If God Is Sovereign, Why Pray?

Joshua Banks


In my previous article, I stressed the importance of prayer in the lives of God’s people. For several reasons, prayer should be as natural to the believer as breathing: Scripture places emphasis upon prayer; prayer produces a reliance upon the Lord as we cast our care upon Him; we express our adoration to the Lord as we recount the majesty of His being and all He has done on behalf of His people; we intercede on behalf of others; and we bring the desires of our hearts before God. If we see that Scripture states that the prayer of the righteous accomplishes much and we are to ask, seek, and knock, how do we reconcile these statements with the sovereignty of God? 

The Scriptures are clear that the Lord has declared the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10), that He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth (Dan 4:35), and that He works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11). There are, of course, a slew of other passages that emphasize God’s sovereign control over creation, the nations, and everything within the individual lives of people. If this is true, how can prayer be effective? R. C. Sproul once stated that if you were to ask him if prayer changes God, his answer would be adamantly, “No.” But if you were to ask him if prayer changes things, his answer would be, “Yes.” This may seem a little confusing, but let us expound this further by comparing prayer to other aspects of God’s work among His people. 

First, consider evangelism. As Reformed Christians we believe in the doctrine of election that God chose a people out of all humanity to extend His grace and mercy to through the redemptive work of Christ Jesus. He chose to save whom He desired out all humanity based on nothing else but His sovereign, freewill choice, and nothing in them. This is salvation by grace. There was nothing in us whereby God was obligated to save anyone. He chose us, Christ died for us, and the Holy Spirit of God calls and regenerates us and thereby grants us faith to believe upon Christ. As Reformed Christians we know this and we believe this.

Consider, however, the means that God brings about the salvation of His elect. It is the declaration of the Gospel that God uses to bring His people to faith. When Paul was in Corinth in Acts 18, only a few were converted and the Jews in the synagogue rejected Paul’s message of Christ. The Lord appeared to Paul in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9–10). At that time not many were converted to Christ, but the Lord says He had many people in the city and for Paul to keep preaching. This is a great example of what Paul says in Romans 10:14, 17: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” We see that God has ordained not only who will receive His love, grace, and mercy in Christ, but also the means through which His elect are brought to faith. 

The evangelism I am describing above is in view of believers, not just preachers, declaring the Gospel to the lost, as the early church did in Acts 8:4. When they were scattered, they went about preaching the Word. In reference to preaching and the ministry of the Word of God, not only does God use the preaching of the Word as the means to bring His people to faith, but also to equip and sanctify His people.

The blessing of salvation is not only our justification but also our sanctification. We are being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). How does this occur? Through the ministry of the Word of God. Jesus said to the Father in His High Priestly prayer, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). A simple definition of “sanctify” is to “set apart.” The Spirit of God uses the inspired Word to grow the people of God in holiness. This was true of ancient Israel. In the book of Leviticus we read, “Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine” (Lev 20:26). This is in view of the law, the holiness code being given to Israel.

It is through the word of God and the Holy Spirit applying the word that God’s people are sanctified and grow in holiness. God has ordained that His people be “holy and blameless” (Eph 1:4), and He has ordained the means to accomplish this—the ministry of the word of God. Peter states, “Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet 1:3), and the knowledge of God is contained in His Word—the Scriptures. 

Having an understanding of how our Lord uses the means of declaring the Gospel to bring His elect to faith, and the preaching and teaching of the Word of God to sanctify His people, we can begin to understand how our Lord uses the prayers of His people as the means to bring about His will. Exodus 32:14 is a wonderful example of this work of God. In Exodus 32 we read of God’s people committing idolatry. They asked Aaron to fashion them a god who would go before them. At this point, Moses is on the mountain with the Lord receiving the tablets and the people have become impatient not knowing what has happened to him. When the Lord announces to Moses what the people had done, He says to Moses, “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation” (Exod 32:10). Moses prays to the Lord and intercedes on behalf of God’s people, and then we read in verse 14, “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” What happened here? Did the Lord intend to do something and then change His mind? Not at all.

We know that our Lord is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-present. He knows and sees all things at all times. Notice that the Lord did not tell Moses about the sin of the people until the second day of their idolatrous worship! This was not a case in which the people began to act corruptly and the Lord reacted at that moment. No, He allowed them to approach Aaron with their request, make the calf, sacrifice offerings to it, celebrate a feast to the god, and then commit more immorality. The Lord did not reveal their sin to Moses until their sin was completed.

Notice also what the Lord said to Moses. He said that He would destroy the people and make from Moses a great nation. Now, was the Lord truly angry with the rebellion of the people? Absolutely, the Lord is holy and does not look upon sin with favor (Hab 1:13). However, did the Lord intend to destroy the people and start over with Moses? I would answer, no. Looking back to the Lord’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15, the Lord swore by Himself that He would bring to pass what He promised. He promised Abraham that his descendants would be as the stars of heaven, innumerable (Gen 15:5), and that the Lord would give the land of promise to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15:7). The Lord swore to Abraham that He alone would accomplish this, and the Lord Himself, and not Abraham also, passed between the cut up animals signifying that what the Lord promised was contingent on Him alone bringing it to pass. There were no conditions that Abraham had to meet for this to be done. The responsibility was the Lord’s and His alone. 

This promise was passed to Isaac (Gen 26:24–25) and then to Jacob (Gen 28:14). We know from the account of Jacob’s life that he had twelve sons who would be the twelve patriarchs of the children of Israel. When Jacob was about to die and he was blessing his sons, he stated an astonishing truth about Judah when he said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:10). MacArthur writes that “to Judah’s line belonged national prominence and kingship, including David, Solomon, and their dynasty.”1John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, 76. The line of kings was to come from Judah, and the reference to “Shiloh” was a reference to the Messiah who would come through the line of Judah. These are promises of the Lord of blessing to His people and bringing the Messiah into the world through Judah. If the Lord intended to wipe out the people and make a great nation of Moses, He would have broken His promises, and the Scripture clearly affirms to us that God cannot lie (Num 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18). If God made certain promises and He cannot lie, how are we to understand His words to Moses in Exodus 32? Simply put, we are to understand them as the God-ordained means through which the Lord would manifest the riches of His grace on an undeserving people. 

Though the Lord threatened to destroy them, He did not sovereignly decree for this to happen, but decreed rather to show mercy, as that is what occurred. Because of the Lord’s previous promises (Exod 32:13), Moses is moved to pray and intercede for the people. The Lord granted grace and mercy on account of Moses’s prayer and, through this ordeal, He showed one of the greatest demonstrations in Scripture of His gracious nature not only to the people, but specifically to Moses when He declared His name to him (Exod 34:6–70). This is a tremendous example of how the Lord uses the prayers of His people to bring about His decreed will. Piper states, “the inclinations of His will move in directions that He alone determines. Whatever influences appear to change His will are influences, which ultimately He has ordained.”2John Piper, “I Will Be Gracious To Whom I Will Be Gracious” Desiring God, 1984 (Accessed Oct. 28, 2022).

As stated in my last article, friends, it is not our task to try and determine what God’s sovereign will is, but rather we are to pray for what is good and right according to Scripture, and continue to pray for the desires of our hearts. Within these chapters of Exodus 32–34, Moses asked for some very extraordinary things, and they were granted because those things were ordained of God. So, keep praying for extraordinary things in Christ, your loved ones to be saved, for the Lord to bless your ministry, church, family, friends, and for you to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of God. We can be assured that our Lord will bring about His sovereign will, and He does so through the prayers of His people. So, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), “Pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18), and have confidence that “if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). The prayers of the righteous accomplish much because God uses them to bring about His will, beloved. May our hearts be moved to pray all the more! Soli Deo Gloria!

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1 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, 76.
2 John Piper, “I Will Be Gracious To Whom I Will Be Gracious” Desiring God, 1984 (Accessed Oct. 28, 2022).
Author Prayer-Silent-Church

Joshua Banks

Joshua Banks is the founding pastor at Shepherd's Rock Bible Church in Kingsport, TN. He is a graduate of the Master's Seminary's D.Min program in Sun Valley, CA, and author of the book, "Yes It Matters: The Influence of the Doctrine of Election on Sanctification" published by G3 Press. He, His wife Amanda, and their children reside in Gate City, VA.