180916Readers' Questions

Should we pray for the lost?

Many of you will find this question strange to say the least. Why would anyone doubt whether praying for one’s salvation could be anything but good?

Having some experience in this area, I know the argument goes something like this: “We shouldn’t pray for the lost because God chose his redeemed people before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). If God chose him, you don’t need to pray. If God didn’t choose him, prayer won’t change his will.”

Naturally, I ask, why pray at all if God doesn’t have sovereign control? How can he possibly answer any prayer if his hands are tied, lacking the ability to providentially make things happen?

Then again, I know the challenge my questions pose. If God doesn’t have control, our prayers are vain. If he does have control and decrees whatever he wills, our prayers once again appear vain. We find ourselves at an intersection where theology and philosophy meet, and the collision is enough to give us a splitting headache.

First of all, I think it’s important that we know God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts than our thoughts (Isa 55:9). Whether we like it or not, there are spiritual things we simply can’t understand. While that may sound like a convenient excuse to those who disagree with my conclusions, I stand by it.

Second, the Bible says what it says. Never mind whether we can neatly fit its teachings into our theological boxes. For example, Paul prayed for the salvation of Israel, writing, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Ro 10:1). Since Scripture is our authority, that pretty much answers the question for me.

Even so, we still face a nagging dilemma. Why should we pray if God’s will is sovereign, meaning no one can change his will?

Would you settle for “because he commanded us to pray”? If not, consider the insightful commentary of John Calvin:

[God] ordained [prayer] not so much for his own sake as for ours. … it is very important for us to call upon him: First, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor. Secondly, that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts. Thirdly, that we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand. (Institutes of the Christian Religion)

In other words, prayer benefits the one who prays as much as it accomplishes anything. Of course, it also glorifies God because it’s an act of obedience. And I’ll add yet one more reason: Prayer can be the means by which God accomplishes his sovereign purpose. Perhaps our prayer for a lost person is all part of his plan.

Maybe we should focus, though, on the spirit of this question. What kind of cold-hearted fatalism would lead us to object to anyone casting all his anxieties on God? (1Pe 5:7). If I’m burdened by a concern for a lost soul in my life, what could possibly motivate me to avoid praying about it? I pray for my newborn daughter every day, saying, “Lord, cause her to know you and give her eternal life if it is your will.”

I suppose you noticed the last phrase of my prayer. I don’t pray for one’s salvation any differently than I pray for anything else. “Your will be done” frames every petition I make to God (Mt 10:6).

Objections to praying for the lost concern me most not because God won’t save people without our prayers or that we are somehow undermining his sovereignty, but because they reveal an unsettling lack of love. Even when Christ knew the people of Israel were destined for judgment, he stood outside of Jerusalem and wept over it (Lk 19:41). Paul had great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart for the lost in Israel (Ro 9:2).

Why should our desire to see people saved be any less intense? And if we have that desire, how can we avoid expressing it in our prayers to God in whom our salvation lies?

I say pray for the lost. Pray for them often. Pray for them earnestly.

As a side note, you could do worse than reading Calvin’s Institutes. I rather enjoy Robert White’s translation which you can purchase from Westminster Bookstore or Amazon.