Praying for the Lost
I Timothy 2:1-6
May 14, 2000
“Prayer is the lifeline of New Testament evangelism, the oxygen for its holy fire. The New Testament was born in prayer. It knows no evangelism without prayer, and no prayer which does not lead to evangelism.” Those are the words of Armin Gesswein, a man God used to ignite a prayer movement in America and around the world. I am persuaded that his words are absolutely true. There is no evangelism without prayer and no prayer that does not lead on to reaching the lost for Christ.
It occurs to me as I write these words that in all my ministry I have never spoken on this topic. And yet there can hardly be a more timely subject. All Christians feel the urgent need to spread the gospel in a decaying culture. And we all realize that without prayer nothing will ever change. But rarely do we ponder the connection between those two realities-the lostness of this generation and the importance of prayer in reaching the unsaved. Perhaps we have separated two things that in God’s heart always go together.
As I studied for this sermon, I was struck by the lack of helpful material on the relationship of prayer to evangelism. Far and away the best resource I found is “Praying Your Friends to Christ,”
As I studied for this sermon, I was struck by the lack of helpful material on the relationship of prayer to evangelism. Far and away the best resource I found is “Praying Your Friends to Christ,” published by the North American Mission Board. I made extensive use of this document, which can be accessed on the Internet at: http://www.namb.net/evangelism/dev/Prayer/pyftc.asp.
Some writers point out that the New Testament doesn’t say a great deal directly on the subject of praying for the lost. While that is true in the literal sense, it is also true that reaching the lost is on God’s heart. It is the reason he sent his Son to the earth. We are praying for the lost every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. For when we say “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking that God’s great desire for the lost to be saved would come to fruition. Praying “Thy will be done” involves more than asking that the lost be saved, but it is not less than that.
In this message I’m going to quote many passages of Scripture to help us grasp the important connection between prayer and evangelism. We need to get the full sweep of what the Bible says on this topic.
Why Pray for the Lost?
Why should we pray for the lost? I offer four reasons.
First, we should pray for the lost because of God’s heart. The greatest verse in the Bible assures us that God truly cares for those who don’t know him. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Even people who don’t know the Bible know this verse. But far fewer know the following verse: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Taken together, these two verses tell us that God’s love motivated him to send his Son to the world and that his purpose was not to condemn the world but to save it through the sacrifice of Christ. 1 Timothy 2:3-4 tells us even more about God’s heart: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And 2 Peter 3:9 plainly declares that God is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” As I read those verses, they seem to have no limits at all. When Paul says “all,” he means all without exception. When Peter says “anyone,” he doesn’t mean some but not others. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He truly wants the lost to be saved and he waits patiently, giving men and women more time to come to repentance. I say this as a Calvinist and as one who believes in predestination and election. There is no conflict here but there is a mystery we can’t fully explain. It is better to let Scripture speak for itself even if we have trouble fitting it into our categories. God’s love is broad and vast, reaching out to the ends of humanity. As a beloved gospel song says, “the vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Let us have no doubts about God. He loves the world and wants the lost to be saved through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, we should pray for the lost because of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ came for the lost. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). And he died to provide a way of salvation for the whole human race. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (I Timothy 2:5-6).
Third, we should pray for the lost because of Paul’s example. In Romans 10:1, Paul reveals his heart for his Jewish friends, neighbors, and relatives: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” If Paul felt so concerned that he prayed for his own people to be saved, should we not do the same?
Fourth, we should pray for the lost because of their condition. The New Testament in many places reveals to us how hopeless and helpless the lost are without Christ. They are …
Blind: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (II Corinthians 4:4).
Captive to Satan: We should pray that unbelievers might “escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (II Timothy 2:26).
Condemned: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).
Dead: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
Bound for hell: “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36b).
Helpless: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
Hopeless: “Without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
Without Understanding: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14).
A whole sermon could be preached on any one of those verses. Taken together they show how desperate is the plight of those without Christ. They are blind and think they can see. They are dead and think they are alive. They are captive and think they are free. They are helpless and think they can do anything. They are without understanding and think they know everything. They are bound for hell and think they are going to heaven.
Ponder this question. What do you say to a dead person? Dead men can’t hear, can’t see, can’t understand, can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t think, can’t feel. Dead men can’t do anything except be dead. You might tell a corpse to run the high hurdles as to tell a spiritually-dead person he needs to be saved. Because he is physically alive, he hears your words. Because he is spiritually dead, they make no sense to him. He literally has no idea what you are talking about. And because he is blind, he cannot “see” the truth. That’s why you can talk to a lost person until you are blue in the face and it will do no good. You can quote Billy Graham, Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer, and if you’re creative, you can throw in some John Calvin and Martin Luther. Quote Brittany Spears and Mike Ditka if you like. It will do no good. You can quote Scripture till the cows come home and the lost will still be lost. Their condition is so hopeless that without divine intervention your witnessing will do no good.
What is the answer? We must pray for the lost that God will open their eyes, give life in place of death, enable them to hear, create within them a desire to understand, give them a hunger for Jesus, and then grant them faith to believe the gospel. In short, before we do the work of evangelism, we must fervently pray that God will go before us. When we pray for the lost, we are saying to God, “You go first! If you don’t go first, all our efforts will be in vain.”
II. How Should We Pray for the Lost?
With that as background we come to the central question. If the lost are truly in need of our prayers (and they are), how should we pray for them? The answer comes in two parts. First, we should pray for Christians to speak to the lost. Second, we should pray for the lost that God might do a mighty work in them that they might believe and be saved.
A) For Christians to Speak to the Lost
1) Pray for Workers. This is our most basic prayer. Jesus said in Matthew 9:37-38, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” We should pray that God will move on the hearts of his people that they might have great compassion for those without Christ. And we should pray that God will raise up more workers, more evangelists, more people to share Christ, and more missionaries who will take the gospel to the lost around the world.
2) Pray for Boldness. Paul says this very clearly in Ephesians 6:19-20. “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” We’ve all been in potential witnessing situations where we chickened out under pressure and later regretted it. Maybe we were intimidated or worried about what others would think or perhaps we feared making someone mad. Maybe we were suddenly shy or felt tongue-tied. It’s happened to all of us, which is why we need to pray for ourselves and others that we might be bold in proclaiming the gospel. The word implies freedom of speech, that we wouldn’t be timid but that the words would flow freely as we share Christ.
3) Pray for Opportunities. Sometimes we need to pray that God will create an opportunity where none exists. Students in public schools and universities often have to listen as teachers set forth ungodly ideas. They should pray for God to give them an “open door” to speak their faith kindly, respectfully, and yet with boldness. “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains” (Colossians 4:3). This also applies to how you witness on the job and to your family and friends. When no opportunity exists to share our faith, we must pray for God to give us a chance to speak for Christ.
4) Pray for Clarity. Paul mentions this in Colossians 4:4 “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” Clarity means presenting the gospel in a manner that makes sense to those who hear it. You are saying, “Lord, help me to speak your truth so that even this lost person will know what I am talking about.”
B) For the Lost that They Might Listen
Here’s a simple acrostic based on the word HEART to help us remember how to pray for those who don’t know Christ. First, we should pray for …
Receptive Hearts. Proverbs 21:1 reminds us that “the king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” The heart of the most obstinate sinner is in the hand of the Lord. We are fully justified in asking God to work in the heart of an unbeliever to turn it from a love of sin to a love for God. Until that happens, salvation is impossible. Paul emphasized the importance of the heart in Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your mouth, ’Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” The heart of the unsaved is darkened and hardened against God. Until God begins to change that situation by performing divine heart surgery, our preaching will have no effect.
Then we should pray that their …
Spiritual Eyes might be opened. When Paul stood before King Agrippa, he recounted how the Lord Jesus had called him to minister to the Gentiles. Jesus said, I am sending you “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). Think about those three contrasts – from closed to open, from darkness to light, from Satan to God. You will not find a better description of true conversion in all the New Testament. And once that has happened, the sinner can be forgiven and find a place in God’s family. We need to pray that the eyes of the sinner’s heart might be opened to see his true condition and God’s provision of salvation.
Next we should pray that the sinner might have …
God’s Attitude toward sin. The Bible tells us that sin has separated the entire human race from God. It also tells us that each of us is individually guilty because of sin and therefore under God’s righteous judgment. Until a sinner sees his true condition, he will have no reason to come to Christ to be saved. John 16:8 tells us that this conviction is the unique work of the Holy Spirit. “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.” We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will break the sinner’s heart and cause him to cry out to God for mercy.
Then we should pray that the sinner might be …
Released to trust Christ. We’ve already seen that the whole human race is in bondage because of sin. We’re caught in Satan’s trap with no hope of escape. This is precisely the point where we find many people today. Sin has so captured them that they despair of ever being set free. When Jesus spoke at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), he announced his ministry by quoting Isaiah 61:1. This verse tells us why Christ came to the earth: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Jesus came to set free those who have lived in the dark prison of sin. As we pray for the lost, let’s focus our prayers by asking God to break the chains and set them free so they can trust Christ as Savior.
Finally, let’s pray for …
A life Transformed by the gospel. II Corinthians 5:17 reminds us that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” True conversion leads to total transformation. When Christ comes in, he changes everything. We should ask God to work mightily so that sinners would be radically transformed from the inside out.
God’s Biggest “Problem”
When you pray for the lost, remember that you aren’t trying to convince God of anything. He’s already convinced that the lost should be saved. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23). He truly desires that everyone should come to repentance and that everyone should be saved. As a practical point, I don’t think we should pray for someone to be saved and then add “if it be your will.” This is one time when we already know what the will of God is. He wants the lost to the saved. We can pray with confidence, asking God to do whatever is necessary that lost sinners might come to Christ.
I think God’s biggest “problem” is not with the lost. He knows how to deal with sinners. God’s biggest “problem” is with the saved. We don’t pray as we ought for those who stand outside of God’s grace and therefore sinners remain in their sin. I should add that there is no theological problem with that statement since God has ordained both the means and the ends of salvation. We must pray and we must preach the gospel because that is God’s ordained method for the lost to be saved. Could God have decreed to save the lost in some other way besides our prayers and the preaching of the Gospel? I don’t know the answer to that question and it doesn’t matter anyway. What does matter is that we take God seriously and use the means he has put at our disposal. When we pray and when we share the Good News, God moves from heaven and the lost (who seemed so hardened) begin to have a new attitude and eventually they come to Christ. And all of it comes from God, even the strength to pray for sinners, so that in the end God alone gets the glory. Salvation is of the Lord.
We need to talk to God about people before we talk to people about God. Salvation is such a great miracle that unless God divinely works, no sinner will ever be saved. Our eloquence avails nothing unless God grants the sinner eyes to see and ears to hear. But even uneducated Christians can win others to Jesus if they care enough to pray for the lost and then tell them the Good News. This is God’s plan for reaching the world.
Where should we begin in applying this message? Here are some practical suggestions. First, make a list of lost people you know and begin to pray for them. Pray daily for God to work in their hearts. Second, pray with others for the lost. This will build your faith and keep you from discouragement. Third, as God begins to answer your prayers, write down those answers as they come. This will embolden you to pray even more. Fourth, be ready to be part of the answer to your own prayers. Sometimes when we pray for a family member or a friend to be saved, what we mean is, “Lord, send someone else to my mother / father / brother / sister / husband / wife because that situation is so messed up I don’t want to get involved.” But God usually doesn’t work that way. As you pray for those close to you, don’t be surprised if God puts you in a place to share the gospel with them. Fifth, trust in God’s timing. Don’t rush the Lord. Experience suggests that praying for the lost takes times, effort, endurance, and a long-term perspective. Not every sinner we pray for will be saved immediately. Give God time to work and don’t despair if you don’t see quick results.
The Son of So Many Tears
One of my favorite stories about the power of prayer to win the lost is over 1600 years old. It begins with a woman named Monica who was raised by Christian parents in North Africa. When she was old enough, her parents arranged a marriage to a pagan man. Evidently the marriage was very difficult because of divided spiritual loyalties. Monica and her husband had three children who survived. Two of them followed Christ but one son left the faith of his childhood. By his own admission, he chose the path of worldly pleasure. For many years he lived with a mistress and together they gave birth to a son out of wedlock. He broke his mother’s heart by joining a religious cult. Monica prayed for 17 years that her son would return to Christ and to the church. Looking back, her son said that she watered the earth with her tears for him, praying more for his spiritual death than most mothers pray over the physical death of a child. She fasted and prayed and asked God to save her son. One day she went to see the bishop and with tears asked why her son was still living in sin. The bishop replied with words that have become famous across the centuries: “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish. Your son will be saved.” He was right. It took several more years of fervent praying but eventually Monica’s son came to Christ. His name is Augustine. We know him today as St. Augustine. He is universally regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Sixteen centuries later his books and writings are still in print. He makes it clear in his Confessions that his mother prayed him to Jesus. She would not give up and eventually God answered her prayers.
I think the bishop was right when he said, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” How precious are a mother’s tears! There is no substance more valuable in all the universe than the tears of a godly mother. There are mothers and grandmothers who have prayed their children and their grandchildren to Christ. There are mothers and grandmothers who have seen their children in the “far country” of sin and have prayed them step by step back to the Father’s House. When everyone else gave up, godly women laid hold of heaven and claimed their offspring in Jesus’ name. And God heard those prayers and answered them.
Here is a powerful and encouraging thought: When God wants to save a sinner, he first gets Christians to pray for him. God surrounds that sinner with so much prayer that the sinner has nowhere to go but to Jesus. Through believing prayer God builds a wall around the sinner, one prayer at time. When the wall is finally built, God looks down from heaven and says, “It’s your time.” And that sinner comes to Christ.
Lest anyone misunderstand, I do not believe that our prayers for the lost have any power in themselves. God alone can save. God alone can change the heart. But he has ordained to work through our prayers to do what only he can do. That is, he has said, “I will allow you to partner with me in the great work of winning the lost.” When we pray, we are joining our puny hands of flesh with the omnipotent hands of Almighty God.
Someone Prayed for You
George Muller (1805-1898) of Bristol, England was known as a man of prayer. Without ever asking for funds and living entirely by faith in God, he established five orphanages in Bristol that provided care for 10,000 orphans over a 60-year period. His journals record in minute detail how God directly answered thousands of his prayers. Toward the end of his life he remarked that he had prayed for two men to be saved for over 55 years. “Don’t you feel like giving up?” someone asked. “Oh no,” he replied, “Why would God give me such a burden for these men if he did not intend to save them?” Before his death one of the men came to Christ. The other was saved after Muller died. His point is well taken. Because God is God, and because a true prayer burden comes from the Lord and not from us, we may well believe that if God burdens us to pray for a certain person or group of people, it is because he intends to work a miracle of saving grace.
If you need one final reason to pray for the lost, here it is. You came to Christ because someone prayed for you. It might have been a godly mother or father or a friend who witnessed to you or a pastor or a Sunday School teacher or a youth pastor or a deacon or a missionary or a fellow student or a coworker. Someone cared enough to pray you to Jesus. Don’t think you came to Christ on your own. Someone lifted you before the Throne of Grace and God moved from heaven to draw you to the Savior. If someone prayed for you when you were lost, won’t you do the same for someone else who needs Jesus?
Through our prayers and through our witness, we are de-populating hell and filling up heaven. Through prayer we invade Satan’s territory and bring home men and women for Christ. Through prayer God’s power is released, the lost are set free and given faith to believe. We plunder the strong man’s house every time we pray that the lost would be saved.
“I will not let you go to hell”
I truly believe that God earnestly desires that everyone be saved. I know this is true because he has done everything necessary for everyone to be saved. No one needs to go to hell. The lost do not have to die in their sins. We can say to the world, “God loves you.” And we can point to the bloody cross as proof of divine love. Those who trust in Jesus are saved by his blood. And thus we invite anyone and everyone to be saved.
I should add this word. If you do not know Christ, God wants you to be saved. He desires that you repent of your sin and trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Do not delay. Do not wait. Do not hesitate. Run to the cross and lay your sins on Jesus. Come to Christ now and he will save you.
When we pray for the lost, we are saying to them, “If you go to hell, you’ll have to go there over my prayers.” There are many roadblocks on the highway to hell-loving parents, godly Christian friends, the testimony of the Word of God, and the whole church of Jesus Christ. God has placed one final roadblock just outside the gates of hell. Our prayers stand as the last barrier between the lost and eternal damnation. We should pray with this faith: “I will not let you go to hell. My prayers are greater than your unbelief because God’s grace is greater than your sin. In God’s name and with his strength, I will pray and never give up. I will not let you die in your sins. If I have to, I will pluck you as a brand from the burning. Through my prayers I believe God will save you sooner or later. I will not let you go to hell because I will not go to heaven without you.” If we would approach our prayers with that sense of desperate urgency, sooner or later we would see the lost coming to Christ. Jude 23 tells us to “snatch others from the fire and save them.” Some people already have one foot in the flames. Through our prayers we can reach into the fire and pull them back to safety.
Many times lost people don’t want to hear our witness. “Don’t ever mention Jesus to me again,” they say. They may even throw us out of the house because of our bold witness. But through our tears while we are walking away, we can still pray for them. They can silence our voice but they can never stop our prayers.
Let us then pray for the lost. Pray, pray, and keep on praying. Never give up. Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up. Let us keep on praying as long as God gives us breath. When we finally get to heaven, we will discover that God used our prayers and our tears in ways we never imagined. And around the throne we will rejoice with those who today are far from God, but in heaven will stand with us-redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. God give us faith to keep on praying until that day finally comes. Amen.