More about prayer for unsaved loved ones and friends

Communication is such a problem. No single set of words seem capable of clearly expressing what one means to a large and diverse group of people (such as readers of this blog). So I often find comments reflect misunderstanding of what I said even though I can’t really think of a better way of putting the thought.

In a recent post I said Arminians should not pray for God to save their friends and loved ones. The reaction has been interesting (I’m trying to keep calm and objective). I think there’s some misunderstanding in some of the reacting comments and questions.

The issue is not the words prayed so much as the meaning intended. And what I would say to a person about it depends on who they are and the context.

Because I like my prayers to be consistent with my beliefs (e.g., about God’s sovereignty and about reality) I never ask God to change the past. I don’t think God can do that. I think it’s even incoherent to talk about changing the past. In that I agree entirely with Calvinist philosopher-theologian Paul Helm.

However, I clearly recall an incident where my mother prayed that God would work it out that whoever found her purse (which was no longer where she lost it) would turn out to be a Christian or at least an honest person and return it to her. Of course, at the point of her prayer, she was asking God to change the past (or assure that something that already happened have happened in a certain way).

I didn’t criticize her; she was my mother and I was pretty young and didn’t want to show her disrespect or get into an argument with her. I let it go. What harm did it do? None.

However, if someone asks my theological opinion about praying for God to change the past, I will kindly tell them I don’t believe in it and explain why. (For example, there’s not a single example in Scripture of it and it’s illogical.)

If someone prays for God to save their loved one, I’m not going to get all worked up about it and criticize them and tell them to stop it. But if they come and ask me about that kind of praying I will tell them what I believe about it.

And what I believe about it is that it depends on what is intended. Normal language interpretation would seem to me to indicate that asking God to save someone, without any qualifications, is tantamount (whatever is intended) to asking God to do the impossible (from an Arminian perspective).

So, if a person asks me about such praying I will lead off the discussion with “What do you intend for God to do?” If the person says “I am asking God to intervene in their life to force them to repent and believe” I will say “That’s not possible” and explain why. If the person says “I am asking God to bring circumstances into their life to show them their need of him…” I will say “Well, that’s not what I think those words mean, but okay, if that’s what you mean, God knows what you mean and so go ahead and pray that way.”

It seems to me that “God, please save my friend” without qualifications normally means “God, break my friend’s will and force him to repent.” Perhaps not everyone who prays that prayer means that, but that’s what the words alone imply. That’s not consistent with Arminian belief. In my opinion, only a Calvinist (or maybe also a Lutheran) can pray that way consistently.

However, if the context is a lesson on prayer and the issue of praying for salvation of friends and loved ones comes up I will share my opinion.

And my opinion in this case is–it depends on what you mean because God always knows what you mean and you’re praying to God. And if you mean to ask God to violate someone’s free will and force them to be saved, then I don’t think that’s proper. If you mean to ask God to bring circumstances into a person’s life that will probably convince them of their need of salvation, then it’s proper. But why not pray with words that communicate what you mean?

Now, having said that, there is one exception to what I would do. If I hear my pastor or Sunday School teacher or a student pray something like “God, please save so-and-so” I will probably go to that person and inquire what they meant and suggest changing the words in the future to match the intended meaning. Why? Because public prayers also teach. People hearing a pastor or Sunday School teacher or student pray such a prayer will probably get the wrong idea (unless the prayer was intended monergistically).

Having said all that (a lot of words to attempt to explain what I thought I could take for granted), let me give an illustration of proper non-Calvinist praying for a loved one. I know a man who was raised in a Christian (Pentecostal) home and church but wandered away. In that context, he “backslid.” As an adult he was living a life of sin far from God. His friends and loved ones prayed that God would “work a miracle in his life” by which we meant bring some circumstance to bear on him that would convince him of his need for God.

The man rarely went to church with his wife, a devout Pentecostal Christian, but one Sunday reluctantly went along. That Sunday a person gave a prophecy during the Sunday morning service (something quite rare even in most Pentecostal churches!) that contained some message the man interpreted as “just for him.” He felt God was speaking directly to him through a prophecy–a phenomenon he was familiar with and had great respect for. That brought him to his knees and he repented and has been serving God faithfully for years afterwards. When his friends and loved ones prayed for his salvation, God heard their prayer. Even though God could not just “save him” willy-nilly, he could create a situation in which the man’s heart would be convicted in a powerful way so that to refuse to repent would have been unlikely–something like Saul on the road to Damascus.

If someone means THAT by “Lord, save my friend,” then fine. But I don’t think that’s what happened or could have happened. “Lord, save my friend” (without qualification) normally reflects monergism, not synergism. However, it doesn’t mean God won’t hear the theologically incorrect prayer and act on it. Yet, if it is prayed publicly, some people may misinterpret it and think monergism is intended and right (when the prayer is answered as described).

 

  • Felix Alexander

    One of the lines in the English Book of Common Prayer is “God, save the Queen” (and a well-known refrain accompanying royal proclamations). I assume this refers to her eternal life, and not her temporal one. Now, as far as I know, the Queen is a devout Anglican Christian with a sincere faith. In fact, the very expectation of the Church of England is that the monarch, whoever they are, will be a devout Anglican Christian with a sincere faith (although perhaps that doesn’t always happen).

    Ought I not to pray for her like this? And Paul tells Timothy to pray for all kings and others in high places “so we can lead a tranquil and quiet life”. Surely the idea there is for God to influence the rulers’ wills, however he does that.

    In any case, I don’t think a person needs to know everything to be able to be justified in praying something. If I ask God to help me, I don’t need to have a particular idea for how that could be effected; likewise, I don’t need to know how my friend will be affected to know that I’d love God to save them, however he might do that.

    • rogereolson

      I have always interpreted “God save the Queen” as referring to her temporal existence (i.e., save her from her enemies). But, of course, I don’t really care what it means. I’m a Baptist and an American! With all due respect, I disagree with your final paragraph. I think our prayers should be cognitively meaningful. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. They didn’t just automatically know how and he didn’t say “pray however you feel like it.”

      • Felix Alexander

        Well yes, but what did he teach? “Thy will be done”. And what is that will? A part of it is this, that “God our Savior … wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” Again, I say, I don’t have to know how that works to ask God to save someone. Surely God can save someone without overriding their free will, for instance, by moving his body in the right way. And sometimes we even say the moral thing to do is to grab hold of someone (e.g. a child) before they run out on the road. I don’t really think this is a case of overriding free will when I do it; I’m just making the same decision they would’ve made if they had’ve looked. The circumstances are a bit different with God, but surely they’re not so far different that there’s nothing our Father can do.

        Of course, if you’re right, and Arminianism really is incompatible with praying for people’s salvation, I always have the option of rejecting it along with Calvinism ;)—I realise you and others say there’s no middle ground, but I can go off out into the wings perhaps. But I’m still not convinced that “God, save my friend” is the same as “God, override my friend’s free will” as opposed to “God, have mercy on my friend so they’ll come to you in faith”. Perhaps it just depends on who’s praying it.

        (Incidentally, my web browser’s spell checker knows “Calvinism”, but not “Arminianism”.)

        • rogereolson

          Where did I ever say we should not pray for people’s salvation? That’s a serious distortion of what I have been saying. I argue that we should–in the right way.

          • Felix Alexander

            Not a serious distortion I hope; but maybe sloppy speaking on my part. When I said “praying for a friend’s salvation” I meant, “Lord, save my friend” type prayers. I think I demonstrate that I know you accept other types of similar prayers when I said, “But I’m still not convinced that ‘God, save my friend’ is the same as ‘God, override my friend’s free will’ as opposed to ‘God, have mercy on my friend so they’ll come to you in faith’. Perhaps it just depends on who’s praying it.”

  • Steve

    Roger,

    I am impressed that you are taking the step of being consistent in your beliefs. Most Arminians I’ve met are not this consistent.

    However, my question is this: How can you consistently pray for God to bring about circumstances that would lead your friend to considering God or being saved? Aren’t most circumstances brought about by human beings? And wouldn’t those human beings have their free wills violated if God made them change the course of events? I don’t see how God could cause people to act in a certain way without overriding their free wills.

    I would think the most you could pray for is for God to change any non-free will-related circumstances. But these would mostly be non-impactful. In fact, as I sit here and think about it, you also do not even believe that God controls natural events, such as tsunamis, and earthquakes, correct? (Correct me if I’m wrong). So you couldn’t even pray for God to change natural events.

    I guess I’m not even sure what you could possibly pray for God to do that would impact your friend’s salvation, without violating some form of your theology.

    Thanks for reading and I look forward to your response.

    • rogereolson

      I’ve talked about this quite a bit in the past. No Arminian I know denies that God ever interferes with free will. The Bible is full of it. The point is that in matters pertaining to salvation God does not decide for people. If he did, he’d save everyone. The issue is personal relationship. God cannot and will not over ride a person’s free will when what is at stake is his or her personal relationship with God of love. But God certainly can and does knock people off their horses (as with Saul). I think you are over interpreting Arminianism’s view of free will. Free will, as I have often said, is not the central issue. The central issue (and only reason we believe in free will) is the character of God including the nature of responsible relationality.

      • Steve

        Roger,

        Can you please provide some Scriptural evidence for the notion of God overriding peoples’ freewill anytime EXCEPT when salvation is on the line? Seems pretty arbitrary to me. How can you prove that God draws the line there?

        • rogereolson

          Oh, please. Why would Jesus cry over Jerusalem’s rejection of him if he could have drawn them irresistibly to himself? Please read Against Calvinism. I address these questions there.

          • Steve

            Roger,

            Actually Jesus cried over Jeruselum’s CHILDRENS rejection of him. So, this single proof text will not work to prove your point.

          • rogereolson

            “Jerusalem’s children” is a figure of speech for the city’s inhabitants.

          • Steve

            Roger,

            Not sure if you allow links here, but I found this one to be helpful regarding Matt. 23:37.

            http://members.toast.net/puritan/Articles/Matthew23_37.htm

            Thanks

          • rogereolson

            Simply forced exegesis (IMHO).

  • J.E. Edwards

    Here’s what Spurgeon preached once regarding this exact topic (http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0052.htm)
    “You have heard a great many Arminian sermons, I dare say; but you never heard an Arminian prayer—for the saints in prayer appear as one in word, and deed and mind. An Arminian on his knees would pray desperately like a Calvinist. He cannot pray about free-will: there is no room for it. Fancy him praying, “Lord, I thank thee I am not like those poor presumptuous Calvinists. Lord, I was born with a glorious free-will; I was born with power by which I can turn to thee of myself; I have improved my grace. If everybody had done the same with their grace that I have, they might all have been saved. Lord, I know thou dost not make us willing if we are not willing ourselves. Thou givest grace to everybody; some do not improve it, but I do. There are many that will go to hell as much bought with the blood of Christ as I was; they had as much of the Holy Ghost given to them; they had as good a chance, and were as much blessed as I am. It was not thy grace that made us to differ; I know it did a great deal, still I turned the point; I made use of what was given me, and others did not—that is the difference between me and them.” That is a prayer for the devil, for nobody else would offer such a prayer as that. Ah! when they are preaching and talking very slowly, there may be wrong doctrine; but when they come to pray, the true thing slips out; they cannot help it. If a man talks very slowly, he may speak in a fine manner; but when he comes to talk fast, the old brogue of his country, where he was born, slips out. I ask you again, did you ever meet a Christian man who said, “I came to Christ without the power of the Spirit?” If you ever did meet such a man, you need have no hesitation in saying, “My dear sir, I quite believe it—and I believe you went away again without the power of the Spirit, and that you know nothing about the matter, and are in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.” Do I hear one Christian man saying, “I sought Jesus before he sought me; I went to the Spirit, and the Spirit did not come to me”? No, beloved; we are obliged, each one of us, to put our hands to our hearts and say—
    “Grace taught my soul to pray,
    And made my eyes to o’erflow;
    ‘Twas grace that kept me to this day,
    And will not let me go.”
    Is there one here—a solitary one—man or woman, young or old, who can say, “I sought God before he sought me?” No; even you who are a little Arminian, will sing—
    “O yes! I do love Jesus—
    Because he first loved me.”
    In our praying, there is a unity….I believe.

    • rogereolson

      What do you make of Spurgeon’s prayer “O God, save all the elect and then elect some more?”

      • J.E. Edwards

        I say “AMEN!” I do like his tongue-in-cheek approach in the excerpt I gave, though. He didn’t always take himself too seriously. I like that he wasn’t afraid of being frank where there was agreement among Christians and I’m glad I see it here when there is, also. I like it when anyone acknowledges the unity we do have.

    • John Inglis

      Given that Spurgeon’s representation of Arminianism was both inaccurate and mocking, I fail to see the relevance of the quote other than to show how far off base some Calvinists are.

  • Mark B

    Wouldn’t it also be improper for a Calvinist to pray for someone to be saved in that God has already chosen who will be saved and he doesn’t change his mind?

    • rogereolson

      They always give the same answer to this one–that their prayer is God’s foreordained means to a foreordained end. From an Arminian perspective I wouldn’t say it is improper; it is (I would say) superfluous. IMHO, many Calvinists pray like Arminians and many Arminians pray like Calvinists. Spurgeon, for example, prayed (frequently) “O God, save all the elect and then elect some more.”

  • http://www.banditsnomore.com Richard Heyduck

    A few of the things I pray when lost people are in mind:
    1. For them to recognize their need for God.
    2. To be surrounded by people who love Jesus and will faithfully represent him.
    3. That God would speak to them through his word, circumstances, events, and even their dreams.
    4. That they would be deaf to the lies of satan and the distractions of the world that take them away from God.
    And on a similar note, I pray that nothing I do will be an impediment to anyone coming to faith.

    • http://authenticmission.blogspot.co.uk/ Andrew Kenny

      Good points Richard. I like them.

  • Brian Abasciano

    Roger,

    You already know I disagree with you about whether the language of “God, please save my friend,” implies Calvinistic salvation. I posted a comment in your previous post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/06/what-i-admire-about-calvinists/comment-page-1/#comment-31437. There I contended that such language would normally imply a request for resistible action and that we see and use this type of language all the time of resistible action, and I provided examples, which I claimed could be multiplied. The way I would put it is this: in a context in which there is the assumption of the honoring of free will, then such language implies a request for resistible action. If an Arminian is praying such a prayer, then it should be assumed that the prayer is for resitible action for the person’s salvation. So I wonder why you would think such language implies a request for irresistible action. I also wonder how you square your contention with Paul’s prayer for the salvation of Israel (Rom 10:1).

    I agree that the important thing is what the person means by the prayer. But 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.

    • John Inglis

      I agree, and I also think that Christ’s teaching the disciples to pray was pretty vague as to means. The goals were clear, but the means not. My assumption has been that God always uses all means at his disposal as are consistent with his character and his wisdom. That I can see the best way forward and recommend / request it in prayer seems a bit nonsensical when God is omniscient and omnipotent, except that there is nothing wrong in praying on the basis of what little I do see. Being specific in our prayers, but also humble, is a way for us to be personally engaged in prayer and not just writing generic words on a prayer wheel. God may choose to do things the way I request, or he may not, as he sees fit.

  • Chad

    How about “Lord, soften the heart of so-and-so”? Acceptable?

    • rogereolson

      Sure.

      • Mark

        Just don’t soften them sufficiently. Allow them the chance to do their own softening as well.

        • rogereolson

          I take that as sarcasm? How do you pray for the lost? “God, grab them by the necks and make them believe in you?” Of course, not. But if I were to play your game of sarcasm, that’s what I might say you mean when you pray for them.

      • Mark

        “It’s impossible for God to save somebody.”

        Who WOULDN’T want this gospel? Brilliant.
        The only other option if we want people saved is to pray that they will save themselves.

        • rogereolson

          Classic example of taking something out of context in order to distort and misrepresent. Shame on you. Now please go away.

  • Benjamin

    I’m refreshed to hear you clearly define your view in the Arminian position on the Sovereignty of God. It is important to be consistent in what you believe, and I can respect that. I do have a main question, however, and that is: would this make the ultimate logical conclusion of the Arminian position is Open Theism? Since you propose that God cannot ‘willy-nilly’ save anyone, that it is ‘impossible’ since it violates their will, then the only way He can affect their salvation is to direct circumstances in their lives, right? Even then, can they still reject His Gospel, resisting the Holy Spirit? If so, did He know they would reject it? Would that run afoul the clear teaching in Scripture on God’s Omniscience (eg. Psalm 139) ??

    • rogereolson

      We have run around this bush numerous times here and I tire of it (no offense intended). From an Arminian perspective, God knows because something happens; it doesn’t happen because God knows it. God’s foreknowledge corresponds to what happens; it does not cause it or even render it certain.

      • J.E. Edwards

        Not wanting to run further around the bush here, but I’d definitely say we understand foreknowledge differently. Webster states it thus:
        FOREKNOWL’EDGE, n. Knowledge of a thing before it happens; prescience.
        Is that a proper definition of how you understand it?

        • rogereolson

          Only in the most simple sense. The philosophical issues surrounding foreknowledge are much deeper, of course. For example, throughout most of church history most theologians have thought of God as standing “outside” of time so that all times are simultaneous to him. For people who think of God and time that way, there is no “before it happens.” That’s just a manner of speaking. So Webster’s definition does not take into account the philosophical, metaphysical issues. By that definition alone, the vast majority of Christian theologians throughout history did not believe in God’s “foreknowledge.”

        • John Inglis

          Since God still knows what will happen before it happens under Arminianism, he has foreknowledge in the Webster sense, just as in Calvinism. However, the means or nature by which God has that foreknowledge is different between Arminianism and Calvinism. Even Open theism has foreknowledge in the Webster sense. Hence foreknowledge per se is not the issue.

      • Chad

        Roger, Given this then, how is it that God has genuine emotions about the state of affairs of one of whom he knows will never come to belief in Him? Why would He be sad? Frustrated? Continue to frustrate Himself by making further attempts to influence them to believe all the while knowing that such a state of affairs is impossible? If God is not of the opinion that they might believe, then why would He expend any more effort? Does God experience emotions based on an opinion that is contrary to what He knows? When I read a good book I experience genuine emotions, however, I know this book reading event is bound to the principle of bivalence. When I read a book for the second time I still experience emotions, even the same ones as the first time but this time they are muted due to my foreknowledge of them. In what way does God have emotions about free creatures in a world that He creates and from the beginning forekows all propositions as true or false and none of them known as an ontological possibility? The calvinist and arminian views seem to betray the idea that God is genuine in his emotions… or at least that He is perfectly content allowing me to think that He has emotions/motives as the scriptures seem to communicate.

        • rogereolson

          Well, I don’t even understand that. I grieve over the holocaust even though it already happened and nothing can change that. Just knowing that something has happened or will happen does not detract from a person’s ability to grieve over it.

  • http://sentimentsassuch.wordpress.com Brendan P. Burnett

    I always cringe when a minister of mine prays something which has such obvious Calvinistic undertones which one would only notice if one was adequately informed on the issues involved in that discussion (I got to an evangelical Anglican church in Sydney, NSW Australia).

    In the case of such an ‘undertonous’ event, would it be sinful of me to say “Amen,” Dr Olson? Thanks.

    • rogereolson

      When I say “Amen” to another’s prayer, I mean “so be it, Lord” to what I was praying which may not have been identical with what the other person was praying. Does that make sense?

  • jason

    This is concerning a minor point in the post, but it is an aspect of prayer that we all struggle to grasp at some point or another.

    It is true that God does not change the past, so it is illogical to pray that he do so. However, the type of prayer your mother uttered is not necessarily illogical. Though God won’t change the past in answer to a prayer, it is conceivable that he could foresee a supplication and change a present circumstance. In such a case, someone might pray in good faith, though without an adequate understanding of all the present and past circumstances – information that would have prevented the prayer since the outcome would be known. But God, in his perfect knowledge of the past/present/future, as well knowing as our hearts and needs, *could* act on future “after-the-fact” prayers in a present situation.

    That said, I personally don’t think that prayer works this way. Yet as I think through these issues it makes me more cognizant of how easily we lift up prayers without much thought. Thanks for giving food for thought.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I have heard that explanation of prayer for God to change the past. An Eastern Orthodox priest once told me he and they pray for God to change the past. But what I wonder, then, is why people don’t pray for God to undo the holocaust?

  • http://thoughtsonbiblicalsubjects.blogspot.com Bruce K. Oyen

    Right on. Dr. Olson, right on!! We non-Calvinists should not be prayng like Calvinists.

  • http://authenticmission.blogspot.co.uk/ Andrew Kenny

    Thank you for your post and helping us think though our theological beliefs. Paul before his conversion was anti-Christian, but at the same time it would appear that God was trying to convert him, which he was rejecting ( kicking against the goads). Christians were also probably praying for his conversion ( or destruction) which resulted in his experience on the Damascus Road and ultimate conversion. Bearing in mind Paul’s comment: “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased.” Gal. 1:15,
    do you think God’s prevenient grace would have continued until he eventually came to heel or Paul died unconverted, whether the prayers of the saints were prayed or not?

    • rogereolson

      That calls for too much speculation. I just don’t have anything to work with. My suspicion is that God would eventually look elsewhere for his needed apostle.

  • Steve Rogers

    Roger, would it be okay to pray, “Lord, please seek and save (insert name) who seems lost?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t pray any prayer that implies that God can unilaterally save anyone. At least not out loud such that listeners may think I believe he can.

  • Joel Kime

    I’ve wrestled with this, as I have a affinity for the open theist perspective. The biblical writers often talk about competing desires in our lives. For example, James 4:1-3 where he mentions “your desires that battle within you.” This seems to be true of the human condition, that we very rarely have an inner motivation or desire that is moving 100% in one direction. Our inner feelings are always mixed to some degree. So as I think about my friends who are not disciples of Jesus, it would seem correct to view their free will inclinations as having a similar mixture of leanings. Part of their inner desire would be freely inclined to follow Christ. Part would not. Would it not be consistent with Arminian or even Open theology to pray “Lord, please bolster that inner desire that is already inclined to seek you”? I see this as a potential framework that would have multiple applications. For a person struggling in the marriage, tempted toward adultery, I would pray for the part of them that genuinely wants to work hard to see their marriage thrive. And so on.

  • Paul

    “I am asking God to bring circumstances into their life ”

    Can you rigorously spell out what this “bringing circumstances into their life” amounts to? What does it mean? That God could, say, “bring a tornado into their life” that he knows will cause them to reflect on the coming judgment? But I thought God didn’t control the weather that way; you know, it “dirties” his hands with evils. Does it mean “bringing a person into their life” to give them the gospel. But how does that work? This just pushes the question back. God can’t do the impossible and “make” a (libertarian) free person go to the unsaved person. So, on the above analysis, you’d have to “intend” that God “bring about circumstances into the evangelist’s life” to influence (?, isn’t that a form of ‘manipulation?’ e.g., when an extremely intelligent person creates situations he knows will probably get another person to act in the ways *he* wants them to) them. But now we’re using this “bring circumstances into one’s life” language again. And how does God do that, exactly? Can you spell this out in ways consistent with your Arminianism? Thanks.

    • rogereolson

      I’m content to leave the circumstances to God.

      • Paul

        Why can’t a Calvinist say the same thing when you question them about God’s justice and how all this works out? They’ll say, “We’re content to leave such matters in the hands of God.” You wouldn’t let that fly. So why do you get an easy out? The questions I raised were prima facie inconsistent with other things you say God could and couldn’t do vis-a-vis libertarian free creatures and with respect to needing his hands to be clean from any taint of evil. At this point it seems like a throw away comment, “I trust God will do right! Will not the judge of the earth do right? Given that, then *however* God manages things will be agreeable.” But those sorts of moves the Calvinist gets to make in response to you, though you don’t let them. What accounts for this ostensible double standard?

        • rogereolson

          The difference lies in the character of God. I don’t have a problem with God manipulating people’s wills so long as it doesn’t coerce them to do evil or force them to enter into a relationship with him. If God causes a person to turn one way at a corner rather than the other way, so that the person sees a sign that brings attention to his or her need of God, I don’t have any problem with that. You seem to be laboring under the misconception that Arminians believe in free will above everything. We don’t. That’s never been the point of Arminian theology as I have shown in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

    • Robert

      Paul is demanding that Roger Olson know the mind of God in each and every instance of His providence (something no one knows including calvinist/determinist/fatalists who believe in exhaustive determinism):

      “Can you rigorously spell out what this “bringing circumstances into their life” amounts to? What does it mean?”

      No one can “rigorously spell out” exactly what God is doing (and that **includes** Paul as well): so this challenge is unfair towards Roger.

      “That God could, say, “bring a tornado into their life” that he knows will cause them to reflect on the coming judgment? But I thought God didn’t control the weather that way; you know, it “dirties” his hands with evils.”

      Does Paul himself know exactly how God is operating when he is operating providentially? I doubt it.
      And yet he demands/expects Roger to have this knowledge.

      The fact is that we have narratives in scripture that give us hints as to the kind of things that God does, but when it comes to specific events in our own personal history we really do not know how God is doing things.

      “Does it mean “bringing a person into their life” to give them the gospel. But how does that work?”

      Doesn’t God guide his people to share their faith with others? I pray for that to happen and God brings that about without controlling people like puppets.

      “This just pushes the question back. God can’t do the impossible and “make” a (libertarian) free person go to the unsaved person.”

      He does not have to “make” (did Paul mean NECESSITATE?) that people do things. The bible speaks of God guiding and influencing and even intervening in amazing ways.

      Why does he have to force people to do all that they do?

      Why does he have to control people like puppets to bring things about?

      “So, on the above analysis, you’d have to “intend” that God “bring about circumstances into the evangelist’s life” to influence (?, isn’t that a form of ‘manipulation?’ e.g., when an extremely intelligent person creates situations he knows will probably get another person to act in the ways *he* wants them to) them.”

      Does Paul really believe that every instance of influencing another person amounts to manipulation?

      So every parent is manipulating their children. Every pastor is manipulating their congregation. Every teacher is manipulating their students. Does influencing others always equate to manipulating them?

      Does Paul believe that God is constantly manipulating people against their wills to do things?

      Or does Paul believe that God controls everybody’s will already so he just works his puppets?

      “But now we’re using this “bring circumstances into one’s life” language again. And how does God do that, exactly?”

      Again none of us knows exactly how God brings about things when he acts providentially. We know that he does so, and we have biblical instances of it as well as personal instances of it. But we really don’t know the exact and precise details involved.

      “Can you spell this out in ways consistent with your Arminianism? Thanks.”

      From Paul’s coments here I don’t’ think he really wants an “Arminian” answer. Paul just wants to argue with Roger about God’s providence. And regarding spelling it out consistently with Arminianism, did Paul even read what Richard Heyduck said earlier in this thread. Richard gave some good specifics about what he prays that God will do. While we may not know exactly how God does these things, Richard gave some very good examples of the kinds of things that God does. They were specific enough to show the kinds of things that God does but not specific enough to tell us exactly how God does these things. Here are Richard’s points again:

      [[“June 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm
      A few of the things I pray when lost people are in mind:
      1. For them to recognize their need for God.
      2. To be surrounded by people who love Jesus and will faithfully represent him.
      3. That God would speak to them through his word, circumstances, events, and even their dreams.
      4. That they would be deaf to the lies of satan and the distractions of the world that take them away from God.
      And on a similar note, I pray that nothing I do will be an impediment to anyone coming to faith.”]]

      I think this is a good example of how we can pray. We pray knowing that God has lots of ways to “bring circumstances into their lives” though we do not (and cannot) know exactly how He does things.

      Robert

  • Ed Kirk

    Hi,
    Interesting article, but I do wonder how the idea that a Saul’s conversion in Acts 9 was the result of a ‘powerful conviction’ fits with Paul’s testimony in Galatians 1:15. Using your philosophy, God was taking quite a chance. If Saul had decided, after all, to throw the conviction off, the Almighty would have to try out some plan B or other. Or maybe Saul *was* the plan B, or C or D…?
    On the other hand, maybe Isaiah 46:10 means what it says.

    • rogereolson

      The biblical narrative certainly seems to portray the Old Testament Saul as “Plan A” that didn’t work out with David being God’s “Plan B”–doesn’t it?

  • Steve R

    We are told over and over again that prayer works miracles and breaks down walls. I think that is why people pray for their unsaved loved ones. Larry Crabb in his book, The Papa Prayer, told a story about his mother praying for the salvation of his uncle until her death at the age of 90, but never came to pass. I think prayer is the one source of hope people have; it can get frustrating when the unsaved don’t come to Christ, and prayer may be a way to counter act that frustration.

  • http://exploringthefaith.com Curt Parton

    Roger,
    I already commented on your other post, but I wanted to add an amen (as in “I agree!” :) to this one as well. I’m an Arminian pastor and I’ve taught for years that we should be careful how we word our prayers for the lost. The wording of our prayers should match our theology. (This goes for God “causing” someone’s cancer as well.) When we pray this way we make ourselves vulnerable to charges such as JI Packer’s (I believe in “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”) that Arminians believe like Arminians but pray like Calvinists. I’ve taught and modeled praying similarly to what you’ve described, such as: “Lord, please surround them with reminders of your love and truth.”

    With all due respect to Brian, I think the praises we frequently hear show that many, if not most, people are intending such prayers in a more determinative way. We often hear that “I prayed for my son’s salvation for years. And I knew that God is faithful and that He would answer my prayer and bring my son to Him. And now, praise God . . .” Of course, I wholeheartedly rejoice with people over the salvation of their loved ones. But I try to clarify the theology whenever I can, especially in my teaching.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Olson said: “No Arminian I know denies that God ever interferes with free will. The Bible is full of it. The point is that in matters pertaining to salvation God does not decide for people. If he did, he’d save everyone. The issue is personal relationship.”

    If the issue of salvation is dependent upon a so-called “personal relationship” (a term not found in scripture), then, a question is begged: How is it possible to establish a “personal relationship” with someone you don’t even know? It is estimated that hundreds of billions of souls have lived and died since the beginning of humanity who knew nothing about the Savior. They never knew his name, his mission, his death, his resurrection, his ascension…all those things evangelicals insist that one must absolutely believe and confess BEFORE one can possibly be saved. I prefer to believe that God, in Christ, will save ALL humanity with or without our intercessory prayers. If he can’t save souls without our help and prayers, then who needs Jesus?

    • rogereolson

      Of course, that raises the question of why pray for people’s salvation at all–in any manner? If you’re sure God is going to save everyone? And don’t you think all the saved will have a “personal relationship” with God at least in heaven? I do. This is all so ironic it makes me smile. I love irony! :)

  • Brian Abasciano

    Curt said: “With all due respect to Brian, I think the praises we frequently hear show that many, if not most, people are intending such prayers in a more determinative way. We often hear that “I prayed for my son’s salvation for years. And I knew that God is faithful and that He would answer my prayer and bring my son to Him. And now, praise God . . .” ”

    Well, I respectfully disagree here too Curt. If people mean the prayer for someone’s salvation to call for resistible divine action, then praising him for bringing the person to Christ would be praising him for bringing the person to Christ in a a resistible manner (though the focus of the praise is certainly not on the resistible aspect). The praise for faithfulness would be for God’s faithfulness in pursuing the person’s salvation and resistibly bringing them to himself. Indeed, we often use the language of a human witness as “bringing” people to Christ with no thought of this “bringing” being irresistible. Why would we think it irresistible of God? I would guess that if you went and asked the Arminian person giving that type of praise if they meant that God irresistibly brought their child to faith, that the child had no choice and God just made them believe, that most would say no. Now granted, there are probably many inconsistent believers who don’t think through what they believe or say and might unwittingly be thinking in deterministic terms at times, like in a case of someone they want to see saved so badly they would be willing for God to make it happen irresistibly. That is a problem, and people should be educated theologically and helped to think more biblically about it. But the question before us is whether the language of asking God to save someone or to bring someone to salvation inherently or even naturally implies irresistible action. My point is that it does not, and that the evidence of normal language usage shows this to be so (see my examples) along with biblical usage (Paul for example in Rom 10:1). So people do not need to be instructed to use different language when praying, just to mean the same language rightly and biblically if they do not already.

    That is not to say that there is no wisdom in being more specific with our prayers for salvation and praying things like Roger suggests. That is good advice for inclusion in our prayers for people’s salvation sometimes. But it is another thing to say that it is incorrect to ask God to save people or even not ideal. I find it to be completely consistent with Arminian theology and a natural way for believers to pray. The important thing is what we mean by the prayer just as the important thing is what we mean by any number of requests in which we ask people to do something with respect to another person. Typically, we assume the honoring of the person’s free will in such requests, calling for resistible action. So it should be in our prayers for people’s salvation if we choose to use that type of language. But perhaps it is called for for us to makes sure people understand that if they use such language in prayer, that is the biblical and theologically correct way to do so.

    Finally, may I ask, do you think Paul was wrong to pray for Israel’s salvation (Rom 10:1)?

    • rogereolson

      Are you sure that Paul was asking God to “save” every single Israelite in the world in the sense of forgive them and bring them into a right relationship with him? Or was he praying for the people’s survival as a distinct people (as opposed to being ethnically cleansed by the Romans or simply disappearing through assimilation)?

      • Brian Abasciano

        “Are you sure that Paul was asking God to “save” every single Israelite in the world in the sense of forgive them and bring them into a right relationship with him?”

        Yes (as sure as one can be about the meaning of a biblical text; I am an imperfect human being and can certainly be wrong).

        “Or was he praying for the people’s survival as a distinct people (as opposed to being ethnically cleansed by the Romans or simply disappearing through assimilation)?”

        I find that a highly implausible suggestion and wonder if any reputable commentator has taken that interpretation. The immediate context there is about righteousness, justification, faith in Christ vs. works, etc.

        • rogereolson

          Is every prayer recorded in the Bible theologically correct? I don’t necessarily assume so. The Psalmist prayed for God to do abhorrent things to his enemies’ children.

          • Brian Abasciano

            Not necessarily every prayer in that the Bible can record the statements and prayers of of wicked people. But I would say yes, of course, concerning any prayers recorded as Scripture and coming from the inspired author of Scripture as we have in the Psalms and in Rom 10:1 (as opposed to the inspired author merely reporting what someone else said as a historical type of note) . I would tend to follow Paul Copan and John Sailhammer in taking such extreme expressions of call for God’s judgment to be hyperbole. They are certainly theologically correct in how they were meant to be taken. And that is the issue I have pointed to, how our language is meant to be taken. But it seems like your answer to my question, “do you think Paul was wrong to pray for Israel’s salvation,” si that Paul was indeed wrong to pray for the lost. I find this incredible. But we might just have to agree to disagree. Let me add that I also wonder how you justify your seeming disagreement with my claim that normal language usage uses absolute sounding language regularly on the assumption of resistible action rather than irresistible.

            By the way, Rom 10:1 is not the only example of speaking about saving people in a relatively unqualified way that from an Arminian perspective surely assumes resistible action toward that saving. All citations are from the NASB:

            In 1 Cor 7:16, Paul asks, “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will asave your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” On your reasoning, this should mean, “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will [irresistibly] save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will [irresistibly] save your wife?”

            In 1 Cor 9:22, Paul says, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (NASB). But on your reasoning, this would mean, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means [irresistibly] save some.”

            In 1 Tim 1:15, Paul says, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to csave sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” But on your reasoning, this would mean, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to [irresitibly] save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”

  • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com James Goetz

    Hi Roger,

    After reading this post, I considered the range of emotions in Psalms and the hyperbole of our Lord Jesus Christ and find no problem with believing in synergism while publicly praying for somebody’s salvation without explicitly couching the implications of synergism. Christian devotionals have room for both dispassionate teaching and emotional prayer.

  • Bob Brown

    I have to believe that God is doing everything He can to save sinners within His own purposes and boundaries as He respects the freedom of sinners. I wonder however if our intercessions do in some way ‘give God permission’ to do more in the way of overstepping the freedom of a sinner. I think that is what He did to Paul. Paul had to remember how lost He was and how it took an audible voice and special appearance by Jesus Himself to lead Him to repentance and faith. I have to think he had that in mind when he prayed for his brethren to be saved. God does supernatual things to save sinners….but not for all. As Paul wrote, He is the Potter and can make vessels for destruction as well as vessels for mercy.

    I happen to think that all sinners will be judged according to the light they are shown and given. Then I believe that when God hears my prayers for certain ones, He does extra to reach them because I’m His son and I’m making a special request. BUT that doesn’t mean God’s extra will result in salvation. I sometimes wonder why God can’t appear to everyone like He did to Paul, maybe not in person, but through angels.

    Once when asked if those who will be saved will be few, Jesus simply said “strive” to enter the narrow gate. Yes, the way is narrow and few will find the gate, but thank God there is a way.

  • Eric Landstrom

    When we pray for anything, we are asking for our Lord’s uncreated energies to intervene and make intercession. We call this grace.

    Recognized or not, all of us stand amid a river of grace our entire lives. Through the hardness of heart, we make walk toward higher ground where the living waters of God’s grace are less effective on our hearts and in our lives, or with eagerness we may wade deeper and deeper into the water, our minds washing anew day by day.

    When we pray for another we’re asking our Lord if it would please him to raise the waters of grace around the subject of our prayer. We ask God to make intersession. We’re asking him for his unmerited favor.

    In no way does prayer violate the will of the creature because in contrast to the difficulties that Calvinism faces, Arminianism doesn’t have the same difficulty with the problem of evil because Arminians believe that grace is resistible. In this Arminians believe that God sets Adam in the garden perfectly made for the task he is given and filled with the grace necessary to carry out that task. But ultimately the grace God gave Adam was resistible and Adam sinned and then, with Adam’s break in fellowship from God, the source of life, death and sin entered the world. Consider then, if you will, the Arminian view wherein like Adam, God gives us grace prior (preveniently) to any response. In this, the Arminian view can take the following form:

    1) God gives grace prior to any human response.
    2) As such, people are already lifted up higher by grace before they respond.
    3) As such, people don’t lift themselves up, God does.
    4) As such, when people respond negatively, they jump off of the higher place God had lifted them to.
    Hence, God does the lifting and people do the sinning.

    Now consider the Calvinist alternative if grace isn’t resistible:

    1) God gives grace prior to any positive response and this grace is not resistible.
    2) As such, people are already lifted up higher by grace before they respond positively.
    3) As such, people don’t lift themselves up, God does.
    4) As such, when people sin, they sin because God withheld the grace they needed to resist temptation.
    Hence, God does the lifting and also brings to fruition the sin he hates.

    Anyway, since all of us have affirmed the fifth article in SEA’s SOF and I made certain that we included the statement that all good in thought and deed is the result of grace, the mere act of praying (if the prayer is righteous) is in accordance with the grace God provided those who pray.

    We’re a Christian army fighting dark principalities. We pray before we march into battle in the war for souls.

    Godspeed,

    Eric Landstrom

  • Holly

    Wesleyan Arminian here -

    When I have prayed for someone’s salvation throughout the course of my life, I have prayed that God would draw them to Himself. I know that the work has already been done, salvation is available, but that God does not coerce. I have prayed that God would continue to have patience with them as they run from Him. I have prayed that God would help those who already follow Him to be faithful witnesses, to be loving and involved, so that they may be in contact with those who are around them. I have prayed that God’s people would not be afraid to live, speak, and get outside of their place of comfort and not shy away from tough circumstances and thus, those who need to know God. I hope that these are consistent ways to pray (?)

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  • David

    With all due respect Roger you come off as confused in this post.

    Bottom line: Calvinists say, “… but God is Sovereign”; Arminians say, “God is Sovereign, but…” The former is the God of the Bible and King of Kings, the latter is a weak God and King indeed, and no Being that I can fully trust.

    Pardon my seeming flippancy, but I’m getting tired of this debate… As a former devout Wesleyan Arminian I can confidently say that Arminianism is humanistic at its core and that Calvinism is God-centered… we can go back and forth ad infinitum on why this isn’t the case, but let’s be honest and call a spade a spade. Is it really a bad thing for Arminianism to be man-focused from the perspective of an Arminian? (I feel the same with Obama. He’s not fooling anyone by saying he’s not a socialist. He is in word and deed and the labels are categorical errors).

    Pardon the seeming condescension…. but with all the books written and debates held it comes down to this: God makes choices we don’t like… yup, that’s why it’s impossible to please Him without faith that believes He knows what He’s doing in those choices whether we, as humans, like it or not. As one of His own, I’m not going to defend God-haters through interpolated doctrines, because of my perceived value of human life and of what God’s love should be. And I’m not going to try and neatly tie up all the lose ends displayed within the infinite nature of God. This is the point of faith. I WILL be grateful that I’m included unconditionally in His choice as one who formerly shared the same, conditional, and just fate and know that He uses the preaching of the gospel and prayer as the means of collecting the ones HE chose, even retroactively (God DOES look down the corridors of time and foreknows, right?).

    Think about this… when He separates the goats and the sheep within the visible church on judgement day, the one thing they will all have in common is a seeming un-coerced and autonomous choice FOR God, the one thing that will separate them is GOD’s choice. Grace and peace.

    • rogereolson

      I’m getting tired of the debate, too. But apparently you’re not tired enough to keep raising the same questions that have been answered time and time again. God is sovereign over his sovereignty. How is that “sovereign, but…?” It isn’t. In classical Arminianism God is sovereign. Period. Unqualified. The difference is how God exercises that sovereignty. So my question to you (because I refuse to be on the defensive) is how is your God truly good? Don’t you believe that “God is good, but….?” That’s how it seems to me.

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  • Tim

    I mean no disrespect at all (please believe me on this) when I say that I read this and find the whole argument theologically absurd. How do we determine that God “cannot” do anything?

    • rogereolson

      Do you believe God can lie? I hope not.

  • Jackie Kaulitz

    Roger, EXCELLENT article and replies to the comments. I appreciate that you make your prayers consistent and teach other Arminians to be consistent (as God is not confusing or illogical). As a Calvinist, I may not hold to the same theological view, but I agree that our actions should be lived out consistently with our respective theology. Also I often wondered why Arminians pray like Calvinists and wondered what a logically consistent to Arminian theology prayer should really look like. Thank you for teaching your fellow Arminians to make logical sense and also for showing the world that you stick to what you believe and attempt to be consistent to the end. Now I will share this article with my Arminian friends and encourage them to be consistent Arminians, as I’d rather see a consistent Arminian than see inconsistency lead to God’s name and Christianity be mocked for inconsistency.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you, I think. And I hope you and your fellow Calvinists will follow your advice and be consistent, too. A good example of an inconsistent Calvinist is the great Spurgeon whose favorite prayer (or one of them) was “Oh, God, save all the elect and then elect some more.” :)


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