By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
When I was in college a group of us decided to adopt a few blocks within our city to engage in prayer and evangelism. On one occasion we met a man who said he was Buddhist. Being a college student studying to be a pastor I was eager to use what I’d learned in my recently taken Comparative Religions class. I knew how to engage the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. But I didn’t.
Thankfully, the Lord shut my mouth and instead moved me to ask him a simple question. “Do you have peace?” I could tell by his facial expression that my question rattled him a bit. I didn’t press much more but simply asked if I could pray for him. At the end of my prayer I said, “Lord, I pray that you will give this man peace in Jesus. I pray that you will not let this man sleep until he comes to know that true peace in Christ. Amen.”
Over the next couple of days, I kept praying for him. Why did I pray?
Why Do We Pray for Salvation?
What if I told you that we pray for the salvation of others because God is sovereign in salvation? It’s a bit sad that the precious truth that God saves sinners has become more of a theological argument than a firm truth we unite upon. The sovereignty of God is the very reason why we are able to pray. I think J.I. Packer says it well:
Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is ‘no’, I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is ‘yes’—well, that proves that whatever side you may have taken in debates on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees, we are all agreed. (Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 17)
We pray because we know that God is able to take a heart of stone and make it a heart of flesh. We pray because we know that God is able to cause those who are blind to the beauty of Christ to awaken to see His glory. He is able to cause the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ to shine in their hearts. He did it with us. He can do it with them. And so, we pray because we know that ultimately “salvation belongs to the Lord.”
But why did Packer say that if we aren’t praying for the conversion of others he doubts that we have yet been born again? For one, it’s clearly commanded in Scripture. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 tells us to pray for all people—including those who don’t yet know Christ. We are to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us (certainly those are unbelievers). We know that part of Jesus’ mission was to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). When we pray for the salvation of others we are praying in line with the heart of Christ.
I believe Packer also says this because when we’ve found a great treasure, we, by nature, want to share it. I think this is part of what is going on in Philippians 1:19-26. I think Paul shares his conundrum as a model for the Philippians. He’s “choosing” to stay and faithfully labor among them because this is what true treasure does. It’s not an end in itself but it always motivates wanting others to encounter the same joy that you’ve experienced. That’s what true treasure does. And so, part of why we pray for unbelievers is because we want them to know Christ as we know Him.
We also pray for others because of the Lordship of Christ. There is not one square inch of this world that does not belong to Christ. We want everything to come joyfully under His sovereign rule. As we are praying that God would bring justice and set all things right, part of this prayer is that those who are not now trusting in Christ will acknowledge His rightful rule and reign over their lives. We pray because Jesus is Lord.
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How Do We Pray for the Salvation of Others?
One of the best ways to pray is to pray the Scriptures. Before I preach almost every Sunday I pray about the same thing. I pray a combination of Ezekiel 37 and 2 Corinthians 4. I pray that God would take hearts of stone and make them hearts of flesh. I pray that God would cause the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ to shine in hearts. This is the way that I pray specifically for those who are not trusting in Christ. I pray that God would graciously do the work of opening their hearts/eyes to see the beauty of Christ and that they would respond to Him.
But there is another way in which we can pray for unbelievers; namely, we can pray for more workers in the harvest. It is somewhat surprising that the vast majority of actual prayers in the New Testament concerning unbelievers are not for the unbelievers themselves but for those who will be going to them. We are called to pray for workers to enter the harvest (Luke 10:2). Paul prayed that a door would be opened to him (Col. 4:3) and also that “the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (2 Thes. 3:1). We should also pray for boldness for those who are followers of Jesus. We should pray for our witness and the witness of others. We pray that we would be faithful witnesses in word and deed.
A Prayer for Unbelievers to Come to Christ
Here is a sample prayer for unbelievers:
Father, you are good and you are powerful. We know that you are beautiful. And we know that you are the only means to salvation. We know that you are the wellspring of all joy. We know that in you all forgiveness is found. We know that you delight when sinners repent. We thank you for the salvation that you have brought to our hearts. We have tasted and seen that you are good. But today our hearts are also heavy and we grieve for those who do not know you. They have not yet tasted. We know from your word that they are blind to the glory of Christ. We believe that salvation belongs to you. We pray, dear Lord, that you would open their eyes to your beauty. Would you cause their hearts of stone to be hearts of flesh? Would you overcome their rebellion with your kindness?
We pray also that you would bring people into their lives to graciously and powerfully share your Word. Is it me, Lord? Would you have me go and share with them the love of Christ? If it’s not me, if I’m not granted that opportunity, we do pray that your Word would go forth. Change their heart, Lord. Help them to see Jesus. Do them good. We pray these things in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.
More Ways to Intercede with Prayer for Unbelievers
That is just a sample of a way that I would pray for unbelievers. There are other things which you can focus upon. Above I prayed that God would open their hearts and that He would give them an opportunity to hear the Word. That latter prayer might be a greater focus for those who are in unreached parts of the world.
You could also pray about specific areas where they are enslaved to sin. Pray that they would find freedom and pray that they would see the hand of God in that rescue. You can lift a prayer for unbelievers to see the hand of God both in their joys and in their sorrows. You can also pray for their relationships with believers. And it’s also a good idea to pray that God would continue to burden you (as well as others) to continue interceding for this person.
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