Should we Pray for People to be Saved?

At a recent online training session, evangelist Paul Hinton gave an interesting 30 minutes on how churches can be more evangelistic. He described a church which produced a roll of wallpaper during each prayer meeting, upon which were written the names of unsaved folk for whom they were praying. The idea was greeted with some enthusiasm. Our own prayer meetings are less practical, but we certainly pray for those not converted that they might find pardon for sin. Along these lines, a certain Christian website counsels:

These [following] 28 prayer points for salvation of loved ones will make their hearts ripe for the harvest of salvation. When we pray for salvation of loved ones, the holy spirit (sic) begins to convict them of sin, he begin to show them the errors of their ways and these can lead to their salvation. Prayer is an effective tool for soul winning, when we pray we set the atmosphere for the harvest

Hmm. Would that it was so straight forward. Should we pray for folk’s salvation? It’s a question worth asking regardless of where one sits on the free will/sovereignty scale. Dwellers in both camps should consider this question carefully.

The Arminian emphasises the sinner’s free will to reach out and accept Christ’s offer of salvation. If a sinner has a degree of free will, an unhindered choice to be saved, why do we pray for their salvation? Isn’t this asking God to over-rule the free will He has given them, to force a change of mind, prevent the option of refusal? How is this consistent?

On the other hand, the Calvinist emphasises the Lord’s sole initiative and completion of the sinner’s conversion. If God has chosen some to salvation and others not, which is the classic Calvinist line, what difference will prayer make? The sinner in question is either one of the elect or he is not. Will God’s eternal counsels be altered? Might His mind be changed?

One might also consider the Bible’s forbidding of favouritism. I know a church almost entirely made up of one family, they're all related, though godly enough. Yet if we pray for our relatives to find Christ, who will pray for those with no intercessing kin? The stranger in the street, the migrant worker, the Indian slum-dweller- who prays for them? If salvation depended on knowing someone already in the club (who was also willing to pray), these folk are all but lost.

The other issue is an absence of such prayer from the scriptures. I cannot find any individual prayed for who then professes Christ as a result. Few New Testament prayer meetings are recorded, so we cannot be confident of everything they prayed for. Yet there are prayers for the unsaved, and I consider some of them now:

1 Timothy 2:1-2: Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.

There is no request here for those kings’ and authority’s salvation; the stated request is that the church itself might live peaceably. However, it’s hard to believe that ‘all supplication, prayers and intercessions’ would not include the prospect of these people’s salvation, which would be a blessing both to them and the churches occupying the territories they govern.

Romans 10: 1-3 (emphasis mine): Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God

Paul desires his fellow countrymen come to see and accept their own Messiah whom they have rejected. This desire he translates into prayer, for giving salvation is surely God’s desire also.

Luke 23: 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

Was He praying for the soldiers and Jews’ salvation, or was it a general prayer for humanity? Either way, He is surely praying for salvation, for the saving act is essentially one of sin’s remission and forgiveness.

Isaiah 35:12 (emphasis mine):

Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,

And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,

Because He poured out His soul unto death,

And He was numbered with the transgressors,

And He bore the sin of many,

And made intercession for the transgressors

Speaking of Christ, the prophet sees one who prays on others’ behalf. Movingly, Messiah intercedes for those with whom he was numbered- condemned sinners.

Abraham bravely and beautifully intercedes for Sodom, that God might spare the wicked for the sake of any righteous, in Genesis 18:

Verse 32: Then he said, “Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but once more: Suppose ten should be found there?”

And He (God) said, “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten.”

Ephesians 6:18-20: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit… for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.

Interestingly, the apostle asks not that his hearers be held in prayer, but that he as an evangelist might be given the right words and the boldness to proclaim them faithfully. The business of getting saved He seems content to leave to God.

It seems ludicrous that we would pray for people’s physical needs but not their souls. It also seems unjust to me- and sorry to those who have spent many hours doing it- to have interceded for loved ones, while others go unprayed for. My own prayers are that God opens people’s eyes to the gospel- that they might accept it. Some won’t, of course, but may their eyes still be opened. I do not wish to curtail anyone’s prayer life. Rather, I’m suggesting you expand it. You might not love the tramp in the street or stranger in the park; you might not cry out for his soul with tears as you do for your daughter or grandson. But remember that he is as loved by God as any of your relatives:

But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not laboured, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”

Jonah 4: 10-11

God desires all men be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), and He hears our prayers, granting those requests according to His eternal counsel. So I’ll keep on praying, even though I cannot fathom its role in the Spirit’s conviction nor the Saviour’s saving work.

Charles Spurgeon wrote:

Until the gate of hell is shut upon a man, we must not cease to pray for him. And if we see him hugging the very doorposts of damnation, we must go to the mercy seat and beseech the arm of grace to pluck him from his dangerous position. While there is life there is hope, and although the soul is almost smothered with despair, we must not despair for it, but rather arouse ourselves to awaken the Almighty arm.