This saying does not come from the bible and careful reflection will show that it is not true as a total principle. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and he did so out of his free sovereign choice with no involvement through prayer, or any other means, of the people he created.
However, once we put the saying in context we will see that it does highlight an important principle for the Church. It was John Wesley who gave us the first recorded use of the phrase when he wrote:
“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”
Wesley was not simply calling for more prayer, nor was he suggesting that any sort of prayer can move the hand of God. Some of the first teachings of Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of prayer that comes from a self-righteous heart or from a belief that mere repetition will persuade God. Jesus did stress the need for both perseverance and faith, but rooted these in the natures of people and of God. In people insofar as we are utterly helpless of ourselves, and in God, insofar as he is all-powerful and he has care, concern and love for the world.
Wesley set the focus for the prerequisites of effective prayer as a fear of sin and an exclusive or total desire for God. He was particularly stating that these were the foundational requirements for preachers, but the principle extends to the whole people of God.
We understand why some of us puzzle over why God should seem to limit himself to the degree that his people involve themselves in what he is doing. However, it is the difference between creation and pro-creation. As we said above, the first act of creation was out of nothing but the sovereign word and will of God, but everything that God made in that first creative act, contained within it the seed necessary to pro-create. Since the beginning, every generation – whether of plant, humanity or animals – brings forth the next generation.
The Church is no different. Every generation of Christians must be those who give birth to the next generation. True, they cannot do it without God, but also, God will not do it without them. It is a spiritual truth as well as a natural one that ‘except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it remains alone’. Pro- creation always involves a change of priorities – a denial of self in order to bring forth the life of another. All of Christianity is based on this principle which permeated every action of Jesus Christ in both life and death, and which finds its highest expression in fervent prayer for the next, as yet unborn, generation of believers. It can be seen historically, in a study of the major moves of God, which we call revivals.
Whenever people are born of God in large numbers, their births will have been preceded by concentrated, prevailing prayer. The basis for that statement is simple. In most cases, the prayer can be traced back afterwards. This is not fanciful. Some students of revival, such as J. Edwin Orr, completed a Doctorate at Oxford on the subject, and many have compiled newspaper records clearly detailing what happened. It is no secret, that before the 1858 Great Awakening, in which both the United States and Great Britain each saw around a million people added to the churches, prayer meetings were rampant. At one period in New York, 10,000 people met daily for prayer*. If we compare like with like in terms of the population ratio, that would be the equivalent of over 2000 people meeting for prayer in Northampton every single day.
Let us make no mistake about the matter. Human effort or better methods, however well intentioned or well motivated, will accomplish little more than a superficial human response. Nothing less than fully surrendered hearts gathered for sacrificial, believing prayer will see a new ingathering of people into the Kingdom of God.
*For a brief summary of what happened visit: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/577