It is often said by Calvinists that when Arminians pray, they pray like Calvinists. Typically this is expressed in such a way as to imply that while Arminians may deny the theological claims of Calvinism, they affirm Calvinism in the way that they pray. The Calvinist assumes that when Arminians pray for God to work or to save the lost we are praying for God to work irresistibly. But why should that be the case? Prayer is relational and if it is true that we are asking God to work in people’s lives, even bringing them to salvation against the backdrop of relational assumptions, then we have no reason to expect God to act irresistibly in response to such prayers. Why should it be assumed that if someone asks God to save a loved one that the person praying is expecting God to do so in an irresistible manner? This isn’t what such things would imply in our normal experiences, so why should we think that way with regards to prayer? Dr. Brian Abasciano makes this point well,
…respectfully, I strongly disagree that as Arminians we should not pray for God to save people or that it is inconsistent with Arminian theology to do so.
It is all a matter of what is meant by such prayer. We use such language in everyday life all the time of resistible action. What corroboration is there for such language naturally implying a request for irresistible action? The evidence of actual language usage counters the automatic assumption of irresistible action. If I ask my son to take a visitor in our home to the bathroom, that does not mean to overpower them and force them into the bathroom. It means something like, “show them where the bathroom is and lead them there as long as they *willingly follow you*. Similarly, if I say to my son, “Please bring your mother here,” I certainly don’t mean, “get your mother here at all costs; overpower her and drag her here if necessary.” I simply mean something like, “let your mother know I want her to come here.” Or if I ask my friend to pick up my wife from the doctor’s office, that does not mean “force her into the car and drive her back to my home.” Such examples could be multiplied. One more. If a morally upright store owner tells his salesman to sell an item to a customer, he does not mean to do whatever is necessary to make the sale, including drugging the person and coercing them to buy the item, or overpowering them, taking their checkbook, and writing the check out himself, or kidnapping their family and holding them hostage in exchange for buying the item, or anything of the kind. “Sell them this item” or “make the sale”, simply means, “do all you can do that is not coercive or in violation of their free will to persuade them to buy the item.”
Similarly, when we ask God to save someone, we do not mean, “Take over their will and irresistibly cause them to believe and so be saved.” We mean something like, “Take action to lead them resistibly and willingly to believe in Jesus,” which would include any number of actions God might take. Olson mentions God bringing circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of God and of his love and power to save them. Yes, that. But there are so many more things God might do that would work toward leading people toward faith in Christ. Be that as it may, I would argue that in a context in which there is the assumption of the honoring of free will, then such language implies a request for resistible action rather than irresistible action. If an Arminian prays for someone’s salvation, then it should be assumed that the prayer is for resitible action for the person’s salvation.
In my opinion, to discourage praying in such a way is needless, ignores this normal use of language, and limits our proper expression to God in prayer. It also fails to rightly grasp the critical issue of the meaning behind words and assumes a Calvinistic meaning for language that is completely compatible with an Arminian understanding. Indeed, it is biblical language–as Paul says in Rom 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (NASB)–and I think it would be very unwise to concede this language to Calvinists, just as it is unwise to let them own the terminology “doctrines of grace” (the *biblical* doctrines of grace = Arminianism).
So the important thing is what the person means by their prayer for God to save. I disagree that asking God to save someone is an incorrect or misleading way to express a request that God work resistibly for someone’s salvation. Indeed, I would argue that it is a perfectly natural and biblical way to pray for this. God, please save the lost! (From: Arminians Can be Consistent and Pray for God to Save the Lost; note that Abasciano’s comments were in response to some posts written by Arminian Roger Olson)
Old time Methodist theologian and philosopher, Daniel Whedon, argued in a similar manner long ago, pointing out that certain things are presupposed when either a Calvinist or an Arminian makes requests of God,
Calvinists often claim that the prayers even of Arminians presuppose that God may at any time consistently with his administrative system convert any man they are praying for, or even the world, at any moment. But in this matter Calvinists truly contradict themselves. They pray, as the result often shows, that God would do contrary to his own sovereign election. Their prayer, though itself decreed, is often against God’s decrees. They pray that God would act contrary to the strongest motive; which they say God has no moral power to do. That is, they commit these contradictions unless all prayer is considered as offered under the proviso that what is asked for be consistent with the Divine Will, and is in fact asked for so far only as allowable by the fundamental laws of God’s administration. Not my will, but thine be done, tacitly or expressly limits and underlies every true prayer.
And such a proviso as fully explains the prayer of the Arminian as of the Calvinist. When an Arminian prays that God would awaken the public mind to repentance, or convert an individual, or spread the Gospel through the world, and turn all men’s hearts to righteousness, he thereby expresses his earnest desire that such things be accomplished in accordance with fundamental laws. Just as when he prays that a temporal blessing may be bestowed, as health restored, or life preserved, he usually expects no unequivocal miracle, but trusts that it may be done in such way as Infinite Wisdom may devise in accordance with the constitution of things; and that on the condition of his prayer it may be ordered otherwise than if such prayer were not offered. We know not how far the prayer of the saints is a condition to the goings forth or putting forth of God, nor how fully he requires the co-operation of his Church, in order to render possible such displays of his truth as will convince the unbelieving, and such impressions by his Spirit as the free wills of men in process of time will, it is foreseen, accept and obey. Certainly man’s Will and not God’s remissness has prevented the complete good of the world. (Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner, 119)
As Whedon points out, unless a Calvinist brings certain presuppositions to his prayers with him, he may indeed be praying contrary to the will of God. Since the identity of the elect is hidden, the Calvinist cannot know if the subject of his prayer is one that God desires to save or one that God has decreed to forever leave in his or her hopeless state. They might pray for countless hours for the salvation of someone who God has decreed from eternity to reprobate and has no desire to save. Indeed, they might be praying for God to save someone who, as the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 would have us believe, has likewise been hated by God from the womb and been made an irrevocable vessel of wrath doomed for destruction. This is a difficulty that seems out of line with passages like Rom. 10:1 or 1 Timothy 2:1-6. Furthermore, 1 Timothy makes it clear that we should offer prayers for all people because God desires all to be saved and because Christ died for all. So the Arminian has Biblical warrant for praying for the lost and knows that in doing so he is always praying in line with the will of God.
But what of the Calvinist? If they interpret 1 Timothy 2:1-6 to mean “some among all kinds” or “some among all classes”, then in what way should they pray? Should they say: “God I pray for some among all men to be saved?” Or should they pray: “God, I pray that you will save all of the elect from among the various classes of men in the world?” Such prayers, driven by the Calvinist approach to such passages, illustrate again that the Calvinist shouldn’t pray for the salvation of any specific person because he cannot know that it is actually God’s will to save that person.
Furthermore, if Calvinism is true, it is hard to understand why one should even bother to engage in intercessory prayer at all. In Calvinism, God has already pre-determined from eternity which persons will be saved and which persons will be damned. That eternal decree is unchangeable, and that decree was not made in response to the prayers of yet uncreated people, who will in fact be created for one destiny or the other in such a way that nothing could possibly work to change that destiny. The person the Calvinist prays for is either elect or reprobate, and nothing can change that. No amount of praying can bring salvation to the reprobate, and no lack of prayer can prevent the elect from being finally saved. It would seem that the Calvinist prayer cannot possibly accomplish anything since eternal destinies cannot possibly change in any way.
Some Calvinists reply that such prayer may yet serve as the ordained means by which God saves the elect, but also maintain that God is in no way influenced by our prayers. It is, therefore, hard to understand how prayer can be a means to salvation, if those prayers can have no possible impact on God or His predetermination to save some and reprobate others. If prayer really plays no part in whether God will save or not, then how can it be a “means” towards accomplishing salvation? As one commenter responding to a post written to help understand and defend prayer in Calvinism well said,
While God knowing everything is consistent with prayer, God planning everything in the Calvinistic sense of unconditionally decreeing it is not. Calvinism cannot account for the Bible’s portrayal of prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer because it holds that God unconditionally decides all that he wants to happen and then irresistibly causes it to come to pass, including the prayer that supposedly causes him to respond to it with action that grants the request. It would be like saying that with putting a sock puppet on your hand and having the puppet ask you to do something, that the request made by the sock puppet is a cause of you doing what you had the sock puppet ask you to do. (link)
This observation is important because it highlights how Calvinism, if consistently held, can serve to undermine one’s motivation for prayer (and this eventual lack of motivation to pray is something we often see reported by former Calvinists). If all things are decreed by God from eternity, then whether we pray or not, it is likewise decreed and can have no impact on whether anyone is ultimately saved or lost. A Calvinist can still pray because he thinks it his duty as a Christian or because he thinks it has certain personal spiritual benefits, but petitionary prayer still seems essentially useless since it can have no impact on anything since God has already decreed whatsoever will come to pass from eternity (including any such ineffective petitionary prayers that might be prayed).
So it seems to me that if Arminian prayer has difficulty, Calvinist prayer has far more difficulty. And while Arminians can pray for the lost knowing that such prayers are in line with God’s desire to save everyone and Christ’s provision of atonement for everyone, Calvinists cannot. While Arminians can make sense of why Paul’s heartfelt desire was for his fellow Jews to be saved (and in the context of Romans 9-11, Paul is speaking of the same Jews that Calvinists insist were reprobated and “hated” by God from eternity), Calvinists struggle to make sense of Paul’s anguish.
But if Arminianism is true and God desires all to be saved, why should prayer move God to act anymore than He would already be moved to act? The answer seems to be that as a relational God who so strongly values genuine inter-relational interactions, He wants us to be a part of the process (we are co-laborers with Him, 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1) . He wants us involved. He wants us to demonstrate our own love and concern for others by petitioning Him for others which further glorifies Him in that it is an example of His love expressed freely in us for others. We reflect His love in our efforts to bring people to Christ and in our prayers for the salvation of the lost, efforts and prayers that are themselves empowered by God with a view towards seeing all saved.