The Lordship of Christ is the central assertion of the New Testament. There is coming a day when every tongue will confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11). Jesus is Yahweh, the only God there is; though he is not the only one who is Yahweh: the Father and the Holy Spirit are Yahweh – three persons, one God.
Jesus’ Lordship implies that he is sovereign – sovereign that is, in predestination, creation, redemption and judgment. Nothing happens without Jesus’ sovereign involvement and control. Events occur because he decrees them, decrees them to occur before they occur and decrees them to occur in the way they occur. It is this that brings into sharp relief the “problem” of prayer: if God (Jesus) already knows the future (because he has decreed it), what is the point of prayer? Sovereignty can encourage passivity – when someone thinks, “God will accomplish his purposes, with or without my involvement.”
We Are Not Robots
That such a conclusion cannot be entertained is self-evident on every page of Scripture. Nowhere are we encouraged to passivity. We are not robots. We are, as Paul makes abundantly clear by following his assertion of Christ’s Lordship by insisting that we “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that works in [us]” (Philippians 2:12-13). J. I. Packer puts it as succinctly as possible: “There is not tension or inconsistency between the teaching of Scripture on God’s sovereign foreordination of all things and on the efficacy of prayer. God foreordains the means as well as the ends, and our prayer is for foreordained as the means whereby he brings his sovereign will to pass.” [Concise Theology, 189].
Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in the prayers of Jesus himself. As incarnate Savior, he knew himself to be Lord of all – in control of every event and circumstance, ordering the end from the beginning. Listen to him plead with his heavenly Father in the High Priestly Prayer of John 17. He was asking his Father in heaven and at the same time, he was upholding the universe. His own sovereignty was no impediment to his need to ask his Father.
God uses our prayers in the accomplishment of his sovereign purposes in ways we cannot begin to fathom, “praying at all times, in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18). The Lordship of Jesus, expressed at Caesarea Philippi, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18), does not in the least prevent our praying for the accomplishment of this promise. That is what Jesus tells us, teaching to pray, “Our Father in heaven … Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:9-10). The same sovereign Jesus urged his disciples in Gethsemane to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41; Mark. 14:38).
Prayer Defines the Church
Luke, describing the early church as it sought to see its path once Jesus had gone, tells us that one of the marks that defined her was prayer (Acts 2:42). Writing late in the second century from Gaul, Irenaeus would say: The church does not perform anything by means of angelic intervention, or by invocations, or by any other wicked or curious act; but by directing her prayers to the Lord, who has made all things in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles, for the advantage of mankind. [Adversus Haereses 2:32].
The church of the New Testament reveals no confusion or debate over the compatible nature of Jesus’ sovereignty – his divine Lordship and governance – and the need for disciplined, devoted, and determined prayer. Over and over, the apostles urge and exhort the church to pray: “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), “in everything by prayer and supplication … let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6), “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2). They viewed the Lordship of Christ as an essential affirmation of the Christian faith, simultaneously exhorting the church that nothing can be accomplished without fervent and faithful prayer.
Is this comprehensible? Can we somehow provide a simple philosophical explanation of how these two things – Jesus’ sovereignty and the church’s call to prayer – can live side by side? We can utter the term “compatible” (the current in-word); but the honest answer is, No! We cannot. But we are not called to understand it; just to believe it.