Can our prayers change God's will? If not, why pray?

SPROUL: To ask that question is to answer it. What could I possibly say to God that would change His mind? Would I give Him information that He didn’t have before I talked to Him? Could I give Him counsel or wisdom that He lacked before I talked to Him? You and I both know that we are not God’s guidance counselors. We don’t change His mind. If we don’t change His mind, why pray?

First of all, we pray because He commands us to pray. Second of all, through the instrument of prayer, we enter into communion and dialogue with our heavenly Father. It is an unspeakable privilege to be able to pray and to let Him know our burdens and what’s on our mind. He knows what we’re going to ask before we ask it, and yet He encourages us to ask Him, not for His benefit, but for ours.

WEBB: Related to that, there is evidence in Scripture where it says that God relented, or where He seems to have changed His mind. How do we deal with those passages?

SPROUL: You have the language of God’s repenting, or of God’s relenting, in the Old Testament. We hear that language in narrative passages; that is, in passages that are telling us what happened historically in the affairs of the people.

WEBB: For example, when Moses petitioned Pharaoh.

SPROUL: That’s exactly right. Then you have other parts of the Scripture that are didactic. They are not historical narrative, but rather they’re teaching passages. In those didactic passages, we are told God is not a man that He should repent (Num. 23:19). How do you square that with these narrative passages where it describes God as relenting or repenting?

The way we handle that is to recognize that the Bible uses—and here’s a five-dollar word—phenomenological language. That is, it uses descriptive language from the perspective that we have as people. For example, it talks about the sun moving across the sky. We know that the sun doesn’t move across the sky, but the Bible describes it according to the phenomenon, or how it appears to us. For these saints of the Old Testament, it seemed to them that God relented or repented.

So, there is a condescension whereby God uses our own language and our own perception to describe what is happening. Yet, at the same time, He tells us in the didactic passages, “Be careful, because I’m speaking over here in a certain metaphorical, human sense.” In reality, we’re told He doesn’t repent and He doesn’t relent. Obviously, God can’t repent of anything.

 

This transcript is from an Ask R.C. Live event with R.C. Sproul and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.