Molinism for Dummies: Prayer Changes Things

By Dr. David Oldham

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October 9, 2017

This is the beginning of a series entitled “Molinism for Dummies” (and also for smart people). Dr. David Oldham is a pastor who has been a Calvinist for decades. Dave actually influenced my Calvinistic beliefs which I eventually came to reject years later. After recent months of friendly debate over coffee, Dave Oldham is now a card-carrying Molinist! Check out Oldham’s fantastic essay on how prayer changes things from a Molinist perspective. – Tim Stratton


We Christians many times use terms about our faith about which we often have not thought much and may even not understand. One example is speaking of our personal faith as having a “relationship with God.” When I was a youth pastor, I used that terminology when talking to a parent, and he immediately asked what I meant by it. I admit I was a bit surprised by his question, but it was a good reality check to be sure I used words that have meaning to me, and it also made me think about what it means to have a relationship with God.

Certainly “relationship” means more than merely the pardon people receive by faith in Jesus Christ and his death on their behalf. It implies at least an ongoing communication/communion with God, a key element of which is prayer. Few would have any dissent with that conclusion, but many nevertheless struggle with how to make such communication with God work. They might further acknowledge that prayer not only is NOT a man-made ritual but is a practice and tradition (1) that can be traced back to the Garden of Eden, (2) that is evident throughout the whole Old Testament, and (3) that was especially taught and clarified by Jesus himself. He taught his followers about prayer both by modeling it in his communion with his father and by giving specific instruction (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the discourse in Luke 18). Yet—despite “pray” or “prayer” being used 316 times in the Bible and a multitude of books having been written about it—the practice of praying has perplexed many Christians, and perhaps no area has been more challenging than the question: “Does prayer work?” The question is expressed in many different ways: Does prayer change things? Anything? Does God “answer” prayer? My prayer? Does it change God’s plan? These questions may not become urgent until we have something we really need, something for which we are desperate. Then answers are exceedingly important.

Consider this example of a friend. John was a devout pastor for many years. Then his godly son, who was in his second year of college, contracted cancer and despite the prayers of hundreds of believers and family and being anointed with oil and prayed over by the elders of two churches died a terrible death. It was an indescribable loss to him and his wife. Their many friends offered many words of comfort. And some with good intentions sought to encourage them with the words: “His home-going was the ultimate healing!” His parents certainly agreed that his home-going was a relief for him (and them) after all his suffering, but it was hardly what they had entreated God to do. What do you think his parents thought about this after their loss? My pastor friend didn’t find the words comforting. In fact, he confided that the loss and disappointment with prayer not only deeply impacted his faith but that he could not pray for six months as he processed the implications of unanswered prayer.

Or consider how others have often explained the mystery of prayer: “Sometimes God says ‘No.’ Other times ‘Yes.’ And yet at other times ‘Wait.’” I myself have said that. But I guess I never thought much about the implications of such a response. I am not trying to be irreverent when I say this, but does this not let God “off the hook?” He wins every time! And what does thinking this way do with a person’s motivation to pray? Does it not subtly undermine serious, expectant praying? How so? Does the person praying ever know if his prayer has made or makes a difference? Is not a person’s prayer motivated by asking, entreating God to answer his specific request, by giving him what he had asked for, that is, with a “Yes”?[1] Prayer using such a philosophy of “multiple choice” asking (if I could express it that way!) could easily lead to—I fear—half-hearted praying, or more dangerously to the eroding of its fervency, to the extinguishing of its passion, or to causing it to become a rare exercise. What difference does prayer make?

Interestingly, just today in a lunch meeting with a brother in Christ—who was seeking wisdom for a major decision—the subject of prayer came up. He told me about a teacher he respected who had asked people at a conference he attended the question: “Does God answer prayer?” Of course, they all said “Yes.” But if they had been perfectly honest, might they not have said, “Well……. sometimes”? It was what the speaker said next that was alarming. His second question was: “Do you think your prayers change God’s plan?” There was a silence of puzzlement among the crowd, because they were not certain how to respond. Then the teacher answered the question himself: “No! Nothing changes God’s plan!”

What did he mean by that? He was probably referring to what many Christians believe: that from all eternity past God knows what will occur in our world. Nothing takes him by surprise. Therefore, in the words of a noted evangelical scholar:

If you were to pray individually or if you and I were to join forces in prayer or if all the Christians of the world were to pray collectively, it would not change what God, in His hidden counsel, has determined to do…. So then, does prayer change God’s mind? No.[2]

Surprisingly, R. C. Sproul goes on to answer the similar question:

“Does prayer change things? Yes, of course…. What prayer most often changes is the wickedness and the hardness of our own hearts….”[3]

Is that why most Christians pray: desiring God to change them? Or do they pray, making an entreaty for something from a God who invites his children to ask for their own needs or that of others whom they love? And what does this suggest about the model prayer—commonly called the “Lord’s prayer”—which Jesus gave to his disciples as a pattern for their praying? Certainly this prayer is not focused on the changing of “our own hearts” but on receiving the specific needs and requests which are on our hearts.

Many Christians may not think about the implications of such a position, but with reflection they might ask: “If God has a sovereign plan for the ages—that is, a plan that was determined “before the foundation of the world” and which will be fulfilled to the very detail up to the time when the “Kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of the Lord and his Christ”—what difference will or does prayer make? Doesn’t it lead to what perhaps a growing number of Christians believe: “Why pray? God will do what he wishes anyway?” Most, of course, would not say that, but may well think it, and thinking it, have profound doubts about the merit of praying at all. The question remains: “Do the prayers of earnest disciples of Jesus make a difference, any difference? Or is it like the Spanish saying: “Que sera, sera” (“What will be, will be”)? Does this not foster, yes, contribute to a pessimism among believers that prayer is a nice religious idea but does not make any difference?

This highlights a huge dilemma: God’s plan (fixed and certain from all eternity) versus the clear instruction of Jesus and his disciples to pray and pray with expectation: “Pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6); “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2); “Pray the Lord of the harvest….” (Matthew 9:38); “Ask and you will receive….” (Matthew 7:7). “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13f; 15:7); Etc. Etc. Or the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians (4:5-7):

The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

All the texts above—and a host of others in the Bible—certainly declare that our prayers in real time do make a difference in our world, that is, that God not only hears our specific requests, but he answers: “I will do it.”

But to return to the issue raised earlier and to ask it again: “Why pray if it does not change God’s plan?” The believer may wish to hold on to both (1) the instruction to pray (because Scripture says it makes a difference) and (2) belief in the fixed plan of God, but at the same time find his/her praying timid, lacking in confidence (faith), or worse, deciding on doing no praying at all. Could this deterioration of confidence in prayer not reflect what Jesus was warning about when he was giving his disciples instruction on prayer?

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart…. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:1, 8)

Jesus expected his followers to pray—and to keep on asking him for their needs, their specific request (like the widow)—but at the same time he predicted that their confidence would wane to the place that believing prayer would be a rare practice when he returns at the end of world history.

Such personal doubts and questions, then, have some urgency and must be addressed among believers and in our churches. They are real issues. They at times do get discussed in the debate between theologians and philosophers on the subject of human freedom and determinism. And the positions and the explanations they propose are diverse, but it seems to this writer that a consistent Calvinist position—that prayer does not change the plan of God, a plan established from all eternity—leads inevitably and rationally to a pessimism about praying, that is, prayer which expects anything asked for to be done. To express such a position another way, prayer at any time after the creation of the world—since such praying is chronologically after the plan of God was established—cannot retroactively change anything but us, though there is admittedly good in any human change brought on by our seeking for and dependence on God.

In contrast, what Luis de Molina proposed provides some unique, motivating insights into the mystery of God’s thinking and actions in response to his people’s praying. And his teaching gives a rational foundation for specific praying in a world in which God is sovereignly working out his plan, a plan established from all eternity. What follows, then, sketches his position and its insights, the fruit of which promotes praying with expectation and confidence that prayer indeed impacts what happens in our world.

There is no need for a complex explanation of Molina’s thinking. To the surprise of some, he even would agree that God’s eternal plan will be fulfilled in precise detail. What makes his position different than that of the Calvinist is his insistence on God’s thinking in the development of that plan. In God’s middle knowledge, he knew about all possible worlds and knew how every person would freely think and act and what would be every circumstance that would occur. “Would” is an important word in Molinism. Calvinist thinking and definition focuses on it as a term for determinism: “It would or must occur.” Molina—as he looked at the complementary teaching of Scripture of human freedom—proposed that God’s middle knowledge encompasses the fact (1) that his plan was formulated with his commitment to give man freedom of thinking, choices, and decisions; (2) that his plan was made in the context of giving all persons his grace; and (3) that his plan was motivated by his love and his longing for people to experience his and their best. This does not mean that a person merits a certain destiny—he or she does not—but it does mean that God in formulating the world he would create, sovereignly determined the best of all possibilities so that those who experience his judgment do so because they have chosen that for themselves, while on the other hand, those whose lot becomes eternity with God enter that destiny solely on the grace of God.

So how does this relate to prayer? As God “weighed” all the possible worlds and what each person (whom he would create to inhabit the best of all possible worlds) would freely think, decide, do, he included in that process the prayers (throughout all of human history) of his future children. In other words, what those whom God would call “his people” would ask in their prayers was taken into consideration—factored in—as his plan was formulated. Of course, not every prayer was “answered” (included) in God’s plan, because some would be foolish, be harmful, not be possible (if the world created would be the “best” of all possible worlds), or would not be feasible (for example, if it took away human freedom and choice).[4] But some, perhaps many, were consistent with what God in his wisdom desired and thus would be “answered.”

A diagram below seeks to give a bird’s eye view of what the discussion above describes (note that “eternity without beginning” refers to God’s static state of aseity logically prior to His first act):

MacGregor (2015: p.123) says it well:

Because God middle-knew how each possible individual would freely pray in any set of circumstances, God uses this information providentially to order the world in such a way that at least some of our prayers make a profound difference in the history of the world. As part of the cornucopia of free decisions God makes in his decree to create this world, God decides to respond to some of our prayers in such a way that prayers change the course of the future….

This may be confusing at first, but this resolves the problem of praying. We do not know God’s plan for our world now or the events of the immediate future or after I die. But the Scriptures invite and urge us to pray. Indeed, God seeks his people to pray. Of course, God doesn’t need us, but he has sovereignly chosen to use us and our prayers to carry out his plan in our world (just as he has chosen to use us to advance his kingdom by our sharing the gospel and using our gifts among our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ). Therefore, I pray for my children, my grandchildren, my friends (and enemies), my circumstances, governmental leaders, for the lost, for the saved, etc., etc. Why? Because that is what Scripture says I can do, and that God not only hears but will answer. Someday we will be able to look back and see how our prayers now made a difference in the plan God determined before the world began. Scripture even states that our failure to pray impacts what happens:

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none (Ezekiel 22:29f).

Therefore, believers are urged to pray specifically and expectantly. It impacts what will happen.

This is fascinating to think about! While our prayers today shape what happens in the present world, they were known by God from all eternity past and were incorporated into his plan made before the world began. Thus, while my prayers DO NOT change God’s plan—established from all eternity—God knew my prayers, and they influenced what has become his plan. MacGregor (2015: p,123ff) is very bold in stating in this regard that we are “co-creators of the world with God.”[5]

Therefore, PRAY! It not only changes things but it makes a difference in the lives and the lives of others and in the circumstances in which our world finds itself.

“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart….”


Notes

[1] Later in this article are some sample directives from Jesus and others on the subject of prayer. Considering those samples alone, a person finds it hard to justify thinking such as—yes, no, wait—when reading words which encourage God’s people to ask, and ask with the promise of their receiving what they ask for. Prayer is about asking for specific matters, concerns, things, and getting specific answers.

[2] R. C. Sproul, at http://www.ligonier.org/blog/does-prayer-change-gods-mind/, accessed 5 August 2017.

[3] Ibid. Cp. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2.116, quoted by Sproul: ‘With respect to ourselves, God requires prayer of us…. Fervent prayer many ways tends to prepare the heart. Hereby is excited a sense of our need…whereby the mind is more prepared to prize [his mercy]…. Our prayer to God may excite in us a suitable sense and consideration of our dependence on God for the mercy we ask, and a suitable exercise of faith in God’s sufficiency, so that we may be prepared to glorify his name when the mercy is received.’ Cp. also Sproul’s quotation of John Calvin, Institutes 3.20.3: ‘The Lord instructed his people to pray, for he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours….’ Available at http://www.ligonier.org/blog/if-god-sovereign-why-pray/ accessed 5 August 2017.

[4] MacGregor’s (2015) words: ‘Molina called attention to Jesus’ assertion [in Matthew 7:7-11] that the Father will give good gifts to those who ask him, [noting that] Jesus did not say that the Father will give his children gifts that are logically impossible, logically infeasible, bad for his children, or beneficial for his children at other people’s expense. In all of these cases, the gifts are not objectively good…. Flint captures the gist of Molina’s reasoning when he states, “Perhaps God does always give us the good things we request. Perhaps the prayers he doesn’t answer are cases where what we have prayed for wouldn’t have been good, for ourselves or for others.” So Christians can always be confident that God will employ his middle knowledge to answer all and only their prayers that will accomplish objective good. When they pray Christians need never fear, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it,” or worry that they brought about some tragedy through some emotionally charged prayer’ [p. 127-130].

[5] ‘Molina…[put it this way]: “Here is the proof, insofar as the righteous through their own prayers … received from God many natural blessings. In fact, the prayers of Isaac made Rebecca fertile out of her state of barrenness. Through prayer Hannah received her son Samuel and Zechariah received John the Baptist. And the prayers of the righteous obtained and will obtain in the future many natural blessings and greatly contribute to the salvation of many.” In response to his middle knowledge of these persons’ prayers, God providentially arranges the natural order in a different way than how he would have ordered it apart from their prayers or supernaturally intervenes in a way that he would not have done apart from their prayers…. If at any of these links of the chain making up our world, the relevant persons did not pray, the world would be radically different place than it in fact is….’

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About the Author

By Dr. David Oldham

David Oldham graduated from the University of Illinois (BA), received a M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity school, and D.Min. from Fuller Seminary (2000). He has done post doctoral with Dallas Willard (Course: “Spiritual Formation”). For 42 years Oldham was a pastor in the Evangelical Free Church of America and then spent 3 years as a missionary in Honduras.