Praying with Paul: God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, Part 1

I’m reading Praying with Paul by D. A. Carson, a book on spiritual reformation. Carson looks at some of Paul’s prayers to see what makes Paul tick. What sets him off to pray, and what for? How does he pray “without ceasing”?

One thing many Christians hear is, “Prayer changes things?” Oh yeah? Well, if God is sovereign, how does prayer change anything? If he’s so sovereign, aren’t we “mere puppets” (123)? Some people don’t pray because God is sovereign, so there’s no reason to pray (according to them). If we pray, then it was ordained. If we don’t pray, then it was ordained. Or perhaps we’ll pray, but God is a bit distant. Or he’s not very powerful. Or…

Carson says, “Something has gone wrong in our reasoning if our reasoning leads us away from prayer; something is amiss in our theology if our theology becomes a disincentive to pray” (125).

God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Carson begins this section by articulating two truths, both of which are found in Scripture:

1. God’s Sovereignty

God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility.

Proverbs 16.33, The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.
Proverbs 16.4, The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Psalm 115.2-3, Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
Psalm 135.6, Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.“
Jeremiah 10.23, I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.
Matthew 6.26, Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
Matthew 6.30, But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Ephesians 1.11, In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

Yet, in a mysterious way, “without being tainted with evil himself” God stands behind un-fortunes such as (127):

Unintentional Manslaughter (Exodus 21.13)
Family Misfortune (Ruth 1.13)
National Disaster (Isaiah 45.6-7)
Personal Grief (Lamentations 3.32-33, 37-38)
and even, Sin (2 Samuel 24.1; 1 Kings 22.21ff)

2. Human Responsibility

Human beings are responsible creatures – that is, they choose, they believe, they disobey, they respond, and there is moral significance in their choices; however, human responsibility never functions in Scripture to diminish God’s sovereignty or to make God absolutely contingent (126).

“God himself offers moving pleas to incite us to repentance, because he finds no pleasure in the death of the wicked“ (127).

Joshua 24.14-15, Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Isaiah 30.18, Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.

Isaiah 65.2, I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices;

Ezekiel 18.30-32, Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

Ezekiel 33.11, Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?

Romans 10.9, 11, because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

Yet none of this cancels God’s sovereignty. Paul quotes Exodus 33.19 to prove that “God has mercy on those whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9.18).

Next Time

Carson gives seven passages where both of these truths come into play. But it looks like we’ve run out of space. You’ll have to come back next time and see if I’ve won more space.


Author: Spencer

I put ice in my cereal. Make yourself at home and feel more than welcome to contact me.

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