Providence and the Purposes of God

The doctrine of God’s providence is closely related to God’s sovereignty. Millard J. Erickson defines providence as “the continuing action of God in preserving his creation and guiding it toward his intended purposes” (Christian Theology, 412). In many places Scripture declares that God’s purposes will stand. What God has determined will happen, regardless of what humanity does.

Sometimes the purposes of God are related to a specific historical situation. One example is God bringing about the salvation of Jacob and his family through the life of Joseph. Another example is the Exodus. A further example is God’s decision to send Israel into exile because of the people’s unfaithfulness. Each of these purposes of God deals with a specific historical situation, although they might have broader implications.

Sometimes the purposes of God are related to the larger issues of history and the end of all things. For example, Peter says Jesus “was chosen before the creation of the world” (1 Pet 1:20). Similarly, Paul writes in Ephesians that before the foundation of the world, God chose that the followers of Christ would be holy and blameless in Christ (Eph 1:4).

Because God’s intended purposes will stand regardless of humanity, prayer is ineffective in changing those purposes. One cannot effectively pray, for instance, to change God’s method of saving individuals through faith in Jesus Christ. One cannot effectively pray to save Satan from his doom, or pray to abolish the church. These purposes of God will stand regardless of one’s prayers.


Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?

Is everything, then, already determined by God? If a person prays, can he change what God intends to do? These are important questions, for they get at the heart of what petitionary prayer is about. If God has already determined what shall happen, there seems little reason to pray.

Scripture presents several examples of prayers that seem to change the mind of God and cause him to act in a different way than he intended. A primary example is Moses’ intercession on behalf of Israel at Sinai. After the people create and worship the golden calf, God tells Moses, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.  Then I will make you into a great nation” (Exod 32:10). God declares his intent to destroy the people.  In response, Moses pleads for them. He prays, “Relent and do not bring disaster on your people” (32:12). In response, “the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (32:14). Although judgment came upon the people for their sin, God did not totally destroy the nation as he intended because of Moses’ prayer.

Many of the examples of God changing his mind are related to repentance. Although repentance is an action and not technically prayer, the principle of God changing his mind because of what a person does is the same. God himself declares that he will change his mind because of the repentance of his people. The prophet Jeremiah is shown this truth in his visit to the potter’s house (Jer 18:1-10). God declares,

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (Jer 18:7-10)

Jeremiah repeats this revelation to the people. He says to them, “Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the LORD your God. Then the LORD will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you” (26:13). In both these passages from Jeremiah, the judgment of God is already planned by God. God has “announced” or “pronounced” his intentions. These things will happen. Jeremiah declares, however, that human action can change the intended actions of God.

It is this expectation of change in the mind of God that lies behind the very concept of repentance and salvation. For example, the Ninevites hope to be spared God’s wrath by repentance. Jonah records, “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God.  Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:7-9). The New Testament holds out this hope for those who hear and respond to the Gospel: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).

Another example of changing God’s mind is Abraham’s prayer for the people of Sodom. As God meets with Abraham, God expresses his intention to bring judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Through a series of negotiations, Abraham convinces God to agree to spare Sodom if only ten righteous people are found in the city. Unfortunately, ten righteous people are not found, and the city is destroyed (Gen 18:16-19:29). This incident provides an example of a person influencing the actions or intended actions of God.

These examples from Scripture provide strong support for the belief that prayer can change the mind of God. However, other Scripture suggests that God does not change his mind-what he intends to do he will do. We’ll explore these other passages in my next post.

In case you missed it, Prayer and God’s Sovereignty, Part 1