Prayer and Free Will

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/22/2013

The phrase, “God won’t tamper with our free will” makes all answers to prayer impossible, except answers of direct intervention.

I will say at the outset that I’m still working through this issue but some of my ruminations may help you work through it too. There are some serious problems if a person has too robust a view of free will. What do I mean by that? I acknowledge that men have free will, but this freedom is within certain limits. There are some things that men can’t do. We are restricted by things beyond our control. We were born at a certain time of history, in a certain economic strata, of a certain race, of a certain gender, etc. Those things are necessarily going to influence the choices that we can make. There are obviously some things that we don’t choose so whenever we talk of free will we must understand that our free will is not entirely autonomous, but it is somewhat restricted by circumstances that are beyond our control. The limits may be broad or narrow depending upon your theological position.

Part of my own thinking here is trying to figure out how broad or narrow those limits are. In other words, how much latitude does man have in terms of his free will, especially as it may or may not be restricted by the actions of God? This conversation of free will and the sovereignty of God usually comes up in discussions about the security of believers or, from a Reformed perspective, the perseverance of the saints. If you come to a point in your life that you commit your life to Jesus Christ and accept the forgiveness that He offers, in Christian terminology you get saved or born again, is that act of being born again, rescued, forgiven of all your sins and having a secure position in heaven irreversible or is it possible by losing your faith or sinning too much that that can be reversed and then you can be damned sometime afterwards? Generally when you talk about free will and God’s sovereignty it relates to this issue of eternal security.

Now I have always held that genuine regeneration is irreversible. But what’s curious about this whole discussion is that I’ve always held that security really has nothing to do with free will at all; it has to do with decisions God Himself makes about what is owed Him. What is the problem really? Man has sinned against God. God is owed moral perfection and when we sin we break His law and we become beholden to God in some fashion. That has serious ramifications for us. Now the question of security really has nothing to do with what we freely choose to do with our eternal existence because the issue has to be with God’s attitude toward a debt owed Him.

Now one might argue that we are not predestined, we in fact choose God. I’ll even grant that for the sake of argument right now. But even if we do choose God and God takes the action that brings regeneration, that action being that He forgives us of our sins, it strikes me that it has nothing to do with our free will if God continues to maintain that attitude of forgiveness. He’s the one who is owed the debt. If I can use an illustration here, it’s like if you owed me a million dollars and you came and asked, “Please forgive me the debt.” I said, “I forgive you. You owe me this debt no more.” Now it strikes me that my continuing attitude of forgiveness of the debt toward you really has no relationship to your free will. You could go on and do whatever you want, but the status of the debt is for me to decide because the debt is owed me. If I decide to continue to keep the slate clean, even against the desire of the one who has been forgiven the debt, that’s my business entirely. It has to do with my will and doesn’t have anything to do with the will of anyone else.

What I’m saying is that if you reject the notion of assurance, and some do, I believe that you’re not out of the woods on the issue of free will. Let me explain. Part of the argument that people raise about God’s sovereignty and free will goes something like this: God is a gentleman who does not tamper with our free will. This is why He can’t elect us because that would be tampering with our free will and He doesn’t do that. Two observations. First, the Scripture doesn’t say that in so many words. And it doesn’t even seem to imply that God is a gentleman that doesn’t tamper with our free will. In fact, there are a number of examples that refute that notion. God does tamper.

Look at Paul on the road to Damascus, for example. He was a total, active rebel against the church of God, dragging off men, women and children and throwing them in prison, presiding over the execution of some Christians, an enemy to the cross of Christ. God knocks him off his horse on the road to Damascus. There’s a loud noise and God speaks to him. He goes blind. All of this happens in a split second. It seems to me under those circumstances that discussions about Paul’s free will are a little bit academic. Is God tampering? Looks like it.

Look at poor Nebechadnezzar. God had him chewing grass out in the fields for three years because he had refused to give glory to God. Then the text says, “He came to his senses, looked heavenward and gave God the glory.” And of course his sanity was restored to him. Was God tampering with Nebie’s free will? Seems like it to me.

Even apart from that, the notion that God doesn’t tamper with our free will presents some other problems. For example, what about praying for someone’s salvation? What is it that you’re praying for? It seems to me that you’re asking God to intervene in that person’s will in a way that will cause them to put their faith in Him, and had He not done that they would not have chosen to put their faith in Him. Ergo the prayer. Isn’t that prayer a request for God to interfere with the will of men? It seems to me patently obvious that that’s the case. It seems difficult for someone to argue that God does not tamper with free will and then pray that God would save somebody and bring them into the Kingdom. I think that if most people are honest with themselves, and there may be exceptions to this, that they are asking God to interfere to the degree that a person’s mind will be changed from what it would have been. This problem doesn’t just present itself when praying for someone’s salvation. It goes quite a bit further.

It seems to me that it would be a problem if you pray for anything that involves human agency. The phrase, “God won’t tamper with our free will” makes all answers to prayer impossible, except answers of direct intervention. Like when Peter was in jail and an angel released him. There was no other human being involved there. Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. He raises Lazarus in John 11. These are things that involve the direct intervention in a circumstance by God that doesn’t involved any other human will so obviously nobody’s will is violated. But let’s face it, is that the kind of prayer we usually pray? Are we rescued by angels? Do we multiply bread? Do we see people raised from the dead in direct response to our prayer? While on occasion those things happen, the garden variety of prayer is a request where other human wills are involved. In fact, it’s other men’s wills that are the problem that we’re seeking God to deal with.

I’ll give you some illustrations that I think will resonate with you. Think of something that you’ve prayed for recently. Maybe you’ve prayed for a new job. Maybe you prayed at a rescue where babies were going to be aborted. Maybe you prayed for Bill Clinton. Aren’t all of those prayers a request for God to intervene in the free will decision making of other people? Aren’t we asking that some employer who wouldn’t normally have done so would now hire you for a job? Or that some person who was going to get an abortion would now choose not to. Or that Bill Clinton or whoever is in authority who would have passed a law to upset our peaceful and tranquil life of godliness and dignity would now change his mind so he would not act in that way?

I have a friend who is in India right now with Youth With a Mission, but on her way there she was diverted to Thailand. There was an air traffic controllers strike so they had to lay over in Thailand. What’s interesting is that the YWAM team in Thailand had been praying for more helpers. They had a particular need and, low and behold, there was this team that was delayed in Thailand for two weeks who could help them out. They saw this, and I think rightly so, as a wonderful answer to prayer.

But look what’s going on here. What ended up causing this answer to prayer was a traffic controllers strike. Setting aside for a moment all of the people that were inconvenienced by the air traffic controllers strike in order to get this team into Thailand, consider what a strike is. A strike is when individual people face specific grievances and make a free will choice not to work. How is it that this was an answer to prayer if these people involved in the strike chose of their own free will to go on strike without any intervention of God. It makes the notion of answered prayer precipitous, accidental, capricious. In fact, it strikes me that without the direct agency of God on the wills of men that answered prayer in these situations becomes simply an accident. It’s hard to argue that there is any answered prayer when other human wills are involved. Any prayer need that involves other human beings is a request that something different happens than what they would do by their own choice. We’re asking, “God, use Your will and Your power to overcome the power and will of others.”

It seems to me that we can’t escape the fact that God does tamper with our wills, and sometimes violently and in ways that seriously inconvenience other people.

What degree of freedom do we have at any point? I don’t know. The issue of election is really a secondary issue to this question which I’m not going to argue at this point. But it strikes me that a couple of things are self-evident however you resolved this problem of God interfering with the wills of men, whether it’s the sovereignty free will issue in general or the predestination issue in particular.

We cannot say that God doesn’t interfere in the wills of men. It seems to me that that is an untenable statement. In fact, our prayer belies our belief that God does intervene. We ask him to intervene not only in circumstances, but with the wills of men. Part of our confidence is that God governs history. What is history if it is not the events that result from men’s free will decisions? Yet at the same time it seems that men make significant choices that mean something. Those two things strike me as inescapable, and however you resolve these issues you must resolve them with a commitment to both the meaningful and significant choices that men make, and at the same time to the undeniable reality that God does tamper, sometimes excessively, with the wills of men. And I would argue that it’s a good thing that He does or else not only would we be victimized by men’s choices, God Himself would be victimized and history would not be directed. History would simply be chaotic.

At least that’s the way I see it.