Do Arminians Really Pray Like Calvinists?

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.

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Calvinist Prayer (and many other things) Explained

Application 2: God ordains means as well as ends. God is the Author. This is his story. We are his characters. Therefore, Be a faithful character in God’s story.*

Taken from a sermon by Joe Rigney defending the purpose of prayer in a world exhaustively pre-determined by eternal divine decree [you can find a link to it here].

Interesting that he calls on us to “be a faithful character in God’s story” as if we had any choice about what kind of character we will have or be in “God’s story”.  Oh wait, I’ll bet that his saying “Be a faithful character in God’s story” is the ordained “means” for causing those God ordained to be “faithful character[s]” to be “faithful character[s]”.  But what of those God ordained to be unfaithful?  Is this message not for them?  If not, shouldn’t we make that clear?  If so, how can he call on those God ordained to be unfaithful to “be faithful” based, somehow, on the fact that this is God’s story and He is the author and we should “Therefore [???], Be a faithful character in God’s story”?  If God has written that they be unfaithful, then who is he to tell them to act or “be” contrary to what the author has written for them to act or “be”? 

Ahhh, but God has ordained him to say such seemingly nonsensical things because that is what God wrote him to say.  And when I pray that God will help people see the absurdities of Calvinism and reject it, why would God write me to pray such things?  I’m so confused.  But hey, God wrote me to be confused.  He ordained my confusion from eternity in such a way that I cannot possibly not be confused.  He wrote that confusion for me.  In fact, God wrote all of the confusion in this world and all of the contradictory opinions and all of the debates and disagreements between Christians on issues like these (despite Scripture saying that God is not the author of confusion, which is further confusing since God authored that He is not the author of confusion and also authored confusion of every kind).  He authored our every thought, desire, and action, whether holy or wicked.  He ordained our evil thoughts as well as the desire behind the evil thought, as well as any other “means” to our evil thoughts.

No doubt some Calvinists will have something to say about this and get a little mad at me, just as God authors them to do.  But I hope that God will author them to remember that He authored me to say all of this and to find Calvinist prayer and explanations of Calvinist prayer, like this one, to be absurd and self-defeating.  And I can’t help but wonder why God would cause one of His children to reject Calvinism and to reject explanations like the one by this good pastor as absurd.  Why didn’t God write me to understand Calvinism and embrace it if it is true and the purest form of Christianity?  No doubt Calvinists wonder such things as well.  Maybe that is why they can so easily take the step that non-Calvinists are probably not regenerated or at the most sub-Christians.  But then again, God wrote them to think such things just as He wrote me to think that Calvinism is unbiblical.  Maybe I should just say “God ordains the means as well as the ends” and leave it at that.  Yeah, that should answer things well enough.

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In the comments section of Justin Taylor’s post “Arminian” gave the following appropriate response: “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.”

Magic Hand-waving in the Calvinist Cause (Comments)

“Arminian” has responded at SEA (Magic Hand-waving in the Calvinist Cause) to James Anderson’s second rebuttal (The Arminian Cause).  Since SEA does not allow comments, this thread will serve as a place where comments and interactions can take place.

Exposing Calvinist “Forgery” in the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers (Comments)

A member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians SEA with the screen name of “Arminian” (Blogger and in the past sometimes WordPress) and “arminian1” (now WordPress) has been debating with Calvinist scholar James Anderson, who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary, over whether petitionary prayer can rightly be called a cause of God’s answers to prayer or some of God’s decisions about how to answer prayer. “Arminian” has posted his most recent response to Anderson at the SEA site (“Exposing Calvinist ‘Forgery’in the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers”), which does not allow comments. So this post will serve to host comments on Arminian’s post.

Consistent Calvinism FAQ (Satire)

Consitent Calvinism FAQ (Satire)

Clarifications and Rebuttal: Responding to Paul Manata

Please follow this link to the original post at my old Blogger site since the post got jumbled somehow in the transfer to WordPress, and I don’t have time right now to try to fix it.  I hope to eventually move the post here again when I can find the time.

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.