Arminians are not deists, we believe prayer works

Adrian WarnockAdrian Warnock has written an interesting post asking Are you an Arminian on your knees and a Calvinist on your feet? The point I think he is trying to make is an important one: Do we believe God will answer our prayers? But it is unfortunate that in making it Adrian perpetuates a caricature of Arminianism which has nothing to do with what was believed and taught by Arminius, by other famous Arminians of the past like John Wesley, and by at least the majority of today’s evangelical Arminians.

To be fair, Adrian realises what he is doing, for he writes:

Now, to my Arminian friends please don’t hear me wrongly. For this blog post to work we have to accept a bit of a stereotype on both ends of the spectrum.

The problem is that not everyone will accept this. I really don’t think it is helpful to misrepresent other people’s theological position for the sake of a nice soundbite or post title, even with a disclaimer like this one. Bearing false witness is still wrong if you say it wasn’t meant seriously.

Adrian’s error seems to be based on a tweet he quotes from Mark Driscoll:

Every Christian who prays is functionally a Calvinist who believes in the sovereignty of God.

I’m sorry, Mark and Adrian, but that is complete nonsense. Indeed Adrian seems to recognise this when he writes:

I know that most Arminians do believe in God’s sovereignty.

Now I don’t take the line, mentioned by Adrian, about how

a Calvinist is rumored to pray…ie not at all because he just leaves everything to the sovereignty of God.

But there is as much truth in that slur as there is in Driscoll’s implication that Arminians don’t pray, or that they are hypocritical when they do.

Driscoll’s, and Adrian’s, error is to confuse God’s activity with his sovereignty. It is possible to believe that God works powerfully in the world today, in answer to prayer, without believing as Calvinists do that God predestines every detail of what happens. God can be an actor within the world that he has created without being the puppet-master who pulls all the strings.

Adrian seems to write as if Arminianism is equivalent to deism, the position that God does nothing in the world in the present age. It certainly is not equivalent. Many who believe that God is very closely involved in the world today, in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and in working miracles, are Arminians – and it is as Arminians that they pray for these miracles and see them happening.

Now I accept that there are things which consistent Arminians will not pray for in confidence that God will answer them. These are things which God could only make happen by violating human free will. Foremost among these is that God cannot make any individual become a Christian. So consistent Arminians are more likely to pray that God opens someone’s eyes so that they can see his truth – at which point that person can make their own informed decision about their eternal destiny.

But Adrian seems to imply that Arminians pray like deists. That is, when they pray they don’t believe God actually does anything in response to prayer.

Now there are indeed many people who pray like that. Some of them would be liberal Christians, who might say that the only point of praying is to make oneself feel better, and might also call themselves Arminians. Others would be Bible Deists, as Jack Deere wrote that he used to be, who don’t believe that God does anything real and verifiable in the world today, but acts only in invisible spiritual ways – perhaps rather like Harold Camping’s invisible spiritual judgment day! And I suspect quite a few of these Bible Deists would call themselves Calvinists, and argue that God doesn’t answer prayer today because that would mean him changing plans which were set in stone before the foundation of the world. Now that may be a caricature of Calvinism, but there is surely enough truth in it to show that deism is not the same thing as Arminianism.

Chris Fenstermaker is wise in writing, in a comment on Adrian’s post,

I’ve learned that our praying is not as much “changing God’s mind”…but rather aligning our spirit with what God is already doing.

Indeed that is an important aspect of prayer. But it should not be taken as implying a Calvinist understanding that God’s mind was made up long ago, and the only point of prayer is to find out what God is going to do anyway and then pray for it to happen. That would be about as pointless as praying that the sun will rise in the morning – and then claiming that God has answered our prayers when it does.

I can only conclude that Adrian and indeed most other Calvinists have rejected Arminianism because they have completely misunderstood it. But I also have to agree with John Charles Brown in another comment on Adrian’s post:

the greatest hindrance to prayer is not one’s systematic theology but simply neglect.

And on that point I have to plead guilty.

Does it matter how we pronounce Jesus' or God's name?

A Facebook friend writes:

some people in our church have recently been insisting on pronouncing Jesus’ name in the Hebrew tongue, something like Yesu. They believe this is important …

He doesn’t agree, but he asks for my thoughts on the matter. What follows is an edited and expanded version of my Facebook reply to him. I have widened the issue to cover also pronunciation of God’s name, the Tetragrammaton.

I don’t see any biblical warrant for Christians worrying about exactly how to pronounce Jesus’ name or God’s name. When we are told to pray etc in God’s name or in Jesus’ name, that doesn’t mean that we have to pronounce the actual sounds of either name as a kind of magic spell. So while the pronunciations of the name vary from language to language (the Greek form of “Jesus” is very different from the Hebrew form), and the precise Hebrew pronunciation of the divine name (the tetragrammaton) is unknown, that really doesn’t matter.

What praying etc in God’s name or in Jesus’ name does mean is that we are claiming the authority that we have from God through Jesus. It is like when an ambassador or a government official does something in the name of the Queen or of their President. That is nothing to do with pronouncing the Queen’s or the President’s name. What it means is that the ambassador or official is acting under the authority vested in them by the Queen or President. Similarly we are ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) and so we can act and make pronouncements “in his name”, meaning by the authority vested in us by him.

Note that this authority is held by all Christians, not only by pastors, teachers or even apostles. It is not authority over other people. But it is authority to declare the word of God and to make the appeal to others “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Similarly when we pray in Jesus’ name we have this authority, and so when we ask for anything in his name and for his glory he will do it for us (John 14:13-14).

God will understand the intentions of our heart whatever name we call him. But what does matter is that what we say is understood by the humans we are speaking to. So while it is not a big deal to use “Yeshua” or something else instead of “Jesus”, it is likely to confuse the people we talk to, who even in the secularised western world have some idea of who Jesus is. So in our language, especially to outsiders and all the more when appealing to them “be reconciled to God”, we need to speak so that we will be understood. That probably means that, when speaking English, we would do best to stick with “Jesus”.

Effective prayer: James 5:16-17

The last part of James 5:16 has come to my attention recently from two different directions.

It was one of the passages I looked at  for my post at Better Bibles Blog about the meaning of energeo in Galatians 5:6 – this verb, in fact exactly the same form of it, is used in a similar way in both these verses (and I note for Mike Aubrey‘s benefit that both are in split noun phrases, the specifically Greek construction “hyperbaton”). Joel Hoffman also comments on this verse in his post on Galatians 5:6.

And then the same sentence came up again as I read chapter 13 of Adrian Warnock’s book Raised with Christ and prepared part 6 of my review of that book. Adrian quotes this part verse from ESV (p.172 of his book):

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

The ESV offers a marginal reading:

The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.

The TNIV rendering is

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

So which of these, if any, is correct? If James’ usage of energeo is similar to that of Paul (and that is something which should not be assumed), then I can apply the conclusion I came to in my BBB post, and which is supported by J. Armitage Robinson, as linked to in a comment at BBB by Tony Pope. That conclusion is that the passive of energeo, as found here, implies a divine or superhuman agent and can be understood as something like “be set into operation”. The implication of this for James 5:16 is that the prayer he has in mind is set into operation by God, that he is the one who makes it effective.

It is hard to be sure, in the absence of any definite articles, whether the participle of energeo here is to be understood as attributive (“effective prayer”) or predicative (“prayer is effective”). But if James had intended a double predicate as in the TNIV rendering it seems odd to me that he would use an indicative verb and a participle in parallel in this way. So it seems more likely to me that the participle is attributive.

Thus I come down to preferring the ESV marginal reading, but with “effective” to be understood as “put into effect by God”. Prayer, even that of a righteous person, is not powerful simply because of the form of words, but only as God works through it and makes it effective. And since energeo in the New Testament is often linked with working of miracles, surely this verse implies that God intervenes supernaturally, miraculously, to put our prayers into effect.

James’ first example of this kind of prayer certainly had a miraculous effect:

Elijah … prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.

James 5:17 (TNIV)

I note that “prayed earnestly” here is literally “prayed with prayer”, probably a Hebraic idiom of emphasis. As Adrian points out, there is no record in the Bible of Elijah saying any normal kind of prayer to this effect. What is recorded is these words of Elijah, addressed to Ahab:

“As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

1 Kings 17:1 (TNIV)

Surely this is what James had in mind as Elijah’s prayer, which was emphatic or earnest – and effective. That implies that this kind of declaration in God’s name is a form of prayer.

So perhaps our prayers would be more effective if they were a little less “Please, God, do such and such, if it is your will” and a bit more “As the Lord lives such and such will happen”. First, of course, we need to know from God’s word that “such and such” is in line with his general will, and then hear from God that it is his intention for our situation. But if as we pray, instead of making pious wishes, we listen to God to know what he wants to do and then declare that he will do that, then we too will find that God makes our prayers effective.

Delivered from Alexander's Sword

I reported nearly two weeks ago on what David Ker has called the Alexander’s Sword method of interpreting the Bible. In the light of this I was interested to read the first part of Ajith Fernando’s guest post at Koinonia.

Fernando, a Bible teacher from Sri Lanka, starts by describing how his students at a particular course were approaching the Bible:

I found that many of my students were latching on to an inspiring thought from the passages we were studying, forgetting the context in which that thought appears and ultimately missing out on the message of the passage. So I had to keep asking them over and over again questions like, “What does the passage really say?” “Why does Paul say that?” …

It sounds like the students were addicted to the Alexander’s Sword method. So it is interesting to see how Fernando responded:

… It was a desperate battle. At one time I was so concerned that I sent SOS text messages to about 20 people asking them to pray that somehow God will break through and help them to learn how to read and study the Bible. I think the basic problem was that they have not really learned to read!

The battle went on for the whole week until I believe God’s Spirit broke through to them. I am confident that those who persevere in using what they learned will develop skills for a lifetime of thrilling study of the Word. By the end of the course many of the students told me that they had never realised that there is so much to get from the Scriptures. …

So, it seems, these students’ eyes were opened to the truth and they were delivered from their addiction by the Holy Spirit through the power of prayer. Perhaps more such prayer ministry is needed for those who persist in misinterpreting the Bible!

Fernando continues with some sensible words to put the Alexander’s Sword approach into its proper context:

Having said this we must agree that there are times when God does grab us with a personal message from a single spot in a larger passage. But that is an exception to the rule. The God who inspired all of Scripture can send us a message through a little portion of the passage if he wants to. But he usually works through the message he wanted the biblical writer to convey. That is the message we must labour to discover.

He concludes this introduction to what looks like being a helpful series on how to do inductive Bible study with these words from A.W. Tozer:

To get to the root I recommend a plain text Bible and diligent application of two knees on the floor.


Online Prayer

Ruth Gledhill’s guest blogger Elizabeth Kirkwood has an interesting article on online prayer. It seems that more and more people are turning to this. I’m sure this is not a new phenomenon – indeed my personal prayer letters have been online since 2002. But apparently there are now specialist websites for online prayer:

You log on and submit a prayer in the hope that others will respond by praying on your behalf …

For example:

One Beliefnet user, Scott C, writes on the financial prayer forum: “I have been out of work since December 2008. Please pray that I find a full time job again. Unemployment has been very difficult finianically and has placed a strain on my marriage”.

Another user, Merlock, replies: “May God guide you to find a job, provide for your needs”. …

Worries about the ethics of these sites are further fuelled by the existence of some which charge for intecessionary prayer, offering a ‘call-centre’ style service.

Well, I certainly am worried about any site which might try to make a profit from prayer for others’ misfortune. I would consider that entirely unethical. It might be a different matter if this is a charity only covering expenses. Of course it is very difficult to be sure with US sites, like the one linked to, which are not bound by the strict rules of the British Charity Commission.

But what about the free sites? Are they unethical too? I don’t see them as being entirely wrong. But I do accept the concern that they can trivialise prayer into just petition and intercession, with no place for wonder and praise. So, like Elizabeth, I remain unconvinced.

But what is OK for a specialist site is surely OK for a blog like this one. So:

I am currently looking for a job. Not having one is putting a strain on my finances, especially as I also have a wedding to get ready for. So please, anyone who reads this, pray in the name of Jesus Christ that I can find a good and suitable job, through which I can bring glory to him.


Where am I?


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August 16, 2009

Seeking work through online prayer

Lizzie-12 As youth unemployment grows in line with the use of new communications technologies by the young, many of those out of work are not just seeking jobs online, but praying online for help in finding them. Elizabeth Kirkwood, Oxford graduate, who has just completed the journalism course at City University, writes here a guest  blog for Articles of Faith on the growing phenomenon of online prayer.

Elizabeth Kirkwood writes:

‘My experience of on-line prayer goes something like this: I sit in front of my computer, my head in my hands, its late at night, an eerie blue glow is cast from the screen. In the silence I pray for some divine intervention from a greater being. But the greater being in question is otherwise known as Microsoft. I have a deadline and my computer has decided that it’s “no longer responding”. You get the picture.

But there is another type of on-line prayer, one which increasing numbers of people appear to be taking up, in particular looking for support to cope with the pressures of our current economic crisis. According to the assistant editor of, Nicole Symmonds, the site – one of the most popular interfaith websites today – “has seen a huge increase in on-line traffic specifically to the financial prayer circles and forums, an upturn which started during the last quarter of 2008, when people were really beginning to feel the effects of the credit crunch.”

Such sites come in a variety of formats, but most follow the same formula. You log on and submit a prayer in the hope that others will respond by praying on your behalf, otherwise known as intercessionary prayer.

But what does this offer that traditional prayer doesn’t? Nicole Symmonds believes it comes down to a combination of factors, not least the rise and rise of social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, making people feel more comfortable sharing prayers on-line. But it’s also easy and convenient, she suggests, so that people can be transparent about their worries in a way they find hard face to face. “People want to feel like they’re able to bare their souls even to people they don’t know.”

One Beliefnet user, Scott C, writes on the financial prayer forum: “I have been out of work since December 2008. Please pray that I find a full time job again. Unemployment has been very difficult finianically and has placed a strain on my marriage”.

Another user, Merlock, replies: “May God guide you to find a job, provide for your needs”.

Praying in the name of Isa = Jesus

CORRECTED VERSION, 27th January, see my follow-up post.

Daniel Cordell has sadly spread some false information in his post Praying in the Name of Isa. In response to Rick Warren’s prayer at President Obama’s inauguration, he wrote:

Today, in his Presidential Inauguration prayer, Rick Warren prayed in the name of “Yeshua”, “Isa” and “Jesus”. …

Even Arab Christians don´t refer to Isa,´ but to `Yesua.´ I´ve lived and studied Arabic in one of the same Muslim countries that Warren has visited, and I think he probably knows that the Arab Christian communities only refer to Jesus as `Yesua´ and not `Isa´ as the Muslims.

This has been quoted here and here. So the false information is spreading. And although this has been pointed out to Daniel, he has failed to correct his error in later posts.

The claim in the second paragraph quoted above is not true. I checked with a Palestinian Arab Christian, from a Roman Catholic background stretching back centuries. He confirmed my understanding (see also this comment) that “Isa” “Yasu” is the form of the name of Jesus which has been used by Arab Christians, or at least the great majority of them, since time immemorial. There may be some non-traditional Arab Christians who use “Yesua” but this form is never used in mainstream churches or Bible translations. “Isa” is also used by Christians in many, but not all, Muslim majority countries. This is what Rick Warren probably knows, and is the basis for what he explains in this YouTube video (sorry for the poor quality) apparently taken from a sermon yesterday.

The following information at this Wikipedia page is also incorrect:

Arabic-speaking Christians refer to Jesus as Yasu

This may be true for a minority, but not for all as the page suggests.

Anointing with oil

I have just discovered Roger Mugs’ interesting pseudonymous blog theologer. Thanks to Nathan Stitt, another interesting new blogger, for the link.

Among Roger’s recent posts this one caught my eye: Anointed… with oil. Now anointing with oil for healing is something I take very seriously, so please don’t think that I am mocking the idea here. Like Roger, I have been blessed with being anointed with oil, as much as can be held on a finger. And I have done it myself a few times. Maybe sometime I will blog seriously about prayer ministry as practised in my church.

Nevertheless, as I commented on Roger’s blog, there is also a humorous side to anointing oil. A few days ago I was helping the lady in charge of our church prayer ministry find some olive oil in the church kitchen to refill the anointing oil bottles. But she complained that the oil we found wasn’t “Extra Virgin”. Sounds like something from Matthew 25:1-13, except that there the extra virgins were the ones looking for oil to refill their bottles.

But if you want to know what biblical anointing was like, read Psalm 133:2.

Archbishops at prayer and at play

Maggi Dawn continues her series on her discussions with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with some observations on them at prayer – and at play. This human story shows that Rowan Williams is not just a leader and an academic, but is also a man of genuine spirituality:

Informal, made-up-on-the-spot prayers are part of their habit of life too. There was a moment when Archbishop Sentamu was about to address a large audience, but had a really sore throat. Archbishop Rowan came to find us, and immediately knelt down beside Archbishop Sentamu to pray. Not in five-syllable words or liturgical language, mind you. He just prays to Jesus, like you and me.

As for play, they don’t have much time for it, but Maggi got this reply from Sentamu to her question “What do you do to relax?”:

“I go to the gym every day,” he replied. “Every day?” I said. “When I’m in York, every day,” he replied. “It’s important. You have to look after yourself.”

There was a brief pause while he looked at me intently. He has this way of looking at you that makes you feel at once scrutinised with great honesty, and yet deeply met with God’s love.

“But what about you?” he asked. “What do you do to relax? I hope you are looking after yourself?”

Good question, Archbishop, for Maggi, for me, and for my readers.

Intercessory prayer and a relationship with God

Eclexia writes with insight and honesty on Prayer wanderings and wonderings. I am glad that she found helpful the following comment which I wrote on another blog, and which I repeat here for the record:

Intercessory prayer is hard to reconcile with any systematic theology. That is because we come to these matters with what Charles Simeon called “proud reason”, setting up theological systems which end up contradicting the Bible.

To take this further, I would say that we need real humility in our prayer. Certainly we should not try to manipulate God into doing what we want. We should not claim that we understand what prayer is all about. Rather, we pray because God tells us to, and our hearts tell us to. And our intercessory prayer needs to be firmly grounded in a close relationship with God, one where we can pour out our own hearts to him and also connect with his heart for us.

In fact I share many of Eclexia’s difficulties with prayer. Continue reading

Following God's leading in decisions big and small

Dave Bish “the blue fish” writes The Spirit Says…, thanks to Adrian Warnock for the link. Now I know Dave mainly from his comments here and elsewhere on the atonement debate, on which he may think he is on the opposite side from me. But on this matter of the need to hear God’s voice in decision-making I can wholeheartedly recommend his post.

In a comment in response Adrian Reynolds asks

one big problem – how do you decide what is “big” as an issue or not? … E.g. is your choice of supermarket a big issue to seek guidance on – quite possibly! Where do you draw the line, unless you don’t draw the line…?

In principle I would go for not drawing the line, as does Luke Wood in his helpful comment in response. There are not some important or “religious” decisions we have to pray about and other trivial or “secular” ones for which we don’t need to bother with prayer. God may guide us to a particular supermarket so that we can meet and minister to someone there, or to keep us from a danger we might face at the alternative store. Even the colour of our socks can in principle affect our Christian witness. I don’t say that we should kneel down and ask God to tell us which socks to wear and then wait for an audible answer. But our whole lives should be lived prayerfully and in tune with God, so that we know when we are following his will, and feel a check in our spirits when we start to step outside them, even to the extent of choosing the wrong socks. Paul knew this call and this check on his missionary journeys, in the examples Dave quotes. As we learn to listen to God and follow his way in the small things of life (yes, even in which socks to wear), we find ourselves more and more able to keep in step with him in the bigger decisions.

That sounds good in theory, it’s another matter putting it into practice, especially when the going gets tough!