Roger E. Olson, as quoted in chapter 13 of Lee Strobel’s excellent book The Case for Miracles:
A lot of mainstream evangelicals have bought into the notion that prayer doesn’t change things, [that rather] it changes me. They don’t realize it, but they’re adopting the teachings of Fredric Schleiermacher, the father of modern theological liberalism, who denigrated petitionary prayer as something that children do because they don’t know any better.
Any meaningful reading of the Bible makes it clear that prayer does indeed change things. If your theology gets so uptight that you’re not comfortable saying that, you’re in a place that the Bible hasn’t taken you.1
In certain Reformed circles, I sense a fear that acknowledging the power of prayer will necessarily preclude a belief in the sovereignty of God.2 Theologians on both sides of the divide often struggle with the temptation to simplify things so they fit neatly and cognitively into 3-pound human brains. God is bigger than that. No systematic theology can paint his ways with an exhaustive brush. It is simultaneously true that both God is fully in control, and that prayer changes things.3 Both men and angels, including fallen angels, understand that prayer is powerful and dangerous.
To those who insist that prayer doesn’t change things, some of the more obvious proof texts to the contrary are I Kings 8:29-30, Isaiah 37, Isaiah 38, John 14:13-14, John 16:26-27, 1 Peter 3:7, and James 4:2. Try reading those passages and conclude that the only purpose of prayer is to change the person praying. It won’t work. From the perspective of the person praying, prayer is a change agent that extends beyond inward change. Denying that or simply failing to state that when discussing the meaning and purpose of prayer is to state a half-truth. And frankly, it’s to state the meager, less exciting half. I speak as a man.
- One of the foremost persons on my mind is James White, who regularly states on his Dividing Line that the purpose of prayer is to change the person praying. He’s not wrong that that’s one of the effects of prayer, but by saying no more than that, he’s ignoring a rich tapestry and falling short of a powerful incentive to pray. ↩︎
- Roger Olson is an Arminian, as clearly demonstrated by his book titled, Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology. It is as easy for an Arminian to say that prayer changes things as it is for a Calvanist to say that prayer’s only purpose is to change man. People don’t like admitting there are elements of useful, important truth to opposing perspectives. We should learn from our Arminian friends to embrace a fuller view of prayer that is more harmonious with the very clear demonstrations in Scripture. ↩︎
- If you wanted, you could add from everyone’s perspective other than God’s. That’s implied. Of course we’re not God. We never will be. And we’re not writing these things for God’s sake, but for our sake. It’s necessarily from our perspective. The urge to constantly buttress every statement with that clause betrays a mindset that differs from the writers of the Bible. If you’re that uptight about everything, you would’ve never written Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, I Chronicles 21:15, Jonah 3:10, or Amos 7:6 the way that those writers did. The Bible was written by men for men. It’s pretentious to try to communicate as though you’re intending your theological statements to be crafted for God’s ears. You’re going to miss the mark every time, no matter how hard you try and useless to human ears you become. The Bible doesn’t try to do this, and neither should we. ↩︎