Robert Griffith | 20 March 2023
Robert Griffith
20 March 2023


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.

Pray for courage to witness …
Paul requested boldness on two occasions that we know of. He desired the ability to make the gospel known, “with boldness.” (Ephesians 6:19). He wanted an opportunity to speak “boldly” (Ephesians 6:20). The root of the Greek words Paul uses here means open or free speech. It is possible to witness but be so inhibited by fear that the presentation of the gospel is blurred. Evidently Paul considered intercessory prayer important in producing courage in him to present the gospel’s claims without this paralysing restraint.

Pray for the words to speak …
Paul begged his readers to pray “.. that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.” (Ephesians 6:19). The Apostle wanted a message, and he wanted it to “be given” to him by God. Paul perceived that effective witnessing must be initiated and sustained by God. The Holy Spirit must wield the sword of conviction if someone’s heart is to be changed.

Because the message to be presented is “the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19; cf. “mystery of Christ” in Colossians 4:3), divine assistance is needed in both its proclamation and its comprehension. A ‘mystery’ in this context is a truth sovereignly withheld by God and then revealed to mankind at a given point in history. It refers to new truth that God has chosen to reveal.

Paul stated earlier in his letter (Ephesians 3:3) that God had sovereignly revealed to him new truths. These new truths fall outside human experience: “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard” them (1 Corinthians 2:9). Hence the gospel needs to be presented with divine clarity if men and women are to comprehend it. Prayer is vitally important in bringing this result. So Paul requested the Ephesian believers to pray that he might proclaim the gospel “as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:20). He requested the Colossian believers to pray “.. that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” (Colossians 4:4). In both instances, Paul implies that the clarity he seeks is beyond any human ability.

Obviously Paul believed prayer is necessary to secure this divine assistance. Since God chooses to move in response to prayer, no asking of God ordinarily means no doing by God. “Whatever you ask … that will I do” (John 14:13).

Real evangelism begins not by talking to people about God, but by talking to God about people.

It begins by crying out to God to send out workers into his harvest. This “thrusting forth” involves praying that the harvesters will be given opportunities to witness, boldness as they witness, and the guidance of the Spirit that makes their speech both clear and powerful. This is ‘harvester’ praying.

Now I am not suggesting for one moment that crying out to God for the salvation of a loved one or a friend, neighbour or work colleague is wrong. Nor am I suggesting that God does not hear those prayers. What I am saying is that it would be more in harmony with New Testament teaching to pray for God to send Spirit-filled Christians across the path of that loved one.

It would be more Biblical to pray that this person would be introduced to their loving Saviour and Lord through the loving actions of a disciple of Jesus. It would be more in line with how Jesus and Paul operated for you to pray that God would give you the right words to say and that the Spirit would open a door for you to lead that loved one to Jesus.

If you know of no specific Christian who has contact with your loved one, then pray for God to bring one into that person’s life. If you know of a Christian who works with your unsaved loved one, start praying for that Christian to be built up and equipped. Then pray that God will use that Christian to witness effectively to your loved one. If you yourself are living with the unsaved loved one, recruit several Christians to engage in ‘harvester’ praying on your behalf. This would all come closer to the Biblical teaching concerning prayer for evangelism.

It may come as a shock to many sincere Christians to learn that both Jesus and Paul concentrated their prayer effort on the saints – and as the saints are built up and are equipped to be divinely sent out into the harvest, evangelism will inevitably take place.

For decades now I have been preaching and teaching that effective evangelism is the natural outflow of a healthy Church. Evangelism is not so much a specific ministry we embrace or a task we commit to – it is actually the natural outcome when the disciples of Christ accept their calling and embrace Christ’s mission.

How have all great turnings to God in history begun? By the saints getting revived! Revival of the saints has invariably overflowed as evangelism in the community.

The greatest hindrance to evangelism in your community is not the sinful indifference of its sinners, but the carnality and indifference of its saints. When Christians are built-up and Spirit-filled, effective evangelism will always follow.

That’s why Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:18–19 was to pray “for all the saints, and … on my behalf.”

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