Skeptical Conservatism versus Sola Scriptura
Posted on November 21, 2016
One striking difference between our 18th and 19th century forebears and us is their repeated emphasis on prayer and our comparative de-emphasis of it. They prayed frequently and fervently. We pray infrequently and languidly. They called prayer meetings. We call staff meetings. They had revival and reformation. We have apathy and apostasy. A leading reason for these distinctions is that they were inclined to believe what God said about prayer. We are often less confident in God’s word when it comes to his promises about prayer. A blunter way to say this is: we commit the sin of unbelief.
God’s faithfulness in not answering prayer?
A Southern Baptist writer firmly committed to the Reformation truth of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) recently explained what God’s faithfulness is not. He enlisted unanswered prayer as a prime topic. He argued that even when God doesn’t answer the requests of his children, he remains faithful. If we suppose that only when things are going well for us is God faithful, we implicitly endorse the false “prosperity gospel” and the “prosperity God.” He is correct in principle: God is faithful even when our life’s circumstances are less than we desire. God is faithful whether we consider him faithful or not.
But the author never gets around to articulating another, and more important, truth; and because he does not, he leaves an incomplete impression: that God’s faithfulness is not verified by answered prayer that improves our lot in life. This assumption is so false and the Bible is so clear and abundant about the truth of answered prayer that it is almost an embarrassment that one must document it. Here, I’ll note only four texts from the Psalms:
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” (Ps. 34:6)
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps. 37:4)
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. (Ps. 116:1)
I thank you [God] that you have answered me and have become my salvation. (Ps. 118:21)
The New Testament is equally clear. God promises to answer the simple, heart-felt prayers of his children:
Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. (Mt. 18:19)
Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (Jn. 14:13-14)
Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (Jn. 16:23b–24)
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt. 7:7-11)
The texts could be — and are — multiplied.
Sola Scriptura undermined
Too many Christians formally committed to sola scriptura, however, are shy about these texts, which means: shy about taking God at his word. They seem eager to defend God’s honor in asserting that his faithfulness includes not answering our prayer. Heaven forbid we claim God is not faithful if he does not keep his word, in spite of the fact that this is just what the godly claimed in the Bible (Ex. 32:11–14; Jud. 6:1–18; 2 Chr. 20:1–12). They knew God’s promises, and they expected him to fulfill his promises, and if he did not, he was not being faithful. This is why in Malachi 3:10 God charges a faithless and rebellious Israel, “put me to the test,” that is, trust me to prove to yourself whether my word is true. For us to scoff at this way of speaking to God, considering it sub-Christian, is simply rank unbelief decorated with a pious veneer. To refuse to hold God to his word is not a shining example of piety; it is a tragic example of faithlessness.
God’s revealed word or his covert counsel?
The biblical approach is too brazen for some Christians, however, particularly those most eager to defend God against the calumny that somebody prayed and God did not answer and, therefore, they were disappointed and have come to believe that God either isn’t real or isn’t a caring God. After all, our prayers these days are too often not answered, and this cannot be our fault due to our unbelief. There must be some other explanation. For example, God has a secret, eternal, unrevealed, covert plan that contradicts his written word; and if we actually knew his hidden intentions, we could safely ignore his written promises that contradict them. The fact that the Bible teaches that our unbelief can and does sometimes contribute to unanswered prayer is an unpleasant prospect that congregations don’t like to hear, but the Bible does teach it (Mk. 6:1–6; 11:22–24; Jas. 1:6). Methodist minister E. M. Bounds wrote, “The millions of unanswered prayers are not to be solved by the mystery of God’s will. We are not the sport of his sovereign power. He is not playing at ‘make-believe’ in his marvelous promises to answer prayer.”
Today unbelief is not a sin preachers are inclined to expose as nearly as preachers did in the past, despite the fact that unbelief is a damning sin, perhaps the most damning sin (Jn. 3:17–18). Instead we say that unanswered prayer is a result of God’s covert purposes not disclosed in his written word, and in this way we contradict sola scriptura while preserving our reputation of glorifying God. But God is not glorified when we blame our unbelief on his alleged covert purposes.
The “triumph” of unanswered prayer?
The pastor of possibly the most noted historic evangelical church in the nation preached a message titled, “The Triumph of Unanswered Prayer.” No saint in the biblical record could have conceived of preaching or believing such a thing. The pastor is properly concerned with those Christians who lose faith because they have suffered great pain and illness and have not gotten their prayers answered, and have resolved never to pray again. The pastor’s intentions are pure, but his construction is wrong. The Bible nowhere teaches that the Christian should rejoice when God does not answer prayer. If God does not answer prayer, the Bible supplies other explanations than his covert intentions that contradict the promises of his word: unbelief (Jas. 1:6–8), inward iniquity (Ps. 66:18), despising God’s law (Pr. 28:9), self-indulgence (Jas. 4:3), and Satanic interference (Dan. 10). Conflict with God’s covert, unrevealed desires is not offered as an explanation for unanswered prayer.
The new “liberal evangelicals” at prayer
Many of the same conservative Protestants who castigate their benighted evangelical and Pentecostal brothers and sisters or “liberal evangelicals” for adjusting the Bible to their own experience have no problem adjusting the Bible to their own experience when it means suggesting that they lack faith in God’s promises to answer the simple, heart-felt requests of his people. They explain away passages that unambiguously promise that God will answer the faith-filled prayers of his people. Since the Bible plainly teaches that homosexuality is sin, they correctly rebuke those “liberal evangelicals” who twist the Bible into saying what it plainly does not. But when it comes to biblical promises about answered prayer, they adopt the skeptical methodology of the very people they criticize; they believe the Bible only when it’s convenient. The “Bible alone” rules — except when we find God’s promises inconvenient.
This is one aspect of the creeping antisupernaturalism that afflicts the orthodox, though we would be the last to admit that Enlightenment antisupernaturalism has impacted our thinking (that problem is for liberals, not us). We are quite certain that God exists and that he upholds the world and that he regenerates believing sinners. But we are less audacious when it comes to God’s interference in creation in response to our crying out to him in prayer. “[T]he biblical writers and those to whom they wrote were predisposed to supernaturalism.” By contrast, we are predisposed to naturalism. Our default is to appeal to antisupernatural explanations of events in history and our lives unless a supernatural explanation alone will suffice. This is to reverse the biblical order.
Skeptical conservatives know that the Bible does not promise that God will answer every possible faith-filled prayer of his people, and they point as verification of this thesis to (1) David’s prayer for his child with Bathsheba, (2) Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, and (3) Paul’s prayer for the removal of the “thorn” of his flesh. They are quite right. What they often do not assert is that these are likely the only examples in the Bible of clearly unanswered prayers for the godly. When we read the Bible, we arrive at some amazing statistics. Even apart from the Psalms, which are full of prayers, “[T]he Bible records no fewer than 650 definite prayers, of which no less than 450 have recorded answers.” That’s a fascinating proportion. Probably more than 450 of the prayers in the Bible were answered. Still, that’s almost 70% of answered prayers that we know of. If we knew the entire story, the proportion surely would be much higher.
Righteousness versus the “health-and-wealth” gospel
The reluctance to embrace such audacity is driven partly by aversion to the “prosperity gospel” or “health-and-wealth gospel,” according to which God exists to glut his children with all of life’s lustful bounty that their carnal minds desire. But the Bible is quite clear that such an approach is wrong. God does not answer prayer to satiate our own lusts (Jas. 4:3). More significantly, we learn from James 5:16 that it is the effectual prayer of righteous persons that obtains answers in heaven’s court. Righteous people pray righteous prayers. God is not interested in the prayers of lust-drenched, narcissistic people. The biblical promises of answered prayer are directed to Christians who wish above all things to please God.
In the words of Grant R. Osborne, “God is sovereign and can say ‘no [to our prayers],’ but we should not expect God to reject our requests.” The default assumption of Christians is that God will answer their prayers. To shy away from this truth is to bear an evil heart of unbelief (Heb. 3:12).
In 1915 Moody Press published a book by Charles Blanchard, the second president of Wheaton College, arguably the most prominent evangelical college in the country (both then and now). The full title was Getting Things from God: Great Chapters on Prayer. A chief theme of the book is that answered prayer means getting from God precisely what we pray for. He abhorred the prevalent idea (both then and now) that “no” from God is an answer to prayer. Answered prayer, according to Blanchard, denotes that God gives his children what they ask him for. It is almost inconceivable that any evangelical college president today would write a book with this title and argument. Reviving prayer as a mighty force in the church and culture is simply not high on the evangelical agenda. And then we puzzle over the paltry influence of Christianity in church and culture.
But the Bible everywhere expects God’s people to expect God to do just what he says he will do — including, perhaps especially, to answer the prayer of his righteous, faith-filled people. It also declares that God will not answer the prayers of those who do not expect him to work — in other words, unbelieving, doubtful people cannot expect God to answer their paltry, unbelieving prayers:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (Jas. 1:5-8, emphasis supplied)
Protestant reformer John Calvin asks,
What kind of prayer would this be? “O Lord, I am indeed doubtful whether or not thou art inclined to hear me; but being oppressed with anxiety I fly to thee that if I am worthy, thou mayest assist me.” None of the saints whose prayers are given in Scripture thus supplicated. Nor are we thus taught by the Holy Spirit, who tells us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb. 4:16); and elsewhere teaches us to “have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Christ,” (Eph. 3:12). This confidence of obtaining what we ask, a confidence which the Lord commands, and all the saints teach by their example, we must therefore hold fast with both hands, if we would pray to any advantage. The only prayer acceptable to God is that which springs (if I may so express it) from this presumption of faith, and is founded on the full assurance of hope.
If the Bible is true, then we can expect that when with simple, honest, obedient faith we cry out to God for material provision, he will supply it. When we beg God to heal the sick, he will heal them. When we implore God to convert our unbelieving friends and relatives, he will convert them. When we pray and fast for God to send revival in the church and reformation the culture, that’s just what we will see. And if we do not receive these answers, we should persevere in prayer, and we should not warp the Bible to conform to our paltry experiences but ask whether we have not met the conditions God lays down for answering prayer.
We do not really believe the Bible if we do not believe God’s promises to answer prayer.