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Michael Horton:

Calvinists hear Arminian friends ask this question all the time. It’s usually intended as a rhetorical question. In other words, it’s really a statement: If you believe that your unbelieving friend is dead in sin until God unilaterally regenerates him or her, and that God has unconditionally chosen whom he will save, then what’s the point? Que sera, sera: Whatever will be, will be.

Of course, this is a terrific objection to hyper-Calvinism, but misses its Reformed target. Our confessions teach that God works through means. Though the Father has chosen unconditionally some from our condemned race for everlasting life in his Son, the elect were not redeemed until he sent his Son “in the fullness of time,” and they are not justified until the Spirit gives them faith in Christ through the gospel. To invoke Paul’s argument (on the heels of teaching unconditional election), “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:14-15, 17).

For years now, I’ve reversed this rhetorical question, asking, Why would anyone pray for the conversation of their loved one if God were not sovereign in dispensing his grace? Arminians shouldn’t pray for God to save their loved ones, because God could reply, “Look, I’ve done my part; now the ball is in your court.” Yet, I note, Arminians are typically no less zealous in praying for the salvation of the lost than Calvinists. We’re at one on our knees.

Not so quickly, says Roger Olson, a distinguished Baptist professor and author of Arminian Theology. By now, readers of this blog may know that my friend Roger and I have been engaged in conversations about these things. He wrote, Against Calvinism, and I wrote For Calvinism, and we have taken up these issues in person as part of our White Horse Inn “Conversations” series. We’re both trying to understand each other’s views charitably, if nevertheless critically. In that spirit, the following…

In a recent post, Roger stirred up a hornet’s nest by suggesting that “Arminians should not pray to God to save their friends and loved ones.” It may be that one is using “save” differently. However, “Normal language interpretation would seem to me to indicate that asking God to save someone, without any qualifications, is tantamount (whatever is intended) to asking God to do the impossible (from an Arminian perspective).”

You can read the whole thing here.

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14 thoughts on “Should You Pray for God to Save Your Loved Ones? (Or, Why You Both Pray and Sleep Like a Calvinist)”

  1. Wesley says:

    Great post. There are few things worse than caricature in argumentation b/c you end up beating nothing more than a straw-man, but casual onlookers get the idea that you’re still winning the battle somehow. I do wish everyone would follow the rules Keller (‘TKO’) and Carson (‘the Don’) put forth in correct polemics viz. begin with presenting your opponents’ viewpoint so well that he would say ‘yes, that’s exactly what i believe’ before seeking to dismantle it. I find many are reticent to portray the Reformed position in such a way and seriously interact with it. Just my take on things.

  2. Brian Abasciano says:

    I am the president of the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA), and I left a similar comment at Dr. Horton’s blog post last week. I disagree strongly with Dr. Olson and Dr. Horton on this point. I wrote a response to Olson on SEA’s website entitled, “Arminians Can Be Consistent and Pray for God to Save the Lost,” which may be found here: In my opinion, normal use of language simply does not back up Olson’s position or Horton’s, and this is easily demonstrated.

    I have other quibbles with Horton’s comments, such as his implying that divinely predetermined petitionary prayers could legitimately be considered a means to God doing what was asked of him (since in Calvinism God unconditionally decides whether the thing prayed for will happen or not and for us to pray the prayer, and irresistibly causes us to pray it; i.e., on Calvinist theology, our prayers cannot legitimately be thought to influence God to do anything, including save someone) or that it is reasonable to view us as believing freely when God irresistibly causes us to believe (of course this raises the debate over the nature of free will between Arminians and Calvinists). But getting into those would move too far afield from the main point of the post/discussion.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Brian!

  3. I think we often miss important aspects of prayer when we only talk about whether or not our prayer causes God to do anything. Prayer is a relational activity that influences both the one praying and any who may observe prayer. While prayer is often to be done in the proverbial closet, it is always understood in scripture that there is to be corporate or public prayer as well.

    And so while prayer is our direct communication to God and scripture is our direct communication from God, God reveals himself in the response of his people through prayer. That is to say that if we pray for a loved one, we pray with anticipation of its fulfillment. This is observed as an outward sign of our confidence in God which is a spiritual thing.

    The praying itself is a discipline which bolsters this confidence regardless of the outcome. Our bolstered confidence furthermore results in actions to facilitate the fulfillment of the praying. We are duly motivated to speak truth effectively to the one we love for whom we pray for salvation.

    One of two things happen after praying: either the prayer is fulfilled as expected or it is not.

    If the prayer is fulfilled as expected, then the testimony is to the faithfulness of God in fulfilling the prayer. God is glorified in our praying. If we point to ourselves as causing the outcome by our effective praying, then the prayer is in vain. So God uses prayer to glorify himself. As an example, I’ve heard the stories of people who were roused in the middle of the night with a burden to pray for a mission or someone they knew who was far away. Later, it was revealed that at that very moment some major event was taking place where God intervened supernaturally. Did God need the prayer in order to accomplish the task? No. But he was glorified in the aftermath when the prayer was revealed. Are there not examples in the Bible where prayers were answered?

    So what happens if the prayer is not fulfilled as expected? Do we say that God is not faithful and give up all hope? So a loved one dies after their health is prayed for. Should our response not be like David’s who prayed for his first child with Bathsheba? The child died and David still blessed the name of the Lord.

    Prayer is meant to glorify God in the way we visibly relate to him. It cannot be understood any other way.

  4. There seems to be a very weak consideration of mystery in these “Calvinist-Arminian” struggles.

    1. Bryan Hodge says:

      There seems to be a weak consideration of revelation, logic, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance of His people to understand truth in these appeals to “mystery.”

  5. Brian says:

    Typo alert… “Why would anyone pray for the conversation of their loved one…” I think it should say “conversion”?

  6. The whole discussion reminds me of Spurgeon’s comment that “anyone who prays for the salvation of a friend is a closet Calvinist.” One can imagine the cigar chomping expositor with a wry smile and a warm hand of fellowship with his Armininian companion.

  7. Thank you for writing this interesting post. It certainly has given me something to reflect on.

  8. Larry Geiger says:

    “Should You Pray for God to Save Your Loved Ones?” I pray for my son every day. I pray that the Holy Spirit will convict him of sin and bring him to Christ. I don’t know what else to pray. I don’t know what else to do. I’m not going to stop praying for him. I can’t think of anything else more important to pray for.

  9. Keep praying for your friend and son but the more Pauline model is to pray for boldness to proclaim and for others around them to be bold to herald the gospel to them/him.

  10. purisomniapura says:

    Doesn’t the Christian praying for God to have mercy in granting salvation for another compare to praying for ANY other desired thing? If we’re sick, we pray God would heal us, because we know He is able, but do not know whether it’s His manifest will. That would never stop us from praying for it & if it’s not granted after persistent prayer, we accept God’s will in the end, even if we didn’t receive the outcome hoped for. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t God’s will for us to ask in faith …just means God being all knowing grants the answers that best suit His purposes.

    I’m sure the disciples prayed for the preservation of Christ, yet that wasn’t God’s will. As a baby Herod was prevented from killing Jesus, as an adult God gave Jesus into Pilate’s hands for the purpose of His execution. There would have been no sin in the disciples praying …rather praying these types of petitions reveals our mortality, our finiteness, our lack of knowledge/understanding concerning God’s perfect will, & this also somehow pleases God.
    Regardless of the mystery of God’s will surrounding the requests we’re making, providing there is nothing sinfully inherent in the request, we ought to continue asking, seeking, knocking …& by faith trust God for the answers.
    The Arminian just as the Calvinist, knows not WHO will be drawn by the Holy Spirit. Neither knows the heart of man so whether one is predestined or not, that secret remains locked up until the glorious gospel is preached & that person passes from death to life. I spent the first 18 yrs believing ‘I’ chose God & what a difference it made to find out 18 yrs later that He chose me… Predestination is nothing to do with exclusivity or elitism, but everything to do with humility & greatfulness on a level that can never be understood by believing one did ‘their own’ choosing of God.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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