I don’t pray for the unsaved. I haven’t prayed for the unsaved for some time now. Even the term ‘unsaved’ is not in my vocabulary and I could write another ten pages explaining why (some other time perhaps). I only use that term here to challenge the widely held belief and widely supported practice of ‘praying for the unsaved’ or ‘praying for the salvation of specific people.’ I don’t do that anymore. I used to – until the day I realised that prayer relating to evangelism is one of the most misunderstood and theologically flawed practices in the Church today.
So why don’t I pray for the unsaved? Why don’t I exhort others to pray for the unsaved? The simple answer is because I am disciple of Jesus Christ and a student of the Apostle Paul – and Scripture does not record that Jesus ever prayed explicitly and directly for the eternal salvation of a lost soul. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever commanded us to do so either. In several places, prayer for the unsaved may be inferred indirectly. Our Lord taught us to “pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). The greatest benefit to an unsaved persecutor would be his/her salvation.
Paul urged that prayers be offered “for kings and all who are in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1–2), that governmental authorities would not inhibit the free working of the Church. But behind the immediate object is an overarching one, that God, “desires all men and women to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, prayer for unsaved government officials is implied.
The most explicit New Testament prayer for the unsaved is Paul’s heartfelt cry, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them [Israel] is for their salvation.” (Romans 10:1). But this prayer is for the salvation of the whole nation as a unit rather than for the salvation of individual Jews.
So why does Scripture only contain this one example of direct prayer for salvation of the lost? Is it because Christ and Paul did not care about evangelism? Absolutely not! Christ wept over the lost souls of God’s children. Paul’s zeal for their conversion energized him every day until he breathed his last breath. What instruction, then, does the New Testament give us about prayer as it relates to evangelism?
Christ tells us that in view of the ripened harvest fields (an obvious allusion to an evangelistic need), we should “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:38). Our Lord commanded prayer for the harvesters rather than for the harvest.
When Paul found himself in jail, he wrote to believers in two local churches requesting prayer (Ephesians 6:19–20 and Colossians 4:3). The passages – similar in content – give valuable insight into the nature of “harvester” praying. Suppose you found yourself in a local jail surrounded by guards and fellow prisoners who desperately need Christ. You decide to write to your local Church, requesting prayer.
You would most probably mention by name some of the hardened men or women around you and ask your fellow Christians to pray that God would soften their hearts and save them. Yet Paul, in such a situation, said, “pray on my behalf” (Ephesians 6:19; cf. Col. 4:3). He, too, advocates prayer for the saint rather than the sinner – i.e. prayer for his own effectiveness in witnessing for Christ. These passages interpret Christ’s command to pray for workers to be sent into the harvest.
So let’s just take a look at Paul, a pioneer of the Church of which you are I are a part today, and see what he prayed for in relation to the mission of Christ. What was important to Paul? Where was his focus as the evangelistic zeal which burned within him guided his steps each day? By inference then, what should we be praying for?
Pray for an opportunity to witness …
Paul did not request prayer for deliverance from prison or for the ability to hold up under stress. Paul asked his brothers and sisters to pray “that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ.” (Colossians 4:3). Biblically, it is God’s business to pry open doors of opportunity (Revelation 3:7). Rather than force an opportunity, Paul, through prayer, depended on God to provide one. Certainly the Word of God is quick and powerful, but we are not to throw Scripture verses against the door! Evidently prayer is instrumental in opening a door for the Word – for the gospel of Jesus Christ.