Providence, Sin and Prayer

John Piper, a preacher and writer whom I deeply admire, recently wrote an article about the bridge that collapsed which prompted his ministry to ask its readers “Does God Cause Sin or Just Allow It? “If God is sovereign over evil,” the question asks, “can it be said that he causes it? Or does he just allow it? Is there really a difference?”

I have been struggling with just this question for several years now. Americans these days are fond of asserting that everything happens for a reason. Yes. But sometimes the reason is because sin and evil are real powers. I have decided that any theology of providence must begin with two axioms:

1) Sin is not perceptual.

2) Prayer is not purposeless.

Regarding 1, I believe that the “law of sin and death” is every bit as real as the laws of physics. Sin causes. It has real world consequences apart from our perception. In other words, sin won’t disappear if we just look at it differently. It’s true that sometimes what we perceive as sin isn’t. It’s also true, however, that Sin really exist.

Just as God is sovereign over the laws of nature, but does not often interfere with them (at least as far as we can tell), so the law of sin and death also operates as a real force in the natural world. God can and does intercede in nature with miracles, and He also intercedes in the law of sin and death through the redeeming work of His Son and transforming work of His Spirit.

However, just as He does not “cause” each “leaf to fall to the ground” (as Luther asserted)[1], so He does not cause each sin related event, such as abortion (which would make abortion part of His plan for the aborted child.)

Regarding 2, prayer is not without purpose. If God actively exercises His sovereignty over each and every event, that must include the speech/thought event of prayer, meaning that even what we pray is predetermined by Him. If true, this seems to make prayer powerless because we will only pray for what He has already foreordained us to pray for and He will only do what He already determined to do before the creation of the world.

Hebrews 11 tells us God is proud to be the God of people of faith. Why would He be proud of puppets who can not even choose what to pray for? Further, God relented when Moses prayed (Exodus 32). And the “prayer of faith” James writes about and Solomon’s prayer for wisdom are senseless if God’s chooses all events, including speech events. When Solomon prayed for wisdom, Scripture tells us that “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this” (1 Kings 3: 10).

If God preordained that Solomon would pray this, and God is sovereign (with sovereign having the meaning, here, that Solomon could not refuse) then why would Solomon’s prayer please Him? Was God like a little child who suddenly realized he could really make the world respond to his wants and needs? I don’t think so. I don’t think ‘sovereign’ has to mean that God chooses each and every event in the space/time continuum.

I believe that it is within God’s sovereign power and choice to limit His choice. In Hebrews 6 we learn that God made a promise and swore by Himself, so that by “two unchangeable things” we have hope.

If God promised Himself that He would not interfere with the ordinary effects of both the laws of nature He created and the law of sin and death that we brought into the world, except when it came to His choice as to whom to call (justification) and when He chooses to answer the prayers of the faithful, then He could willingly limit His sovereignty without changing His character and nature.

This is why prayer is the most vital and important work of the Church, and must not be neglected. I believe God has chosen not to act sometimes until and unless we pray. This also is why God is still sovereign and not the author of evil.

  1. “[W]ith God there simply is no contingency, but it is only in our eyes.  For not even the leaf of a tree falls to the ground without the will of the Father.” Lectures on Romans, Works Vol. 25, p. 373 []

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