Examining Inconsistencies in Calvinistic Monergism Part 1: Intercessory Prayer

I have recently been in a conversation with someone over the proper definitions of monergism and synergism and whether or not Arminianism really qualifies as entirely synergistic. I have written a little on this subject already here and here. I want to dig a little deeper and get into what I believe to be an inconsistency within Calvinistic monergism. Before I do that I want to say that I don’t believe monergism vs. synergism is the proper way to frame the debate. These terms are too ambiguous, and often misunderstood (especially synergism), and I believe that Arminianism has both monergistic and synergistic elements so it is not proper to call Arminianism entirely synergistic. For me the debate is best described as a disagreement over whether or not salvation is conditional or unconditional.

When I say that Arminianism is both synergistic and monergistic I mean that the Arminian sees salvation as a work of God alone. God alone forgives. God alone regenerates. God alone sanctifies. We are not capable of removing our own sin or making atonement for ourselves. We are not capable of creating new life within us. We are not capable of making ourselves holy. All these are monergistic acts of God. When the Arminian says that one needs to believe in Christ to be saved we are just echoing the testimony of Scripture that says that faith is the condition that God requires be met before He will save.

God has sovereignly determined to make salvation conditioned on faith. He could have made salvation unconditional but He chose instead to make it conditional. That salvation is conditioned on faith does not mean faith is a work or a contribution to salvation. It is just the meeting of a condition and the nature of that condition disqualifies it from being something one can boast in before God.

By faith we recognize our inability to save ourselves and cast ourselves on God’s mercy. Faith is surrender to God. It is giving up on ourselves. It is abandoning our own works and clinging to the work of God. If there is one element that is synergistic in salvation it is faith. God enables the depraved sinner to respond in faith, but the sinner must do the responding. God does not believe for us and God does not cause faith in us irresistibly. That is the only synergistic aspect of Arminianism. The rest is monergism. The synergism of faith is the only area where one could say that the sinner in a sense “saves himself”, but that is only in the context of re-positioning oneself in God’s favor through faith and repentance (Acts 2:40).

Yet, Calvinists still insist that faith is a work of merit if it is not irresistibly caused. Some Calvinists will go so far as to say that Arminians believe that man has the capability to save themselves. That is plainly not the case and the burden of proof rests on the Calvinist to demonstrate a necessary correlation between meeting a condition and earning something. That someone must meet a condition to receive something does not mean that by meeting a condition he or she has earned that thing or “worked” for it. Intercessory prayer provides a convenient framework for better understanding the Arminian position and demonstrating the absurdity of the Calvinist understanding of synergism as being analogous to a works based salvation.

Two Systems on Prayer:

I have often heard Calvinists point to intercessory prayer as a problem for Arminianism. The argument says that in Arminianism prayer would be pointless since God will not irresistibly save the sinner. If our prayers cannot guarantee conversion, then they are pointless. As long as free will exists intercessory prayer cannot really be effective.

We will first address this argument and then carefully examine the implications of intercessory prayer in the Calvinistic system of theology.

It does not follow that if intercessory prayer cannot guarantee a result, then it is pointless. Arminians believe that God works persuasively on the human heart through the gospel to bring about a faith response. Prayer can have a profound effect on that process. The Arminian can pray for more opportunities to witness. He or she can pray that God will use circumstances to bring the sinner to a point of desperation. We can pray that God will continue to reveal Himself to the individual. We can pray that God will remove obstacles and barriers to unbelief. All of these things will increase the chance of conversion.

The Calvinist will object at this point that if God was truly as loving as Arminians claim, then He would be doing everything in His power to bring every sinner to repentance regardless of our prayers. That does not necessarily represent the Arminian position, and does not fully comport with the testimony of Scripture. Arminians believe that God desires all to be saved. That does not mean that everyone is given an equal opportunity at salvation.

God has sovereignly decided to allow his creatures to take part in the process. God uses believers to preach the gospel whereby sinners can come to repentance. Paul said that if we neglect this duty sinners will likely be lost (Rom. 10:14, 15). We have a tremendous responsibility as believers commissioned to preach the gospel and make disciples of all men. Arminians also believe that God has the sovereign right to harden hearts. However, we believe that this hardening is always in response to willful rejection of God’s grace. Often times, this hardening is temporal and not necessarily irrevocable (Rom. 11:7-32). Intercessory prayer, then, can impact God’s decision with regards to whether He will continue to show mercy and give further opportunity for repentance, or entirely give the sinner over to his or her depravity and unbelief (Rom. 1:24-32). It may be that through intercessory prayer, the work of God can become so strong in the sinner’s life that a negative response would become almost impossible. The almost preserves the integrity of the response and genuine nature of the subsequent relationship that results from it.

Calvinists may say that prayer that still preserves the sinners will to some degree is just not worth the effort. I guess I will just have to disagree at that point. If we truly loved sinners, we would do whatever we could to increase the likelihood of conversion. If my daughter rejects the Lord when she gets older you better believe that I would pray for her even if my prayers could only slightly increase the chances that she would come to faith in Christ. Yet I maintain that intercessory prayer can accomplish far more than that.

The conclusion that we can draw from all this is that by intercessory prayer the believer can contribute to the salvation of others by strengthening and perpetuating the work of God in their lives. If we can have something to do with the salvation of others through the affects of intercessory prayer then monergism (as Calvinists understand it) goes out the window. If Calvinists want to insist that man can have nothing at all to do with the salvation process then intercessory prayer becomes a waste of time. We will now take a closer look at the implications of intercessory prayer from the Calvinistic viewpoint.

The underlying assumptions of Calvinist theology make a mess of intercessory prayer. Calvinism teaches that one is saved or lost on the sole basis of an eternal and irrevocable decree. Nothing can effectively change that decree. It is fixed. It is permanent. The decision was made for us before we were born. The decision was made before the universe was created. With this in mind the problems of intercession within Calvinist thought become quickly apparent.

The Arminian contends that intercessory prayer within a Calvinistic framework is pointless. Our prayers cannot have any effect on the eternal destiny of any individual. That destiny was fixed from eternity. No lack of prayer can prevent God from saving the elect and no amount of prayer can help the reprobate. Worse yet, the believer might waste countless hours praying for a reprobate who has no chance at heaven without realizing it.

The Calvinist objects on the basis that God decrees the “means” as well as the “ends” and intercessory prayer may well be the means that God uses to bring His elect to repentance. Let us then call on the Calvinist to define “means”. Do “means” have reference to the process by which God accomplishes something? If it does then the Calvinist must still admit that believers contribute to the salvation of the elect by way of intercessory prayer. Their prayer is part of the means and therefore a contribution. If that is the case, then salvation is not monergistic as Calvinism defines it. The only way that I can see to avoid such a conclusion is to deny that intercessory prayer is truly a means to an end (albeit God ordained). The moment that is admitted, we are right back to the problem of intercessory prayer serving no real purpose within Calvinist theology.

We might further ask why the decree of means as well as ends does not equally apply to the reprobate. Does God decree the means of reprobation? If He does then doesn’t that mean that God positively decreed sin for the purpose of damning the greater part of humanity (supralapsarianism)? Something to think about.

I think that we can safely conclude that if monergism is defined along Calvinistic lines then this definition leads to insurmountable difficulties with intercessory prayer. We can also see that there is a real sense in which believers “contribute” to (i.e. participate in) the salvation of others through intercessory prayer. God’s heart is moved to action through our prayers for others. We would be foolish to say that believers save sinners by praying for them. Our prayers don’t earn or merit salvation for others but only move God’s heart to act. In a similar way our faith does not earn or merit our personal salvation, but our faith response does move God’s heart to respond in accordance with His promise to save believers (John 3:16-18, 36). In my next post we will examine some inconsistencies in Calvinistic monergism with regards to the process of sanctification.