Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sovereignty and Prayer

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Where if Your Trust?"  Click on the title to find the audio.]

In Isaiah 36, the impending attack of the Assyrians on the city of Jerusalem brings Hezekiah to his knees...quite literally.  Repentant and knowing his need of the Lord, Hezekiah prays in Isaiah 37:16-20 concerning the Assyrian threat and taunts.  Then, in verses 21-22, God responds to the prayer of King Hezekiah: "Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him..."

God's answer might be summarized by these words: "Hezekiah, I am sovereign.  I brought this army to your doorstep, and I will keep them from overtaking you."  Think about this.  This is the sovereign God whose hand brought the Assyrian army to the doorstep and whose hand will keep them from overtaking Jerusalem says to Hezekiah.  Yet, it is also the God that heard Hezekiah's prayer and responded, "Because you have prayed..."

How can God be both sovereign and responsive to our prayers?  If God knows what we need and when we need it...and He already has His intervention planned...then why pray?  These are honest questions that many people ask.  This was the answer I expressed Sunday in my message: "God has ordained that His purposes in this world will be accomplished, and He has ordained that they will often be accomplished through the prayers of His people.  As we pray, God works His marvelous, sovereign plan for us and for His world."

Recorded in Prayer by Philip Yance is a challenge once given to C.S. Lewis by Kurt Vonnegut: "...if [God] is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn't He already know what is best?  And if He is all-good won't He do it whether we pray or not?"  Here is Yancey's explanation of Lewis' answer.  "In reply, Lewis said that you could use the same argument against any human activity, not just prayer.  'Why wash your hands?  If God intends them to be clean, they'll come clean without your washing them...Why ask for the salt?  Why put on your boots?  Why do anything?'  God could have arranged things so that our bodies nourished themselves miraculously without food, knowledge entered our brains without studying, umbrellas magically appeared to protect us from rainstorms.  God chose a different style of governing the world..."  God has ordained that our actions...including our prayers...are woven into the fabric of His sovereign rule over all things.

Another form of this answer is found in a short devotional from John Piper in his book, A Godward Life.  In one of the chapters, titled "Prayer and Predestination," Piper writes a fictional conversation between "Prayerful" and "Prayerless" (hearkening back to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress).  Their conversation covers this very topic, and I share it today, in its entirety to remind us all that God's sovereignty does not negate the need to pray...it stimulates it!  [The following is taken from pp. 144-146 of Piper's book.]

Prayerless: I understand that you believe in the providence of God.  Is that right?
Prayerful: Yes.
Prayerless: Does that mean you believe, like the Heidelberg Catechism says, that nothing comes about by chance, but only by God's design and plan?
Prayerful: Yes, I believe that's what the Bible teaches.  Job prays, "No purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (42:2).  There are lots of texts like that.
Prayerless: Then why do you pray?
Prayerful: I don't see the problem.  Why shouldn't we pray?
Prayerless: Well, if God ordains and controls everything, then what he plans from of old will come to pass, right?
Prayerful: Yes.
Prayerless: So it's going to come to pass whether you pray or not, right?
Prayerful: That depends on whether God ordained for it to come to pass in answer to prayer.  If God predestined that something happen in answer to prayer, it won't happen without prayer.
Prayerless: Wait a minute, this is confusing.  Are you saying that every answer to prayer is predestined?
Prayerful: Yes it is.  It's predestined as an answer to prayer.
Prayerless: So if the prayer doesn't happen, the answer doesn't happen?
Prayerful: That's right.
Prayerless: So the event is contingent on our praying for it to happen?
Prayerful: Yes.  I take it that by contingent you mean prayer is a real reason that the event happens, and without the prayer the event would not happen.
Prayerless: Yes, that's what I mean.  But how can an event be contingent on my prayer and still be eternally fixed and predestined by God?
Prayerful: Because your prayer is as fixed as the predestined answer.
Prayerless: Explain.
Prayerful: It's not complicated.  God providentially ordains all events.  God never ordains an event without a cause.  The cause is also an event.  Therefore the cause is also foreordained.  So you cannot say that the event will happen if the cause doesn't because God has ordained otherwise.  The event will happen if the cause happens.
Prayerless: So what you are saying is that answers to prayer are always ordained as effects of prayer, which is one of the causes, and that God predestined the answer only as an effect of the cause.
Prayerful: That's right.  Since both the cause and the effect are ordained together, you can't say that the effect will happen even if the cause doesn't, because God doesn't ordain effects without causes.
Prayerless: Can you give some examples?
Prayerless: No.
Prayerful: I agree.  Why not?
Prayerless: Because the brightness of the sun comes from the fire.
Prayerful: Right.  That's the way I think about answers to prayer.  They are the brightness and prayer is the fire.  God has established the universe so that in large measure it runs by prayer, the same way he has established brightness so that in large measure it happens by fire.  Doesn't that make sense?
Prayerless: I think it does.
Prayerful: Then let's stop thinking up problems and go with what the Scriptures say: "Ask and you will receive" (John 16:24), and "You do not have, because you do not ask" (James 4:2).


May knowing that God ordains to accomplish great things through the prayers of His people fuel the fire of our prayers!

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Apology of Aristides

[This post follows a sermon called "A Model for the Church".  Click the title to find the audio.]

This past Sunday, we looked at a familiar passage of Scripture when it comes to the life of the early church.  In Acts 2:42-47, we see a kind of model for the church...an ideal for which we can all strive.  No...the early church was not perfect.  After all, they had to deal with sin (Acts 5:1-11), division (Acts 6:1), and persecution (Acts 8:1).  Yet, Luke records this paragraph to let us know what was typical among the people of God.  These Spirit-filled believers lived together, worshiped together, learned together, and interacted with one another in a particular way...a way which sets forth a model for us to follow.

One of the results of this behavior was that they were "having favor with all the people" (Acts 2:47).  Yes, their distinction would also bring persecution, but there was (and still should be) something attractive about the community of believers.  In fact, one 2nd century philosopher named Aristides used the nature of the Christian community in his defense of the faith.  One early church father noted, "Aristides, a most eloquent Athenian philosopher, and a disciple of Christ while yet retaining his philosopher's garb, presented a work to Hadrian [i.e.- the Roman Emperor]...The work contained a systematic statement of our doctrine, that is, an Apology for the Christians, which is still extant and is regarded by [experts] as a monument to his genius" (Jerome, in Lives of Illustrious Men).

Here is part of the apology of Aristides for us to consider as we think about pursuing a model for the church.  This follows a discussion of Barbarians and Greeks and their worship of false gods.  It also follows a discussion regarding the practice of Jews, and he says that "they too erred from true knowledge."  Then, the philosopher speaks of the Christians:

"Now the Christians, O King, by going about and seeking, have found the truth.  For they know and trust in God, the Maker of heaven and earth, who has no fellow.  From him they received those commandments which they have engraved on their minds...

"For this reason they do not commit adultery or immorality; they do not bear false witness, or embezzle, nor do they covet what is not theirs.  They honor their father and mother, and do good to those who are their neighbors.  Whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly.  They do not worship idols made in the image of man.  Whatever they do not wish that others should do to them, they in turn do not do; and they do not eat the food sacrificed to idols.

"Those who oppress them they exhort and make them their friends.  They do good to their enemies.  Their wives, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest.  Their men abstain from all unlawful sexual contact and from impurity, in the hope of recompense that is to come in another world.

"As for their bondmen and bondwomen...they persuade them to become Christians; and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.

"They refuse to worship strange gods; and they go their way in all humility and cheerfulness.  Falsehood is not found among them.  They love one another; the widow's needs are not ignored, and they rescue the orphan...He who has gives to him who has not, ungrudgingly and without boasting.  When the Christians find a stranger, they bring him to their homes and rejoice over him as a true brother.  They do not call brothers those who are bound by blood ties alone, but those who are brethren after the Spirit and in God.

"When one of their poor passes away from the world, each provides for his burial according to his ability.  If they hear of any of their number who are imprisoned or oppressed for the name of the Messiah, they all provide for his needs, and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free.

"If they find poverty in their midst, and they do not have spare food, they fast two or three days in order that the needy might be supplied with the necessities.  They observe scrupulously the commandments of their Messiah, living honestly and soberly as the Lord their God ordered them.  Every morning and every hour they praise and thank God for his goodness to them; and for their food and drink they offer thanksgiving...Such, O King, is the commandment given to the Christians, and such is their conduct."  (The Apology of Aristides, translated by Rendel Harris [London: Cambridge, 1893]...as quoted in John MacArthur, Acts 1-12 [Chicago: Moody, 1994].)

In Acts 2, and in the Apology of Aristides, we see a portrait of a church deeply committed to God, His Word, and one another.  May God give us the grace to follow these great examples...both individually and corporately.