Is It Right to Say, “If I’d Prayed, He Might Have Been Saved?”
Some things don’t happen because other things don’t happen. The nail doesn’t go into the board because I don’t hit it with a hammer. The arrow doesn’t fly because I don’t pull the string. The car doesn’t start because I don’t turn the key. And so on. It seems obvious. But there is something weighty being said here concerning the relationship between God’s decrees and human causality, and particularly among prayer, evangelism and conversions.
James 4:2 says, “You do not have because you do not ask.” So some things don’t happen because we don’t pray for them to happen. This means that at least some of these things would have happened if we had prayed for them as we ought.
Now, what about God’s decrees? What about predestination? If we say that something didn’t happen because we didn’t pray for it, does that mean that predestined things do not happen? No, that would be self-contradictory. If it doesn’t happen, it was not predestined by God. So if an event doesn’t happen and the reason given why it does not happen is that we did not pray for it to happen, then the absence of the predestination and the absence of the prayer always coincide.
James 4:15 says, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” So prayer sometimes is the reason something happens, and “the will of God” is always the reason things happen. Which means that sometimes when God wills to do something, he not only predestines the thing, but also the prayer for it.
This is not essentially different from saying that when God predestines that a nail penetrate a board by the pounding of a hammer, he also predestines for the hammer to pound. And it is right to say the nail did not go in because the hammer did not pound. It is also right to say, the nail did not go in because God did not predestine for it to go in. When he predestines the effect, he usually predestines the human cause.
Therefore it is not contradictory to the sovereignty of God to say: a person who perished might have been saved, if I had prayed for them. Or: a person who perished without Christ in Saudi Arabia might have been saved if someone had reached them with the gospel. Predestination cannot be used as an escape from responsibility for the salvation of lost people—by prayer and by preaching. To say that someone who perished might have been saved if we had reached them with the gospel is not a contradiction of predestination, any more than to say the nail might have pierced the board if I had hit it squarely.
Why do people think the biblical doctrine of predestination is compromised by saying, “The lost might have been saved if we had reached them”? It’s a failure to realize that as soon as we recreate a “might-have-been situation,” by asking, “What if I had prayed?” or “What if I had witnessed?” we are also recreating God’s decrees that shaped the “might-have-been situation.” If we recreate God’s decrees in half the situation we can’t assume the other decrees that are related to the recreated ones remain the same. So if we are going to imagine God decreeing a different prayer and preaching, we must also imagine the possibility of God decreeing a different outcome of that praying and preaching, namely, salvation instead of destruction.
Learning to pray and evangelize as though eternity hangs on it (which it does),
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