Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: The Tough Truth About Prayer part 2

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Tough Truth About Prayer part 2

This is a follow up post from my original commentary a couple of days ago. A reader, Tim Kuehn, is gracious enough to read The Beast's Lair and has raised an issue that, frankly, I didn't expect to come up. I am thrilled that he has mentioned it and I am happy to respond as best I can. This is a long and drawn out post that will send most of you to snooze town. But, I hope it is helpful to some.

The question was two fold: 1) What is the Scriptural basis for God hearing the sinner's prayer of salvation. 2) Isn't a person who prays a prayer of salvation already filled with the Holy Spirit by the time they have prayed it, therefore God is still only hearing the prayer of a believer.

First of all, let me clarify a few points. The subpoint 2 above is an idea that most of my readers, and Christians in general for that matter, have not considered. When I talk about God "not hearing" the prayers of unbelievers as I mentioned in my first post, I am of course not intending to portray God as being deaf to those prayers. In His omniscient nature, God certainly physically hears the prayers. The phraseology that "God does not hear the prayers" refers more to his inclination to hear with the intention of responding. As I also mentioned in the previous post, I am sure that God in His infinite wisdom and omnipotence has done that very thing, but I do think that is the exception.

Now, the issue that Tim has raised really takes a step beyond even our understanding of how God hears prayer to the issues of compatibilism vs libertarian freedom, Calvinism vs Arminianism (not to be confused with Arianism). Here is how it breaks down:

Compatibilism and Calvinism typically go together as do libertarian freedom and Arminianism. For the compatibilist, the doctrines of human free will and God's sovereignty work together, in other words, they are compatible. Compatibilists do not limit the exercise of God's sovereignty in order to preserve man's free will. No good explanation can be made as to how this works, but in essence it says that God is 100% sovereign while humans still have free will and responsibility for their actions. This ties with Calvinism because the Calvinist views salvation through the lens of God's sovereignty, that He has elected some to accept Christ and those whom He elected will, by their own choosing, unite with Christ. They do not come to Christ because of what they have done, because of their great faith, because of their works, but only because of the grace of God who elected them.

In contrast, libertarian freedom holds the view that our choices are completely free from any predetermination by God, or for that matter, from the constraints of human nature. For the libertarian, this is the only way to view human freedom with the result of genuine moral responsibility. Both open theists and Arminianists hold to this view. For the open theists, God anxiously and eagerly waits to see who will accept His son and then welcomes them into His family once they have done so. Because God's sovereignty is not the final decision in salvation for the libertarian open theist, there is no way for Him to know who will ultimately accept Christ until it happens. The Arminianist doesn't go quite that far, but says in their understanding of libertarian freedom that God, after setting things in motion, looked ahead in time and saw who would ultimately, on their own free will, accept Christ. He then "elected" these people based His foreknowledge of their own free will. Nevertheless, even for the Arminianist, God still had a moment of "hoping" as He looked ahead in time that people would make that decision. (by the way, the issues of infra and supra lapsarianism can come into play here, but I don't think it is relevant enough for what we ultimately are discussing.)

So what does all of that have to do with the Holy Spirit filling a person before they say the sinner's prayer, whereby God is still only hearing the prayers of believers? Well, for the open theist in their libertarian freedom, this concept is completely out. The only way God could fill someone with the Holy Spirit before a prayer of salvation was made is if He knew with certainty that the person would make that prayer. Now, this process of being filled with the Holy Spirit before the prayer is actually said is basically an instantaneous process. Those who support this idea understand it to happen pretty much at the exact same time, but that a millisecond before the prayer is made, that person is filled with the Spirit. Nevertheless, if you hold completely true to libertarian freedom, that millisecond is just enough time for the person to change their mind. Arminianists are able to say that through the foreknowledge of God, He knew they would accept and that is how He can fill them right before they pray. But then, the Arminianist is on dangerous ground of actually being a Calvinist. Because even if you say that God foresaw their free will, you are still implying that the free will He foresaw is now determined. So, when the person gets ready to make their decision, they have no ability to change their mind because God already foresaw their actions.

For the Calvinist, there is no problem with this idea. God elected those who would be saved by His sovereignty and grace. Therefore, He knows with certainty who will accept Christ and when. He is therefore able to fill that person right before or as they are saying the prayer, whereby He is still hearing the prayers of believers.

Where do I come down on this issue? I don't know. This is a very specific understanding of salvation on which I just haven't reached a conclusion.

However, Tim, in reference to your question, let me finally get to the heart of what I meant by my original statement that God hears the prayers of sinner's when they ask for salvation. Here is the point: A sinner who hears the Gospel of Christ really only understands one thing. They are lost and need Jesus to get to God. For them to even begin to understand the implications and nature of all this stuff we have been discussing is just simply impossible and not needed for salvation. In that regard, whether or not the Spirit fills the unbeliever right before the prayer or right after, the point that I wanted to make to unbelievers reading my blog is that God will hear and respond to that kind of prayer.

The Scriptural support for this is endless. You may read it through the lens of God filling unbelievers with the Spirit before they pray, but nevertheless the entire Bible is really a message of the lost calling out to Christ and being redeemed. The ultimate passage is Luke 18. The prayer of the supposed righteous Pharisee is apparently all but worthless while the prayer of the sinful tax collector results in him going "down to his house justified." There are even examples of entire nations praying to God in recognition of their sin and God hearing their prayers with action. The story of Jonah is a great example. So does God respond to the prayers of those confessing sin? Absolutely. How He does that exactly is a subject to continued to be discussed.

Thanks so much for your question and your insight. Blessings to you.


Anonymous tim kuehn said...

Hi Philip -

I've read your response, but I'm in the middle of a motorcycle holiday and on the move for the next few days, so I don't have time write a proper response - yet. :)

I will ask you though, what is the specific Scripture support for the idea that man has "free will"?

October 15, 2006 8:28 AM  
Blogger The Beast said...


Click one "see my complete profile" and then email me. I will reply with texts that supporters of Free Will use for their defense of their doctrine.

October 15, 2006 2:42 PM  
Anonymous Tim Kuehn said...

Hi Phillip, and thanks for your continued discussion of this point. I'm finally home nice and snug, and found the reference I was looking for:

"For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. " Rom 8:7

While this goes in line with your thesis that the prayers of unbelievers aren't heard, it also begs the question that if a man cannot please God or submit to His Law in their unregenerate state, how can he do anything to be saved w/out being changed to do so?

"...no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit." 1 Col 12:3.

An unbeliever cannot say Jesus is Lord without the Spirit within him to enable him to say so. But if a one has the Spirit already, then they're not unbelievers since the Spirit only inhabits believers.

The story of Jonah is God reaching out to the city of Nineveh in spite of Jonah's reluctance. While the Ninevites did respond with repentance, the specifics as to how that happened isn't detailed in Scriptures. Consequently, that citation can't be used to support a postion either "pro" or "con" with respect to the Spirit working either before or after their repentance.

As for the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, I'm not sure how this relates to this question, since they were both Jews praying in the temple. Presumably, they both had some kind of prior relationship with God and weren't unbelievers at the time they said their prayers.

I "hear" what you're saying about Scriptures being about the lost calling out to God. As I've seen Scriptures, it's the other way around - God reaching out and doing everything possible to ensure all who can be are saved. While that leads into other interesting questions, that's a topic for another time.

Thanks again for your time in this, and I wish you a blessed halloween season.

Take care!

October 20, 2006 9:30 PM  
Blogger The Beast said...


I am happy for the discussion, thanks for your thoughtful response.

Three points of interest:

1. You are arguing, whether intentionally or not, reformed theology, ie, Calvinism. The Calvinist stricty interprets the sinful nature of man to say that even a prayer of salvation from the "unregenerate state" is impossible because it would mean that even that prayer is a act of "works" and those works would be, as you have argued, from a sinful nature, rendering them useless. However, to hold that view necessarily follows the view that God has elected those to salvation, and that His elect will eventually, without quetion, come to Christ. (if I need to explain why that necessarily follows, I will be glad to do that, although I have already alluded to it in my post) So, I would be interested to know what you mean by your statement God is doing "everything possible" to ensure that all who can be are saved. That language of "doing everything possible" seems to indicate you hold to a free will/resistible grace argument while maintaining that man is unable on his own to offer a prayer of salvation to God.

2. Your quote of Corinthinans is in the context of spiritual gifts and the act of discerning who is preaching the Gospel accurately and who is not. I don't believe your citation of this text in support of your view of salvation holds up very well. This verse is clearly to let believers know that if someone is preaching and says Jesus is cursed, they are not in the Spirit, but the one who says Jesus is Lord is. Besides, even those who maintain a view of prayer followed by the filling of the Spirit would not deny that the person would be convicted "by the Spirit" as this text reads.

3. You must have misread my use of Jonah and the tax collector. I made the assertion from the beginning of my last paragraph in the post that these stories can be interpreted differently depending on your view of this issue and what lens you look through as to whether the Spirit fills the person or peoples of a nation before or after the prayer of repentence and salvation. You are absolutely correct that the Scripture does not provide that kind of detail. Nevertheless, whichever route you take on this issue (as I am still unsure) the point we all need to come down on is that, as these stories clearly show, God hears and responds to the prayers of sinners and to prayers of salvation.

Blessings to you! Please comment any time.

October 21, 2006 1:47 AM  
Anonymous Tim Kuehn said...

Hi Philip - I'm baaack!

If I appear to be "arguing" reformed / Calvinistic theology, then we are having a failure to communicate.

So I'll try again. :)

As far as I see things, if "free" will ever existed, then the only ones who had it was Adam and Eve before the fall when they could choose to walk in obedience, or disobey and come to the knowledge of good and evil. After the fall, our will is free only within the confines demarked by our slavery to sin and the princes of the power of the air. The fellowship we enjoyed with God was broken, we were under God's righteous judgment, and all mankind was enslaved to sin.

Now - if I've been reading you correctly, you've been representing that people can intellectually assent to or decide to come to faith. If this is correct - then for it to be true, it must agree with all of Scriptures.

However, 1 Corinthians 2:14 states that "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." If this is true, then how is it possible for someone who has no faith to discern things he cannot accept in order to assent to them? Ephesians 2 states that we were dead in trespasses and sin. Hebrews 4:2 puts it another way - "2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened."

Galatians 3:2 "Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?" Or Ephesians 2:8-9 "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Romans 9 also says "5 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy."

Romans 10:17 sums it up - "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ."

If hearing comes from the Word of Christ, and that Word is spiritually discerned, then it's only by the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearer that they have the faith to 'hear' with.

With respect to the Corinthians quote, I'll have to respectfully dissent. It is true that the passage talks about the readers discerning the spirits, however when it says that "no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit." (1 Cor 12:3) - I can only understand "no one" to mean nobody without restriction. I can't see how that only applies to preachers / pastors / etc.

The phrase "everything possible" is most likely a mis-statement on my part. Christ has done all the work required for salvation, He sent the Spirit to continue working the Father's Will here, provides us with daily food and bread. Romans 9:19 does discuss the question of why some are saved and some are not - but the basic answer there is that it's God's creation, and He'll do what He wants with it. Since He's God and I'm not, I'll just leave the understanding that part up to Him.

But that's getting a bit afield of the question of which comes first - the prayer or the Spirit. :)


November 21, 2006 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Tim Kuehn said...

Another note -

1) The prayer of an unregenerate man isn't the 'work' I'm thinking of, but rather the mental 'decision' that preceded the action of praying.

2) This discussion probably shouldn't continue in the comments section of this blog entry - maybe it could be the subject of another blog entry entitled "Which came first, the Spirit or the Prayer."

Looking forward to your response!

November 21, 2006 10:40 PM  

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