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Providence and Prayer

If God predestines and totally governs all things, then how can man be held responsible for his actions, and what need is there then for prayer when God ordains all things absolutely?

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Taken from Rushdoony's Systematic Theology in Two Volumes, p. 151

A frequent objection raised by many to the doctrines of predestination and providence is that such doctrines render untenable and impossible any concept of responsibility and prayer. If God predestines and totally governs all things, then how can man be held responsible for his actions, and what need is there then for prayer when God ordains all things absolutely?

This is a very logical argument and an unanswerable one only if we insist that the limits of logic and of possibility are what Aristotle and humanism in any form conceive them to be. This we can never grant, for then no doctrine of Scripture stands, and we must logically reject the whole of it. Creation, the triune God, the doctrine of predestination, providence, atonement, and much, much more constitute impossibilities in terms of the logic of humanism.

When, however, our views of reality, possibility, and logic are governed, not by our very limited and fallen minds but by Scripture, then we can, although by no means exhaustively, realize that the possibilities of reality are the possibilities of God, not of man. "With God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26), but with man all things are neither possible nor comprehensible.

The Bible plainly affirms predestination, providence, and prayer, and therefore so too must we. As Calvin plainly pointed out, prayer is a privilege, and it is also a commandment;

And in the first place, when he (God) enjoins us to pray, the commandment itself implies a charge of impious contumacy, if we disobey it. No command can be more precise than that in the psalm: "Call upon me in the day of trouble."... it is evident that all those who turn their backs on God, or do not directly approach him, are not only guilty of disobedience and rebellion, but also convicted of unbelief; because they distrust the promises...1

In the Institutes, Calvin devoted a long chapter, equal to a small book, to prayer, and he began and ended with an emphasis on providence, declaring:

It is certainly not without reason that our heavenly Father declares, that the only fortress of salvation consists in invocation of his name; by which we call to our aid the presence of his providence, which watches over all our concerns; of his power, which supports us when weak and ready to faint; and on his goodness, which receives us into his favor, though miserably burdened with sins, in which, finally, we call upon him to manifest his presence with us in all his attributes.2
If, with minds composed to this obedience, we suffer ourselves to be governed by the laws of Divine Providence, we shall easily learn to persevere in prayer, and with suspended desires to wait patiently for the Lord; assured, though he does not discover himself, yet that he is always near us, and in his own time will declare that his ears have not been deaf to those prayers which, to human apprehension, seemed to be neglected.3

For Calvin, the central exercise of faith is prayer, not because prayer takes priority over obedience to God's word but rather because it is a summation of the exercise of faith. The man of faith and obedience is the man of prayer.

Calvin saw four "rules" of prayer. First, in prayer our heart and mind set aside all other matters and give themselves over to conversation with God. Second, in asking, we must truly feel our wants and believe that the Lord is the supplier thereof. This means a faith in God's absolute government, for otherwise we will look to ourselves to supply our needs. To be prayerless means to be without faith in God, and it manifests a trust in ourselves as our self-supplier. Third, this means divesting ourselves of all vain-glorious thoughts. It is man's desire to be his own god (Gen. 3:5) which leads him to war against rather than communion with God, and it is this same spirit of autonomy which makes man prayerless. Fourth, we are prayerless unless we believe that God can and will supply our needs.

Calvin, in setting forth these "rules" of prayer, warns against limiting God to them. God, after all, did hear the prayer of an ungodly man who was under judgment (I Kings 21:25-29). Prayer is in the name of the Lord. Solomon said, "The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe" (Prov. 18:10). That great Name, manifested to us, is Jesus Christ, God our Savior, and therefore we pray in His name, "in Jesus Name," since God is under no obligation to honor our name or any petition. We are a judged, meritless people, saved only by sovereign grace through Jesus Christ. Our only mediator is Jesus Christ, and our only legal status before the throne is in His Name. Hence, all prayer is in Jesus' Name, save the Lord's Prayer, where we simply join in and echo the prayer of Jesus Christ as the new and true Adam. In the Lord's Prayer, we pray in His words and as members of His body. All prayer to God is thus through Jesus. As Calvin noted:

It is certain that from the beginning no prayers had been heard but for the sake of the Mediator. For this reason the Lord had appointed in the law, that the priest alone should enter the sanctuary, bearing on his shoulders the names of the tribes of Israel, and the same number of precious stones before his breast; but that the people should stand without in the court, and there unite their prayers with those of the priest. (Ex. xxviii.) The use of the sacrifice was to render their prayers effectual. The meaning, therefore, of that shadowy ceremony of the law was, that we are all banished from the presence of God, and therefore need a mediator to appear in our name, to bear us on his shoulders, and bind us to his breast, that we may be heard in his person; and, moreover, that the sprinkling of his blood purifies our prayers, which have been asserted to be otherwise never free from defilement.4

So important is prayer to God that His very temple is called a "house of prayer" (Isa. 56:7). Prayer is thus very important in God's sight.

The focus of prayer, as our Lord teaches us in the Lord's Prayer, is the Kingdom of God, and our place and service therein, our provision, protection, and deliverance. "In a word, all our prayers ought to be such, as to respect that community which our Lord has established in his kingdom and in his family."5

It is obvious, from Calvin's teaching, how closely providence and prayer are allied and united. All God's providential workings and government have as their goal the glory of His Kingdom. Similarly, at the center and heart of all prayer must be that which the Lord's Prayer sets forth as the heart's cry of true prayer:

9. After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:9-10)

If we postpone that Kingdom to heaven, or separate it from our daily work and duties, then we have seriously altered the purpose and vitality of our prayers. The holy urgency of God's Kingdom is then replaced with our trifles. This does not mean that our trifles have no place in prayer, but their place is in terms of the priority of God's Kingdom. Apart from post-millennialism, that urgency is altered and replaced.

God's providence has as its goal the Kingdom of God. True prayer has as its great cry, "Thy Kingdom come!" Prayer, said Calvin, takes us into the very "presence of his providence." Thus, the more we grow in grace and prayer, the more deeply our daily lives move in terms of the providence of God. This means that we self-consciously become agents of His government: we become the governed of God, instruments of His word and Spirit, who exercise dominion with holiness, righteousness, and knowledge. The Spirit prays within us (Rom. 8:26) in terms of these things, so that the Spirit and our heart cry out, "The Kingdom come!"

Providence, prayer, and the Holy Spirit then work in our hearts to the joy of our being.

St. Paul proclaims judgment on the enemies of Christ with great confidence: "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema. Maranatha" (I Cor. 16:22). Maranatha means, "Our Lord has come!" The Ruler is now putting all things under His feet by conquest although God the Father has already put all things under Christ's feet by right of power and authority (Ps. 8:6; I Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:22). "Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him" (Ps. 2:12).

1. John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bk. Ill, ch. XX, xiii, vol. II, p. 1 lOf.
2. Ibid., Bk. Ill, ch. XX, ii; vol. II, p. 94.
3. Ibid., Bk. Ill, ch. XX; Vol. II, p. 167.
4. Ibid., Bk. III. ch. XX. xviii; vol. II, p. 121.
5. Ibid., Bk. Ill, ch. XX, xxxviii; vol. II, p. 419.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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