PRAYING FOR SINNERS
T. PIERCE BROWN
In a recent Bible class the question was raised about whether God knows all that will take place, and if so, how can man do anything except what God knows he will do? We tried to point out that foreknowledge and predestination are two different things, and that what we call “foreknowledge” is simply “knowledge” with God, for with God there is neither past nor future. God is. However, that caused another question to be raised which may need to be addressed.
That is, if faith comes by hearing the word of God, and a person is himself responsible for hearing, believing and obeying the gospel, is there any value in praying for the conversion of a sinner? That is, what will God do that he has not already done, inasmuch as we have no scriptural authority for assuming that the Holy Spirit is going to have an influence on the heart of a person separate from the Word of God?
Let us address two aspects of that question. First, if we never are able to answer the question, “What will God do, or how will he answer our prayer on behalf of the sinner?” we may with full assurance know that it is proper for us to pray for the conversion of a sinner, or anything else good for all men, for God has specifically commanded that in more than one place.
When God told us to pray for daily bread, we are not to understand that there must be some special, supernatural intervention by which we are to receive it, as manna that fell from heaven. Nor do we need to know what elements or agents God may use, or how He may use them, in order to answer our prayer. We usually recognize that the farmer who prays for food knows that he is expected to plant the seed, cultivate the soil and gather the harvest. Yet God is the one who gives the rain and sunshine, puts the power of growth in the seed, and gives the circumstances that make the production of bread possible.
So, when a person prays for the conversion of a sinner, he does not need to assume that God has to operate on the heart of the sinner, apart from the gospel, or perform some miraculous act to overthrow the will of the sinner in order to answer the prayer. The fact that we may assert that there is no authority in God’s word for assuming that God exercises some influence on the mind of man to convert him except that which comes through the gospel does not mean that we may, with equal assurance, assert that God cannot providentially use whatever means or agents are available to get the gospel to that person.
An illustration or two may help to explain that. There is nothing in the Bible that would lead us to conclude that God supernaturally influenced Moses’ mother to put him in an ark in the river, nor that He caused the daughter of Pharaoh to come down at that time and bathe. They chose of their own free will to do what they did. Yet there should be no question in the mind of one who believes the Bible that God’s providence was at work in that situation.
The same is true with the story of Joseph. It would be almost blasphemous to say that God supernaturally or otherwise influenced the evil brothers to put him in a pit or sell him to the Midianites. That was their choice, and they were responsible for it. Yet Joseph plainly says in Genesis 45:5, “And now, be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.” The fact that God used the free choice of wicked men to fulfill His purposes is not more clearly stated than in Acts 2:23, where he speaks of God and Jesus in this fashion, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hands of lawless men did crucify and slay.” Although it was by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, it was still lawless and responsible men who did the deed. There are two points we are trying to make in this case: First, the fact that God had determined that Christ was to be offered did not remove the guilt and freedom of choice of the men who did the deed. Second, Christ prayed for those who crucified him, but the prayer was not answered by their hearts being changed in some miraculous way by the arbitrary will of God or miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit. It was answered by the Holy Spirit operating in pricking their hearts by the preaching of the gospel. Acts 2:36,37 says, “Let all the house ofIsraelknow assuredly, that God hath made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom ye crucified. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we do?”
So, although we may not be able to either understand or explain how God providentially provides the answers to our prayers, there can be no question for one who is willing to accept the Bible as authority that it is proper to pray for the conversion of sinners. Let us not make the mistake of assuming that because the Holy Spirit does not operate directly on the heart of a man to convict or convert him, that the Holy Spirit therefore does not operate. Also, let us not assume that since the Holy Spirit only operates through the gospel in converting the sinner that the Holy Spirit can not operate in any situation except through the gospel. Let us also not assume that if God does anything to bring about an event that it has to be a miraculous intervention. It is sad that even those who claim to be preachers of the gospel do not know the difference in a miracle and some wonderful event in which God acts.