prayed again, and the rain came. God was working His will through the prayers of Elijah.

Finally, I would like to look at what some Reformed catechisms have to say about prayer. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in question 98, asks, “What is prayer?” The answer it gives is: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” The thing to note is that prayer is primarily “an offering up of our desires unto God.” But doesn’t He already know our desires? Yes! That’s the point. Who better to offer up our desires than to One who knows them perfectly? But this answer also gets at an important point regarding prayer, and that is “for things agreeable to His will.” Prayer is a way of shaping our will to God’s will. The more we read God’s word and pray to Him, the more our prayers become “agreeable to His will.” We begin to pray for things that further His glory rather than satisfy our desires. Moreover, our desires begin to match His desires.

But I can’t conclude without looking at the Heidelberg Catechism. Question 116 asks, “Why is prayer necessary for Christians?” This is the crux of your question: Why pray? The answer it gives is beautiful: “Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and also, because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of him, and are thankful for them.” The catechism essentially gives two reasons to pray. First, it’s required. We’re commanded to pray. When Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer, He says, “In this manner, therefore, pray.” That is a command (it’s given in the imperative mood). Furthermore, our prayer is “the chief part of thankfulness.” It’s how we best express our thankful gratitude toward God for all He’s done for us in Christ Jesus. The second reason the catechism gives for prayer is essentially what we said earlier, prayer is a means of grace. God will only dispense His grace and the power of His Holy Spirit to those who earnestly pray for them with thankfulness in their hearts. This should not be understood as a dire warning, as in, if you don’t pray, God will be angry. Rather, it’s an earnest plea. God wants to bestow upon His people His grace and the power of His Holy Spirit, and He does do primarily through prayer. The author of Hebrews tells us, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). How do we come before God’s throne of grace? Through prayer.

In the end, prayer is our way of talking with God. He speaks to us (primarily) through His word, and we speak to Him through prayer. 

Rev. Carl F. Gobelman is pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church in Sutton, NE.

 Rev. Carl F. Gobelman
Emmanuel Reformed Church
Sutton, NE

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