Praying for the Lost

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 13, 2022.

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I     bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Romans 10:1–4).[1]

God is sovereign over our salvation. As The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it,

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;

and “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future;

and “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.”[2]

There are those whom God foreknew with an eternal love, and there are those he did not know in love at all. Those whom he foreknew he predestined unto adoption, but those whom he knew not he passed over. Those whom he foreknew and predestined he called and justified but those whom he knew not he passed over, never calling nor justifying. What is sometimes referred to as “double predestination” is nothing more or less than the revelation of God: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13).

That God is sovereign over our salvation really is biblically indisputable (despite the rage against it), but the weight of the truth is not easily comprehended or accepted. That God predestined his elect unto salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) can sound like the harshest determinism. And wrongly understood, it can lead to some of the most ridiculous and heinous deductions. Such as, “Why share the gospel if God has already predestined or passed over every soul past, present, and future? It would seem that predestination and reprobation render evangelism pointless. Or, why pray if “God, from all eternity, did . . . unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass”? It would seem that prayer is a pointless practice if the outcome for what we pray has been foreordained.

In confronting such foolishness, let us consider that the same apostle who says, “[God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18), and asks, “who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20), is the same apostle who laments, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:2-3). He is the same one who asks rhetorically, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22), and then confesses, “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for [my kinsmen] is that they may be saved” (10:1). How can Paul testify that God is sovereign over salvation and simultaneously pray for the salvation of his unbelieving kinsmen? Is he pitting his desire and prayer against God’s decree and purpose? Is he confused? Is he contradicting himself?

Why pray if God is sovereign?

The Shorter Catechism helpfully defines prayer as “an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.”[3] I think this is an accurate and helpful definition, but in knowing what prayer is we should also consider what it is not. Prayer is not an attempt to coerce or manipulate God, nor a platform for demands. God is not your order-taker: He is the Potter; you are the clay (Rom. 9:21).

Before a word is thought or spoken, prayer is an acknowledgement of helplessness and dependence. J.I. Packer says, “When we are on our knees, we know that it is not we who control the world; it is not in our power, therefore, to supply our needs by our own independent efforts; every good thing that we desire for ourselves and for others must be sought from God, and will come, if it comes at all, as a gift from his hands.”[4] To Packer’s point, the posture and practice of praying are telling of what we believe about God. Prayer preaches the sovereignty of God.

So, we like Paul pray to God that our lost loved ones will be saved, not because our prayers save them but because God does. We pray that God will save them not by our “saying grace” but by his saving grace. Our prayers then are not the cause of anyone’s salvation, but “an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ.”

That we do pray reveals that we believe God is sovereign, but it doesn’t answer the question of why: Why pray if God is sovereign? Or, in the context of concern for the lost: Does predestination make prayer pointless? Or, to put it yet another way: Why does the Bible clearly teach both without reconciling a presumed contradiction? I say presumed contradiction because there is only the appearance of a contradiction.

We call this an antinomy, the appearance of a contradiction between two conclusions.[5] Let me give an example which often (wrongly) pits Christianity against science. True or false: God grows the lilies of the field? The answer is true; God indeed grows the lilies of the field. True or false: Lilies of the field grow by photosynthesis? The answer is, of course, true.

Now, if we know each of these statements to be true, how can they both be true? Must we pit one against another and take sides? You take science, and I’ll take God. Of course not, but there is the appearance of a contradiction, but it’s only an appearance—there is no contradiction.

In fact, what we find is there is actually a beautiful reconciliation in our mind when we accept that God grows the lilies of the field through the means of photosynthesis. This is according to his design; there is no contradiction at all. So it is with prayer: God is indeed sovereign, and he works through the means of our prayers.

Why God chooses to accomplish his sovereign purposes this way is indeed a mystery. You would think that salvation by instantaneous divine edict would be superior to involving you and me. In writing to his friend Malcom, C.S. Lewis asks,

why should [God] do anything through His creatures? Why should he achieve, the long    way round, through the labours of angels, men (always imperfectly obedient and      efficient), and the activity of irrational and inanimate beings, ends which, presumably, the mere fiat of omnipotence would achieve with instantaneous perfection?

Lewis goes on to answer his own questions, writing,

Creation seems to be delegation through and through. He will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures. I suppose this is because He is a giver. And He has nothing to give but Himself. And to give Himself is to do His deeds—in a sense, and on varying levels to be Himself—through the things He made.[6]

I think Lewis is onto something when he says that God is “a giver,” and in his giving he lovingly includes us in what he is doing, but not only that—he values our contribution. Lewis says,

One of the purposes for which God instituted prayer may have been to bear witness that the course of events is not governed like a state but created like a work of art to which every being makes its contribution and (in prayer) a conscious contribution, and in which every being is both an end and a means.”[7]

Think on that for a bit and you’ll see praying for the lost as a participatory privilege.

Why pray for the religious?

If God works through the means of our prayers, perhaps we should be a bit more selective. Pray for our friends? Yes. Pray for our family? Of course. Certainly pray for the atheist as well as the agnostic, but what about those who are religiously sincere? Should we also pray, for example, for the Mormon or the orthodox Jew?

It is fascinating to me how our missionary zeal curtails the closer we are to familiarity. Surely, those who claim to be Christians are . . . ? Surely, those who worship God zealously are his children . . . ? Assuredly, they are not.

Paul acknowledges that the Jews, his own kinsmen, are zealous for God. The problem isn’t their zeal; it is their knowledge. What they believe is not right. In their religious zeal, they look not to the righteousness of God but to their own. Their chief deception is their devotion. Who is more religious than a Jew? Sincerity does not save, although it is self-righteously satisfying.

Yet, it is easy for us to forget that our religious-yet-lost neighbors live under the wrath of God, awaiting judgment and eternity in hell. Their religion will not save them, so let us not forget them. Paul certainly didn’t do it. Their salvation was his heart’s desire.

What should we pray for the lost?

Paul concludes, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). But what does “end of the law” mean? Has Christ rendered God’s law obsolete? Has it run its course to its conclusion? Have the Ten Commandments been discontinued? On the contrary, as Jesus made perfectly clear, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). The law is not abolished in Christ because the law is not an end in itself. This is why Paul refers to Israel as being “ignorant of the righteousness of God” (10:3). Why were they ignorant? Was it because they desired righteousness? No, they were ignorant because they were looking to the law to do what only the Lord of the law could do.

To be clear, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12), but keeping it doesn’t make the totally depraved righteous, only faith in the righteous One can. It is in this sense that Christ is the “end,” or culmination, of the law. For example, when a runner runs a race, the finish line is the end of the race, but that’s not all it is. The finish line is also the objective, the goal, the end of the runner’s race.[8] So, Christ is both the end of the Old Covenant but also the fulfillment of the law. Israel pursued the righteousness of God through the law in vain, a righteousness found only in Christ. And this truth informs what we should pray for the lost.

What then should we pray for the lost? First, pray. Obvious, I know, but I think we often think and talk about praying more than we actually do it. And when we do pray, it is often for immediate temporal needs, even when we pray for others, prayers that I call “head, shoulders, knees, and toes prayers.” Of course, we pray for Aunt Bertha’s bunions, but what about her soul? Prayers for the immediate should never overshadow the eternal. So, let us pray.

Second, when you pray, pray that the lost will be saved. Obvious again, I know, but let’s not beat around the bush in our intercessory prayers: Pray that they will come to a true and saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pray that will not seek salvation through self-righteous works. Pray that they will not be satisfied with sincere religion but in Christ alone.

Third, when you pray for the lost, believe they will be saved. Now, you may say, but shouldn’t we add on James’ caveat, “If the Lord wills” (James 4:15). Of course, you may, but it is not a magical phrase but a practice of humility, as is prayer. You do not pray, “Give us this day our daily bread, if the Lord wills.” You simply petition the Lord, believing he will provide as he wills.

You may say, “If I pray believing the lost will be saved, am I not undermining the doctrine of God’s sovereign election? But what has that to do with you? Are you the Lord’s keeper? The mystery of predestination God is revealed in Scripture for the praise of his glorious grace not our decision making. We are called to pray, and we pray believing that God will save the lost, perhaps through us. This was Paul’s heart’s desire and prayer, and it should be ours too.

So, I ask you: Who are you praying for today?

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “The Westminster Confession of Faith” 3.1-3, in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 12-13.

[3] “The Shorter Cattechism” Q. 98, in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 400-401.

[4] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 15.

[5] Ibid., 22-23

[6] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly On Prayer (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), 70.

[7] Ibid., 55-56.

[8] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 641

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